Facts, information and articles about Secession, one of the causes of the civil war
Secession summary: the secession of Southern States led to the establishment of the Confederacy and ultimately the Civil War. It was the most serious secession movement in the United States and was defeated when the Union armies defeated the Confederate armies in the Civil War, 1861-65.
Causes Of Secession
Before the Civil War, the country was dividing between North and South. Issues included States Rights and disagreements over tariffs but the greatest divide was on the issue of slavery, which was legal in the South but had gradually been banned by states north of the Mason-Dixon line. As the US acquired new territories in the west, bitter debates erupted over whether or not slavery would be permitted in those territories. Southerners feared it was only a matter of time before the addition of new non-slaveholding states but no new slaveholding states would give control of the government to abolitionists, and the institution of slavery would be outlawed completely. They also resented the notion that a northern industrialist could establish factories, or any other business, in the new territories but agrarian Southern slaveowners could not move into territories where slavery was prohibited because their slaves would then be free .
With the election in 1860 of Abraham Lincoln, who ran on a message of containing slavery to where it currently existed, and the success of the Republican Party to which he belonged – the first entirely regional party in US history – in that election, South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860, the first state to ever officially secede from the United States. Four months later, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana seceded as well. Later Virginia (except for its northwestern counties, which broke away and formed the Union-loyal state of West Virginia), Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee joined them. The people of the seceded states elected Jefferson Davis as president of the newly formed Southern Confederacy.
Secession Leads To War
The Civil War officially began with the Battle of Fort Sumter. Fort Sumter was a Union fort in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. After the U.S. Army troops inside the fort refused to vacate it, Confederate forces opened fire on the fort with cannons. It was surrendered without casualty (except for two US soldiers killed when their cannon exploded while firing a final salute to the flag) but led to the bloodiest war in the nation’s history.
A Short History of Secession
From Articles of Confederation to "A More Perfect Union." Many people, especially those wishing to support the South’s right to secede in 1860–61, have said that when 13 American colonies rebelled against Great Britain in 1776, it was an act of secession. Others say the two situations were different and the colonies’ revolt was a revolution. The war resulting from that colonial revolt is known as the American Revolution or the American War for Independence.
During that war, each of the rebelling colonies regarded itself as a sovereign nation that was cooperating with a dozen other sovereigns in a relationship of convenience to achieve shared goals, the most immediate being independence from Britain. On Nov. 15, 1777, the Continental Congress passed the Articles of Confederation—"Certain Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union"—to create "The United States of America." That document asserted that "Each State retains is sovereignty, freedom and independence" while entering into "a firm league of friendship with each other" for their common defense and to secure their liberties, as well as to provide for "their mutual and general welfare."
Under the Articles of Confederation, the central government was weak, without even an executive to lead it. Its only political body was the Congress, which could not collect taxes or tariffs (it could ask states for "donations" for the common good). It did have the power to oversee foreign relations but could not create an army or navy to enforce foreign treaties. Even this relatively weak governing document was not ratified by all the states until 1781. It is an old truism that "All politics are local," and never was that more true than during the early days of the United States. Having just seceded from what they saw as a despotic, powerful central government that was too distant from its citizens, Americans were skeptical about giving much power to any government other than that of their own states, where they could exercise more direct control. However, seeds of nationalism were also sown in the war: the war required a united effort, and many men who likely would have lived out their lives without venturing from their own state traveled to other states as part of the Continental Army.
The weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation were obvious almost from the beginning. Foreign nations, ruled to varying degrees by monarchies, were inherently contemptuous of the American experiment of entrusting rule to the ordinary people. A government without an army or navy and little real power was, to them, simply a laughing stock and a plum ripe for picking whenever the opportunity arose.
Domestically, the lack of any uniform codes meant each state established its own form of government, a chaotic system marked at times by mob rule that burned courthouses and terrorized state and local officials. State laws were passed and almost immediately repealed; sometimes ex post facto laws made new codes retroactive. Collecting debts could be virtually impossible.
George Washington, writing to John Jay in 1786, said, "We have, probably, had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation." He underlined his words for emphasis. Jay himself felt the country had to become "one nation in every respect." Alexander Hamilton felt "the prospect of a number of petty states, with appearance only of union," was something "diminutive and contemptible."
In May 1787, a Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia to address the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation. Some Americans felt it was an aristocratic plot, but every state felt a need to do something to improve the situation, and smaller states felt a stronger central government could protect them against domination by the larger states. What emerged was a new constitution "in order to provide a more perfect union." It established the three branches of the federal government—executive, legislative, and judicial—and provided for two houses within the legislature. That Constitution, though amended 27 times, has governed the United States of America ever since. It failed to clearly address two critical issues, however.
It made no mention of the future of slavery. (The Northwest Ordinance, not the Constitution, prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territories, that area north of the Ohio River and along the upper Mississippi River.) It also did not include any provision for a procedure by which a state could withdraw from the Union, or by which the Union could be wholly dissolved. To have included such provisions would have been, as some have pointed out, to have written a suicide clause into the Constitution. But the issues of slavery and secession would take on towering importance in the decades to come, with no clear-cut guidance from the Founding Fathers for resolving them.
First Calls for Secession
Following ratification by 11 of the 13 states, the government began operation under the new U.S. Constitution in March 1789. In less than 15 years, states of New England had already threatened to secede from the Union. The first time was a threat to leave if the Assumption Bill, which provided for the federal government to assume the debts of the various states, were not passed. The next threat was over the expense of the Louisiana Purchase. Then, in 1812, President James Madison, the man who had done more than any other individual to shape the Constitution, led the United States into a new war with Great Britain. The New England states objected, for war would cut into their trade with Britain and Europe. Resentment grew so strong that a convention was called at Hartford, Connecticut, in 1814, to discuss secession for the New England states. The Hartford Convention was the most serious secession threat up to that time, but its delegates took no action.
Southerners had also discussed secession in the nation’s early years, concerned over talk of abolishing slavery. But when push came to shove in 1832, it was not over slavery but tariffs. National tariffs were passed that protected Northern manufacturers but increased prices for manufactured goods purchased in the predominantly agricultural South, where the Tariff of 1828 was dubbed the "Tariff of Abominations." The legislature of South Carolina declared the tariff acts of 1828 and 1832 were "unauthorized by the constitution of the United States" and voted them null, void and non-binding on the state.
President Andrew Jackson responded with a Proclamation of Force, declaring, "I consider, then, the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one state, incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed." (Emphasis is Jackson’s). Congress authorized Jackson to use military force if necessary to enforce the law (every Southern senator walked out in protest before the vote was taken). That proved unnecessary, as a compromise tariff was approved, and South Carolina rescinded its Nullification Ordinance.
The Nullification Crisis, as the episode is known, was the most serious threat of disunion the young country had yet confronted. It demonstrated both continuing beliefs in the primacy of states rights over those of the federal government (on the part of South Carolina and other Southern states) and a belief that the chief executive had a right and responsibility to suppress any attempts to give individual states the right to override federal law.
The Abolition Movement, and Southern Secession
Between the 1830s and 1860, a widening chasm developed between North and South over the issue of slavery, which had been abolished in all states north of the Mason-Dixon line. The Abolition Movement grew in power and prominence. The slave holding South increasingly felt its interests were threatened, particularly since slavery had been prohibited in much of the new territory that had been added west of the Mississippi River. The Missouri Compromise, the Dred Scott Decision case, the issue of Popular Sovereignty (allowing residents of a territory to vote on whether it would be slave or free), and John Brown‘s Raid On Harpers Ferry all played a role in the intensifying debate. Whereas once Southerners had talked of an emancipation process that would gradually end slavery, they increasingly took a hard line in favor of perpetuating it forever.
In 1850, the Nashville Convention met from June 3 to June 12 "to devise and adopt some mode of resistance to northern aggression." While the delegates approved 28 resolutions affirming the South’s constitutional rights within the new western territories and similar issues, they essentially adopted a wait-and-see attitude before taking any drastic action. Compromise measures at the federal level diminished interest in a second Nashville Convention, but a much smaller one was held in November. It approved measures that affirmed the right of secession but rejected any unified secession among Southern states. During the brief presidency of Zachary Taylor, 1849-50, he was approached by pro-secession ambassadors. Taylor flew into a rage and declared he would raise an army, put himself at its head and force any state that attempted secession back into the Union.
The potato famine that struck Ireland and Germany in the 1840s–1850s sent waves of hungry immigrants to America’s shores. More of them settled in the North than in the South, where the existence of slavery depressed wages. These newcomers had sought refuge in the United States, not in New York or Virginia or Louisiana. To most of them, the U.S. was a single entity, not a collection of sovereign nations, and arguments in favor of secession failed to move them, for the most part.
The Election Of Abraham Lincoln And Nullification
The U.S. elections of 1860 saw the new Republican Party, a sectional party with very little support in the South, win many seats in Congress. Its candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won the presidency. Republicans opposed the expansion of slavery into the territories, and many party members were abolitionists who wanted to see the "peculiar institution" ended everywhere in the United States. South Carolina again decided it was time to nullify its agreement with the other states. On Dec. 20, 1860, the Palmetto State approved an Ordinance of Secession, followed by a declaration of the causes leading to its decision and another document that concluded with an invitation to form "a Confederacy of Slaveholding States."
The South Begins To Secede
South Carolina didn’t intend to go it alone, as it had in the Nullification Crisis. It sent ambassadors to other Southern states. Soon, six more states of the Deep South—Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana—renounced their compact with the United States. After Confederate artillery fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion. This led four more states— Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee—to secede; they refused to take up arms against their Southern brothers and maintained Lincoln had exceeded his constitutional powers by not waiting for approval of Congress (as Jackson had done in the Nullification Crisis) before declaring war on the South. The legislature of Tennessee, the last state to leave the Union, waived any opinion as to "the abstract doctrine of secession," but asserted "the right, as a free and independent people, to alter, reform or abolish our form of government, in such manner as we think proper."
In addition to those states that seceded, other areas of the country threatened to. The southern portions of Northern states bordering the Ohio River held pro-Southern, pro-slavery sentiments, and there was talk within those regions of seceding and casting their lot with the South.
A portion of Virginia did secede from the Old Dominion and formed the Union-loyal state of West Virginia. Its creation and admittance to the Union raised many constitutional questions—Lincoln’s cabinet split 50–50 on the legality and expediency of admitting the new state. But Lincoln wrote, “It is said that the admission of West-Virginia is secession, and tolerated only because it is our secession. Well, if we call it by that name, there is still difference enough between secession against the constitution, and secession in favor of the constitution.”
The Civil War: The End Of The Secession Movement
Four bloody years of war ended what has been the most significant attempt by states to secede from the Union. While the South was forced to abandon its dreams of a new Southern Confederacy, many of its people have never accepted the idea that secession was a violation of the U.S. Constitution, basing their arguments primarily on Article X of that constitution: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
Ongoing Calls For Secession & The Eternal Question: "Can A State Legally Secede?"
The ongoing debate continues over the question that has been asked since the forming of the United States itself: "Can a state secede from the Union of the United States?" Whether it is legal for a state to secede from the United States is a question that was fiercely debated before the Civil War (see the article below), and even now, that debate continues. From time to time, new calls have arisen for one state or another to secede, in reaction to political and/or social changes, and organizations such as the League of the South openly support secession and the formation of a new Southern republic.
Articles Featuring Secession From History Net Magazines
Was Secession Legal
Southerners insisted they could legally bolt from the Union.
Northerners swore they could not.
War would settle the matter for good.
Over the centuries, various excuses have been employed for starting wars. Wars have been fought over land or honor. Wars have been fought over soccer (in the case of the conflict between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969) or even the shooting of a pig (in the case of the fighting between the United States and Britain in the San Juan Islands in 1859).
But the Civil War was largely fought over equally compelling interpretations of the U.S. Constitution. Which side was the Constitution on? That’s difficult to say.
The interpretative debate—and ultimately the war—turned on the intent of the framers of the Constitution and the meaning of a single word: sovereignty—which does not actually appear anywhere in the text of the Constitution.
Southern leaders like John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis argued that the Constitution was essentially a contract between sovereign states—with the contracting parties retaining the inherent authority to withdraw from the agreement. Northern leaders like Abraham Lincoln insisted the Constitution was neither a contract nor an agreement between sovereign states. It was an agreement with the people, and once a state enters the Union, it cannot leave the Union.
It is a touchstone of American constitutional law that this is a nation based on federalism—the union of states, which retain all rights not expressly given to the federal government. After the Declaration of Independence, when most people still identified themselves not as Americans but as Virginians, New Yorkers or Rhode Islanders, this union of “Free and Independent States” was defined as a “confederation.” Some framers of the Constitution, like Maryland’s Luther Martin, argued the new states were “separate sovereignties.” Others, like Pennsylvania’s James Wilson, took the opposite view that the states “were independent, not Individually but Unitedly.”
Supporting the individual sovereignty claims is the fierce independence that was asserted by states under the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, which actually established the name “The United States of America.” The charter, however, was careful to maintain the inherent sovereignty of its composite state elements, mandating that “each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated.” It affirmed the sovereignty of the respective states by declaring, “The said states hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other for their common defence [sic].” There would seem little question that the states agreed to the Confederation on the express recognition of their sovereignty and relative independence.
Supporting the later view of Lincoln, the perpetuality of the Union was referenced during the Confederation period. For example, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 stated that “the said territory, and the States which may be formed therein, shall forever remain a part of this confederacy of the United States of America.”
The Confederation produced endless conflicts as various states issued their own money, resisted national obligations and favored their own citizens in disputes. James Madison criticized the Articles of Confederation as reinforcing the view of the Union as “a league of sovereign powers, not as a political Constitution by virtue of which they are become one sovereign power.” Madison warned that such a view could lead to the “dissolving of the United States altogether.” If the matter had ended there with the Articles of Confederation, Lincoln would have had a much weaker case for the court of law in taking up arms to preserve the Union. His legal case was saved by an 18th-century bait-and-switch.
A convention was called in 1787 to amend the Articles of Confederation, but several delegates eventually concluded that a new political structure—a federation—was needed. As they debated what would become the Constitution, the status of the states was a primary concern. George Washington, who presided over the convention, noted, “It is obviously impracticable in the federal government of these states, to secure all rights of independent sovereignty to each, and yet provide for the interest and safety of all.” Of course, Washington was more concerned with a working federal government—and national army—than resolving the question of a state’s inherent right to withdraw from such a union. The new government forged in Philadelphia would have clear lines of authority for the federal system. The premise of the Constitution, however, was that states would still hold all rights not expressly given to the federal government.
The final version of the Constitution never actually refers to the states as “sovereign,” which for many at the time was the ultimate legal game-changer. In the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1819 decision in McCulloch v. Maryland, Chief Justice John Marshall espoused the view later embraced by Lincoln: “The government of the Union…is emphatically and truly, a government of the people.” Those with differing views resolved to leave the matter unresolved—and thereby planted the seed that would grow into a full civil war. But did Lincoln win by force of arms or force of argument?
On January 21, 1861, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi went to the well of the U.S. Senate one last time to announce that he had “satisfactory evidence that the State of Mississippi, by a solemn ordinance of her people in convention assembled, has declared her separation from the United States.” Before resigning his Senate seat, Davis laid out the basis for Mississippi’s legal claim, coming down squarely on the fact that in the Declaration of Independence “the communities were declaring their independence”—not “the people.” He added, “I have for many years advocated, as an essential attribute of state sovereignty, the right of a state to secede from the Union.”
Davis’ position reaffirmed that of John C. Calhoun, the powerful South Carolina senator who had long viewed the states as independent sovereign entities. In an 1833 speech upholding the right of his home state to nullify federal tariffs it believed were unfair, Calhoun insisted, “I go on the ground that [the] constitution was made by the States; that it is a federal union of the States, in which the several States still retain their sovereignty.” Calhoun allowed that a state could be barred from secession by a vote of two-thirds of the states under Article V, which lays out the procedure for amending the Constitution.
Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861, was one of the least auspicious beginnings for any president in history. His election was used as a rallying cry for secession, and he became the head of a country that was falling apart even as he raised his hand to take the oath of office. His first inaugural address left no doubt about his legal position: “No State, upon its own mere motion, can lawfully get out of the Union, that resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void, and that acts of violence, within any State or States, against the authority of the United States, are insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to circumstances.”
While Lincoln expressly called for a peaceful resolution, this was the final straw for many in the South who saw the speech as a veiled threat. Clearly when Lincoln took the oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” the Constitution, he considered himself bound to preserve the Union as the physical creation of the Declaration of Independence and a central subject of the Constitution. This was made plain in his next major legal argument—an address where Lincoln rejected the notion of sovereignty for states as an “ingenious sophism” that would lead “to the complete destruction of the Union.” In a Fourth of July message to a special session of Congress in 1861, Lincoln declared, “Our States have neither more, nor less power, than that reserved to them, in the Union, by the Constitution—no one of them ever having been a State out of the Union. The original ones passed into the Union even before they cast off their British colonial dependence; and the new ones each came into the Union directly from a condition of dependence, excepting Texas. And even Texas, in its temporary independence, was never designated a State.”
It is a brilliant framing of the issue, which Lincoln proceeds to characterize as nothing less than an attack on the very notion of democracy:
Our popular government has often been called an experiment. Two points in it, our people have already settled—the successful establishing, and the successful administering of it. One still remains—its successful maintenance against a formidable [internal] attempt to overthrow it. It is now for them to demonstrate to the world, that those who can fairly carry an election, can also suppress a rebellion—that ballots are the rightful, and peaceful, successors of bullets; and that when ballots have fairly, and constitutionally, decided, there can be no successful appeal, back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal, except to ballots themselves, at succeeding elections. Such will be a great lesson of peace; teaching men that what they cannot take by an election, neither can they take it by a war—teaching all, the folly of being the beginners of a war.
Lincoln implicitly rejected the view of his predecessor, James Buchanan. Buchanan agreed that secession was not allowed under the Constitution, but he also believed the national government could not use force to keep a state in the Union. Notably, however, it was Buchanan who sent troops to protect Fort Sumter six days after South Carolina seceded. The subsequent seizure of Fort Sumter by rebels would push Lincoln on April 14, 1861, to call for 75,000 volunteers to restore the Southern states to the Union—a decisive move to war.
Lincoln showed his gift as a litigator in the July 4th address, though it should be noted that his scruples did not stop him from clearly violating the Constitution when he suspended habeas corpus in 1861 and 1862. His argument also rejects the suggestion of people like Calhoun that, if states can change the Constitution under Article V by democratic vote, they can agree to a state leaving the Union. Lincoln’s view is absolute and treats secession as nothing more than rebellion. Ironically, as Lincoln himself acknowledged, that places the states in the same position as the Constitution’s framers (and presumably himself as King George).
But he did note one telling difference: “Our adversaries have adopted some Declarations of Independence; in which, unlike the good old one, penned by Jefferson, they omit the words ‘all men are created equal.’”
Lincoln’s argument was more convincing, but only up to a point. The South did in fact secede because it was unwilling to accept decisions by a majority in Congress. Moreover, the critical passage of the Constitution may be more important than the status of the states when independence was declared. Davis and Calhoun’s argument was more compelling under the Articles of Confederation, where there was no express waiver of withdrawal. The reference to the “perpetuity” of the Union in the Articles and such documents as the Northwest Ordinance does not necessarily mean each state is bound in perpetuity, but that the nation itself is so created.
After the Constitution was ratified, a new government was formed by the consent of the states that clearly established a single national government. While, as Lincoln noted, the states possessed powers not expressly given to the federal government, the federal government had sole power over the defense of its territory and maintenance of the Union. Citizens under the Constitution were guaranteed free travel and interstate commerce. Therefore it is in conflict to suggest that citizens could find themselves separated from the country as a whole by a seceding state.
Moreover, while neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution says states can not secede, they also do not guarantee states such a right nor refer to the states as sovereign entities. While Calhoun’s argument that Article V allows for changing the Constitution is attractive on some levels, Article V is designed to amend the Constitution, not the Union. A clearly better argument could be made for a duly enacted amendment to the Constitution that would allow secession. In such a case, Lincoln would clearly have been warring against the democratic process he claimed to defend.
Neither side, in my view, had an overwhelming argument. Lincoln’s position was the one most likely to be upheld by an objective court of law. Faced with ambiguous founding and constitutional documents, the spirit of the language clearly supported the view that the original states formed a union and did not retain the sovereign authority to secede from that union.
Of course, a rebellion is ultimately a contest of arms rather than arguments, and to the victor goes the argument. This legal dispute would be resolved not by lawyers but by more practical men such as William Tecumseh Sherman and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
Ultimately, the War Between the States resolved the Constitution’s meaning for any states that entered the Union after 1865, with no delusions about the contractual understanding of the parties. Thus, 15 states from Alaska to Colorado to Washington entered in the full understanding that this was the view of the Union. Moreover, the enactment of the 14th Amendment strengthened the view that the Constitution is a compact between “the people” and the federal government. The amendment affirms the power of the states to make their own laws, but those laws cannot “abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”
There remains a separate guarantee that runs from the federal government directly to each American citizen. Indeed, it was after the Civil War that the notion of being “American” became widely accepted. People now identified themselves as Americans and Virginians. While the South had a plausible legal claim in the 19th century, there is no plausible argument in the 21st century. That argument was answered by Lincoln on July 4, 1861, and more decisively at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.
Jonathan Turley is one of the nation’s leading constitutional scholars and legal commentators. He teaches at George Washington University.
Article originally published in the November 2010 issue of America’s Civil War.
Secession: Revisionism Or Reality
Second: Secession – Revisionism or Reality
Secession fever revisited
We can take an honest look at history, or just revise it to make it more palatable
Try this version of history: 150 years ago this spring, North Carolina and Tennessee became the final two Southern states to secede illegally from the sacred American Union in order to keep 4 million blacks in perpetual bondage. With Jefferson Davis newly ensconced in his Richmond capital just a hundred miles south of Abraham Lincoln’s legally elected government in Washington, recruiting volunteers to fight for his “nation,” there could be little doubt that the rebellion would soon turn bloody. The Union was understandably prepared to fight for its own existence.
Or should the scenario read this way? A century and a half ago, North Carolina and Tennessee joined other brave Southern states in asserting their right to govern themselves, limit the evils of unchecked federal power, protect the integrity of the cotton market from burdensome tariffs, and fulfill the promise of liberty that the nation’s founders had guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence. With Abraham Lincoln’s hostile minority government now raising militia to invade sovereign states, there could be little doubt that peaceful secession would soon turn into bloody war. The Confederacy was understandably prepared to fight for its own freedom.
Which version is true? And which is myth? Although the Civil War sesquicentennial is only a few months old, questions like this, which most serious readers believed had been asked and answered 50—if not 150—years ago, are resurfacing with surprising frequency. So-called Southern heritage Web sites are ablaze with alternative explanations for secession that make such scant mention of chattel slavery that the modern observer might think shackled plantation laborers were dues-paying members of the AFL-CIO. Some of the more egregious comments currently proliferating on the new Civil War blogs of both the New York Times (“Disunion”) and Washington Post (“A House Divided”) suggest that many contributors continue to believe slavery had little to do with secession: Lincoln had no right to serve as president, they argue; his policies threatened state sovereignty; Republicans wanted to impose crippling tariffs that would have destroyed the cotton industry; it was all about honor. Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family, has dubbed such skewed memory as “the whitewash explanation” for secession. He is right.
As Ball and scholars like William Freehling, author of Prelude to Civil War and The Road to Disunion, have pointed out, all today’s readers need to do in order to understand what truly motivated secession is to study the proceedings of the state conventions where separation from the Union was openly discussed and enthusiastically authorized. Many of these dusty records have been digitized and made available online—discrediting this fairy tale once and for all.
Consider these excerpts. South Carolina voted for secession first in December 1860, bluntly citing the rationale that Northern states had “denounced as sinful the institution of slavery.”
Georgia delegates similarly warned against the “progress of anti-slavery.” As delegate Thomas R.R. Cobb proudly insisted in an 1860 address to the Legislature, “Our slaves are the most happy and contented of workers.”
Mississippians boasted, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world…. There is no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union.” And an Alabama newspaper opined that Lincoln’s election plainly showed the North planned “to free the negroes and force amalgamation between them and the children of the poor men of the South.”
Certainly the effort to “whitewash” secession is not new. Jefferson Davis himself was maddeningly vague when he provocatively asked fellow Mississippians, “Will you be slaves or will you be independent?…Will you consent to be robbed of your property [or] strike bravely for liberty, property, honor and life?” Non-slaveholders—the majority of Southerners—were bombarded with similarly inflammatory rhetoric designed to paint Northerners as integrationist aggressors scheming to make blacks the equal of whites and impose race-mixing on a helpless population. The whitewash worked in 1861—but does that mean that it should be taken seriously today?
From 1960-65, the Civil War Centennial Commission wrestled with similar issues, and ultimately bowed too deeply to segregationists who worried that an emphasis on slavery—much less freedom—would embolden the civil rights movement then beginning to gain national traction. Keeping the focus on battlefield re-enactments, regional pride and uncritical celebration took the spotlight off the real cause of the war, and its potential inspiration to modern freedom marchers and their sympathizers. Some members of the national centennial commission actually argued against staging a 100th anniversary commemoration of emancipation at the Lincoln Memorial. Doing so, they contended, would encourage “agitators.”
In a way, it is more difficult to understand why so much space is again being devoted to this debate. Fifty years have passed since the centennial. The nation has been vastly transformed by legislation and attitude. We supposedly live in a “post-racial era.” And just two years ago, Americans (including voters in the former Confederate states of Virginia and North Carolina), chose the first African-American president of the United States.
Or is this, perhaps, the real underlying problem—the salt that still irritates the scab covering this country’s unhealed racial divide?
Just as some Southern conservatives decried a 1961 emphasis on slavery because it might embolden civil rights, 2011 revisionists may have a hidden agenda of their own: Beat back federal authority, reinvigorate the states’ rights movement and perhaps turn back the re-election of a black president who has been labeled as everything from a Communist to a foreigner (not unlike the insults hurled at the freedom riders half a century ago).
Fifty years from now, Americans will either celebrate the honesty that animated the Civil War sesquicentennial, or subject it to the same criticisms that have been leveled against the centennial celebrations of the 1960s. The choice is ours. As Lincoln once said, “The struggle of today is not altogether for today—it is for a vast future also.”
Harold Holzer is chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.