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.

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