Secession, the Expansion of Slavery, and Race

The inimitable defender of Confederate heritage, George Purvis, who blogs at Cold Southern Steel, posted a comment here recently that I think warrants a post of its own. In part, George wrote:

You are taking a narrow view of the secession documents. If you take them for what they are, they are nothing more than a list of grievances against the Federal government. I suggest you read each and every declaration and list these grievances to fully understand exactly what they are.

Even so if secession was secession was only about slavery, so what? Slavery was a legal institution in the United States, and these Southern states were part of that country. Slavery was not the cause of the war. This has nothing to do with what bothers me. It does appear that it bothers you because you can’t find the document that proves otherwise. What did you expect these states to say we are seceeding because we are seceeding? Does that make sense really????? [Sic]

This brings up an interesting point that I think I’ve answered in previous posts, and I know has been answered by Al Mackey at Student of the American Civil War and Jarrett Ruminski at That Devil History among many others, but merits a closer look.

At least, I think it’s an interesting point and merits more attention. None of what follows is remotely new to historians. It is one of the reasons that the neo-Confederate position is so puzzling.

The short answer to George’s question is while slavery undoubtedly caused the war–it caused secession, and the rest of the Union went to war rather than see the government destroyed–the specific, immediate issue that caused the South to secede was not so much slavery by itself, but rather, as someone recently said to me, “the real concern [is] the expansion of slavery. We have to keep the focus on that point.” Lincoln himself could not have said it better. It is truly the heart of the matter.

George likes “facts,” especially if they’re in the form of documents. Then, you can see it for yourself without someone else’s interpretation clouding the issue. He is known for blog comments like “This is just your opinion, bring some fact and I will accept it.”  Very well. Let’s look here at some key documents.

The Republican Position

First, let’s consider the Republican platform written in Chicago in 1860. This will establish what it was exactly that Republicans stood for. There’s a lot in there, but let’s look specifically at the fourth Resolve:

4. That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the states, and especially the right of each state to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of powers on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depends; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any state or territory, no matter under what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.

Clearly, the Republican Party recognized exactly what George says, that slavery was Constitutionally protected where it existed, and that armed force to touch it was abhorrent. (I should hasten to add that, while this Party plank did not sanction “lawless” invasion, secession and rebellion were lawless by definition, so the war meant all bets were off.) But let’s continue on to Resolves 7 and 8:

7. That the new dogma that the Constitution, of its own force, carries slavery into any or all of the territories of the United States, is a dangerous political heresy, at variance with the explicit provisions of that instrument itself, with contemporaneous exposition, and with legislative and judicial precedent; is revolutionary in its tendency, and subversive of the peace and harmony of the country.

8. That the normal condition of all the territory of the United States is that of freedom: That, as our Republican fathers, when they had abolished slavery in all our national territory, ordained that “no persons should be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law,” it becomes our duty, by legislation, whenever such legislation is necessary, to maintain this provision of the Constitution against all attempts to violate it; and we deny the authority of Congress, of a territorial legislature, or of any individuals, to give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United States.

The 7th Resolve refers to the infamous Dred Scott decision, which allowed the extension of slavery into the territories (and, theoretically, free states as well). Here, Republicans were formally opposing this interpretation of the Constitution by the Taney Court, which said Congress could not prevent American citizens from bringing their “property” anywhere they wanted. The 8th lays out the Party’s philosophical opposition to slavery’s expansion by contending that freedom is the “default” mode for Americans in the territories, and that—contrary to Dred Scott—the Congress has the right and duty to restrict slavery from expanding.

With Lincoln and the Republicans elected, South Carolina seceded, followed by the other states in the Deep South. After the election, but before his inauguration, politicians both North and South were panicking and tried to find some compromise that would mollify the South. Lincoln was fine with that. But on the central point of slavery’s expansion—the “nub,” as Lincoln might have called it—Lincoln was clear. In a letter to Elihu B. Washburne from Springfield on December 13, Lincoln wrote:

My dear Sir. Your long letter received. Prevent, as far as possible, any of our friends from demoralizing themselves, and our cause, by entertaining propositions for compromise of any sort, on “slavery extention” There is no possible compromise upon it, but which puts us under again, and leaves all our work to do over again. Whether it be a Mo. [Missouri Compromise] line, or Eli Thayer’s Pop. Sov. [popular sovereignty] it is all the same. Let either be done, & immediately filibustering and extending slavery recommences. On that point hold firm, as with a chain of steel. 

Lincoln and many Republicans were even willing to compromise on an amendment protecting slavery where it existed forever—an “unamendable” amendment, the so-called Corwin Amendment—but not on the expansion of slavery. It was the most important plank in their platform, and it was the mandate by which they were elected. On that point hold firm, as with a chain of steel.

That position is why the states of the Deep South left the Union.

The Declarations of Secession

How do we know that? Some of the Ordinances of Secession as much as state this position, and the Declarations of Causes of Seceding States made by four states also state it. For example, Georgia’s secession convention included these reasons:

For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic. This hostile policy of our confederates has been pursued with every circumstance of aggravation which could arouse the passions and excite the hatred of our people, and has placed the two sections of the Union for many years past in the condition of virtual civil war.

The declaration of Mississippi  is even more detailed. Let’s look at some of more interesting passages:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

First, it establishes the economic value of slavery, and why only blacks have the natural ability to labor there. Then, it contends that a threat is imminent to this institution.

That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution, a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove.

The hostility to this institution commenced before the adoption of the Constitution, and was manifested in the well-known Ordinance of 1787, in regard to the Northwestern Territory.

The Northwest Ordinance was passed by the old Congress under the Articles of Confederation. drafted by Jefferson, it set the terms by which new states could be created out of the region of the Great Lakes. It also specifically banned slavery from these territories. The Northwest Ordinance was re-passed into law in 1789 by the First Congress convened under the new Constitution.

The feeling increased, until, in 1819-20, it deprived the South of more than half the vast territory acquired from France.

The Missouri Compromise, which banned slavery in the Louisiana Purchase territory north of 36⁰-30” (except for the state of Missouri itself).

The same hostility dismembered Texas and seized upon all the territory acquired from Mexico.

Texas originally claimed a vast area that was ceded to New Mexico as part of the Compromise of 1850. Of the rest of the Mexican Cession, California came into the Union as a free state, while the rest was subject to the doctrine of “popular sovereignty.”

It has grown until it denies the right of property in slaves, and refuses protection to that right on the high seas, in the Territories, and wherever the government of the United States had jurisdiction.

And here, explicitly, is the main issue, the heart of the matter, the nub.

It refuses the admission of new slave States into the Union, and seeks to extinguish it by confining it within its present limits, denying the power of expansion.

It tramples the original equality of the South under foot.

It has nullified the Fugitive Slave Law in almost every free State in the Union, and has utterly broken the compact which our fathers pledged their faith to maintain.

It advocates negro equality, socially and politically, and promotes insurrection and incendiarism in our midst….

It has given indubitable evidence of its design to ruin our agriculture, to prostrate our industrial pursuits and to destroy our social system.

When George says we are taking a narrow view of the secession documents, I’m not sure what he means. This seems to represent some hard evidence, and there is more in the other Ordinances and Declarations. Perhaps he means that there are relatively few passages that appear to be directly about the expansion of slavery. The rest are aimed at the idea that the slave system of social control and white supremacy would be destroyed or compromised. The central message, then, is that the expansion of slavery is tied closely with the existence of slavery.

The Special Commissioners

But, fortunately, we needn’t guess–there is another excellent source that expounds on these ideas, fleshing them out so we know exactly why Southern slaveholders took their states out of the Union: the addresses and speeches of the so-called secession commissioners.

South Carolina and Company seceded in December and January (Texas in February), but that was it—no Tennessee, no North Carolina, no Kentucky, no Arkansas. No Virginia. To succeed in their endeavor, they realized they needed two things: a confederate league between the seceded states; and they needed the Upper South to join them in secession. As Charles B. Dew has shown in his excellent little Apostles of Disunion, the Cotton States all appointed special commissioners to the other slave states to accomplish these goals. Governor Andrew B. Moore of Alabama was typical, although he was so gung-ho that he made the appointments before Alabama officially seceded. He therefore felt the need to explain himself to his legislature:

As the slave-holding States have a common interest in the institution of slavery, and must be common sufferers in its overthrow, I deemed it proper, and it appeared to be the general sentiment of the people, that Alabama should consult and advise with the other slave-holding States, so far as practicable, as to what is best to be done to protect their interests and honor in the impending crisis. And seeing that the conventions of South Carolina and Florida would probably act before the convention of Alabama assembled, and that the Legislatures of some of the States would meet, and might adjourn without calling conventions, prior to the meeting of our convention, and thus the opportunity [be lost] of conferring with them upon the great and vital questions on which you are called to act, I determined to appoint commissioners to all the slave-holding States. After appointing them to those States whose conventions and Legislatures were to meet in advance of the Alabama convention, it was suggested by wise counselors that if I did not make similar appointments to the other Southern States it would seem to be making an invidious distinction, which was not intended. Being convinced that it might be so considered, I then determined to appoint commissioners to all the slave-holding States…

He then went on to name 16 such commissioners, all “well known to the people of Alabama, and distinguished for their ability, integrity, and patriotism.” These commissioners were able speakers, and they dispersed into the other slave states to plead their case: to cajole and convince other slaves states to vote for secession and join in a new confederation.

The Alabama Commission

What did commissioners like these say? What was their message? We have over 40 of such speeches and letters. Here is one of my favorites. It is a letter from two of Alabama’s commissioners, Isham Garrott and Robert H. Smith, to the Governor and legislature of North Carolina. It has many of the usual complaints—that the North used the federal government to its advantage, that it was slow to retrieve fugitive slaves, and so on. But most of the letter is about slavery. Here is Smith and Garrott describing why the election of 1860 was so ominous:

[T]he recent Presidential election is the inauguration of a system of Government as opposed to the Constitution as it is to our rights and safety. It ushers in, as a settled policy, not only the exclusion of the people of the South from the common Territories of the country, but proposes to impair the value of slave property in the States by unfriendly legislation; to prevent the further spread of slavery by surrounding us with free States; to refuse admission into the Union of another slave State, and by these means to render the institution itself dangerous to us, and to compel us, as slaves increase, to abandon it, or be doomed to a servile war. The establishment alone of the policy of the Republican party, that no more slave States are to be admitted into the Union, and that slavery is to be forever prohibited in the Territories (the common property of the United States), must, of itself, at no distant day, result in the utter ruin and degradation of most, if not all of the Gulf States. Alabama has at least eight slaves to every square mile of her tillable soil. This population outstrips any race on the globe in the rapidity of its increase; and if the slaves now in Alabama are to be restricted within her present limits, doubling as they do once in less than thirty years, the children are now born who will be compelled to flee from the land of their birth, and from the slaves their parents have toiled to acquire as an inheritance for them, or to submit to the degradation of being reduced to an equality with them, and all its attendant horrors. Our people and institutions Must be secured the right of expansion, and they can never submit to a denial of that which is essential to their very existence.

Without the ability to expand, slaves would be confined to the existing slave states. Because they reproduced themselves, the number of slaves would grow with no market outlet. The value of the slaves themselves would depreciate in the face of such a surplus. Also, the increase in numbers meant a growing and dangerous population of unhappy blacks that would be difficult to control. Then, white inhabitants would have to leave or “to submit to the degradation of being reduced to an equality with them, and all its attendant horrors.”

Harris of Mississippi to Georgia

But wait, there’s more! Here is the address of William L. Harris of Mississippi to the Georgia General Assembly, on December 17, 1860. Again, after touching on the Constitutional rights that the federal government and Northern states violated, he gets to the history of the slave-free conflict:

It will be remembered, that the violation of our constitutional rights, which has caused such universal dissatisfaction in the South, is not of recent date. Ten years since, this Union was rocked from centre to circumference, by the very same outrages, of which we now complain, only now “aggravated” by the recent election. Nothing but her devotion to the Union our Fathers made, induced the South, then, to yield to a compromise, in which Mr. Clay rightly said, we had yielded everything but our honor. We had then in Mississippi a warm contest, which finally ended in reluctant acquiescence in the Compromise measures. The North pledged anew her faith to yield to us our constitutional rights in relation to slave property. They are now, and have been ever since that act, denied to us, until her broken faith and impudent threats, had become almost insufferable before the late election.

So, the North had pledged to honor slavery. But the 1860 election showed that the North was set on the path of abolition. It’s here that Harris gets down to brass tacks:

There were three candidates presented to the North by Southern men, all of whom represented the last degree of conservatism and concession, which their respective parties were willing to yield, to appease the fanaticism of the North.…And yet the North rejected them all; and their united voice, both before and since the overwhelming triumph in this election, has been more defiant and more intolerant than ever before. They have demanded, and now demand, equality between the white and negro races, under our Constitution; equality in representation, equality in the right of suffrage, equality in the honors and emoluments of office, equality in the social circle, equality in the rights of matrimony. The cry has been, and now is, “that slavery must cease, or American liberty must perish,” that “the success of Black Republicanism is the triumph of anti-slavery,” “a revolution in the tendencies of the government that must be carried out.”

To-day our government stands totally revolutionized in its main features, and our Constitution broken and overturned. The new administration, which has effected this revolution, only awaits the 4th of March for the inauguration of the new government, the new principles, and the new policy, upon the success of which they have proclaimed freedom to the slave, but eternal degradation for you and for us.….

Our fathers made this a government for the white man, rejecting the negro, as an ignorant, inferior, barbarian race, incapable of self-government, and not, therefore, entitled to be associated with the white man upon terms of civil, political, or social equality.

This new administration comes into power, under the solemn pledge to overturn and strike down this great feature of our Union, without which it would never have been formed, and to substitute in its stead their new theory of the universal equality of the black and white races….

Equality of rights secured to white men, in equal sovereign States, is among the most prominent features of the Constitution under which we have so long lived.

Next, he compares this desire of the North to the lack of equal treatment for in the South in equal opportunity to the territories.

This equality has been denied us in the South for years in the common territories, while the North has virtually distributed them as bounties to abolition fanatics and foreigners, for their brigand service in aiding in our exclusion.

Instead, the North would populate the West with states filled with those hostile to slavery. He then lists the familiar Constitutional violations by the North; mainly the lack of vigorous enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act.

Our Constitution, in unmistakable language, guarantees the return of our fugitive slaves. Congress has recognized her duty in this respect, by enacting proper laws for the enforcement of this right.

And yet these laws have been continually nullified, and the solemn pledge of the Compromise of 1850, by which the North came under renewed obligations to enforce them, has been faithlessly disregarded, and the government and its officers set at defiance.….

This new union with Lincoln Black Republicans and free negroes, without slavery, or, slavery under our old constitutional bond of union, without Lincoln Black Republicans, or free negroes either, to molest us.

If we take the former, then submission to negro equality is our fate. If the latter, then secession is inevitable — each State for itself and by itself, but with a view to the immediate formation of a Southern Confederacy, under our present Constitution, by such of the slave-holding States as shall agree in their conventions to unite with us.

Mississippi seeks no delay — the issue is not new to her people. They have long and anxiously watched its approach they think it too late, now, to negotiate more compromises with bankrupts in political integrity whose recreancy to justice, good faith and constitutional obligations is the most cherished feature of their political organization.

Then there’s a lot of huffing and puffing about honor. But then Harris finishes with a flourish:

[Mississippi] had rather see the last of her race, men, women and children, immolated in one common funeral pile [pyre], than see them subjected to the degradation of civil, political and social equality with the negro race.

So, the election of Lincoln and the “black” Republicans meant the end of slavery, the elevation of blacks to equal rights with whites. The distinction of “of civil, political and social equality” is important, because it shows precisely what they feared. Civil equality is equality before the law. It meant that blacks could serve on juries and testify in court against whites. Political equality means the right to vote and hold office. This meant that in a state like South Carolina or Mississippi, where over as much as 55% of the population was black, whites would face the fact of blacks sitting in the legislature, as judges, and maybe even in the governor’s mansion. Social equality meant integration—that blacks could work, eat, sleep, travel, consort, marry, and otherwise live side-by-side with whites. Ironically, blacks and whites actually lived in close proximity in the slave society of the South; but so long as blacks were under near-total control, Southerners weren’t bothered. But living that close to blacks without the social control of slavery made social equality—the polar opposite of white supremacy—utterly unthinkable. In short, the sort of black equality Harris envisioned would degrade, insult, and dishonor the South.

Preston of South Carolina to Virginia

Another good speech of John Preston of South Carolina to the Virginia Secession Convention on Feb. 19, 1861. First, Preston goes into the history of the United States under the Union, why secession was legal, blah blah blah. Then he shows how the entire country benefitted from slavery, although because of tariffs, Southerners end up paying more than Northerners. But then

[A]s early as the year 1820, the manifest tendency of the legislation of the general government was to restrict the territorial expansion of the slaveholding States. That is very evident in all the contests of that period; and had they been successful to the extent that some hoped, even then, the line that cut off the purchase from France might have been projected eastward to the bottom of the Chesapeake and sent Virginia and half of Tennessee and all of Kentucky, Virginia proper, after she had given to non-slavery her northwestern empire, to the non-slavery section. That might be the line. The policy, however, has been pushed so far as to deprive this Southern section of that line of at least seven-tenths of the valuable acquisitions of the government.

Ever since the Missouri Compromise, slave-holders had been denied access to the territories. After a description of how slavery affected the economies of both North and South, and how the North benefitted more, he gets to the nub:

For fully thirty years or more, the people of the Northern States have assailed the institution of African slavery. They have assailed African slavery in every form in which, by our contiguity of territory and our political alliance with them, they have been permitted to approach it.

During that period of thirty years, large masses of their people have associated themselves together for the purpose of abolishing the institution of African slavery, and means, the most fearful were suggested to the subject race-rising and murdering their masters being the charities of those means. In pursuance of this idea, their representatives in the federal government have endeavored by all the means that they could bring to bear, so to shape the legislation as almost to limit, to restrict, to restrain the slaveholding States from any political interest in the accretion of the government. So that as my distinguished colleague [Judge Benning], stated to you on yesterday, the decree goes forth that there are to be no more slave States admitted into the Union….

The citizens of not less than five of our confederates of the North have invaded the territory of their confederates of the slaveholding States, and proclaimed the intention of abolishing slavery by the annihilation of the slaveholders; and two of these States have refused to surrender the convicted felons to the demand of the invaded States; and one of these-one of the most influential-one, perhaps, recognized as the representative of what is called American sentiment and civilization, has, in its highest solemn form, approved of that invasion; and numbers of people, scattered throughout the whole extent of these seventeen States, have made votive offerings to the memory of the invaders.

Preston then tells the Virginians what South Carolina did and reads the Ordinance. But then he gets really worked up:

Now, gentlemen of Virginia, notwithstanding these facts which I have so feebly grouped before you, notwithstanding this patience which I have endeavored to show you she has practised, my State, throughout this whole land, throughout all Christendom, my State has been charged with rash precipitancy. Is it rash precipitancy to step out of the pathway when you hear the thunder crash of the falling clouds? Is it rash precipitancy to seek for shelter when you hear the gushing of the coming tempest, and see the storm cloud coming down upon you? Is it rash precipitancy to raise your hands to protect your head? [Loud applause.]

What is the “thunder crash” and the “coming tempest”? The end of slavery and the beginning of black equality. Of course, South Carolina had endured the disrespect heaped on slave-owners by the North with great patience. And so “long as it was a merely silly fanaticism or a prurient philanthropy that proposed our destruction, we scarcely complained.” They endured slight and slight, injury after injury. Southerners even endured John Brown’s raid. But no more:

But when at last this mad fanaticism, this eager haste for rapine, mingling their foul purposes, engendered this fell spirit which has seized the Constitution itself in its most sacred forms and distorted it into an instrument of our instant ruin; why, then, to hesitate one moment longer seems to us not only base cowardice, but absolute fatuity. [Applause.]

In the end, the two sections were too different, a clash of civilizations, and a “coercing power at the city of Washington…can no more coalesce the people of Virginia and the people of Vermont, the people of the St. Lawrence and the people of the Gulf of Mexico, the people of the Rio Grande and the people of the Hudson, than could Rome make one coalition of the Gaul.” They were too different, and the difference was slavery:

No community of laws, no community of language, of religion, can amalgamate, according to our faith, people whose severance is proclaimed by the most rigid requisitions of universal necessity. African slavery cannot exist at the North. The South cannot exist without African slavery. [Applause.] None but an equal race can labor at the North; none but a subject race will labor at the South.

Let’s look at one more, shall we? This is a letter written by another commissioner from Alabama, Stephen F. Hale, to Governor Beriah Magoffin of Kentucky on December 17, 1860. It follows a pattern found in many of these addresses: the commissioner shows why secession is legal, goes through a brief history of the injuries sustained by the South, and then comes down to the “nub”: the reason for secession: the election of Lincoln and the Republican Party. While long direct quotes can be a chore to read, I believe it’s most effective to let Mr. Hales have the floor:

What, then are the circumstances under which, and the issues upon which he was elected? His own declarations, and the current history of the times, but too plainly indicate he was elected by a Northern sectional vote, against the most solemn warnings and protestations of the whole South. He stands forth as the representative of the fanaticism of the North, which, for the last quarter of a century, has been making war upon the South, her property, her civilization, her institutions, and her interests; as the representative of that party which overrides all Constitutional barriers, ignores the obligations of official oaths, and acknowledges allegiance to a higher law than the Constitution, striking down the sovereignty and equality of the States, and resting its claims to popular favor upon the one dogma, the Equality of the Races, white and black.

It was upon this acknowledgment of allegiance to a higher law, that Mr. Seward rested his claim to the Presidency, in a speech made by him in Boston, before the election. He is the exponent, if not the author, of the doctrine of the Irrepressible Conflict between freedom and slavery, and proposes that the opponents of slavery shall arrest its further expansion, and by Congressional Legislation exclude it from the common Territories of the Federal Government, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction.

He claims for free negroes the right of suffrage, and an equal voice in the Government– in a word, all the rights of citizenship, although the Federal Constitution, as construed by the highest judicial tribunal in the world, does not recognize Africans imported into this country as slaves, or their descendants, whether free or slaves, as citizens.

These were the issues presented in the last Presidential canvass, and upon these the American people passed at the ballot-box.

Upon the principles then announced by Mr. Lincoln and his leading friends, we are bound to expect his administration to be conducted. Hence it is, that in high places, among the Republican party, the election of Mr. Lincoln is hailed, not simply as a change of Administration, but as the inauguration of new principles, and a new theory of Government, and even as the downfall of slavery. Therefore it is that the election of Mr. Lincoln cannot be regarded otherwise than a solemn declaration, on the part of a great majority of the Northern people, of hostility to the South, her property and her institutions — nothing less than an open declaration of war — for the triumph of this new theory of Government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations, and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation, to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans. Especially is this true in the cotton-growing States, where, in many localities, the slave outnumbers the white population ten to one.

If the policy of the Republicans is carried out, according to the programme indicated by the leaders of the party, and the South submits, degradation and ruin must overwhelm alike all classes of citizens in the Southern States. The slave-holder and non-slave-holder must ultimately share the same fate — all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes, stand side by side with them at the polls, and fraternize in all the social relations of life; or else there will be an eternal war of races, desolating the land with blood, and utterly wasting and destroying all the resources of the country.

Who can look upon such a picture without a shudder? What Southern man, be he slave-holder or non-slave-holder, can without indignation and horror contemplate the triumph of negro equality, and see his own sons and daughters, in the not distant future, associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality, and the white man stripped, by the Heaven-daring hand of fanaticism of that title to superiority over the black race which God himself has bestowed? In the Northern States, where free negroes are so few as to form no appreciable part of the community, in spite of all the legislation for their protection, they still remain a degraded caste, excluded by the ban of society from social association with all but the lowest and most degraded of the white race. But in the South, where in many places the African race largely predominates, and, as a consequence, the two races would be continually pressing together, amalgamation, or the extermination of the one or the other, would be inevitable. Can Southern men submit to such degradation and ruin? God forbid that they should.

But, it is said, there are many Constitutional, conservative men at the North, who sympathize with and battle for us. That is true; but they are utterly powerless, as the late Presidential election unequivocally shows, to breast the tide of fanaticism that threatens to roll over and crush us. With them it is a question of principle, and we award to them all honor for their loyalty to the Constitution of our Fathers. But their defeat is not their ruin. With us it is a question of self-preservation — our lives, our property, the safety of our homes and our hearthstones — all that men hold dear on earth, is involved in the issue. If we triumph, vindicate our rights and maintain our institutions, a bright and joyous future lies before us. We can clothe the world with our staple, give wings to her commerce, and supply with bread the starving operative in other lands, and at the same time preserve an institution that has done more to civilize and Christianize the heathen than all human agencies beside — an institution alike beneficial to both races, ameliorating the moral, physical and intellectual condition of the one, and giving wealth and happiness to the other. If we fail, the light of our civilization goes down in blood, our wives and our little ones will be driven from their homes by the light of our own dwellings. The dark pall of barbarism must soon gather over our sunny land, and the scenes of West India emancipation, with its attendant horrors and crimes (that monument of British fanaticism and folly), be re-enacted in our own land upon a more gigantic scale.

This so captures utterly the horror of white Southerners, it’s worth repeating: “as a consequence” of the end of slavery, “the two races would be continually pressing together, amalgamation, or the extermination of the one or the other, would be inevitable. Can Southern men submit to such degradation and ruin? God forbid that they should.” Degradation and ruin. Barbarism. The fear is palpable.

Race and Secession

But of course, it’s racist fear (which is redundant, really). It’s not fear of losing the fortunes, although that is an issue; it’s the fear of “amalgamation”: the fear of a multi-racial society.

And again, the South didn’t have a monopoly on racism. It was a profound element in the North as well. But, as Hale accurately points out in the letter, the number of blacks in the North was negligible. In the Deep South, it was nearly half. And the correlation between numbers of slaves and rate of secession is stunning. This graph by Michael Rogers, which  you can find posted at Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memorycompiles data from the census of 1860:


The Deep South (except for Texas—I’m not sure what their deal was), with percentages of blacks in each state over 40%, left fairly quickly. The Upper South waited until shots were fired, but left as well. The Upper South states fall into a range of around 24% to 34%. And the Border states, with percentages in the teens, never left at all.

It is overstating the case to say that racism—the fear of blacks—was what caused the Civil War. But as I wrote in a previous post, it is clear that it was extremely important. Southerners could live cheek-by-jowl with blacks if they had near total control over them; but they would not allow themselves to be “degraded” by living among blacks as equals.

And so, I hope George ponders this. I hope he will see that the three addresses we’ve looked at here are a tiny fraction of the number such addresses from these commissioners, and every one of them makes this same argument. I hope he recognizes that this sort of evidence is incontrovertible: this is the reason for secession right from the mouths of the participants themselves. I’d like to think that it could even cause him to change his mind about the cause of the war, and so give up the alternate, fictional version offered by neo-Confederates. We will see.

Posted in Civil War, Neo-Confederates, Secession, Slavery | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 65 Comments

Slavery and Secession: The Daily Show’s Take

Because I am buried in Midterm essays–yet again–in my Summer online courses, I don’t have time to make a proper entry. But since the topic has come up in the comments, I figured this is an excellent time to show a nice video on the relationship between slavery and secession. This was what Larry Wilmore and Jon Stewart of The Daily Show came up with back in 2010 during the sesquicentennial of South Carolina’s secession. Enjoy!

The South’s Secession Commemoration

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“We Must Disenthrall Ourselves”

“We Must Disenthrall Ourselves”

In an interview promoting the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln, Daniel Day Lewis discussed how he read Lincoln’s speeches as a way to prepare his epic performance. In particular, Day Lewis told the interviewer, he was surprised to find that Lincoln used the word “disenthralled.” “I’d never seen that word before and I’m always looking for a context ever since where I can use that word, I love it so much….The richest source, which creates a very broad, illuminated avenue towards an understanding of Lincoln and his life is through his own words and his own language.”

And, come to think of it, I’ve never heard the word, either—not in any presidential address, nor any form of writing, nor even in actual speech. I can never remember hearing another human use the word. Lincoln’s message to Congress in December, 1862, is the only time I can think of ever hearing disenthrall:

The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

The context, of course, is the eve of the final Emancipation Proclamation. At midnight on January 1863, the Civil War was going to take a drastic new course. Slaves held in rebel-controlled territory would be considered free; all they had to do was get to the Union armies. And these former slaves would be encouraged to join those armies and then smite the men who had held them in bondage. Lincoln had come to realize, sometime in the late spring of 1862, that the war could not be won without striking at the institution that ultimately caused destruction of the Union. And so, as a war measure, Lincoln changed the terms of the war from one of restoring the Union alone to one of liberation.

Pretty dramatic stuff.

Of course, the word enthrall is not mysterious at all, really. It’s right there in Webster’s Dictionary. My mom used to use it fairly frequently. She always used it as a synonym for “fascinated” or “enchanted” or “infatuated.” to the point of being in someone else’s power. She used it for people who she was in awe of, usually actors and the like: “I’m just enthralled with him!” Often, a young man might become “enthralled” with a young woman—and, in this context, behave foolishly. The definition the word has always had for me was some kind of mystic hold on a person. But that is just one of the two definitions in Webster’s.

The other definition for enthrall in Webster’s is “to enslave.” I had never had an opportunity to hear enthrall in this context until I read The Lord of the Rings as a 14-year-old. More than once, Tolkien says the Dark Lord held so-and-so “in thrall.” He was usually speaking of some weak-minded tribe of men, easily swayed by the allure of evil power. And so while I never explicitly heard it as a meaning for enslaved, I certainly absorbed the gist—which is, really, the way we all learn new words. But even so, as I think back on it, I’ve never heard another human add the prefix and utter the word “disenthrall”—except for Day Lewis in that interview, and Lincoln, and anyone reading his words.

Eric Foner has remarked that the Emancipation Proclamation emancipated not just the slaves, but Lincoln himself. It marked a profound change in his thinking, and enabled him to cast off the long-championed, beguiling chimera of colonization—freeing blacks, but then encouraging them to relocate outside the United States. Whatever happened after January 1, 1863, the United States was going to fight a war for the liberation of 4 million Americans. How would the nation regard these new freedmen—180,000 of whom picked up a rifle, put on a blue coat, and spilled their blood for their country? What sort of rights would they be accorded? It was these questions many mainstream Republicans fretted over on the eve of emancipation.

And this shift in the war toward liberty and equality—this was not originally what Lincoln had wanted; from the beginning he had been trying to keep the war from becoming “a remorseless revolutionary struggle,” as he had put it exactly one year earlier in the State of the Union in 1861. But a brutal, bloody year had gone by, and now Lincoln was saying that revolution was here–that, in his mind, the inexorable logic of the war pointed toward freedom.

One of the many ironies of the Civil War is that Lincoln, one of the greatest and most articulate proponents of Jefferson’s idea that all men are created equal, resisted that principle until pursuing it was the only way to win the war. This is not a criticism; on the contrary, this is Lincoln both following through on his commitment to the Constitution, and recognizing the atmosphere of public opinion. He had stated again and again that slavery was protected in the Constitution; and he had also stated that whatever his notions on black equality, as a politician he was required to bow to public opinion, a position he clearly laid out in 1858 in the Lincoln-Douglas debates:

What next? Free them [blacks], and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if, indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded. [My emphasis.]

That was in peacetime. In wartime, Lincoln understood that the life of the nation depended on striking at slavery, and even then only if he could frame it as a legitimate war measure. And by the middle of 1862, it most certainly was. His job, then, was to coax along his countrymen, and get them to understand that their “universal feeling” was outdated, was no longer relevant, and must be discarded. And Lincoln, as usual, found precisely the right word, the right phrase, to communicate with his people:

We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

In that state of the Union message, Lincoln was expressing to Americans they must rid themselves of this infatuation—a morbid fascination, to our way of thinking—with the unknown status of millions of newly emancipated blacks. The logic of the Union was gesturing more and more emphatically toward liberty and equality, for all. In short, it was time for white Americans to get over themselves so they could win this war for Union, democracy, and liberty. The details Americans could figure out later.

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Yes, Slavery Did Cause the Civil War, Part 4

Slavery and Society

The Confederate states seceded, then, because they suspected Lincoln and the North would, sooner or later, abolish slavery. They clearly dreaded the end of slavery. I trust the previous posts have shown this, but there’s one last issue. Why did Southerners fear the end of slavery so much?

This is a complex issue, but it is ultimately based on the fact that the South was a slave society. One can attempt to separate out other issues—economics, increasing hostility toward the North, a growing sense of nationalism—but in the end, all of these issues inexorably point back to slavery.

Scholars differentiate between slave societies and societies that have slaves. The difference lies in the completeness with which slavery affects every aspect of a society. It is a bit difficult to convey to the modern reader the totality of slavery in the South. Historian Peter Kolchin writes:

Slavery affected the whole South, not just the slaves.…Because the antebellum South was a slave society, not merely a society in which some people were slaves, few areas of life there escaped the touch of the peculiar institution….Slavery undergirded the Southern economy, Southern politics, and, increasingly, Southern literary expression. Slavery also buttressed the religious orthodoxy that set the South apart from the North, undermined the growth of a variety of reform movements, and helped shape virtually every facet of social relations, from the law and schooling to the position of women. By the eve of the Civil War, slavery virtually defined the South to both Southerners and Northerners; to be “anti-Southern” in the political lexicon of the era meant to be anti-slavery, to be “pro-Southern” meant to be pro-slavery. Few in either North or South doubted that the South’s way of life was a reflection of that section’s slave-labor system. When the challenge to that system appeared too great, Southern political leaders demonstrated the extent to which they identified slavery as central to their world by taking their states out of the Union and into war.

Was slavery so crucial to the economy of the South that economic concerns alone could have provoked secession? Perhaps. The profitability of slavery, once questioned by scholars, is now beyond question: slaves represented more capital investment than all other capital investments combined. Add up all the money invested in factories, banks, and railroads; the money sunk into slaves eclipses all. Eric Foner has recently pointed out [1:40] that American slavery—at nearly 4,000,000 slaves worth $3.5 billion (which works out to something like $75 billion in today’s money)—was the largest, wealthiest slave society in the history of the world. The staple crops these slaves produced (mostly cotton in the Deep South, but sugar as well) represented a vast source of wealth to the entire country—not just in exported staples, and raw cotton shipped to Northern factories, but in the slaves themselves. Slaves were bought, sold, brokered, insured, loaned out, and used as collateral in loans. (This massive source of capital and wealth shows that the modern Libertarian argument that slavery was dying out is pure fantasy.) So it’s not surprising that slaveholders should have objected to any notion that slavery was wrong in any way—either economically backwards, destructive of republican liberty, or morally reprehensible. It’s conceivable that for economic reasons alone, slaveholders would have violently resisted abolition. They might have considered secession for purely economic reasons, as Federalists in New England did with the Hartford Convention during the War of 1812.

One of the characteristics of the 1840s and 1850s is the increasing hostility between the sections. Southerners more and more began to feel that Northerners—especially abolitionists—insulted Southern honor. Words like “insolent” turn up again and again in the historical record. As New Englanders and other “insolent Yankees” increased their criticism of slavery, so Southerners increasingly felt their “way of life” was under attack, and they mobilized to defend themselves. It was John C. Calhoun who developed the most sophisticated arguments for the South. Using the “offense is the best defense” model, he defended slavery by attacking the “way of life” of Northerners, accusing them of being hypocrites. Plantation owners took care of their laborers from cradle to grave, Calhoun argued; Yankee factory owners forced their workers to fend for themselves, to become in effect “wage slaves.”

This increased hostility was fed significantly by the increasing dependence of Southern cotton producers on Northern financiers. In order to turn their staples into greater and greater profits, plantation owners had to rely more and more on outside expertise. But the more Southerners grew in outward prosperity, the more debt they seemed to be in; and most of this debt was owed to New York bankers and the like. Nobody loves their creditor. To carry on the lavish lifestyles to which the Southern gentry were accustomed meant leveraging more and more cotton and more and more slaves. Alan Taylor, in his excellent book The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832, demonstrates that one of chief reasons for not freeing slaves was simply that slave-owners were in too much debt to manumit slaves, even if they wanted to.

But these reasons for wishing to protect slavery—the great wealth it generated,  the anger at Northerners for disparaging them, the nationalism this anger engendered—which all hinge in one way or another on economics, don’t explain certain characteristics of the ante-bellum period, the Civil War, and Reconstruction (and beyond). What compounded matters, what made slavery indispensable to Southerners above and beyond its value as part of an economic system for controlling labor, is that American slavery was as much a tool to control blacks as it was to control labor—a slave society that ensured white supremacy. It’s my contention that these two impulses—the potential for great profitability and the legal subjugation of blacks—ranked as equally important to Southerners. This fraternization of the two became what they referred to as their “way of life”, and explains how Southern polemicists could make such crazy (to us) arguments urging secession; explains why Confederates fought so hard for so long, into 1865 when the war was clearly just a matter of time, drawing out the great pain and destruction and death, fighting far beyond what was reasonable; and explains why white Southerners went to such extraordinary lengths to perpetuate race control before, during, and long after Reconstruction—long after slavery had disappeared.

From the time Virginians institutionalized racism in the late 1660s and early 1700s, which degraded the humanity of free blacks as well as slaves, Southern lawmakers and slaveholders (which were much the same thing), equated blackness with inferiority and degradation. And it was this racism—this fear of “the other,” of blacks—that became the irrational underpinning of the entire society.

I’ve said before, and it deserves mentioning as often as possible, that race doesn’t exist. Science cannot determine a person’s “race” by looking at their DNA. Yet this notion continues to “inform” and influence institutions in society. (As Ta-Nahesi Coates has put it, race doesn’t exist; but racism does.) Since there is no such thing as race, any ideas based on race are, by definition, irrational.

And no idea perhaps is more irrational than American race-based slavery. The irony of a republic based on the principle of human liberty incorporating slavery into its organic law, overlapping with institutionalized racism, creates such an irrational foundation that we should not be surprised at all that it took a devastating war to end slavery—leaving behind the ugly stepbrother of racism.

It is important to emphasize here that in no way were Southerners alone in this racism. Racism was part and parcel of Northern politics in the nineteenth century. Politicians like Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln, to name just two out of the majority of Northern statesmen, pushed the idea of colonization (the idea of sending free blacks out of the country, “colonizing” them in Latin America or Africa) until the end of 1862. But because numbers of blacks in the North were a fraction of what they were in the South, that racism—that irrational fear—tended to be far less vast and virulent.

Thomas Jefferson famously said, more than once, that adopting slavery was foolish, like taking “a wolf by the ears.” It was a dumb thing to do, but once done, you couldn’t let go. Well, why not? Why couldn’t white Americans accept that they had made a mistake, that slavery was wrong and free their slaves? And while it is true that some couldn’t free their slaves because of their huge debts, the real answer comes back that they couldn’t envision themselves living in a multi-racial society. The fear of free blacks living among them in large numbers was simply unthinkable. Free blacks were considered more dangerous to whites than slaves—a bizarre (irrational) notion, since free blacks had no particular need to attack whites, but enslaved blacks did. Indeed, the presence of free blacks vexed the slave society of the South.

Since almost the beginning, slave-masters had constructed a fantastical logic that bound them tighter and tighter to slavery. In The Internal Enemy, Alan Taylor shows how slavery made the Tidewater region of the Chesapeake Bay exceptionally vulnerable to British attack in the War of 1812. Virginians’ fear of all blacks, and their inability to trust free blacks—seen as bad examples to slaves who would covet freedom—meant that they were paralyzed, even as a truly dangerous, truly existent enemy in the form of the Royal Navy prowled the Tidewater shores. Virginians preferred that their militia was constantly needed at home to protect against an intangible slave revolt rather than fight the very tangible British.

And the British took advantage of this by encouraging slaves to flee their plantations in the night and board British ships, thus becoming free. The British even turned a number of these freedmen into the “Colonial Marines”: armed, uniformed, military units, terrifying the Virginia planter elite.

Events like the Haitian Revolution, the aborted slave revolt of Denmark Vesey in South Carolina, and the devastating rebellion of Nat Turner in 1831 appeared to justify Southern fears of slave revolts and free blacks. However, the simple fact that these events are so few in number—only two above occurred in the United States—confirm for us that Southerners allowed slavery to create for themselves an atmosphere of terror. Jefferson’s “fire bell in the night” quote regarding the Missouri Compromise is almost never given in its full context. In a given locale, the fire bell was rung to call volunteer firemen out to fight fire. But it was also used to call out militia in the case of slave insurrection. Thus, the “knell of the Union,” Jefferson’s chief metaphor for his fear that the Union might be destroyed by the issue of slavery, was the fear of slave insurrection.

If we then consider the irrationality caused by race-based slavery, the subsequent events beginning with the Mexican War leading to secession should not really surprise us. At every step, the Southern states behaved in an increasingly irrational fashion. (I’m going to set aside the truly insane attempts by Southern filibusteros to force Latin American countries into a “slave empire” from this narrative. We have plenty to work with without them.) Fearing the bounding of slavery by free states—and thereby putting slavery on the road to extinction—Southern aristocrats attempted to secede. Faced with Lincoln’s inflexibility on the dissolubility of the Union, and convinced that remaining was a direct threat to slavery, Southerners chose war against “the colossus of the North”–a war, of course, that ironically destroyed slavery. Confronted by defeat on all fronts in the winter of 1864 and 1865, the Confederacy continued to fight, continued to see its young men killed, continued to use propaganda to encourage its citizens that victory was at hand against the Yankee invader, refused to see reality as it existed. And after the war, ex-Confederates refused to accept black equality in any form. They passed the “Black Codes” to prevent that equality; they used murder and terror to prevent that equality; they delayed their own readmission to the Union rather than submit to “negro rule.” And after the ultimate failure of Reconstruction, the systematic attempt to humiliate and control blacks through Jim Crow. And why did they do this?

Because they did not like black people.

This hypothesis of irrationality/racism helps, I think, to explain why Southerners behaved as if they were insane.

This “irrational fear/racism” idea accounts for more than just Southern secession in 1860. In his excellent long essay “Losing the War,” writer Lee Sandlin argues that the irrational cultural ideologies of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany—ideologies based on the racial superiority of each—compelled those nations to continue fighting the Second World War far beyond what was rational. If the war had just been about territory or economics, the Axis Powers would have sued for peace long before 1945. But they did not, because both were subsumed by their own cultural superiority, and felt that defeat meant the total annihilation of that culture: for Japan, that meant the Emperor, bushido, and the myth of Amaterasu; for the Nazis, it meant the Thousand Year Reich, the volk, and the Aryan myth. Both exhorted their people to fight to the very death; that death was preferable to cultural extinction. Sandlin argues that this recalcitrance, dragging the war on beyond any reasonable hope for victory, was one of the reasons it was an easy choice for the United States to drop the atomic bombs on Japan.

So it was with the Confederacy. The war was effectively over by fall of 1864, with the fall of Atlanta and Lincoln’s election. Any reasonable people or nation would have—should have—sued for peace. But not Jefferson Davis; not the Confederacy.

(Note: I know this portion of the essay threatens to invoke “Godwin’s Law.” It is not my intent to compare Southerners to Nazis, far from it. My purpose is merely to compare the irrational nature of the cultures to which each clung beyond reason.)

Their behavior shows what can only be considered irrational fury. From seceding because they disliked an election result, to fighting the war long past what can be considered reasonable, to their treatment of freedmen during Reconstruction—all of this behavior suggests deep irrational fear.

And so this, ultimately, is why slavery caused the American Civil War. The racism we live with today is not the residue of slavery; it is slavery’s brother.

Posted in Civil War, Secession, Slavery | Tagged , , , , , | 153 Comments

The Real Lost Cause

Because I’m up to my eyeballs grading midterms, I haven’t had a chance to finish my series on slavery as the cause of the Civil War. So, to entertain readers in the meantime, here’s a video of a talk by historian Gary Gallagher.

One of the things that is difficult for us to comprehend today is the idea that most Americans 150 years ago considered the Union sacred—sacred enough to die for. Lincoln was not the only Northerner who realized that secession meant the destruction of the American government, and thereby the destruction of, as Lincoln put it, “The last best hope of mankind.” Prof. Gallagher is a pretty funny guy and does an excellent job of conveying this urgency in this lecture and entertaining at the same time.

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Yes, Slavery Did Cause the Civil War, Part 3.

Slavery and Power

Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution reads:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. [My emphasis]

The notorious “three-fifths” clause was one of the crucial compromises of the Constitutional Convention. It meant that when counting people to see how many members each state would get in the House of Representatives, slaves would be counted as three fifths of a person. In other words, a state would be entitled to one member of the House for every 30,000 whites or 50,000 slaves. A common misconception of this is that Southerners hated blacks so much they “only counted slaves as 3/5s of a person.” But this misses the salient point, since it was Southerners who wanted to count each slave as a full person—but only for the purposes of representation. Northerners, on the other hand, didn’t want to count slaves at all. Northerners felt that counting property was silly. One doesn’t count livestock, for example, when deciding representation; why would one count slaves? And so, the compromise. But while it was necessary to get the Southern states to join the new Union, this three-fifths compromise had profound effects on the American political system, especially the shape and composition of the federal government. It led to what Northerners came to call the “Slavocracy,” or sometimes the “slave-power conspiracy.”

To begin with, slave states had a substantially greater number of members of the House of Representatives than they would have without counting slaves. For example, the states that joined the Confederacy had by 1860 just 19% of the free population of the country, yet they had almost 28% of the seats in the House. And so the three-fifths clause expanded the power of slave states in Congress.

But the effect of this moved beyond giving slave states disproportional numbers in Congress—the three-fifths clause reached into all three branches of government. The executive branch, for example: the electoral college selects the president, and states’ votes in the EC are determined by adding together the number of House seats and Senate seats a state has. Because the Southern states had an artificially inflated number of house seats, they likewise had a disproportionate number of votes to select the president. It’s no coincidence that 12 of the first 15 presidents either owned slaves or supported slavery. And because the president selects members of the Supreme Court, the three-fifths clause ensured that most nominees would likewise be supporters of slavery. Decisions like Dred Scott v. Sanford graphically demonstrate this.

Who cares? This is important because it shows that although Southerners were a minority population, they had a substantive hold on the federal government. But the rise of the Republican Party in the 1850s, and Lincoln’s election in 1860 threatened the crazy math of the three-fifths clause. The Republican platform explicitly pronounced a determination that slavery be restricted from all territories, which would mean that, if it were up to the new president, no new territories would have slaves; which meant no new slave states would enter the Union; which meant the fragile hold the “slave power” had over the federal government was destined to evaporate. Slavery had to expand or it would die—that was the conventional wisdom. But whether that was true or not, it was a fact that not expanding slavery meant slavery would die out over time. Lincoln figured 75 or so years. But Southerners were not going to wait to find out. A growing majority of free states might not wait for slavery’s evolutionary end; this growing majority might introduce a Constitutional amendment outlawing slavery altogether, with or without compensation for slave owners.

This was the threat Southern slave-owners perceived in 1860 with Lincoln’s election: the destruction of slavery. It didn’t matter what Lincoln’s timetable was; Southerners were committed to the institution. And the reason for this is far beyond economics. They were committed to slavery because of its aspect of social control.

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Yes, Slavery Did Cause the Civil War, Part 2

The Ultimate Basis of Slavery

But to begin at the very beginning, it is important to remember something I always tell my students: first and foremost, above and beyond all other considerations, slavery is based on violence. It is impossible to compel a person to labor against their will for another without the threat of violence. There are several ways to express this, but Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic has put it most bluntly: “Slavery is torture as a system of governance, corporal destruction taken as the mere cost of doing business.” This may seem obvious, but it is easy to overlook or set aside. And I believe it will help explain why modern race relations remain charged with the fear of violence.

Slavery and Institutionalized Racism

Slavery, of course, wasn’t the first choice of a labor system by early colonists. Indentured servants, mostly from England, supplied the bulk of Virginia’s workers for the colony’s first 30-odd years. But the grim environmental conditions of the Tidewater ensured that four out of every five (!) immigrants died. By the 1640s, conditions improved as the colonists began to spread their settlements out. Indentured servants began to survive their seven-year terms of service and become freemen. These freemen struggled to find good farmland, and moved into the Piedmont. This increase in the numbers of poor, resentful, armed farmers tended to unnerve the Tidewater elite—and indeed, in 1676, these farmers (both white and black, free and slave and indentured) rampaged across the Tidewater, burning plantations as they went, in Bacon’s Rebellion. This convinced plantation owners to accelerate the purchase of slaves.

This was essential. Bacon’s Rebellion showed the planter elite they couldn’t control the poor-but-free men of the Piedmont, but they could and did control slaves. In order to make common cause with the small farmers, the elite began to codify slavery. But they didn’t only codify slavery; they began to codify race. Law after law was passed in order to separate whites and blacks, until by 1702, interracial marriage was forbidden. This institutionalized racism in an effort to make common cause with poor whites became a divide-and-conquer strategy to avoid the kind of class conflict that would eventually affect the North in the nineteenth century. In addition, by combining a totally controlled labor supply with political liberalizations for the Piedmont farmers, the planters ensured the ironic result of slavery ensuring freedom.

And this is really the main point: slavery evolved to be an integral part of an economic system, a significant part of the political system, and—perhaps most important—a system of social control to ensure white supremacy. It is this last point that has guaranteed our hideous legacy of racism.

Slavery Spreads

Slavery probably doomed the United States to civil war when Constitution was drafted in Philadelphia with slavery a part of it. In order to ensure the participation of slave states, the convention embedded slavery in the organic law of the United States in three places: Article I, Section 2 (the infamous three-fifths clause); Article I, Section 9 (preventing Congress from restricting the interstate slave trade until 1808); and Article IV, Section 2, (the fugitive slave clause). These unfortunate clauses were the price of getting slave-holding states to agree to a continental Union in 1787. While apparently embarrassed by ordaining slavery in a document dedicated to ensuring republican liberty (none of the three clauses mentions “slavery” by name), it seems clear that the Founders agreed to this because they felt slavery was doomed, that it was not profitable enough to keep, that it would die a natural death. Certainly Virginia slaveholders had complained before the Revolution that they had too many slaves.

Every school kid knows what happened next: that Eli Whitney radically changed the calculus of slavery’s demise with the invention of the cotton gin. Suddenly, slavery was incredibly profitable, especially in the newly-opened Deep South, where short-staple cotton could get the 200 frostless days of growing season it required. As the 1800s matured, cotton became king.

But the wisdom of continuing to hold slaves was still an actual question Southerners (and Northerners) discussed openly. The general feeling was that slavery, though profitable, was a necessary evil. It was lamentable, a regrettable institution to establish, but what could one do? As Jefferson famously remarked of slavery during the Missouri crisis of 1820, “But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” This notion of “self-preservation” is interesting, since it begins to get to the heart of what Southerners saw in slavery: that it was a way to control blacks who would certainly murder them in their beds if given a chance. But still, many Southerners in the 1820s were having an actual conversation on the morality of keeping slaves. In 1830, Virginia even had a constitutional convention debating whether or not to abolish slavery.

That all changed in 1831 with Nat Turner’s Rebellion, and Virginia decided it would not abolish slavery. The death of 63 whites (I have seen at least five different numbers here, but none less than 55), mostly women and children, shocked the country, and dramatically changed the terms of the debate. No more would Southerners allow talk of freeing slaves. That was akin to encouraging insurrection. No, those who wanted free speech in order to discuss this issue were compelled to leave the South or suffer beatings, jailing, tar-and-featherings, or death.

It is no coincidence that the Nullification Crisis in South Carolina happened the next year. South Carolina tried to “nullify”, or declare unconstitutional and void within the state, the Tariff of 1828. But the issue at stake wasn’t the tariff; it was the power of the federal government, which, if it could be used to push for a protective tariff, might be used by Northerners to abolish slavery. But South Carolina stood alone in 1832—no other slave state came to her aid and joined her protest against federal power. Why not? Why was no other southern state willing to risk the wrath of Andrew Jackson on the principal of federal power?

Because, among slave-holding states, only South Carolina had a black majority. No other Southern state had more blacks than whites.

Simply put, the implication here is that the more blacks, the more fear. The more slaves in a state, the more likely that state to resist any and all manner of anti-slavery sentiment. The fear that abolition would free slaves; the fear that freedmen in a multiracial society would murder whites in their beds; simple, irrational, racism.

And the subsequent years support this idea. As the 1830s became the 1840s, slavery grew substantially in the Deep South. Throughout the 1850s, cotton became more profitable than ever, and plantation owners sunk every spare dollar into more land and more slaves. By 1860, five states—South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana—either had black majorities or were very close. It is no coincidence that these five states were among the first to secede.

But this still doesn’t fully explain why the Deep South seceded at all. To fully understand that, we need to understand how slavery affected the American political system.

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Yes, Slavery Did Cause the American Civil War

Slavery as the cause of war

The central pillar of the Lost Cause Myth is the notion that somehow slavery was not the ultimate cause of the Civil War. While this seems laughable on its face, the fact remains that almost every day I encounter some perfectly intelligent, reasonably well-educated person who still says, at the very least, “But there was other stuff too, right? Tariffs and stuff?” So clearly, our “Civil War memory” (which, by the way, is an excellent blog) is not as good as we could hope, and we have some work to do. But once we demolish this pillar of the neo-Confederate argument, the whole ridiculous edifice collapses.

Before we do this, let’s get this one thing absolutely clear:

Slavery was the ultimate cause of the American Civil War.

Anyone who asserts anything else is either grossly uninformed or willfully misrepresenting the facts. Plainly stated, if slavery didn’t exist, there would have been no Civil War. This is simply incontrovertible. And so the question before us is, how did slavery cause the war?This is a fine question, and one worth answering at length. But, for those of you interested, here is the short answer:

The Southern slaveholding states felt that Lincoln’s election in 1860 was a direct threat to slavery, in spite of the fact that Lincoln never claimed to have any power or jurisdiction over slavery where it existed. Because of this perceived threat, seven states of the Deep South seceded from the Union. After this new “Confederates States of America” fired on Ft. Sumter, Lincoln called for volunteers to put down the insurrection. This provoked four more states to join the new Confederacy.

These Southern slaveholding states asserted an alleged right to peacefully secede from the United States, while Lincoln maintained that the Union was perpetual and no state could unilaterally secede. Thus, both sides could technically claim that the war was not over slavery.

That’s the short version. Some may quibble, but these are the salient points. However, the short version doesn’t explain why slavery was so central to the dispute. My purpose, then, will to use subsequent blog posts to discuss “the long version” of why slavery caused the Civil War.

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Confederate Invincibility and the Campaigns of 1864

Al Mackey over at “Student of the American Civil War” has posted this excellent lecture by Jason Phillips, Eberly Professor of Civil War at West Virginia University Studies. It shows that the Lost Cause was already establishing itself as an ideology long before the war was over.

Student of the American Civil War


This was Jason Phillips’ presentation at the Bridgewater College Civil War Institute symposium on the 1864 Valley Campaign, held March 29, 2014 at Bridgewater College in Bridgewater, Virginia.  Jason is the Eberly Professor of Civil War at West Virginia University Studies.

Jason told us that confederate soldiers in 1864 expected to win the war.  150 years ago, Sgt. Reuben Pierson wrote that the health and morale of the Army of Northern Virginia were “unsurpassed by any band of soldiers that history either modern or ancient give an account of.”  He told his sister the veterans were “eager for the opening of the spring campaign in the full belief that we will be blessed with some grand and glorious victories.”  Thousands of confederate soldiers like Reuben Pierson fought to the bitter end.  These die-hard rebels were not insane.  They were not delusional.  They were not bombastic.  They were rational people who happened…

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Secession and the Constitution

Was Lincoln Right?

Photo credit: Gary Corbin.

Photo credit: Gary Corbin.

In December of 1860, the state of South Carolina held a special convention to answer a monumental question: should South Carolina secede from the Union, and remove itself from its brethren, becoming a fully independent nation? On December 20 it answered in the affirmative. Within two months, six other states—Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas—all voted to follow South Carolina, and claimed to secede. The newly-elected President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, refused to acknowledge the legality of secession, and said so in his Inaugural Address. In fact, Lincoln was ready to use armed force if necessary to deny these states’ assertion to unilaterally leave the Union.

And so this begs the $620,000 $750,000 question:

Was Abraham Lincoln right?

This constitutional question is at the heart of the matter, the essence of the controversy—the “nub”, as Lincoln himself might have put it. Because if Lincoln was wrong, then these states (and the four that followed after the firing on Ft. Sumter and formed the Confederate States of America) did have a right to leave, and Lincoln began a war that would take the lives of over 620,000 750,000 Americans, and cost the country over a billion dollars in treasure. While it is true that one result of this war was the destruction of American slavery, which by some would have morally justified the war, morals don’t count much in constitutional law. If Southerners were right, then Lincoln violated the rights of the states, and no well-meaning result can justify this sort of “tyranny.” If.

But fortunately for Lincoln, he was not wrong—his reading of the Constitution was actually pretty right-on: the Union was (and is) perpetual.

To fully understand this argument (which neo-Confederates seem to either not understand, or willfully ignore or misrepresent), we have to spend some time with the Founders. What was their intent? And, moreover, how did they express this intent?

The People Ordain the Union

In some ways, we need look no further than the preamble, “We, the People…establish and ordain this Constitution.” [My emphasis] This phrase is usually portrayed as mere rhetorical flourish, but it is not. As Constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar has pointed out in his indispensable book, The American Constitution: a Biography, Article VII (the last words of the Constitution) explains what “We the People” is supposed to mean. It states:

The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.

First of all, it’s vital to realize that the Founders were completely fed up with their first revolutionary government, the weak Articles of Confederation, established during the war for independence in 1777. Because the states entered the Confederation with their perfect sovereignty intact, the Confederation Congress was by definition a creature of the states. (To show how dysfunctional it was, the states themselves didn’t get around to actually ratifying the Articles until 1781!) This Congress operated more like the United Nations than a national government. While the states were fighting Great Britain, this loose league was perhaps enough (although only barely—there were times during the Revolution when the weakness of the Confederation was a serious liability); but in the five or so years after the fighting ceased, the Confederation Congress proved unequal to the task of managing a continental union. With no power to tax in order to pay off the massive debt incurred by the states and Congress to fight the Revolution, and with no power to compel states to obey the rules they themselves agreed to follow, the Congress was not much more than a paper tiger. The Framers in Philadelphia, then, determined to do much more. They most emphatically did not want another creature of the states—they wanted a truly federal government in which the states’ sovereignty, while still intact, was subordinated to a new vestment of sovereignty.

And so the “bookends” (in Amar’s words) of the Constitution: the first words of the Preamble and last words in Article VII. According to this last Article, “We the People” would assemble in special ratification conventions in the form of elected delegates; would debate the merits of the new Constitution; and then vote, up or down, as to join this Union or not. It was entirely voluntary. Again, these conventions were explicitly not the states themselves—the Founders wanted no creature of the states. And of course, it’s hard to see state legislatures voting in favor of a document that would reduce their power. If New York was a fully independent nation-state (and in 1787 it was), why would its government willingly subordinate itself to some new-fangled theorem written over the summer? If the Founders had left it to the state legislatures, those legislatures would have rejected the document out of hand.

Moreover, these special ratifying conventions themselves represented one of the most democratic events in the history of western civilization up until that time. They were composed of delegates elected by The People of each state (again, not the state itself). In order to ensure the broadest possible participation of voters in order to select delegates, the states liberalized voting rules by getting rid of the property qualifications. This was a special one-time-only thing (at least until the 1830s). And in addition, five states in the North allowed blacks the right to vote.

These elections, then, were as democratic as the 18th century mindset would allow. Each set of delegates debated, and then voted, state by state, thus ensuring that the states would indeed retain a good measure of sovereignty—that this new government would not be a national government, obliterating the states, but rather a federal government, where there would be two sovereign entities: states and the feds. (Madison explains this in Federalist #39.) Article VII then guaranteed that the preamble’s “We the People” was not mere rhetorical flourish. Rather it proved that We the People did indeed ordain the new Constitution.

The last event that guarantees that we know the Founders intended a perpetual Union is an incident that took place at the New York ratifying convention. There, the Anti-Federalists (those who opposed the new Constitution) were winning the argument. In front of full galleries day after day, week after week in the summer of 1788, both pro-Constitution (or Federalists) and anti-Constitution delegates went back and forth, but it became clear that the anti-Federalists had the votes to defeat it. But in the midst of this debate came news that New Hampshire had ratified. That made nine states ratifying, the Magic Number to establish the Constitution and have it go into effect. Then came news of Virginia’s ratification. Still, New Yorkers argued for weeks more.

Finally, the Anti-Federalists offered Alexander Hamilton and the other Federalist delegates an olive branch: the Anti-Feds would agree to vote to ratify if the first congress of the new government would pass certain amendments right away; but if the new congress did not, then New York reserved the right to leave the new union. This compromise must have been attractive to Hamilton, since he desperately wanted New York to join the union. And think about it for a minute: at that moment, it was clear that there would be a new United States of America, with a president, a congress, and all—and New York would not be part of it! It would suddenly be a small independent nation sitting astride yet outside a huge, new independent nation. But despite this temptation, Hamilton turned them down—he had in his pocket a letter from James Madison, the architect of the Constitution, who had been verbally jousting with Patrick Henry in Virginia in that state’s convention. Madison well knew of this attempt at compromise, and he rejected such a notion of future secession, and urged Hamilton to resist just such overtures. In his letter he wrote that “The Constitution requires an adoption in toto, and for ever.” [My emphasis]

Even Patrick “Give me liberty or give me death” Henry, a delegate in the Virginia ratification convention who opposed the Constitution, understood exactly what was afoot. He clearly saw that the new Constitution would require a diminishment of Virginia’s sovereignty. He said in convention:

[W]ho authorised them to speak the language of, We, the People, instead of We, the States? States are the characteristics, and the soul of a confederation. If the States be not the agents of this compact, it must be one great consolidated National Government of the people of all the States…. Have they said, we the States? Have they made a proposal of a compact between States? If they had, this would be a confederation: It is otherwise most clearly a consolidated government. The question turns, Sir, on that poor little thing—the expression, We, the people, instead of the States of America.

Henry knew full well what the Federalists intended, and he didn’t like it; but in the end he also saw he couldn’t stop it.

The Text of a Federal Union

Let’s move to more text of the Constitution. It is true that there is no explicit prohibition on secession; but then again, there is neither an explicit statement allowing secession. Fortunately, the Constitution has much implicit content—it must be implied, otherwise the document would be unintelligible.

Need more proof from the text that the Union is indissoluble? Let’s look at the so-called “supremacy clause” of Article VI, Clause 2. It’s pretty much the clincher:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding. [My emphasis]

But wait, there’s more! Here’s Clause 3 of Article VI:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States. [My emphasis]

If state sovereignty trumped federal sovereignty, as neo-Confederates argue, then why would state officers have to swear an oath (or affirmation) to support the federal Constitution? The answer is they wouldn’t. But state sovereignty is subordinate to the federal government. And so, these two Article VI clauses pretty much seal the deal.

Does federal supremacy mean no state can unilaterally secede? Of course; but if one is still in doubt, the ultra-democratic mechanism of ratification most certainly proves the intent of the Founders.

Legally Sealing the Deal

If one needs another piece of evidence after the ratification, one can always look to Chief Justice John Marshall. In Gibbons v Ogden in 1824 Marshal wrote:

[R]eference has been made to the political situation of these states, anterior to its formation. It has been said that they were sovereign, were completely independent, and were connected with each other only by a league. This is true. But, when these allied sovereigns converted their league into a government, when they converted their congress of ambassadors, deputed to deliberate on their common concerns, and to recommend measures of general utility, into a legislature, empowered to enact laws on the most interesting subjects, the whole character in which the states appear underwent a change, the extent of which must be determined by a fair consideration of the instrument by which that change was effected.

So, whatever one may believe of the evidence I’ve presented about the Constitution at its founding, the Supreme Court some 30-odd years after the founding ruled beyond doubt that the Union was perpetual and indivisible—that the individual states had surrendered their full independence when they, or rather their people, ordained and established the Constitution.

The growth of slavery and Southern nationalism certainly challenged this notion of perpetual Union, but the Union–and the logic of federalism–was equal to them. We will deal with those challenges later, in another post.


[Source: Akhil Reed Amar, The American Constitution: a Biography. (New York: 2005), 21-39.]

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