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 Memory, compiles 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.