Given that this year is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, if not secession, the question of why the war started keeps being raised. If you look at what was driving all politics and events in the country in the 1840-1860 period the answer is obvious – slavery. Frankly, you can’t even understand what is going on in this period without slavery.
These days revisionism is very fashionable. There are several groups that feel the need to redefine what went on in this period – some modern southern partisans who want to whitewash the rebelling states, joined with modern scholars who need to find a new vehicles for papers and libertarians who have fastened upon this period to focus their dislike of the modern government and its policies. There’s only one problem with all of this – its crap.
Now, I could, and still might, go into the various crises and show how slavery was at the root of all of them. But today, I want to do something simpler. I will ask the actual seceders why they did it.
After the war, the revision of the past was already starting. But some of the actual conventions that purported to take their state out of the Union stated why they did so. This contemporary evidence has to be the most important of all.
This web site has these declarations for several Southern states, in fact about half of the ones in the initial wave of secession from December 1860 to spring of 1861.
The first two sentences of Georgia’s statement are:
The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. 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.
Now, when a wife is giving the reasons for divorcing a husband, she isn’t going to start with “He left the toilet seat down when pissing” and work up to the repeated adultery later. You start with your big guns first. I don’t see anything about tariffs here, although later they do complain about fishing boat subsidies. This isn’t exactly the kind of pure philosophical wrong that starts revolutions.
Mississippi starts out with these words:
In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course. 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.
Well, here we have an interesting economic theory, that only slaves can work in the southern states. Somehow I don’t think this is what the professors are talking about when they cite ‘economic factors’. Another interesting point is that Georgia thought the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which banned slavery north of the Ohio River in the territories, was fine. Mississippi disagrees and attacks this same act as aggression against the south.
South Carolina disagrees with both of them. Here, it’s the hostility to the Fugitive Slave laws that bears the blame.
The General Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.
This is clear enough. The Libertarian revisionists are going to be unhappy with the state’s contention that the Federal Government not only can, but must override the state laws and snatch supposed fugitive slaves away without a trial judged by the residents of the state, but rather in front of a bailiff that is paid more money for a conviction.
And finally Texas:
Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented to become one of the Confederated Union to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people. She was received into the confederacy with her own constitution, under the guarantee of the federal constitution and the compact of annexation, that she should enjoy these blessings. She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery— the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.
Actually this last part, that African slavery had always existed in Texas, is probably a slight shading of the truth. I’m not an expert on Spanish colonialism, but they did settle the southwest before the Americans, and Mexico at least had abandoned slavery on its independence in 1821. This, in fact, was one of the bones of contention between the slaveholding settlers in Texas and the government — slavery wasn’t legal.
Accurate or inaccurate, the writers of these statements are clear. They may not agree on when agitation started, or what was the ultimate trigger, but all agree that the need for secession was driven by one thing, and one thing alone – to maintain and defend slavery in their state.
Behind the Post
This post came about a day or so after I ran into a ‘revisonist’ going on and on about the subject on an unrelated comment thread. That day I played it for humor, but I was stewing about it the next day. As I hinted in the post, I get irriatated when the past is used as a stalking horse for current politics, whether by my side or not. The actor then did things for their reasons, not to score points in a debate 150 years in the future.
This did lead to other posts about the run-up to the war, including the Dred Scott one.