It has become somewhat fashionable in recent years for Civil War revisionists to claim that southern secession was unrelated to slavery. The advocates of this position point instead to the decades-long economic battles between the North and South, especially the tariffs favored by the North, as the impetus for the southern states’ departure.
The value in this explanation is that it undermines the tendency to oversimplify the sectional conflict that led to the Civil War. The limitation of it is that this version of events is itself an oversimplification.
As with other topics related to the Civil War, the real answer to why the South seceded is nuanced. To begin to understand it, we must first realize that southern secession was not a coordinated process. This is evident in the timeline of secession, which shows that 11 states seceded in two waves of secession, one between December 20, 1860 and February 1, 1861 and another between April 17th and June 8th, 1861.
These two waves represented not just two different periods in which states seceded, but two different lines of reasoning for doing so.
Secession in the Lower South
During the first wave of secession, the Lower South states – Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas – asserted their independence from the Union. Four of these states, following in the tradition of the Declaration of Independence, officially stated in writing their reasons for seceding.
South Carolina, as the first to secede, set the example. After laying out its understanding of the Constitution as a compact between the states, it listed its complaints against the North, beginning ironically by griping that northerners had themselves appealed to a states’ rights reading of the Constitution. South Carolina’s Declaration of Causes complained that northern states had “enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them.” It further complained about northern abolitionist societies and that Northerners had denounced slavery as “sinful.”
It then stated that its primary reason for secession was the election of Abraham Lincoln, which it perceived as a threat to slavery because a man “whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery…is to be entrusted with the administration of the (federal) government.” The extent to which these concerns were justified is debatable, since Lincoln himself said in his inaugural address that he had no intention of ending slavery in the South. But regardless, South Carolina seceded because it saw in Lincoln and his Republican Party an imminent threat to slavery.
Secession in South Carolina, therefore, was clearly an effort to protect slavery.
In this South Carolinians were not alone. Mississippi openly stated that “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” Texas was slightly less overt, but still pointed to the threat to slavery as its primary reason for seceding. Alabama, in its ordinance of secession, spoke of threats to its “domestic institutions,” a common euphemism for slavery.
Georgia’s explanation was the most comprehensive, as it commenced upon a long history of the sectional conflict. It cited the South’s political incompatibility with the North, referencing the latter’s predilection for “commercial restrictions, (economic) protection, special privileges (and) waste and corruption in the administration of Government.” It further perceived the conflict over the extension of slavery into the newly-acquired western territories as the result of two hopelessly opposed perspectives on property rights. But ultimately, slavery itself was the issue underlying these concerns and the state’s secession.
There were common themes in the rationale for the secession of the first seven states, the most obvious being slavery. But there were other issues as well, as these states also complained about Northern states’ de facto, if not official, nullification of federal fugitive slave laws. Each state also made at least a passing reference to the North’s economic policies, which in truth did benefit northern industry at the South’s expense.
Secession in the Upper South
But these reasons only cover seven of the 11 states that ultimately seceded. The second wave of secession occurred in the Upper South states of Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Considering that two and a half months elapsed between the end of the first and the beginning of the second waves of secession, we might naturally wonder why it took the four Upper South states so much longer to secede.
In Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel observes that secessionist sentiment was present in the Upper South at the same time the Lower South states were seceding, but was in the minority. Hummel writes, “…as Lincoln took the oath of office (on March 4, 1861), the Union still contained eight slave states, more than had left. Secession had so far failed in the upper South… Even in a few states in the lower South, disunion had triumphed by only narrow margins.”
Hummel notes, however, that the Upper South states “made clear their conviction that no state should be forced to remain” in the Union. In other words, the reasons that impelled the Lower South states to secede held less weight in the Upper South, but these states did believe in the principles of secession and self-government. Events would soon put these beliefs to the test.
On April 12th, 1861, Confederate forces fired on the Union’s Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. Lincoln, recognizing his opportunity to appear justified in using force, called for northern state militias to begin to assemble in preparation for an invasion of the South. The result of Lincoln’s actions was that the southerners who had formerly remained loyal to the Union, and who had been critical of the seceding states, now saw the North preparing to commit an act of aggression against the South.
Hummel writes that after Lincoln’s appeal to arms, “Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas all promptly transferred their allegiance to the Confederate States of America. Previously unwilling to secede over the issue of slavery, these four states were now willing to fight for the ideal of a voluntary Union.”
The Reason(s) Why the South Seceded
What can we ascertain from these facts about the reasons for southern secession? First, it is absolutely essential to understand that the North and South had been battling politically since the turn of the nineteenth century. Slavery played the largest role in the conflict, but differences over economic policies played a significant role as well. Since much of the battle was over political power – over who would control the federal government – many in the Lower South states saw the election of Lincoln and the ascension of the Republicans as evidence that all of the worst they feared about the North was about to come true.
Despite what some revisionists say, it is fair to cite slavery as the key cause for the secession of the Lower South. However, the same is not true of the Upper South, where slavery existed but was less a feature of its society and economy. Many in the Upper South believed that they derived more benefits from being in the Union than outside of it and they were unwilling to secede over the issue of slavery. It was only when Lincoln and the North prepared to use force on the states that had already seceded that the Upper South reluctantly joined the Confederacy.
If the North had followed a different course and let the South leave the Union, the Upper South would never have seceded and the Confederacy would have consequently been smaller and more isolated. And while most people assume that in the absence of the Civil War slavery would have continued on forever, there are compelling reasons to believe, as abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison did, that the separation of the Lower South would have considerably weakened slavery and hastened its end – peacefully.
Ultimately, understanding the complexity of southern secession is vitally important for a coherent understanding of the period because it helps us realize that, despite what some mainstream and revisionist historians say, the conflict and its causes are not easily categorized.
Note: This article is part of a series on the Civil War. Click here to see all the articles in the series.