Did the South Secede Over Slavery?

It has become fashionable in recent years for Civil War revisionists to claim that southern secession was unrelated to slavery. The true cause of secession, the advocates of this position say, was the decades-long economic battles between the North and South, especially the tariffs favored by the North. The value in this explanation is that it undermines the often oversimplified explanation of 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. Nothing illustrates this better than the timeline of secession, which shows that southern secession was not a coordinated process. Eleven southern states seceded in two waves of secession – seven seceded between December 20, 1860 and February 1, 1861 and an additional four seceded between April 17th and June 8th, 1861. These two waves represented not just two different periods of secession, but two different lines of reasoning for doing so.

Secession in the Lower South

In the first wave of secession, the seven so-called “Lower South” states – Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas – left 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, South Carolina 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.”

The declaration then stated that the state’s primary reason for secession was the election of Abraham Lincoln, which South Carolinians 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 validity of South Carolina’s concerns were debatable, since Lincoln himself said in his inaugural address that he had no intention of ending slavery in the South. But South Carolina nevertheless saw in Lincoln and his Republican Party an imminent threat to slavery, and saw secession as its only recourse. Secession in South Carolina, therefore, was an obvious 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, detailing the 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.

Each of the states that seceded during the first wave had a common set reasons, the most obvious being the protection of slavery. But there were other issues as well, including southern complaints Northerners’ 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

At the same time the Lower South states were seceding, special committees were formed to consider secession in other southern states. But none of these Upper South states – Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia – seceded at the same time as their Lower South brethren. In fact, two and a half months elapsed between the secession of the last Lower South state and the first Upper South state, leading naturally to the question of why this gap existed.

Historian Jeffrey Rogers Hummel observed that “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.” But the Upper South, Hummel continued, “made clear their conviction that no state should be forced to remain” in the Union. While the reasons that impelled the Lower South states to secede held less weight in the Upper South, these states did believe in the principle of secession. Events would soon put this commitment to the test.

On April 12th, 1861, Confederate forces fired on the Union’s Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. Lincoln recognized his opportunity to appear justified in using force and 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.

After Lincoln’s call to arms, wrote Hummel, “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

In ascertaining why the South seceded, it is first essential to understand that the North and South had been battling politically since the turn of the 19th century. Slavery played a significant role in this conflict, but differences over economic and political policies were important 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. The same is not true, however, 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.

Note: This article is part of a series on the Civil War. Click here to see all the articles in the series.