What are the reasons for secession, which eventually led to the Civil War? In this article, we will discuss what tore the nation apart.
PRONOUNCEMENTS OF CONFEDERATE LEADERS ON REASONS FOR SECESSION AND THE CONFEDERACY
In his February 18, 1861, inaugural address, Jefferson Davis spoke in generalities and never used the word “slavery.” But he did briefly provide a justification for secession: “Through many years of controversy with our late associates, the Northern States, we have vainly endeavored to secure tranquility, and to obtain respect for the rights to which we were entitled.” What were those rights?
Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens provided an early explanation. On March 21, 1861, in Savannah, Georgia, he delivered his famous “Cornerstone Speech” explaining the Confederacy’s basic foundations, especially slavery. He told a large crowd:
The new [Confederate] constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution— African slavery as it exists amongst us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. . . . Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of the races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”
Stephens continued by explaining the Confederacy was different: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. [Applause] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.” He explained further:
Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material—the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of his ordinances, or to question them. For his own purposes, he has made one race to differ from another, as he has made “one star to differ from another.”
On this point, Stephens concluded, “The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to his laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws. This stone which was rejected by the first builders ‘is become the chief of the corner’—the real ‘corner-stone’—in our new edifice. [Applause]” Thus, Stephens left no doubt that the Confederacy represented a rejection of the “all men are created equal” philosophy of the Founding Fathers and instead was built on the foundation of Negro subordination and slavery. In light of the depth and specificity of Stephens’s equating slavery and white supremacy with the Confederacy’s founding, his later denials of such statements seem laughable.
A little more than a month later, on April 29, Davis addressed a special session of the Confederate Congress. After asserting states’ right and reasons for secession from the Union, Davis explained why they had chosen to do so. He discussed the widespread existence of slavery in 1787 and the Constitution’s recognition and protection of it. He recited how Northern states had sold their slaves, prohibited slavery and then “inaugurated and gradually extended” “a persistent and organized system of hostile measures against the rights of the owners of slaves in the Southern States.”
Davis continued his description of Northern anti-slavery activities: “A continuous series of measures was devised and prosecuted for the purpose of rendering insecure the tenure of property in slaves. . . . Senators and representatives were sent . . . to awaken the bitterest hatred against the citizens of sister States, by violent denunciation of their institutions; the transaction of public affairs was impeded by repeated efforts to usurp powers not delegated by the Constitution, for the purpose of impairing the security of property in slaves, and reducing those States which held slaves to a condition of inferiority.”
The Confederate President then expressed his displeasure with the young Republican Party and its potential destruction of slave property worth billions: “Finally a great party was organized for the purpose of obtaining the administration of the Government, with the avowed object of using its power for the total exclusion of the slave States from all participation in the benefits of the public domain acquired by all the States in common, whether by conquest or purchase; of surrounding them entirely by States in which slavery should be prohibited; of . . . rendering the property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless, and thereby annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars.”
Davis continued by explaining how four million slaves had been converted from “brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers,” their labors “[u]nder the supervision of a superior race” had converted wilderness into cultivated lands, and “the productions in the South of cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco, for the full development of which the labor of African slaves was and is indispensable, had swollen to an amount which formed nearly three-fourths of the exports of the whole United States and had become absolutely necessary to the wants of civilized man.”
Finally, he concluded that the Northern threats to slavery had left no choice but be the reasons for secession: “With interests of such overwhelming magnitude imperiled, the people of the Southern States were driven by the conduct of the North to the adoption of some course of action to avert the danger with which they were openly menaced. With this view the Legislatures of the several states invited the people to select delegates to conventions to be held for the purpose of determining for themselves what measures were best adapted to meet so alarming a crisis in their history.”
Even Lee at mid-war defended the institution of slavery and not so subtly hinted at the danger to Southern women. He complained to Secretary of War Seddon on January 10, 1863, about the Final Emancipation Proclamation: “In view of the vast increase of the forces of the enemy, of the savage and brutal policy he has proclaimed, which leaves us no alternative but success or degradation worse than death, if we would save the honor of our families from pollution, our social system from destruction, let every effort be made, every means to be employed, to fill and maintain the ranks of our armies. . . .”
Postwar backing and filling by Stephens and Davis attempted to cover their slavery tracks. Stephens got off to an early start in a summer 1865 journal entry claiming that his Cornerstone Speech had been misquoted by a Savannah reporter. The length and depth of such a “misquote” would have been astounding. Stephens failed to address similar “misquotes” by an Atlanta reporter of a contemporaneous speech in which he said Confederate Constitution framers “solemnly discarded the pestilent heresy of fancy politicians that all men, of all races, were equal, and we had made African inequality and subordination, and the equality of white men, the chief corner stone of the Southern Republic.”
The former Confederate vice president’s amnesia continued in a more formal setting: his A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States. In his first volume (1868), he insisted the struggle was between federation and centralism [states’ rights] and that slavery simply was the question that brought these principles into conflict. It did violence to history, he contended, to call Southern politicians a “Pro-Slavery Party.” He concluded that the war was a struggle between “the friends of Constitutional Liberty” and the “Demon of Centralism, Absolutism, [and] Despotism!” The states’ rights rationale was off and running!
Jefferson Davis did some revisionism of his own after the war. In his 1881 The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, he followed the lead of Stephens and created a non-slavery rationale for the war. Sectional equilibrium and equality among the states were the Southern goals, he contended—in contrast to the North’s desire to acquire an empire. The Confederacy, according to Davis, was all about constitutional government, supremacy of law, and the natural rights of man.
Most significantly, he argued that the Confederacy was not about slavery. His rationale: “The sectional hostility . . . was not the consequence of any difference on the abstract question of slavery. It would have manifested itself just as certainly if slavery had existed in all the States, or if there had not been a negro in America. . . . The truth remains intact and incontrovertible, that the existence of African servitude was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident. . . . [T]o whatever extent the question of slavery may have served as an occasion, it was far from being the cause.” Here were amnesia and selective memory at their finest.
Within a few years, John Nicolay and John Hay, in their ten-volume study of Lincoln, were having no part of Davis’ assertions. Instead, they firmly and presciently warned, “The generation which fought the war needs no proof of the incorrectness of [Davis’s] declaration; but the historian of the future, without such contemporary knowledge, may think this claim, so gravely put forth by the leader of the South, possesses some critical value.” As Gary Gallagher has stated, “Anyone dealing honestly with testimony from the secession crisis and the war, as opposed to postwar efforts by ex-Confederates to rewrite the history of the conflict, must accept the absolute centrality of slavery.”
SUMMARY OF SLAVERY AS REASONS FOR SECESSION AND THE CONFEDERACY
In summary, contrary to the Myth of the Lost Cause, preservation of slavery was the primary cause of Southern states’ secession and their creation of the Confederacy. Evidence of this connection is found in the slavery-related demographics of the South, the dedication of slave-owners to the war, the official secession resolutions and declarations of the seceding states, prewar settlement efforts, lobbying and diplomatic activities by early-seceding states, contemporaneous pronouncements of the Confederacy’s military and political leaders, the Confederate Constitution, Confederate diplomacy, Confederate refusal to arm and liberate slaves, and Confederate prisoner-of-war exchange policies.
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