Slavery Not the Reason
The protection of slavery was not and could not have been the primary reason for the Southern States seceding. Slavery was protected in the United States and would have continued been protected had they not seceded. Even if their secession were successful, slavery would have been less protected in a free South than if the Southern States had remained part of the United States. The preservation of slavery must have been a minor reason for secession.
If the Southern States remained in the Union, Southerners could emigrate to the territories of the United States and settle there with their slaves. The Compromise of 1850 allowed slaveholders to settle with their slaves in the territories of Utah and New Mexico. (These territories along with California were taken from Mexico in 1848 as a result of the Mexican War.) The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 allowed slaveholders to settle with their slaves in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. Congress would not decree whether these territories would enter the Union as slave States or nonslave States. The people of each territory would decide that when they applied for statehood. This act also repealed the restrictions of the Missouri Compromise; thus it opened the northern territories (Colorado, Dakota, Montana, and Idaho) up to slavery. In 1857 the Supreme Court ruled in the Dread Scott case that slaveholders had the constitutional right to carry their slaves into the territories and that Congress could not deprive them of this right. Thus, by 1860 Southerners had won their right to emigrate to the territories and settle with their slaves.
Outside the Union, however, Southerners would not have this right. If the Southern States were an independent country, a Southerner carrying his slaves into a State (even a slave State) or territory of the United States would have been in violation of the law. The importation of slaves into the United States was illegal. If, as often claimed, slavery needed to expand into the territories in order to survive, then secession would have surely destroyed slavery without war. With the Southern States outside the Union, slavery would have been practically nonexistent in the territories. If slavery needed to expand to survive, then slavery would have died with an independent South. For there would have been no place for slavery to expand.
If the Southern States remained in the Union, the federal government would apprehend runaway slaves and return them to their owners. The federal government had enacted fugitive slave laws with efficient provisions for their enforcement by federal officials. If the Southern States were an independent country, slaveholders would lack this guarantee. That the United States would have entered into a treaty with the Confederacy to return runaway slaves was doubtful.
The remarks made by the Republican Party leaders between the election and the outbreak of the War indicated that the Republicans were not going to abolish slavery.
The platform of the Republican Party stated that the Republican Party did not intend to abolish slavery. The platform declared:
The maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially of each State, to order and control its own domestic institutions, according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to the balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend.Emancipation was a decision that each State should be free to make for itself.
The platform did state a desire to prohibit slavery in the territories, which was contrary the Supreme Court’s ruling. However, Southerners gave up their right to emigrate to the territories with their slaves when they seceded. With secession this plank became a nonissue.
(On December 20, South Carolina seceded.)
In correspondence to Alexander Stephens dated December 22, 1860, Lincoln wrote:
Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would directly or indirectly interfere with the slaves, or with them about the slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you, as once a friend, and I still hope not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears.(On January 9, Mississippi seceded. On January 10, Florida seceded. On January 11, Alabama seceded.)
In January of 1861, Congress adopted a resolution declaring that it recognized:
Slavery as now existing in fifteen of the United States, by the usage and laws of those states, and we recognize no authority, legal or otherwise, outside of a state where it exists, to interfere with slaves or slavery in such states.(On January 19, Georgia seceded. On January 26, Louisiana seceded. On February 1, Texas seceded.)
In February the House of Representatives adopted a resolution declaring:
that neither the Federal Government, nor the people, have a purpose or a constitutional right to legislate upon or interfere with slavery in any of the states of the Union.and
that those persons in the North who do not subscribe to the foregoing propositions are too insignificant in numbers and influence to excite the serious attention or alarm of any portion of the people of the Republic.This resolution was passed by a Republican controlled House.
Congress, with both Houses controlled by the Republican Party, adopted and sent to the States for ratification the following as an amendment to the United States Constitution:
Article 13. No amendment shall be made to the constitution which shall authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish, or to interfere within any state, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said state.The House of Representatives passed this amendment on February 28, 1861. The Senate passed it on March 2, 1861. Lincoln expressed his approval of the amendment.
On March 4, 1861, in his inaugural address Lincoln declared:
I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.On April 12, 1861, South Carolina fired on Fort Sumpter in response to Lincoln’s provocation to re-enforce the fort. On April 15, 1861, Lincoln called for troops from the States. Following Lincoln’s call for troops was when the Upper South seceded.
(On April 17, Virginia seceded. On May 6, Arkansas seceded. On May 20, North Carolina seceded. On June 24, Tennessee seceded.)
For the Upper South, the immediate cause of the War was Lincoln’s calling for troops to carry out his illegal act of suppressing the right of the Southern States to secede and form a new government.
The protection of slavery could not have been much of a reason for the Upper South — or the Lower South, for that matter — seceding. Slavery was a protected institution in the United States. Base on the remarks and actions of the Republican leadership in the months preceding the War, it would have continued to be protected.
In a resolution adopted on July 22, 1861, the United States Congress expressed its purpose for waging the War. The resolution read:
This war is not waged, on our part, in any spirit of oppression, nor for any purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the rights or established institutions of those states; but to defend and maintain the supremacy of the constitution, and to preserve the Union, with all the dignity, equality and rights of the several states unimpaired; that, as soon as these objects are accomplished, the war ought to cease.
Not only was the abolition of slavery not even considered at issue, but Congress stressed that it would be preserved.
(On October 31, Missouri seceded. On November 20, Kentucky seceded.)
So much for slavery as the reason for secession and the cause of the War.
In an address to the Confederate Congress on April 29, 1861, President Davis summarized the reason for secession and the ensuring war as follows:
By degrees, as the Northern States gained preponderance in the National Congress, self-interest taught their people to yield ready assent to any plausible advocacy of their right as majority to govern the minority. Without control, they learn to listen with impatience to the suggestion of any constitutional impediment to the exercise of their will, and so utterly have the principles of the Constitution been corrupted in the Northern mind that, in the inaugural address delivered by President Lincoln in March last, he asserts a maxim which he plainly deems to be undeniable, that the theory of the Constitution requires, in all cases, that the majority shall govern. And in another memorable instance the same Chief Magistrate did not hesitate to liken the relations between States and the United States to those which exist between the county and the State in which it is situated, and by which it was created.
This is the lamentable and fundamental error in which rests the policy that has culminated in his declaration of war against these Confederate States.Appendix 2
The following is an excerpt from an editorial appearing in the January 15, 1861, issue of The Daily Picayune commenting on the absurdity and hypocrisy of a war to save the Federal Union:
The favorite form of expression in which these resolves are clothed is that, it is the first and highest duty “to maintain the Union.” But a Union upheld by a war, which is made necessary by the revolting of many large and powerful States from an unfriendly and oppressive Government[,] is condemned at once by the act. When armies and fleets are employed to keep a confederation of States together, it is a mockery to send them forth as messengers of union. It is for the subjugation of the minority section to the will of the majority, and every element which makes it a circle of consenting States in a harmonious Union disappears under the crushing process. To talk of war, therefore, as the means of perpetuating a Union is a mockery. It might perpetuate a Government, but that Government will cease to be a federative one, and will contain within itself essential traits of a military despotism — the retention, by superior force, of an unwilling people in political bondage, to a Government which they had unanimously risen to throw off. The Government so established, if such a monstrous thing could ever be established, would have no principles remaining in common with those which make the true theory of the constitution of the present Government, a departure from which has brought on the present convulsion. A war to “maintain the Union” is simply, therefore, a war to extinguish the Union, and to maintain a Government such as was never contemplated by any of the States which compose it, and which would not be tolerated by any State now, if there were a question of creating or restoring a Government.Appendix 3
Commenting on the Gettysburg Address and the battle of Gettysburg, H. L. Mencken wrote the following:
Think of the argument in it [the Gettysburg Address]. Put it into the cold words of everyday. The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination — “that government of the people, by the people, for the people,” should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves. What was the practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg? What else than the destruction of the old sovereignty of the States, i.e., of the people of the States: The Confederates went into battle free; they came out with their freedom subject to the supervision and veto of the rest of the country — and for nearly twenty years that veto was so effective that they enjoyed scarcely more liberty, in the political sense, than so many convicts in-the penitentiary.Copyright © 1988 by Thomas Coley Allen.
More articles on the South.