The Real Reason for Secession of the Southern States
One of the biggest cries of those who try to defend the Confederacy and present it as the oppressed good guy, the Lost Cause, is that the Civil War was not about slavery. Well, let us then examine the Declarations of Causes issued by the various states justifying their secession from the Union and see what they themselves stated the cause(s) to be at the time. Only 4 States publicly published Declarations of Causes for secession separate from their actual Ordinances of Secession: South Carolina, Mississippi, Texas, and Georgia. I’ll go over those first. Florida worked on one in a State Convention, but never published it. A New Mexico State University professor uncovered that document, so I’ll discuss it as well. For the others, I’ll go over their Ordinances of Secession. Some mentioned their cause for leaving the Union, others did not.
First, South Carolina(1):
In the very first paragraph, South Carolina referred to itself and the other Southern States as “slaveholding States.” Not “seceding States.” Not “states-rights States.” Not “Confederate States.” But “slaveholding States.” That they referred to themselves in such a way declared that they made that issue alone first and foremost among all other issues.
The document began by citing both the Declaration of Indepenence and the Treaty of Paris as acknowledging the individual states as free, sovereign, and independent states. So South Carolina did indeed express that the rights of states to independently govern themselves was an issue. However, it then moves on to address slavery as the one issue wherein they felt their rights were being violated. Article 4, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the U.S. Constitution is cited as the primary reason for secession, with the claim being made that it was so intrinsic to the compact that South Carolina would never have agreed to the Consitution in the first place had it been omitted. This clause states:
No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, But shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.
This paragraph is about fugitive slaves. South Carolina was upset that Northern states were not extraditing slaves back to the South, but rather were allowing their residents to actively assist those fugitives in escaping slavery. The State wanted the Federal Government to step in and enforce this clause and force the Northern states to extradite the escapees, which Congress refused to do. This actually contradicts the “States Rights” claim, as their desire that the FEDERAL government intervene would have impeded the Northern States right to allow their residents to continue to aid these refugees.
Further, the word “slave,” in one form or another, was mentioned no fewer than 18 times in this 2,186 word document, appearing in over half the paragraphs. South Carolina CLEARLY made slavery the main justification for their secession.
Georgia’s Declaration (2) was longer, at 2,252 words. In it, they mentioned the word “slave” no fewer than 35 times, first bringing it up in the second sentence of the Declaration. The word also appeared in every paragraph save Paragraph 6, the only paragraph in which they actually cited limitations on Federal Government as a possible cause, but even then did so only to deny the Federal authority to forbid slavery. The word “property” was used no fewer than seven times in reference to slaves.
Georgia also made the distinction of “slave-owning” and “non-slave-owning” states, though they did also distinguish between Northern and Southern states , labelling the Northern States as anti-slavery. Further, they specified the monetary value of the slave industry as an allusion to damage incurred them by the US Federal government.
Extensive verbiage was expended complaining about the unfairness of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, in which it was determined that any future states admitted to the Union were to be forbidden slavery were they north of the 36th Parallel. A complaint which, to this author, was awfully childish as these States should be of no interest to an entity supposedly so beholden to the notion of States Rights. Whether or not Maine, and future states north of the 36th, allowed slavery had no effect whatsoever upon the State of Georgia. The complaint holds even less veracity when one acknowledges that the Missouri Compromise was overturned in 1854 by the Kansas-Nebraska Act which once again returned to the future states the sovereignty needed to decide the issue themselves.
In short, the State of Georgia made it very clear that slavery was the ONLY cause for secession.
At a mere 632 words, Mississippi’s Declaration of Causes(3) was succinct and to the point.
In the second paragraph, they asserted: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” It really is hard to be more clear than that.
They also cited violations of Article 4, distinguished states only as “slave-holding” and “non-slave-holding,” and completely failed to disclose any other cause for secession than their desire to retain the institution of slavery. With one exception: they twice bring up race as an issue, making it clear they wanted nothing of the Northern States’ moves to bring about racial equality within the United States of America.
As they Declared, slavery was the ONLY reason for Mississippi’s secession.
Texas’ Declaration of Causes(4) was similar in verbiage to South Carolina’s, and similar in reasoning to Misssippi’s. The 1,130 word document uses the word slave in various forms 17 times, differentiates States only as “slave-holding” and “non-slave-holding,” and asserts “the African race…were rightfully held and regarded as inferior.” The State of Texas even went so far as to declaim the notion of racial equality as a “debasing doctrine…at war with nature.”
It is quite clear Texas seceded over the issue of Slavery and that issue alone.
Florida’s Declaration (5) was never published. Their Ordinance for Secession does not mention causes. However, James F. Epperson presents a document found in the Florida Archives by one Dr. Dwight Pitcaithly of New Mexico State University, which was authenticated by Dr. Boyd Murphree of the State Archives of Florida.
I’m curious about the timing of the document, as it cites in the second paragraph an “incursion…into sister State,” and then labels that incursion an invasion. The reason I find this odd is that Florida seceded in January of 1861, but hostilities did not start until April of 1861 when the Confederate Army bombarded the Federally held Fort Sumter. (which also puts to lie the notion of the “War of Northern Aggression” as the Confederate forces clearly initiated hostilities). But, this at least is one cause listed that might be construed as something other than slavery. Unless that incursion to which they are referring is the efforts of the Underground Railroad, in which case we are brought right back to the institution of slavery as their motivation, which the remainder of the Declaration asserts.
This document uses similar verbiage to the four more widely known Declarations of Causes, referring to states merely as “slave-holding” and “non-slave-holding” states. It is 1,388 words long and the word “slave” is used in various forms no fewer than 14 times. It makes it clear that slavery is a primary cause, as well as a fear of the notion of racial equality which Florida feared Northern Progressivism was pushing towards.
One other cause for secession is provided, one that is not entirely rooted in slavery: the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency. Though Lincoln received a predominant number of the electoral votes (180 of the 303 available electoral votes, more than enough needed to win), he only received not quite 40% of the popular vote (still more than what any other candidate received), and Florida’s declaration cited their opposition to the notion that a President be elected by anything short of a majority of the nation’s voters. However, this is a somewhat weak excuse, as Lincoln was not the first to win without gaining 50% or more of the popular vote: John Quincy Adams won the 1824 election with a mere 30.92% of the vote, and Polk, Taylor and Buchanan (1844, 1848, 1856, respectively), all received less than 50% of the popular vote. In fact, Lincoln had the plurality of the vote, something which John Quincy Adams did not. Granted, Florida was not part of the Union then - it was not admitted until 1844. However, the fact of the matter lies that precedent had been set before Lincoln's election, invalidating Florida's objection on terms that a popular majority was not requried to attain the Presidency.
While the Florida Declaration provided more reasons for secession the better known four of South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, and Texas, it still provided Slavery as their main cause.
Alabama’s Ordinance of Secession (6) is long. 8,712 words long. This is because they wanted to address all the legal ramifications of secession as part of the Ordinance. But this also means that, while it’s not a declaration of causes, we can infer a lot of the cause behind their secession by way of how they addressed laws that would change as a result of it.
Before they addressed laws and how they might change, they did briefly provide cause: the “election of Abraham Lincoln… by a sectional party, avowedly hostile to the domestic institutions and to the peace and security of the people of the State of Alabama.” On the surface, it would appear that they, too disputed the election of Lincoln. But note they did not cite that they had concerns about the fact that he did not receive a majority of the popular vote, but rather their fear that the Republican Party was hostile to their “domestic institutions.” In other words, slavery. They perceived Lincoln and his Party as opponents of slavery, and therefor could not abide by the election of a President who they believed would pursue an agenda of ending its practice within the United States for good.
Their cause was also a racist one. In addressing citizenship, they specified only “free white person(s)” as eligible for citizenship in the State of Alabama. They also differentiated between “slaveholding” and “non-slaveholding” states, requiring any person born in a “non-slaveholding” State be assessed for their character and required to take an oath of allegiance.
Of interesting note: the Alabama Ordinance of Secession specifically declared that many United States laws would be retained by Alabama, particularly those regarding the military, tariffs, revenue, and navigation, custom, weights and measures, the Post Office, jurisprudence, even currency.
This all indicates that it really was just the issue of slavery that engendered Alabama’s desire to leave the union.
The Ordinance of Secession of Louisiana made no mention of causes of secession, however there is the text of a speech of the Address of George Williamson, Commissioner from Louisiana, to the Texas Secession Convention (7). This address was given on March 9th, 1861, after Texas had already seceded.
In this speech, Williamson cites, briefly, a fear that Lincoln would “establish the military despotism” upon his inauguration. What Williamson spent more time addressing was the “formation of a Southern confederacy to preserve the blessings of African slavery.” He spent so much more time discussing slavery, that he gave only two sentences to the discussion of the dreaded despot Lincoln, while over two thirds of the 1,298 word speech were dedicated to defending the cause of slavery, using the word no fewer than 11 times.
As George Williamson was chosen as Louisiana’s representative sent to persuade Texas to join in forming Confederacy, I would argue that this presents a strong case that Louisiana’s primary cause for seceding was indeed the institution of slavery.
Virginia’s Ordinance of Secession (8) referred to the State as a “slaveholding” state: “the Federal Government having perverted said powers not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern slave-holding States.” This puts the issue of slavery into the very declaration, with no other cause mentioned. Were it not the root cause, the mention of “slave-holding” would have been omitted.
The Ordinance of Session for Arkansas (9) merely cited the perception that Lincoln had declared war upon the seceding states when he called up 75,000 militia on April 15, 1861 in response to the Confederates States Army April 11th attack on Fort Sumter. However, the Arkansas Convention did release a document entitled “Resolutions Passed by the Convention of the People of Arkansas”(10) some two months before the passed their Ordinance of Secession.
I didn’t do a word count on this document, as I can only find it in image format, and I really am not about to sit down and count by hand the number of words.
In it, the differentiation between “slaveholding” and “non-slaveholding” States is maintained and used, as in all the other documents released by the seceding states. They cite several grievances with the Northern States and the Federal Government, but they all boil down to slavery and an opposition to racial equality. The Arkansas Resolutions expressed a perception that the Republican Party and Lincoln were hostile to the institution of “African slavery”, that they resented being denied the “same protection to their slave property therein that is afforded to other property” when travelling to “the common territories of the Union.” Congressional power to abolish slavery, or to even legislate at all upon the subject of slavery was rejected. They demanded that the President and Vice President must each one come from a slaveholding state and the other a non-slaveholding state. The resolution insisted that Congress abide by the Missouri Compromise, that the US Federal Government act upon Article 4 and actively extradite slave, paying the slave owner the “full value of his fugitive slave” when unable to do so (again, a contradiction to the claim that this was all about States Rights). Further demanded was that “persons of the African race” be fully disenfranchised and denied the ability to hold any form of governmental office at any level.
Clearly, the issue to Arkansas was not the President of the United States moving to defend his country, but rather preservation of the institution of Slavery.
The Ordinance of Secession of North Carolina (11) does not provide any reasons for secession. However, it is commonly held that the primary reason for this state’s secession was a lack of desire to fight against other slave-holding states, particularly since the State was surrounded entirely by other States that did secede. This might be one of three states where slavery was NOT the primary motive for departing the Union.
Tennessee explicitly declined to provide a reason in its Ordinance, however we can turn to the enlightening speech by its Governor Isham G. Harris, given on January 7, 1861 (12) for motivation. In this extremely lengthy monologue (5,988 words), the Governor made use of the word “slave” in various forms no fewer than 46 times. He used the same verbiage as the Declarations of cause, referring to states as either “slaveholding” or “non-slaveholding.”
While he does address fears of Northern aggression, he exhibits a misunderstanding of events at the time. He sets blame upon the Federal Government for John Brown’s 1859 raid at Harper’s Ferry. Never mind that said raid was defeated by a company of United States Marines. He also blamed the Federal Government for the actions of James Montgomery, an abolitionist who worked with John Brown and also came to blows with the United States military (he was commissioned as a colonel in the US Army on July 24, 1861, AFTER Tennessee had seceded and AFTER this speech). Indeed, Governor Harris seemed to feel that all abolitionist activity was conducted at the behest and blessing of the Federal Government.
Throughout the speech, preservation of the institution of slavery and the protection of the “right” to own slaves were expressed as his main concerns. He made demands that amendments be made to the Constitution to formalize the Missouri Compromise, extending it to the Pacific Ocean, that States be forced to compensate slave owners for “failing to deliver” slaves escaped to said States, that specific protections be enacted to protect slave owners while in transit with their slaves anywhere in the Union, and that Congress be expressly forbidden from abolishing slavery within the District of Columbia or the ports of any slave State.
In short, his speech, as that of the representative leader of the State of Tennessee, demonstrated that the State’s primary reason for leaving the union was, once again, defense of the institution of slavery.
Missouri’s Ordinance of Secession (13) is very explicit in their reasoning for departing the union: attacks by the Union Army upon Missouri militia and citizens. While it is true that the Union Army DID attack the Missouri State Militia, it was due to Captain Nathaniel Lyon believing that maneuvers on the part of that militia were an attempt to sieze the federal St Louis Arsenal, as the Liberty Arsenal had already previously been captured by secessionist militia. It is clear that there was a misunderstanding on both sides. And this misunderstanding and lack of communication led to armed conflict, and thereby Missouri’s secession from the Union. Further muddying the State’s departure is the fact that the Ordinance was approved by a rump (incomplete) legislature and was never approved by the people of Missouri at Large.
Kentucky’s Ordinance of Secession (14) indicates that it was the third state for whom defense of the institution of slavery was not the primary motive for leaving the Union. It reveals a split within the State of Unionists and Secessionists. At the beginning of the war, the Unionists were in power, and, though Kentucky had declared itself neutral in the conflict by resolution of the General Assembly, the Union Naval officer William Nelson established a Union recruiting camp, Camp Dick Robinson. This was a perceived violation of Kentucky’s neutrality. Further, after the Confederate army itself violated Kentucky neutrality by occupying Columbus on September 4, 1861, the Union responded in kind and Ulysses S Grant took Paducah two days later. This pried at the split in Kentucky, causing Governor Magoffin to demand both sides depart the state and the General Assembly to order withdrawal of the Confederate forces. The one-sided resolution pushed Magoffin’s hand, and he vetoed it, though he was overridden by both houses. This motivated the Southern sympathizers who formed the Convention of the People of Kentucky to do so, and the issued the Ordinance of Secession in defiance of the Governor and the General Assembly of the State. This ordinance cites the aggression of the Union troops as the reason for Kentucky’s departure.
And so Kentucky’s secession was neither wholehearted nor motivated entirely by slavery.
As we see, of the 13 States that issued Ordinances of Secession, only three openly announced primary reasons for departing other than slavery, and, for two of those, the declaration was not representative of the will of the majority of the state. This makes it clear that defense of the institution of slavery was the prime motivating factor for the secession of the southern states and formation of the Confederacy. And therefor, the primary cause of the Civil War.
5)Florida Declaration of Causes (undated and untitled), State Archives of Florida, Series 577, Carton 1, Folder 6 “Gov. Madison Starke Perry – Constitutional Convention 1861.”
7)Address of George Williamson, Commissioner from Louisiana to the Texas Secession Convention, given February 11th, 1861, printed March 9th, 1861
12)First Message of Governor Isham Harris to the Tennessee Assembly, January 7th, 1861, Senate Journal of the Extra Session of the Thirty-Third General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, Nashville, TN: J.O. Griffith, 1861, 6-18