Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Why Did the Confederate States Secede?

Why did the eleven states that comprised the Confederacy secede from the Union? Why did Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky. and Missouri--slave states all--not join them? Why did several of its counties secede from Virginia to form West Virginia? How much opposition to secession emerged in the eleven CSA states?

On the surface these can be dismissed as purely "academic" questions, of importance only to Civil War historians, but they actually speak to the core meaning of our people and our nation. They continually explode into public consciousness during such traumatic events as the picture of racist mass murderer  Dylan Storm Roof with the Confederate flag draped across his lap, and the acrimonious debate over removal of the "Stars and Bars" from the South Carolina statehouse  grounds. The issue even roiled the House of Representatives for three days, from July 8 to10, when Democrats proposed amendments to a spending bill blocking the Confederate flag from display in national cemeteries and banning flag images from gift shops and concession stands operated by the National Park Service. The amendments initially passed without debate or a roll call vote, but several Republican Congressmen persuaded Speaker Boehner to allow the introduction of a measure to undo them. The resulting acrimonious debate put the Republicans under the spotlight on a racially-charged issue, at the very time when the party was struggling to attract minority voters. North Carolina Representative G.K. Butterfield, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, countered by asking if Republicans "don't understand that the Confederate flag is an insult to 40 million African-Americans and many other fair-minded Americans?" After several other Democrats contributed to the fray, Boehner recognized that he did not have the votes--either for the Republican measure, or to pass the spending bill without the original Democratic amendment. He then called for a "working group" to review all Confederate symbols at the Capitol, including flags  statues, and paintings. Beyond irony, he proclaimed that "it's time for some adults in Congress to actually sit down and have a conversation about how to address the issue."

There are essentially four major categories of evidence that slavery and race were the most important causes of secession:
1. The chronology of secession
2. The debates and votes in the individual state legislatures or ad hoc conventions
3. The Ordinances of Secession of individual states
4. The constitution of the Confederate States of America
5. The "Cornerstone Speech" of Alexander Stephens

1. The seven Deep South states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas), whose economies were entirely dependent upon slave labor, seceded in January and February, 1861, even before Lincoln's March 4 inauguration. The other four (Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina) did not secede until April and May, after Lincoln had made clear his intention to keep the Union intact, by military means if necessary, and after the firing on Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. Virginia and Tennessee even required referendum votes before acting. The other four slave-holding states (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri), who had considerably fewer slaves, debated and delayed until Lincoln occupied their capitals with federal troops.

2. The divisions within the seceding state legislatures generally saw most of the dissenting votes coming from the upcountry, where subsistence white farmers owned few or no slaves. They were considered "poor white trash" by the planter class, and were primarily concerned with maintaining their own illusion of "white supremacy." Most were unsure if secession and the eventual abolition of slavery would help or hurt their already tenuous positions. The most extreme case was in Virginia, where the 50 western counties were so opposed to secession that they "seceded" from the state, eventually forming West Virginia, with its new capital at Wheeling. They were admitted to the Union as a free state in 1863, just in time for Lincoln's reelection. The affirmative votes were overwhelmingly cast by the representatives of the coastal "Black Belt," where blacks frequently outnumbered whites.

According to distinguished historian Eric Foner, the situation was complicated, even in "Deep South" states. Votes in their legislatures or conventions "showed considerable division on secession."  Each were rent by three factions: "those for immediate secession, those who sought delay until the policy of the new administration toward the slave states became clear, and those who believed they could bargain with the new administration." Even though Lincoln proposed a constitutional amendment guaranteeing slavery where it legally existed, and pledged to hold only federal property that was in the possession of the Union as of March 4, 1861, those in favor of immediate secession eventually prevailed. The vote in the Georgia legislature was 208 to 89, that in the Tennessee convention 104,471 to 47,183, and that in the Virginia referendum 132,201 to 37,451.

3. The Mississippi Ordinance of Secession, for example, proclaims that "our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery--the greatest material interest in the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of the commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by the imperious laws of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization,--There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles have been subverted to work out our ruin." In its declaration, Texas insists that it is "maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery--the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits--a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and the other slave-holding states of the confederacy." South Carolina attributed its decision to secede to "increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding states to the institution of slavery." Georgia argued that " the North demanded the application of the principle of prohibition of slavery to all of the territory acquired from Mexico and all other parts of the public domain then and in all future times....The South with great unanimity declared her purpose to resist the principle of prohibition to the last extremity." Florida proclaimed that election of "an obscure and illiterate man without experience in public affairs or any general reputation mainly if not exclusively on account of a settled and often proclaimed hostility to our institutions and a fixed purpose to abolish them....Can anything be more impudently false than the pretense that this state of things is to be brought about from considerations of humanity to the slaves?" Alabama averred that "it is the desire and purpose of the people of Alabama to meet the slaveholding states of the South, who may approve such purpose , in order to frame a provisional as well as permanent Government upon the principles of the constitution of the United States."

4. The Constitution of the CSA largely follows the US Constitution except that it dealt with slavery directly, not obliquely or by implication. It  boldly established the CSA as a slaveholders' republic and felt no need to obfuscate that reality. Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 says that "representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States, which may be included in this Confederacy, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding the whole number of free persons, including those bound for service for a term of years, and excluding  Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all slavesArticle 1,Section 9, Clause 4 made slaves a sacrosanct type of property, with special protection under the law: No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed. Article 2, section 2, Clause 3 proclaims a ban on the importation of slaves except from the United States. Article 2, Section 2, Clause 1 states that "the citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States; and shall have the right of transit or sojourn in any state of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired." Article 1, Section 3, Clause 3 stipulates that "the Confederate States may acquire new territory; and Congress shall have power to legislate and provide governments for the inhabitants of all territory belonging to the Confederate States, lying without the limits of the several States, and may permit them, at such times and in such manner by law provide, to form
States to be admitted to the Confederacy in all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States shall have the right to take such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States. 

Equally explicit is the "Cornerstone Speech" given by Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens at  the Athenaeum in Savannah, Georgia on March 12, 1861, after the secession of the seven Deep South states, and just weeks before the firing on Fort Sumter. In it, he dismisses the ideas of the U.S. Constitution as "fundamentally wrong" because they "rested on the assumption of the equality of 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.' " He proudly proclaimed that "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." This new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution --African slavery as it exists among us--the proper status of the negro is our form of civilization.     

 In his detailed analysis of current U.S. history texts, historian James Loewen has concluded that "the reason so many people believe false things about the Civil War and the Confederacy is because many of our textbooks teach those wrong things even today." He insists that many Confederate memorials "date conspicuously from the days of George Wallace, rather than Jefferson Davis." Text book publishers are concerned with selling books in all fifty states, so the gap between their content and serious scholarly work in monographs and historical journals is often cavernous. No amount of cleverly contrived obfuscation, nor willful ignorance, however, can hide the shocking reality that the Civil War and its aftermath were fundamentally about slavery and race. Our national amnesia about our own history--our stubborn refusal to accept the logical and historical implications of "all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights"--continues to plague us in a million disastrous ways, and could very well lead to our disintegration.                     

1 comment:

  1. This is most useful. I heard various people on NPR (audience or people who called in) say that the Confederate was not about race. I was looking for an alternative explanation but they never offered any.