Final post of my series showing how slavery caused the Civil War, and we start with secession.
The whole south didn’t leave at once. It was the seven states of the lower south—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—that seceded almost instantaneously after they heard Lincoln won the election. South Carolina went out on December 20, 1860, and the rest followed by February 1, 1861.
But the other slaveholding states, most notably the powerhouses of North Carolina and Virginia, did not secede with them, and indeed seemed likely to stay in the Union. The lower south had to get those key states, as well as all the other slaveholding states, out of the Union and into the Confederacy.
So the lower south states sent out secession commissioners to those states. And here we come, once again, to the real truth of secession and war. Because while the seceding states publicly framed their reasons for leaving the Union in political terms (states’ rights), privately, they stated quite clearly that they were seceding to keep their slaves.
Secession commissioners were sent out from the lower south to the slaveholding states that had not seceded, with orders to convince those states to join the Confederacy. These commissioners gave impassioned speeches to the people and their state governments, and wrote to key state government officials, imploring them to join the Confederacy. Charles Dew unearthed and studied these speeches and letters, and wrote the invaluable book Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War about them. Dew found that “what is most striking about them is their amazing openness and frankness. [They are] white Southerners talking to fellow Southerners with no need to hold back out of deference to outside sensibilities. These men infused their speeches and letters with …a powerful ‘Let’s cut to the chase’ analysis that reveals, better than any other source I know, what was really driving the Deep South states toward disunion.” [Dew 21]
And what was driving secession? Fear of losing slavery. Plain and simple. The secessionist commissioners went to the men of the south and said, We are seceding to protect slavery. If you want to protect slavery, you must secede.
And was slavery worth seceding over? Well, it was if you didn’t want your daughters to be raped and murdered by black men, according to the secession commissioners. They harped on the usual strings of race fear: black people will be our equals, black people will make our laws, we’ll have to eat in restaurants with black people, our children will be forced to marry black people, and we all know that black people are savages who can never be anything but savages, so all of those things are worse than death.
William Harris, commissioner to Georgia, put the choice before the south squarely in the context of preserving slavery: “[Either] this new union with Lincoln Black Republicans and free negroes, without slavery; or, slavery under our old constitutional bond of union, without Lincoln Black Republicans, or free negroes, either, to molest us.” [Dew 29]
Jacob Thompson, sent to persuade North Carolina, said Lincoln’s election put power in the hands of “a majority trained from infancy to hate our people and their institutions,” who would soon be saying that “slavery is overthrown.” Judge Alexander Handy, commissioner to Maryland, stated that “The first act of the black republican party will be to exclude slavery from all the Territories, the District [of Columbia], the arsenals and forts, by the action of the federal government. That would be a recognition that slavery is a sin… The moment that slavery is pronounced a moral evil—a sin—by the general government, that moment the safety of the rights of the South will be entirely gone.” [Dew, 33]
All of the quotes here are repulsive, but they have to be aired so we can know the truth, which is that the lower south seceded strictly over slavery, and convinced many people in the other slaveholding states to do the same.
Dew asks an important question at the end of his book: “Did these men really believe these things? Did they honestly think that secession was necessary in order to stay the frenzied hand of the Republican abolitionist, preserve racial purity and racial supremacy, and save their women and children from rape and slaughter at the hands of “half-civilized Africans”? They made these statements, and used the appropriate code words, too many times in too many places with too much fervor and raw emotion to leave much room for doubt. They knew these things in the marrow of their bones, and they destroyed a political union because of what they believed and what they foresaw.” [Dew, 80]
So it was indeed slavery that caused the Civil War. The two-party system broke down under the strain of dealing with slavery in the new territories of the United States, first with the parties becoming more regional than national, then with the Whigs dissolving and the Democrats splitting. The Republican party was formed with the express intent of keeping slavery out of the west, and once they were in office, the south believed the Republicans would eradicate all slavery, everywhere in the country, and so the south seceded, and the Civil War began.
So it was slavery indeed that caused the Civil War. The Union was not immediately fighting to end slavery, that would come later in the war. But it was always fighting to curb slavery, to keep it in an ever-smaller part of the nation as that nation expanded. The war wasn’t about tarriffs or states’ rights. It was about slavery.