- Historic Sites
The First To Secede
South Carolina severed ties with the Union not out of concern for states' rights but because of slavery
Winter 2011 | Volume 60, Issue 4
Northern states had further ceased to permit “slavery transit”—transient bondage, such as bringing one’s cook along to New York City when one vacationed there. New York held that because it was a free state, slaves brought into it became free. In New England, African Americans could vote. Defining suffrage was a state’s right until the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, adopted two eras later, during Reconstruction. Nevertheless, South Carolina was outraged at black voting and also complained that Northern states “have permitted open establishment among them of [abolitionist] societies.” Presumably Northern states should not have had the right to let their citizens assemble and speak freely—at least against slavery.
In short, South Carolina’s delegates were happy with federal authority when deployed on behalf of human bondage but upset by Northern attempts to exercise states’ rights.
For the last 13 years, I have informally canvassed general audiences, undergraduates, staffs at historic sites, and K–12 history and social studies teachers across the nation about why the Southern states seceded. The results have been startling: most Americans today believe that the Southern states seceded for states’ rights and against usurpations by the federal government, not because of slavery.
Audiences weigh in similarly, whether they are teachers, students, or historic site staff. Nor does region matter. From central Florida to North Dakota, states’ rights draws 55 to 75 percent of the votes when I pose the question. Slavery usually weighs in at about 20 percent. Between 2 to 5 percent believe that South Carolina seceded on account of the election of Lincoln. Between 10 and 20 percent of the respondents pinpoint tariffs and taxes, but that depends largely on how many votes go to states’ rights. In short, 75 to 80 percent of those canvassed come up with the wrong answer—dramatically wrong.
Certainly, slavery is not the only correct answer. The election of Lincoln also troubled South Carolina, its delegates lamenting “the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States whose opinions and purposes are hostile to Slavery.” As that clause noted, however, it all comes back to slavery in the end. About “tariffs and taxes” the Declaration of Immediate Causes resolution said nothing. 1860 was not 1831. In 1857 South Carolina had helped write the tariff under which the United States was functioning. As to states’ rights, as we have seen, South Carolina selectively opposed them, while claiming the right to secede.
Sometime after 1860, Americans’ ideas as to why the Confederacy seceded
got turned upside down. Somehow we mislaid this crucial document. South Carolina’s “Declaration” was indeed important: several other states made use of it when they left the Union; Mississippi even recycled its title, calling its document “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of Mississippi from the Federal Union.”
Other states similarly emphasized slavery. Virginia noted that “African slavery is a vital part of the social system of the States wherein it exists.” Arkansas complained, “People of the northern states have organized a political party . . . the central and controlling idea of which is, hostility to the institution of African slavery.” Mississippi began its explanation of secession with these words: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery, the greatest material interest of the world. . . . [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.”
As of March 1865, Americans knew that the South had seceded to protect slavery. In his second inaugural speech the president said, “All indeed knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.” Lincoln did not utter this sentence to convert anyone to his view. All knew that slavery had prompted secession, which had led to war. Lincoln’s sentence signaled his audience that he was now going to talk about slavery. During the war, antislavery sentiment had grown steadily in the North, making his audience responsive to the searing words that followed.
As soon as the war ended and the 13th Amendment had made slavery a lost
cause, ex-Confederates started distancing themselves from slavery. Meanwhile, they tried to impose racially oppressive conditions in the form of “black codes,” which prohibited African Americans from owning land and subjected them to jail if they could not prove employment, whereupon they could be rented out as laborers to “any person” who would cover their vagrancy fines. In 1868 Edward A. Pollard, who coined the phrase “the Lost Cause,” claimed that the real issue had been “the supremacy of the White race.” Losing slavery was “insignificant,” so long as the white South could keep “the Negro . . . in a condition where his political influence is as indifferent as when he was a slave.”
Alexander Stephens, former vice president of the Confederacy, now claimed that slavery “was of infinitely less importance to the Seceding States, than the recognition of this great principle,” the right to secede. Five years earlier, in his first important address after taking office, the Cornerstone Speech, Stephens had spoken quite differently about the grounds for founding a new nation: “Our new Government[’s] . . . foundations are laid, its cornerstone 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 moral condition.” Now Stephens held that Southern states had seceded for the right to secede—a tautological claim no state had made at the time