In this commentary, Paul Finkelman, a Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, looks at the renewed debate over the southern motivation for secession at the Civil War’s start, and how it was driven by slavery and white supremacy.
The controversies over the Confederate flag have raised, once again, debates over the reasons for the Civil War and secession. At the beginning of the War the Lincoln Administration’s primary goal was to preserve the Union. A year-and-a-half into the War the administration also made the destruction of slavery a war aim. So, it is possible to argue that the cause of the War, from the northern perspective, was initially to preserve the Union.
But what was the cause of secession, and what led Confederates to start the war by attacking Fort Sumter? The answer is found in the speeches of Confederate politicians and in the statements of the four southern secession conventions that published a “Declaration” explaining their actions. These speeches and documents show that the South seceded to protect slavery and insure white supremacy in the South. Just listen to what southern leaders said between December 1860 and March 1861.
In March 1861, after secession but before the Civil War broke out, Alexander H. Stephens, the Confederate vice president and one of the most perceptive and brightest men in the Confederate government, forcefully set out the reasons for secession and the creation of the Confederacy in his famous “Cornerstone Speech.” Here, Stephens tied slavery to race, making clear that the cornerstone of the Confederacy was not merely chattel slavery, but also on the assumption of the racial and ethnic superiority of the ruling class and the utter inferiority and subordination of blacks.
Thus Stephens declared that, “Our new government is founded upon . . . 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.” Stephens denounced the northern claims (which he incorrectly attributed to Thomas Jefferson) that the “enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.” He unabashedly asserted: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea.” Stephens argued that it was “insanity” to believe “that the negro is equal” or “that slavery was wrong.” He proudly predicted that the Confederate Constitution “has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution-African slavery as it exists amongst us-the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization.”
Thus, for the Confederate Vice President, the “cornerstone” of the new country was slavery and white supremacy and the view that “African slavery as it exists amongst us” is “the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization.” If anyone had any doubts what secession was all about, or what the Confederacy was formed to protect, we need also consult Vice President Stephens.
Stephens echoed the Declaration of the Causes of Secession, adopted by the South Carolina secession convention in December 1860. The South Carolina secessionists explained that they were leaving the Union because “A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that ‘Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free. And that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.’”
In other words, South Carolina was leaving the Union because Lincoln believed slavery was wrong and should one day – in the far distant future – be ended.
Shortly after South Carolina left the Union, Georgia did the same. Beginning with the second sentence of its Declaration of Secession, Georgia made it clear that slavery was the force behind secession: “For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic. This hostile policy of our confederates has been pursued with every circumstance of aggravation which could arouse the passions and excite the hatred of our people, and has placed the two sections of the Union for many years past in the condition of virtual civil war.”
Georgia did not want to be part of a country where some people were opposed to slavery. Georgia, it seems, objected to the fact that the northern states were exercising their states’ rights to agitate against slavery and oppose the spread of slavery into new states.
Mississippi emphatically made the same point, starting with the second sentence of Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world.”
It is hard to imagine a more emphatic explanation of why Mississippi wanted to help create a new nation where slavery and racial subordination of blacks would be the “cornerstone” of the society.
Texas enthusiastically joined this chorus of proslavery and anti-black rhetoric. The third paragraph of the A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union stated:
Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented to become one of the Confederated Union to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people. . . . She was received as a commonwealth holding, 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 other slave-holding States of the confederacy. Those ties have been strengthened by association.
Notice that Texas is saying that slavery “should exist in all future time.” Later in its Declaration, the Texas Secession Convention declared:
In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color—a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.
The bottom line is clear. The slave states left the Union because they wanted to create a new nation, entirely based on slavery, black subordination, and white supremacy. As the Texans declared, this system “should exist in all future time.” The seceding states openly, and without any hesitation, were creating a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men were not created equal, and that some people should be the slaves of others.
Paul Finkelman, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow in the Penn Program on Democracy, Citizenship, and Constitutionalism, University of Pennsylvania. In 2014-15 he was a Scholar-in-Residence at the National Constitution Center. In 2016 he will hold the Ariel F. Sallows Chair and Professor in Human Rights Law at the University of Saskatchewan School of Law.
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