Phillip W. Magness

Historian – 19th century United States

Clearing the air on secession

The libertarian Cato Institute recently released a admirable video project addressing some of the philosophical implications of the Civil War and critiquing libertarian support for the Confederacy. I was pleasantly surprised by the direction it went, having previously criticized its narrator Jason Kuznicki for a counterproductive and somewhat philosophically troubling foray into this same issue last month. If you have about 12 minutes though it’s highly worth watching, and mostly on the mark as far as its history goes. Or at least as much as one can reasonably expect from taking on a complex issue on the condensed format of a youtube video.

In a similar vein, it bears repeating that the central link between southern secessionism in 1860-61 and the protection of slavery is undeniable and, once acknowledged, has the effect of casting a deep moral shadow upon the Confederate cause. But the history of secession also does not stop on December 20, 1860¬† at the moment that South Carolina formulated its separation upon the “increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.” Or any of the three successive states that published statements to a similar effect. As I’ve also written previously, secession was a complex process of events, driven by slavery but also fueled by a volatile converge of secondary and tertiary instigators. This is where the protective tariff issue – oft talked about and sometimes erroneously elevated to the forefront of southern causes, but seldom understood – may be properly situated in the secession story.

An additional part of the secession story merits greater attention than it typically receives, at least in the public and internet discussion of the Civil War that is the intended audience of the Cato video. Just as secession was shaped by the complexities of a heated surrounding political debate, secession also played out in a succession of stages and causally instigated political decisions. It was not a monolithic movement and did not take place in a time vacuum.

Some points to consider, offered here for the purpose of clearing the air and prodding along a deeper examination of the secession movement than is permitted in a misguided “debate” about whether slavery was the cause at the most superficial level.:

  • Slavery, or rather the belief that it was imperiled by the incoming Lincoln administration, provided the primary pretext of the deep south’s secession between December 1860 and March 1861. This first wave was begun by South Carolina and quickly spread to five other states – Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida – through similar ordinances of secession by the end of January. Texas joined as a straggler through a somewhat different process of holding a public referendum in late February, providing the original 7 states of the Confederacy.
  • Of the original 7 states, 4 of them published statements about it – South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas (and South Carolina actually issued two). These statements all emphasize the primacy of slavery, and were¬† intended to communicate their arguments to other state legislatures and conventions hoping to foment support and further secession. A similar fifth statement was also recently discovered, prepared by the Florida secession convention after the vote to secede but never issued for lack of a quorum. Grievances against the tariff appear in one of the South Carolina documents, the Georgia document, and the unpublished draft Florida document. The language of “states rights” appears throughout, though it is most frequently invoked in defense of slavery. And all contain broader theoretical appeals to the underlying constitutional theory of secession.
  • In contrast, secessionism in the upper south was initially tepid at best. This included the slave states of Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Arkansas, Missouri, Maryland, and Kentucky, all of which decided against following the path of South Carolina at the outset.
  • A significant change in the course of political events occurred after Texas’ departure (the referendum on Feb. 23, 1861, taking effect on March 2), altering this status quo in the upper south and instigating a distinct second wave of secessionism, predicated on very different motives tied to the outbreak of the war. Loosely summarized, it consisted of (1) the breakdown of several attempted compromise movements including a Virginia-led “Peace Conference” and the failure of the little-discussed Corwin Amendment to entice reunification, (2) the inauguration of Lincoln, (3) the deterioration of informal & backchannel negotiations between the Lincoln Admin. and the new Confederate government over the course of March 1861, and (4) the firing on Fort Sumter on April 12.
  • Sumter, and more specifically the Union’s response of calling up troops to suppress the rebellion, had a near-immediate effect of turning most of the upper south into the secession column. Virginia adopted a secession ordinance on April 17 and approved it by public referendum a month later. Tennessee similarly called a referendum in early May, which passed on June 8. Arkansas and North Carolina seceded by ordinance alone. The best book length treatment of this subject is here.
  • Missouri and Kentucky did not ultimately depart the union due to a course of events unique to each that divided their populations and held them militarily on the northern side of the war. The secession movements in each escalated after the start of hostilities though, with competing rump governments organized in each to align with the Confederacy and lots of horribly vicious and bloody guerrilla warfare to accompany it. Secessionism also saw a surge in Maryland, though it was defeated politically and militarily at the outset of the war in large part due to its prioritized geographical importance around Washington.

The important point to note over the course of these events is the lack of a static or monolithic instigating factor to encompass the entirety of the war, even as we should also acknowledge the primacy of slavery in sparking the lower south’s secession from South Carolina onward. This, however, is also a distinct political event from the decision to go to war, which follows later and became its own causal instigator of the spread of secessionism (a design intended by at least some parties on both sides of the outbreak of the conflict, though by no means easily managed as either intended it to be). What we find then in the Spring of 1861 is really a pronounced political breakdown, itself more a product of the way political actors on all sides reacted to the lower south’s secession and subsequent events than an ideological cause. Slavery-infused secessionism sparked a series of subsequent events that produced the Civil War, staining those who chose it with the moral burden of its dubious cause. It did not however predetermine the course of those events on political and military grounds.

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