Why did Northerners Resist Secession?

On occasion I revisit places in cyberspace that were once hotbeds of discussion and debate about the American Civil War, but which have since fallen on hard times to the point that they are cyber ghost towns.  Such is the case with the once-active usenet group “alt.war.civil.usa,” where I found the inspiration for today’s query in a somewhat confused post.

The question is a simple one (here we go again … although simple questions often have complex and involved answers): why did most white northerners in 1861 decide to resist secession and ultimately accept the need to wage a war to prevent it from becoming successful?

Note: this is different from the semi-coherent ramblings in the muddled usenet post, which confuses all sort of issues (for example, one who “loved” the Union might well see secession as a way to purify it, as in the case of William Lloyd Garrison). But I digress.

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17 thoughts on “Why did Northerners Resist Secession?

  1. From my understanding it was Fort Sumter. Fort Sumter started the war, and Lincoln instead of invading at once allowed the south to strike the first blow. In the public opinion of the north now they are under attack. The flag was dishonored, and the Union must be preserved.

  2. As I’ve tracked the writings of a group of soldiers from Lancaster, PA, over the past year at http://www.lancasteratwar.com, the question of their “cause” has been at the forefront of my mind as the answer isn’t necessarily obvious. What I have inferred, though, is a very clear combination of hatred and fear almost analogous to Cold War antipathy towards the Soviet Union. Many Northerners despised the Southern aristocracy as incompatible with capitalism and democracy, and feared that democracy in America would deteriorate as it seemed to be doing in Europe. All in all, I really liked Gary Gallagher’s descriptions in _Union War_.

    To illustrate, one thing that has impressed me is how many soldiers (even Democrats) frequently referenced Sen. Hammond’s “Cotton is King” speech, particularly the part about Northern “mudsills.” It underscores to me that many white Northerners viewed war against the South to protect political and economic freedom and the social mobility that accompanied it from a force that was aggressively trying to curtail it.

  3. I think William Tecumseh Sherman put it best in his letter to the city leaders of Atlanta in Sept. 1864. Sherman’s argument in essence was secession was an invitation to anarchy. That is, if the South was permitted to secede, it threatened to legitimate that every time a disgruntled minority group (minority as in a group of voters/interests who longer could sufficiently influence the national government either by strength of votes or governmental procedure) felt sufficiently aggrieved that they would follow suit. And eventually the Union would be torn to pieces as rival squabbling mini-states perpetually at war with each other. That is, Sherman felt minority groups had to respect the result of elections and rely on the protections afforded them under the Constitution. But secession was out, because if it were tolerated, where would it stop?

    Lincoln made a similar argument in his first inaugural when he said, “Plainly the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible. The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left.”

    • Sherman and Lincpln’s concerns were consistent with a generation that was much closer to the memory of the havoc and misery of the European wars, Napoleonic and all the ones before. There was a real fear that disunion would lead to a continuous series of wars and contentions in North America, emulating the history of Europe. Some may argue about the validity of such fears, but the point is such fears, valid or not, existed at that time. Such is the power and influence of historical memory.

  4. Yankees were just being consistent in their broader historical pattern of attempting to dominate, destroy, and reconstruct other societies in their own image. It would have been truly surprising if the South had been allowed to secede in peace.

    After the South was destroyed, the Yankee steamroller would roll over the Plains Indians, push the French out of Mexico, roll over Hawaii, and push down into the Caribbean, Central America, and onward to the Phillippines, China, and East Asia.

    Then it was onward to Europe to South America, to Africa, and Asia in the struggle for Yankee world domination. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Yankees would push into Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

    Today the Yankees are attempting to dominate the handful of societies – Libya, North Korea, Iran, Syria, Russia, China, etc. – which they presently lack the ability to dominate and control.

    Of course the Yankee has always aggrandized himself at the expense of others while hypocritically disguising his unquenchable thirst for world domination in faux moralizing rhetoric.

    • I don’t think so. First, one would want to see evidence of this in the discussion of the time, and I don’t. Second, as we both know, white southerners were at least as interested in expansion (see the Louisiana Purchase, the Trail of Tears, the Mexican-American War, and the interest in expanding to the Caribbean).

      • The South had been expansionist during the antebellum period. Southern expansion was driven primarily by the need to maintain sectional parity with the North in the Senate in light of the Northern population advantage in the House.

        Secession was a turning point though:

        1.) In seceding from the Union, the South abandoned its claim to the Western territories outside of Arizona and New Mexico. This was a marked change because at the time there were slaves in Kansas, Utah, Colorado and elsewhere.

        2.) After seceding from the Union, there was no longer any need to maintain sectional parity with the North in the Senate, and consequently many of the expansionist schemes that had flourished in the 1850s were repudiated by the people who had advocated them.

        3.) The abolition of slavery and the reconstruction of the Northern-dominated Union eliminated any need to “expand slavery” because the North had triumphed through military force, abolished slavery, and its dominance over the South and the federal government had become an established fact.

        4.) The North was opposed to the expansion of the South, not to expansion or slavery per se – it was motivated by the desire to dominante the South and control the Union, and the result of the war accomplished that objective.

        So after decrying the “Slave Power” for its tropical designs in the 1840s and 1850s, it was the triumphant Northern-dominated Union under Grant that attempted to annex the Dominican Republic, which later detached Panama from Colombia, which went to war with Spain to expand the Yankee Empire in the Caribbean, which occupied Haiti, and created a half a dozen or so banana republics in Central America.

        The U.S. flag, not the Confederate flag, flies over the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico and Guantanomo Bay, and over military bases in North America, South America, Africa, Australia, Europe, and Asia.

        As it turned out, it was also the South that played a major role in blocking the annexation of the Dominican Republic and Cuba. Southern expansion had largely been a defensive reaction to the threat of being swallowed by a vastly more aggressive, intolerant, and populous industrializing Northern competitor whereas there were no firm geographical limits to Yankee commercial imperialism.

        Say what you want about the South, but the Southern plantation system would have never been imposed on, say, Germany and Japan, or Russia and Iraq and Serbia. :)

        • I think you are missing a key ingredient to the concept of expansion. The South paralleled the North’s view of providential expansion. It was ordained to them as it was to the North. This is apparent in many of the examples Brooks provided.

          1.) Western territories were of practically no use to the South’s economic structure. Agrarians knew this at the time. Their ideal expansion was South, to the Caribbean. This was something that started before the war broke out. You note a marked change in time but not the reason why? War. Resources were needed elsewhere and the South was unable to wage a war with the North and look towards expansion. We cannot truly suggest that the South “gave up” on expansion. Given the current material on the importance of slavery and the South’s agricultural society; it is likely the South would have continued expansion to increase land and resource holdings much as the U.S. did in the post war era.

          2.) Same as above.

          3.) The Northern triumph also removed any chance of Southern expansion.

          4.) Factions of the North opposed the expansion of slavery. So much so that it voted a Republican into the Presidential office. Was this a moral choice against an unethical institution? No. I think it was a the northern version of sectionalism that wrapped itself in the U.S. flag much like the South does presently.

          There is nothing wrong with your argument about a United States imperialist drive. However the U.S. was not exceptional in this sense or at this time, but a part of an international phenomenon known as the “Age of Imperialism.” Though we can argue that a Southern flag did not fly over the spoils of war, given the South’s pre-war ideals and the age that followed, it is likely they would have.

          Same with the islands.

          The biggest opposition to the treaty to annex Santa Domingo was Charles Sumner from Massachusetts. The treaty’s failure came because of the Grant administration’s failure to work/communicate with congress.

          You also cannot prove the unknown. We’re not writing counter factuals or works of historical fiction.

          • I disagree.

            (1) The “providential expansion” of the South was mysteriously ended by secession and the result of the war which was the abolition of slavery.

            There was a marked change in imperialist posturing after 1861: now the North which had decried “Slave Power” conspiracies in the 1840s and 1850s, much of which had opposed everything from the Louisiana Purchase to Texas annexation to the Mexican War and finally all Southern expansionist plots in the 1850s had suddenly become the expansionist section.

            OTOH, starting with the Confederacy the Southern expansionists repudiated expansion into Mexico and the Caribbean, turned down the chance to annex Nuevo Leon and Coahulia in 1861, and after the war many Southerners would oppose the annexation of the Dominican Republic, Hawaii, and later Cuba.

            The South no longer needed to compete with the North for dominance in the West – and by extension, the federal government – and consequently expansion became less of pressing issue.

            Many of the leading expansionists like Alexander Stephens and Sam Houston were unionists who opposed secession and who saw expansion as a scheme to preserve the Union.

            (2) Well, it’s refreshing to see someone finally admit that the whole question of a Slave Power conspiracy to expand into the West was ridiculous propaganda and a non-issue.

            There were slaves in Kansas, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona. Slaveowners were free to take their slaves into Nebraska and the Dakotas. The South was free to “extend slavery” into all the territories after Dred Scott.

            By leaving the Union, the South renounced its claim to all of the territories but Arizona and New Mexico. BTW, Cuba was already a slave state, so it was impossible to “extend slavery” there.

            The North was opposed to the extension of the South because it sought to dominate and control the Union and reduce the South to a subordinate partner. Annexing Cuba would have increased the power of the South and was opposed for that reason.

            (3) As Freehling notes, the South had plenty of land when it seceded from the Union, and South Carolina was the least enthusiastic state in the Lower South over spreading slavery to Kansas.

            Louisiana was the headquarters of Caribbean and Latin American expansion. New Orleans was the largest city in Dixie and was motivated more by commercial opportunities in Latin America than spreading slavery.

            (4) Yes, the Yankee Empire alone would expand after 1865, and eventually its tentacles would spread across the entire world.

            The Yankee Empire was the real threat to Europe. The French would realize this by the 1880s and would regret their failure to recognize and intervene on the Confederate side.

            (5) Morality had nothing at all to do with the behavior of the North

            - A slave in Alabama was no different from a slave in Kansas.

            - The North fought vociferously to attack slavery in precisely the areas where it was the most marginal while disavowing any intention to interfere in its greatest strongholds.

            - The North was motivated by a desire to crush the South and dominate the Union and anti-slavery rhetoric was nothing more than means to that political end.

            - The fight was over the territories, where slavery barely existed, and likely would have never existed, because the Senate and White House and Northern domination of the Union were the real prize.

            (6) Extremely unlikely.

            Southern independence would have depended on British and French support. With the French in Mexico and Britain as the dominant power in the Caribbean and Central America, Southern expansion would have been a non-starter with its allies.

            The Confederacy had already realized this by 1861.

            (7) Southern independence would have certainly blocked the Yankee Empire from moving into the Caribbean and Latin America in the late nineteenth century.

            That would have had major ramifications in the twentieth century.

            • 1.) The “Providential Expansion” of the South didn’t mysteriously end, it ended for the reasons you cite. War. Funds needed to be allocated elsewhere. The defeat of the Confederacy ended any prospect of Southern expansion but that is not to say that Southerners did not adhere to the providential expansion of the U.S. during the age of Imperialism.

              I’d also suggest that you read this, http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/filibusters/epilogue.pdf.

              The secessionists sought expansion as a way of wooing Southerners on the fence of secession. Also, stop looking West. Southerners knew, as I stated before, that the west was not ideal. The Cubas and the rest of Latin America were the object of desire. Those areas provided the most lucrative opportunities.

              May greatly contributes to the plethora of antebellum literature providing yet another reason for America’s downward spiral into Civil War. Most laudably, May addresses the limitations of his argument, “Although it is tempting to conclude . . . that secession emanated from a dream of Caribbean empire, this would be absurd” (May, p. 242). The author notes that secession sentiments date back to the nullification crisis of the 1830s and that many factors motivated the south to secede. Although not the primary reason for the Civil War, southern desires for Caribbean expansion exacerbated sectional tensions. The book is highly recommended to antebellum and Civil War historians. http://personal.tcu.edu/swoodworth/May.htm

              2.) I’m not sure how you read my comments as admittance that the expansion of Slave Power was a non-issue. It makes perfect political sense. The expansion of slavery meant the expansion of political power around the basis of slavery. However, this expansion did not necessarily have to go West into the plains. President Buchannon attempted to annex Cuba much to the disappointment of Northerners because they knew its tropical climate and history made it ripe for slave plantations. Buchannon’s attempt ultimately failed which upset Southerners that saw political corruption hindering them yet again. Southerners knew, as well as Northern politicians, that annexation at this time served as a precursor to state hood.

              They were free to move slaves into a given area but did not do so in significant numbers that created the social order that existed in agrarian states.

              The South may have renounced its claims but still fought for land in the areas you mentioned. Cuba was a slave state, but it is possible to “extend slavery” in so much as extending “American Slavery” and with it a slave vote and slave politicians in Congress.

              Precisely, and increasing the power of the South would mean the increase of power in Congress for politicians whose social order was built around slavery. The North had political and fundamental disagreements with this type of expansion. However, the South is also guilty of its own brand of exceptionalism or else they would not have fought hard for slave expansion into certain areas.

              3.) Your argument about Louisiana being the basis of southern expansion due to its commercial ties is a moot point. Those commercial opportunities were built around and/or on the system of slavery.

              South Carolina’s Ordinances of Secession aligns itself with the motivations of the South as a whole. In this argument, South Carolina along with the South is being denied the right to own slaves in “common territories.”

              4.) The “Yankee” Empire would spread with the help of Southern fighting forces. The numbers of Southern soldiers in the U.S. started reluctantly and then grew to its current state of a Southerner dominated fighting force of the imperialism and havoc the U.S. engaged and engages in.

              Please explain to me how U.S. imperialism in 1880 was a threat to Europe; other than France attempting to extend its empire into Mexico and the U.S. deterring that. Both the U.S. and G.B. invested into Mexico’s economy around 1880 after the French left, but this didn’t have a negative effect. In fact, Mexico seemed to welcome the economic prosperity which brought about a sense of national pride.

              5.) I didn’t say it was an argument of morality; I’m not sure why you even set up that argument.

              6.) I am assuming you are saying that Southern expansion in lieu of a victory is “extremely unlikely.” I think the inclusion of the alliance system is a week argument in this instance. It did not stop the U.S. imperialistic drive under the guise of the “Monroe Doctrine.” Why would it stop Southern goals of expansion once the South established itself as an independent nation. A non-expansionist policy would also be counter productive to the South’s interests. Eventually land runs out. The slave “aristocracy” would control so much land leaving the rest for the yeomentry. Just like in Appalachia, the yeoman land runs out forcing farmers to relocate. Where would they go? It’s easy to assume expansion would not have occurred based on the short lived Confederate policy. However, given the decades of Southern thought on expansion before the war, and actions afterward, it is much more likely that Southern expansion would have occurred.

              7.) I agree that a victory would have caused a major change in players but not in action. Expansion would have occurred regardless because it was an international phenomenon and not an American phenomenon that produced the age of imperialism. Would the South had expanded into Latin America? Would it have been the North? Perhaps they would have competed for the areas causing another war. Counterfactual history is an endless supply of circular arguments which is why we will never agree on the shoulda, woulda coulda argument. What the Confederacy would have done regarding expansion cannot be wholly determined. All historians can do is consider the Southern mindset on expansion in the years leading up to the war, and after. Southerners were not a main driving force in stopping U.S. expansion as you said, in fact, the Spanish American War (a war of expansion and imperialism) is seen as a great war of unification for the North and the South.

    • Yeah, the South “started the war” at Fort Sumter, and so did Spain when it blew up the Maine, and North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin, and Iraq when Saddam invaded Kuwait and left us “with no choice” but to rain down “shock and awe” on Baghdad.

      It was more like Lincoln baited the Confederacy to take Fort Sumter by force to get the war he wanted. He could have easily withdrawn his troops and ceded the federal forts in the Confederacy and there wouldn’t have been a war. There was little desire for a war in the Upper South and Border States.

      FDR was another warmonger who antagonized Germany and Japan to provoke them into getting the war he wanted.

  5. Several northern newspapers were quite clear about why the South must be crushed after Fort Sumter: any rival to the northern ports where the tariff would be non-existent would be a threat to their economies. The city of New York might not fight or implore other men to fight for the sake of Union or free negroes but when faced with an upstart rival only a few hundred miles south, the choice to go to war was much clearer. Kinda like a husband who beats his wife to save a marriage when he is the biggest economic beneficiary. Of course he loves her…

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