Recently a vocal defender of Confederate heritage declared:
Rights endowed by the Creator trump those secured by the Constitution, so people have the right to secession whether there’s a Constitutional amendment or not.
This statement’s problematic. Let’s see what those problems might be …
(fourth in a series)
One of the reasons offered to explain secession is that secessionists were opposed to the possible passage of a protective tariff that would favor northern economic interests. According to some people, tariffs, along with state rights — and not slavery — explain secession.
Exhibit A in this discussion is the Morrill Tariff of 1861, which passed Congress after the first seven states seceded to form the Confederacy. Like the Corwin amendment, it reached President James Buchanan’s desk on March 2, 1861. It replaced the Tariff of 1857, a tariff with far lower rates that southerners had supported.
I have suggested that one of the reasons that the issue of Civil War causation ignites such heated discussions in some quarters is because people take it personally. At least some descendants of Confederates do not like to hear that secessionists seceded to protect slavery (regardless of what advocates of secession said); all too often you hear that since someone’s ancestors did not own slaves, the war was not about slavery (which confuses the issues of the reasons for secession and the reasons for fighting, and well as muddling the concepts of why nations fight with why people fight).
Another favorite arguing tactic is to argue that since most white northerners held racist prejudices to a greater or lesser degree, neither secession nor the war could have been about slavery. Sometimes you hear that Ulysses S. Grant owned a slave (he did, although he freed the slave prior to the events of 1860-61) or that he owned slaves during the war (he did not) who were not freed until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment (factually wrong on several levels, but mistakenly given credence in a piece of sloppy scholarship by the editor of Julia Dent Grant’s memoirs), while Robert E. Lee hated slavery (he did not) and he freed his slaves (Lee was the executor of a will that called upon him to set several slaves freed, and he missed the five-year deadline for doing so). Besides, whether Grant or Lee owned slaves and their connection with slavery is besides the point, because neither one of them played a prominent role in the debates over secession. I’ll deal with some of the usual canards about Grant and Lee later, but it is frankly bizarre that some people need to distort the historical record so badly in support of the illogical argument that says that because the circumstances of Grant and Lee explain why the war came and what it was about.
(third in a series)
I must confess that I have never quite understood the emphasis some people place on state rights as the issue that caused secession. My disbelief rests upon a very simple reason: state rights are a means to an end, not an end in itself. Debates over federalism (which is really the structural issue at the heart of this debate over political institutions) were as old as the republic itself, and various sides could use state rights or national supremacy arguments according to which one best served their interests. Thomas Jefferson was very much in favor of restricting the power of the national government in the 1790s, when he was on the outside looking in when it came to first policy (when he was secretary of state), then power (as head of the opposition). As president, he seems to have employed a far more vigorous sense of national power, especially presidential power, as the cases of the Louisiana Purchase, the Barbary Pirates, and the Embargo Act suggest.
The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 expended the bureaucracy of the federal government to enforce the fugitive slave clause and employed a process that cast aside basic civil rights. Just as northern states had earlier used state rights defenses to pass personal liberty laws, so they again looked to contest the use of federal power in resisting the Fugitive Slave Law, culminating in the Supreme Court decision of Ableman v. Booth in 1859, which struck down Wisconsin’s efforts to employ state rights defenses against the Fugitive Slave Law. John Brown’s raid that same year targeted a federal installation. That followed on the heels of an effort to enact a federal slave code for the territories, and to offer an interpretation of popular sovereignty which defined self-determination in the territories in such a way as to enhance slavery’s prospects to spread. American foreign policy had done much to obtain land that served to promote the expansion of slavery, and to fight wars to secure that same goal. In short, proslavery southerners had no problem using federal power to protect and promote slavery.
(second in a series)
In discussing secession, we might first want to look at some background considerations. One of them is the state of slavery in 1860. How did it fit economically and politically in the American polity?
Some people argue that slavery was on its way out in the United States. According to them, in time it would become unprofitable; changes in the global cotton economy would have led to its eventual demise. Thus, so goes the argument, Americans fought an unnecessary war in 1861-1865 to hasten by a few decades a process that was inevitable in any case.
The problems with that reasoning are serious. First, those changes in the global economy happened in part as a reaction to the war and emancipation. One can’t assume the same changes if the events that caused them did not occur. Second, one errs in thinking that slavery was wedded to plantation cotton alone. It was not. One could employ slave labor with profit in other ways. After all, the cotton economy in itself was a result of planters shifting away from other forms of plantation agriculture.
The argument also reflects poorly on the intelligence of southern whites. Why would they risk all in a bloody war if slavery was already doomed? Were they that stupid?
This winter marks the 150th anniversary of the secession of seven states and the formation of the Confederate States of America. At a time when people like to discuss issues of patriotism, loyalty, and citizenship, it behooves us to look back at the great secession winter of 1860-61 and explore what happened and why. One can’t restrict that exploration to a single post, and so, over the next eight weeks, all the way up to the 150th anniversary of the formation of the Confederacy, I propose to explore various aspects of that process in an effort to understand what happened and why.
In this initial post, I want to set forth some parameters and assumptions that will guide this exploration. First, the reasons people supported secession may not be the same as the reasons they went to war. Second, it’s more important to read what the participants said in explaining what they were doing and why than to rely on interpretations offered long after the fact, even when those explanations are offered by participants. Both Jefferson Davis and Alexander H. Stephens changed their justification for secession and the formation of the Confederacy after the war, when it was no longer popular to stress the role that slavery played in the origins of the conflict. Third, for purposes of this discussion I’m going to focus on the original seven states that seceded. I may turn to looking later on at what happened to the Upper South, but for the moment I’m looking at the Deep South.