The popularity of shows such as Ken Burns’s The Civil War and the ongoing controversies over displays of the Confederate flag indicate that many Americans are still deeply interested in understanding the Civil War and its cause. A 2011 study by the Pew Research Center found that 48 percent of Americans believe that the Civil War was mainly about states’ rights, whereas 38 percent say that it was mainly about slavery.1 Which was it?
One way to achieve substantial clarity on this controversy is to focus on some key events between the election of Abraham Lincoln on November 6, 1860, and the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. In doing so, we can see three strong threads of evidence supporting the idea that the primary cause behind southern secession was the desire to maintain the institution of chattel slavery. Those threads are: 1) Five southern states wrote formal “Declaration[s] of Causes” during this time, stating explicitly that the reason for secession was to maintain slavery. 2) The Confederate Constitution explicitly upholds the institution and “the right of property in . . . slaves.” 3) The Confederate vice president, Alexander H. Stephens, stated in a famous 1861 speech that slavery was the “cornerstone” of the new nation.
Following the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860, the seven states that would constitute the future Confederate States of America before Fort Sumter was bombarded began the process of seceding from the Union. Those states were South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. All of them formed “conventions of the people” to adopt ordinances severing the tie with the Union.2 Five of them—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, and Texas—commissioned delegates to their respective conventions to draft public documents detailing the reasons behind the secession.3 Historians call these documents “declarations of causes,” a phrase used in the titles of several of these documents. Although, for reasons unknown, Florida never officially completed its declaration, a draft of it exists in the Florida state archives. All of the declarations are explicit: maintaining slavery was the reason for secession. For example, the Mississippi declaration begins, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.”4 And the Texas declaration states:
We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.5
The Florida draft claims:
A President has recently been elected, an obscure and illiterate man without experience in public affairs or any general reputation mainly if not exclusively on account of a settled and often proclaimed hostility to our institutions and a fixed purpose to abolish them. It is denied that it is the purpose of the [Republican] party soon to enter into the possession of the powers of the Federal Government to abolish slavery by any direct legislative act. This has never been charged by any one. But it has been announced by all the leading men and presses of the party that the ultimate accomplishment of this result is its settled purpose and great central principle.6
In a similar manner, the South Carolina declaration charges:
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.7
Finally, the Georgia declaration states:
The party of Lincoln, called the Republican party, under its present name and organization, is of recent origin. It is admitted to be an anti-slavery party. While it attracts to itself by its creed the scattered advocates of commercial restrictions, of protection, of special privileges, of waste and corruption in the administration of Government, anti-slavery is its mission and its purpose. By anti-slavery it is made a power in the state. . . .
[B]y their declared principles and policy they have outlawed $3,000,000,000 of our [slave] property in the common territories of the Union; put it under the ban of the Republic in the States where it exists and out of the protection of Federal law everywhere.8
Not only did the individual states make clear that maintaining slavery was a key reason for seceding from the Union, so too did the new government they would quickly form. The Confederate Constitution, ratified March 26, 1861, explicitly upheld the institution of slavery. Article I, Section 9, states: “No . . . law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”9 Article IV, Section 2, states:
The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens of the several States, and shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired.10
And Article IV, Section 3, states that for all newly acquired territories:
The institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.11
Although the importation of new slaves from outside North America was prohibited in Article I, Section 9, this item appears to have been included to placate the border states and European powers.12 Many southern leaders were in favor of reopening the African slave trade, and had the Civil War not broken out, it is possible—if not likely—that the importation ban would have been repealed.13 To that end, South Carolina declared on April 5, 1861, that as soon as the Confederacy was secure, the state would call for a national convention to repeal the prohibition on the importation of new African slaves from outside North America.14
The framers of the Confederate Constitution explicitly sought to secure the institution of slavery. Robert H. Smith of Alabama, an important member on the Permanent Constitutional Committee, explained the Confederate position with unabashed clarity:
We have dissolved the late Union chiefly because of the negro quarrel. . . . I congratulate the country that the strife has been put to rest forever, and that American slavery is to stand before the world as it is, and on its own merits. We have now placed our domestic institution, and secured its rights unmistakably, in the Constitution; we have sought by no euphony to hide its name—we have called our negros “slaves,” and we have recognized and protected them as persons and our rights to them as property.15
Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens likewise explained the central importance of slavery in the new Confederacy. On March 21, 1861, at the Athenaeum in Savannah, Georgia, Stephens delivered the “cornerstone” speech to an overflowing audience.16 In this speech, after detailing some of the improvements in the newly crafted Confederate Constitution as compared to the U.S. Constitution (e.g., no federal funding of internal improvements, the president is limited to a single six-year term), he came to “the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution”:
The new 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. The [U.S.] constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution [of slavery] while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas [pertaining to slavery as a necessary evil], however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error . . .
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; 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.17
Soon after the war ended, Stephens claimed that he had been misquoted by the newspaper reporter present at the above speech and that the “cornerstone” metaphor was intended to be much more moderate than the printed text would suggest.18 This claim may have seemed plausible had Stephens not, just a week before the Savannah speech, spoken in Atlanta stating that the new constitution “made African inequality and subordination, and the equality of white men, the chief cornerstone of the Southern Republic.19
One of the most common claims against the idea that slavery was the central cause of southern secession is that the real cause was the desire to protect states’ rights (see the Pew study noted above). But, of course, that claim raises the question: What did the states claim they had a “right” to do that the Union was forbidding? And in answering this question, we need not speculate, because we’ve been told repeatedly by Confederate leaders: “We have now placed our domestic institution, and secured its rights unmistakably, in the Constitution; we have sought by no euphony to hide its name—we have called our negros ‘slaves,’ and we have recognized and protected them as persons and our rights to them as property.” As historian James M. McPherson points out, the protection of “states’ rights” was not the goal of southern secession; it was not the purpose of the break with the Union. Rather, the effort to protect “states’ rights” was a means for achieving an end—that end being the maintenance of chattel slavery.20
Many more facts surround the Confederacy and the Civil War, but none of them can explain away the clear statements of Confederate leaders who insist that the reason for secession was to maintain the institution of slavery.
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1. “Civil War at 150: Still Relevant, Still Divisive,” Pew Research Center, April 8, 2011, http://www.people-press.org/2011/04/08/civil-war-at-150-still-relevant-still-divisive/.
2. Luther Wesley Barnhardt, “The Secession Conventions of the Cotton South” (Thesis: University of Wisconsin, 1922), p. ii.
3. Barnhardt, “The Secession Conventions of the Cotton South,” pp. 9, 12–13, 38–39, 88, and 118–19; Ralph A. Wooster, The Secession Conventions of the South (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1962), pp. 21, 22, 48, 92, and 131–32; Timothy B. Smith, The Mississippi Secession Convention: Delegates and Deliberations in Politics and War, 1861–1865 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014), pp. 144, 147, 151, and 229–30; South Carolina, Constitutional Convention (1860–1862), Declaration of the Causes which Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union (Charleston, 1860); Mississippi, Constitutional Convention (1861), An Address Setting Forth the Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of Mississippi from the Federal Union and the Ordinance of Secession (Jackson, 1861); Florida, Constitutional Convention (1861), Journal of the Proceedings of the Convention of the People of Florida, Begun and Held at the Capital in the City of Tallassee [sic], on Thursday, January 3, A.D. 1861 (Tallahassee: Dyke & Carlile, 1861); Georgia, Constitutional Convention (1861), Journal of the Public and Secret Proceedings of the Convention of the People of Georgia: Held in Milledgeville and Savannah in 1861, Together with the Ordinances Adopted (Milledgeville, 1861); Texas, Constitutional Convention (1861), A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union (Austin, 1861).
4. Smith, Mississippi Secession, p. 229, quoting from Mississippi, Declaration.
5. Texas, Declaration.
6. Draft of the Florida “Declaration of Causes,” held by the State Archives of Florida (Tallahassee) at Series 577, Carton 1, Folder 6. The author has a pdf of the document.
7. South Carolina, Declaration.
8. Georgia, Journal.
9. Charles Robert Lee Jr., The Confederate Constitutions (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1963), p. 134; Marshall L. DeRosa, The Confederate Constitution of 1861: An Inquiry into American Constitutionalism (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991), p. 141.
10. DeRosa, Constitution, p. 148.
11. DeRosa, Constitution, p. 149.
12. W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America 1638–1870 (New York: Russell & Russell, 1898), pp. 188–89; Ronald T. Takaki, A Pro-Slavery Crusade: The Agitation to Reopen the African Slave Trade (New York: Free Press, 1971), pp. 232–38; James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 258; DeRosa, Constitution, p. 141; Manisha Sinha, The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), pp. 182–84.
13. Du Bois, Suppression, pp. 168–78 and 188–91; Lee, Constitutions, pp. 118–19; Takaki, Crusade, pp. 146–59; Sinha, Counterrevolution, p. 185.
14. Lee, Constitutions, p. 136; Takaki, Crusade, p. 239; Sinha, Counterrevolution, pp. 184–85.
15. Hon. Robert H. Smith, An Address to the Citizens of Alabama on the Constitution and Laws of the Confederate States of America (Mobile, 1861), p. 19, as quoted in DeRosa, Constitution, p. 66.
16. Thomas E. Schott, Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia: A Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), p. 334.
17. Quoted in Henry Cleveland, Alexander H. Stephens, in Public and Private with Letters and Speeches, Before, During, and Since the War (Philadelphia: National Publishing Company, 1866), p. 721.
18. Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001), pp. 15–16.
19. Quoted in Dew, Apostles, p. 16; and William C. Davis, Look Away!: A History of the Confederate States of America (New York: Free Press, 2002), p. 110.
20. James M. McPherson, This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 7.