Brag Bowling: Why did South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas choose to secede?
Director of the Stephen D. Lee Institute
During the early 19th century, the framework of the United States was held together by a series of concessions and compromises by men and women who viewed the continuance of the Union as primary above sectional and economic differences. People such as Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Jefferson Davis and many others from both North and South worked diligently to patch over problems which seemed unsolvable. By the 1850’s, compromise became much harder. The 1856 formation of the Republican Party, viewed strictly as a northern regional party, put into policy what many shuddered at, a party whose essential purpose was inimical to Southern economic interests and institutions (i.e. Slavery). Simple compromise would be much more difficult as the Republicans gained power and influence.
The ticking time bomb went off in 1859 with the John Brown raid on Harper’s Ferry. When it was discovered that this criminal invasion was funded basically by wealthy abolitionists from Massachusetts, Southerners truly began questioning whether there was a place for them in the Union. Even moderates felt there was no longer a hope or prospect for reconciliation between the two sections on a basis of reasonable mutual concern.
The South watched the growing attack on their economy, investments and labor force with apprehension. It has been estimated that the value of all slaves in the South was greater than the total value of all industry in the North. Southerners rightly viewed slave ownership as a vested Constitutional right. Nowhere was a realistic plan proffered for compensated emancipation of slaves. Abraham Lincoln, during the war, offered a lukewarm, underfunded plan of compensated emancipation and recolonization to South America, Africa and other venues. Southerners viewed slave ownership as a basic property right guaranteed by the Constitution. And that property right should extend wherever a person wishes to go. This was a central Constitutional issue in the question of secession.
Also, Southerners were wary that their political clout was waning in Congress. New states were popping up in the Midwest especially. These states formed part of the anti-Southern interest voting block in Congress. The influx of immigrants from Europe vastly expanded the size of the Northern electorate, thus guaranteeing the demise of Southern political influence. The new immigrants removed any need for Northern slavery which had existed since the founding of the country. Still, the slave trade was a key component of northern commerce and vast fortunes were made in the North by many well known families and financial institutions. In 1860, the government was funded essentially by tariffs since no income tax existed at that time. The South found itself paying much of the freight in tariffs which accrued great benefit to the North. South Carolina had already strongly resisted the increase in tariffs in 1832. The Republican Party in 1860 had as a central part of its platform the Morrill Tariff which would significantly raise the tariff in order to protect Northern steel and other manufacturing industries at the expense of Southern taxpayers. It would eventually raise rates to as much as 50%. The Morrill Tariff was hotly debated in the secession conventions.
In his 1st Inaugural Address, Lincoln promised that he would enforce militarily the collection of tariffs. As for slavery, in the 1st Inaugural Lincoln was conciliatory, stating he had no intention of disturbing slavery where it stood and even if he harbored such intention, it would be unconstitutional to do so.
The question of why these states seceded is very difficult to answer, especially in the space provided here. I have tried to provide something of a framework as to some of the many issues involved. Tariffs, waning Southern political influence, the rise of the Republican Party were just a few of the issues in addition to slavery and its complex economic and constitutional equation. And slavery, in itself an evil which today is abhorred by every right thinking person, was at that time viewed as a Constitutional right in a nation and world where slavery was generally accepted. Much of the economy of the lower South (cotton states) had a slavery component representing a huge investment. The secession of the lower South would not have led to the immense war which developed. It was only when Virginia finally seceded following the Lincoln call up of 75000 troops to put down the the lower South that war came. Virginia was the key and when she seceded, the size and scope of the dilemma greatly increased because Virginia’s secession led to the secession of a group of key states such as North Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee. While slavery can be argued as a reason for the lower south states seceding, the issue of slavery was not a component in Virginia or the later seceding states. Lincoln’s invasion brought those states aboard the Confederacy prepared to resist what they viewed as Lincoln’s illegal invasion of the South.
This was a war which could have been avoided. Certainly a compensated emancipation scheme would have been less costly than the war. Lincoln had some very specific ideas about slavery but far fetched recolonization schemes were not acceptable, even to freed slaves. Why compensated emancipation was never seriously promoted is a question which lingers today.
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| February 22, 2011; 9:45 AM ET
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