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Posted at 9:35 AM ET, 02/22/2011

Craig Symonds: Why did South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas choose to secede?

By Craig Symonds

Professor Emeritus at the United States Naval Academy


The simple answer here is that the political leaders in these States feared for the safely of their “peculiar institution” under a Lincoln administration. Though Lincoln had promised not to interfere with slavery in the states where it existed, he was adamant (“hold as with a chain of steel”) about not allowing it to spread into the territories. For slaveholders of the deep South, this meant that slavery would not expand, and without expansion, they believed that the institution itself was doomed. It was a matter of supply and demand: If the population of slaves continued to grow while the land they could work was restricted, eventually there would be more slaves than there was work for them to do. That would depress the price of slaves and ruin their economy, and not incidentally create a large number of idle and oppressed workers. The one thing that all sides of the controversy agreed upon was that if slavery did not expand, it would die.

The first states to secede were those whose economies and cultures were most fully dependent on slavery. South Carolina had always been in the forefront of pro-slavery agitation. In large part this was because well over half of her entire state population (57.2% in 1860) consisted of slaves. Any weakening of the hold that the minority whites had over their chattels threatened not only their economy and their way of life, but also, in their view, their physical safety. Mississippi, with 55.1% slaves, went next, followed by the four other states that had more than forty percent of their populations made up of black slaves. Texas, whose slaves made up only 30.2% was the exception, but Texas had always had an independent streak (and perhaps still does).

The seven states that seceded before Lincoln’s inauguration and which made up the original Confederacy, averaged a slave population of 46 percent. By contrast, the eight slave states that did not secede averaged slave populations of less than twenty percent (19.6%).

Ten weeks later, when Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to restore law and order after Fort Sumter, the eight slave states that had remained in the Union had to choose between coercion and secession. Once again, the numbers tell the story. Those with slave populations over 25% chose to secede; those with slave populations under 20% did not.

Though no historical issue can be reduced to simple numbers, the numbers here strongly suggest that the closer a State’s economy and culture was tied into the institution of slavery, the more likely it was to secede. The seven States that left the Union first were so dependent on slavery that their dependence defined them.

By Craig Symonds  | February 22, 2011; 9:35 AM ET
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