The South seceded to protect states' rights from...?

This thread was spun off by my “Winners’ History?” thread ( ). In this thread, I asserted that people have differing opinions on what caused the Civil War, which for some reason inspired Jeff_42 to write,

There are previous threads on the subject of the Civil War:
but neither of them deals precisely with my thesis, so I decided to post it here. Ahem.

It is often asserted that the Civil War was not about slavery; rather, it was about states’ rights. The Southern states seceded to protect those rights from something. What that something is apparently a closely guarded-secret, about which no one is willing to breathe a word. What follows are some of my proposals on what it was which threatened states’ rights in 1860, along with my evaluations. Yes, some of these proposals are going to come off like strawmen; since I am not privy to the top secret information shielded by the defenders of secession, I kind of have to wing it.

A. Attacks on states’ rights. This is the closest most secession-defenders come to detailing threats to states’ rights. It is vague to the point of uselessness.

B. The tarrif. No. The Constitution explicitly give the Federal government the right to set tariffs any way it wants. Northern polticians had successfully imposed high tariffs many times before 1860, and the South never seceded. John Calhoun muttered about nullification; it’s not the same thing, and it never happened.

C. Secret unconstitutional activities by the Lincoln Administration. While Oliver North has shown that you can never assume that unconstitutional activities are not going on in the basement of a Republican-controlled White House, I still see no evidence of this. Lincoln was not an abolitionist. He may have had a few abolitionists in his cabinet but these are a drop in the bucket, compared with a non-abolitionist Congress, the non-abolitionist President, and Taney’s Supreme Court. It is never discussed how anyone could secretly abolish slavery in the first place.

D. Lincoln’s inherent unconstitutionality. This is more or less what the secessionists would have wanted you to believe. Lincoln was a “black Republican” who felt like destroying the Union cause he was bad and that’s what bad people do. I suppose we are supposed to forget that every effort was made by Lincoln and his people to preserve the Union, from peacefully ignoring the early secessions to fighting a bloody four-year war to sew the states back together.

E. Attacks on the right of secession. Simply doesn’t hold water from a temporal standpoint. Many people had asserted that there was no right for states to secede (including the Buchanan administration) but there was no attempt to prevent it until Fort Sumter. It hardly seems worth it to revolt against the opinion that there is no right to secede. I personally feel that there is a right to secede under the 10th Amendment, notwithstanding the “perpetual union” exhortation in the Articles of Confederation, but that is a different thread.

F. The reinforcement of Fort Sumter. Another temporally-challenged proposal. Fort Sumter had been supplied by U.S. ships for years before the war, then the South seceded, then they started shooting.

G. Stuff that Robert E. Lee must have been thinking of. So he was nice guy and a good general. He freed his slaves … such a sweety. He obviously wasn’t much of a political theorist, or he would have outlined exactly which states’ rights he thought were under attack, and by what mechanism.

The real reasons the South seceded had nothing to do with states’ rights per se. Oh sure, you can reinterpret these things in the light of states’ rights if you try hard enough. I could start a cow-mutilating cult next Tuesday, to defend my state’s right to be free from unmutilated cows. Would you call this a states’ rights issue, or a cow hatred issue? I submit the real reasons the South seceded:

  1. They thought they could win. Not a sufficient reason on its own, but an important one. It doesn’t take a ton of brains to see that the section of the country which made cannon, ships, and food would beat the section of the country which made cotton, tobacco, and welts, but then, the fire-eaters who fomented secession had rather less than a ton of brains.

  2. They wanted to extend slavery into the territories. The Federal government has the absolute right to admit states into the union on whatever terms it wants, just as it has general legislative powers (over issues like whether or not slavery is going to be legal) over its territories. This was not a states’ rights issue by any stretch of the imagination. The South was just frustrated that is racist, imperialist plans were being discomfited by the Free Soil movement and the coming Homestead Act.

  3. They were feudal bigots, and feudal bigots like wars. Do I sound a little indignant? I am. Should it really surprise us that a section of the country which owed its prosperity, by its own admission, to beating, raping, and kidnapping people on the basis of their race, should enjoy the prospect of slaughtering Northern kids while screaming like maniacs? Why did Booth shoot Lincoln after Southern defeat was a fait accompli, and Lincoln had declared that he wanted a fairly gentle pease settlement? I don’t know, but my best guess is that he was an angry racist who felt like shooting someone to compensate for being a loser.

  4. Deep down, they knew they were wrong. Having an amazingly eloquent anti-extensionist in the White House made the bankrupcy and immorality of their way of life all the more obvious. When pro-slavery people smashed William Lloyd Garrison’s printing presses, was this a defense of the Bill of Rights? On the contrary, it was a head-on attack on the Bill of Rights, all to the end of silencing anyone who would dare suggest that it was bad to flay black people alive.

The North and South had policy differences and power struggles for decades leading up to the war. Anti-slavery opinion notwithstanding, Lincoln asserted no more presidential powers in 1860-1861 than had previous presidents. States’ rights are in the interest of all states; is it a coincidence that all of the states which seceded were slave states? Sure, some slave states didn’t secede, as well as a rebellious chunk of Virginia … because the power in those areas was not held overwhelmingly by planters (the feudal bigots mentioned in (3), above). States’ rights were neither a necessary nor a sufficent cause of secession. QED

I admit to being a Virginian and an advocate of local government. I wouldn’t necessarily call it states rights as my approach has always been to support the most local government possibly and restrict by all possible means the larger governments. The best governing body I know if the town council of Hillsboro, VA. Mostly they get appointed because no one wants to run (we only have about 100 people) and their main interest in getting home at night.

That said I always agreed with Mark Twain on the cause of the war, that the south had read too many novels by Sir Walter Scott.

Ivanhoe, anyone?

Boris B wrote:

Well, in 1860 he certainly didn’t assert any more presidential powers than had previous presidents, because he wasn’t president until 1861! :wink:

However, in 1861, after the Southern states had declared their secession, he did do one thing no previous president ever had: he called forth the Army to put down this new “rebellion”. The Federal courts declared that only Congress has the power to call forth the Army unless the country is in danger from an immediate threat (which the Southern secession was not), and that therefore Lincoln’s calling forth of the Army was unconstitutional.

Lincoln ignored this Federal court decree.

It really isn't all that difficult to answer. One of the biggest problems in getting the Constitution ratified was with the southern states fearing to much control from the north. Since representatives are determined by population this became a sore issue because the north had many more people. This was suppose to be settled with the 3/5ths compromise but all that did was make the conlfict come later in history.
 The south didn't feel as though they're interest were taking a backseat to northern interest. Lincoln's election was the final straw. To many southerners it proved that their voice didn't matter. So they decided to leave the union.
  I don't see how anyone can deny that slavery wasn't a factor. But to claim that it was the primary factor leading to the war just isn't right.


Okay. What I meant by “asserting” the right was talking about the right, i.e., informing the country that he planned to free the slaves. Of course, he said no such thing, quite the opposite, but if he had done so, or if something to that effect had appeared in the Republican platform, it would lend some weight to the states’ rights argument.

Hmmm. I wasn’t aware of plainly stated judicial opinion at the time. I’ve never heard of the courts simply asserting their opinion on a matter that was not on their docket. Had someone sued Lincoln over the calling for of the army?

In any case, what happened after secession is certainly of historical interest, but it doesn’t speak directly to my point.

Unless you believe Jefferson Davis: “The climate and soil of the Northern States soon proved unpropitious to the continuance of slave labor, whilst the converse was the case at the South. Under the unrestricted free intercourse between the two sections, the Northern States consulted their own interests by selling their slaves to the South and prohibiting slavery within their limits. The South were willing purchasers of a property suitable to their wants, and paid the price of acquisition without harboring a suspicion that their quiet possession was to be disturbed … As soon, however, as the Northern States that prohibited African slavery within their limits had reached a number sufficient to give their representation a controlling voice in Congress, a persistent and organized system of hostile measures against the rights of the owners of slaves in the Southern States was inaugurated and gradually extended … Emboldened by success, the theater of agitation and aggression against the clearly expressed constitutional rights of the Southern States was transferred to the Congress … the transaction of public affairs was impeded by repeated efforts to usurp powers not delegated by the Constitution, for the purpose of impairing the security of property in slaves, and reducing those States which held slaves to a condition of inferiority.”

This is an excerpt from Davis’ first Message to the CS Congress in April, 1861, in which he clearly identifies the holding of slaves as the primary “states right” being threatened with infringement by the Union.

I’m a Southerner myself, and I question whether the Federal government had either the mandate or the authority to treat secession as a rebellion. (Of course, Lincoln very eloquently puts forth his reasons for preserving the Union in the Gettysburg Address; a brilliantly concise summary of his position and philosophy.) However, I cannot understand the willful blindness to established fact which most Southern apologists seem to suffer when discussing the reasons for secession. I’m proud of the parts of my heritage that produced the wonderful, open culture of the South. But I can’t defend the antebellum South of slave-holding, nor can I pretend that slavery was not the defining issue of the War.

There is also other supporting evidence:

A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union

South Carolina Declaration of Causes of Secession

Joint Resolutions of the General Assembly of Alabama

Georgia Declaration of Causes of Secession

A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union

Yeah, what Libertarian said.

Libertarian, those are some great sources. I have some dim memories of reading that (or similar) material, but I had completely forgotten how explicit it was about … erm … “race relations”.

xenophon and MGibson, you both point out an aspect I had neglected to mention: the population of the North grew faster than the South, partly (mostly?) due to immigration. So perhaps the South was seceding from waning influence in the House of Representatives.

My understanding of the history:

The South was convinced–regardless of what he might say–that Lincoln intended on freeing the slaves, based on his voiced disgust at the institution. The secession was a direct result of his election. It put them in a bad position, though, to claim the usurpation of states’ rights before he had had a chance to actually do it, which of course led to real usurpation of states’ rights.

The entry of new states was also an irritant, in that each entry required decisions about slavery in the new state, and the South was increasingly outnumbered.

It is unfortunate that the founders felt necessary to compromise on this issue. What is even more unfortunate is that it became a state issue. Personally, I wish my fellow Southerners would shut up about that states’ rights crap in relation to something as indefensible as slavery. The simple fact is that, ever since the Civil War, states’ rights have been increasingly trod upon by the federal government.

My postion: Slavery is wrong, the Southern leaders were wrong. However, defiance of the Constitution is also wrong. Now that slavery has been properly prohibited by a Constitutional amendment, we should restore the rights to the states that have been usurped.

These good ole boys trying to defend the South’s position in the Civil War are just making the rest of us look bad.


Ok, here’s my brief understanding of what lead up to the Civil War.

  1. MOre and more territories were being admitted as States. Tensions were at the greatest during the Missouri Compromise. The Northern States didn’t want the Southern states to have the majority in the government, and the Southern states did not want the Northern states to have too much power. So they tried to reach a compromise, giving the states the right to choose in their Constitutions. This lead to even more tension…especially after CA and Maine were entered as Free States. Later when Kansas was entered as a state, that caused even more problems, with violence breaking out across the state.

  2. At that time, the SOuthern states were becoming more and more isolated from the North. The North had the majority of rail roads, they had the canal system, and industry was booming. Plus there was a larger population. Also, if people were not in the North, they were more concerned with the new Western frontier. The SOutherner’s felt left out to a certain extent because they did not have Industry. Due to the South’s lack of industry, the North viewed them as decadent, lazy, dilapidated because the North was growing and thriving. One must remember the Puritan background of the Country, ESPECIALLY in New England. The North also began to view the South as something of an aristrocracy. This was all at the heart of the new Republican Party.

  3. The South did not have a booming industry, as previous mentioned, and so was to a certain degree, depedent on the North. I have read various reasons why they did not develop the South much pass plantations etc. One interesting one is that all the wealthy men were investing in land and slaves, not stocks and industries. This eventually added tension to the already hot tempers in politics.

4.Some states left the Union even before Lincoln made it to ofice. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georigia, Louisianna and Texas. So Lincoln’s actions as President is probably not the problem.

  1. Maybe the war didn’t START because the North or the President was actively trying to stop slavery in the South, but it was no secret that the North strongly disagreed with slavery. Basically, slavery could have spread, and the North’s free labor market could be challenged. The “free Labor” wasn’t much better then slave labor, but the working class was the back bone of the Northern Economy, and there were more immigarnts.

  2. The Northern states were mainly republican, the Southern were mainly democrats. I’m sure the South wasn’t too thrilled when Lincoln the Republican won, especially since he did not favor the expansion of slavery. He would leave the South alone, but he wouldn’t encourage slavery in the new states. Which would bring up the old Missouri-Compromise problem again.

  3. The Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court did not help matters. Of course, whites in the south were ecstatic, slaves were officially property. The Northerners were obviously not as excited.

I’m sure there are more and better points. For anybody who questions my sources, this all came from notes and the text book in my honor’s history course.

This is a fascinating post, and I’m going to read it carefully before shooting from the hip and adding sometihng off the cuff (if I have anything worthy to add at all), but I’d like to ask a brief question here:

My recollection was that Robert E. Lee wasn’t all that enamoured of “The Cause”, and that, he was, in fact, offered command of the Union army (!) but declined and chose to fight for the Confederacy because he would not go against his native Virginia. In fact, I thought I read that his beliefs had “union leanings”, so to speak. So he wasn’t active in the Confederate political theory, such as it was, and had no desire to outline states’ rights.

Am I recalling this incorrectly?

TRY (hard as it is) to forget about slavery, just for a second.

Long before the Civil War, the first great test of “states’ rights” came when John Adams and his Federalist Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. Remember, this was LONG before Marbury vs. Madison had establishged that the Supreme Court could overturn legislation it regarded as unconstitutional.

Under the Alien and Sedition Acts, the federal government had the right to arrest anyone who attacked the government, orally or in print, and to imprison or deport any “undesirable” aliens (people who came to America from overseas, and had the audacity to say things John Adams didn’t like). At the urging of THomas Jefferson, the state of VIrginia’s legislature voted to nullify the ALien and Sedition Acts, declaring they had no power or validity in the state of Virginia.
Now, I was born and raised in New York. I am not an admirer or the COnfederacy, and have absolutely no use for latter-day Southerners who cling to “the cause,” or for rednecks who try to justify waving the Stars and Bars.

Still, before you dismiss the notion of “states’ rights” as a mere shorthand for racism (though, I admit, “states’ rights” often HAS been shorthand for "keep the uppity niggers in their place), ask yourself: when the federal government passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, would you have backed the Federal government? Or would you have been on the side of THomas Jefferson, and endorsing the sovereignity of state governments?

Liberals should, at the very least, acknowledge that they’re in a bind here. TODAY, they may view the federal government as the fountain of all holiness, while viewing state governments as backward and repressive. But face it- that was not always the case!

astorian, I agree with you that the OP’s argument:

…is weakened in light of the many legitimate concerns that states (particularly in the South) had over increasing Federal control. However, I’m not sure anyone’s translated “states’ rights” to mean “racism” here (I may have missed it). I think the consensus being approached in this topic is that the primary and overriding concern of the Southern states was that their right to allow the institution of slavery was soon to be abridged by the Federal government.

BTW, I’m generally liberal in my political thinking, and I do not view the federal gov’t as

However, like most “liberals”, I think concerns that are general to the population of the US should best be addressed through Federal efforts.

Ok associate states rights with the war on drugs. The only reason why the war on drugs is still around because the feds threaten to hurt the states economy if they legalise marajuana or other such. How many people agree with the war on drugs?

“4.Some states left the Union even before Lincoln made it to ofice. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georigia, Louisianna and Texas. So Lincoln’s actions as President is probably not the problem.”

South carolina left first, so thats gotta be wrong:)

The reason why the scession started is because both sides decided to stop compromising and to start yelling at each other.

“States’ Rights”: yes, States’ rights to slavery. This was the primary & #1 issue. If you read British (more unbiased, perhaps)histories of our Civil war they agree with this. Note, I am not saying that the South was not perhaps correct in that they HAD a legal right to secede, but the North won, solving that issue at gunpoint.

Astorian asked,

I, and probably most people who think like me, would have backed Virginia and the anti-Federalists. I still don’t think legislative nullification has any validity. Would it have been worth seceding over? Probably not. Adams was out of office very shortly; a vehement opponent of the Alien and Sedition Acts was Vice President and a pretty good prospect for next President.

Failing to wait for the 1864 election was one of the huge constellation of mistakes that the secessionists made in 1860; anti-Lincoln candidates had one just over 60& of the popular vote, and I simply can’t believe Lincoln was destined to be able to appoint five (of nine) Supreme Court Justices, or cobble together two-thirds majorities in Congress for the purposes of amending the Constitution.

DRY, You could very well be right about Lee. Really I’ve never figured out why he would do what he did. Love for ol’ Virginny or not, if I’m not mistaken he was a U.S. Army officer before 1860, with its attendant oaths.

Pepperlandgirl said,

A good point, but I want something more. We agree that slavery was doing to the American South what serfdom was doing to Russia - keeping it in a perpetual state of infantile feudalism. Why did this impel the South to secede, instead of using some of their ill-gotten tobacco money to build railroads and foundries? I think the answer lies in their belief that they could win, and easily. They took what they thought was the easy way out. The Russians, at least, had the sense to eliminate serfdom, which I suppose us shows one of the few advantages of having a Czar.

Here’s where I really disagree with you. Employing a free laborer conferred no rights to beat, rape, or separate the family of that laborer. The idea that free labor wasn’t much better than slave labor is just more losers’ history - the idea that counterintuitive ideas collected off the dustbin of history must be true ipso facto.

I would choose neither option. While the A&S Act makes my skin crawl, I do not think that States’ Rights is the answer. If the responsibility for national decisions such as this reside with the states then it is more difficult for compromise and consensus to occur. I would prefer to challenge the law in Congress. The “choice” seems shortsighted to me.
What if you choose States’ Rights and the next time the Federal and State governments disagree you support the Federal position? Should you change your choice?

Boris B and Libertarian,

Thank you for the excellent arguments. I do not see how your position(s) could be refuted.

Hmmm, do you have idea what the working conditions were like in the North? Was the working conditions better then slave labor? Undoubtedly. I’m pretty sure everything is better than Slave conditions. But was it MUCH better? No.
South:Slaves lived in shacks provided by their Masters.
North:Northern Laborers lived in shacks, provided by their “Masters”
South:Children were forced work long, dangerous hours.
North: Children were fored to work long dangerous hours.
South: Slaves worked for nothing
North: Laborers worked for barely enough to feed them.
South: Slaves were forced laborers.
North: THe workers were forced to work by need, and especially the immigrants had no other choice.
South: Slaves had no freedom
North: The Industrial workers and factory workers had little to no freedom. They had nothing protecting their person or job. There were no such things as Labor Unions.
South: Slaves were beat legally
North: Workers were beat illegally (But nobody cared)
South: Slave women were raped legally
North: Women workers were raped illegally (But nobody cared)
South: Slaves were easily replaced and expendible
North: Workers were easily replaced by new waves of immigrants and expendable.

THere are more similarities, but I won’t post anymore until specifically asked.
I’m NOT NOT NOT saying that slavery is in anyway OK. I repeat, I AM NOT PRO-SLAVERY.
All I’m saying is conditions in the North were either as best bad or almost as bad for laborers as they were for Slaves.

Don’t worry, Pepperland, I didn’t think you were saying slavery was okay. If I did, I wouldn’t have bothered to respond.

And yes, it’s difficult to compare the lot of slaves to that of the proletariat. Perhaps we should agree to disagree. In my opinion, the right to quit your job (even as distinguished from the economic power to quit your job) is of considerable value. The right to vote likewize (and in the post-Jacksonian era, white males could vote in nearly all states no matter how destitute they were).

In my current job, I run out of money a few days before every paycheck, and eat plain pasta for dinner and nothing (but hot chocolate, which is free) for lunch. It’s no big deal. I’m too fat anyway. The point is, I could still quit, and be even poorer and worse off. The right to quit and eat the consequences is the sine qua non of capitalist freedom, as I see it. The closest thing a slave has to that right is suicide, or attempting to escape (which were kind of the same thing in a lot of cases).