THE CONFEDERACY, THE
A LOOK AT FOUR CLAIMS ABOUT THE WAR BETWEEN THE STATES
Michael T. Griffith
@All Rights Reserved
A few years ago some members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans drafted a statement
to be placed on a proposed monument at a Confederate grave site in a
The Confederate dead died for states rights guaranteed under the Constitution. The people of the South, animated by the spirit of 1776, to preserve their rights, withdrew from the federal compact in 1861. The North resorted to coercion. The South, against overwhelming numbers and resources, fought until exhausted.
There are four principal claims made in this statement:
1. That Confederate soldiers fought for states rights guaranteed under the Constitution.
2. That the people of the South seceded in order to preserve their rights.
3. That the North (i.e., the
4. That the South fought against overwhelming odds.
Before I begin to discuss these claims, I would like to briefly introduce myself so as to give the reader some idea of where I'm coming from when I approach the subject of the Civil War. I'm not a Southerner by upbringing. I spent nearly all of my childhood in the North and in the West, and I have spent the majority of my adult life outside the South. Until a few years ago, I always considered myself to be a "Northerner" and a "Yankee." Politically, I'm an independent who has long favored programs to help minorities and the poor. One of the web pages that I maintain is dedicated to educating the public about the terrible abuses that African Americans have suffered in our nation, especially prior to the 1970s.
1. "The Confederate dead died for states rights guaranteed under the Constitution."
States rights are in fact guaranteed under the Constitution. They are expressly guaranteed by the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which reads:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.
The whole purpose of this amendment was to prevent the federal government from usurping powers that were not assigned to it, including powers that were reserved for the states. Constitutional scholar Bruce Findlay said the following:
Because of widespread fear that the new government might try to employ powers that were not granted, this amendment was added. It makes clear that the federal government was to have only those powers assigned to it, and no more. Some other powers were left to the states. (Your Rugged Constitution, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1950, pp. 216-217)
The main reason for opposition to the ratification of the Constitution was the fear that the federal government would eventually grow so large that it would destroy the states. Historians John Garraty and Robert McCaughey point out that most of the opposition to ratification only subsided after backers of the Constitution agreed to add amendments that would prevent the federal government from usurping civil liberties and states rights:
Aside from a few doctrinaires, most were ready to give the new government a chance if they could be convinced that it would not destroy the states. When backers agreed to add amendments guaranteeing the civil liberties of the people against challenge by the national government and reserving all unmentioned power to the states, much of the opposition disappeared. (Garraty and McCaughey, The American Nation: A History of the United States to 1877, New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1987, p. 159)
Even Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio, a notorious "South-hater," said in 1855 that if the states were not the ones who could ultimately decide if a law violated the Constitution, then the states would be deprived of their right to defend their citizens and the general government would become a "miserable despotism":
Who is the judge in the last resort of the violation of the Constitution of the United States by the enactment of a law? Who is the final arbiter, the General Government or the States in their sovereignty? Why, sir, to yield that point is to yield up all the rights of the States to protect their own citizens, and to consolidate this government into a miserable despotism. (As quoted in Mildred Rutherford, Truths of History, Dahlonega, Georgia: Crown Rights Book Company, reprint of original 1920 edition, p. 4)
James Madison, one of our founding fathers, an author of the Federalist Papers, and our fourth president, said the federal government's powers were delegated, defined, and few in number, and that the powers that were to remain with the states were "numerous and indefinite":
The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. (Federalist Paper Number 45)
Of course, one of the states rights for which the South fought was the right of a state or a group of states to voluntarily and peacefully leave the Union. Thomas Jefferson tacitly recognized this right in his first inaugural address in 1801:
If there be any among us who wish to dissolve the Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed, as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.
In 1816 Jefferson gave a stronger endorsement of the principle that a state should be able to peacefully leave the Union:
If any state in the Union will declare that it prefers separation . . . to a continuance in the union. . . . I have no hesitation in saying, "Let us separate." (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Crawford, June 20, 1816)
In 1839 President John Quincy Adams said that if sectional differences between the states became too severe it would be better for the states to go their own way in peace than to be constrained to remain together:
The indissoluble link of union between the people of the several States of this confederated nation is, after all, not in the right, but in the heart. If the day should ever come (may Heaven avert it) when the affections of the people of these States shall be alienated from each other, the bonds of political association will not long hold together parties no longer attached by the magnetism of consolidated interests and kindly sympathies; and far better will it be for the people of the disunited States to part in friendship with each other than to be held together by constraint. (Speech given at a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington, April 30, 1839, as quoted in the Hon. Joseph Wheeler, "Slavery and States Rights," reprinted in Richmond Dispatch, July 31, 1894, emphasis added)
None other than Horace Greeley, a leading Republican and abolitionist and the owner of the then-influential New York Tribune, said the South had the right to leave the Union in peace:
We hold, with Jefferson, to the inalienable right of communities to alter or abolish forms of government that have become oppressive or injurious; and, if the Cotton States [the Deep South states] shall decide that they can do better out of the Union than in it, we insist on letting them go in peace. . . . And, whenever a considerable section of our Union shall deliberately resolve to go out, we shall resist all coercive measures designed to keep her in. We hope never to live in a republic where one section is pinned to the residue by bayonets. (New York Tribune, November 9, 1860)
Numerous other Northern newspapers voiced the view that the Southern states had the right to secede and that it would be wrong to use force against them to compel them to return. The Detroit Free Press editorialized as follows:
An attempt to subjugate the seceded States, even if successful could produce nothing but evil -- evil unmitigated in character and appalling in content. (Detroit Free Press, February 19, 1861)
Congressman Jacob M. Kunkel of Maryland echoed this view shortly before the war broke out:
Any attempt to preserve the Union between the States of this Confederacy by force would be impractical, and destructive of republican liberty. (As quoted in Walter Williams, "Do States Have A Right of Secession?", Capitalism Magazine, April 19, 2002; NOTE: Prior to the Civil War, many leaders and writers occasionally referred to the U.S. as a "confederacy.")
In his final regular message to Congress, given a few months before Lincoln was inaugurated, President James Buchanan said the government had no right to use force against a state that had seceded, and he cited founding father James Madison in support of his point:
The question fairly stated is: Has the Constitution delegated to Congress the power to coerce a State into submission which is attempting to withdraw or has actually withdrawn from the confederacy? If answered in the affirmative, it must be on the principle that the power has been conferred upon Congress to declare and to make war against a State. After much serious reflection, I have arrived at the conclusion that no such power has been delegated to Congress or to any other department of the federal government. It is manifest, upon an inspection of the Constitution, that this is not among the specific and enumerated powers granted to Congress; and it is equally apparent that its exercise is not "necessary and proper for carrying into execution" any one of these powers. So far from this power having been delegated to Congress, it was expressly refused by the convention which framed the Constitution.
It appears from the proceedings of that body that on the 31st May, 1787, the clause "authorizing an exertion of the force of the whole against a delinquent State" came up for consideration. Mr. [James] Madison opposed it in a brief but powerful speech, from which I shall extract but a single sentence. He observed: "The use of force against a State would look more like a declaration of war than an infliction of punishment, and would probably be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound." Upon his motion the clause was unanimously postponed, and was never, I believe, again presented. Soon afterwards, on the 8th June, 1787, when incidentally adverting to the subject, he said: "Any government for the United States, formed on the supposed practicability of using force against the unconstitutional proceedings of the States, would prove as visionary and fallacious as the government of Congress," evidently meaning the then existing Congress of the old confederation.
Without descending to particulars, it may be safely asserted that the power to make war against a State is at variance with the whole spirit and intent of the Constitution. . . .
The fact is, that our union rests upon public opinion, and can never be cemented by the blood of its citizens in civil war. If it cannot live in the affections of the people, it must one day perish. Congress may possess many means of preserving it by conciliation, but the sword was not placed in their hand to preserve it by force. (President James Buchanan, Presidential Message, read in the U.S. House of Representatives, December 4, 1860, Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, 1860-1861, pp. 19-20)
Conservative scholar Joseph Sobran observes that the right of secession is implied in the Tenth Amendment:
The Tenth Amendment implies the right of secession, since it reserves to the states and the people "the powers not delegated to the United States [i.e., the federal government] by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states." The Constitution doesn’t prohibit the states from seceding, so that power remains with them. . . .
During the debate over ratification of the Constitution, opponents of ratification made many dark predictions: the Constitution would enable the federal government to impose tyranny, it would lead to "consolidated" – centralized and monolithic – government, and so forth. But nobody complained that the Constitution would prevent the states from reclaiming their independence, as they certainly would have done if the Constitution had been understood to rule out secession. (Sobran, "Slavery, No; Secession, Yes," Sobran's, January 16, 2001, p. 1)
2. "The people of the South, animated by the spirit of 1776, to preserve their rights, withdrew from the federal compact in 1861."
Southern leaders made it clear they believed they were following in the footsteps of the founding fathers and that they were protecting their rights. They quoted the Declaration of Independence on the right to form new governments and on the principle that governments derive their just powers "from the consent of the governed." They also quoted the founding fathers on the sovereignty of the states.
The Southern states believed they were seceding to protect their constitutional rights, and that their rights had been violated by the North. They believed their rights had been violated in five areas, namely, tax policy, federal spending, the fugitive slave law, border security, and equal access to the territories.
For decades prior to the secession crisis, the South had complained about the imposition of tariffs. Tariffs usually had a negative impact on the South's economy, while they tended to have a positive impact on the North's economy. Because the South's economy was heavily dependent on imports and exports, the South paid the majority of the tariffs. In 1832 South Carolina and the federal government nearly came to blows because South Carolina refused to pay the recently increased tariffs. Eventually a compromise was reached and the tariffs were gradually reduced. The issue of tariffs continued to be a sore point between North and South right up to the start of the Civil War. Southern leaders also objected to the misuse of tariff revenue by the federal government. They viewed as unfair and unconstitutional the use of tariff money for "internal improvements." Admittedly, many more of these "internal improvements" went to the North than to the South. The South had a valid complaint here, and the situation only stood to get worse with the election of Lincoln, who favored higher tariffs and increased spending on internal improvements. We must bear in mind that there was no income tax back then. The tariff was a huge source of revenue for the federal government at the time. It's fair to say that in most cases the South favored free trade and that the North favored protectionism. The South's desire to control its own economic destiny and to trade directly with Europe without having to pay the federal tariff was an important factor in its decision to secede.
When the states of the Deep South seceded and formed the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, in one of his first acts as president of the Confederacy, sent an official letter to Abraham Lincoln expressing a desire for peaceful relations (Letter from Jefferson Davis to Abraham Lincoln, February 27, 1861). Davis also sent a peace delegation to the city of Washington to meet with Lincoln for the purpose of establishing friendly relations. Lincoln would not even meet with the delegation. A short time later, in his first inaugural address, Lincoln threatened to invade the South if the South didn't pay the tariffs (or if the South didn't allow the federal government to maintain and occupy federal forts and property that were in Confederate territory). So Lincoln certainly viewed the collection of tariffs from the South as a critical issue, one over which he was willing to go to war (and it should be noted that Lincoln made no such threat over any issue relating to slavery). Jefferson Davis explained the tariff issue in these words:
Under the power of Congress to levy duties on imports, tariff laws were enacted, not merely "to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States," as authorized by the Constitution, but, positively and primarily, for the protection against foreign competition of domestic manufactures. The effect of this was to impose the main burden of taxation upon the Southern people, who were consumers and not manufacturers, not only by the enhanced price of imports, but indirectly by the consequent depreciation in the value of exports, which were chiefly the products of Southern states. The imposition of this grievance was unaccompanied by the consolation of knowing that the tax thus borne was to be paid into the public treasury, for the increase of price accrued mainly to the benefit of the manufacturers. Nor was this all: a reference to the annual appropriations will show that the disbursements made were as unequal as the burdens borne--the inequality in both operating in the same direction [i.e., against the South in both cases]. (Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Volume 1, New York: De Capo Press, 1990, reprint of 1881 edition, p. 28)
Southern leaders vehemently opposed the Morrill Tariff. But, the tariff was passed in the 1859-1860 session of the House of Representatives, and when Lincoln's Republican Party gained control of the Senate, the bill passed in that chamber in 1861. The Morrill Tariff called for a drastic increase in the tariff rates. During Congressional debates on the bill, Representative G. S. Houston of Alabama voiced some of the objections that the South had to the Morrill Tariff, and he made it clear that he viewed this issue as being as important as the issue of slavery, if not more so. He pointed out that the Morrill Tariff would further benefit the manufacturing interests. Most manufacturers were in the North. Since the South's economy was largely based on imports and exports, any increase in the tariff was of great concern to Southerners. Representative Houston, along with many other Southern members of Congress, argued that the government should cut spending rather than raise the tariff. Representative Houston:
The question is an important one. The taxing power of the Government, and its duty growing out of the exercise of that power, in view of the constitutional grant, present questions which, in my judgment, are not surpassed in importance by any ever agitated in an American Congress. I at once acknowledge the vast magnitude and importance of the questions growing out of African slavery. I am satisfied that upon its adjustment and final settlement the fate of the Government depends, and properly depends. Yet no question connected with the Government can be of more interest or importance than those growing out of the bill under consideration [the Morrill Tariff bill].
I was pleased to hear the gentleman from Ohio (Mr. Sherman) admit so fully and distinctly that a duty levied upon imports is a tax upon those who consume such imports. . . . I am pleased that the protectionists are now disposed to deal more frankly and candidly with the subject, and admit that the taxes proposed in this bill--exorbitant and unjust as I know them to be--are to be paid (if the bill shall become law) by the consumers of this country for the benefit (as I am sure will be admitted by candid debaters) of the manufacturers. That is a correct statement of the case, and presents to our constituents the true and precise question, whether they are willing to be thus taxed in their necessary consumption, not because the Government needs the money, but to prosper and enrich the manufacturing interests.
The pretext presented by those who want protection is, that we are not receiving, under the existing law, sufficient revenue to meet the just and proper demands of the Government. That is a mere pretext, as I propose to show. In 1857 our receipts, under the [tariff] law of 1846, were said to be too large. I was then satisfied they were too large. I have not changed that opinion; and while the present law, passed in that year , did not suit me in some of its provisions, yet I voted for it as the best I could get. It was a reduction of the receipts into the Treasury, as well as a reduction of the taxes upon the people. An effort is now being made to increase the duties to a point much higher than they were under the law of 1846, upon the alleged ground that our receipts into the Treasury are too small. . . .
If they are, if our receipts are not sufficient to meet the just demands of the Government, what is the proper remedy? . . . They should, if practicable, curtail the expenses of the Government, and in that way bring its expenditures to a point where they could be met by its income. Let us adopt that course. Let us cease to waste the money of the Government. Let us dispense with unnecessary and extravagant appropriations and see if in that way we cannot avoid an increase of taxation. . . .
The difficulty, Mr. Chairman, is not that the law does not produce revenue enough, but that Congress unnecessarily expends and wastes the money. Let us correct that abuse, and we will have ample means, not only to meet current expenses, but to pay the public debt in a few years. (Rep. G. S. Houston, U.S. House of Representatives, May 8, 1860, Appendix to the Congressional Globe, p. 449)
Another Southern member of the House of Representatives, Representative Sydenham Moore of Alabama, likewise expressed strong opposition to the tariff bill. He noted that the burden of a tariff increase would fall mainly on the South, and that, on the other hand, it would benefit the manufacturers in the North. And Rep. Moore made it clear the tariff issue was a crucial topic:
Regarding the tariff bill now under consideration as the most important measure, so far as the interests of my constituents are concerned, of any which has been introduced into Congress since I have had the honor of a seat on this floor, I cannot in silence permit it to become a law. . . . I feel impelled by a sense of duty to enter my most emphatic and indignant protest against the passage of this bill. . . . From the examination I have been able to give this bill, I consider it highly objectionable; and if, unfortunately, it should become a law, my opinion is that it will prove scarcely less oppressive than did the memorable tariff act of 1828, known throughout the South as the bill of abominations.
Mr. Chairman, any material change in our revenue laws affects, in some degree, the interests of every individual. . . . It is for this reason that the question of the tariff has always been justly regarded as one of the greatest importance. . . . The public mind has of late been, and is now, absorbed by another question of more perilous import [slavery]; but let none think that this of the tariff has been overlooked or forgotten by the protectionists. . . .
Who introduces it here and now, and, as it seems to me, so unnecessarily and unseasonably? Not those upon whom the taxes are most heavily imposed by the tariff laws, and who might be expected to be weary of bearing their endless burden, but the manufacturers themselves, for whose support and profits nearly every individual and industrial interest in the country is now compelled to contribute. . . .
Mr. Chairman, the honorable gentleman from Vermont (Mr. Morrill), and all who have thus far spoken in favor of this bill, openly advocate protection for the sake of protection. It seems, indeed, strange that at this enlightened day the principles of protection should find any advocates here. I can only account for it from the fact, admitted by the honorable gentleman from Pennsylvania (Mr. Florence) the other day, that the tariff question was no longer a financial question, but a sectional question. The gentleman well knows that while the chief burdens will fall on the South, his constituents will be benefited by a high protective tariff. (Rep. S. Moore, U.S. House of Representatives, April 30, 1860, Appendix to the Congressional Globe, pp. 272-273)
The Declarations of Causes of Secession issued by Georgia and Texas included complaints about unfair economic policies that favored the North at the expense of the South. These were obvious references to the South's anger over tariffs, over the misuse of tariff revenue, and over other economic policies that the South opposed. In fact, Georgia's declaration includes a specific complaint about the protectionist policies of the North. Jefferson Davis mentioned the South's objections to federal tariffs in his first message to the Confederate congress (he cited the North's imposition of "burdens on commerce as a protection to their manufacturing and shipping interests"). Representative John Reagan, who would later become the Postmaster General of the Confederacy, strongly complained about unfair economic policies that hurt the South in a speech that he gave on the floor of the House on January 15, 1861. In speaking to Northern leaders in general, he said:
You are not content with the vast millions of tribute we pay you annually under the operation of our revenue laws, our navigation laws, your fishing bounties, and by making your people our manufacturers, our merchants, our shippers. You are not satisfied with the vast tribute we pay to build up your great cities, your railroads, and your canals. You are not satisfied with the millions of tribute we have been paying you on account of the balance of exchange, which you hold against us. You are not satisfied that we of the South are almost reduced to the condition of overseers of northern capitalists. You are not satisfied with all this; but you must wage a relentless crusade against our rights and institutions. . . .
We do not intend that you shall reduce us to such a condition. But I can tell you what your folly and injustice will compel us to do. It will compel us to be free from your domination, and more self-reliant than we have been. It will compel us to assert and maintain our separate independence. It will compel us to manufacture for ourselves, to build up our own commerce, our own great cities, our own railroad and canals; and to use the tribute money we now pay you for these things for the support of a government which will be friendly to all our interests, hostile to none of them. (Rep. John Reagan, U.S. House of Representatives, January 15, 1861, as quoted in Kenneth Stampp, The Causes of the Civil War, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965, p. 74, quoting Congressional Globe, 36th Congress, 2nd Session, I, p. 391)
As the secession crisis continued, it didn't take Northern leaders long to perceive the grave economic threat that an independent South would pose to Northern business interests. They realized that if the South didn't have to pay federal tariffs and were allowed to set its own tariffs, the Southern ports of New Orleans, Charleston, and Savannah could replace New York, Boston, and Philadelphia as the main centers for commercial trade. Weeks before any hostilities occurred, one Boston newspaper went so far as to opine that this was the South's "controlling motive" for wanting to form a separate nation:
It does not require extraordinary sagacity to perceive that trade is perhaps the controlling motive operating to prevent the return of the seceding States of the Union, . . . it is apparent that the people of the principal seceding States are now for commercial independence. They dream that the centers of traffic can be changed from Northern to Southern ports. The merchants of New Orleans, Charleston, and Savannah are possessed with the idea that New York, Boston, and Philadelphia may be shorn [deprived], in the future, of their mercantile greatness, by a revenue system verging on free trade. If the Southern Confederation is allowed to carry out a policy by which only a nominal duty [tax] is laid upon imports, no doubt the business of the chief Northern cities will be seriously injured thereby.
The difference is so great between the tariff of the Union and that of the Confederated States, that the entire Northwest must find it to their advantage to purchase their imported goods at New Orleans rather than at New York. (Boston Transcript, March 18, 1861, from Stampp, The Causes of the Civil War, p. 80)
About two months earlier, shortly after the secession crisis began, the New Orleans Daily Crescent expressed the view that the main reason the North didn't want the South to secede was economic in nature:
They [the Northern states] know that the South is the main prop and support of the Federal system. They know that it is Southern productions that constitute the surplus wealth of the nation, and enables us to import so largely from foreign countries. They know that it is their import trade that draws from the people's pockets sixty or seventy millions of dollars per annum, in the shape of duties, to be expended mainly in the North, and in the protection and encouragement of Northern interests. . . . They know that the bulk of duties is paid by the Southern people . . . and that, by the iniquitous operation of the Federal Government, these duties are mainly expended among the Northern people. They know that they can plunder and pillage the South, as long as they are in the same Union with us, by other means, such as fishing bounties, navigation laws, robberies of the public lands, and every other possible mode of injustice and peculation. . . .
These are the reasons these people do not wish the South to secede from the Union. They are enraged at the prospect of being despoiled of the rich feast upon which they have so long fed and fattened, and which they were just getting ready to enjoy with still greater gout and gusto [i.e., by the Morrill Tariff]. (New Orleans Daily Crescent, January 21, 1861, from Stampp, The Causes of the Civil War, p. 75)
Garraty and McCaughey note that the South's growing fear of being dominated economically by the North was a factor that led to secession:
Why were southerners willing to wreck the Union their grandfathers had put together with so much love and labor? No simple explanation is possible. . . . Lincoln had assured them that he would respect slavery where it existed. . . . The Democrats [who at the time were mostly from the South] had retained control of Congress in the election; the Supreme Court was firmly in their hands as well. If the North did try to destroy slavery, then secession was perhaps a logical tactic. . . . To leave the Union meant abandoning the very objectives for which the South had been contending for over a decade: a share of the federal territories and an enforceable fugitive slave act.
One reason the South rejected this line of thinking was the tremendous economic energy generated in the North, which seemed to threaten the South's independence. As one Southerner complained at a commercial convention in 1855:
From the rattle with which the nurse tickles the ear of the child born in the South to the shroud which covers the cold form of the dead, everything comes from the North. We rise from between sheets made in Northern looms, and pillows of Northern feathers, to wash in basins made in the North. . . . We can eat from Northern plates and dishes; our rooms are swept with Northern brooms, our gardens dug with Northern spades . . . and the very wood which feeds our fires is cut with Northern axes, helved with hickory brought from Connecticut and New York.
Secession, southerners argued, would "liberate" the South and produce the kind of balanced economy that was proving so successful in the North and so unachievable in the South. (Garraty and McCaughey, The American Nation, pp. 418-419, emphasis in original)
And then there was the dispute over slavery. Before we look at the South's disagreement with the North over slavery, I think it would be worthwhile to briefly consider why Southerners questioned the moral authority of the North to judge the South on this issue. For example, they noted that some Northern states forbade blacks from migrating into their boundaries, and that several other Northern states wouldn't allow blacks to vote, wouldn't allow them to testify in court, and wouldn't allow them the right to litigate to collect a debt from whites. Lincoln biographer William Klingaman notes the following:
In the first half of the nineteenth century, state legislatures in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut took away Negroes' right to vote; and voters in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Maine, Iowa, and Wisconsin approved new constitutions that limited suffrage [the right to vote] to whites. In Ohio, Negro males were permitted to vote only if they had "a greater visible admixture of white than colored blood." (Klingaman,Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, New York: Viking Press, 2001, p. 54)
Historian James McPherson gives us more information on the conditions of blacks in the North:
The Indiana constitutional convention of 1851 adopted a provision forbidding black migration into the state. This supplemented the state's laws barring blacks already there from voting, serving on juries or in the militia, testifying against whites in court, marrying whites, or going to school with whites. Iowa and Illinois had similar laws on the books and banned black immigration by statute in 1851 and 1853 respectively. These measures reflected the racist sentiments of most whites in those states. (McPherson, Ordeal By Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982, p. 80)
African-American scholars John Franklin and Alfred Moss discuss the racist atmosphere that many blacks experienced in the North during this period:
There can be no doubt that many blacks were sorely mistreated in the North and West. Observers like Fanny Kemble and Frederick L. Olmsted mentioned incidents in their writings. Kemble said of Northern blacks, "They are not slaves indeed, but they are pariahs, debarred from every fellowship save with their own despised race. . . . All hands are extended to thrust them out, all fingers point at their dusky skin, all tongues . . . have learned to turn the very name of their race into an insult and a reproach." Olmsted seems to have believed the Louisiana black who told him that they could associate with whites more freely in the South than in the North and that he preferred to live in the South because he was less likely to be insulted there. (Franklin and Moss, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000, p. 185)
Southerners also questioned the North's moral authority because Northern states willingly allowed and profited from industrial wage slavery, under which tens of thousands of lower class, unskilled workers lived and toiled in conditions that were considerably worse than the conditions in which slaves lived. Historians Garraty and McCaughey observe that in the North "there existed a class of miserably underpaid and depressed unskilled workers, mostly immigrants, who were worse off materially than nearly any southern slave" (The American Nation, p. 385). Representative Mike Walsh expressed the feelings of many Southerners when he said on the floor of the House in 1854,
The only difference between the Negro slave of the South, and the white wage slave of the North is, that the one has a master without asking for him, and the other has to beg for the privilege of becoming a slave. . . . The one is the slave of an individual; the other is the slave of an inexorable class. (From Arthur Schlesinger, The Age of Jackson, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1945, p. 490, quoting the Congressional Globe, 33rd Congress, 1st Session, p. 1224)
After reviewing Representative Walsh's case against Northern wage slavery, historian Arthur Schlesinger, who certainly can't be accused of having a pro-Confederate bias, says "there was something to be said for his argument" (The Age of Jackson, p. 491). Schlesinger continues,
The Jacksonian impulse had, after all, sprung up to meet certain inadequacies of Northern society, and for all the hullabaloo over slavery, those inadequacies continued to exist. The Free Soilers might urge that the destruction of slavery was an indispensable preliminary to further reform; but the doctrinaire radicals could not but regard this as a confession of impotence, a compulsion on the part of a bankrupt reform party to escape its responsibilities at home by going on a crusade abroad. (Schlesinger,The Age of Jackson, p. 491)
The continuation of slavery as a legal institution where it already existed was not a major point of contention in the negotiations between North and South during the secession crisis. To be sure, some Southern leaders expressed the fear that Lincoln and his fellow Republicans would seek to abolish slavery. However, other Southern leaders did not share this fear. In the various negotiations during the secession crisis, Northern representatives, following Lincoln's lead, made it clear they would support additional legal protection for slavery. Lincoln had already gone on record with the promise that he would not disturb slavery where it already existed. He even supported a constitutional amendment that guaranteed the continuation of slavery as a legal institution (Garraty and McCaughey, The American Nation, pp. 418-419). This amendment was passed by Congress and signed by President Buchanan two days before Lincoln took office. If war had not broken out shortly thereafter, it is very probable the amendment would have been ratified by more than the required majority of states.
The most hotly contested issues relating to slavery were the fugitive slave law, the South's fear of further armed abolitionist raids into Southern territory, and the North's effort to bar slavery from the territories. There can be no doubt that these were the most important factors that led the Deep South to desire secession and independence, although the economic disputes with the North also contributed to the secessionist sentiment. The election of Lincoln was the trigger event that caused the Deep South to secede. We should keep in mind, however, that the states of Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee did not secede over slavery. These states did not secede when the states of the Deep South seceded. They only seceded when, about two months later, Lincoln made it clear he was going to use force against the newly formed Confederacy. Prior to that time, these states were willing to remain in the Union, and Lincoln was willing to allow them to do so. The initial votes on secession in these states, whether in convention or by popular vote, all went against secession, in Virginia by a margin of two to one. However, after Lincoln left no doubt he was going to use force, new votes were held, and they all went heavily in favor of secession.
The South believed its legal rights were being denied by the refusal of several Northern states to honor the fugitive slave law, which at the time was established and protected by the Constitution itself and which had been reaffirmed by Congress. Although one can certainly sympathize with those Northern states that refused to enforce this law, legally speaking the South was in the right--and, legally speaking, the South's rights were being violated in this regard. Some Northern states, appealing to a higher moral law, were in fact refusing to obey the fugitive slave law, even though it was guaranteed by the Constitution.
After the John Brown raid of 1859, many Southerners believed their borders were no longer secure, and they feared that abolitionist forces in the North would launch more armed assaults into the South for the purpose of inciting potentially deadly slave rebellions. Southerners were genuinely frightened when abolitionist John Brown led an armed incursion into Virginia in an attempt to incite a slave revolt. Southerners were mindful of the fact that a slave revolt in Haiti had resulted in a large-scale massacre of whites. Therefore, many people in the South were especially enraged and alarmed when, during the 1860 presidential election, the Republican Party distributed an abridged version of an anti-slavery book entitled The Impending Crisis of the South, which spoke approvingly of a scenario in which slaves would rise up and kill their masters. Not only did the Republican Party distribute this book, but in the version that the party distributed, Republican editors added such captions as "The Stupid Masses of the South" and "Revolution--Peacefully if we can, Violently if we must." With this in mind, perhaps it's not hard to understand why so many Southerners viewed the relatively new Republican Party with so much alarm and distrust. To put this in modern terms, imagine the unrest and outrage that would be generated if a major political party in our day were to distribute a book that endorsed the shooting of abortion doctors and the bombing of abortion clinics. As much as one might oppose and detest abortion (as I do), it is legal. No responsible citizen could support a party that distributed a book that promoted violence against abortion doctors and their clinics. Similarly, although no one can defend the institution of slavery, we must keep in mind that not only was slavery legal back then, but it was permitted by the Constitution and had existed in America for over two hundred years before the secession crisis began.
Not only were some Northern states refusing to honor the fugitive slave law, but many Northern leaders was pushing to bar slavery from the vast western territories. One does not have to approve of slavery to admit that this effort was of somewhat debatable legality. What's more, many historians have noted that the North's drive to bar slavery from the territories was mainly motivated by a desire to prevent slave labor from competing with free white labor, and not by any strong moral objection to the extension of slavery itself. It must also be mentioned that, sadly enough, most whites in the territories simply didn't want blacks living among them. From the South's point of view, the North had no right to bar a legal institution from the territories, especially when the South had contributed the majority of the soldiers who had fought in the war that led to the acquisition of most of the new western territories (the Mexican War). Southerners also noted that the North showed no interest in banning Northern white wage slavery from the territories.
3. "The North resorted to coercion."
I believe the correctness of this statement is beyond dispute. The historical record makes it clear that the North was the aggressor and that it resorted to coercion against the South. As mentioned earlier, the reason the states of the Upper South decided to secede was that Lincoln chose to use force. The four states that formed the Upper South, i.e., Arkansas, North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee, did not join in the first wave of secession. They made it known that they would remain in the Union if Lincoln did not use force against the newly formed Confederacy. And those states joined the Confederacy only after Lincoln announced he was going to wage war against the seceded states (see McPherson, Ordeal By Fire, pp. 137-138, 150-151).
As stated earlier, Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, tried to establish peaceful relations with the North as soon as he took office. He sent a letter to Lincoln expressing a desire for peaceful relations, and he sent a delegation to Washington to meet with Lincoln for the specific purpose of establishing peaceful ties with the Union (see, for example, Kenneth C. Davis, Don't Know Much About the Civil War, New York: Avon Books, 1997, pp. 156-157; see also Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, pp. 212-213). Lincoln would not even meet with the delegation.
Lincoln gave his reply to the Confederacy's peace overtures in his first inaugural address. In that speech, Lincoln threatened to invade the Confederate states if they didn't pay the tariffs and if they didn't allow the federal government to occupy and maintain federal installations that were in Confederate territory (see, for example, Klingaman, Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, pp. 31-32) . This was in spite of the fact that the Confederate states were prepared to pay compensation for the federal forts and property that were located within their boundaries.
The first large-scale battle of the Civil War took place in the South, because Lincoln sent a large military force into Virginia. For that matter, nearly all the battles of the war took place in the South. The South's strategy was defensive. The South hoped the North would eventually grow tired of casualties and would decide to allow the Confederacy to exist in peace. Jefferson Davis did not desire to conquer the North. He said repeatedly that the South simply wanted to be allowed to go in peace, and that the Confederacy wanted peaceful relations with the Union (see William Cooper, Jefferson Davis, American, New York: Vintage Books, 2000, pp. 379-380). Davis expressed this position many times. For example, he said the following in his proclamation to the people of Maryland in 1862:
First, that the Confederate Government is waging this war solely for self-defense; that it has no design of conquest, or any other purpose than to secure peace and the abandonment by the United States of their pretensions to govern a people who have never been their subjects, and who prefer self-government to a union with them.
Second, that this Government, at the very moment of its inauguration, sent commissioners to Washington to treat for a peaceful adjustment of all differences, but that these commissioners were not received, nor even allowed to communicate the object of their mission; and that, on a subsequent occasion, a communication from the President of the Confederacy to President Lincoln remained without answer, although a reply was promised by General Scott, into whose hands the communication was delivered. . . .
Fourth, that now, at a juncture when our arms have been successful, we restrict ourselves to the same just and moderate demand that we made at the darkest period of our reverses, the simple demand that the people of the United States should cease to war upon us, and permit us to pursue our own path to happiness, while they in peace pursue theirs. (Proclamation of Jefferson Davis to the People of Maryland, September 7, 1862)
Some might ask, "But didn't the Confederacy fire the first shot by shelling Fort Sumter in South Carolina?" In point of fact, Lincoln deliberately provoked the South into firing on Fort Sumter, and then he used the attack as a pretext for invading the seceded states. Several historians have noted that Lincoln knew that if he tried to resupply Fort Sumter, the Confederacy would probably decide to use force to prevent it. The Confederacy had been trying for weeks to arrange for the peaceful evacuation of the fort. And before the Confederacy took over the Fort Sumter negotiations, South Carolina had been trying for several weeks to negotiate a peaceful resolution. As mentioned, the Confederacy was prepared to pay compensation for all federal forts and property that were in Southern territory. Furthermore, Lincoln's Secretary of State, William Seward, had promised the Confederacy the fort would be evacuated, but that promise was broken. Lincoln's own comments indicate he deliberately provoked the attack on Fort Sumter. I quote historian Francis Simkins,
By the time Lincoln took office Confederate authorities, fearing hasty action from South Carolina, had assumed control of the delicate Fort Sumter negotiations. . . . Would Lincoln pursue the dilatory course of Buchanan or would he be aggressive and forthright as the leader of the party which had condemned Buchanan's policy? He did neither. Instead, he carried out a plan of his own which was so devious, so subtle, and perhaps so confused that it is almost as difficult for the historian to understand as it was for the men of the times. Some scholars believe that he blundered into war, overestimating the strength of the Union party in the South. It is more likely that, with a subtlety approaching the diabolical, he provoked the Confederates into firing upon Fort Sumter in order to solidify North public opinion. . . .
Although Lincoln did not confess his part in provoking the Civil War with the cynical honesty of a Bismarck, he did speak certain revealing words. He consoled the commander of the Fort Sumter relief expedition for that officer's failure: "You and I both anticipated that the cause of the country would be advanced by making the attempt to provision Fort Sumter, even if it should fail, and it is no small consolation now to feel that our anticipation is justified by the result.” Shortly after the fall of the fort he was quoted by a close personal friend: "The plansucceeded. They attacked Sumter--it fell, and thus, did more service than it otherwise could.” A few of his party friends congratulated him upon his masterful stroke. The New York Times believed that "the attempt at reinforcement was a feint--that its object was to put upon the rebels the full and clear responsibility of commencing the war. . . .” Jefferson Davis, others exulted, "ran blindly into the trap.” (Simkins, A History of the South, Third Edition, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963, pp. 213, 215-216, emphasis added)
Just two weeks before the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter, Secretary of State Seward warned Lincoln in a memorandum that any effort to resupply the fort would provoke a hostile response, and he advised Lincoln to evacuate the facility:
The dispatch of an expedition to supply or reinforce Sumter would provoke an attack and so involve a war at that point. . . . I would instruct Maj. Anderson [the commander of the federal troops at the fort] to retire from Sumter, forthwith. (Memorandum from Seward to Lincoln, "Opinion on Fort Sumter," March 29, 1861)
In fact, according to accounts of one of Lincoln's cabinet meetings in which the resupply of Fort Sumter was discussed, Lincoln told his cabinet that if South Carolina's artillery opened fire on the fort or on the resupply ship, "he could blame the Confederacy for starting a war" (Klingaman, Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, p. 45).
So, yes, the Confederacy did fire on Fort Sumter. But, the Confederacy did this (1) only after Lincoln's Secretary of State had broken his promise to evacuate the fort, (2) only after the Confederacy had tried for weeks to arrange for the peaceful evacuation of the fort, (3) only after Lincoln had refused to meet with the peace delegation that Jefferson Davis had sent to Washington, (4) only after Lincoln had threatened an invasion if the Confederacy didn't allow the federal government to occupy and maintain federal buildings in Confederate territory (even though the South had offered to pay compensation for them), and (5) only after it became known that Lincoln had sent a naval convoy to resupply the federal troops garrisoned at the fort. It should be mentioned that Lincoln didn't merely send a supply ship to Fort Sumter--he also sent warships. It should also be mentioned that not a single Union soldier was killed in the attack on Fort Sumter, and that the soldiers were permitted to return in peace to the North after they surrendered.
Even the attack on Fort Sumter did not have to lead to war. The Confederacy made no hostile moves against any Northern state. But, two months after the Fort Sumter incident, a large Union force marched into Virginia, which led to the first major battle of the war, the Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas).
4. "The South, against overwhelming numbers and resources, fought until exhausted."
I don't think anyone disputes the fact that the South faced overwhelming odds in a war with the North. The North had over twice the population of the South, and a great deal more heavy industry. McPherson's chapter entitled "The Balance Sheet of War" in his book Ordeal By Fire shows just how great the odds were against the South (Ordeal By Fire, pp. 180-205). In nearly every important category, the North held a decided advantage. In major battles, Confederate forces were frequently outnumbered by a ratio of two or three to one. Yet, amazingly, the Confederacy won many battles, inflicted greater casualties than it suffered, came close to gaining formal recognition from England and France (and would have but for the loss of two or three battles), and managed to hold on for over four years.
Finally, I would like to list some important facts that are often omitted from most of the history textbooks used in public schools and that are rarely, if ever, mentioned in documentaries on the Civil War:
* As early as 1862, Confederate diplomats in England were indicating to British authorities that the Confederacy would be willing to abolish slavery in exchange for diplomatic recognition. In late 1864, Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders were ready and willing to abolish slavery in order to save the Confederacy, and Confederate diplomats in Europe made an offer to this effect (see Cooper, Jefferson Davis, American, pp. 552-553; see also, Klingaman, Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, p. 113). This shows that Confederate leaders viewed independence as being more important than the continuation of slavery.
* The Confederate constitution outlawed the slave trade, i.e., it forbade the importation of slaves from Africa and from all other continents (Article I, Section 9). The Confederate constitution also permitted Confederate states to abolish slavery if they wanted to do so and allowed for the admission of free states to the Confederacy.
* During the secession crisis, a group of moderates in the Senate proposed the Crittenden Compromise, which may have ended up preventing war. Lincoln rejected the proposal, and Senate Republicans stalled the measure until they had enough votes to defeat it after a number of Southern senators had resigned. This led Senator Crittenden himself to suggest that the compromise be voted on by the people in a national referendum. Senate Republicans, with Lincoln's approval, prevented this from happening (see Bruce Catton, editor, The National Experience: A History of the United States, Second Edition, New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1968, p. 336). There is little doubt the Crittenden Compromise would have been approved by a substantial majority of the people if the measure had been put to a national vote (see, for example, Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln, Volume 2, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950, pp. 401-402).
At the first committee vote on the compromise, the Southern representatives, including Robert Toombs and Jefferson Davis, said they would support the proposal if the Republicans did the same (Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln, p. 397). Vice President Breckinridge, who was from Kentucky, told the Senate that "the leading statesmen of the lower Southern States were willing to accept the terms" of the compromise (Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln, p. 398). But, as mentioned, the Republicans were unwilling to support it. Historian Allan Nevins noted that "the chief responsibility for the defeat of the compromise falls upon the twenty-five Republicans who voted to slay it" (The Emergence of Lincoln, p. 403).
* Four of the states that fought for the Union were slave states: Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri. In fact, when Lincoln sent the federal naval convoy to Fort Sumter, there were more slaves states in the Union than in the Confederacy.
* As of 1860, just one year before the outbreak of the Civil War, roughly half of the free blacks in America lived in the South, and in the Southern cities of New Orleans and Charleston alone there were more free blacks who owned real estate than in the Northern cities of Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, and Boston combined (see Franklin and Moss, From Slavery to Freedom, pp. 169-175). I again quote African-American scholars Franklin and Moss:
Free blacks in the Southern states also accumulated property. . . . Luther P. Jackson found that in Virginia in 1860 free blacks owned more than 60,000 acres of farmland and their city real estate was valued at $463,000. In North Carolina they owned $480,000 worth of real property and $564,000 worth of personal property in 1860. In Charleston, 352 blacks paid taxes in 1859 on property valued in excess of $778,000. Tennessee's free blacks owned about $750,000 worth of real and personal property in 1860. The affluence of a large number of free blacks in New Orleans is well known. (Franklin and Moss, From Slavery to Freedom, pp. 174-175)
* The same Republicans who vehemently attacked the South over slavery, and who imposed harsh Reconstruction rule on the South after the war, approved official discrimination against the American Indians in the West and permitted them to be segregated from the rest of society. One textbook, edited by Civil War scholar Bruce Catton, puts it this way:
The same Congress that devised Radical Reconstruction . . . approved strict segregation and inequality for the Indian of the West. (Catton, editor, The National Experience, p. 416)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael T. Griffith
holds a Master’s degree in Theology from The Catholic Distance University, a
Graduate Certificate in Ancient and Classical History from American Military
University, a Bachelor of Science degree in Liberal Arts from Excelsior
College, two Associate in Applied Science degrees from the Community College of
the Air Force, and an Advanced Certificate of Civil War Studies and a
Certificate of Civil War Studies from Carroll College. He is a two-time
graduate in Arabic and Hebrew of the Defense Language Institute in