American faux history: why did the South leave the Union?

Summary:  The history of the State-sponsored oppression of Black Americans (1776-1964) is the story about one of our two great national sins.  Rather than confess and repent, many Americans prefer to take refuge in lies (the other, our treatment of Native Americans, is resolved by amnesia).  However comforting, this both divides us and diminishes our ability to see ourselves clearly — both seriously weakening the Republic.  That may be the intent of those propagating these lies.  Here we confront one tiny facet:  why the South left the Union.  This is a follow-up to American faux history: could we have avoided the Civil War?

Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.
— Cicero, Orator Ad M. Brutum (46 B.C.)

History does not belong to us, we belong to it.
— Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, p. 276

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
— George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Vol. 1: Reason in Common Sense (1905)

After their defeat the South created reasons for the war more appealing to a non-slaveowning society, such as over tariffs and economic factors.  This myth continues today, propagated by people using the Confederacy to score emotional and theoretical points advancing their political interests.

Before we delve into this, here’s a repeat of yesterday’s introduction:  the American civil war is one of the most intensely studied events in US history, so that a layperson can only touch a small part of it.  But some aspects of its history are so clear we need not read the whole to find the answer.  Such as a reliable guess as to why the South left the Union. As all parents know, “why” is the most difficult of questions.  We have no calculus of the mind.  No X-rays of the soul.

But we have a guide to the past, better than agressive guessing.  Contemporaneous speeches and letters speak to us about their reasons for fighting.  They describe slavery as the primary issue that impelled the South to leave the Union.  Economic systems have moral foundations, as explained by philosophers from Karl Marx to Barry Goldwater.  So slavery had deep roots in Southern society, making resolution difficult (as discussed in yesterday’s post).

Today we look at a four voices from the past, a tiny fragment of the vast record from that era.

(1)  The Cornerstone Speech by Alexander H. Stephens on 21 March 1861 at Savannah, Georgia. Excerpt:

But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.

Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away.

This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

(2)  The Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union“, a legal proclamation issued by the South Carolina Secession Convention on 24 December 1860. It set forth the reasons SC seceded from the United States. It did not even mention the secondary issues such as tariffs, and focused on slavery.  In the middle it at last states a grievance.  The only one stated, the basis for succession.

The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: “No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”

This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made. … The same article of the Constitution stipulates also for rendition by the several States of fugitives from justice from the other States.

The General Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.

… We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in 15 of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection. …

(3)  The Address of the people of South Carolina, assembled in Convention, to the people of the Slaveholding States of the United States“. Written by Robert Rhett, issued by the South Carolina Secession Convention in 1860. Opening:

Citizens of the slaveholding States of the United States, circumstances beyond our control have placed us in the van of the great controversy between the Northern and Southern States. We would have preferred that other States should have assumed the position we now occupy. Independent ourselves, we disclaim any design or desire to lead the councils of the other Southern States. Providence has cast our lot together, by extending over us an identity of pursuits, interests, and institutions.

South Carolina desires no destiny separated from yours. To be one of a great slaveholding confederacy, stretching its arms over a territory larger than any Power in Europe possesses — with population four times greater than that of the whole United States when they achieved their independence of the British Empire — with productions which make our existence more important to the world than that of any other people inhabiting it — with common institutions to defend, and common dangers to encounter — we ask your sympathy and confederation.

(4)  Speech by George Williamson (Confederate Commissioner of Louisiana) to the Texas Secession Convention to persuade them to join the Confederacy, at Austin, Texas on 9 March 1861 — Many mentions of slavery; he does not mention tariffs.

Texas affords to the commerce of Louisiana a large portion of her products, and in exchange the banks of New Orleans furnish Texas with her only paper circulating medium. Louisiana supplies to Texas a market for her surplus wheat, grain and stock; both States have large areas of fertile, uncultivated lands, peculiarly adapted to slave labor; and they are both so deeply interested in African slavery that it may be said to be absolutely necessary to their existence, and is the keystone to the arch of their prosperity.

… The people of Louisiana would consider it a most fatal blow to African slavery, if Texas either did not secede or having seceded should not join her destinies to theirs in a Southern Confederacy. If she remains in the union the abolitionists would continue their work of incendiarism and murder. Emigrant aid societies would arm with Sharp’s rifles predatory bands to infest her northern borders.

… As a separate republic, Louisiana remembers too well the whisperings of European diplomacy for the abolition of slavery in the times of annexation not to be apprehensive of bolder demonstrations from the same quarter and the North in this country. The people of the slaveholding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery. The isolation of any one of them from the others would make her a theatre for abolition emissaries from the North and from Europe. Her existence would be one of constant peril to herself and of imminent danger to other neighboring slave-holding communities.

For more information

Other valuable sources about slavery and the South:

  • The overthrow of colonial slavery, 1776-1848 By Robin Blackburn (1988)
  • The Culture of Defeat – On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery by Wolfgang Schivelbusch (2001)
  • The Confederate And Neo-Confederate Reader – The Great Truth about the Lost Cause, Edited by James W. Loewen and  Edward H. Sebesta (2010)
  • Recommended:  “Compensation“, Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, 23 January 2012

Other posts about slavery:

  1. More propaganda: the eco-fable of Easter Island, 4 February 2010 – Leftists erasing slavery from the record (green fables trump suffering of browns)
  2. It’s Confederate History Month in Virginia!, 8 April 2010
  3. Justice for slavers (esp sex traffickers):  hang them high!, 20 August 2010 — True today just as it was true in 1860
  4. Pain and misery builds discipline!, 12 October 2010 — General Lee explains how slavery helps slaves become better people

Other posts about America losing touch with its past

  1. The introduction:  Losing touch with our past weakens us, 12 December 2008
  2. We have trouble coping with our present because we’ve lost our past, 23 October 2010
  3. For other posts about this see the History Reference Page

32 thoughts on “American faux history: why did the South leave the Union?”

  1. “Rather than confess and repent”

    Does this not require one to connect with those who committed these sins? Is every American required to repent? Only Whites? What about recent immigrants? What about people from Alaska?

    I see your point. I feel bad for people who are abused and denied. But what if you are American and had nothing to do with it? Is that possible? I suppose there is data somewhere showing that all are still committing these crimes to an extent. I’m thinking Mike Davis.

    Also, another question: when people talk bot the Iraq war and the Afghanistan War in 2100 will their be deniers or such? Will they be the ones saying we went to for for WMD’s and terrorists? Or is that not applicable in the same way.

    Sorry if this off on a tangent. Sorry if it is rude too, I don’t mean it that way. Just asking. Thanks

    1. Thank you for this powerful question! This takes us into metaphysics, beyond fact and logic.

      All Americans, including immigrants, inherit America. Including its strengths — and its history. They get to exhult in its triumphs at the 4th of July parades. And get to mourn our mistakes, such as treatment of slaves and Indians. Asking everybody to acknowledge these mistakes (“confess”) and attempt to do better in the future (“repent”) is asking little.

    2. “All Americans, including immigrants, inherit America. Including its strengths — and its history. They get to exhult in its triumphs at the 4th of July parades. And get to mourn our mistakes, such as treatment of slaves and Indians. Asking everybody to acknowledge these mistakes (“confess”) and attempt to do better in the future (“repent”) is asking little.”

      Brilliantly put. This could go into a presidential speech. Wow.

    3. Actually, collective repentance binds a nation together. It’s a form of healing and forgiveness to allow the state to move forward. Denying the pasts is a form of slavery that will only perpetuate the problems and divide the state into various nations. See truth and reconciliation committees in South Africa.

      1. The South Africa history — and post-WWII Germany — are the extreme examples of nations determined to own and move beyond their history!

        Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.
        — Cicero, Orator Ad M. Brutum (46 B.C.)

        History does not belong to us, we belong to it.
        — Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, p. 276

        Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
        — George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Vol. 1: Reason in Common Sense (1905)

      1. Yes, that seems a reasonable step. As said below, repent in the sense of “try to do better.” It’s hardly the same as asking for reparations, or that the descendent ritual seppuku.

    4. When I was about five years old, I remember my Dad introducing me to a black family who shared our last name. Both of our families were selling some surplus veggies at the farmer’s market. Since I come from Anglo/ Germans of the frog-belly white variety, I was a little confused. “Are we related..?” I think I waited til we were out of earshot to ask that. It was then explained how black people usually ended up with European names in this country, and I distinctly remember that being my first inkling that the world was probably insane.

      I don’t feel any particular connection to whomever those slave-holding ancestors were. I also can’t dodge what they did.

  2. Slaves were viewed as property not people and many laws dealt with fugitive slaves long before the loosely woven Confederation of States became the United States. The Northwest Ordinance institutionalized free territories versus slave states. Personally, I view the fugitive slave laws and the Northwest ordinance as setting up the template for the Civil War because a body of laws and a physical boundary were created which effectively were the parameters leading to the divisions of Free States vs. Slaves States (sanctioned geographically and legislatively to be so).

  3. My ancestors came over from Norway shortly after the civil war. They settled on lands in Wisconsin which had already been cleared of their native american inhabitants. Did they participate in the genocide? No. Did they benefit from it? Yes.

    Pick a rapacious corporation. Did the heir to the CEO participate in its depradations and abusive business practices? No. Did they benefit from them? Yes.

    It’s easy to point out when someone is still in the process of committing a crime; it’s a little trickier when you have multi-generation separation between the crime and its effect. Most of today’s surviving European nobility are the descendants of successful red-handed thugs; that’s the origin of their pedigree; their “good blood” if you will – and most of their fortunes. Nobody will likely hold Prince Charles up as a red-fisted oppressor but he’s decidedly benefitted from being born with a crested, gold, spoon in his mouth. As I have, being born of a family that was white during a period of apartheid rule. OK, my spoon was a plastic chrome-plated spork compared to Charles’ …

    I’m a moral nihilist (I withhold judgement regarding ethical systems’ being able to answer these kind of questions in a way that everyone would agree is “right” let alone “fair”) so I certainly can’t offer a solution of my own to those problems. However, it appears to me that the inherent unfairness and randomness of the circumstances of one’s birth make it seem to be a good argument for why we might wish to strive to maximize social equality at birth and offer the most even playing field possible in terms of education and opportunity for everyone. It also might explain why many people, being born fortunate, pat themselves on their backs for their wise choice of parents and feel that they somehow earned their good fortune.

    1. I agree we should acknowledge our good luck and fortune. And we should do good things.

      But is good fortune a form of Original Sin?

    2. Romans 5:12-21 (NIV)

      Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.

      1 Corinthians 15:22 (NIV):

      For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.

    3. This is a tricky question. It is very hard to hold to a world view of all aggression being morally and punishable and look at the history of the world frankly. Frankly, we’re all living on land that was forcibly taken from others. And those that we forcibly took it from, forcibly took it from others before us. Our current life would be impossible without this history. None of this seems like it should be right.

      The ancients had different perspective on this moral conundrum. For them, those who eventually ended up with the land, deserved it somehow. But at the same time, those who relished the sins of war would inevitably be consumed by them. I’ve started to think that maybe the ancients had were right.

  4. San Francisco Is A Major Center For International Crime Networks That Smuggle And Enslave“, Meredith May, San Francisco Chronicle, 6 October 2006

    Right now, we live amongst slaves and don’t even know it. This article is from 2006, but I don’t think the situation has changed much. The newspapers here do articles now and then on this issue.

    “Yuki, 25, who fears for her safety and only gave her first name to The Chronicle during an interview in Seoul, said she was trafficked from South Korea to a karaoke bar in Inglewood (Los Angeles County), where she was assured that she would simply be serving drinks to men. Once there, she was ordered to sell $3,000 worth of drinks each month. When she failed, she was sent to the “touching room,” a private suite where men could have their way with her for $400.

    Sex slaves who work in massage parlors and bars are often locked in their place of business by double security doors, monitored by surveillance cameras and only let outside under the guard of crooked taxi drivers who ferry them to their next sex appointment.”

    You don’t have to go to Mauritania or the civil war south to find slavery, just open the phone book and look up escort services, especially the ones specializing in ‘Asians.’ It’s just intentional blindness. We don’t see slavery because it threatens our own sense of goodness.

    1. These stories of sex slavery have run in America for well over a century, as they’re always good to boost circulation. Repeated investigations have found the incidence of sexual slavery to be quite small (which does not diminish the seriousness of the crime, nor its high rate in other nations). For reliable information see:

      (1) “The Social Construction of Sex Trafficking: Ideology and Institutionalization of a Moral Crusade“, Ronald Weitzer (George Washington University), Politics & Society, September 2007 — Abstract:

      The issue of sex trafficking has become increasingly politicized in recent years due to the efforts of an influential moral crusade. This article examines the social construction of sex trafficking (and prostitution more generally) in the discourse of leading activists and organizations within the crusade, and concludes that the central claims are problematic, unsubstantiated, or demonstrably false. The analysis documents the increasing endorsement and institutionalization of crusade ideology in U.S. government policy and practice.

      (2) For more information see: Justice for slavers (esp sex traffickers): hang them high!, 20 August 2010 — True today just as it was true in 1860. About sex trafficing in other nations, and stories of it in the US. Some of the articles cited:

      1. The Girls Next Door“, Peter Landesman, New York Times Magazine, 25 January 2004
      2. Assessing Landesman, Jack Shafer, Slate — “How well does Peter Landesman’s sex-slavery investigation in New York Times Magazine stand up?” A devastating rebuttal.
      3. The New Abolitionists“, Nina Shapiro, Seattle Weekly, 30 August 2004 — “Freeing ‘sex slaves’ is now at the top of the human rights agenda, thanks largely to Christian evangelicals. How did the anti-trafficking crusade evolve, and is it being overhyped?”
      4. Human Trafficking Evokes Outrage, Little Evidence“, Washington Post, 23 September 2007 — “U.S. Estimates Thousands of Victims, But Efforts to Find Them Fall Short”
      5. Prostitution: facts and fictions“, Ronald Weitzer, Contexts, Fall 2007 — “Although sometimes romanticized in popular culture, prostitution is more often portrayed as intrinsically oppressive and harmful. How accurate is this image?”
    2. This was a pretty big deal around here. This Korean group was bringing in women to the brothels throughout California. This was not some reporter’s imagination. Agents Said to Dismantle a Korean Sex Ring, New York Times, 2 July 2005 — “The indictment in San Francisco said that from September 2001 to October 2004 the defendants “recruited and enticed female Korean nationals to illegally enter the United States.” The women, in their 20’s, were held captive and forced to work as prostitutes.”

      Yes, this is not unique to the USA. It’s part of a business that’s in Japan and all of the Asian and the pacific countries.

      Here’s a new twist on the slavery story. In this case it’s Filipino women brought in to work in the Louisiana public school system. These people were charged large up front fees to participate, and then were forced to pay more money or face deportation back home: “Precedent-Setting Human Trafficking Case“, Ralph E. Stone, column in the Berkeley Daily Planet, 20 January 2012:

      “From 2006 to the filing of the lawsuit in 2010, the defendants recruited experienced Filipino teachers to work in Louisiana public schools under the H-1B guestworker visa program. Most of the teachers had to borrow money to pay the recruiting fees, which ranged from $5,000 to $5,500. This is about one and half times the average annual income in the Philippines. The teachers were not told until after the first fee had been paid that they would be required to pay the first three months of their projected salary before they could leave for the United States. The first two months was collected in advance. The third month’s salary was to be collected after the first year of employment. If the teachers resisted paying the third month’s salary, they were threatened with being sent back to the Philippines and losing the thousands they had already paid.

      “And in this case, the complaint alleges that psychological coercion such as seizing immigrants’ passports to restrict their ability to flee, threats to fire Plaintiffs, sue them, allow their visas to expire, or deport them over various issues that generally concerned complaints about living conditions and pay.”

      The H1-B visas create an opportunity these firms to abuses foreign workers and undercut American workers. This looks like a pretty blatant case. To the extent that this involves coercion — I’d call it slavery.

      1. (1) If you believe everything the government says to the press when making an arrest, you will learn a great many things that are not so. If you read the links I went to some effort to provide, you’ll find a long history of voluntary prostitution characterized as sex slavery — for obvious reasons. Please read some of the links I provided to gain some actual knowledge of this subject.

        (2) Yes, I hope we’re all aware that slavery — of various kinds — still exists in the world. On farms in East Africa and the Indian subcontinent. In Arabia, in another form. In other places.

        (3) You shift from sex slavery to extortion. If you can call extortion by violence “slavery”, but its quite different from what most people mean by the term.

        • Extortion: The practice of obtaining something, esp. money, through force or threats.
        • Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work.
      2. BTW — to repeat — I don’t know the actual details about the Korean sex ring. There is certainly some level of sex slavery in America, as every crime (however horrible) exists in this large nation. The evidence shows that the incidence of this has been repeatedly exaggerated by newspapers and police since the late 19th century.

  5. Tariffs and economic factors are why the Slave holders thought they could win, but not why they tried to leave the union. They really thought that King Cotten would get Britain and maybe France to intervene. Read about General Shermans attitude toward the south based on his tenure as a teacher at a military academy in the south. It was obvious they would no longer be able to maintain slavery as more free states were addded.
    The thing that seems strange from today’s perspective is that so many people that did not own slaves and in fact were dirt poor would fight for a right for a rich elite to own slaves. They did not see it in that light but it was what happened. The pride in your state might be compared to the way people view sports teams.

    1. Strange from today’s perspective? You muuust be joking. The descendents of the white trash class that was willing to die to benefit the planter class is now rapidly in favor of getting rid of taxes on the rich in favor of taxes on themselves (flat tax and its variants). And not just in the south. Remember Joe the Plumber. His idea of getting the economy back on track: get rid of the capital gains and corporate income taxes. Like he and his peers would benefit from that.

      One explanation for this behavior is that these lower class right-wingers hope to get a job working as an enforcer/policeman for the elite. Unfortunately, these hopes are not likely to be fulfilled, since the masters don’t need that many enforcers and they usually prefer enforcers with brains (and teeth, too, who wants to have employees around who don’t have front teeth?).

  6. The First and Second Reconstructions Considered as Insurgencies

    Forthcoming: “Review Essay: Wars for the American South: The First and Second Reconstructions Considered as Insurgencies“, Mark Grimsley (Visiting Professor, US Army War College), Civil War History, March 2012 — Abstract:

    Our featured review essay by eminent military historian Mark Grimsley imaginatively combines recent scholarship from the Reconstruction and the Civil Rights eras with contemporary counterinsurgency theory. Bringing together these disparate strands of research leads him to the provocative conclusion that the hundred years after Appomattox is best understood as a century-long insurgency, a “protracted war for the American South,” which pitted “the forces of white supremacy against the forces of black liberation.”

  7. Why the Civil Rights Movement Was an Insurgency

    Why the Civil Rights Movement Was an Insurgency“, Mark Grimsley, HistoryNet, 24 February 2010 — Excerpt:

    Labeling that movement an insurgency flies in the face of the common perception of what constitutes an insurgency. Three objections spring to mind. One is superficial, though perhaps understandable in the post-9/11 era: Isn’t it outrageous to call the movement an insurgency? Aren’t insurgencies evil? Such a reaction fails to recognize that the term “insurgency” is value-neutral. Insurgents have also fought for noble causes. The United States itself was the product of an insurgency.

    The remaining objections are more substantive. First, the movement was nonviolent, so how could it have been an insurgency? After all, even the official U.S. Department of Defense definition of insurgency assumes “armed conflict” as a basic tactic. Second, it is often thought that the civil rights movement received unstinting support from the U.S. government. Popular films such as Mississippi Burning (1988), whose protagonists are Federal Bureau of Investigation agents hell-bent on defeating the Ku Klux Klan, reinforce this interpretation. If so much pressure on segregationist governments emanated from above, then using the term “insurgency” — a challenge to the existing power structure from below — seems preposterous.

    These objections, however, hinge on serious misconceptions about the nature of the civil rights movement, about the stance the federal government took toward civil rights, and above all about the scope of the “insurgency” concept. Once these are cleared away, the notion of the movement as an insurgency becomes more plausible. Ultimately, it becomes inescapable.

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  9. I’m afraid you’ve wasted a lot of words battling a strawman.

    When people assert that the US Civil War wasn’t about slavery, they’re absolutely correct.

    The SECESSION was (mostly) about slavery.

    The WAR was about Lincoln wanting to preserve the union – he said this himself.

    If the South had attempted to secede over tariffs, or economic factors, or women’s bonnets for that matter, there’d still have been a war because the issue for Lincoln wouldn’t have been tariffs/economic factors/women’s bonnets, the issue would have been the breakup of the union.

    Understanding and acknowledging this key distinction does not somehow mean you’re an apologist for slavery, it does however mean you can stop being an apologist for Lincoln.

    And yes, slavery would have ended in the South eventually; no other polity required a war that killed three quarters of a million people to bring about the end of slavery.

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