Why did the South decide to secede from the Union? What were all the circumstances, political, social, economic and moral that led to the South's decision to slice the nation in half? This paper reviews those issues -- including all the political and economic issues leading up to the secession -- through the use of available scholarly literature.
The South -- Just Prior to the Civil War -- Prepares for Secession
Prior to the national presidential election of 1860, the South was in very good shape politically, in terms of the federal government. In the book Liberty, Equality, Power: A History of the American People, Volume 1: To 1877, the authors explain that through the Jacksonian Democratic coalition, Southern political leaders had "maintained effective control of the national government right up to 1860" (Boyer, et al., 2010, p. 427). As long as the "pliant James Buchanan occupied the White House, southerners did no more than talk about secession," Boyer explains.
A letter from South Carolina's governor, Francis Pickens, a politician that had been very much in favor of the South seceding from the Union, tells some of the story. Pickens' letter to a fellow South Carolinian in 1857 outlined why he believed, however, that the South would not necessarily need to secede at that time.
"We have the Executive (President James Buchanan) with us, and the Senate & in all probability the House of Representatives too," Pickens wrote, going on to point out that the Supreme Court had ruled that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. (The Missouri Compromise was a deal that would prevent slavery to spread to new states that had been admitted to the Union.) "So… before our enemies can reach us, must first break down the Supreme Court, change the Senate & seize the Executive…repeal the Fugitive slave law & change the whole government. As long as the Govt. is on our side I am for sustaining it & using its power for our benefit & placing the screws upon the throats of our opponents" (Boyer, 427).
Unfortunately for Governor Pickens, Abraham Lincoln was elected president and the House and Senate also went to Republicans (the progressive party, the anti-slavery party at the time) -- which turned out to be Pickens' "worst-case scenario," according to Boyer. A newspaper in South Carolina referred to the election as a "revolution" designed to "cripple slavery" and "place it in course of ultimate extinction" (Boyer, 427). The editorial went on to predict that with Lincoln as president, "Northern Black Republicans would force racial equality on the South, and Abolition preachers will be on hand to consummate the marriage of your daughters to black husbands" (Boyer, 428).
In addition to Governor Pickens, many southerners had talked secession, but on December 20, 1860, a convention in South Carolina took place in which South Carolina formally voted ("unanimously") for secession, Boyer explains. South Carolina was quickly joined by Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas, and the Confederate States of America was established.
Why Secession? Various Scholarly Opinions
In The American South: A History, Volume 2, the authors explain that "Southern leaders believed that the economic power of their cotton would force France and especially Great Britain to intervene on their behalf" (Cooper, et al., 2009, p. 384). Hence, the "misplaced faith in the omnipotence of cotton governed Confederate diplomatic strategy… [and moreover] in cotton the Confederate government thought it had the lever that would force Great Britain to recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation…" and as a result England would perhaps even sent troops to help the south (Cooper, 385). "They made a grave miscalculation," Cooper asserts. That miscalculation notwithstanding, thinking cotton would be a trump card led them to the decision to break away from the North.
Bruce C. Levine insists that secession was brought about because of "sectional animosity" (there certainly was animosity), and because of the breakdown of the Whig party, and also because the "fragmentation of the Democrats, [and] the rise of the Republicans" (Levine, 2005, x). And of course the animosity between the North and South was exacerbated by the slavery issue; but Levine does not believe secession was a result of "…mere political clumsiness, careerism, chicanery, or coincidence" (xi). The secession and war issues "…grew organically out of large-scale societal changes" and the slave economy -- that helped the South produce "two-thirds of all the cotton grown in the world" -- helped to encourage the South to believe it could become independent of the north and fight the North successfully if it came to that (Levine, 21).
William Cooper lists a number of reasons for secession in his article in The Journal of Southern History: a) Historian William L. Barney believes "a serious drought had a central role"; b) Michael P. Johnson explains that in Georgia, "arch-conservatives plus bad weather on election day combined to drown the opponents of immediate secession"; c) John M. Sacher believes the "widespread distress over Lincoln's election…" brought on secession; d) there were "mysterious fires in the Dallas region that spawned hysteria spreading through the state… believing abolitionist activity and slave unrest responsible, and fearful of what might be forthcoming, Texans raced for safety outside the Union" (Cooper, 2011, p. 6).
When a vote came up in Texas in 1861 -- secession or not? -- the voters in Northeast Texas took a stand against secession but voters in southern Texas backed secession (Lundberg, 2009, p. 29). The reason for the northern Texas voters coming down against secession, Lundberg explains, those voters were from the "Upper South" and they "…looked with suspicion and distrust on the cotton interests of the Lower South"; but the slaveholders lived in the Lower south, and they outnumbered the northern voters, hence, when Lincoln was elected it "sent shock waves through the South, and many that had "threatened secession if a Republican should be elected" took action and got a majority vote to secede (Lundberg, 31).
Arthur Versluis points out that some legislators in the North and South believed that secession was "possible," and legal, based on the Declaration of Independence, which reads:
"When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation… It is the Right of the People
to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government…" (Versluis, 2007, 308-09).
Shearer Davis Bowman believes secession occurred because "the lives and thoughts of a diverse group of influential people in the North and the South" led to such an intense degree for which "…each side had come to view the other as a conspiratorial, ruthless power that would not stop until it had subjugated its rival" (Bowman, 2010). In fact, Bowman goes further in his book, asserting that the South saw the Republican strategy of "containing" the "peculiar institution" as a plan for "its ultimate extinction." Northerners, meanwhile, according to Bowman, saw the South's strategy as wanting slavery to spread into new territories, to ensure the right of slaveholders to take their property into "federal territory."
Russell McClintock's book embraces the idea that the Civil War began "not when Southern states seceded but when the Northern states acted forcibly to stop them" (McClintock,2008, p. 3). That said, McClintock believes that secession gained a foothold in the South "…in direct response to the outcome of a national election, specifically to the triumph of a particular party" -- in this case, the Republicans won with Lincoln as president (McClintock, 5).
Noted historian Eric Foner asks, "Why did the South secede, and why did the North refuse to let the South secede?" Those are pertinent questions, and he has an answer: he believes that "secession should be viewed as a total and logical response by the South to the situation which confronted it in the election of Lincoln" (Foner, 1995, p. 316). After all, Foner continues, the action of secession was "the only action consistent with [the South's] ideology" and as for the North, the decision to maintain the Union "…was inherent in their ideology." In fact the Republican ideology was based on identifying with "the aspirations of the farmers, small entrepreneurs, and craftsmen of northern society" because those groups gave the Republican ideology a great deal of its "…dynamic, progressive, and optimistic quality" (Foner, 316).
Factors Leading Up to Secession -- Background to the Crisis
By the middle of the 19th Century, Americans were experiencing a surge in income -- "real wages for workers increased between…40 and 65%" (McPherson, 1988, p.10) -- as per capita income had doubled since the turn of the century. Black Americans (1/7th of the population) and Native Americans were not able to enjoy this economic growth, however. But meanwhile, the antislavery movement had entered the political world, and sharp divisions of philosophy on the issue were in the air, as…