The Southern Perspective

Last month, I wrote about my opinion as to why the Northern states initially fought in the Civil War. This month I will discuss my opinion as to why the Southern states decided that Secession was the right thing for them to do. Southerners did not arrive at this decision overnight. Lincoln’s election for President was a symptom of a bigger problem that had been festering for years.

The Southern states originally went from a “society with slaves” which also included indentured servants to a “slave society” where slavery was the basis of the economy. This created a foundation where a minority of men formed a powerful ruling class. When we think of slave owners in the South, we think of the large plantations with hundreds of slaves. In reality, approximately 25% of Southerners had slaves and if they did it was usually 1 or 2 slaves to help the family in the fields. It was expensive to own a slave. In today’s currency a slave could cost up to $36,000. So a minority of men with large slave holdings ran the Southern governments. In fact, “no other state has such a large contingent of slave owners in its legislature” as South Carolina did. The Planter class supported the idea of secession in hopes that it would protect their property and their investments. Soon to be President, Abraham Lincoln in an 1860 speech stated that “The value of the slave population is not less than $2,000,000,000. This amount of property has a vast influence upon the minds of those who own it…Slaveholders battle any policy which depreciates their slaves as property. What increases the value of this property, they favor.”

In fact, the South Carolina delegation of 169 representatives that voted to secede on December 20, 1860 was comprised of nearly all men that were slave owners. Almost most half of them owned at least 50 slaves and 27 of them owned more than 100 slaves each. It was these men that decided an additional document was needed that would Justify the secession of South Carolina. This document was the “Declaration of Immediate Causes.” It was stated in this document, not in the “Ordinance of Secession” that the Northern States had “deliberately broken the federal compact by repudiating their responsibility under the fourth article of the United States Constitution to return runaway slaves.”

Many delegates felt it was not an accurate representation of what they voted for. “The report was so heavily laced with slavery rhetoric that another delegate, Maxcy Gregg, stood up and complained that “not one word is said about the tariff, which for so many years caused a contest in this State against the Federal Government.” They also wanted the document to include the issue about the federal expenditures for internal improvements. There was a motion to table the Memminger’ report, as it was called before it got its official title of “Declaration of Immediate Causes.” Gregg had at least 2 dozen delegates on his side. A voice vote was done on Christmas Eve and it passed by a margin of 4 to 1. The influential planters’ delegates such as Williams Middleton had the power in that room. Because it was done as a voice vote, even today it is not know how many really voted for slavery to be the main reason to secede. As delegate Lawrence M. Keitt stated this declaration “rest disunion upon the question of slavery.”  An interesting fact in the days leading up to December 20, there were other drafts presented to a committee for the wording of the “Ordinance of Secession”. One that survived is dated December 11, 1860 and it cites tariffs in addition to the issue of fugitive slave laws as a reason that South Carolina was seceding. Somehow along the way the perception of states’ rights changed from a tariff issue to the runaway slave laws.

As I mentioned in my December blog: 151 Years Ago Secession, it was the tariff issues of 1828 & 1832 and Calhoun’s Nullification Paper that started the push for secession. In a speech by John C. Calhoun in 1850, (10 years before the war)he discusses the main reasons why the state of the Union had gotten to point of an exploding conflict.

  1. “The equilibrium between the two sections in the government as it stood when the constitution was ratified and the government put in action has been destroyed. At that time there was nearly a perfect equilibrium between the two, which afforded ample means to act to protect itself against the aggression of the other; but as it now stands, one section has the exclusive power of controlling the government, which leaves the other without any adequate means of protecting itself against its encroachment of and oppression.” This can be seen in the election of Lincoln. Lincoln had the Electoral College vote even if the Democratic Party had not split its unity between candidates. The interesting thing is that Lincoln was not on any ballots in the South. How scary is that for a Southern to think that a man can be elected President by only Northern voters. This uneven power was not going to change as new states were added to the Union unless they were allowed to be “slave states”. As stated by Mary A. DeCredico in her book “Mary Boykin Chestnut” “The plank that enraged them most was one that called for the prohibition of slavery in the territories. The prospect that a sectional party would drive them out of an equal share in western territories was a threat that could not be tolerated.”
  2. “.. System of revenue and disbursements which has been adopted by the government. It is well known that the government has derived its revenue mainly from duties on imports…..duties must necessarily fall mainly on the exporting states, and that the South, as the great exporting portion of the Union, has in reality paid vastly more than her due proportion of the revenue;… if to this be added that many of the duties were imposed, not for revenue but for protection—that is, intended to put money, not in the Treasury, but directly into the pockets of manufacturers.” This relates the issue of the Tariffs of 1828 & 1832 and other economic measures that were in place to assist Northern businesses.
  3. Slavery: “On the contrary, the Southern section regards the relation as one which cannot be destroyed without subjecting the two races to the greatest calamity and the section to poverty, desolation, and wretchedness; and accordingly they feel bound by every consideration of interest and safety to defend it.” This in my opinion is the real reason that Slavery was such a big issue. It was the economics of it. William Lowndes Yancey (1860): “Look at the value of that property. These slaves are worth $2800,000,000…Twenty-eight hundred millions of dollars are to be affected by the decision of this question [Presidential election of 1860]” And as stated by H.S. Foote : “If the price of slaves comes down, then the permanence of the institution comes down…the permanence of the system depends on keeping the prices high.” The South was commitment to agriculture for their economy.

The Northern businessman’s perception was that if slavery continued to exist it would affect the system of “free labor”. They were also afraid that decreasing land values would threaten the value of stocks in the railroads. (Land value was higher in the North and the value of personal property was higher in the South. Slaves were considered personal property). Each side felt that if their way of doing business was not expanded that it would die.

To read Calhoun’s speech in its entirety:

Let’s put all of this in perspective, in the ten years before the war began, Southerners were subject to the following:

  • The Republican platform that endorsed a National Bank with no support from the Southern states
  • Federal aid for internal improvements for roads with most funding funneled to Northern states
  • Federal involvement and policies in regards to slavery and expansionism in the West, again with no regard (say) of the Southern states
  • Minority representation in both houses of Congress, thus no influence towards the 3rdbranch of government the Supreme Court
  • Attacks by Northerners on Southerners for defending their right to own slaves. (Slavery was a right in the Constitution at this time.)
  • The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 even though he did not even APPEAR on any ballots in the South.

At this moment in time (December 1860), the election of Abraham Lincoln represented the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back” and was the boiling point for Southerners. It would be logical to say that the Southern states had no say, influence or vote in all three branches of the federal government.

Therefore it can be reasoned that the Southern states lived in a reality of “taxation without representation” and thought it their right (as did the founding fathers in 1776) to “dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another”. It is also no surprise that many of the Southern leaders “wrapped themselves” in the cloak of the founding fathers and the spirit of ’76 at the beginning of the war.

But as the war proceeded the majority of Southerner’s perspective became that the Civil War was a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” Most confederate soldiers were notslaveholders but believed in the right of each state to define its slave law, not the Federal government. Most Southern politicians wove the above points and portrayed the plight of the Southern man with no say in the Federal government as such that war was inevitable.

Over these last 2 blogs I hope that I have given you a new perspective on why the Civil War was fought and how the “Peculiar Institution”: Slavery was part of the reason for the war but not in the way that you may have thought.

Thanks for reading

Lee Ann

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