Steps to Secession and War

Although the causes of the Civil War are still debated, it is difficult to imagine the Civil War occurring without recognizing the impact of slavery had on the difficulties between the North and the South. For a time the tariff and other issues divided North and South, but there is practically no mention of any of them in the secession documents or in the great debates of the 1850s. Some argue that it was an issue of states’ rights, but none of the secession documents argue their case on those grounds. Indeed, in the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession, the first to be adopted and to some extent a model for later ones, part of South Carolina's justifications lies in the fact that northern states had attempted to annul the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Those northern states were, in effect, exercising their states’ rights, but South Carolina did not approve.

Many Americans nevertheless believe that the Civil War was only incidentally connected with slavery. That view is difficult to reconcile with the known facts based upon existing documents from the Civil War era. Virtually every major political issue of a controversial nature between 1850 and 1860 deals with the issue of slavery. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, there was much discussion of slavery that resulted in the so-called 3/5 compromise. The founding fathers—and mothers—were concerned about the impact of the “peculiar institution” on the future of the American Republic.

Since the institution of slavery was dying out in parts of the country during the Revolutionary era, it is understandable that the framers of the Constitution hoped that slavery would die a natural death. Slave owners such as a Washington, Jefferson, and George Mason, all understood the dangers involved in the continuation of slavery in the nation. Indeed, during the Constitutional convention, on August 22, 1787, George Mason made a speech in which he, in effect, predicted the Civil War because of slavery. As James Madison's notes recorded, Mason argued as follows during the debate on the slave trade:

This infernal traffic originated in the avarice of British Merchants. The British Government constantly checked the attempts of Virginia to put a stop to it. The present question concerns not the importing States alone but the whole Union. The evil of having slaves was experienced during the late war. Had slaves been treated as they might have been by the Enemy, they would have proved dangerous instruments in their hands. But their folly dealt by the slaves, as it did by the Tories. He mentioned the dangerous insurrections of the slaves in Greece and Sicily; and the instructions given by Cromwell to the Commissioners sent to Virginia, to arm the servants and slaves, in case other means of obtaining its submission should fail. Maryland and Virginia he said had already prohibited the importation of slaves expressly. North Carolina had done the same in substance. All this would be in vain if South Carolina and Georgia be at liberty to import. The Western people are already calling out for slaves for their new lands, and will fill that Country with slaves if they can be got through South Carolina and Georgia. Slavery discourages arts and manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves. They prevent the immigration of Whites, who really enrich and strengthen a Country. They produce the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a Country. As nations can not be rewarded or punished in the next world they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects providence punishes national sins, by national calamities. He lamented that some of our Eastern brethren had from a lust of gain embarked in this nefarious traffic. As to the States being in possession of the Right to import, this was the case with many other rights, now to be properly given up. He held it essential in every point of view that the General Government should have power to prevent the increase of slavery. [Emphasis added]

The fact that the founding fathers were not prepared to deal with the issue more directly, combined with the invention of the cotton gin and the booming southern cotton industry which followed, reversed what some had seen as a gradual diminution of the institution of slavery in America.

The Constitution permitted Congress to ban the importation of slaves 20 years after adoption of the Constitution and that measure was carried out in 1808.In 1820 the issue arose again over the admission of the state of Missouri to the union. The famous Missouri Compromise of that year allowed Missouri to come in as a slave state, with Maine entering as a free state at the same time, thus keeping the balance between free states and slave states in the Senate, but slavery was prohibited north of the southern boundary of Missouri from that time forward.

During the debate over the Mexican-American War, Congressmen David Wilmot of Pennsylvania offered a resolution that would have barred slavery from any territory gained as a result of the war. The Wilmot proviso never passed, so the conclusion of the war, which added most of the southwestern territory to the United States, meant that the issue of slavery in the territories would have to be revisited. The 1850 Compromise seemed to settle the issue once again, but the abolition movement, which had begun after the Missouri compromise of 1820, had deepened emotions on both sides of the issue. A new, tough fugitive slave act that was part of the 1850 compromise resulted, among other things, in the widespread popularity of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Attempts to capture runaway slaves in various Northern cities and towns raised tensions further.

What some historians have considered the greatest step on the road to the Civil War took place in 1854 with the passage of the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act under the aegis of Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. Douglas's motives have been examined elsewhere, but the crucial part of the act that disturbed many in the North was the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. The Nebraska Act and other issues led to the creation in 1854 of the Republican Party which, although it was not an abolitionist party per se, was the party most connected with those opposed to slavery. As it was clear that amending the Constitution to remove slavery from the states wherever it already existed was not feasible, the issue turned on the extension of slavery in the territories. Republican presidential candidate John C. Frémont in 1856 ran on a platform of “free soil free labor, free men, Frémont.”Frémont lost to James Buchanan, but the issue did not die.

In 1857 the Supreme Court case of Dred Scott v. Sanford once again stirred emotions on both sides. Chief Justice Roger Taney’s decision claimed that blacks and no rights which white men were bound to respect, and that the Missouri compromise had been unconstitutional. Meanwhile the situation in Kansas had grown violent and attempts to bring Kansas into the Union as a state failed. In 1858 the famous Lincoln Douglas debates once again took up the issue of slavery, as Lincoln argued that the government had the right to prohibit the extension of slavery into the territories while Douglas tried to paint Lincoln as a man in favor of full social and political equality for blacks.

Douglas won that election, but Lincoln’s stand on slavery enabled him to get the Republican nomination for president in 1860.The last major event before that election was John Brown's raid on the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry Virginia, which resulted in his trial, conviction and hanging. The celebration of John Brown as a martyr to the in the slavery cause further infuriated the South and set the tone for the divide that erupted upon Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860.

Ample evidence exists of the centrality of the slavery issue in other documents, such as the speeches and communications made by the secession commissioners from the first seven seceded states to the other slave states which had not yet followed them. One such letter addressed from an Alabama legislator to the North Carolina legislature claims that the federal government “proposes to impair the value of slave property in the States by unfriendly legislation [and] to prevent the further spread of slavery by surrounding us with free States.” In a speech to the Virginia Secession Convention a Georgia representative expressed his fear that soon “the black race will be in a large majority, and then we will have black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything.”

Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States, said this to the Virginia Convention:

As a race, the African is inferior to the white man. Subordination to the white man is his normal condition. He is not his equal by nature, and cannot be made so by human laws or human institutions. Our system, therefore, so far as regards this inferior race, rests upon this great immutable law of nature. It is founded not upon wrong or injustice, but upon the eternal fitness of things. Hence, its harmonious working for the benefit and advantage of both. … The great truth, I repeat, upon which our system rests, is the inferiority of the African. The enemies of our institutions ignore this truth. They set out with the assumption that the races are equal; that the negro is equal to the white man.

If slavery was not the root cause of the Civil War, a study of documents from the period before 1861 provides little evidence of any other cause.  As to claims that secession may have been caused by slavery but the Civil War was not, it is difficult to separate the two. Those who believe otherwise are invited to make their case and present supporting evidence.

The Constitution gave the federal government the right to abolish the international slave trade, but no power to regulate or destroy the institution of slavery where it already existed. Nonetheless, Congress prevented the extension of slavery to certain territories in the Northwest Ordinance (which carried over to the period after the Constitution) and the Missouri Compromise of 1820. So long as both North and South had opportunities for expansion, compromise had been possible. Traditionally, slavery  where it existed had been kept out of American politics, with the result that no practical program could be devised for its elimination in the southern states. Until the 1850s, however, Congress was understood to have the power to set conditions under which territories could become states and to forbid slavery in new states.

The abolition movement focused new attention on slavery beginning about 1830. When the moral issue of slavery was raised by men like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, compromise became more difficult. Documents began to appear describing the brutal conditions of slavery. Nevertheless, abolitionism never achieved majority political status in the non-slave states, and since most Americans accepted the existence of slavery where it was legal (and constitutionally protected), the chief controversy between North and South became the issue of slavery in the territories. The issue might have been resolved by extending the Missouri Compromise to the Pacific to cover the new territory added in the Mexican Cession, but since the movement to prohibit slavery in the territories was stronger in 1850 than it had been in 1820, the political forces were unable handle it as smoothly as in 1820. Thus another sort of compromise was needed, one that shifted responsibility from the national government to the territories themselves. That novel concept was known as “popular sovereignty”—letting the people in the new territories decide for themselves whether to have slavery.

The idea of popular sovereignty had two things going for it. First, it seemed democratic. Why not let the people decide for themselves whether or not they want slavery? (Of course participation in that decision was never extended to the slave population.) Second, it seemed acceptable to Americans for whom “states’ rights” was the condition on which they continued to tolerate federal government control over local issues. The doctrine contained a major flaw, however, in that it ignored the concerns of Americans who continued to accept slavery only on the assumption, as Lincoln and others put it, that it “was in the course of ultimate extinction.” Allowing slavery to go into the territories was certain, as the abolition and free soil advocates saw it, to postpone that day.

The net result of the popular sovereignty approach was that the federal government, in attempting to evade responsibility by shifting it to the people of the territories themselves, merely heightened the crisis. By 1850 slavery had become a “federal case,” and despite the best efforts of compromisers like Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas, the tactic of popular sovereignty backfired, and the country drifted closer to war.

Here are some points to review as we enter the Civil War:

  • Slavery existed in many societies going back to Biblical times.
  • The issue of slavery, the “peculiar institution,” was emotionally charged and thus difficult to resolve.
  • Many people in the North did not understand what slavery was really like.
  • In the South, slavery was defended as a “positive good.”
  • Slavery was the main issue that had to be resolved during debate over the Compromise of 1850.
  • The controversy over slavery was political, economic, moral and religious.
  • Once it was recognized and protected by the Constitution, slavery would be hard to eliminate.
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