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Why The Southern States Seceded

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Table of Contents 
  •  Introduction 
  •  The Issue of Slavery 
  •  No Other Recourse 
  •  The Republicans: A Real Threat to Slavery 
  •  Southern Indignity and an Insubstantial Constitution 
  •  Southern Perceptions of Reality 
  •  Extremists Win Out, A Divide Solidifies 
  •  Closing Credits 
  •  The election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860 precipitated secession movement in the Southern states. With South Carolina leading the way, ten other states seemingly agreed that further connection with the Union threatened the destruction of their existing socio-economic order. They viewed it as a case of submission or secession.  
  •  Yet historians agree that Lincoln was a man of moderate views who had on various occasions gone out of his way to ensure the South and the Southern people that he would no way interfere with their existing institutions. He had stated bluntly that even if given the power he would not know what to do about slavery, nor would he as president have the power.  
  •  Both Congress and the courts would be opposed to him and his principles and he would be powerless to do any more than to uphold the status quo. Then why secession? 
  •  A conservative Georgia editor on December 14, 1860 gave his answer. "It is a mistake," he said, "to suppose that it is the mere election of Lincoln, without regard to anything else that has driven the states of the South into their present resistance and their present determination to seek that safety and security out of the union which they have been unable to obtain within it." 
  •  "The election of Lincoln merely confirms a purpose which the South had hoped would be abandoned by opponents of slavery in the North. It is a declaration that they mean to carry out their aggressive and destructive policy, weakening the institution at every point where it can be assailed, either by legislation or violence until, in the brutal language of Charles Sumner, 'It dies like a poisoned rat in its hole.'" 
  •  The things to be noticed about this bold statement are that Northern aggression consisted primarily in the determination to put slavery on the road to extinction, that Lincoln's election made the carrying out of this policy both possible and probable, and that the Southern states, much against their wishes, had been forced to seek that safety and security for slavery outside of the Union which they had a perfectly good constitutional right to expect within it. 
  •  To most Southerners the issue in the recent election had turned on this point. As they saw it, two socio-economic systems were in conflict and Lincoln's election showed that the South had become a helpless minority at the mercy of a permanent majority which, as one convention said, "Was reckless in regard to constitutional obligations and pledged to principals leading to our destruction." 
  •  Some stressed the economic danger. It is not safe, they said, "to trust eight hundred million dollars worth of negroes in the hands of a power that says we do not own this property that under the title of the Constitution is bad and under the law of god is still worse." Since slave property was the foundation of all property in the South, the shaking of security in this field would render all other property in the section unstable. In other words, the South was being threatened with economic ruin. 
  •  Others saw the danger of social chaos. As a speaker in the Alabama convention said, "If pecuniary loss alone were involved in the abolition of slavery I should hesitate long to give the vote I now intend to give. If the destruction of slavery entailed on us poverty alone I could bear it, for I have seen poverty and felt its sting." 
  •  "But poverty [would] be one of the least of the evils. There are now in the slaveholding states over four million slaves. Dissolve the relation between master and slave and what would become of the race? To remove them from among us is absolutely impossible. They must remain among us where they will either be destroyed by our hands or we ourselves will become demoralized and degraded." 
  •  A few simply refused to remain in the Union subject to the authority of those who had been calling them the vilest of sinners, not to be acknowledged to be within the pale of Christianity or republicanism or humanity. They could shrug off material dangers but they could no longer endure the untiring efforts to degrade the South in the eyes of all who came within their reach. 
  •  "It was not what the Republicans had done or would do," said Judah P. Benjamin, "or what they said and the way in which they said it. Self respect required secession." 
  •  Nor was there any hope that these threats and insults would end now that the Republicans were in power. They had grown with the years and hatred of slavery had bred hatred of the Southern people themselves. Control of the presidency was only the first step. 
  •  "In two years at most," said one spokesman, "the Republican Party will have both houses of Congress then the supreme Court will be reorganized and the South will be at the hands and at the mercy of its enemies." 
  •  As the reverend Benjamin M. Palmer told his congregation, "A whole generation has been educated to look upon the system of slavery with abhorrence as a national blot. They hope and look and pray for its extinction within a reasonable time and they cannot be satisfied unless things are seen drawing toward that conclusion. Republican victory in november was a forerunner of further and more atrocious aggression." 
  •  As the Charleston Mercury summed it up, "If this were the beginning of our difficulties in the South, if our present position of embarrassment and danger were not the result of the years of accumulated aggression and wrong, there might be some hope of a favorable change."  
  •  "But the distemper of the times has been gathering virulence through twenty years and now the South stands alone behind her broken pledges, useless surrenders, disappointed hopes and sacrifices. The Northern people have forced upon us the conviction, reluctant and slowly attained, that no submission on our part can win their forbearance and no rights can escape their violation, and that our safety rests in ourselves." 
  •  There had been serious crises in the nation's affairs at other times and Southerners more than once had threatened secession, but never before have there been such an atmosphere of desperation and finality, such a feeling of helplessness in the face of what seemed to be a driving force against which resistance had all along been hopeless. 
  •  The very age seemed to be against them. Lincoln's election did not perhaps present an immediate threat but it did indicate that a new and final stage in the slavery struggle had been reached. Seemingly, things had gotten into such a predicament that no one, however well meaning, could check the drift to a sectional break. 
  •  Up until the John Brown raid there'd been much Southern protest and indignation because of Northern criticism of slavery and because of denial of equality in the territories and in the distribution of governmental favors, but there had been a little of panic and much of confidence in the Southern politicians' ability to protect their section, confidence in friends, and in the Democratic Party. 
  •  Now all this was changed. The Southern politician in Washington was no longer in power. In fact, since the annexation of Texas he had steadily lost national influence. In spite of the control he had exercised over the two last Democratic administrations he had gained little and he had lost much for his section.  
  •  Both California and Kansas had chosen freedom and one gain, the only gain, a new fugitive slave law, had done far more harm than it had done good. And worst of all, the effort to take Kansas through the Lecompton Constitution had driven Stephen A. Douglas into open revolt and with him the Northern wing of the Democratic party.  
  •  Even more disastrous was the birth and rise of the new Republican Party. The Douglas break had forced the radical Southern politicians to make extreme and unnecessary demands and to gamble their all on one final effort to keep the Democratic Party under Southern control in the convention of 1860. 
  •  They had lost and thus opened the way for the triumph of the sectional Republican Party. The South had been placed in a desperate situation. For the first time, talk of an irrepressible conflict and of the higher law really meant something. Now as ever the southerner had to face the reality of what it meant to live in a slave holding society in the modern world. 
  •  For the first time he had to realize the possibility of forced emancipation, he had to calculate the financial risk of having billions of dollars invested in slaves swept away, face the frightening possibility of bloody racial readjustment, be content with permanent political inferiority, and above all accept the harsh, cold fact that he stood alone in a world which insisted that slavery was both an economic burden and a moral outrage. 
  •  Under these circumstances other issues lost their importance. Every move and every decision had to be made according to the demands of slavery and slavery alone. The only defense against economic, social, and political ruin lay in placing slavery beyond the reach of its enemies. Nothing else mattered. The South had been driven into a corner the choice between submission and secession would have to be made sooner or later. 
  •  Abraham Lincoln had understood the Southern dilemma and had talked of removing the economic difficulty by compensated emancipation and the social racial problem by removing the negro, when freed, from the country. He had once prepared a bill for this purpose.  
  •  Nothing however had come from his thinking, and at the present of the Republican threat in Southern eyes was the old abolition threat to deal with slavery as a sin to be removed by the usual revival technique of conviction of sin, repentance, and voluntary and immediate renunciation of slavery. The resulting problems were not even to be taken into consideration.  
  •  Now the historian, to answer the question as to why the Southern states seceded, must recognize the predicament into which the nation had gotten itself. He must understand that the southern states were probably right when they said that their domestic institutions were no longer safe in the Union. 
  •  They erred only in not recognizing the more important fact that their institutions were not safe anywhere in the nineteenth century and the emerging modern world. The tragedy lies in the fact that they were now being forced to defend their all and all of the varied interests and values in terms of an institution which few among them, if left free, would have defended on a purely abstract basis. The psychological cost would indeed be heavy.  
  •  They were blind also in not realizing that secession was no remedy for their troubles in an age of growing national consolidation. They would find out after four bloody years of heroic fighting that organization, efficiency, technology and urban industrialism win wars in this age, regardless of individual courage and sacrifice.  
  •  The historian must also understand that Lincoln in turn was toying with the impossible when he said that slavery where it existed would be safe under his administration. He could not have checked the agitation against slavery nor could he have guaranteed the return of all fugitive slaves, and these were the things the South was demanding for security and justice. He should have known that in this United States, an institution which he himself said was morally wrong could not longer be legally right. 
  •  William H. Seward had shown a much clearer understanding of the Republican Party when he insisted that "all human law must be brought to the standard of the law of God and must stand or fall by it." 
  •  Charles Sumner had seen the situation more clearly than either Lincoln or Seward when he said that, "They, Lincoln and Seward, have proclaimed slavery to be wrong and have pledged themselves with force against his extinction it is difficult to sense how they can longer sustain themselves merely on such grounds. They must in the end become abolitionists." 
  •  Anti-slavery forces themselves had understood this and had resolved that the Republican position on the folly and wrong of slavery, from which they drew only the most modest inference that it ought not to be allowed to spread, really implied that it ought not to be tolerated anywhere. 
  •  It should also be recalled that both Seward and Lincoln had brought moral issues into their appeal. Seward talked of a higher law and irrepressible conflict and Lincoln had based his opposition to Douglas's re-election to the Senate largely on his indifference as to how the people voted on slavery.  
  •  Seward went so far as to say to a Boston audience that Lincoln's sole claim to election was that he confesses the obligation to the higher law and "avows himself, for weal or woe, for life or death, a soldier on the side of freedom in the irrepressible conflict between freedom and slavery." To the uninformed Southerner, Lincoln was therefore only a crude edition of the dangerous Seward. 
  •  Yet in spite of all this the historian must also be aware of the fact that the actual and immediate threat which lincoln and Seward and even the abolitionists presented to the South does not explain the extreme reactions which followed the election of 1860.  
  •  As William A. Graham said, "Who can prepare a declaration of independence appealing to a candid world for its approbation and sympathy upon the grounds that we have been outvoted in an election in which we took the chance of success and a candidate has been elected who, however obnoxious, we did not deem unworthy to compete with for votes?" 
  •  So the important fact was that the great changes that had taken place in the nation since 1815 had drastically altered the place of the South in national life. Regardless of the fact that cotton had become the greatest staple crop of all time in a region built on staple crops, and it kept the machines of the new age running, The south had fallen steadily behind in population and in the most of the things by which the age measured progress. 
  •  Not only that but the labor by which her contribution to the age was produced was being denounced and threatened. And she was not to blame her people had done only what the age demanded with the only labor force at their disposal. Yet for this she was being treated almost as unworthy of America by those who profited most by her efforts. 
  •  Southern reactions therefore cannot be explained alone in terms of concrete and specific damage inflicted. They were expressions of the indignation, the insecurity, the fears, and the humiliation of Southerners who found themselves out of step with the very world of which they were so much a part. They expressed the frustrations of those who had succeeded and achieved only to be pronounced as backward failures, a people who thought of themselves as the best of Christians who were being denounced as the basest of sinners.  
  •  Against such abuses little protection now remained. Even reliance on the state as a sovereign in a federal system was being questioned. William H. Seward had already announced that this was a consolidated union in which the states had surrendered their equality as states and had submitted themselves to the sway of the numerical majority without qualifications or without checks. 
  •  The Constitution itself was a frail protection for legal and property rights when the best of Republicans were saying that there was a higher law and, in response, others were preaching and practicing civil disobedience. As one southerner said, "the Constitution affords no remedy for Southern grievances. To the southern people the Constitution is as worthless as a piece of wastepaper as far as protection to slavery and her interests are concerned." 
  •  "The Constitution authorizes slavery. The same instrument declares that fugitives shall be returned to their masters. Congress had passed laws in accordance therewith. The decisions of the Supreme Court had affirmed and maintained the mandates of the constitution to the laws of the national legislature. Yet if a master attempted to recover his servant in accordance with his constitutional rights he would be arrested, fined, and sent to prison in nine different Northern states." 
  •  No wonder the reverend James H. Thornwell insisted that the original Constitution had been repealed and new terms of Union submitted for Southern acceptance. Under such circumstances the Southern effort to defend itself by denial and explanation gradually turned into an aggressive approach.  
  •  One group from the very beginning had wished to break up the Union and had labored to convince the masses of their danger, "We must," he said, one of them, "head this movement and shape its course controlling and compelling our inferior contemporaries." So deliberately they closed their eyes to the tattered realities about them and their minds to the progressive demands of a new age and they proclaimed the perfection of Southern ways and values and their superiority to the whole western world.  
  •  It was the North, they said, which was deluded. What its leaders call progress was in fact the real backwardness. Its boasted cities were breeders of crime and social conflict. Its free labor system was nothing but cruel impersonal exploitation void of all responsibility. Its chaotic socioeconomic system was marked by periodic depressions, endless strife between capital and labor, and a constant threat of revolution 
  •  Its lack of stability had destroyed all respect for the constitutional restrictions and had at that last produced a sectional party bent on national domination. It had eroded its people and left them without dignity or honor. Their interests were in material gain and the so-called virtues they had where only those of acquisition at the expense of their fellow man. 
  •  In sharp con[trast with] all this they pictured the South as a wholesome rural world, orthodox in religion and untroubled by the restless isms which beset the North. It was a peaceful world where capital and labor were one and where the realities of inequality between individuals and races were accepted and adjusted to the benefit of all.  
  •  The institution of slavery, instead of being a blight upon the South, was the very foundation on which a superior civilization rested. Instead of debasing the character of the master as charged, it produced the highest type of a leader and one who accepted his responsibility both to his slaves and to society.  
  •  Only in a slave society were all white men equal. That was the only true and possible democracy. Only where the negro was enslaved was he happy productive and free from the worry and cares of a complex civilization for which he was ill-fitted by nature.  
  •  On the mud sills of slavery a golden age was alone possible and all the world one day would accept this fact. Local governments alone could shape and direct such a society. The state and not the national government should command first allegiance. The nineteenth century, they thought, was moving in the wrong direction. 
  •  Now it is indeed difficult to believe that under normal conditions any considerable number of Southerners would have accepted either the absurd notion of Northern decadence or of southern perfection. This aggressive defense however was not the product of a normal situation. It was a desperate effort to maintain self respect, to match an equally absurd distortion hurled at them from the outside. 
  •  It was also a flight from unpleasant reality and a way of lightening a feeling of guilt [for maintaining]  a labor system which they themselves secretly and often in private admitted had its weaknesses. It was defense, if you please, by attack. It was an admission without humiliation. 
  •  Out of step with the emerging modern world whose benefits they envied, they found compensation in depicting its faults. Half-questioning the merits of their own socio-economic order they chose to fall back on myth. Yet what else could they do? 
  •  The Northern position regarding slavery was as unrealistic as their own. They had allowed it to become simply a matter of morals, of a sin to be eliminated at the expense of Southern economic and social ruin, to say nothing of the loss of self-respect and pride. A whole nation was to blame for such a predicament not, just a few. 
  •  There were conservatives, loyal man in the South, of course who kept their heads who saw the folly of it all. They were however at a great disadvantage. The Southern situation seemed hopeless and no one could promise any certain improvement. The status quo was the best that could be hoped for at least for the present. 
  •  Those with emotion on their side could therefore insist that they alone stood for Southern honor, Southern interests and rights. They could hurl the charge of disloyalty, cowardice, and weakness against all who would not join their ranks. They could call them abolitionists and northern sympathizers 
  •  So instead of fighting the common enemy, conservatives had to spend their energy defending themselves, in the end forced to choose between fighting for their own homes and their own people as against them. Like Robert E. Lee, who believed neither in slavery nor in the wisdom a secession, they made their choice in sorrow. 
  •  The extremist meanwhile had stated his impossible demands that criticism of slavery cease,  that it not only be allowed to spread into the territories, but be protected there even by the national government. Nothing else would satisfy. 
  •  As to the prospect for saving the Union, one conservative editor brushed them all aside. "They were all feeble and fruitless because of the absolute impossibility of revolutionizing northern opinion in relation to slavery. Without a change of heart, radical and thorough, all guarantees which might be offered are not worth the paper on which they would be inscribed." 
  •  As long as slavery is looked upon by the North with abhorrence, as long as a South is regarded as a mere slave-breeding and slave-driving community, as long as faults and pernicious theories are cherished respecting the inherent equality and rights of every human being, there can be no satisfactory political union between these two sections." 
  •  The Northern answer was just as emphatic. "We cannot tell," mister Yancey said, "one, that we do not believe slavery wrong, for the reverse is the profound conviction of three fourths of the whole North. It would be dishonest to say that this conviction will not remain and grow everyday. And as to the complete revolution in morals and political convictions or the promise that all opposition to slavery will cease, was like promising that water shall run uphill and that two and two will make five." 
  •  So because one group of Americans had reached the conclusion that the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution, was the law of the land and the democracy and Christianity where one and the same, other Americans following the lead of South Carolina decided it was time to start over again and resume their place among the independent nations of the world.  
  •  And then, to reveal their confusion and their unconscious acceptance of almost all that they were fleeing from, they joined together in the formation of a new nation with few changes in the constitution which they had just repudiated and then they chose as their president and as their vice president two men who had only reluctantly accepted secession.  
  •  Thank you. 
  •  American Civilization by Its Interpreters 
  •  Why the Southern State Seceded 
  •  Avery Craven 
  •  Project Director: Joe B. Frantz 
  •  Television Director: Donald L. Mischer 
  •  Assistant Director: Mike Pengra  
  •  Art, Set, and Titles: Lyle Hendricks 
  •  Produced by Radio/Television, the University of Texas 
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Title:Why The Southern States Seceded
Description:The question of what caused the Civil War often is treated as a long term proposition requiring extended chronological coverage, sometimes going as far back as the initial settlement of the North American colonies. While there is much merit in studying the origin and growth of those sectional differences that played a part in the conflict, it is also illuminating to look carefully at the actual "trigger" of the war--the secession of the Southern states. For, regardless of the nature and degree of the institutional differences between the sections, and aside from the question of whether or not open conflict was inevitable, it required the overt act of secession for the great events to be set in motion. In this lecture Professor Craven examines in some detail the grievances and fears that drove the South to such a desperate step. In the process Craven sheds considerable light on the state of mind of a people willing to take the calculated risk of war with their countrymen for a cause they considered just. Quoting from a wide variety of sources, Craven portrays the South after the election of Lincoln as caught up in a dilemma from which there was no avenue of escape. His account of the secession crisis has the ring of truth and gives to the historical fact the dimensions of human tragedy. [Synopsis from "The History of American Civilization By Its Interpreters; A Student Guide to the Television Series" by James A. Bonar, Roger E. Willson, and The University of the State of New York] Tape is dated 1974/10/24, indicating that it is a dub of an earlier recording.
Country:United States
Date:circa 1962-1963
CreatorCraven, Avery (lecturer)
Source:KLRU-TEMP Video Collection
Contributor:Radio/Television, The University of Texas (producer)
Frantz, Joe B. (project director)
Mischer, Donald L. (television director)
Pengra, Mike (assistant director)
Hendricks, Lyle (art, set, and titles)
Rights:Dolph Briscoe Center for American History
Original Format:2 inch videotape