Why the Confederate States Seceded

I’ve written previously about the Confederate States of America and how that short-lived country was a Christian theocracy which invoked religion to justify slavery. But even today, there are still religious conservatives who try to whitewash these historical facts and erase the memory of what really led the South to try to break away from the Union. This post is for them.

South Carolina was the first state to secede, and in December 1860, its government issued a document explaining why. This document, which had the unwieldy title “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union”, was meant as a Confederate parallel to the Declaration of Independence. Yale’s Avalon Project has the text of this document, so you can read it and see for yourself what the Confederates’ thinking was.

We hold that the Government thus established is subject to the two great principles asserted in the Declaration of Independence; and we hold further, that the mode of its formation subjects it to a third fundamental principle, namely: the law of compact. We maintain that in every compact between two or more parties, the obligation is mutual; that the failure of one of the contracting parties to perform a material part of the agreement, entirely releases the obligation of the other; and that where no arbiter is provided, each party is remitted to his own judgment to determine the fact of failure, with all its consequences.

In the present case, that fact is established with certainty. We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof.

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….

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 fifteen 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.

As you can see, there’s nothing in this document about “states’ rights” or any such modern right-wing fiction. Or rather, there’s only one right at issue: the right to own slaves. South Carolina asserted that the northern states had an obligation under the Constitution to return fugitive slaves to their masters, and that they weren’t doing this. They further asserted that the northern states were infringing their “rights of property” by seeking to free human beings from bondage. Because of this, South Carolina claimed that the Constitution was null and void and it had the right to strike out on its own. (And, yes, they did believe that God was on their side: “We, therefore, the People of South Carolina, by our delegates in Convention assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions…”)

Other Confederate states, like Mississippi, issued similar declarations making the same points: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery” – and railing against the abolitionist movement which “advocates negro equality, socially and politically, and promotes insurrection and incendiarism in our midst”. Texas, also, in its secession, took aim at those who were “proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color – a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law”.

The next time some right-winger tries to romanticize his favorite political cause by hinting that it’s just like the ones that inspired the South to secede once before, show him this evidence. It may at least give him pause to consider whether his pet issue is quite as glorious as it’s made out to be.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Katie M

    I can’t believe people are celebrating the secession. They act as if it’s something to be proud of.

  • Tharding

    Not only does the statement not claim states’ rights as a cause of secession, it blames the northern states for applying the principle of states’ rights in not returning escaped slaves.

  • sqeecoo

    I agree, but I am also unsure why some act as if using violence to prevent a constitutionally recognized federal state from seceding is something to be proud of, regardless of the reasons for the secession.

    I mean, I’m no expert on the subject, but it seems to me that the Southern states would have every right to secede if they wanted to, and preventing them by military force was a clear act of aggression. They certainly had more right to secede than Kosovo did from Serbia for instance, to take a recent example. According to my fairly meager knowledge, anyway. I’d be happy to be corrected :)

  • Katie M

    @sqeecoo-”it seems to me that the Southern states would have every right to secede if they wanted to, and preventing them by military force was a clear act of aggression.”

    Except it was the Confederates who fired on a Union fort, thus starting the war in the first place.

  • L.Long

    #4 said–Except it was the Confederates who fired on a Union fort, thus starting the war in the first place.

    It would be interesting to go to an alternate universe to see if the South could have succeeded by passive or self defense means of seceding. i think it would have been a war regardless of who fired the 1st shot. The North HAD to keep the union together or accept the demise of the USA, we are VERY lucking in the fact that it is Canada and Mexico that our on the borders.
    And if you look at the political situation around the country the debate of state rights vs federal rights is still going on now.

  • http://twoangryvoices.blogspot.com Aegis

    And then often, the first sentence you’ll get in an argument is ‘you liberals ain’t as American as us Southerners!’…from a guy wearing a confederate flag somewhere on him.

  • Geoff

    Thank you for this post. My parents are from the South, and I was raised on the “state’s rights” fiction. It’s only now, free from the religion in which I was raised, and free to seek information for myself, that I realize it was a lie.

  • Andrew T.

    As someone brought up in West Virginia (a state that, in spite of being a Union state by purpose and creation, is inhabited by a disproportionate number of people who think otherwise), I never tire reading these posts. A good chunk of the peers in my high school draped themselves in the Confederate flag, made appeals of “states’ rights” whenever something rubbed them the wrong way, and mused about a fantasy when “the south would rise again.” (Why and for what benefit they acted this way, I have no idea.) I wish I had combed through these declarations at the time so I could have turned around and rubbed them in their faces.

    @Aegis: I know…the way anyone can call themselves “American” and “patriotic” with one hand and glorify secession from the country in question in the other, while maintaining a straight face, is downright astounding.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Not only does the statement not claim states’ rights as a cause of secession, it blames the northern states for applying the principle of states’ rights in not returning escaped slaves.

    Brilliant! Tharding wins the thread for that outstanding observation.

    @sqeecoo-”it seems to me that the Southern states would have every right to secede if they wanted to, and preventing them by military force was a clear act of aggression.”

    Except it was the Confederates who fired on a Union fort, thus starting the war in the first place.

    Well said, Katie. Also, sqeecoo, let’s not overlook that the Confederate states were holding hundreds of thousands of people in captivity, subject to torture and murder at the whim of their owners. Where would that fact fit into a discussion of which side initiated force?

    Geoff and Andrew T: If you liked this post, you’ll probably be interested in a followup that should be appearing soon…

  • 2-D Man

    I don’t often play devil’s advocate around here, but there’s something about the secession that pulls at the heartstrings. People took up arms to say, “We don’t want to be ruled by you…”
    Of course, that ellipsis finishes off with, “…because we want to own people.” And that makes it repugnant.

    it seems to me that the Southern states would have every right to secede if they wanted to, and preventing them by military force was a clear act of aggression.

    Except it was the Confederates who fired on a Union fort, thus starting the war in the first place.

    Sort of…. On the one hand, Abraham Lincoln said that there would be no war, unless the south started it. On the other hand, the south had legitimate concerns about vigilante action from the north in the wake of the raid on the Harpers Ferry armoury by John Brown.

  • http://RichGriese.NET Rich Griese

    RE the comment “I can’t believe people are celebrating the secession. They act as if it’s something to be proud of.”

    That is because in the Republican party they have worked very hard to not only make anger and hate acceptable, but actually hip. So you can be a proud republican, and talk confidently about hateful things. It’s part of the magic of Republican marketing.

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

  • http://www.ceetar.com Ceetar

    I’m not sure you can apply “holding people in captivity” as a part of a debate in who initiated force. (If that even matters)

    That was the whole (or at least the biggest part, as I’m sure there were plenty of ‘states rights’ type issues that they had problems with as well.) issue at hand, and it wasn’t so foreign in the northern states either. It looks good from 150 years in the future, but it wasn’t so clear then.

    It feels like saying “You’re wrong because you disagree with me.”

  • http://wilybadger.wordpress.com Chris Swanson

    I am very glad you wrote this. I have an otherwise intelligent friend who seems under the belief that slavery had little to do with the CSA’s formation. We had a long discussion about this just the other night. Now I can link him to this! :)

  • Paul S.

    While the issue of slavery was the driving force behind the secession of the southern states, we shouldn’t automatically view the North as the guys in white hats riding in to free the slaves. It wasn’t until January 1, 1863, that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. That was 18 months after the war began. There were obviously political reasons for the delay of the proclamation, but I’ve always felt it was Lincoln’s desire to keep the Union together more than his wish for the abolition of slavery that drove the North’s war effort. My point is that the North didn’t go to war solely to free the slaves. It went to war to preserve the Union. The fact that slavery was abolished was an incredibly great ancillary result.

  • bbk

    I’m not sure you can apply “holding people in captivity” as a part of a debate in who initiated force.

    I’ll take a stab at this:

    If you, as a sovereign entity, do not uphold the premise that some varieties of humans are not persons and therefore can be used as work animals, then by corollary you must see them as persons. In other words, if you witness what the South was doing to slaves, you have no choice but to interpret it as a crime.

    The North and South had a gentlemen’s agreement to ignore these crimes. But when the South seceded, that agreement was off. Basically, every representative who would have voted against abolition quit their job and the only people left were against slavery. Meanwhile, the South had done nothing diplomatically to convince the Federal government to recognize them as a sovereign nation. Put one and one together and there’s only one rational conclusion: round up all the rebels and throw them in jail for crimes against humanity.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    There were obviously political reasons for the delay of the proclamation, but I’ve always felt it was Lincoln’s desire to keep the Union together more than his wish for the abolition of slavery that drove the North’s war effort.

    True enough, Paul, but what matter? Even if the North didn’t originally go to war to free the slaves, the South clearly did go to war to keep them. They believed the Union wanted to take away their slaves and were willing to fight to the death to prevent it. That they were wrong in that belief, at least initially, doesn’t make their motives any less detestable.

  • Nathan

    The problem may be inherent in Christianity and its persecution complex. Christians see themselves as alone in the world, a fragile minority, oppressed by non-believers, or at least they like to portray themselves so. It’s an emotional resonance, and one that fits in closely to the fiction of the Slave states rising against the United States because they were being persecuted. And, of course, nobody likes to think of herself as the bad guy. Today, pretty much everyone admits slavery was about as much of a moral evil as moral evils go (although I’ve seen some slavery apologetics from Confederate supporters and self-identified Christians).

    Accepting that slavery was the reason for secession doesn’t fit with the story these people tell themselves. I really think that religion and culture and history are just these stories … and very few persons are willing to revise their stories in view of evidence, especially when these stories have been invested with so much emotional weight.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    It should also be noted that in the years prior to the war, Southern politicians were keen on the United States annexing or purchasing territory in Latin America, such as the island of Cuba, so that they could be added as slave states to the Union. Once California was admitted as a free state, there was really nowhere else open to slave state expansion within territory already acquired by the United States. They also supported filibusters like William Walker who tried to take over Nicaragua in the 1850′s.

  • Demonhype

    I think there was probably a mentality in the South at the time that genuinely saw slavery as okay and genuinely did not believe these people to be human. If you really think that way, then in your mind anyone who tries to stop what you’re doing (even if they are right, which the North was) is going to be seen as depriving you of property or rights. Especially when the practice of slavery had been such a long-standing tradition ingrained in so many cultures for so long–kind of like how religion (Christianity in particular) is similarly ingrained to the point where many people cannot comprehend the idea that some do not believe, or that the government should not be a cheerleading squad for Jesus.

    Once again, that does not justify the South’s actions and I’m not saying it does. I’m just pointing out the mentality that probably pushed it, and that to these people it probably really looked to them like a state’s rights issue because they sound like they could not comprehend the idea that their “property” was really a human being. (No, I don’t see those words specifically in there, but neither do we see the specific phrase “separation of church and state” in the constitution–and yes, I do see some indignation that the North is not returning what they see as their runaway “property”–I see a failure to communicate. The South sees the North as a bunch of thieves stealing what they consider their “property”, and the North sees this “property” as human, the ownership of such “property” as obscene, and the refusal to return such “property” as a moral imperative. The big failure comes in where the South is unable to conceive of these people as anything more than farm equipment or livestock, designated as such by Divine Mandate.)

    The attitude I see in this writing is not all that old, nor is it an artifact of the past. I still hear the same kind of evil shit from some of the more unapologetic racists in the country about what they see as the inherent inferiority of black people as a criminal element only, or in sexists insisting that women have low IQ’s and are suited only to a life of housework, childbirth and obedience to males. Or people who think corporations should be free to do whatever they want with impunity to the point of destroying millions of people’s lives, or else it’s “big government” persecuting the poor, defenseless rich guy. These people all have a serious inability to relate to another person who is too different from them, or to recognize those people as human, particularly when it stands in the way of them getting what they want. If you don’t have a penis, you’re not fully human. If you don’t have white skin, you’re not fully human. If you’re mind-crushingly poor and are indignant about it, you’re just spoiled and lazy, as well as if you simply want fair pay and benefits for your work. And it’s amazing how people from one group can denounce the inequality levied toward them, yet support the inequality levied against another group.

    Hell, look at what crawled out from underneath the carpet after Obama was elected!

    It’s very sociopathic. Kind of like those evil people who say “who cares if I let my kids tie the dog and cat together and beat them with sticks? That’s what they’re there for, that’s my property, and we’ll do what we want with it!” (BTW, that is my evil aunt-by-marriage talking and that actually happened. She was very offended when my uncle found this, confiscated the sticks, and untied the poor animals–how dare he protect her property from their children? The kids were just having fun!) It is almost impossible to get these people to understand that what they are doing is wrong and that their pets are not property the way the TV or the sofa is property. Just as it is almost impossible to get some of these racists or sexists or whatever to understand that black people and/or women are not inherently inferior and servile creatures put on this planet to wait on you hand and foot and obey your ever command. Just as it is almost impossible to get the obscenely wealthy corporate millionaires to understand that employees are not their property to do with as they please, or to understand the perspective of someone who subsists on what you consider pocket change is not that of someone who is “lazy” or “spoiled”. When my more racist relatives go on their unapologetic racist tirades, I don’t even know where the hell to start–they are so intensely hateful and angry and unable to even conceive of the idea that they could be wrong or that someone who is different from them could be anything like them. And they are so intensely and infuriatingly and LOUDLY insistent that if those “animals” in Africa or the ghetto were “sterilized”, then everything would be wonderful in the future. The only thing that seems to push them back a little is when us non-racists (including my parents, who may be free with the “n” word, but are equally nauseated at the suggestion that someone’s humanity is dependent on their race and will happily cut them down to size) outnumber them and very quietly start making them look stupid, debunking their racist myths with facts. I’m not sure they learn anything, but they can only be squelched like this if they are outnumbered–if there are not two or more of you, then they will just scream even louder. Call me crazy, but I often think that they are the ones who act like animals–make yourself look big because that makes you Right, and only back down if you can’t outscream your opposition.

    It’s a warped perception of reality and it can be hard to really understand that someone thinks that way. I simply cannot wrap my mind around the idea that being prevented from owning slaves is “property confiscation” any more than religious people being prevented from effectively creating a theocracy is “religious persecution”. Yet these people seem to genuinely think this way, and be genuinely upset at the notion that they must treat that black/female/homosexual/atheist/etc. as an equal rather than doing “God’s work”, either with whips and chains or with systematic political and economic oppression at the very least. And that to be prevented from that is “persecution” or some other form of injustice.

    And what really hits me, as I try to figure out how they seem to think, is that they have no interest in finding out how I think. They are perfectly comfortable just demonizing liberal-types like me as a Minion of Satan Who Must Be Vanquished. And that’s a huge difference between the two sides–one seeks to understand, the other seeks to conquer. Despite that, I still think it’s more constructive to figure out how these people think, rather than demonize them back. I always sense so many causes behind it when I approach it that way, some things beyond simply sociopathy in some people–things like insecurity in themselves and a need to feel “superior” to someone (like my sister), or total ignorance of other POV’s or ideas due to lack of exposure (like many of my aunts and uncles). And I believe that it may be possible to reach those people, at least–or, if not them, others who may overhear the conversation and possibly consider what you’ve said, not having any immediate public face to lose themselves.

    Then, of course, there’s my friend from HS who believe that if we only outlawed racism, then everything would be peachy-keen and those white supremacists would have no choice but to love their black neighbors and dance around a maypole together, and that anyone who disagreed with her brilliant plan in any way was an evil racist. But that’s another kind of screwed up perception of reality! :)

  • InTheImageOfDNA

    I was home-schooled for one year in middle school. Part of the history “curriculum” involved a section on Southern history and they tried to push this pseudo-history of romanticized fiction where the noble South went to war to protect themselves and their property from the North; slavery is barely even mentioned.

    For the record it was “A Beka Book” curriculum (very popular among Christian fundamentalist home-schoolers).

  • Tom

    Food for thought: many religions, including a good few denominations of Christianity, hold that humanity is god’s property to do with as he pleases. To hold such a view, one by default holds the view that a sentient being may own other sentient beings.

    As soon as you say that it’s morally wrong for a human to own another human, i.e. that it is, at the very least, morally wrong for one sentient being to hold an equally sentient being as property, you raise very nasty, unsettling questions for such people as hold these views on god’s property rights. And though they may assert that god, not being human, is not directly affected by this argument, their position is still drastically weakened; the right for the sentient to own the sentient suddenly goes from a universal constant to some function of their relative properties, with a cut-off point. I would imagine that, to such a person, this would feel rather like walking cheerfully along a featureless plain and suddenly having the ground fall away on either side, being left walking on one thin bridge of stone over a sheer drop.

  • Tom

    I suppose I should point out that I treat sentience as a continuum (though it’d probably be an absolutely Herculean task to actually quantify it in any useful way) and not a boolean flag, since this rather affects the tone people will get from my last post.

  • Em

    Besides “state’s rights,” I’ve also heard the “it was really about economics” excuse. And the economy was based on what, again? Oh right. And I think it is a crucial point that regardless of what actual Northerners wanted to do or not do about slavery, the South believed they were all rabid abolitionists attacking the god-given right to treat other people like cattle – at least in their published rhetoric. And if you look at the events leading up to the war, you get things like Bleeding Kansas and the caning of Charles Sumner (widely applauded in the South); it’s hard to argue that either of those things was not motivated by the slavery issue.

  • Jim Baerg

    “caning of Charles Sumner (widely applauded in the South)”

    Rather like the murder of Talman Taseer is widely applauded by Pakistanis?

  • Plain Jim

    In the “other” declaration, wasn’t there something about government by the consent of the governed?

    Why didn’t we let those Southerners go when we had the chance?

  • Jake

    I just wanted to point out that States rights are currently still an issue. More and more the federal government takes decisions away from the states. This will be a major issue going forward into the next 20 years or so in this country. I am not however saying that the civil war was about states rights. I grew up in the south, and even at the age of 7 when this info was presented to me, it was pretty clear what had happened. Slavery was the issue. I also wanted to point out that “states rights” was not a republican idea. (Guess what party Lincoln was in…) Liberal does not always mean correct, and this is coming from a life long Atheist. I hate the Us vs them mentality…. Lets look at the issues, and what these big government plans really do before we group all conservatives together.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    I also wanted to point out that “states rights” was not a republican idea. (Guess what party Lincoln was in…)

    Jake, the “states rights” Democrats of yesterday are the Republicans of today. They just switched parties. That’s like saying that the Democrats in the 1950′s and 60′s were against civil rights because a lot of Southern Democrats opposed civil rights, ergo Democrats did not support civil rights but Republicans did. We all know that those sourthern Democrats were eagerly courted by and found a home in the Republican party.

    No one here is claiming that being liberal = automatically correct.

    The problem I have, from a liberal perspective, about the states rights stances taken by conservatives is that the conservative vision of states rights always seems to involve limiting the rights of people in their state. For instance, with regard to abortion, conservatives at the state level are constantly trying to chip away at Roe v. Wade, which involves the prospect, if not actual reality, of a patchwork of rights when it comes to women having access to an abortion. If I recall, last year or the year before, the Oklahoma legislature passed a bill requiring a woman to have an ultrasound and to look at it before she can have the abortion performed.

    Republicans today can be against states rights when it goes against their agenda. In 2007, the Bush administration denied the state of California’s request for a waiver to set stricter vehicle emissions requirements than required by Federal law.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/19/washington/20epa-web.html

    Let’s not forget that it was the Reagan administration that mandated that all 50 states raise their drinking age to 21 on penalty of forfeiting federal highway funding.

    Now, tell me Jake, since you’re so concerned about states rights, what rights do you enjoy in your home state that you fear the Federal government will take away that will pose a hardship for you?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    The problem I have, from a liberal perspective, about the states rights stances taken by conservatives is that the conservative vision of states rights always seems to involve limiting the rights of people in their state.

    Not only that, but conservatives have a habit of abandoning their “states’ rights” stance when it doesn’t suit them. For example, in Gonzales v. Raich, two successive Republican attorneys general argued that the federal government should have the right to arrest and imprison people for growing or smoking marijuana, even in states where it’s legal to do so for medical purposes. Or again, in Gonzales v. Oregon, the voters of Oregon approved a law allowing doctors to prescribe drugs for assisted suicide to the terminally ill, and again, a Republican attorney general went straight to the courts to argue that this law should be overturned.

    The “states’ rights” idea is a fiction, albeit a very successful one. Most self-identified conservatives feel free to use it or ignore it, depending on whether it suits their actual policy preferences.

  • http://twitter.com/phlpmn Marty Phlipmann

    “We maintain that in every compact between two or more parties, the obligation is mutual…except for that whole slavery thing, them bitches ain’t got NO rights, LoLz! OMG! TTL.” — South Carolina

  • Scotlyn

    Tom

    Food for thought: many religions, including a good few denominations of Christianity, hold that humanity is god’s property to do with as he pleases. To hold such a view, one by default holds the view that a sentient being may own other sentient beings.

    Excellent point!

  • http://slrman.wordpress.com James Smith João Pessoa, Brazil

    There is nothing new here. Theists have never hesitated about using lies and distortions to achieve their ends. The law, truth, logic, or even human decency have no meaning when it comes to imposing their sick beliefs on others or defending their atrocities.


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