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.

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About Adam Lee

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


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