Stop Pretending the South’s Secession Was About Anything But Slavery

I’ve written about this many times before, but it’s come up again with the recent brouhaha over the Confederate flag. For the first time in 150 years, we’re finally seeing progress made on bringing that vile symbol down from public places, but some are still pretending that the confederacy wasn’t really about slavery. This is absolute nonsense.

Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederate States of America, could not have been any clearer on this issue. In his infamous Cornerstone Speech, delivered after the new CSA constitution had been written, he says that slavery and the inherent inferiority of the black man was the cornerstone on which the CSA was built:

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution…

The [U.S.] constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

There is no ambiguity here whatsoever. Slavery is the cornerstone of the new government and the “immediate cause” of the civil war. That pretty much ends the argument, doesn’t it? But there’s more. Look at the secession declaration of all of the confederate states. Every single one of them is built around slavery. Here’s Mississippi:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin…

And Louisiana:

As a separate republic, Louisiana remembers too well the whisperings of European diplomacy for the abolition of slavery in the times of an­nexation not to be apprehensive of bolder demonstrations from the same quarter and the North in this country. The people of the slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.

And Texas:

…in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states….

Every single declaration contains nearly identical statements. When people say that it was really about “state’s rights,” they never bother to mention what “rights” they’re referring. It was the right to own slaves. Period. It is long past time we stopped listening to such ignorant blather and blatant historical revisionism.

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  • Dr X

    Moreover, they made sure that states did not have the right to end slavery or harbor escaped slaves from other states.

  • Henrietta Swan

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that a further reason why the state’s rights argument is nonsense is that one argument used in favor of secession was the Northern states refusal to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.

    In other words, a Southern argument for secession was based on their view that the Northern states did not have the right to ignore a Federal law.

  • vargostatten
  • colnago80

    No, no no, the Civil War was fought over coal mines in West Virginia. End snark.

  • Chiroptera

    And the Confederate battle flag isn’t a symbol of Southern culture, neither. Very few people considered it a symbol of anything until desegregation and civil rights in the 50s and 60s; then southern whites adopted it as a symbol of opposition to decency.

  • marcus

    Hey the War of Northern aggression was not about slavery! It was abouts state’s rights!!one!11elenty!

    Oh… and whether or not it was okay to own black people.

  • Modusoperandi

    The Civil War was not about slavery. It was about many other things, instead, like the right of some people to own some other people, the right of some people in new states to have the right to own some other people, and the Yankee’s growing insistence that the people owned by people were in fact people and that, therefore, the right of some people to own some other people was a right that should be abolished.


    Henrietta Swan “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that a further reason why the state’s rights argument is nonsense is that one argument used in favor of secession was the Northern states refusal to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.”

    Plus, the CSA Constitution banned the states State’s Right to ban slavery.

  • ArtK

    And here I thought it was about ethics in game journalism.

  • jeevmon

    Damnig, ArtK beat me to it!

  • wscott

    Funny how when the Confederate States wrote their own Constitution, the only really major change from the US Constitution was to prohibit States from outlawing slavery. States Rights my ass.

    When people try to claim the Civil War was partly about economics, politics, etc, my answer is “Yes, it was about the economics of slavery, the political impacts of freeing the slaves, etc. Name one issue that doesn’t tie directly back to slavery?” [crickets]

  • sharonb

    And note all the god talk about slavery as a biblical and christian institution!

  • Pen

    This is perfectly true but it also doesn’t look clever to pretend that the north’s intervention was about anything other than preserving the union. I kind of laugh when I see the adulation of Lincoln these days, because I studied the abolition movements of the era and I know just how much they hated him and why. Still he abolished slavery as soon as it was practical and advantageous to do so, what can you say? They didn’t think practicality and advantage were the point, they’re right about that…

  • abb3w

    So, what’s the best book about the rise of the “Lost Cause” and the fiction of “State’s Rights, not Slavery”? Someone recommended Wilson’s “Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920” to my attention, but that’s not quite the central focus of that book. Anyone know a better?

  • dogmeat


    I would liken Lincoln’s position on slavery to Obama’s position on same sex marriage. He appears to have been opposed to slavery from a very early time, but politically that was a non-starter, so the much more moderate “containment” strategy was adopted. Much like many SSM advocates were annoyed by Obama, abolitionists weren’t exactly fans prior to the war & the Emancipation Proclamation.

    The southern states weren’t advocates of “states’ rights,” they were perfectly fine with suppressing the northern states’ “rights.” They were just pissed off because they could no longer manipulate the political system to wield more power than their actual numbers should have garnered.

  • moarscienceplz

    Pen #12

    Still he abolished slavery as soon as it was practical and advantageous to do so, what can you say?

    After his election in 1932, FDR met with Sidney Hillman and other labor leaders, many of them active Socialists with whom he had worked over the past decade or more. Hillman and his allies arrived with plans they wanted the new President to implement. Roosevelt told them: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”

    We get the leaders we deserve.

  • llewelly

    Politicians in general, and presidents especially, are followers and not leaders.

  • Who Cares

    Nononono. The secession was due to the economy.

    You know the north was industrializing faster then the south resulting in a disproportionate amount of the federal government being funded by the import/export of the south.

    The south wasn’t industrializing like that due to the amount of nearly free labor they had thanks to … erm wait I’ll get back to you on this.

  • dingojack

    Since it seems that, in order of importance, the reasons for the Southern succession were:

    1. SLAVERY

    2. (several hundred trillion parsecs of empty space)

    3. “States’ rights” and other minor stuff of little real importance*,

    may I de-rail the thread by asking:

    a) How could have the South managed to continue to exist, and

    b) What would have most likely happened had such a thing occurred?

    I would be interested on your input…



    * oh and:

    9.7754 x 10^119. West Virginian coal mines…

  • WMDKitty — Survivor

    B-but… HERITAGE!


  • mildlymagnificent

    The south wasn’t industrializing like that due to the amount of nearly free labor they had thanks to … erm wait I’ll get back to you on this.

    It wasn’t just the free labour. Just think for a minute about the huge amount of capital invested in purchasing and maintaining slaves.

    Abolition wiped out, by the stroke of a pen, the whole capital value of the entire slave “market”.

    (It’s similar in all kinds of ways to the problems facing investors and companies holding fossil assets. It’s not just the income from the operations of those companies that’s at stake. It’s the fact that, some time or another, all that money and all the value ascribed to those assets – shares, mines, railways, equipment, factories, refineries, just about everything – will become worthless, “stranded assets”, unless they’ve diversified enough to protect themselves before that happens.)

  • mildlymagnificent

    Oh dear. I worded that wrong. I didn’t mean that it was morally equivalent. The equivalence is in people thinking about the income earning side of things and forgetting the capital investment as being just as, if not more, important to the people with “investment” at stake.

  • billyeager

    The tendency for media to refer to the Confederacy as simply being the losing side in a ‘disagreement’ and to try and equate the US’s tendency to lionise it’s military with supposed equal ‘respect’ being due for those who fought for the “We demand our racism be respected” side, means you have the “Sons of . . .” confederate bigot groups demanding they be respected for being the offspring of racist bigots who died to ‘defend’ their ‘rebel’ flag.

    Because that’s what they like to call that fucking thing, a ‘rebel’ flag. Sure, because you’re not a homophobe or a racist or a fundamentalist bigot, you’re actually a cool motherfucking rebel, man!

    Fight the good fight against those who would seek equality for all, dammit!

  • robertbaden

    “in other words, that the general interest both of the white man and the negro requires that he should be kept as near to his former condition as LAW can keep him and that he should be kept as near to the condition of slavery as possible, and as far from the condition of the white man as is practicable.”

    From a letter of a prominent southern landowner. Further on in the letter he proposes laws effectively implementing serfdom for freedmen.

    From The Bloody Shirt by Stephen Budiansky, pages 23-24.