Black & White III: Why Southerners Voted to Secede, in Their Own Words

The rebel “Confederate” flag is much less of a problem than the values and system it represents. The romanticization of the South’s traitorous slaveowner-led rebellion is an insult to America and American values and 150 years after the defeat of the that rebellion, the blatant, offensive distortions of history cannot be tolerated  by this nation anymore…

…or, almost everything you need to know about the rebellion of the so-called “Confederate States of America” and its values in one series of in-depth articles, this being Part III and looking at what the Southern slaveowning elites—who manipulated and dragged and coerced their states and people into voting for secession and into starting a war that they had very little chance of winning—said at the time they orchestrated their secession conventions and voted for secession.  Their most omnipresent and constant themes were clear and undeniable then as they are now: the glories of black slavery, the need for its preservation and expansion, fury at the North and Northerners for daring to speak against slavery or seeking to limit it through the Federal Government in any way, and the idea that all these reasons justified secession from the Union.

Other articles in this series:

Black & White I: Confederate Flag Nothing to Celebrate: SC Debate

Black & White II: The REAL Confederate Cause & Its Southern Opposition,

Part IV (coming soon)

Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse July 23, 2015  

By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter @bfry1981) 

Continued from Part II

IV.) Why the South Wanted to Secede, in the South’s Own Words at the Time of Secession (HINT: SLAVERY!)

As for a detailed look at why the South seceded and the war was fought, there are huge numbers of readily available primary historical documentsmaking it clear that the whole secessionist and rebel enterprise rested firmly and primarily upon the institution of slavery.  For this reason, there can and should be no excuse for the mis-and-disinformation that has become gospel in all too many circles. The rebel confederation’s “Constitution” is one example; whereas the United States’ Founding Fathers were so embarrassed by slavery that they did not use the word “slave” or its derivatives even once in the Constitution, opting for clever euphemisms, the rebels in their imitation document which explicitly used the word “slave” or its derivatives ten times.

The below section details what each of the eleven rebel states’ leaders at each of their secession conventions officially proclaimed as their reasons for why they were doing what they were doing and/or what they said during the debates on secession at their conventions in regards to slavery. Let’s see what Southerners said at the time in question, in their own words, completely ignoring apologetics that came after the war and continue to be spread today (though we will deal with the apologetics soon).

Without further introduction, then, here, in their own words, are the leaders of the eleven states which illegally declared themselves seceded from the Union, in order of their attempted illegality:

South Carolina: In its act of attempted illegal secession, the South Carolina state government produced a document that that explained why it had had taken this course of action. This document used words built from the root words slave and slavery eighteen times. It cites in detail Article IV of the Constitution, of which Section 2 details the obligations of non-slave states to turn over any human beings forced into slavery in a slave state trying to escape in pursuit of their freedom into their states to turn these human beings back over to their slave-state owners, regardless of the state’s own views on slavery or the propriety of such an act. That’s right, the first major reason why South Carolina highlighted as an explanation as to why it wanted to secede from the Union was because it had a problem with states that felt differently than they did and expected the Federal Government to impose and enforce their pro-slavery views and wishes on the states that were anti-slavery. So when all the people who claim that the South fought the Civil War primarily over “states’ rights” and not slavery, well, they should attempt to read something from the period in question. In any event, that was the first reason cited for the justification of attempted secession, but in addition the very fact that other people in other states exercised their First Amendment right to criticize slavery was cited as another reason. A further reason cited was the election of Lincoln, and the reason this was an issue was because in the view of the authors this was something that threatened slavery’s survival. In the end, all the justifications for attempted secession involved slavery.

Mississippi: From the very beginning of its explanation of attempted secession document, Mississippi identified slavery as the main issue causing it to have a desire to secede, even maintaining its identity as being intimately tied to slavery:

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.

 It then enumerates a long list of points related to slavery, in order, the drafters say, “That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution [i.e., slavery],” which includes references, like South Carolina, to the issue of slaves escaping into the North and not being returned to their owners, and the document even faults the North since “It advocates negro equality, socially and politically.”

Florida: Florida’s very short secessionist document does not mention slavery directly or indirectly or go into reasons for secession. And yet, in addition to speeches from the state’s secession convention citing slavery as the main issue, the convention did prepare a rough document (which for unknown reasons was never published) which did detail the reasons behind secession and did explicitly and repeatedly cite slavery as the issue driving secession:

[African Slaves’] natural tendency every where shown where the race has existed to idleness vagrancy and crime increased by an inability to procure subsistence. Can any thing be more impudently false than the pretense that this state of things is to be brought about from considerations of humanity to the slaves.

Like the previous states’ reasons, issues with the fugitive slave laws are cited by the document, as are “denunciation and vituperation of the slave holding States…[with] gross and constantly repeated insults” over the issue of slavery by Northern politicians, writers, and press. As for Lincoln, it notes that “A President has recently been elected, an obscure and illiterate [!?] man without experience in public affairs or any general reputation mainly if not exclusively on account of a settled and often proclaimed hostility to our institutions and a fixed purpose to abolish them” even though Lincoln had never campaigned or spoke for abolition as a candidate by the time this was written.

Alabama: Alabama’s short secession ordinance begins by complaining about “the election of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin to the offices of president and vice-president of the United States of America, by a sectional party, avowedly hostile to the domestic institutions and to the peace and security of the people of the State of Alabama, preceded by many and dangerous infractions of the constitution of the United States by many of the States and people of the Northern section.” The “domestic institutions” and “dangerous infractions” refer to slavery and the non-repatriation of fugitive slaves along the same lines as South Carolina’s document, respectively. These are the principal justification given for Alabama’s desire to secede from the United States. The document also mentions a possible desire for Alabama to form a new nation with other “the slaveholding States of the South.”

Georgia: Georgia’s document explaining secession immediately gets into slavery, starting with the second sentence: “For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slaveholding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.” Like its sister states’ documents, issues with fugitive slaves laws are expressed. So are issues with limits to the expansion of slavery into the Western Territories. Still in the first paragraph, the documents states: “A brief history of the rise, progress, and policy of anti-slavery and the political organization into whose hands the administration of the Federal Government has been committed will fully justify the pronounced verdict of the people of Georgia,” and that “the subordination and the political and social inequality of the African race was fully conceded by all” at the Founding of America. It goes into a very lengthy discussion of the evolution issue of the spread of slavery into the Western Territories, and accuses the Republican Party of standing for “The prohibition of slavery in the Territories, hostility to it everywhere, the equality of the black and white races, disregard of all constitutional guarantees in its favor, were boldly proclaimed by its leaders and applauded by its followers.”

Louisiana: Like Florida’s official secession ordinance, Louisiana’s ordinancewas very brief and did not mention slavery or reasons for secession. It should also be noted that Louisiana’s convention was quite divided on secession, so much so that those adopting secession declined to submit their decision a referendum (violating their own constitution) or to release the voting tallies of the convention. However, over 108 years later, the secret numbers on the secession vote were finally discovered and published, showing that the vote was even closer than publicized at the time. In any event, the Journal recording of the speeches and resolutions of the convention clearly show the prominence of slavery as the principal driver behind Louisiana’s secessionist movement. It is a long record, but a few highlights:

Whereas, it is manifest that Abraham Lincoln if inaugurated as President of the United States, will keep the promises he has made to the Abolitionists of the North; that those promises, if kept, will inevitably lead to the emancipation and misfortune of the slaves of the South, their equality with a superior race, ere long, to the irreparable ruin of this mighty Republic, the degradation of the American name, and corruption of the American blood.

Here is another extract proclaiming how wonderful slavery is for black slaves:

Fully convinced as we are that the slavery ingrafted on this land by France, Spain. England, and the States of North America, is the most humane of all existing servitudes; That, to the slave of the South, it is far preferable to the condition of the barbarians of Africa, or the freedom of those who have been liberated by the powers of Europe. That it is in obedience to the laws of God, recognized by the Constitution of our country, sanctioned by the decrees of its tribunals. That it feeds and clothes its enemies and the world, leaves to the black laborer a more considerable sum of com-fort, happiness and liberty than the inexorable labor required from the free servants of the whole universe: and that each emancipation of an African slave, without being of any benefit to him, would necessarily condemn to slavery one of our blood and our race.

There is also a motion, which is adopted, to amend Louisiana’s Constitution so that “No person coming into this State after the passage of this ordinance shall be allowed to vote, unless he shall have been the owner of a slave or slaves twelve months previous to the election at which he shall offer to vote,” removing any doubt as to the fact slavery was the defining political trait of the state.

It also, like other states’ secession ordinances, contains complaints about Northern rhetoric against slavery, the issues regarding slave expansion into the Western Territories, and implementation of fugitive slave laws by the North.

Texas: Texas’ explanation of secession document, produced during a secession convention that met over the intense objections of Texas hero and then-current-Governor Sam Houston, also emphasized slavery as the primary impetus for secession, noting that Texas entered the Union with the United States

…as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery – the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits – a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slaveholding States of the [Union]…

Then the document makes it clear the Texas was unhappy with subsequent United States government and action as well as the actions of some “non-slave-holding States.” In particular, much like the states that had illegally declared secession before Texas, the document mentions the limits placed on spreading slavery to the Western Territories and specifically the instance of how things played out in Kansas, as well as in regard to non-compliance by Northern states with fugitive slave laws. Texas’s fear that this newly elected U.S. government will begin “destroying the institutions [i.e., slavery] of Texas and her sister slaveholding States” is stated, and complain that Northers have united

…based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, 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. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the…[Union], the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.

and also further complain of the expression and publication of antislavery sentiment by Northerners.

After listing its litany of complaints, the document declares

We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable. 

That 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.

and then declares secession.

Virginia: Virginia’s secession document is very short and does not mention reasons for secession, merely declaring Virginia seceded, with only the exception of a brief mention of “the Federal Government having perverted…[its] powers not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern slave-holding States.” Thus, even without getting into specifics, it is clear that Virginia is casting its lot with that even it defines first and foremost as “slave-holding.” Yet at first Virginia’s leaders were hesitant to vote for secession and voted against it, but after Lincoln called for military volunteers—including volunteers from Virginia—to put down the rebellion after South Carolina rebel forces had fired on Fort Sumter, the delegates voted swiftly for secession after months of deliberation.

Virginia, unlike the previous states who had voted for secession, was not pushed in this vote for secession by a radical faction of extreme secessionist slaveoweners, though to be sure, that faction still had much power in the state. Rather, the fact that the Federal Government of the Lincoln Administration had called for force to coerce a state—in this case South Carolina—was perhaps as big, perhaps even bigger an issue than slavery. But slavery was still a dominant and principal topic throughout the long proceedings of Virginia’s convention, with the words “slavery” and “slave”being mentioned a dramatically high number of times, and with other words such as “property” and “rights” indirectly referring to slaves and slavery, too. In fact, few other issues besides slavery and coercion related to states attempting secession over slavery were discussed at all, and slavery and its related issues take up many long discussions in the proceedings. In particular, there were many complaints about Northern anti-Slavery sentiment and action.  Like in most of the rest of the south, Unionists and secessionists alike, especially at the convention(s), were not against slavery and supported it as an institution. And even the issues of secession, rebellion, and coercion of a state by the federal government using force were all intimately tied at the time of deliberation to the issue of slavery. And regardless of the vote, the secessionist slaveowning faction was already moving, before the convention even voted for secession, to attack and capture Federal military armory at Harper’s Ferry and the Federal Naval Yard in Norfolk, illegally conspiring with leaders of the Virginia State Militia at the instigation of Virginia’s ex-Governor Henry Wise, who was a major slaveowning secessionist and a delegate at the convention. Wise even bypassed the current governor in the process. Clearly, the secessionist faction in Virginia neither cared for the deliberations of the convention nor for democratic process; Wise even told the convention, while showing everyone his large pistol, of the plot for elements of the militia to attack the arsenal and Navy Yard. Very soon after, the convention then voted for secession. In the end, when forced to choose between two sides in a conflict, between their fellow Southern slave states and antislavery Northern states, Virginia’s delegates chose 88 to 55 to secede and side with the South.

During the convention, a major slaveowner made clear that his

point…is that the hatred of our Southern institutions and our system of slavery, is deeply, irradacably ingrafted into the minds of the Northern people. It is an opinion, sir, which has been deeply fastened the re, and an opinion which, I fear, can never be eradicated. Sir, the children in their primers see a print of the slaveholder with scourge in hand, and the suffering negro in chains at his feet. Every kind of effort is made to indoctrinate into the Northern mind the sentiments of abolitionism. The press, the pulpit, the school house—all are made subservient to its purpose…And, Mr. Chairman, whenever there occurs a war of opinion, that war will never stop; it will go on from time to time; it will increase in volume and either one or the other of the parties must submit or must be conquered. A war of opinion is sure, in the long run, to be a war of the sword.

Another delegate bluntly noted that the divisions within Virginia and the whole South over the issue of slavery should be taken into consideration:

To have a divided and distracted people, will bring upon us at once the most awful calamities that any one can imagine. There is no use in endeavoring to disguise the fact that the institution of slavery is one of the acting causes that brought about this calamity. Look at the state of feelings in respect to this institution in the South, and you will find that most of your slaveholding States are divided upon this question. Your own State is divided upon it in a very considerable degree. Look down from the valley, down to Augusta, to the extreme Eastern counties-to the city of Norfolk. Look to the county of Frederick, and other adjacent counties, and there you will find thousands of slaves, while the gentlemen representing these counties on this floor, have all through identified themselves with the party whose zeal in behalf of the institution of slavery, if measured by their efforts in behalf of the Southern or Secession cause, as some would seem disposed to measure, would indeed be at a very low standard. We find some members who represent a much larger amount of property than those just referred to seeking to defer action, while others, representing large slaveholding interests, and some representing that interest but to a limited extent, are for immediate secession.

In addition, there are the usual complaints about fugitive slave laws’ lack of enforcement, limits on the expansion of slavery, and antislavery agitation, with one resolution calling for a permanent ban on antislavery expression in the U.S. Congress, stating that “the interests of both sections of the country imperiously demand that the slavery agitation should be removed now and forever from the halls of Congress,” with another limiting Congress’ ability to legislate on slavery to occur only with the consent of every single state. In another, “negro slavery” is declared to be “an institution…of vital importance to the social and industrial systems, of this and the other Southern States…”

Another adopted resolution argued that

…the point of substantial dispute, from which all minor disputes radiate as from a common centre, between the slaveholding and the non-slaveholding States, is whether negroes are property; and that the observance, in all legislation by the Federal Government and by the States, of the constitutional fact, in our complex system, as we understand it, that negro slaves are property, is the orbit in which the Federal Union, now in the darkness of disaffection and disloyalty, must henceforth move, in order to make that Union again illustrious with the beam of the old time brotherhood; and that that orbit alone, and no other, is competent to make the wasting powers of that Union and the drooping prospects of the whole country revive and rejoice.

Arkansas: Like Virginia, Arkansas adopted its secession ordinance after the fight at Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for state volunteers to put down the rebellion. Thus, this sequence of events is where Arkansas begins in listing its reasons for secession. Like Virginia, it, too, at first voted down secession. But inside the record of its proceedings, slavery, is, as usual with these conventions, front and center.

One resolution was adopted that cited these reasons for justifying secession:

…the platform of the party known as the black republican party, contains unconstitutional dogmas, dangerous in their tendency and highly derogatory to the rights of slave states, and among them the insulting, injurious and untruthful enunciation of the right of the African race in this country to social and political equality with the whites… 

…the seceded states have ample justification for having dissolved the ties which bound them to the old Federal Union, in the constant and unconstitutional political warfare made by the party, known as the black republican party, upon the institutions of the slave states, which warfare has culminated in the election of a president by that party, by a purely sectional vote—upon an unconstitutional platform, the principles of which, if carried out, would utterly ruin the South.

An address from the governor noted that the slave states’

…offence, like our own, in the eyes of the northern people, isslavery. This institution, co-existent with the remotest periods of civilization, and sanctioned by divine authority, is declared by the president elect, to “be in the course of ultimate extinction.” He has declared, and that truly, that the United States government -‘cannot exist half slave and half free.” An irrepressible conflict, says, he, is going on between freedom and slavery. That institution is now upon its trial before you, and if we mean to defend and transmit it to our children, let us terminate this northern crusade, by forming a separate government, in which no conflict can ensue.

He complains about the limits on slavery’s expansion west into the Territories, argues that expansion of slavery is necessary for its survival, that “The extension of slavery is the vital point of the whole controversy between the North and the South, as is plainly manifested by the persistent opposition of the northern people to its being engrafted upon any newly acquired territory, whether south or north of the negro line.” The adds that “God in his omnipotent wisdom, I believe, created the cotton plant—the African slave—and the lower Mississippi valley, to clothe and feed the world, and a gallant race of men and women produced upon its soil to defend it, and execute that decree.” He very simply sums up the whole of the conflict between North and South by saying that “They believe slavery a sin, we do not, and there lies the trouble.”

One resolution referred to committee noted

That it is the deliberate sense of this convention, that African negroes, and the descendants of the African race, denominated slaves by all the constitutions of the southern slaveholding states, is property, to all intents and purposes, and ought of right to be so considered by all the northern .states, being expressly implied by the constitution of the United States, and a denial on the part of the people of the northern states, of the right of property in slaves of the southern states, is, and of right ought to be, sufficient cause, if persisted in by northern people, to dissolve the political connection between said states.

Another adopted resolution enumerated the issues Arkansas had with Northern states; all six had to do with slavery, and it complained that Northerners did not comply with fugitive slave laws, were seeking to limit expansion of slavery into the Territories, and, as the last point, noted that “They have degraded American citizens by placing them upon an equality with negroes at the ballot-box.” It then proposed seven amendments to the U.S. Constitution as redress, all designed to protect and promote slavery, with an eighth requiring all these amendments to have every state of the Union agree to amend them if any changes to them were to happen. It ended by saying all this was the only way Arkansas would stay in the Union. There are further motions and discussions about slavery’s preservation, perpetuation, and regulation at the national and state level.

North Carolina: Late in February, voters had narrowly rejected even having a convention to debate secession at all, and when a convention was later approved, less than one-third of the delegates were secessionists.  But the Unionist delegates has staked much on the belief than Lincoln would not use force against North Carolina’s sister Southern states; like Virginia and Tennessee, support for secession in North Carolina was not strong until Fort Sumter and the subsequent call for the use of force by the Lincoln Administration, and even then it was grudging.  Yet another example of a state with a secession convention simply producing an ordinance declaring session but not explaining it, North Carolina, like all those states that voted for secession, had slavery at the heart of the convention’s proceedings.  The records of the state secession convention show that North Carolina, at this point, thoroughly identified with its sister slave states and that the initial resolution for secession, as with other states, began with a complaint that Lincoln and the North were hostile to slavery, but then most of the rest of the text is devoted to complaining about the attempt to coerce with military force the states that had voted for secession.  Still, even though slavery is briefly mentioned, is is clearly outlined as the main difference between North and South, as well as the cause for both the other states’ votes for secession and the brewing crisis in a general sense.  This ordinance was rejected for the much shorter one that did not offer any explanation for the vote for secession.  The convention then quickly ratified the explicitly proslavery “Constitution” of the rebel confederation, thus joining the rebellion.  On a side note, an issue that came up repeatedly was the taxation of slaves as property.

Tennessee: Tennessee voters had resoundingly rejected secession in a February 1861 referendum pushed by the state’s governor, but, like Virginia before it, public opinion had shifted with the hostilities at Fort Sumter and the Lincoln Administration’s subsequent call to use force to coerce the rebel states. The state legislature, at the prodding of the governor, bypassed having a formal secession convention and an extended debate, and instead approved a “Declaration of Independence” in May that was backed up by a public referendum vote of Tennesseans approving “separation” by a more than two-to-one margin in June. Like some of the secession conventions’ documents, Tennessee’s “Declaration of Independence” did not elaborate on the reasons behind its vote to declare independence and join the confederation of rebel states.  

And yet, again, what was said by the legislators and the governor around the time the “Declaration” was adopted proves quite instructive.  Governor Isham Harris was very clear and direct that January when he had addressed the first special secession of the legislature that had arranged the first referendum that had voted down secession that the main issue at hand was slavery, stating that

To evade the issue thus forced upon us at this time, without the fullest security for our rights, is, in my opinion, fatal to the institution of slavery forever. The time has arrived when the people of the South must prepare either to abandon or to fortify and maintain it. Abandon it, we cannot, interwoven as it is with our wealth, prosperity, and domestic happiness.

He stated that “the Southern man…is unwilling to live under a government which, may by law recognize the free negroe as his equal.” Like others in similar positions before him, he went through, in detail, the usual litany of complaints about the North and Northerners: Northern non-compliance with fugitive slave laws, Northern efforts to use the Federal Government to restrict the expansion of slavery, the North’s “systematic, wanton, and long continued agitation of the slavery question,” and that Lincoln had “asserted the equality of the black with the white race.”  Then, the governor proposed a lengthy amendment to the U.S. Constitution designed to protect and expand slavery, an amendment that could only be changed by unanimous consent of all the slave states and the non-acceptance of which would be justify Tennessee seceding from the Union.

When the state legislature reconvened late in April to take up the issue of leaving the Union for a second time, an address from the governor was read in the state senate that thoroughly identified Tennessee’s position to be with that of the other slave states, as did various resolution of various senators.  Not long after, the legislature approved joining the rebels and put the issue to the popular referendum that was approved in early June.

*****

Thus, for many Americans, “that flag” represents some pretty awful, traitorous, disgusting things, and a cause which millions of Southern slaves and large portions of the South’s whites even thought was offensive. It represents a slaveowning elite who essentially demanded that they retain the dominance of the Federal Government in exchange for both not attempting to destroy this government through attempted secession and not making war upon it.  And when the idea of secession was even discussed, slavery took up the overwhelming majority of the discussion.  Thus, all the flags of the failed rebellion clearly represent slavery—and Southern defiance tied inextricable to slavery—beyond any reasonable doubt or counterargument.  Now that we have explored what the rebellion and its values were actually all about using clear evidence ranging from the rebels leaders’ publicly-stated reasons for wanting to secede to looking at the rebel confederation’s “Constitution,” in Part IV it will be time to explore how the flag of the rebellion was used after the war and through to the present day, as well as look at how the realities of the war, the prewar South, the rebellion, and Reconstruction’s aftermath become corrupted in a sea of lies centering around the mythology and distortions of the “Lost Cause” that still envelop and cloud our understanding 150 years after the rebellion was defeated. 

Continued in Part IV (coming soon)

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