5 myths about why the South se­ceded.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - BY JAMES W. LOEWEN jloewen@uvm.edu So­ci­ol­o­gist James W. Loewen is the author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and co-edi­tor, with Ed­ward Sebesta, of “The Con­fed­er­ate and Neo-Con­fed­er­ate Reader.”

One hun­dred fifty years af­ter the Civil War be­gan, we’re still fight­ing it— or at least fight­ing over its his­tory. I’ve polled thou­sands of high school his­tory teach­ers and spo­ken about the war to au­di­ences across the coun­try, and there is lit­tle agree­ment even about why the South se­ceded. Was it over slav­ery? States’ rights? Tar­iffs and taxes? ¶ As the nation be­gins to com­mem­o­rate the an­niver­saries of the war’s var­i­ous bat­tles— from Fort Sumter to Ap­po­mat­tox— let’s first dis­pense with some of the more preva­lent myths about why it all be­gan.

The South se­ceded over states’ rights.

1 Con­fed­er­ate states did claim the right to se­cede, but no state claimed to be se­ced­ing for that right. In fact, Con­fed­er­ates op­posed states’ rights — that is, the right of North­ern states not to sup­port slav­ery.

On Dec. 24, 1860, del­e­gates at South Carolina’s se­ces­sion con­ven­tion adopted a “Dec­la­ra­tion of the Im­me­di­ate Causes Which In­duce and Jus­tify the Se­ces­sion of South Carolina from the Fed­eral Union.” It noted “an in­creas­ing hos­til­ity on the part of the non­slave­hold­ing States to the in­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery” and protested that North­ern states had failed to “ful­fill their con­sti­tu­tional obli­ga­tions” by in­ter­fer­ing with the re­turn of fugi­tive slaves to bondage. Slav­ery, not states’ rights, birthed the Civil War.

Other se­ced­ing states echoed South Carolina. “Our po­si­tion is thor­oughly iden­ti­fied with the in­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery — the great­est ma­te­rial in­ter­est of the world,” pro­claimed Mis­sis­sippi in its own se­ces­sion dec­la­ra­tion, passed Jan. 9, 1861. “Its la­bor sup­plies the prod­uct which con­sti­tutes by far the largest and most im­por­tant por­tions of the com­merce of the earth. . . . A blow at slav­ery is a blow at com­merce and civ­i­liza­tion.”

Se­ces­sion was about tar­iffs and taxes.

2 Dur­ing the nadir of postcivil-war race re­la­tions — the ter­ri­ble years af­ter 1890 when town af­ter town across the North be­came all-white “sun­down towns” and state af­ter state across the South pre­vented African Amer­i­cans from vot­ing — “any­thing but slav­ery” ex­pla­na­tions of the Civil War gained trac­tion. To this day Con­fed­er­ate sym­pa­thiz­ers suc­cess­fully float this false claim, along with their pre­ferred name for the con­flict: the­War Be­tween the States. At the in­fa­mous Se­ces­sion Ball in South Carolina, hosted in De­cem­ber by the Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­ans, “ the main rea­sons for se­ces­sion were por­trayed as high tar­iffs and North­ern states us­ing South­ern tax money to build their own in­fra­struc­ture,” The Washington Post re­ported.

These ex­pla­na­tions are flatly wrong. High tar­iffs had prompted the Nul­li­fi­ca­tion Cri­sis in 1831-33, when, af­ter South Carolina de­manded the right to nul­lify fed­eral laws or se­cede in protest, Pres­i­dent An­drew Jack­son threat­ened force. No state joined the move­ment, and South Carolina backed down. Tar­iffs were not an is­sue in 1860, and South­ern states said noth­ing about them. Why would they? South­ern­ers had writ­ten the tar­iff of 1857, un­der which the nation was func­tion­ing. Its rates were lower than at any point since 1816.

Most white South­ern­ers didn’t own slaves, so they wouldn’t se­cede for slav­ery.

3 In­deed, most white South­ern fam­i­lies had no slaves. Less than half of white Mis­sis­sippi house­holds owned one or more slaves, for ex­am­ple, and that pro­por­tion was smaller still in whiter states such as Vir­ginia and Ten­nessee. It is also true that, in ar­eas with few slaves, most white South­ern­ers did not sup­port se­ces­sion. West Vir­ginia se­ceded from Vir­ginia to stay with the Union, and Con­fed­er­ate troops had to oc­cupy parts of east­ern Ten­nessee and north­ern Alabama to hold them in line.

How­ever, two ide­o­log­i­cal fac­tors caused most South­ern whites, in­clud­ing those who were not slave­own­ers, to de­fend slav­ery. First, Amer­i­cans are won­drous op­ti­mists, look­ing to the up­per class and ex­pect­ing to join it some­day. In 1860, many sub­sis­tence farm­ers as­pired to be­come large slave-own­ers. So poor white South­ern­ers sup­ported slav­ery then, just as many low-in­come peo­ple sup­port the ex­ten­sion of Ge­orgeW. Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy now.

Sec­ond and more im­por­tant, be­lief in white supremacy pro­vided a ra­tio­nale for slav­ery. As the French po­lit­i­cal the­o­rist Mon­tesquieu ob­served wryly in 1748: “It is im­pos­si­ble for us to sup­pose these crea­tures [en­slaved Africans] to be men; be­cause al­low­ing them to be men, a sus­pi­cion would fol­low that we our­selves are not Chris­tians.” Given this be­lief, most white South­ern­ers — and many North­ern­ers, too — could not en­vi­sion life in black-ma­jor­ity states such as South Carolina and Mis­sis­sippi un­less blacks were in chains.

Abra­ham Lin­coln went to war to end slav­ery.

4 Since the CivilWar did end slav­ery, many Amer­i­cans think abo­li­tion was the Union’s goal. But the North ini­tially went to war to hold the nation to­gether. Abo­li­tion came later.

On Aug. 22, 1862, Pres­i­dent Lin­coln wrote a let­ter to the New York Tribune that in­cluded the fol­low­ing pas­sage: “If I could save the Union with­out free­ing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by free­ing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by free­ing some and leav­ing oth­ers alone, I would also do that. What I do about slav­ery and the col­ored race, I do be­cause I be­lieve it helps to save the Union; and what I for­bear, I for­bear be­cause I do not be­lieve it would help to save the Union.”

How­ever, Lin­coln’s own an­ti­slav­ery sen­ti­ment was widely known at the time. In the same let­ter, he went on: “I have here stated my pur­pose ac­cord­ing to my view of of­fi­cial duty; and I in­tend no mod­i­fi­ca­tion of my oft-expressed per­sonal wish that all men ev­ery where could be free.” A month later, Lin­coln com­bined of­fi­cial duty and pri­vate wish in his pre­lim­i­nary Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion.

The South couldn’t have made it long as a slave so­ci­ety.

5 Slav­ery was hardly on its last legs in 1860. That year, the South pro­duced al­most 75 per­cent of all U.S. ex­ports. Slaves were worth more than all the man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pa­nies and rail­roads in the nation. No elite class in his­tory has ever given up such an im­mense in­ter­est vol­un­tar­ily. More­over, Con­fed­er­ates eyed ter­ri­to­rial ex­pan­sion into Mex­ico and Cuba. Short of war, who would have stopped them — or forced them to aban­don slav­ery?

To claim that slav­ery would have ended of its own ac­cord by the mid-20th cen­tury is im­pos­si­ble to dis­prove but dif­fi­cult to ac­cept. In 1860, slav­ery was grow­ing more en­trenched in the South. Un­paid la­bor makes for big prof­its, and the South­ern elite was grow­ing ever richer. Free­ing slaves was be­com­ing more and more dif­fi­cult for their own­ers, as was the po­si­tion of free blacks in the United States, North as well as South. For the fore­see­able fu­ture, slav­ery looked se­cure. Per­haps a civil war was re­quired to end it.

As we com­mem­o­rate the sesqui­cen­ten­nial of that war, let us take pride this time — as we did not dur­ing the cen­ten­nial — that se­ces­sion on slav­ery’s be­half failed.


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