On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln delivered his “House Divided” speech to the gathered Republican Party:
A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new—North as well as South.
Just a few months following, future president of the Confederate States Jefferson Davis offered his own perspective on this brewing divide within the United States, laying the fault solely in the lap of Northern abolitionist agitation:
The government is instituted to protect, not to destroy property. […] Why, then, in the absence of all control over the subject of African slavery, are you agitated in relation to it? With Pharisaical pretension it is sometimes said it is a moral obligation to agitate, and I suppose they are going through a sort of vicarious repentance for other men’s sins. [Laughter.] Who gave them a right to decide that it is a sin? By what standard do they measure it? Not the Constitution; the Constitution recognizes the property in many forms, and imposes obligations in connection with that recognition. Not the Bible; that justifies it. Not the good of society; for if they go where it exists, they find that society recognizes it as good. What, then, is their standard? The good of mankind? Is that seen in the diminished resources of the country? Is that seen in the diminished comfort of the world? Or is not the reverse exhibited? Is it in the cause of Chrisitianity? It cannot be, for servitude is the only agency through which Christianity has reached that degraded race, the only means by which they have been civilized and elevated.
[…] There is another question connected with this negro agitation. It is in relation to the right to hold slaves in the Territories. What power has Congress to declare what shall be property? None, in the territory or elsewhere.
[…] Thus it is that the peace of the Union is destroyed; thus it is that brother is arrayed against brother; thus it is that the people come to consider—not how they can promote each other’s interests, but how they may successfully war upon them. (Boston, Ma, October 11, 1858)
In the words of secession apologist Leonidas W. Spratt, the South was moving toward the creation (maintenance?) of a “Slave Republic,” a confederacy of “slave-holding states” which, “poised upon its institutions,” hoped to “move on to a career of greatness and of glory unapproached by any other nation in the world” (The Philosophy of Secession). There ought to be no doubt, contrary to “Lost Cause” propaganda prevalent in the South and among conservatives, that preservation of the institution of slavery was the primary motivation of the seceding States, leading ultimately to our bloody Civil War.
Without attempting to rewrite a history that has been written all too many times (and written much better than I could ever accomplish), I hope here to simply offer selections from historical documents demonstrating the causes and reasons of each State’s secession, in one link-able package. Unfortunately, only four States—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida (though unpublished), Georgia, and Texas—offered a “declarations of causes,” but every other State’s reasons were made quite clear through other means. It is my opinion that only North Carolina, Missouri, and Kentucky offer any real difficulties. The other ten States are crystal clear.
Each Confederate State is considered below, by order of secession ratification. It is long, so feel free to skim as needed.
South Carolina – December 20, 1860
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. The greater number of the contracting parties held slaves, and they had previously evinced their estimate of the value of such a stipulation by making it a condition in the Ordinance for the government of the territory ceded by Virginia, which now composes the States north of the Ohio River.
The same article of the Constitution stipulates also for rendition by the several States of fugitives from justice from the other States.
The General Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws were executed. 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. […] Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.
[…] 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.
Mississippi – January 9, 1861
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.
Florida – January 10, 1861
This declaration was prepared by the Florida secession convention, but remained unpublished until recently discovered by historian Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley.
By the agency of a large proportion of the members from the non slaveholding States books have been published and circulated amongst us the direct tendency and avowed purpose of which is to excite insurrection and servile war with all their attendant horrors. 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. It is denied that it is the purpose of the party soon to enter into the possession of the powers of the Federal Government to abolish slavery by any direct legislative act. This has never been charged by any one. But it has been announced by all the leading men and presses of the party that the ultimate accomplishment of this result is its settled purpose and great central principle. That no more slave States shall be admitted into the confederacy and that the slaves from their rapid increase (the highest evidence of the humanity of their owners will become value less. Nothing is more certain than this and at no distant day. What must be the condition of the slaves themselves when their number becomes so large that their labor will be of no value to their owners. Their 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.
It is in so many words saying to you we will not burn you at the stake but we will torture you to death by a slow fire we will not confiscate your property and consign you to a residence and equality with the african but that destiny certainly awaits your children – and you must quietly submit or we will force you to submission – men who can hesitate to resist such aggressions are slaves already and deserve their destiny.
Alabama – January 11, 1861
While Alabama did not write a declaration of causes, the Ordinance itself reacts to the threat of Abraham Lincoln’s government to “the domestic institutions” of the “slave-holding states.”
Whereas, 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, is a political wrong of so insulting and menacing a character as to justify the people of the State of Alabama in the adoption of prompt and decided measures for their future peace and security, therefore: […]
And as it is the desire and purpose of the people of Alabama to meet the slaveholding States of the South, who may approve such purpose, in order to frame a provisional as well as permanent Government upon the principles of the Constitution of the United States […].
Further, Alabama had already adopted a new constitution just a couple of days following the seating of Lincoln and four days before the ratification of secession. It contains a full section for the maintenance of slavery and refers to the forthcoming Confederate States of America as the “Southern slaveholding states.”
Article VI, SLAVERY, Section 1
No slave in this State shall be emancipated by any act done to take effect in this State, or any other country.
Part III, Relating To The Changes In The Constitution Of Alabama, Section 2
Be it ordained by the people of Alabama in Convention assembled , That, an ordinance adopted by the people of this State, in Convention, at Huntsville, on the second day of August, one thousand eight hundred and nineteen, disclaiming forever all right to the waste or unappropriated lands lying within this State, is hereby repealed; but the navigable waters of this State shall remain forever free to the citizens of this State, and of such States as may unite with the State of Alabama, in a Southern slaveholding Confederacy.
Georgia – January 19, 1861
The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. 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. […] 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. The party of Lincoln, called the Republican party, under its present name and organization, is of recent origin. It is admitted to be an anti-slavery party. While it attracts to itself by its creed the scattered advocates of exploded political heresies, of condemned theories in political economy, the advocates of commercial restrictions, of protection, of special privileges, of waste and corruption in the administration of Government, anti-slavery is its mission and its purpose. By anti-slavery it is made a power in the state. The question of slavery was the great difficulty in the way of the formation of the Constitution. While the subordination and the political and social inequality of the African race was fully conceded by all, it was plainly apparent that slavery would soon disappear from what are now the non-slave-holding States of the original thirteen. The opposition to slavery was then, as now, general in those States and the Constitution was made with direct reference to that fact. But a distinct abolition party was not formed in the United States for more than half a century after the Government went into operation. The main reason was that the North, even if united, could not control both branches of the Legislature during any portion of that time.
Louisiana – January 26, 1861
Though Louisiana did not offer a declaration of causes, they did send a delegation to Texas to urge its government to follow suit and secede from the Union. In the address, Commissioner Williamson makes abundantly clear the reasons for Louisiana’s decision.
The people of Louisiana were unwilling to endanger their liberties and property by submission to the despotism of a single tyrant, or the canting tyranny of pharisaical majorities. Insulted by the denial of her constitutional equality by the non-slaveholding States, outraged by their contemptuous rejection of proffered compromises, and convinced that she was illustrating the capacity of her people for self-government by withdrawing from a union that had failed, without fault of hers, to accomplish its purposes, she declared herself a free and independent State on the 26th day of January last. History affords no example of a people who changed their government for more just or substantial reasons. Louisiana looks to the formation of a Southern confederacy to preserve the blessings of African slavery, and of the free institutions of the founders of the Federal Union, bequeathed to their posterity. […] Texas affords to the commerce of Louisiana a large portion of her products, and in exchange the banks of New Orleans furnish Texas with her only paper circulating medium. Louisiana supplies to Texas a market for her surplus wheat, grain and stock; both States have large areas of fertile, uncultivated lands, peculiarly adapted to slave labor; and they are both so deeply interested in African slavery that it may be said to be absolutely necessary to their existence, and is the keystone to the arch of their prosperity. […] Recognizing these facts, but still confident in her own powers to maintain a separate existence, Louisiana regards with great concern the vote of the people of Texas on the ratification of the ordinance of secession, adopted by your honorable body on the 1st of the present month. She is confident a people who so nobly and gallantly achieved their liberties under such unparalleled difficulties will not falter in maintaining them now. The Mexican yoke could not have been more galling to “the army of heroes” of ’36 than the Black republican rule would be to the survivors and sons of that army at the present day.
The people of Louisiana would consider it a most fatal blow to African slavery, if Texas either did not secede or having seceded should not join her destinies to theirs in a Southern Confederacy. If she remains in the union the abolitionists would continue their work of incendiarism and murder. Emigrant aid societies would arm with Sharp’s rifles predatory bands to infest her northern borders. The Federal Government would mock at her calamity in accepting the recent bribes in the army bill and Pacific railroad bill, and with abolition treachery would leave her unprotected frontier to the murderous inroads of hostile savages. Experience justifies these expectations. A professedly friendly federal administration gave Texas no substantial protection against the Indians or abolitionists, and what must she look for from an administration avowedly inimical and supported by no vote within her borders. Promises won from the timid and faithless are poor hostages of good faith. 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 slaveholding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery. The isolation of any one of them from the others would make her a theatre for abolition emissaries from the North and from Europe. Her existence would be one of constant peril to herself and of imminent danger to other neighboring slave-holding communities. A decent respect for the opinions and interests of the Gulf States seems to indicate that Texas should co-operate with them. I am authorized to say to your honorable body that Louisiana does not expect any beneficial result from the peace conference now assembled at Washington. She is unwilling that her action should depend on the border States. Her interests are identical with Texas and the seceding States. […] With the social balance wheel of slavery to regulate its machinery, we may fondly indulge the hope that our Southern government will be perpetual.
Texas – February 23, 1861
Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented to become one of the Confederated Union to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people. She was received into the confederacy with her own constitution, under the guarantee of the federal constitution and the compact of annexation, that she should enjoy these blessings. She was received 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 confederacy. Those ties have been strengthened by association. But what has been the course of the government of the United States, and of the people and authorities of the non-slave-holding States, since our connection with them?
[…] In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, 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 confederacy, 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.
[…] 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.
Arkansas – May 6, 1861
Again, Arkansas also did not publish an official declaration of causes, but the resolutions presented and ultimately agreed to at the State’s secession convention make the government’s position quite clear. On March 9, 1861, Hugh F. Thomason of Crawford County presented the following resolutions, encapsulating the thought of those who would succeed in May of 1861:
We, the people of the State of Arkansas, in convention assembled, in view of the unfortunate and distracted condition of our once happy and prosperous country, and of the alarming*dissentions existing between the northern and southern sections thereof; and desiring that a fair and equitable adjustment of the same may be made; do hereby declare the following to be just causes of complaint on the part of the people of the southern states, against their brethren of the northern, or non-slaveholding states:
1. People of the northern states have organized a political party, purely sectional in its character, the central and controlling idea of which is, hostility to the institution of African slavery, as it exists in the southern states, and that party has elected a President and Vice President of the United States, pledged to administer the government upon principles inconsistent with the rights, and subversive of the interests of the people of the southern states.
2. They have denied to the people of the southern states the right to an equal participation in the benefits of the common territories of the Union, by refusing them the same protection to their slave property therein that is afforded to other property, and by declaring that no more slave states shall be admitted into the Union.
3. They have declared that Congress possesses, under the constitution, and ought to exercise, the power to abolish slavery in the territories, in the District of Columbia, and in the forts, arsenals and dock yards of the United States, within the limits of the slaveholding states.
4. They have, in disregard of their constitutional obligations, obstructed the faithful execution ol’ the fugitive slave laws by enactments of their state legislatures.
5. They have denied the citizens of southern states the right of transit through non-slaveholding states with their slaves, and the right to hold them while temporarily sojourning therein.
6. They have degraded American citizens by placing them upon an equality with negroes at the ballot-box.
(Please see, “WHY DID ARKANSAS SECEDE?” for more.)
Virginia – May 23, 1861
The people of Virginia in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression, and the Federal Government having perverted said powers not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern slave-holding States. […]
Not only did Virginia (along with every other Confederate State) refer to itself as among the “slave-holding” states, the message given by Virginia’s Governor, John Letcher, to the convened secession convention on January 7, 1861 made the reason for secession as clear as any declaration of secession. He declared, to the approval of the Virginia government and, ultimately, the popular vote, the following:
For the present condition of public affairs, the non-slaveholding states are chargeable; and if the Union shall be destroyed, upon them will rest the solemn responsibility. Their systematic and persistent warfare upon the institution of domestic slavery, as it exists amongst us—their fierce and unqualified denunciation of it, and all who recognize or tolerate it, have done much to create the present state of exasperation existing between the two sections of the Union. Hatred to slavery and slaveholders is instilled into the minds of their children, as part and parcel of their education, throughout the infected district of New England. The institution is constantly assailed — through the press, in the pulpit, in public meetings, in private associations, in their legislative assemblies in their statues, on all occasions — as morally, socially and politically wrong. The slave owner is painted as the great criminal of the age, deserving death. Money is raised and has been expended in hiring desperate and depraved men, in arming and supporting them, in order that they may make raids into southern states, and excite the slaves to insurrection and murder. Arms peculiarly suited to the use of the slave, have been fabricated, and sent into the slave states, to be placed in the hands of this class of our population, after they have been stimulated to such a degree of madness as will qualify them for the commission of murder, arson, and every species of cruelty. The results of these teachings were seen in the Harpers Ferry raid.
(See also, “Why Did Virginia Secede?“)
Tennessee – June 8, 1861
Tennessee Governor Isham G. Harris also declared in no uncertain terms the reason for his states secession, in his “Call for a Referendum on a Tennessee Secession Convention”:
The systematic, wanton, and long continued agitation of the slavery question, with the actual and threatened aggressions of the Northern States and a portion of their people, upon the well-defined constitutional rights of the Southern citizen; the rapid growth and increase, in all the elements of power, of a purely sectional party, whose bond of union is uncompromising hostility to the rights and institutions of the fifteen Southern States, have produced a crisis in the affairs of the country, unparalleled in the history of the past, resulting already in the withdrawal from the Confederacy of one of the sovereignties which composed it, while others are rapidly preparing to move in the same direction.
[…] Previous to the adoption of the Federal Constitution, each State was a separate and independent Government-a conplete sovereignty within itself –and in the compact of union, each reserved all the rights and powers incident to sovereignty, except such as were expressly delegated by the Constitution to the General Government, or such as were clearly incident, and necessary, to the exercise of some expressly delegated power. The Constitution distinctly recognizes property in slaves–makes it the duty of the States to deliver the fugitive to his owner, but contains no grant of power to the Federal Government to interfere with this species of property, except “the power coupled with the duty,” common to all civil Governments, to protect the rights of property […].
[Here Harris gives a list of grievances, nearly all of which relate to slavery, concluding with the following.]
It has, in the person of the President elect, asserted the equality of the black with the white race.
These are some of the wrongs against which we have remonstrated for more than a quarter of a century, hoping, but in vain, for their redress, until some of our sister States, in utter despair of obtaining justice at the hands of these lawless confederates, have resolved to sever the ties which have bound them together, and maintain those rights out of the Union, which have been the object of’ constant attack and encroachment within it.
North Carolina – May 20, 1861; Missouri – October 31, 1861; Kentucky – November 20, 1861
As stated at the beginning of this post, these three States offer the greatest difficulty out of the thirteen seceding States, so I will just offer some links for further reading below. North Carolina, by all accounts, was quite reticent to secede, but not for lack commitment to the institution of slavery. In fact, many Unionists and Conditional Unionists argued that seceding would destroy the institution slavery, whereas the status quo was more likely to preserve it. Please see, “The Death Knell of Slavery.” On the other hand, both Missouri and Kentucky may not have even officially seceded; only factional governments within these States ratified secession, while both States were split, fighting for each side during the War. What is clear, though, is that both States continued to support slavery and ultimately solidified their identity with the South following the War. For example, Missouri Governor Clairborne Fox Jackson made clear over and over that his state ought to secede to defend slavery, but many others followed their own lights, joining forces with the North. Please see, “The Struggle for Missouri.”
The Constitution of the Confederate States – March 11, 1861
One final document needs to be considered, the Confederate Constitution. For all the “Lost Cause” emphasis on “States Rights” as the primary justification of seceding States—as well as the Civil War that would follow—the Confederate Constitution offers little change to the U. S. Constitution, except to assure that the institution of slavery would not be considered a matter of “States Rights.” To be clear, The Constitution of the Confederate States would ultimately deny the right of States to themselves determine the question of slavery, requiring every State in the new Confederacy to affirm its perpetual lawfulness.
[…] Sec. 2. (I) The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States; and shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired. […]
(3) No slave or other person held to service or labor in any State or Territory of the Confederate States, under the laws thereof, escaping or lawfully carried 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 slave belongs, or to whom such service or labor may be due.
Sec. 3. (I) Other States may be admitted into this Confederacy by a vote of two-thirds of the whole House of Representatives and two-thirds of the Senate, the Senate voting by States; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the jurisdiction of any other State, nor any State be formed by the junction of two or more States, or parts of States, without the consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned, as well as of the Congress. […]
(3) The Confederate States may acquire new territory; and Congress shall have power to legislate and provide governments for the inhabitants of all territory belonging to the Confederate States, lying without the limits of the several Sates; and may permit them, at such times, and in such manner as it may by law provide, to form States to be admitted into the Confederacy. In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected be Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.
To conclude, I urge all interested to (1) read in full every document linked in this post, and (2) share these resources anytime you hear the claim, “the Confederacy was not about slavery!” While the North may have proven disingenuous in its abolitionism, the South was nevertheless quite clear about its “Slave Republic.”