You know the deal. Southerners, Dukes of Hazzard fans and White folks who generally like to think of themselves as rebels all like to deny that the civil war was about slavery. So, in the spirit of keeping it simple, I gathered quotes from each state’s articles of secession because who are we to guess why they seceded when most of them were very clear about it.
They take a few paragraphs to setup the history that led up to the various states forming the United States, that the Constitution guarantees the states can self-govern, and how important it was to the slave-holding states that:
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.”
They would not have joined the union in the first place if their slaves could just escape to the north and be free.
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.
As anti-slavery sentiment grew stronger in the north, they started to feel unsupported:
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. The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress.
So, if the north won’t hold up their end of the bargain by returning escaped slaves, then the constitution must be void:
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.
Seriously, not giving them back their runaways was a really big deal. Plus, abolitionists were meddling in their slave-owning ways. It was as if the government itself was out to get them:
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.
It looks like there’s about to be a president who’s openly hostile to slavery:
A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.
So, before that happens, they’re leaving:
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, have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved, and that the State of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, as a separate and independent State; with full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do.
So, there you have it. States were guaranteed rights to own slaves and those rights were going away. So they left over state’s rights just like people say. But, it was very clearly the right to own slaves, and more specifically the right to treat people as property in case their property escaped anywhere in the United States. So saying they left over slavery is also correct.
Mississippi wastes no time with formalities and just jumps right in with:
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.
They sensed some open hostility from the north toward slavery in the south, so they listed a couple of points about that:
- The hostility to this institution commenced before the adoption of the Constitution, and was manifested in the well-known Ordinance of 1787, in regard to the Northwestern Territory.
- The feeling increased, until, in 1819-20, it deprived the South of more than half the vast territory acquired from France.
- The same hostility dismembered Texas and seized upon all the territory acquired from Mexico.
- It has grown until it denies the right of property in slaves, and refuses protection to that right on the high seas, in the Territories, and wherever the government of the United States had jurisdiction.
- It refuses the admission of new slave States into the Union, and seeks to extinguish it by confining it within its present limits, denying the power of expansion.
- It tramples the original equality of the South under foot.
- It has nullified the Fugitive Slave Law in almost every free State in the Union, and has utterly broken the compact which our fathers pledged their faith to maintain.
- It advocates negro equality, socially and politically, and promotes insurrection and incendiarism in our midst.
- It has enlisted its press, its pulpit and its schools against us, until the whole popular mind of the North is excited and inflamed with prejudice.
- It has made combinations and formed associations to carry out its schemes of emancipation in the States and wherever else slavery exists.
- It seeks not to elevate or to support the slave, but to destroy his present condition without providing a better.
- It has invaded a State, and invested with the honors of martyrdom the wretch whose purpose was to apply flames to our dwellings, and the weapons of destruction to our lives.
- It has broken every compact into which it has entered for our security.
- It has given indubitable evidence of its design to ruin our agriculture, to prostrate our industrial pursuits and to destroy our social system.
- It knows no relenting or hesitation in its purposes; it stops not in its march of aggression, and leaves us no room to hope for cessation or for pause.
- It has recently obtained control of the Government, by the prosecution of its unhallowed schemes, and destroyed the last expectation of living together in friendship and brotherhood.
You know what’s coming next, it looks like their slavery is going to be taken away, so they’re out:
Utter subjugation awaits us in the Union, if we should consent longer to remain in it. It is not a matter of choice, but of necessity. We must either submit to degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union framed by our fathers, to secure this as well as every other species of property. For far less cause than this, our fathers separated from the Crown of England.
Our decision is made. We follow their footsteps. We embrace the alternative of separation; and for the reasons here stated, we resolve to maintain our rights with the full consciousness of the justice of our course, and the undoubting belief of our ability to maintain it.
Same deal as South Carolina before them. Although, arguably less nuanced. They feared that they would lose their property (A.K.A people that they owned) so, they seceded.
Florida: January, 1861
Florida just left with a simple ordinance of secession. However, they did draft a declaration of causes that was never formally published. Like the other states, the primary motivation for secession was that the north wasn’t upholding laws that support slavery and they just elected a president that would likely make it even more difficult be a slave-holding state.
The nullification of these laws by the Legislatures of two thirds of the non slaveholding States important as it is in itself is additionally as is furnishing evidence of an open disregard of constitutional obligation, and of the rights and interests of the slaveholding States and of a deep and inveterate hostility to the people of these States.
They equated abolition with being slowly tortured to death. Think of the children!
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
Isn’t it really the owners of all those people who were the real slaves?
…men who can hesitate to resist such aggressions are slaves already and deserve their destiny.
I understand the fear that must’ve come with the impending paradigm shift of abolition. But that was a lot of hyperbole, even for old-timey politicians. There were also a few sections that reminded me of an Oswald Bates skit from In Living Color.
Alabama: January, 1861
Alabama was substantially less overt. They referred to the same presidential election and hostile attitudes from the north but, avoided naming why Lincoln was bad for them or what those hostilities were:
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,
So, they too were leaving:
Be it declared and ordained by the people of the State of Alabama in Convention assembled , That the State of Alabama now withdraws, and is hereby withdrawn from the Union known as “the United States of America”, and henceforth ceases to be one of said United States, and is, and of right ought to be, a Sovereign and Independent State.
Lest we think they were leaving for reasons different from the others:
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 a permanent Government upon the principles of the Constitution of the United States
So, like the others, they believed the constitution afforded them the rights to own other people and that the north was violating the constitution by infringing upon those rights.
Georgia: January, 1861
Georgia just up and left in the first sentence:
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.
Wondering why? Well, because:
For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.
They go on to whine about everybody hating on them in the press and generally being treated with hostility by folks in the non-slave-holding states. They reference the same struggles in establishing the original constitution that South Carolina did, and feel the need to point out that:
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.
So, they knew what they were getting in to. But, they figured they had the agriculture and that paid the bills, so they thought they were good to go. But then:
We had acquired a large territory by successful war with Mexico; Congress had to govern it; how, in relation to slavery, was the question then demanding solution.
Northern anti-slavery men of all parties asserted the right to exclude slavery from the territory by Congressional legislation and demanded the prompt and efficient exercise of this power to that end. This insulting and unconstitutional demand was met with great moderation and firmness by the South. We had shed our blood and paid our money for its acquisition; we demanded a division of it on the line of the Missouri restriction or an equal participation in the whole of it. These propositions were refused, the agitation became general, and the public danger was great. The case of the South was impregnable. The price of the acquisition was the blood and treasure of both sections– of all, and, therefore, it belonged to all upon the principles of equity and justice.
They go on and on about conflicts over whether or not people could move to new territories and maintain ownership of their property i.e. slaves. It’s a big history lesson about how they feel the north keeps trying to infringe on their constitutional right to own people. No other property types or other inalienable rights are mentioned… just stuff about how they pulled their weight in blood and money and abolitionist sentiment is all they got in return. Then, they end where they began, that the impending anti-slavery government which was elected by the north has:
…outlawed $3,000,000,000 of our property in the common territories of the Union; put it under the ban of the Republic in the States where it exists and out of the protection of Federal law everywhere; because they give sanctuary to thieves and incendiaries who assail it to the whole extent of their power…
Again, if they can’t trust that they can keep their slaves and the north won’t support them by respecting their property rights (of owning people), then they’re on their own.
Louisiana: January, 1861
Louisiana, like Florida, only had a simple ordinance of secession. I did a bunch of digging, looking for minutes from the convention or any other documentation which may have explained why they seceded. They did send a commissioner to Texas’ secession convention. He gave a speech which one could assume was representative of the official opinion of Louisiana. The speech was geared towards convincing Texas to secede from the United States and join them along with the other slave-holding states in creating a new union. In it he declared some of the following:
Louisiana looks to the formation of a Southern confederacy to preserve the blessings of African slavery…
…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.
and this too:
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.
The people of the slaveholding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.
Again, this wasn’t Louisiana’s official declaration and since the speech was a marketing pitch designed to convince Texas to join them, it may say as much about what Louisiana thought of Texas as it does about Louisiana.
Texas: February, 1861
Texas left the United States and joined the confederacy with their ordinances of secession.
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.
They too complain about the north turning a blind eye to abolitionist activism and even in 1861 it looks like they would have supported a wall:
The Federal Government, while but partially under the control of these our unnatural and sectional enemies, has for years almost entirely failed to protect the lives and property of the people of Texas against the Indian savages on our border, and more recently against the murderous forays of banditti from the neighboring territory of Mexico;
Mostly, they were big mad about slavery and, like many other states, referenced the attitudes in the non-slave-holding states which were:
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.
It goes on and on complaining about emissaries from the north are sending pamphlets, poison and weapons to their slaves… burning towns and everything. They very much believed owning people was not just their constitutional right, but their divine right:
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.
There you go. Texas very firmly believed that ending slavery would end the United States and they were willing to secede and fight for their God-given right to own other human beings.
Virginia’s ordinance was also short. They basically stated that the constitution gave them powers along with the power to leave if the United States government was causing them injury. They did make the point that the injury was common to themselves and the other slave-holding states:
The people of Virginia, in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in Convention, on the 25th day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eight-eight, having declared that the powers granted them under the 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 slaveholding States.
So, they left. But, it’s anyone’s guess what the slave-holding states all had in common and what the north was doing to oppress it. There was a letter from the governor of Virginia read at the convention which happened to be all about slavery. Maybe there’s a clue in that.
Arkansas: May, 1861
Arkansas’s seceded after the battle of Fort Sumpter officially started the civil war. Their ordinance of secession was quite straightforward and did not reference slavery.
However, the convention during which it was adopted contains much discussion about slavery, its impact and necessity to the agricultural economy of Arkansas and even a reference to how the inhabitants of the non-slave-holding states have become a different people. There’s 522 pages of archived documents for your reading pleasure.
Tennessee: May, 1861
Tennessee also had a straightforward ordinance of secession which simply stated that they were leaving the United States and took care of a couple of other logistical issues.
Interestingly, Tennessee was fairly divided on the issue with secession supporters in the west where slave labor was critical to growing tobacco and cotton and Union supporters in the east where slave labor was not so critical to their economy. Apparently, East Tennessee even had their own conventions in support of the Union.
North Carolina: May, 1861
I think North Carolina’s ordinance of secession may have been the shortest of all.
I found an interesting speech January of 1861, back when a few states had seceded and the movement was getting underway. Prior to reading this speech, I thought of anti-secessionists and abolitionists as sharing overlapping views of slavery. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The author of the speech is apprehensive about secession because it would effectively
…be bringing Canada down to the borders of the South. Our slaves would only have to step across the line, and they would be free.
Not only that, but:
…although all the Southern States are alike interested in the preservation and protection of the institution of slavery, yet, the interest of the cotton States, and our interest in that institution, are in one particular diametrically opposite. Our interest in the slave is his price, theirs his labor. We estimate him by what he will bring in market, they value him for the cotton he can produce. We sell slaves, they buy them. It is to our interest that slaves shall be high, it is to their interest that they shall be cheap. Many persons think that to carry out this favorite idea of getting negroes cheap; the cotton States would like to re-open the African slave trade, and we all know how destructive to the value of our slave property such a measure would be.
It appears North Carolina ultimately needed to join with the rest of the slave-owning states because it was becoming increasingly clear that to remain in the Union was to give up the economies of slavery. However, its not yet entirely clear to me that they would have seceded had war not already broken out.
So, there you have it. Do your own research (I gave links). Some states were vague and some had more to say but, slavery was at the root of why all of them left. One could argue that the war itself wasn’t about slavery because the north was fighting to preserve the union and abolition was a side-effect of the north winning. However, one must also acknowledge that the war only occurred because the south seceded and that the primary reason the south seceded was to preserve the institution of slavery.