Slavery, States’ Rights, and Secession Commissioners
Civil War was fought over what important issue?” So reads one of twenty questions on an exam administered by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to prospective American citizens. According to the INS, you are correct if you offer either one of the following answers: “Slavery or states rights.”1
It is reassuring to know that the INS has a flexible approach to one of the critical questions in American history, but one might ask how the single “issue” raised in the question can have an either/or answer in this instance—the only time such an option occurs on the test. Beyond that, some might want to know whether “slavery” or “states rights” is the more correct answer. But it is probably unfair to chide the test preparers at the INS for trying to fudge the issue. Their uncertainty reflects the deep division and profound ambivalence in contemporary American culture over the origins of the Civil War. One hundred and forty years after the beginning of that fratricidal conflict, neither the public nor the scholarly community has reached anything approaching a consensus as to what caused the bloodiest four years in this country’s history.
There is no doubt whatsoever about the sequence of events that triggered the outbreak of hostilities in the spring of 1861. In the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s triumph at the polls in the presidential election
of 1860, seven states of the lower South—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—seceded from the Union. Beginning with South Carolina on December 20, 1860, and ending with Texas on February 1, 1861, secession conventions in these seven states passed ordinances severing all ties to the national government. A convention meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, in early February 1861 drafted a constitution for the Confederate States of America and organized a provisional government that rushed military forces into the field.
The flashpoint came in Charleston, South Carolina. Early in the morning on April 12, 1861, Confederate shore batteries opened fire on the Union garrison occupying Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. In the aftermath of the Sumter bombardment and Lincoln’s call for volunteers to suppress the rebellion, four additional slave states—Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas—joined the original seven, and the war was on.
The question about which so much controversy has swirled is the obvious one: what caused the seven Deep South states to secede? Why did the election of a Republican president in November 1860 trigger such a swift, revolutionary, and potentially dangerous response? If we can get inside the secessionist mind-set, if we can understand what was driving the lower South in the great secession winter of 1860–61, we can go a long way toward explaining the coming of the American Civil War.
Civil War causation is certainly not an arcane subject for many Americans, as newspapers, magazines, and other media outlets remind us on an almost daily basis.
On July 27, 1999, the Richmond Times-Dispatch
bore the headline “Council Supports Mural of Lee” across the full width of its front page. The night before, the Richmond City Council had engaged in a contentious debate over whether or not a portrait of Robert E. Lee
should be included in an outdoor display at the newly developed Canal Walk along the James River. The vote, six to three in favor of hanging a larger-than-life-sized picture of Lee as part of a floodwall gallery, came after hours of public comment by individuals passionately in favor of, or opposed to, Lee’s inclusion.
The council’s decision was, presumably, the final act in a dispute that had produced heated exchanges in the city for over a year. During that time the state and local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had come out strongly against the Lee portrait, and one city councilman had described the Confederate general as “akin to Adolf Hitler” and insisted that “Lee should not be honored in public because he supported slavery by fighting for the Confederacy.” Pro-Lee advocates included the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization, which mounted a rally on the grounds of the Virginia State Capitol, and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who graced the city with his presence less than a fortnight before the council voted in favor of Lee’s presence on the concrete floodwall.2
The fight over the Lee portrait was only the latest in a string of controversies in Virginia that has focused public attention on the state’s Confederate past. In 1998 Virginians carried out a spirited debate over the merits of Republican governor James S. Gilmore’s proclamation naming April “Confederate History Month” in the Old Dominion. Gilmore’s official message referred to the Civil War as “a four-year tragic, heroic and determined struggle for deeply held beliefs,” although the governor made no attempt to spell out exactly what those beliefs might be. Gilmore then went on to say something about slavery (a subject his Republican predecessor, Governor George Allen, had studiously avoided in his earlier, equally controversial Confederate History Month proclamations). “Slavery was a practice that
deprived African-Americans of their God-given inalienable rights [and] which degraded the human spirit,” Gilmore said.3
The governor’s attempt to work both sides of the street failed miserably. The Virginia NAACP Conference deplored the celebration of Confederate History Month once again in the state, although the conference commended the governor for “being inclusive and respecting the horrors of African enslavement.” But R. Wayne Byrd Sr., the president of the Virginia Heritage Preservation Association, had a much different reaction to the governor’s statement; he saw the proclamation as nothing less than “an insult” to white Virginians. Byrd, appearing at a news conference at the State Capitol with a small Confederate flag pinned to his lapel, “went on to say he had ‘a problem’ with Gilmore calling slavery a cause of the Civil War and ‘an abhorred’ practice.” According to press reports, Byrd was accompanied at this Richmond news conference by “a half-dozen other business-suited Confederate enthusiasts, including former Virginia GOP Chairman Patrick S. McSweeney.”4
The past, it seems fair to say, is far from dead in the southern reaches of the United States. The Virginia fights over the Lee portrait and Confederate History Month are only two of many debates roiling the contemporary South over the respect, or disrespect, that should be afforded the Lost Cause. Certainly the most prominent recent controversy has been the fight over whether or not the Confederate battle flag should float over the South Carolina State Capitol.
In January 2000 demonstrators both for and against flying the flag descended on Columbia. A proflag group of some 6,000 supporters who gathered on January 8 was followed nine days later by close to 50,000 antiflag marchers who constituted what may well have been the largest civil rights demonstration in the South since the 1960s. The smaller numbers favoring the flag, many of whom were clad in
Confederate uniforms, defended the “Stars and Bars” as “a symbol of Southern heritage” and “a reminder of their ancestors’ courage in battling to secede from the Union.”5
Many of the antiflag demonstrators carried placards reading “Your Heritage Is My Slavery,” and speaker after speaker denounced the flag “as a symbol of slavery and hatred.”6
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had earlier called for an economic boycott of South Carolina until the flag was removed from its place of honor above the Capitol dome.7
The pressure for a boycott exerted by a national civil rights organization obviously hit a raw nerve in the state. Nowhere was this more evident than at the January 8 rally of flag supporters in Columbia. A South Carolina state senator addressing the crowd hurled defiance at the NAACP. “Can you believe that there are those who think the General Assembly of South Carolina is going to … knuckle under” to “that organization known as the National Association for Retarded People?” asked Senator Arthur Ravenel, Republican from Mount Pleasant.8
When asked for his reaction to Senator Ravenel’s statement, Lonnie Randolph, a leader of the NAACP boycott, replied, “We don’t dignify ignorant comments and ignorant statements with a response.”9
Senator Ravenel subsequently apologized to “retarded people” for linking them to the NAACP.10
Virginia and South Carolina are hardly the only places where Confederate symbols have stirred controversy. If things keep going the way they have in recent years, acrimonious historical debate may soon rival kudzu for prominence on the southern landscape.
Tempers flared in Maryland after the Motor Vehicle Administration issued a vanity license plate for the Sons of Confederate Veterans bearing a small Confederate flag. “Maryland doesn’t need to go backwards with this Jim Crow mess,” observed the leader of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus. A Maryland member of the Sons of
Confederate Veterans insisted that the plates were nothing more than “a symbol of pride in our heritage.”11
In 1997, as part of a campaign to gain greater national recognition for his school and to improve its image, Chancellor Robert C. Khayat of the University of Mississippi at Oxford asked Ole Miss students and alumni to give up the time-honored tradition of waving the Confederate flag at university sporting events. An Ole Miss faculty member supporting the chancellor called the Rebel flag “the most inflammatory symbol that the South has,” but a prominent alumnus saw nothing wrong with the practice. Filling the stands with flag-wavers “makes this place truly unique,” he said, and he added, “We don’t need the nation’s blessing.”12
Georgians may not be far away from a renewed battle over their state flag. The Georgia chapter of the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH organization may call for a boycott of that state because the Georgia banner incorporates the red, white, and blue Saint Andrew’s cross of the Confederate battle flag.13
Georgia governor Zell Miller had earlier given up his fight to remove this symbol from the state’s flag as a lost cause.14
This listing could go on and on, but perhaps it will do to mention two additional Confederate straws in the wind of contemporary American culture.
a glossy magazine obviously aimed at an up-scale readership, refers to the Civil War as “The War of Northern Aggression.”15
The League of the South, an organization founded in Alabama in 1994, aims to further the cause of “secession and Southern independence.” The league claims to have chapters in twenty-seven states and boasts a membership numbering in the thousands, including tenured faculty members at institutions like Emory University, the University of South Carolina, and Texas Christian University. League president
Michael Hill insists that “the day of apologizing for the conduct of our Confederate ancestors is over.”16
And so it goes. Neo-Confederate web sites, bumper stickers, and T-shirts proliferate, and national journalists turn to this rising tide of pro-Dixie sentiment as a subject worthy of book-length investigation.17
Little wonder, then, that the Immigration and Naturalization Service provides two correct answers to its question on Civil War causation.
Historians seem no more able to agree on the causes of the war than the public at large. Indeed the slavery versus states’ rights argument is only the tip of a very large scholarly iceberg. Differing ideologies, separate cultures (and cultural origins), clashing economies, blundering and/or paranoid leaders, failed political parties, conflicting notions of honor, antagonistic political philosophies, the rivalry between a modernizing, bourgeois, free-labor North and a prebourgeois, planter-dominated, slave-labor South—all these and more have been offered up by recent students of this era as the primary reasons behind Southern secession.18
Despite this multitude of scholarly voices, however, almost all historians recognize the central role that the institution of slavery and the concept of states’ rights played in fostering disunionist sentiment in the Deep South.19
There is simply no way to avoid these two factors, in part because the secession conventions and Southern political leaders referred to them constantly in their efforts to explain why their states were leaving the Union.
The secessionists of 1860–61 certainly talked much more openly about slavery than present-day neo-Confederates seem willing to do. There are clear, unambiguous references to slavery in many of the official documents that emerged from the secession conventions of the lower South. A defense of states’ rights is also there, to be sure,
but no attempt was made to hide concern over the fate of the South’s slave system in a United States ruled by a Republican majority.
Two states attached preambles to their secession ordinances that reflect this anxiety over the future of slavery. The language was more guarded here than in other areas of the conventions’ proceedings, but the meaning was unmistakable. The Alabama preamble charged that the party of Lincoln was “avowedly hostile to the domestic institutions and to the peace and security of the people of the State of Alabama” and indicted the North for “many and dangerous infractions of the Constitution of the United States.”20
In like manner the Texas ordinance berated the national government for its failure “to accomplish the purposes of the compact of union between these States in giving protection either to the persons of our people upon an exposed frontier or to the property of our citizens.” The Texas preamble went on to say that under a Lincoln administration, “the power of the Federal Government is … to be made a weapon with which to strike down the interests and prosperity of the Southern people, instead of permitting it to be as it was intended—our shield against outrage and aggression.”21
The Texas delegates gave much fuller voice to their apprehensions in a “declaration of causes” passed the day after the secession ordinance. With Lincoln’s election the country had fallen under the control of “a great sectional party … proclaiming the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race and color—a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law,” the Texans charged. Republicans could now press forward with their nefarious agenda: “the abolition of negro...