Why the South Seceded

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Writing in 1913, historian Nathaniel Wright Stephenson explained the political situation in America thus: “It is almost impossible to-day to realize the state of the country in the year 1860. The bad feeling between the two sections, all came to a head, and burst into fury, over the episode of John Brown.”

In The Declaration of the Immediate Causes issued by the South Carolina Secession Convention in December 1860, one of the grievances put forth was the activity of Northern abolitionist organizations which “sent emissaries, books and pictures” into the South intended to incite the slaves to a violent uprising. Southerners well remembered a slave revolt in Virginia in 1831 in which fifty-seven white persons, many of them women and children, were massacred by slaves led by Nat Turner. A raid in Virginia in 1859 led by the abolitionist John Brown made Southerners even more anxious about their safety in the Union. Brown planned to capture weapons at an armory at Harper’s Ferry and to lead an armed slave rebellion, and it was soon revealed that his murderous raid had been funded by six wealthy abolitionists in the North. Newspaper reports described Brown’s maps of Southern states, including South Carolina, which were ominously marked to suggest the locations of more plotted uprisings.

Southerners were also alarmed by the phenomenon of the “Wide Awakes,” a paramilitary organization of young men that formed in the North in the late 1850s and became closely affiliated with the Republican Party and the presidential election of 1860. The Wide Awakes wore uniforms, marched in the streets of Northern cities with torches, and drilled as if preparing for military action. In September 1860, the Richmond Enquirer newspaper noted of them, “[T]he ‘Wide Awakes’ have their authority for believing that in the event of secession of Alabama or South Carolina it will be not only a pretext but a duty to march into Southern territory.”

In his study of the Wide-Awakes, Young Men for War, historian Jon Grinspan noted that their militarism “sent an ominous message to those already apprehensive about the Republican party’s antisouthern attitudes.” Southerners began to organize “Minute Men” militia as a “direct response to the Wide Awakes.” This movement was mentioned by delegate Edward McCrady during the Secession Convention in Charleston, and may have been a factor on the mind of the delegates who authored The Address of the People of South Carolina, which asserted of the Northern states: “They desire to establish a sectional despotism, not only omnipotent in Congress, but omnipotent over the States; and as if to manifest the imperious necessity of our secession, they threaten us with the sword, to coerce submission to their rule.”

The importance of economic grievances was also stressed in the Address of the People of South Carolina. Comparing the position of the South to that of the American colonists in 1776, the Address stated:

The Government of the United States is no longer a Government of Confederated Republics…it is no longer a free Government, but a despotism. It is, in fact, such a Government as Great Britain attempted to set over our fathers; and which was resisted and defeated by a seven years’ struggle for independence…The Southern States now stand exactly in the same position towards the Northern States that the Colonies did towards Great Britain. The Northern States, having the majority in Congress, claim the same power of omnipotence in legislation as the British Parliament…and the people of the Southern States are compelled to meet the very despotism their fathers threw off in the Revolution of 1776…

They [the Southern states] are a minority in Congress. Their representation in Congress is useless to protect them against unjust taxation…For the last forty years, the taxes laid by the Congress of the United States, have been laid out with a view of subserving the interests of the North…to promote, by prohibitions, Northern interests in the production of their mines and manufactures…The people of the Southern States are not only taxed for the benefit of the Northern States, but after the taxes are collected, three-fourths of them are expended at the North…

In an article entitled “The Morrill Tariff,” published in All the Year Round (Charles Dickens’ magazine), there was this observation in 1861:

Union means so many millions a year lost to the South; secession means the loss of the same millions to the North. The love of money is the root of this as many many other evils…the quarrel between the North and South is, as is stands, solely a fiscal quarrel.

In late 1860, the Morrill Tariff was working its way through Congress, and just such a protectionist tariff had been a key plank in the Republican platform of that year. It would raise the tariff rate to close to 40 per cent (later even higher) and greatly expand the list of taxed items. Clement Vallandigham, an Ohio Congressman who was eventually arrested and deported from the United States because of his speeches in opposition to the policies of the Lincoln administration, gave a speech in the U.S. House of Representatives on July 10, 1861, stating that the Morrill Tariff was the principal cause of Lincoln’s decision to go to war against the seceding Southern states:

One of the last and worst acts of a Congress which, born in bitterness and nurtured in convulsion…was the passage of an obscure, ill-considered, ill-digested, and unstatesmanlike high protective tariff act, commonly known as “THE MORRILL TARIFF.” Just about the same time, the Confederate Congress, at Montgomery, adopted our old tariff of 1857…fixing their rate of duties at five, fifteen, and twenty percent lower than ours. The result was as inevitable as the laws of trade are inexorable. Trade and commerce…began to look to the South….

Threatened thus with the loss of both political power and wealth, or the repeal of the [Morrill] tariff…New England—and Pennsylvania, too, the land of Penn, cradled in peace—demanded, now, coercion and civil war, with all its horrors, as the price of preserving either from destruction…The subjugation of the South—ay, sir, the subjugation of the South!…was deliberately resolved upon by the East. And sir, when once this policy was begun, these self-same motives of waning commerce, and threatened loss of trade, impelled the great city of New York, and her merchants and her politicians and her press—with here and there an honorable exception—to place herself in the very front rank among the worshippers of Moloch…

These, sir, were the chief causes which, along with others…forced us, headlong, into civil war, with all its accumulated horrors.

About Karen Stokes

Karen Stokes, an archivist at the South Carolina Historical Society in Charleston, is the author of nine non-fiction books including South Carolina Civilians in Sherman’s Path, The Immortal 600, A Confederate Englishman, Confederate South Carolina, Days of Destruction, and A Legion of Devils: Sherman in South Carolina. Her works of historical fiction include Honor in the Dust and The Immortals. Her latest non-fiction book, An Everlasting Circle: Letters of the Haskell Family of Abbeville, South Carolina, 1861-1865, includes the correspondence of seven brothers who served in the Confederate Army with great distinction. More from Karen Stokes

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