A review of When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession (Rowman & Littlefield,  2004) by Charles Adams

Did the South go to war for sport?

Not being a professional historian, my historical toolbox is not large. But one tool has often gotten me to the heart of past events. That tool is to ask:

What is the most incongruous thing in these events?

The most incongruous thing in the debate over the causes of the War Between the States is that, if the South wanted to preserve slavery, as the many declarations of causes for secession clearly admit, then why on earth was it willing to go to war to do so? The Corwin Amendment, which would have established slavery irrevocably, which would have been America’s 13th Amendment, had been given to them before a shot was fired. A Northern Congress, absent of all the Southern states, had proposed it; Lincoln had personally promoted it; and five states – not one of them Southern – had ratified it. Why would the Southern declarations champion slavery as a cause for secession and as a casus belli when there was absolutely no need? And if the South seceded for other reasons, why did it not state those reasons to the exclusion of a principle which was not at issue whatsoever, and which was likely to alienate European support? Did the South go to war for sport?

Probably the best single book to address this enigma head-on is When in the Course of Human Events by Charles Adams, first published in 2000. This enigma is brought home forcefully to him because of the brilliant approach he takes to understand the issue of secession: He researches impartial contemporaries writing from Europe. As he states:

To me, the slave issue and secession constitute the great enigma of the Civil War. There is something strange, even irrational, about the thesis that the South seceded over slavery[… .] Charles Dickens wrote that South seceded in spite of slavery, not because of it. (page 3)

He quotes the British Quarterly Review of July-October, 1861:

If slavery were alone, or principally, in issue, the conduct of the South would not only be unreasonable, but unintelligible. (p74)

He also documents the British awareness that the abolition of slavery was also senseless from the Northern perspective, since virtually all of the slave trading, both when legal and when illegal, was conducted by ships under Northern registry (p209). He quotes Fraser’s magazine from February, 1862:

The North, it seems, have no more objection to Slavery than the South have…. They are ready to give it new guarantees; to renounce all that they have been contending for; to win back, if opportunity offers, the South to the Union by surrendering the whole point.(p92)

Indeed, the British were equally bewildered by the behavior of the North. Macmillian’s Magazine baldly asked: “What on earth is the North fighting for?” (p73) They understood that Lincoln was not fighting to end slavery, having read his First Inaugural Address of March 4, 1861, having read later of his countermanding Major General John C. Frémont’s emancipation of slaves in Missouri on August 30, 1861, having read of his countermanding General David Hunter’s emancipation of slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida in May, 1862 (pp134-135). They understood that by leaving the Union and its Constitutional protections of slavery, the South was more likely to abolish it than by remaining (p xiii) . They understood also that Lincoln was not fighting for any democratic principle, since the initial seven Southern legislatures voted to secede with the free and enthusiastic support of their citizens.

And yet, there it was! Three of the initial seceding states published declarations of causes of secession proclaimed that slavery was indeed the cause – as did Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech proclaiming the same. Of Stephens, Adams says that a careful reading of the speech finds that he is actually asserting white superiority as the cornerstone of Southern society (p xii) – no great surprise to any contemporary, since virtually the entire Western world, including most abolitionists, asserted the same.

The rhetorical value of such proclamations should be evident: These proclamations were stressing the central point of agreement between North and South regarding the value of slavery, regarding the danger of immediately emancipating nearly four million slaves, and regarding the threat to white institutions from ascendant blacks. Furthermore, such proclamations had Constitutional basis, reaffirmed by the 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision that denied black political equality. These proclamations implicitly challenged the Northern reader: You, with your state black codes prohibiting the presence of blacks, do you really want millions of them set free among you tomorrow? This was the rallying cry that moved men to action, far more easily than any discussion about tariffs.

Yet it is precisely the issue of tariffs that offers any reasonable explanation of motives, Northern and Southern. It is on the issue of tariff where the expertise of Adams as a tax scholar illuminates the discussion of causes. Particularly brilliant in this regard is his treatment of how Northern popular sentiment toward secession, which was largely sympathetic, suddenly and dramatically flipped during the month of March, 1861 (p62ff).

Several vital dates in this month occurred in rapid succession: The Morrill Tariff became law on March 2; Lincoln gave his First Inaugural speech to Congress on March 4; Treasury Secretary John A. Dix resigned on March 6; the Confederate Constitution mandating a low tariff was adopted on March 11, and the South enacted its first low tariff schedule on March 15, followed by the second on March 21.

Of course the fact that the Morrill Tariff came after seven states had seceded is cited by would-be debunkers of the tariff motive, including J.S. Mill. The objection doesn’t hold up because months before secession the Republican platform advocated not revenue tariffs but what Adams calls “prohibition tariffs” (p65) for the protection of Northern manufactures, and the tariff issue was widely discussed in newspapers before and during the November, 1860, election (p25, p95). Also, “Lincoln was a Northern leader from an exclusively Northern political party” – the first sectional party in the nation’s history (p89). In his Inaugural he vowed to re-take the many forts that the South had seized without real Northern opposition after his election, and he vowed that he would have his tariff revenue. Apparently the debunkers want to disparage Southern secessionists because they – very correctly – took Lincoln’s party at its word. When Treasury Secretary Dix resigned on March 6, over a hundred Northern merchants sent him a letter urging him to oppose secession – the very class who had, prior to the tariff war, been indifferent to secession (p63). Since the Morrill Tariff averaged 47% – the highest tariff in the nation’s history (p65) – compared to the South’s 15% import duty (5% to 25% in the March 21 enactment), the South became a free-trade zone that threatened the ruin of the North’s chief source of revenue. The entire North did an immediate volte-face from its previous acceptance of secession, most conspicuously in its press, which became the outraged lungs for the mercantile and political class. The Philadelphia Press had editorialized for a peaceful secession on January 18, 1861, but on March 18 screamed for war. For months the New York Times had urged peace, pointing out that Northern and Southern economies were mutually bound, but on March 22-23, 1861, it savagely turned, urging the new administration to “[a]t once shut down every Southern port, destroy its commerce and bring utter ruin on the Confederate States.” (p65)

Adams’ detailed examination of the tariff war of March, 1861, should establish once and for all that the tariff issue is the single cause of the war, notwithstanding the obvious fact that the war was certainly also “about” slavery.

Lincoln, the adept political hack with a finger in the wind to public opinion, knew his course after March. In spite of government indifference to the Southern occupation of many coastal forts before that month (p17), Fort Sumter would be made a spectacle of Southern “aggression.” Until Lincoln’s threats to provision military materiel to the fort, the garrison freely bought foodstuffs in Charleston markets without hindrance (p22). After the April 12 bombardment, the Northern press screamed for vengeance, and war fever inflamed the inevitable path to conflict.

Lincoln seized the moment. During the critical period between April 12 and July 3, the opening date of Congress under normal circumstances, he refused to call Congress into special session to authorize a series of Presidential orders that can only be called dictatorial. He requisitioned 75,000 troops from the Northern state militias when Article I, Section 8 clearly gives only the Congress that power, to “suppress Insurrection” (p57). He unilaterally suspended the right of habeas corpus, the single greatest protection against arbitrary state power, and signed an arrest warrant (never enforced) for Chief Justice Roger Taney when he wrote to deny him that power. Beginning with that three-month period, Lincoln would close over 300 newspapers from Maine to Missouri when they disagreed with him; he arrested members of state legislatures who opposed him; he incarcerated over 20,000 prisoners in the first American gulag (p58); he created the nation’s first secret police, headed by Secretary of State Seward (p174); he created the state of West Virginia on his dictate, without the permission of the state Virginia, as required by Article 4, Section 3; he pledged the nation’s credit on his personal say-so, when only Congress had that power (pp57-58).

Adams’ fundamental thesis is that Lincoln autocratically destroyed the Federal Constitution of 1783, replacing it with a unitary government (p195), and did so on the passion of Northern moneyed interests, with only a single word for legal justification: Union. Yet “Union” was not the synonym of “Constitution,” but rather of “empire” (p79), and it was a legal fabrication in direct contradiction to the Framers’ clear statement that the Constitution was a compact between states, not a mystical union between the central power and all citizens directly and indiscriminately (p184).

Originality and richness of detail distinguish every chapter of this book. Not to be missed is Adams’ demolition of John Stuart Mill’s claim that slavery was the cause of the war and his wild claim that the South desired a “slavocracy” from “the Potomac to Cape Horn” (p62). Mill debated in print his literary rival Charles Dickens, who claimed that “the quarrel between North and South is, as it stands, solely a fiscal quarrel [over tariffs].” (p91) Another highlight is Adams’ phrase-by-phrase exposure of the illogic of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in Chapter 13, “Lincoln’s Logic.” Another highlight is his demonstration that the War Between the States fails the three standards of a “just war” as established from St. Augustine, to Grotius, to the several Geneva Conventions: It was not waged for defense, not for recovery of property, not for legal retribution (p111). Another highlight is his account of the origins of the Ku Klux Klan as a justifiable response to the violence of the Union League, that association of black veterans who had been expelled from the North (p153). Yet another highlight is his treatment of the failure of the U.S. government to prosecute Jefferson Davis, when both “special counsels,” John J. Clifford and Richard Dana, refused to prosecute out of fear of Davis winning the case for secession (p186).

Adams’ book is rightly on the short reading list of the Abbeville Institute, and is often cited by its authors. It might well be the very first read for anyone who wishes to understand the War Between the States.

Terry Hulsey

Terry Hulsey is a former computer programmer now retired in Guanajuato, Mexico. His two major achievements, his two daughters, enjoy successful careers in New York City. His study of sortition resulted in The Constitution of Non-State Government: Field Guide to Texas Secession, available through Shotwell Publishing and elsewhere.


  • Awesome analysis of the lead-up to the beginning of the War of 1861-1865, and how Lincoln’s mind organized the events that would lead to an economic war in an attempt to stop the loss of Customs Revenue to the new CSA Government in Montgomery. The 1859-1860 US Treasury detailed report of ‘Revenue Collections’ indicated that at least 60% of Customs Revenue accounted for the US Treasury collections. The use of Tariff complicates the telling of this story, as Southern Historians have heretofore ‘Mangled’ the economics in Explaining how the War was Started. Unfortunately, even here in this Splendid Narrative, the use of the mental Angst of Lincoln is not explored in explaining the “Lost Revenue” to the US Treasury, which on March 7th shows up in a report to Lincoln. The “Lost Revenue” is now in the banks of New Orleans and Charleston, and Lincoln declares on March 4th that he will collect Customs (Tariffs) from Southern Ports, and also ‘Retake Southern Forts’ like Charleston.

    Perhaps, the Intended War Fleet of Lincoln’s Navy that arrived in the waters of South Carolina at the Charleston Port, fully armed with Marines and abundant War Supplies – Sans the Resupply Goods promised for the Fort, intended to fulfill Lincoln’s promise to the Nation – “To Collect Customs Duties on International Commerce”, as he declared that the 7 Cotton States had not legally Seceded. The World knew that Lincoln and the Northern Governors supporting him with growing their Military Units and Armaments were Ready and Willing to Coerce and Subjugate the Seceded States back into the Union. This display of Military Might was for the Purpose of “Recovering Lost Revenue”. The idea of Calling a Special Session of Congress, as the Nation Demanded to address the Secession Crisis or to Adjust the High Rates of the Morrill Protectionist was not something that Lincoln was going to comply with. Beauregard’s Firing on the War Fleet and or Sumter was Exactly the Response desired by Lincoln and his War Planning Intimates. The April 15th INVASION Order broke the backs of the Border States, who were all aligned on the Principle that Lincoln should not Use COERCION to Recover the Seceded States. And, the April 19th Southern States Blockade Order – An Act of War.

    This Article was Great – I loved the analytical details.

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