It’s very impractical to look at the Civil War through a modern lens. It’s completely ridiculous. Had there been a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, had there been a Civil Rights movement, had there been a collapse of an apartheid nation, had there been countless other events that happened after the fact, before the Civil War, it might be necessary to look at the War through the eyes of today. But, you can’t. You can not criticize that time period without looking at the situation and putting your self in everyone’s shoes. Do not think of yourself so high and mighty that you would never own slaves; put yourself in the shoes of an upper middle class southerner, who owns a small plantation passed down to generations. He might just be as good a person as you, but he was born into it. That was their way of life. Yes, some did free theirs when they saw fit and when they saw it was necessary, but many prominent historians agree that it was out of necessity and benevolence-one cause did not override the other.
Sure enough, one of my “go to” sites decided to advertise its ignorance in an area that it should be more educated in. I won’t devote this post to defending the causes of the Confederate States, nor will I try and pick up apart each country and show how it wasn’t just- I merely just want to clear the air on some things. The senior editors at The New Republic thought they were making an informed point; everyone knows the Confederacy was bad and it all revolved around slaves. Oh, and the glorious Union Army fought to free the slaves and force the rebels to accept the fact they illegally separated themselves from the Union. Just today, I found another article, in which another writer, who undoubtedly has no credentials in history, tries to pin the “Cornerstone Speech” by Alexander Stephens as the sole motivator for Southern secession. The great thing about being a writer and having an opinion is that someone can be completely oblivious and ignorant about a topic, yet read one piece of primary source literature and use it to prove a point. Try again. Anybody who has any sense of what it takes to be a scholar understands you must read and know both sides. The Civil War needs to be and should be understood from both sides. Everybody loves jumping on the victor’s bandwagon and call the South “the rednecks who all belong to the clan.” They were the Rebels who fought, bled and died just to keep blacks in shackles. You know what, it would be a whole different story if both Northerners and Southerners owned slaves(I am not counting the Border States), and coming into an era of a new realization of human rights, the North freed its slaves because it could, and then the South held onto them for sport. That wasn’t the case. Ever since the Civil Rights movement, Civil War historiography has taken a turn for the worst; almost every one looks at the Civil War through a late 20th century and 21st century lens. Not only is that wrong to do, but it does not make any sense, when our goals should be to realize what happened, and learn from it-not demonize the South and think to ourselves: “thank god the North won”.
The causes of the Civil War can be looked at from a legal point of view, as well as an economic point of view. To many prominent politicians and attorneys, the South had legal cause to secede that almost trumped the economic causes. Everyone should do themselves a favor and read the primary sources for themselves. Do not let Professor Dionne’s opinions influence your opinion or perspective, or even let my opinion influence you. If me writing this can do anything, I hope it motivates someone to read for themselves. Read the documents themselves, break them down, then formulate an opinion. Too many people regurgitate what McPherson has said, or Shelby Foote, or even E.J. Dionne. Read the original documents and then we can have a discussion. Also, do not just read Davis’, or Stephens’; read all of them. All of these documents come from Southerners all over the South, and as some know, the geography heavily influenced Secessionist position.
Before one criticizes this flag and dubs it a symbol of hate and injustice:
Remember that the flag of the United States of America flew over every slave ship coming into Northern ports up until 1808(many more came illegally up until the early 1850s):
Just to show the inadequacy and subjective manner of E.J. Dionne’s argument, here is a thesis that I put together, that uses secessionist documents, either published at the same time, or slightly after Stephen’s speech:
The Right of Secession
The events surrounding the winter of 1860-1861 paralyzed the United States and eventually led the states into a four year war. The reason for why the Southern states seceded has been theorized by historians for decades. As a result of this century-long period of analysis, the Civil War has been known to present “a history of changing interpretations.” The issue of states’ rights has been given a negative connotation due to the theory that states adhered to states’ rights doctrine for the sole purpose of prolonging slavery. Though it is true slavery was a chief cause of the dissolution of the Union, a revisiting of primary source documents taking place during the period known as the “Secession Winter”, can provide more insight into the thoughts and ideas behind leading Southern secessionist writers and speakers. The legality of secession was a huge point for many thinkers, one that, to many, overpowered the issue of slavery. By analyzing the works of Judah Benjamin, John Reagan, Robert Smith, and Albert Pike, one can see that the legal grounds for secession do command a great deal of respect.
Delivered on December 30th, 1860, Judah Benjamin’s “The Right of Secession”1 speech was one of the first of many of mainstream secessionist speeches given on the Congressional floor prior to the war’s beginning. Benjamin, who served as provisional attorney general, and then officially as Secretary of War and Secretary of State of the Confederate States of America, made a compelling argument for the secession of South Carolina. For the majority of Benjamin’s speech he relied heavily on natural law and the Law of Nations, which in his opinion, were all the justifications necessary for South Carolina to sever its ties from the Union. Benjamin’s legal background gave him considerable credibility. Although the only cheers he received were from southerners2, the speech serves as a testament to the strength of the resolve surrounding the legal actions taken by the states during the “Secession Winter”.
Consistent with other secessionist speakers, Benjamin first references the foundations of the United States of America and how the states signed into a compact of states. With that, Benjamin continues to bring to light the fact that the states voted themselves into the Union through the Constitutional Convention of 1787, through the use of legislatures, the arm of action of sovereign entities. The importance of the compact that the states entered in is made explicit by his attention to the repercussions that follow an action that jeopardizes the nature of the compact. According to Benjamin, all states within the Union have to adhere to the conditions of the Union upon their entrance; otherwise, if one state, or partner, in the compact fails to carry out its end of the bargain, the compact is broken and states are free to opt out whenever they desire. Throughout the speech, Benjamin makes many references to the notions of American liberty, which is used to refer to the days of the Revolutionary War. After his first mention of American liberty, Benjamin examines the existence of the Articles of Confederation which governed the United States for a period of seven years. He notes that the Articles were voted on by all the states of the current Union, and thereby the Articles were deemed perpetual in their entirety, and the power to change, ratify or abolish the Articles lay with the states themselves. Specifically, an article within the Articles of Confederation directly stated that mutual and unanimous support must be achieved in order to form and establish a new government, otherwise it was not to happen. Benjamin’s points are made succinctly and point to solid indisputable facts that bolster his argument for the right to secede.
After establishing the premises on which the current Constitution was founded, Benjamin jumps right into stating that no article or clause within the current Constitution permits, allows, or condones the use of force to coerce a state within the Union. According to Benjamin, acts of coercion directed toward the south by the Federal Government have warranted state action, and on that basis alone, the states have seceded. Departing from his style that directly connected adjoining points, Benjamin brings in legal theories that are much more abstract. Benjamin asks the question, that if one state does commit an infraction that jeopardizes the Union, who is to judge the severity of the action and whether it warrants the dissolution of the Union? Benjamin connects his previous statements regarding the willful foundation of a new government, to his new point by stating that nowhere in the current Constitution does the power of judging the infractions of states or the General Government fall to any of the branches of the General Government. Matters of law and those pertaining to the structure of the Constitution are settled with the judiciary, however matters dealing with the nature of the compact are not settled anywhere within the General Government and cannot be brought before a court. Benjamin notes that the Constitution was created to remedy any conflicts dealing with law within itself should the event arise. Benjamin logically deduces that the states knew that the sole judge of an infraction lay within the states themselves, not the created national government. He admits that the Founding Fathers intentionally did not vest the authority to judge a state’s action within the General Government. For Benjamin, each sovereign state is a judge and sole executor of what is right and just. With that, Benjamin cites the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which were created at a time when the states doubted the necessity to have a strong central government, and which formally dictate that the states are the sole source of power in a government created by the states.
Addressing the actions of the seceded states and the outcries of politicians declaring those states’ leaders traitors, Benjamin states that the Federal Government does not exist in land which it has no jurisdiction. If the Federal Government blockades the ports of South Carolina, it will do so unconstitutionally, thereby forcing a war created by a government that does not acknowledge the power and sovereignty of its creators. According to Benjamin, the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania was put down by constitutional means; higher state courts authorized the use of force and the use of the military. This will not be the case with South Carolina, according to Benjamin. At the closing of his speech, Benjamin rhetorically asks why the citizens of South Carolina cannot be permitted to travel with property into territories acquired when it was a part of the Union. The compact allowed the acquiring of new territories, and for the people of South Carolina to be denied the right to travel there with their property will cause the compact to be void. With ensuing laughter, Benjamin closes with reference to a senator from Ohio who addressed the issue of compelling South Carolina to pay duties and taxes by stating: “our oaths force us to tax you…but our conscience we protest upon our souls will be sorely worried if we do not take your money”.3 On a more serious note, Benjamin closes his speech by stating that the states who are taking action to secure their liberties will never succumb and be vassals to an authority which they created and are the sole executors of such an authority.
Just two weeks later, on the floor of the House of Representatives, John Reagan, a Representative from Texas, who would also become the Postmaster General of the Confederate States of America, gave another audacious speech explaining why the the lower Southern states were seceding. Reagan also had a background in law that helped him develop a compelling and logical reason for why the Southern states were seceding. Distraught after the war but not discouraged, Reagan was readmitted to Congress and served as a Senator for many years. In his speech on January 15, 18614, shortly after Ordinances of Secession were signed by Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida, Reagan not only addressed the legal ramifications of the states’ actions but also addressed the issue of slavery head on, which was done indirectly by Judah Benjamin in his speech on the Congressional Floor.
In his speech, Reagan sought to not only justify why the states had seceded but wanted to bring to light the importance of securing the rights of those seceded states upon their re-admittance into the Union. The tone of his speech is hopeful, given that Reagan acknowledges that the Republicans would be willing to not only grant, but secure the states’ constitutional rights. The urgency of the issue is pressed by Reagan by his reminder that only four states had formally seceded, but more were moving to secede by Inauguration Day. Using this timing to his advantage, Reagan pleads with Congress to calmly deliberate, like it always has, and it should base its actions on what the American people would want. This is undoubtedly alluding to the notion of war, which Reagan tenders is not the route this country should take. Despite his alluding to Congress as the arm of the people, he does take a partisan stance and declares that the Republican party has failed to offer any concessions to the besieged Southern states of the Union.
Departing from his initial calm approach, Reagan then assaults the Northern politicians and their failure to act cooperatively in a Union. Reagan notes that all of the original colonies were slave holding, and later only one state was non-slaveholding at the signing of the Constitution. The North was allowed to sell its slaves to the Southern states, declare themselves free states, and the Southern states had no qualms nor harassed the North for choosing the path they chose. Given these facts, Reagan presses on with almost an interrogation style prose that succinctly asks, what will make the Republican party happy in regards to slavery? It is in this tone, that Reagan brings up the idea of Seward’s “irrepressible conflict” and how it only stands for the subjugation of the South or the dissolution of the Union. To Reagan, these are the only outcomes of a conflict deemed irrepressible. The source of the conflict, according to Reagan, is slavery, and he states plainly that African slaves are treated better in North America than in anywhere else where slavery is facilitated. To avoid conflict, the Federal Government could compensate slave owners, just as was done in Britain. Regain suggests that if only 1/8 of the value of each slave was paid, than that would suffice to contribute to the annulment of the “irrepressible conflict”.5 But, Reagan then asks, that if the slaves are freed, will the North take them as equals and as citizens? He asserts that the North will not do so and would resist the power of state pressure, hinting at the partisan implications surrounding the “irrepressible conflict.” The world would be shocked with the loss of slavery in North America, and Reagan exclaims that the North does not want to be held responsible for the disasters that would ensue if its desires are fulfilled.
Nearing the end of his speech, Reagan warns that Britain will not allow a blockade of Southern ports. All that will result from war is anarchy and disunion. Reagan rhetorically asks what the South has done to wrong the North and what constitutional rights the South has infringed upon. All the South wants is its constitutional rights to be respected. Reagan briefly brings up the fact that the Federal Government has denied Texas border protection and that abolitionist violence has gone unanswered by the Federal Government. Alluding to the Revolutionary War Period and the need for citizens to take up arms against the British to protect their rights, Reagan states that Texas citizens have had to stand guard to protect their families and property from abolitionist violence. Furthermore, Reagan states that only history will answer for the mistakes made currently. In a chilling direct assertion, Reagan declares: “Deny us our rights, and we will face your messengers of death, and show you how freemen can die, or living, how they can maintain their rights. Mark that, sir?”
A little over two weeks later in Arkansas on March 4, 1861, the day of Lincoln’s Inauguration, Albert Pike, a Little Rock lawyer, published a pamphlet called “State or Province? Bond or Free?”6 dedicated to persuading the Border States to secede. Pike, who owned a Whig Party newspaper company, would later serve in the Confederate Army. He was a rather well known lawyer, and used his journalistic connections to publish his quite persuasive pamphlet. Pike’s writing is fluid and logical, and this helps his message, which one can say is ultimately dedicated to the route needed to be taken to save the Union from war.
Pike begins by noting that the conflicts that are arising, especially concerning the legality of state actions, are particularly abstract, making it hard for people to truly grasp what is at stake. There must be “crystallization”7, and then people can be aroused by the fact of the abstraction. People who are moved by ideas and facts in turn take action, according to Pike. Pike references ideas from the French Revolution surrounding truth and reason, and Pike uses these ideas to assert that the Southern states are seeking freedom and safety. Pike takes on a sarcastic tone when addressing the Northern opinion that secession is merely a temporary phase, assuring his readers that there were critics who thought the same in the beginning stages of the French Revolution. Secession is in fact, the spontaneous uprising of the people, for the people.
Like Reagan, Pike also addresses the idea of an “irrepressible conflict”. But, Pike notes that Seward used it in the wrong context; rather, the conflict does not entirely have to do with slavery but with the understanding of what kind of government the states wish to have. The debate that is arising now is the same debate that plagued the Founding Fathers. The General Government, according to Jefferson and Madison, was the result of states entering into a compact, “made by the states, amendable by the states only, and able to be dissolved when its purpose fails.”8 Pike references the original symbol of the Union; a chain link comprising of 13 congruent links, all the same yet sovereign in their entirety. That symbol, according to Pike, is the essence of States’ Rights Doctrine. According to Pike, the North states that the whole people, not the states, ratified the Constitution, and this understanding Pike states, can only lead to disunion and anarchy. To reinforce this, Pike uses the analogy of a business deal in which the founding businessmen disagree whether they form a corporation or a partnership. This disagreement, Pike asserts, will inevitably lead to a break up of the entity, since no one will participate in something to which each individual thinks they are a member of something different. The separate states should not be compelled to be apart of a Union about whose purpose they disagree.
Secession is like a disease, according to Pike. The symptoms of a disease are not the disease, and he uses this analogy to discredit the Border States’ attempt to disconnect themselves from the seceding states. Pike says the remedy cannot be anything other than secession due to the fact the Southern states are outnumbered in Congress. Starting in Congress, the outnumbered states formed a phalanx; The phalanx in turn represents self-government and its determination to stand up against its enemies. Pike calls on the meaning of E Pluribus Unum, a Latin phrase standing for “out of many, one”. Referencing again the fact that the states came together to form the Union, he digresses and suggests that both sides are to blame; the North for its “principled ambition” and the South for its passion and rashness.9 Pike is one of the few secessionist writers and speakers who spoke of Southern fault in the conflict.
Calling out Northern hypocrisy, Pike notes the Northern unconstitutional acts taken by Northern states to not enforce the Fugitive Slave Law that Congress passed. With that, Pike also notes that several thousand free blacks voted in the 1860 election, once again disobeying the Constitution. These practices, led to the compact being broken, thus calling on the wronged states to secede. The Northern inability to adhere to legitimate Federal authority is thus compounded by the constant attacks aimed toward the South by Northern congressmen.
Despite Pike’s ardent defense of secession in all of its aspects, Pike reflects back on his service during the Mexican War and how he himself put his life on the line for the Union. With that, Pike states that no other options were available that still respected the states’ sovereignty. Re-admittance into the Union would be possible, however, only if certain conditions would be met. Pike states that the Republicans(not Northern states), would have to agree that slaves are property, that slavery will continue to exist and should be protected in future land acquisitions, that blacks are not citizens and therefore cannot vote, and finally that Northern citizens must agree to return slaves to slave owners in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Law. If these are not meant, and the Southern states are readmitted, then a situation like that of England and Ireland will ensue; where force of arms and coercion will compel states to act in spite of their sovereignty.
If the Border States do not secede from the Union, they will be susceptead to Union coercion, states Pike. Furthermore, Pike believes that if war does break out, it proves that the Union was never meant to last. The Border States are to choose their own fate, and if they choose to stay in the Union, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions will hold no more validity, according to Pike.
Pike’s closing paragraphs remark on the observation made by others, including Lincoln, that the dissolution of the Union symbolizes the failure of self-government. But on the contrary, Pike states that the dissolution itself proves that men can govern themselves. Ultimately, Pike claims that if war does break out, it will not be the fault of the Confederate States, and people will see that the “great experiment” did not fail but “that men are capable of governing themselves.”
A month later, a man by the name of Robert Smith gave his “Address to the Citizens of Alabama, on the Constitution and Laws of the Confederate States of America,…at Temperance Hall, on the 30th of March, 1861.”10 Smith, a North Carolina doctor, lawyer and soldier, wrote his speech in an attempt to explain the modifications made to the new Confederate Constitution and how it bettered the US Constitution. Smith served on the Provisional Confederate States Congress, where he helped draft the new Confederate States Constitution. Smith graduated from the United States Military Academy and later served in the Alabama Infantry during the war. His speech was an instant hit and citizens from Mobile requested its immediate publication.11
Smith begins by saying that the seceded states came together in unity so that they could establish a Constitution that would “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” In quoting directly from the Preamble of the US Constitution, Smith makes the point that the seceded states did not seek to create a new constitution but simply to modify the old constitution and correct its downfalls. These downfalls, Smith notes, are the failure to protect and insure state sovereignty. Noting the states’ intent, Smith vividly describes the swift nature with which the new constitution was amended and ratified. After describing the nature and rationale behind the Confederate Constitution, Smith, like Reagan also devotes considerable time to the issue of slavery and the role it played in the new constitution.
Slavery, says Smith, is a historical institution that has been in place for thousands of years. Smith is not offering a justification for slavery itself, but he seems to justify why it is an issue in the creation of the new constitution. That being said, Smith feels it is in the Southern states’ best interest if they address slavery in a realistic manner. North American slavery has come quite a ways from the slavery of the 17th and 18th centuries, according to Smith, and the dignity the economic system has obtained cannot be ignored. Given that slavery is the chief economic system of the South, Smith willingly acknowledges that slavery caused the dissolution of the Union. While addressing slavery, Smith also states that the lower South would be willing to adapt and perhaps cease the internal slave trade with the Border States, if it is in the lower south’s best interest. Many historians view this as a threat and perhaps a minor form of coercion used to entice the Border States to secede.12 Still on the topic of economics and the current nature of slavery, Smith acknowledges that European intervention will most likely be inevitable if slavery is removed without a gradual transition.
Departing from the slavery issue, Smith re-emphasizes the importance of strong state governments. Smith declares that states themselves drive the advancement of “high civilization”, not the General Government. According to Smith, “states enforce laws, give security to life, liberty and property, and give security to intellectual and moral culture which guides men and gives them the ability to govern themselves.”13 To Smith, it is a repeating cycle that secures the future of state sovereignty, that is being threatened by the General Government, a mere creation of the states.
Smith’s role in the creation of the Confederate Constitution provides great insight into the thought process that shaped the works of a nation that would last for just four years. His mentioning of slavery departs from the propaganda surrounding the Fire Eaters. Since Smith was elected to be a member of the Provisional Congress, one can only assume he represented the heart of his state’s beliefs. The issue of slavery, less important to Benjamin or Pike, seemed essential to Smith, if not for political reasons, for economic reasons that concerned the survivability of the Southern states. His speech also serves as a good gauge as to what the consensus was concerning slavery while the Provisional Congress was in session.
After analyzing these four secessionist thinkers, it is clear they all hold state sovereignty to be the chief cause of secession. They clearly felt the General Government was encroaching on their rights to be sovereign entities. A common theme for Pike and Benjamin is the reference to the 1798 and 1799 Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions; two critical pieces of legal literature that paved the way for states’ rights activism for lawyers and politicians decades later. At that time, Jefferson and Madison were faced with the Alien and Sedition Acts which they deemed highly unconstitutional. In response to this threat to state sovereignty, they drafted the Resolutions in order to clarify the necessity and purpose of having state governments that were sovereign in their own right. Though state sovereignty was a main point when they drafted the Resolutions, it was also their attempt to outline means of opposing Federal action at the state level that motivated them as well. It was at this time that Jefferson was quoted as saying: “If any state in the Union will declare that it prefers separation…to a continuance in the Union…I have no hesitation in saying, ‘Let us separate.’”14 It was also at this time that Jefferson formed the basis for his Compact Theory, which stated “…that the several States composing the United States, are not united on the principles of unlimited submission to their General Government…”15 The principles laid forth by Benjamin, Pike, Smith, and Reagan are reminiscent of the ideas that Jefferson put forward decades earlier. The context for these thinkers may be different, but only in circumstance and not principle. The right of separation from the Union was inherent in entering the Union. If the act of seceding from England was justifiable within the parameters of the Declaration of Independence and the foundations of the US Constitution, then it was justifiable at the onset of the Civil War.
All the thinkers believed that at any time the states could back out of the Union without provoking a threat of force by the General Government. The onset of a tyrannical government seemed imminent and due to the principles set forth by the Founding Fathers, secession seemed to be the appropriate action. The rights granted to the states by the US Constitution bolstered all of the secessionist thinkers’ positions. The Constitution provides the biggest support for separation from the Union along with just cause for doing so since the Federal Government had overstepped its authority and encroached on the rights of the states within the Union. Without directly referencing any Constitutional amendments, it is clear that these men are basing their constitutional arguments off of the wording of the Tenth Amendment. The Federal Government was an instrument of the states and was subject to the will of the states. The compact’s integrity was jeopardized by Federal unconstitutional behavior. The fact that the Federal Government would not submit to the will of its creators, the states, proved that the compact’s purpose and integrity had been compromised. Furthermore, the period in which these men made their proclamations did not last long until the armies of the United States met the armies of the Confederate States on the field of battle. Yet, despite their claims asserting the seceded states acted legally and justifiably, Reagan, using ironic foreshadowing, noted presciently that regardless of the legality, “history will answer the question[of the legality] in the face of the consequences to follow.”
1 Benjamin, Judah, “The Right of Secession”, in Southern Pamphlets on Secession, November 1860-April 1861. Ed Wakelyn, Jon L. (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996.), pp. 101-113
2 Ibid., p. 101
3 Ibid., p. 114
4 Reagan, John, “State of the Union Speech… Delivered in the House of Representatives, January 15, 1861”, in Southern Pamphlets on Secession, November 1860-April 1861. Ed Wakelyn, Jon L. (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996.), pp. 143-156
5 Ibid., p. 147
6 Pike, Albert, “State or Province? Bond or Free?”, in Southern Pamphlets on Secession, November 1860-April 1861. Ed Wakelyn, Jon L. (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996.), pp. 326-348
7 Ibid., p. 326
8 Ibid., p. 328
9 Ibid., p. 332
10 Smith, Robert, “Address to the Citizens of Alabama, on the Constitution and Laws of the Confederate States of America,…at Temperance Hall, on the 30th of March, 1861.”, in Southern Pamphlets on Secession, November 1860-April 1861. Ed Wakelyn, Jon L. (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996.), pp. 195-213
11 Ibid., p. 195
12 Ibid., p. 195
13 Ibid., pp. 213-214
14 Coates, Eyler. “Foreign Commerce.” The University of Virginia: Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government . The University of Virginia, 1995-1999. Web. 5 May 2010. <http://etext.virginia.edu/jefferson/quotations/jeff1450.htm>.
15 Watkins, William. Reclaiming the American Revolution: The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and Their Legacy. 1. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. 165. Print.