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The Southern states secede in 1861 Essay

The succession of the Southern States had been brewing for many years; this was due to fundamental differences in agriculture and resultant adoption of slavery in the South. From early days, the thirteen states had grown up separately, and each had their own culture and beliefs, which were often incompatible with those held in other states. The geographical and cultural differences between north and south would manifest themselves at regular and alarming intervals throughout the hundred years following the drafting of the constitution. Tension increased during the 1850s, over the right to hold slaves in new territories. The Wilmot Proviso of 1846, roused bitter hostilities, and violent debate turned to physical violence during the period of ‘Bleeding Kansas’. The election of Lincoln, who the South perceived to be an abolitionist, in 1860, was the final straw, and the secession of seven Southern states followed soon after.

The North and South were very different places. The climate of the North was similar to that of England, so the land was suitable for a variety of uses. The hot Southern climate was perfect for growing cotton, which was a hugely lucrative business at this time. Following the invention of Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin, the South became increasingly dependent on this crop, and an entire society grew out of it. The society was one of wealthy planters, controlling politics and society of the day. Slaves labored in the fields, usually only a handful per plantation, though larger farms were occasionally seen. There were also poor white farmers who scraped out a living from the land. This contrasted sharply with Northern society, where industrialization flourished, creating wealthy entrepreneurs and employing cheap immigrant labour. Given the localized nature of media, and difficulties of transport two cultures grew up in the same nation being very different.

During the presidential election of 1860, Southern leaders told the South to secede from the Union if Lincoln were to win the election because they believed Lincoln was an abolitionist. Lincoln was an Abolitionist but not because he cared about slavery but to try and save the Union. This is clearly evident in his letter to Horace Greeley. Here is an quote from the letter: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.

What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union;.” (pg. 809) This clearly shows that Lincoln was only in it for one thing but still an Abolitionist. Abolitionists were people who worked to get rid of slavery. The South was afraid that Lincoln would outlaw slavery while in office. This would have created a problem for the South since its way of life depended on slaves. It would have prevented the South from thriving. Southern farmers would be forced to pay their former slaves in return for working on the farms. Plantation owners would make less money since most of the people working on the plantations would have to be paid. In other words, the main reason the Southern states seceded from the Union was to escape what they felt was a threat to their right to own slaves.

The secession of the southern states would cause the bloodiest war in American history. There were less American men killed in the world wars than there was in the civil war which has had a long lasting effect on the nation. There were many factors why they did secede which are still discussed amongst historians to this present day. Slavery has generally been held to have been the major factor, but not the single cause. Other factors such as state sovereignty, political and economic differences and ‘pressure groups’ such as the Abolitionists and southern ‘fire eaters’ are also acknowledged. Short term ‘sparks’ could be seen to be the raid on Harpers Ferry by John Brown and the election of Abraham Lincoln. “On news of Lincoln’s election, South Carolina (site of nullification fight in 1830s) secedes”

The southern states which seceded were; South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina who attempted to form a southern Confederacy on equal terms to the Union in the north. Throughout the seventy three history of the United States up to 1860, there had always been rivalry between the north and the south of the country. This was based in their culture, economy and ideas, for example, the North were generally unionists, supporting the supremacy of the Federal government, the South were generally more state orientated, supporting the rights of individual states to run their own affairs.

The contentious issue of slavery had many implications. The South depended economically on the institution. There was one industry – cotton – due to the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney (ironically a northerner) in 1793 which made cotton production very profitable. Profits soared making slavery an even greater institution. Between 1800 and 1860, the number of slaves increased from one to four million – this was despite slave importation being banned in 1808. The South was dependent on this one industry which depended on slavery, without slaves the southern economy would collapse. The Northern economy did not rely on slavery, they had an industrial base. It became easier for Northerners therefore to accept the moral arguments against slavery because it was unlikely that they would be affected economically by its abolition.

As the protestant religion spread in the North – a religion which believed in equality, Abolitionists began to more strongly argue for the abolition of slavery on moral grounds. The problem which confronted every American was racism. The thought of four million Negros having equal rights and being able to marry their daughters scared many Americans, especially those in the South. Southerners who did not agree with slavery were still racist, Hinton R. Helper who attacked slavery in his book ‘The Impending Crisis.’ (1857) despised the Negro to the point of fighting for the South.

Two key events brought slavery onto the agenda, the first was a book by Harriet Beecher Stowe, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ (1852) which told the story of a fugitive slave and the general brutality of the slave system. It can be argued that it opened many Americans eyes that such an institution could exist in a country which professed itself to be the most democratic and free. From this book, anti- slavery snowballed from a racial issue to a nation one.

The second key event was the raid on the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in October 1859 by John Brown. Brown planned to take the arsenal, call slaves from the local area and establish a free state before marching south. His mission failed, no slaves joined him and after a three day siege, Federal troops under the command of General Robert E. Lee captured him and he was hanged for treason on December 2nd. Brown was held as a martyr by anti-slavery groups in the north. Brown showed the country that people were prepared to fight for slave rights and the South would defend themselves.

By now, the war was inevitable and was only a matter of time, the ideas and reasons behind each sides arguments were now so deeply entrenched that only war could result. William Lloyd Garrison commented,” In firing his gun, John Brown has merely told what time of day it is. It is high noon, thank God”. John Brown also knew this, at his execution, he handed a note to the executioner which read “I, John Brown, am certain that the crimes of this land will never be purged away but with blood.” The South saw the issue of slavery as a states rights issue. They believed it was just another attempt by the Federal government (a government based in the northern city of Washington) to force them to conform.

Southerners strongly believed in their states’ culture and disapproved of external interference. They also held all their allegiances to their state and not the Union, Alexander Stephens, a southern congressman against secession typified many southerners sentiments, “My native land, my country – the only one that is country to me is Georgia”. Before the war, “My country” meant “My state” to many southerners. For thirty years before the war, many southerners had been well educated in states rights; they were seen as a constitutional safeguard against the stronger, larger northern states.

The right to self determination to the point of secession was strongly guarded by southern politicians. The North was not so state orientated and failed to recognize the southern allegiances before the war begun. This argument can be seen to have parallels with the demands for independence from Britain. The South did not want to be ruled by a government based in a state which had a different culture and could be argued to be unrepresentative of their rights. It can also be argued that this was a major flaw in the South’s’ attempt to secede, the Union fought as a co-ordinated army, the Confederates fought as State armies and so were not so unified.

The south were obviously angry and with Lincoln winning the election the succession of states was inevitable despite his attempt to convince the South that he was not a firebrand abolitionist. “Though winning in the electoral college, Lincoln’s lack of a popular majority (1.9 million out of 4.7 million votes cast) is an indication of the problems he would face with a divided nation” (Web page). The prospect of a federal government controlled by the ‘Black’ Republican Party was too much for some, and South Carolina was the first state to secede, followed quickly by six others. This did not necessarily have to mean Civil War, but few in the north were prepared to readily see the Union dismembered. Perhaps they remembered Madison’s words at the drafting of the constitution; “great as the evil (slavery) is, a dismemberment of the union would be worse”.

Lincoln’s election was the last in a string of events which had heightened sectional feeling to beyond the realms of reason or constraint. Emerson’s warning that ‘Mexico will poison us’ seemed prophetically true, given the bitter struggle over bondage in the captured territories. Bloodshed in Kansas, weak Presidents, extraordinary goings on in Congress, a Chief Justice who was anything but impartial, extremists such as John Brown, and finally the United States’ first sectional party all served to highlight the fundamental differences between north and south. Lincoln’s election was the catalyst which sparked off the succession of the southern states and than lead to something catastrophic where millions of men would die.


Key Events and Battles of the Civil War, http://home.earthlink.net/~gfeldmeth/chart.civwar.html, December 2003.

Perkins, George, ed. “The American Tradition in Literature”. The McGraw-Hill Companies, 1999.

http://www.polytechnic.org/faculty/gfeldmeth/lec.civilwar.html December 2003

http://home.earthlink.net/~gfeldmeth/chart.civwar.html December 2003

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