Why did South Carolina Secede from the Union? In Their Own Words: to Protect Their States Rights to Maintain Slavery.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the Civil War this year. It is an absolutely engaging subject, one that commands the constant and ongoing interest of tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Americans.

One of the more controversial issues concerning the Civil War is, what was the “cause” of this War?

Many say that the central issue of the war was slavery. Others say the central issue was the South’s desire to protect their states rights.

Myself, I don’t think those are mutually exclusive statements. I believe the Civil War was about states rights – that is, the states rights to maintain slavery.

But don’t take my word for it. Let’s let the Southerners tell their own tale.

South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union. On December 24, 1860, the state issued its Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union. This document is South Carolina’s declaration of independence from the Union.

The following text is an excerpt from the document, and a very large excerpt at that. For emphasis, I have bolded the word slave, or other references to slavery, such as labor, which refers to slave labor; and persons. In some cases, I’ve added a parenthetical note, with the abbreviation Ed. (for Editor), to explain a comment which might not be immediately understood by the reader.

I think it’s quite clear: South Carolina seceded because they believed that the institution of slavery was in peril. Here, in their own words, is South Carolina’s reason for leaving the Union:

The people of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled, on the 26th day of April, A.D., 1852, declared that the frequent violations of the Constitution of the United States, by the Federal Government, and its encroachments upon the reserved rights of the States, fully justified this State in then withdrawing from the Federal Union; but in deference to the opinions and wishes of the other slaveholding States, she forbore at that time to exercise this right. Since that time, these encroachments have continued to increase, and further forbearance ceases to be a virtue.

And now the State of South Carolina having resumed her separate and equal place among nations, deems it due to herself, to the remaining United States of America, and to the nations of the world, that she should declare the immediate causes which have led to this act.

In the present case, that fact is established with certainty. We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof.

The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: “No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”

This stipulation was so material to the compact (i.e., the Constitution- Ed.), that without it that compact would not have been made. The greater number of the contracting parties held slaves, and they had previously evinced their estimate of the value of such a stipulation by making it a condition in the Ordinance for the government of the territory ceded by Virginia, which now composes the States north of the Ohio River.

The same article of the Constitution stipulates also for rendition by the several States of fugitives from justice from the other States.

The General (federal) Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.

The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution.

The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress.

In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia. Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.

The ends for which the Constitution was framed are declared by itself to be “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

These ends it endeavored to accomplish by a Federal Government, in which each State was recognized as an equal, and had separate control over its own institutions. The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor (i.e., runaway slaves – Ed.)

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of (abolitionist – Ed.) societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States.

They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself.

A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man (Ed. note: Abraham Lincoln) to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety. (Ed. note: The infamous Dred Scott decision was seen by many as declaring that African Americans could not be US citizens.)

On the 4th day of March next, this party (Ed. note: Lincoln’s Republican Party) will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.

The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.

Sectional interest and animosity will deepen the irritation, and all hope of remedy is rendered vain, by the fact that public opinion at the North has invested a great political error with the sanction of more erroneous religious belief.

We, therefore, the People of South Carolina, by our delegates in Convention assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved, and that the State of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, as a separate and independent State; with full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do.

Adopted December 24, 1860

Some readers might think I’m just “cherry picking” selected pieces of text, and taking words out of context to ptove my point. For those persons, I challenge you to read the whole thing for yourself. The entire text is here:
http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_scarsec.asp

Several things are notable about this document.

First, it is stunningly unequivocal in its declaration that slavery is THE reason for seceding from the United States. The language is clear, and beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Second, the declaration is practically single-minded in stating that slavery was central to the secession decision. There were numerous issues that South Carolina could have discussed. For example, they could have talked about conflicts over tariffs and taxes, which lead to the nullification crisis in the 1820-30s. But the document dwells solely on slavery-related issues to make the case for leaving the Union.

Third is the use of the terms “slaveholding state” and “non-slaveholding state.” In many discussions of the Civil War’s antagonists, the terms “North” and “South” are used. But note that here, the terms slaveholding state and non-slaveholding state are used quite often.

Indeed, the secession declarations for Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas all use the terms “slaveholding state” and “non-slaveholding state.” This was an important rhetorical distinction that they were making. They were saying in words, this conflict isn’t about geography, it is about policy and law concerning the institution of slavery… this is about our identity as slaveholders.

Interestingly enough, when I browse the web and encounter sites with a, let’s say, “pro-Confederate” bent, they avoid using the terms “slaveholding state” and “non-slaveholding state,” terms that the Southern states were keen to use as part of the defense for secession… and which, if used, undercut the case being made by some today that the War wasn’t about slavery.

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24 comments

  1. Corey Meyer

    If the statements of SC lead you to believe slavery was the cause…you need to read the secession commissioners. These men went from the already seceded states to those states still deciding and made speeches and delivered letters on what had caused those states to secede.

    Prof. Charles Dew’s book is great…The Apostles of Disunion or you can read some of the speeches here…

    http://civilwarcauses.org/commish.htm

    • lunchcountersitin

      Corey Meyer said: {If the statements of SC lead you to believe slavery was the cause… you need to read the secession commissioners.}

      Corey, could you expand on this comment? Is the suggestion that I might not believe that slavery was the cause upon reading those other documents?

    • Glen Rothes

      “The commissioners included in their speeches a constitutional justification for secession, to be sure, and they
      pointed to a number of political “outrages” committed by the North in the decades prior to Lincoln’s
      election. But the core of their argument—the reason the right of secession had to be invoked
      and invoked immediately—did not turn on matters of constitutional interpretation or political
      principle. Over and over again, the commissioners returned to the same point: that Lincoln’s
      election signaled an unequivocal commitment on the part of the North to destroy slavery and that
      emancipation would plunge the South into a racial nightmare.” Charles Drew

  2. Corey Meyer

    Not at all…just the opposite…reading the secession commissioners should solidify the understanding that the south seceded over the issue of slavery and really slavery alone.

    Corey

  3. Curry

    Like you i have read many book’s, And letter’s from people in the war on both sides, I do know this the north did not like the gettysburg address,When Abe said we would free the slaves if the north won. When he gave this address some time after the war had started, They thought this would draw out the war longer.I notice you did not put that fact in your statement’s perhaps this could be caused by a { pro-north} view

    • lunchcountersitin

      Curry,

      The post was about SC’s reasons for seceding. The comments you made have nothing to do with SC’s reasons for seceding.

      If you have a blog where you discuss Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address and the feeling of the North to slavery, I’d love to have a link to that.

  4. wdporter

    You know, I’ve read this before…although a while back.

    And I agree that South Carolina left for the most part because of the slavery issue, and their secession statement illustrates that well. But I would contend that it REALLY has more to do with State’s Rights than it does slavery.

    I know….Bear with me here:

    If you read carefully the arguments that are made…(especially without the bold print), their arguments are about Constitutionality and the North’s disregard for the Constitution because of their attitude towards slavery. In other words, read one way, it was the NORTH’S attitude toward slavery, NOT the South’s that forced the secession.

    Now whether the North was right and the South was wrong is relevant, but it’s not near as relevant as whether the North gave South Carolina ample reason to feel that the rights of their State was being violated by other States and the Federal Government both. For instance, it could have gone the other way:

    If the SOUTH had had the same financial power as the North did (controlling the banks, pushing for tariffs, etc), and the NORTH were the slave states, and every time a free black man crossed the border into the North, he was taken as a slave, AND Southern States started passing laws that said it was A-OK to do this, against the Federal Constitution, and the Federal Government did didley to stop it…would Southern States have had the right to secede then?

    I know this is a rough and possibly implausible scenario, but the truth is you can’t ignore that the institution of slavery was protected by the Constitution (God forgive us), and South Carolina saw that the Federal Government and the States of the North were willing to violate those protections…well…because they thought it was the “right” thing to do.

    Maybe it was the “right” thing to do…protect the freedom of a captured slave. But was it the legal thing to do? And when other State Governments and Federal Government conspire (pass laws) to do something illegal (unconstitutional) against a State…what is that State supposed to do? Revolt? Not likely. Virginia wouldn’t have let that happen. (and if you want to see the RIGHT reasons for seceding…see Virginia).

    It very well could have been something else…it could have been cotton, or taxes, or whatever. However, in those areas, laws were passed, through a Constitutional process through State and Federal Governments, and South Carolina’s nullifications were met with just disdain. But in on NO other issue did South Carolina have its Constitutionally protected place in the union violated in a more underhanded fashion than than it did in the issue of slavery.

    So were the Northern States “right” in protecting the freedom of escaping blacks? Sure.
    Was the South “wrong” to have slaves? Oh GOD yes.
    But was South Carolina accurate in saying that its Constitutional protections had been compromised on this rather touchy issue of slavery? Yep. Absolutely.
    Is that a good enough reason to secede? I think so.
    Does that mean it was the “right” thing to do? well that’s a tough call. I wasn’t there and neither were you, but if it was that easy, these discussions would have ceased a long time ago.

    Thanks…enjoy your day!

    • lunchcountersitin

      The main purpose of my post was to note that slavery was the cause of secession; believe it or not, that is a very controversial issue with many people. As such, I don’t think I’ll get into the “legality” of secession for this post.

      I will note the following:
      o There’s no question that slavery was legal at the time of the war.

      o I do believe that, in the face of despotism, a group of people may secede from their government.

      o I don’t know that fighting against anti-slavery counts as “battling despotism.”

      o I like the argument against secession that is here: http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=3487

    • BambiB

      I wondered if anyone would get that. Reading carefully, it was the northern states’ DISREGARD FOR THE CONSTITUTION that drove S. Carolina to secede. Yes, slavery was part of the issue – but the fact that the northern states were acting UNCONSTITUTIONALLY is clearly the bottom line. One must wonder how things might have been different had the North pursued an end to slavery in a CONSTITUTIONAL manner.

      And S. Carolina clearly has it correct that they had a RIGHT to secede, as did any state of the Union. Imagine a similar situation today: Portugal, Spain, Greece and Ireland decide to leave the European UNION, so Germany, France and the other EU members decided to go to WAR against them to force them to remain? And yet Americans today seem puzzled by the idea of a state leaving the union.

      Lincoln is on record as personally not liking slavery – but being willing to free all, some or none of the slaves to maintain Federal control of the South. Ironically, it appears that while Lincoln was personally opposed to slavery involving blacks, he thoroughly approved of the North enslaving the entire South.

  5. wdporter

    saw a typo from the sixth paragraph:

    “…as a slave, AND NORTHERN States started passing laws that said it was A-OK to do this, against the Federal…”

  6. dvrmte

    Secession was due to slavery but the war was fought to preserve the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation was a war time measure to create servile insurrection in the South. Notice that it didn’t free any slaves in the border states or Confederate territory under Union control.

    You need to understand that slavery was protected in the Constitution. South Carolina was complaining about the northern states violating the Constitution by not enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that most of us are judging this with a 21st century mindset. At the time, even abolitionists didn’t believe that the black man was equal to the white man. Practically everyone was against allowing blacks to vote, hold office or testify in court against a white man.

    The war was brought on due to sectional differences.In the forming of new countries, civil wars are almost a necessity.

    • lunchcountersitin

      Secession was due to slavery but the war was fought to preserve the Union

      Agreed.

      The Emancipation Proclamation was a…

      The EP is not relevant to my post. I may discuss the EP in the future.

      You need to understand that slavery was protected in the Constitution. South Carolina was complaining about the northern states violating the Constitution by not enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act.

      Yes, you are repeating what they say in the secession declaration.

      Another thing to keep in mind is that most of us are judging this with a 21st century mindset… At the time, even abolitionists didn’t believe that the black man was equal to the white man. Practically everyone was against allowing blacks to vote, hold office or testify in court against a white man.

      I am not “judging” the declaration, just pointing out that a lot of people want to deny that secession was about the desire to protect states rights to maintain slavery.

      Also, saying that “everybody” was against black equality is wrong – I am sure the 4 million slaves and freemen believed otherwise. And their beliefs do count..

      The war was brought on due to sectional differences.

      Agreed. The point here is that the South seceded to protect their states’ rights to preserve slavery, which I think is a point we agree on.

      In the forming of new countries, civil wars are almost a necessity.

      That is an interesting thought. Do you have a blog or other forum where you’ve made that point? I wouldn’t mind looking at that discussion.

  7. matthew

    Dear Lunchcountersitin,

    Slavery is wrong, most would agree. But saying that SC seceded to protect their rights to maintian slaves is very narrow-minded. It implies that slavery was the only right they wished to maintain. Had the North and the Federal government infringed on any of the State’s rights of SC they would have had the right and the duty to secede. I quote “The people of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled, on the 26th day of April, A.D., 1852, declared that the frequent violations of the Constitution of the United States, by the Federal Government, and its encroachments upon the reserved rights of the States, fully justified this State in then withdrawing from the Federal Union”. The rights that were infrindged upon is immaterial.

  8. matthew

    In their own words they seceded because their rights as a seperate and equal State were violated.

  9. steve mccarty

    As to the issue of the legality of succession by South Carolina, the Articles of Confederation stated there would be a perpetual union of the states but such language is completely absent in the new constitution. More specifically the federal government was only entrusted with specific powers enumerated by the new constitution and all powers not expressly granted were reserved to the states via the tenth amendment. Therefore South Carolina was within its rights to leave the union. I don’t like the label “civil war”, it should be called for what it was “the war for southern independence”.

    • DC

      Independence for who? Certainly not the 40% of the South still left in servitude. Also the The Emancipation Proclamation was based on the President’s powers due to wartime – hence Lincoln cleverly used General Butler’s (?) example of seizing and freeing the slaves as war contraband. Hence under this legal precedent he could not have freed the slaves in the border state (because they were not at war hence slaves could not contribute to their war effort) even if he wanted to.

  10. greg

    I think when we read these articles now, we read them and automatically apply modern definition to one word which held a different meaning at the time the articles were written. By doing as such, we redefine a critical moment in our nation’s history, and replace it with yet another critical issue of our nation’s history. The key word is slave.

    When we read this now, having been raised in a time that we no longer believe in ownership of slaves, we see the word slave as a person who was treated in unethical and callous ways. In other words, a black man owned by a white man, often mistreated and abused. Therefore the word slave is humanized and sympathized. So for a modern man to read the articles, it is easy to assume the secession began over slavery alone.

    When the states wrote their articles of secession, the word slave did not encompass such a broad meaning. A slave was merely one’s property. History tells us a slave was equal to a horse or mule, nothing more, nothing less. A slave was just a specific form of property and would have been used a such in the articles of separation.

    When you dehumanize the word slave to simply property, as it was meant in period correct definition, the Civil War technically was not fought over slavery. It was fought because progressive states refused to obey federal law and return property to the rightful owners, thus violating state rights of the non-progressive states.

    Slavery definitely played a critical role in the events leading to secession,but at the end of the day, the true reason was the violation of state rights.

  11. Structure

    Nice blog entry. Many of the comments certainly indicate the need for it.

    By the way, if states like South Carolina were so in favor of state’s rights, why are they so concerned with the application of the Fugitive Slave Act to the North? The answer, of course, is that they were in favor of state’s rights when it protected the institution of slavery and in favor of federal power when it protected slavery. As always, the answer comes back to slavery.

  12. Matthew

    I disagree with your assessment Structure. I think South Carolina was in support of the Constitution (the contract between the federal government and the governments of the states). They weren’t seceeding to uphold their rights as a state, they seceeded because they believed that if the federal government broke the contract, which it did, that they had the duty to the people of the state of South Carolina to break away from a tyranical organization and form a new government to protect the people’s rights

    • lunchcountersitin

      I agree with you in part. I think South Carolina did believe that it was being true to its own interpretation of the Constitution. I think they did genuinely feel that they were subject to tyranny under the Republican Party.

      But let’s be clear: they were specifically afraid that the Republican Party would seek to put the institution of slavery on the path to its eventual destruction. The tyranny that SC feared was the tyranny of anti-slavery.

      For SC secession was not an end in itself. it was the means to an end. Secession was the means, but the protection and preservation of slavery was the end.

      • manfred

        It was more the precedence of the federal government being able to pick and choose what parts of the constitution they would and would not uphold. Really like the entry.

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