Visualizing Secession

The Civil War Trust has posted a nice little graphic that highlights the importance of slavery in the “Declaration of Causes” issued by four states in the Deep South that seceded in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s election. The graphs break down the frequency of references to slavery, states’ rights, Lincoln, etc. in these documents. It will work well in the classroom, but it is somewhat deceiving.

Any proper analysis of the secession of the Deep Southern states must explore the extent to which references to Lincoln, states’ rights and other economic concerns connected to slavery. These are not alternative explanations for secession; rather, they flesh out the importance and place of slavery in these states.

Civil War Trust, Secession

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13 comments… add one

  • Jimmy Dick Dec 20, 2013

    I had my students go through South Carolina’s secession document. These are first year students in the American History to 1865 course. The course is online so everyone responded. It was interesting because prior to any explanation they were having a bit of trouble linking the elements together. Several students caught onto how the document’s early content was nothing more than a search for a way to defend slavery. Others caught the compact theory statement and brought that up.

    As the conversation went on, they began to discuss how the document was really about slavery. They were aghast at the idea that those people would actually secede over slavery. That was something that was present in this course from beginning to end. It is very difficult for people to explore the past without viewing it through the lens of the 21st century. Every week I had to remind someone of that.

    John Fea’s wrote that the past is a foreign country. I have found that to be an excellent way to communicate just how different the past is from the present to students.

  • Forester Dec 20, 2013

    Is secession really so complicated? Many Confederates claimed they weren’t fighting for slavery, but they didn’t deny that slavery STARTED the whole ordeal.

    From Edmond Porter Alexander’s memoir (1989): “We had the right therefore to secede whenever we saw fit, & it was truly for our liberty that we fought. Slavery brought up the discussion of the right in Congress & in the press, but the South would never have united as it did in secession & in the war had it not been generally denied at the North & particularly by the Republican party.”

    He denies slavery as why he and his men fought, but still recognizes it was the spark that lit the fire. Of course his words are steeped in denial and rationalization, but at the same time, this is the man who wrote about Confederate soldiers unnecessarily killing Negroes and other unsavory accounts. I tend to think his book is an honest reflection of what Confederates believed.

    So it was all about slavery, and in a sense, not about slavery at all (depending on your personal beliefs/opinions). It seems more like contradicting interpretations than conflicting historical accounts. For people in the 21st century, we should simply rejoice in the fact that slavery was abolished and take things like this chart as nothing more than interesting data. Ending slavery was the effect of the war, and in the end, the only thing that really mattered.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 20, 2013

      I am not sure I understand your comment. The graph charts the secession of the states, which took place before the formation of the Confederacy itself. I don’t see why, in this particular case, we even have to worry about why Confederates fought. The question at hand is why these four states seceded.

      • Forester Dec 20, 2013

        Sorry, Kevin, I did kind of type that out really fast. I was operating under the assumption that states seceded for basically the same reasons soldiers fought, so I quoted a soldier because the book was on my desk and I was too lazy to Google a similar quote from a politician.

        What I was trying to say:

        Things like the graph will undoubtedly add fuel to the “slavery vs. states’ rights” debate. The article stated, “Two major themes emerge in these documents: slavery and states’ rights.” I don’t see them as two themes, but rather perspectives on one theme.

        Why did the states secede? I see two basic arguments:

        1. Secession rights were invoked to protect slavery, and limit Federal power to interfere with the practice of slavery. (Modern interpretation)

        2. Secession rights were invoked to preserve said rights (and limit Federal power), with slavery being the pretense which started the debate. (Lost Cause)

        See how slavery is still a major issue, from either perspective? I just can’t separate the two. Nor do I find evidence that the Confederates themselves separated the two. The graph, however, implies an “and/or” logic, that slavery OR states’ rights were the cause of secession. But even a states’ rights believer like E.P. Alexander at least acknowledges that slavery “brought up the discussion of the right in Congress.”

        Still, I’m curious to see more of these charts. I’ve always heard that slavery was not the primary cause for secession in Virginia, and I’d love to see how that stands up to analysis. VA’s secession document just a couple paragraphs and barely says anything at all.

        • Kevin Levin Dec 20, 2013

          Thanks for the clarification. I wonder if a graph is the best way to visualize how these various concepts function together to form a cohesive argument. Virginia and the rest of the Upper South are a bit more complex given their timing, but spend some time with the secession debates (especially in Virginia) as well as historians such as William Freehling and Charles Dew and it is clear that the preservation of slavery is front and center.

  • Michael Rodgers Dec 20, 2013

    The editorial page of South Carolina’s The State wrote a few years ago:
    “We would urge anyone who doubts that our state seceded in order to preserve slavery — or, for that matter, anyone who has come to accept the fiction that slavery was merely one of several cumulative causes — to read this document [SC Declaration of Secession].”
    “What we found most striking in rereading the Declaration was the complete absence of any other causes.”
    http://deadconfederates.com/2010/12/16/the-complete-absence-of-any-other-causes/

  • Michael Rodgers Dec 21, 2013

    The study is misinterpreting and misrepresenting “states’ rights.” Most people think of “states’ rights” as the right of a state to constitutionally resist federal encroachment. That’s what the northern states were doing by defending their right to be free (no slavery) states when the federal government was implementing the fugitive slave law that the southern states got the federal government to enact.

    But the study describes “states’ rights” as (a) the right of a state to expect that other states will fulfill their obligation to obey and (b) the right of a state to secede from the other states if that state determines that other states are not fulfilling their obligation to obey.

    That is SC’s argument, but it doesn’t fit with what most people think of “states’ rights.” SC’s declaration argued that because some states were resisting the obligation to obey, SC could invoke a right to secede: “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.”

    Abraham Lincoln described that argument as “rebellion thus sugar coated” and as an “ingenious sophism”: “The sophism itself is that any State of the Union may consistently with the National Constitution, and therefore lawfully and peacefully, withdraw from the Union without the consent of the Union or of any other State. The little disguise that the supposed right is to be exercised only for just cause, themselves to be the sole judge of its justice, is too thin to merit any notice.”

    Regarding the judgment of SC’s secession declarers, while SC’s declaration does go on and on about how the slave-holding states are the victims and all SC wants is to be left alone to preserve slavery within SC, people ought to see through the victimhood claims and recognize the aggressive avarice of the secession declarers’ (a) belief that the south’s race-based master-slave economic system was far superior to the north’s tradesman-apprentice economic system and (b) expectation of joining other southern states in a government that would expand west, south, and perhaps north.

    In conclusion, the study should not interpret and represent the SC declaration’s description of “states’ rights” as what most people consider “states’ rights.” The study is wrong to attribute and present 37% of SC’s declaration to being for states’ rights. All of that 37% should go to context, slavery, or being against states’ rights.

  • London John Dec 21, 2013

    Do the Lost Causers actually deny that slavery was the reason for secession? Let’s secede just because we can?
    I find it very difficult to attach any meaning to the “States’ Rights” claim: the best I can do is this: The active secessionists were motivated by slavery but Southerners who opposed secession also thought the states had a right to secede if they wanted to. After secession when the US maintained that the Union was indivisible Southerners who wouldn’t have fought for slavery alone fought to assert the right to secede. Still seems more or less nonsense. Is there a more sensible interpretation?

    • Jimmy Dick Dec 21, 2013

      I have the state’s rights argument over secession presented to me all the time. As soon as they say state’s rights was the cause I immediately ask them to list those state’s rights. There is always a long pause while they rack their brains trying to find one. Most of the people at that point begin to question what they’ve been told. They’ve been told over and over again that it was state’s rights! But they’ve never been told what those rights were mainly because there were no state’s rights issues involved.

      It is just a matter of people being told what they want to hear instead of the actual truth. I really think most of the so called Southern Heritage crap is really modern political activists trying to link stuff together to evoke an emotional response from people in order to gain support. That’s where the symbolism comes into play. I also think this is where education plays a strong role in separating fact from fiction and getting people to think about what is being said.

  • Rob in CT Dec 24, 2013

    “Slavery” and “States Rights” were, in context, the same thing. As was “election of Lincoln.” Add those categories together. Also: “economic issues” and whatever “context” stands in for were likely heavily connected to the conflict between slave and free-labor policies.

    It was slavery all the way down.

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