After decades of sectional conflict centered on the question of slavery, the 1860 presidential election appeared to many Americans on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line to represent a point of no return in the ongoing national debate over critical issues ranging from the first principles to territorial governance. Abraham Lincoln’s electoral victory on the Republican ticket was seen by some Southerners as the beginning of the end of their ability to determine the course of national politics, and the governments of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas responded by declaring their intention to secede from the Union during the winter of 1860–1861. Each of these states passed a resolution outlining the justifications for their action; as in the case of Mississippi, these tended to emphasize the centrality of slavery as an institution to the Southern way of life and to paint Northern policies as not only a political but an existential threat.
When Lincoln delivered his First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861, he sought to alleviate such fears by promising Southerners their regional and state practices would be as safe under his administration as they ever had been. Nevertheless, he also spoke stirringly of the permanent nature of the Union, and promised to defend it against any and all efforts to dismantle it. Although the speech concluded with an invocation of political friendship, Southern leaders such as Vice President of the Confederate States of America (CSA) Alexander Stephens rejected Lincoln’s overtures on the grounds that the Union as it had existed could never be resumed. That government had been fundamentally flawed, Stephens argued, because it was founded upon the principle of human equality. Peace, were it to be achieved, he insisted, could come only at the expense of the Union and the principles of the Declaration of Independence (see his “Cornerstone Speech”).
The competing principles of North and South were not only the preserve of political leaders; they were deeply engrained in the culture of both areas as seen in the lyrics of the two “unofficial anthems” of the war: The Bonnie Blue Flag (CSA) and the Battle Cry of Freedom (USA) (Document E). Here, as in the political texts, competing understandings of liberty and rights emerge as justifications for the war.
Journal of the State Convention (Jackson, MS: E. Barksdale, State Printer, 1861), pp. 86-88.
In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.
That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution, a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove.
The hostility to this institution commenced before the adoption of the Constitution, and was manifested in the well-known Ordinance of 1787, in regard to the Northwestern Territory.
The feeling increased, until, in 1819-20, it deprived the South of more than half the vast territory acquired from France.
The same hostility dismembered Texas and seized upon all the territory acquired from Mexico.
It has grown until it denies the right of property in slaves, and refuses protection to that right on the high seas, in the Territories, and wherever the government of the United States had jurisdiction.
It refuses the admission of new slave States into the Union, and seeks to extinguish it by confining it within its present limits, denying the power of expansion.
It tramples the original equality of the South under foot.
It has nullified the Fugitive Slave Law in almost every free State in the Union, and has utterly broken the compact which our fathers pledged their faith to maintain.
It advocates negro equality, socially and politically, and promotes insurrection and incendiarism in our midst.
It has enlisted its press, its pulpit and its schools against us, until the whole popular mind of the North is excited and inflamed with prejudice.
It has made combinations and formed associations to carry out its schemes of emancipation in the States and wherever else slavery exists.
It seeks not to elevate or to support the slave, but to destroy his present condition without providing a better.
It has invaded a State, and invested with the honors of martyrdom the wretch whose purpose was to apply flames to our dwellings, and the weapons of destruction to our lives.
It has broken every compact into which it has entered for our security.
It has given indubitable evidence of its design to ruin our agriculture, to prostrate our industrial pursuits and to destroy our social system.
It knows no relenting or hesitation in its purposes; it stops not in its march of aggression, and leaves us no room to hope for cessation or for pause.
It has recently obtained control of the Government, by the prosecution of its unhallowed schemes, and destroyed the last expectation of living together in friendship and brotherhood.
Utter subjugation awaits us in the Union, if we should consent longer to remain in it. It is not a matter of choice, but of necessity. We must either submit to degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union framed by our fathers, to secure this as well as every other species of property. For far less cause than this, our fathers separated from the Crown of England.
Our decision is made. We follow their footsteps. We embrace the alternative of separation; and for the reasons here stated, we resolve to maintain our rights with the full consciousness of the justice of our course, and the undoubting belief of our ability to maintain it.
A. Was the Civil War a conflict over the nature of the Union, or a conflict over the future expansion and legitimacy of slavery as an institution within the Union? Are there other causes raised in the documents that seem equally (or perhaps even more) significant than either of these? How would you explain the Southern understanding of the Union and slavery? How would you explain the Northern understanding of the Union and slavery? Which issue seems more significant to which section? How would you assess the causes of the war on the balance; do they appear to be more about pragmatic policy considerations or philosophical conflicts?
B. How do the documents in the previous chapters hint at the developing issues that would lead to the Civil War? How is what the Southerners proposed in seceding different from what had been threatened in earlier conflicts between the states and the federal government?
C. How are the themes of this chapter rearticulated in later discussions of race and union in American history?