“The Civil War was not about slavery”—historians hear this all the time, whether at historic sites, in the classroom, or in conversations with friends and strangers alike. While historians agree that slavery was a fundamental cause of the war and southern secession, many in the public still contest this historical interpretation. While secession and the lead up to the Civil War were very complex, conflict over slavery was certainly central to the South’s decision to leave the Union. This is evident from the Southern states’ own words as they issued the ordinances of secession and documents of explanation as they each left the United States to form the Confederacy.
The causes mentioned within these documents include the threat of Lincoln’s election (as a sectional candidate and perceived abolitionists), hostility from the Northern states and the abolition movement, the argument that the North was no longer upholding the mutual contract of the Constitution (particularly in terms of right to property and the protection of slavery), conflict over slavery in the western territories as the United States expanded in the nineteenth century, and direct defenses of racial slavery. These widely held grievances in the South were long-term causes of secession, developing over the decades between the American Revolution and 1860. Debate and compromise over the institution of slavery happened as early as the founding of the nation and the Constitutional Convention, and in the antebellum period conflict and compromise over the issue occurred regularly. These conflicts took many forms—economic, social, political—but almost always included discussion of slavery in some form. Through the 1850s, politicians desperately sought compromise to preserve the United States, but by the end of that decade enough conflict had piled up that each section of the country viewed each other as potential threats to safety, security, and society.
Secession itself occurred in two phases, sparked by specific events in 1860 and 1861. The first was the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. The new Republican Party was a purely Northern party with a platform that was anti-slavery. While Lincoln and his colleagues were not necessarily abolitionists and did not advocate for erasing slavery in the Southern states, they did argue that slavery was a threat to the liberty of Northern, white men (free labor ideology) and advocated for restricting the expansion of slavery outside the states where it was already located. Compiled with the long-term conflicts that had accrued over the past decades, many Southerners perceived Lincoln as an abolitionist bent on destroying slavery and a president who only represented the interests of the North. His election caused the first seven states to secede and form the Confederacy.
The second phase of secession occurred after the attack on Fort Sumter. The conflict in Charleston did not necessarily cause the next four states to secede, but after Fort Sumter Lincoln issued his call for volunteer troops from the North to reclaim federal property in the South and combat the secession of the Southern states. The remaining slave-holding states had to decide whether they would side with the Union against the South or secede and join the new Confederacy—four states decided to leave.
The issues of secession are complex and it is very true that not every soldier who went to war had slavery in mind as a motivation. For the North, the primary objective of the Civil War was to preserve the Union and emancipation only became an official cause of the war with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. For the South, however, slavery was much more at the forefront. The South went to war to preserve their society—their economy, their social structure, their political power—all of which was built on a foundation of racial slavery. Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, stated in a speech on March 21, 1861 that “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea [referring to the equality of the races being pursued in the North]; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Whatever their personal motivations, Confederate soldiers went to war to uphold the system and ideas of Southern slavery.
The work of the historian is based on the documents and evidence left by the actors of historical events. Over the next few weeks I will post the documents of secession (with annotations) issued by the eleven Confederate states and two border states who ultimately did not secede. Many of these documents are very clear that slavery was central to their decision to leave the United States. These are great resources to use in the classroom—I do an exercise with these documents whenever I teach secession to my students—but also for those who want to engage in the practice of history and better understand the causes of secession.
Read the secession documents here:
Dr. Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated with her Ph.D. from West Virginia University in 2017. She earned her M.A. from West Virginia University in 2012 and her B.A. in history with a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies from Siena College in 2010. In addition, Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park from 2010-2014 and has worked on various other publications and projects.