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Reasons for Secession


The argument put forward by President Jefferson Davis in his memoirs that the issue of secession was wholly based on the South's efforts to restore the intent of the Constitution that states would maintain their sovereignty in a federal union is complicated. Southerners saw slavery as key to their sovereignty. The framers of the Constitution grappled with the issue of slavery and reached a compromise that allowed the South to move forward into the Union with slavery intact and under state control. To Jefferson and other Southerners, there was no distinction between slavery, the rights of the states to govern how it would be managed, and the nature of the Federal Union. States were either sovereign in regard to their key rights, or they were to be "trampled under foot" as was implied in the Mississippi Declaration of Secession. Consequently, Jefferson Davis wrote from the view that slavery and the Constitutional rights of the states were one in the same; it was these rights, he believed, that the South sought to protect through secession. The question before us is whether his view was supported by historical evidence.


Starting with Thomas Jefferson's statement in 1820 that the Missouri Compromise (to admit Missouri as a slave state but prohibit slavery in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase) was a "fire bell in the night" was an indication of the danger that he saw in changing what was viewed by Southerners as a key tenet of the Constitution, that slavery would be protected and that the Federal government had no right to prohibit it. The question of slavery became the metric on which the South measured their sovereignty. Their right to self government within the Union was tied to their ability to maintain slavery. The Nullification Crisis of 1832 in South Carolina highlighted the importance that southern states put on economic freedom and while the crisis was avoided with a compromise (a reduction in the tariff rate and the failure of other southern states to join South Carolina). There was nothing more economically important in the Southern economy than slaves. Freedom, material well-being, right to self-government, slavery -- they were all intertwined and over time grew into one central issues: the future of slavery in the United States.


James Henry Hammond, in his "Cotton is King" speech in the US Senate on March 4, 1858, declared that the greatest strength of the South arose from "... harmony of her political and social institutions." A key part of that social system was slavery which was established by "the common consent of mankind" and was an absolute necessity for the production of the South, and for that matter, and most of the North's wealth. The economics of cotton would make an independent South into a world empire and slavery was a critical element of these dreams. Mississippi put a price tag on the value of its slaves in the Declaration of Secession stating that freedom to slaves would mean the loss of property valued at $4 billion. Slavery, economic well being and freedom were one in the eyes of the South, and this transformation of slavery into a issue of freedom and self government was the greatest victory for the planter elite. Citing liberty and states' rights, the slave holding elite was able to enlist the 2/3 of the Southern population that did not own slaves into supporting their right to maintain slavery at any cost, even secession from the Union. This was cultural hegemony on a massive scale: a minority ruling elite enlisting a majority to protect the elite's right to economic power.


So, as Jefferson Davis wrote his memoirs, his perspective was that of the elite, and to him there was no difference between maintenance of slavery and Southern sovereignty. The constitutional issues were foremost in his mind but slavery and the economic value of cotton and of the slaves themselves were more than "incidental." If one looks at the economic motivation of the Revolutionary War (to erase the debt owed by plantation owners to the British merchants), then it is easy to understand the critical economic motivation of the Civil War. Mississippi, home state of Jefferson Davis, made it very clear in its Declaration of Secession: "Utter subjugation awaits us in the Union ... we must submit to the loss of four billions of money .. for far less cause than this, our fathers separated from the Crown of England."

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