- The Washington Times - Friday, August 22, 2003

What was the primary cause of the Civil War? The conflict stemmed directly from the secession of seven Southern states after the 1860 election and before the March 1861 inauguration of Abraham Lincoln — and the major distinguishing feature of Lincoln’s presidential campaign was his opposition to the extension of slavery to the Western territories. Was slavery, then, the issue that prompted secession by South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas?

South Carolina went first. Its Dec. 24, 1860, “Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina” complained of Northern states’ and federal failure to return fugitive slaves, as required by the Constitution: “[A]n 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 document declared that Northern states had condemned slavery as sinful and that Northerners had elected as president a man who had said, “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free.”

Mississippi followed suit in January 1861, and its similar Declaration got right to the point: “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.”

Following a long list of slavery-related grievances, the Mississippi Declaration concluded, “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.”

That same month, Alabama seceded by adopting a Secession Ordinance that gave only one reason: “Whereas, the election of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin to the offices of President and Vice-President of the United States of America by a sectional party avowedly hostile to the domestic institutions and to the peace and security of the State of Alabama, preceded by many and dangerous infractions of the Constitution of the United States by many of the States and people of the Northern section, is a political wrong of so insulting and menacing a character as to justify the people of the State of Alabama in the adoption of prompt and decided measures for their future peace and security.”

Georgia’s Jan. 29 Declaration of Causes solely addressed “numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.” The declaration complained that, “The prohibition of slavery in the Territories is the cardinal principle of [the Republicans],” and that “by their declared principles and policy they have outlawed $3,000,000,000 of our property in the common territories of the Union.”

As Louisiana and Texas seceded, Louisiana gave no official reasons; however, on Feb. 2, Texas provided a laundry list of slavery-related reasons for its withdrawal from the Union. After complaining about abolitionists, Northern states and Republicans who threatened “the ruin of the slave-holding States,” the Texas Declaration stated, “We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial and tolerable.”

Five of these seceding states (all but Texas and Louisiana) had appointed commissioners to convince other Southern states to join them in the Confederacy. A study by Charles B. Dew concluded that the slavery and racial content of their pleas to other states demonstrates the role of slavery in the secession that led to the war.

For instance, before Georgia seceded, Mississippi sent its commissioner, William L. Harris, to the Georgia Legislature. He decried the threat of Lincoln and the Republicans and told the members that they had to choose between “This new union with Lincoln Black Republicans and free Negroes, without slavery; or, slavery under our old constitutional bond of union, without Lincoln Black Republicans, or free Negroes either, to molest us.”

Alabama Commissioner Stephen Fowler Hale failed in his effort to convince Kentucky to secede, but wrote to the governor a diatribe against Northern attacks on slavery and lamented that Lincoln’s election was “nothing less than an open declaration of war, for the triumph of this new theory of government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a Santo Domingo servile resurrection….”

In summary, the seven states that seceded before Lincoln’s inauguration, creating the crisis that resulted in the Civil War, had stated that preservation of slavery was the reason for their secession. They then sent commissioners to other Southern states, urging them to preserve that peculiar institution by seceding themselves. There was no talk of tariffs or other grievances. The principle of “states’ rights” was a means to the end: Preserve slavery.

Edward H. Bonekemper III, of Fairfax Station, is the author of “How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War” and has just finished writing “Ulysses S. Grant Was Not a Butcher.”

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