The Election of 1860 and Secession—to Preserve Slavery

Historians/History
tags: slavery, secession



Douglas Egerton, a descendant of North Carolina slaveholders and Confederates, teaches American history at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y. His books include "Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought on the Civil War" (2010). Attribution to the History News Service and the author is required for reprinting and redistribution of this article.

When news of Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency reached South Carolina on Nov. 8, 1860, joyful Charlestonians took to the streets as if their candidate had won.  They erected liberty poles near the battery, and booming cannon saluted the Palmetto flag. "The tea has been thrown overboard," editorialized the Charleston Mercury. "The revolution of 1860 has been initiated."

That evening, in a foreshadowing of events to come, fireworks lit the sky above Fort Sumter.  Who could doubt, wrote Mercury publisher Robert Barnwell Rhett, Sr.,"that the other Slaveholding States, when once the Union is broken," would join"in the formation of a Slave Republic" to protect"their institutions, from Abolition rule in Washington?"

Autumn 2010 marks the sesquicentennial of the election of 1860 and the secession of South Carolina.  In 1860 Americans understood what was at stake, though they scarcely knew how to respond.  Defeated Democratic candidate Stephen Douglas labored to craft a compromise to bring the seceding states back into the union.  Meanwhile, President-elect Lincoln refused to budge on his party's opposition to slavery in the territories.  A compromise on southern demands for the West, he said, might lead to"filibustering for all [foreign lands] South of us, and making slave states of it."

A century and a half later, many Americans have been misled about the events leading up to the Civil War.  A new textbook for Virginia fourth graders, Joy Masoff's Our Virginia, Past and Present, makes the wholly untrue claim that"thousands of southern blacks fought in Confederate ranks."  The notion that black Americans willingly fought for what Rhett called"a Slave Republic" is no accidental error.  Rather, that falsehood, commonly advanced by groups such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans, is designed to perpetrate a larger lie: that the Confederacy did not exist to protect slavery, or that slavery was not the root cause of the bloodiest conflict in our history.

And Masoff has company in this deception.  Last spring Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell declared April to be Confederate History Month in Virginia.  The governor's initial announcement failed to mention slavery.  When asked why, he insisted that"there were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states." McDonnell later amended his statement, but Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a fellow Republican, rushed to his defense.  The whole controversy"doesn't amount to diddly," sniffed Barbour, who, according to a recent Newsweek profile, has a Confederate flag, signed by Confederate President Jefferson Davis, hanging on the wall of his office.

As the nation readies itself for anniversary ceremonies marking the war years, Americans need to understand why the Civil War took place.  If McDonnell hopes that American students will study the history of the Confederacy, educators at all levels should support him.  But if he wishes to honor what Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens described as a nation whose" corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man," then his proclamation should offend all Americans.

Modern defenders of Confederate History Month point out that a majority of southern whites did not own slaves, a fact that is true but irrelevant.  The Confederacy was not forged by middle-class farmers but by planters who correctly feared that Lincoln's election and the Republican policy of restricting slavery from western territories imperiled the slave system.  Of the white South Carolinians who met in a state convention to vote for secession, 90.5 percent were slaveholders. And of those convention delegates who owned slaves, 41.4 percent owned fifty or more black Americans, while twenty-seven were among the largest planters in the South.

Despite the fact that the Confederate Constitution explicitly protected slavery, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who wrote much of McDonnell's initial statement and supplied the research for Masoff's text, claim that the"preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South's decision" to secede.  In reality, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, non-slaveholding soldiers quickly lost interest in dying to preserve the property rights of rich planters.  When reenlistments fell off, the Confederate Congress responded in the spring of 1862 with the first draft law ever passed in the Western Hemisphere.  That law exempted whites who owned twenty or more slaves.

Unlike supporters of Confederate History Month, who persist in claiming that some African Americans supported the breakaway republic, secessionists were completely honest in explaining why they desired a separate country.  On a speaking tour of the North in 1860, former Alabama Congressman William Lowndes Yancey told a Boston audience that the founding fathers had intended the nation to be forever governed by a white"master race."  Speaking in Frederick Douglass's Rochester, N.Y., Yancey promised that"all we ask is to be allowed to keep southern slavery, and we will not let the negro insult you by coming here and marrying your daughters."  Confederate President Jefferson Davis agreed.  As the owner of more than two hundred slaves, the Mississippian attributed secession to the"hostile measures" waged by northern politicians"for the purpose of rendering insecure our property in slaves."

When governors and influential southern politicians protest that they merely wish to honor Confederate veterans, they willfully mangle history by ignoring the root cause of secession.  Joy Masoff is right about one thing.  Americans should study Confederate history, if only to better understand why there was a Civil War and to learn just how far our nation still has to travel when it comes to race.


This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Jeremy Alan Perron - 11/18/2010

"The Confederacy might not have been formed by non-Slave owning farmers But neither was the United States of America."

The United States of America was not formed under the pretext of defending slavery, the Confederacy was. During the Revolution both the colonists and the Empire owned slaves and would continue to so for decades after. In fact the Revolution helped create later abolitionist feeling.

"It was Abraham Lincoln who called for troops and sent them to fight Southerners without the permission of Congress."

The President of the United States has authority to enforce the laws of the nation, and fight off invasions and put down rebellions without permission from Congress. The point is moot anyway because is soon as Congress got there they just approved everything he did.

"It was he who also unconstitutionally suspended writ of hebeous corpus"

Debatable

"aslo put out an arrest warrant for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court"
False, ha thought about it but decided against it.

"But both nations and armies deserve respect."
There was one nation, one army tried to save, the other to destroy it.

"Yes not all who served the Confederacy were free. But they all still SERVED."

'Yes, we had black people to, they might not have wanted to be here but they were here.'

"but if this is to continue i can not trust or respect the website or the television network any more."

EVER! EVER! EVER! Do you really expect anyone to actually care?


Connie Ward - 11/15/2010

"When governors and influential southern politicians protest that they merely wish to honor Confederate veterans, they willfully mangle history by ignoring the root cause of secession." --Egerton

This is not true. It is quite possible to honor the citizen-soldiers of the South for defending hearth and home without mangling history.

Shall we cease to honor the Buffalo Soldiers because it mangles history to by ignoring that they made war against Native Americans?

Mr. Egerton's ending comment that the country still has a long way to go on race is a liberal viewpoint. And liberals who were the most outspoken agains George Bush's war in Iraq were eager to point out that they supported the TROOPS -- just not their mission. So when push comes to shove, liberals can certainly separate soldiers deserving honor from the causes of the conflicts in which they fought.

This kind of cognitive dissonance permeates the PC court historian approach to the War Between the States. And it's just going to get worse as the sesquicentennial of the war approaches.


Connie Ward - 11/15/2010

I'm amazed to see the PC court historians protecting the USA's sacred past cannot quit worrying this bone.

Were there any black Confederates? Not officially recorded as soldiers. There were many blacks, mostly slaves, who served the Confederate Army. Well then, were there blacks who fought for the Confederacy, who in the heat of battle picked up a gun and shot yankees? If so, they need to be acknowledge and honored. Not because "black Confederates" are necessary to legitimize the Confederacy, but for the same reason anyone who defends agains an invading army should be recognized.

When are the court historians of the USA's sacred past going to realize that Alexander Hamilton's words carry about as much weight as Dick Cheney's, Al Gore's, etc.

Slavery was the only reason for secession and the South's fight for independence? Not hardly. No more than "weapons of mass destruction" was the USA's only reason for invading Iraq.

Moreover, I don't think the efforts of the SCV to recognize blacks who fought for the South are an attempt to legitimized the Confederacy. This is an interpretation given by PC court historians in an effort to delegitimize the SCV's efforts which threaten the sacred past of the USA.

Among PC court historians there is a rigidness, a tunnel vision that is designed more to sway public opinon than understand history. This piece is a great example.

Stephens's speech should offend all Americans. A great many political leaders in the history of the USA have said things that should offend all Americans -- and yet we honor the USA with holiday numerous times a year.

No peoples, no nations, are without flaws. If Egerton demands a perfect nation before it can be remembered and honored, he must cease to honor the USA forthwith.


Matt McCune - 11/15/2010

This does not guarantee that the Territories of the CSA would continue to be slaveholding after adopting a Constitution and then being accepted as a State of the CSA. It only guarantees that *Territories* would be slaveholding and that Slaves from one territory or State may travel with their masters to another. You are reading a bit much into this.


Matt McCune - 11/15/2010

Mr. Egerton needs to look at the historical evidence. I'm talking about active voice evidence from the South, not the Yankee revisionism. Example: If slavery and its perpetuity was THE cause of the War Between the States, why did the Southern States not accept and ratify the Corwin Ammendment which would have made slavery permanent and unammendable thereafter and allow it extend into western territories? Come on, Mr. Egerton, it was offered by Northerners, after all.

It seems the "historian" needs an history lesson.


Patrick Murray - 11/15/2010

Amendment IV: Section III:
The Confederate States May acquire new territory; and Congress shall have power to legislate and provide governments for the inhabitants of all territory belonging to the Confederate States, lying without the limits of the several States: and may permit them, at such times, and in such manner as it may by law provide, to form States to be admitted into the Confederacy. In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.

In other words no state or new territory could outlaw "negro slavery." So much for "states' rights."


Jamie Funkhouser - 11/15/2010

This article needs to be taken down. I go to HNN for facts and information, not opinions from so called historians who try to smear other historians and historical organizations. To say "that the majority southern whites did not own slaves, a fact that is true but irrelevant. The Confederacy was not forged by middle-class farmers" This is appalling. The Confederacy might not have been formed by non-Slave owning farmers But neither was the United States of America. But just like the US., it was the poor non-salve owning farmers that fought to protect their land homes and families from a invading force. It was Abraham Lincoln who called for troops and sent them to fight Southerners without the permission of Congress. It was he who also unconstitutionally suspended writ of hebeous corpus and had sitting political officials who opposed him arrested, and aslo put out an arrest warrant for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. To put all the blame on the South and excuse the North is just irresponsible historical research. Both sides had their flaws. But both nations and armies deserve respect.
Also he stated. "The notion that black Americans willingly fought for what Rhett called "a Slave Republic" is no accidental error. Rather, that falsehood, commonly advanced by groups such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans, is designed to perpetrate a larger lie" this is outrageous. there are many accounts of blacks fighting and participating in the Confederacy and yes many were free men of color. There are federal records that prove this account:

Federal Official Records, Series I, Vol. XLIX, Part II, pg. 253, Federal Official Records, Series I, Vol XVI Part I, pg. 805 Federal Official Records, Series I, Vol. XIV, pg. 24, second paragraph.

Even in North Carolina a decendent of a black Confederate is being honord and the decedents of this man are accepting the honor.

http://www.news-record.com/content/2008/07/17/article/colored_confederate_has_his_day_in_monroe
Even Stonewall Jackson had a black Cook by the name of Jim Lewis. Jackson and Lewis were good friends, and on Jackson's death Lewis was honored to lead Jackson's horse in the funeral procession.

Yes not all who served the Confederacy were free. But they all still SERVED.

This article is nothing but a smear tactic to try to keep others from truly studying the War Between the States and make the Confederate Soldier look evil.

This article should be removed. I have trusted the History Channel and the HNN website but if this is to continue i can not trust or respect the website or the television network any more. I have many people who agree with me and I speak for many of them. Pleas remove this article.