THE SOUTHERN SIDE OF THE CIVIL WAR:
FACTS YOUR HISTORY TEACHER MAY NOT HAVE MENTIONED
ABOUT THE WAR BETWEEN THE STATES
Michael T. Griffith
@All Rights Reserved
Soon after I began to study the Civil War, I realized that much of what I had been taught about it in school was either wrong or incomplete. It has been said that history is written by the victors. This is especially true when it comes to the Civil War. The Southern viewpoint is rarely presented fairly in our public schools and textbooks today. I believe it is important that we as Americans know the whole truth about the Civil War. The purpose of this article is to present the Southern side of the story.
The following basic facts are undisputed: The seven states of the Deep South seceded in response to the victory of the Republican Party’s presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, in the 1860 election. These states formed the Confederate States of America. Lincoln refused to recognize the Confederacy. A small federal garrison occupied Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on December 26, 1860. South Carolina and the Confederate government attempted to negotiate the withdrawal of the garrison from the fort. Lincoln decided not to withdraw the garrison. Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, when they learned that an armed federal naval convoy was on its way to the fort to resupply the garrison. Following the attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln issued a call-up for 75,000 troops to put down what he claimed was a rebellion in the South. Four more Southern states joined the Confederacy. Lincoln sent federal armies into the South. The war lasted approximately four years and ended in April 1865.
The version of the Civil War that’s taught in nearly all textbooks goes something like this: “The only reason the South wanted to leave the Union was to protect slavery. The South had no right to secede. The South started the war by firing on Fort Sumter. The war was fought over slavery. The defeat of the South was a victory for democratic government, for government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people.’ The North’s triumph brought about a new birth of liberty in America.” This is the version of the war that I accepted for most of my life.
We will consider twelve issues relating to the Civil War:
· Why Did the South Secede?
· Did the South Have the Right to Secede?
· What Caused the War?
· Who Started the War?
· The Emancipation Proclamation
· Republicans, the North, and Racism
· Was the War Fought Over Slavery?
· What Happened at Andersonville Prison?
· Did the South Control the Federal Government Until 1860?
· The Reconstruction Era
· The True Nature of the War
· What If the South Had Been Allowed to Go in Peace?
Why Did the South Secede?
Before we examine why the South seceded, perhaps we should first consider why a majority of Northern leaders opposed secession to the point of using force against the South. In other words, why did Lincoln and most other Republican leaders refuse to allow the South to go in peace? Did they oppose secession because of slavery? No, they did not. In fact, most people aren’t aware that, even as president, Lincoln supported a proposed constitutional amendment that would have made it permanently impossible for the federal government to abolish slavery. If the amendment had been adopted, only individual states could have abolished slavery. Lincoln mentioned his support for this amendment in his first inaugural address. Indeed, the majority of the men in Lincoln’s cabinet did not support disturbing slavery where it already existed.
Most Republicans who opposed secession said they opposed it because they believed it was unconstitutional. In their view, no state had the right to leave the Union, even if it did so peacefully and democratically, and even if the state offered to pay its share of the national debt and to pay compensation for all federal installations within its borders. Not only did most Republicans deny there was a constitutional right of secession, they also denied there was a natural right of secession. Southern leaders argued there was both a constitutional right and a natural right to peacefully separate from the Union. They maintained that, in accordance with the principles of the American Revolution, the citizens of a state were the ultimate sovereign and therefore had the God-given right to peacefully and democratically withdraw their state from the Union, to form a national government of their own choosing, and to take their place among the family of nations.
There is considerable evidence that many Republican leaders opposed secession and eventually supported waging war on the South in large part because of economic considerations. Numerous Republicans, including Lincoln, were worried about the loss of tariff revenue from the Deep South states. The Republicans favored a high federal tariff and protectionism, as did many influential Northern businessmen. They proved this by passing the Morrill Tariff in the House of Representatives before Lincoln took office. The Morrill Tariff, though not as bad as the “Tariff of Abominations” that sparked the nullification crisis in 1832-1833, more than doubled the tariff rate collected on most dutiable items entering the United States and greatly expanded the number of items covered by the tariff. At the time the bill was passed, American tariff rates stood at around 17% overall and 21% on dutiable items. The Morrill Tariff increased those rates to about 26% overall and to 36% on dutiable items. Nevertheless, despite their support for protectionist policies, even many Republicans favored allowing the South to go in peace during the first few months following the secession of the Deep South states. However, this support quickly began to disappear when the Confederacy announced its low tariff rate in March 1861. Once the Confederacy’s free-trade, low-tariff policy was announced, powerful Northern financial interests began to strongly oppose peaceful coexistence with the Confederacy. Leading Northern moneymen started sending public letters to Lincoln demanding that he take action to protect Northern commerce. Prominent Northern newspapers suddenly started to reject the idea of peaceful separation. Charles Adams, an authority on the history of taxation, explains:
Without the strong support from the Wall Street class and the merchants and men of commerce, especially in New York City, Lincoln could not have gone to war against the South. . . .
Most of the merchants were not for provoking war, and many admitted that the government had no right to coerce a state to remain in the Union. Either the Union should be preserved peacefully or the Southern states should be permitted to go in peace. . . . War was to be avoided at all cost, or so they believed until early March 1861.
By the end of March, the whole Northern world had changed, with the businessmen and newspapers leading the way. Whenever the historian reads Northern newspapers and articles that favor secession, or just tolerate it as a constitutional right, it is important to look at the date on the article. For by late March the business circles saw clearly that slavery was a nonissue for them—the tariff was the issue. . . .
In early March, even before Lincoln took office, Congress passed the Morrill Tariff. . . . It was not a revenue tariff but a prohibition tariff, according to the British and foreign newspapers. On March 11, the Confederate Congress was adopted and a low tariff was instituted immediately, essentially creating a free trade zone in the South. . . . Prior to the two tariffs, most Northern newspapers had called for peace through conciliation, but many now called for war.
On 18 March 1861, the Philadelphia Press demanded war: “Blockade Southern Ports,” said the Press. If not, “a series of custom houses will be required on the vast inland border from the Atlantic to West Texas. Worse still, with no protective tariff, European goods will under-price Northern goods in Southern markets. . . .”
The economic editor of the New York Times changed his tune in late March. For months he had written that secession would not injure Northern commerce and prosperity. . . . But on 22-23 March 1861, he reversed himself with a vengeance: “At once shut down every Southern port, destroy its commerce and bring utter ruin on the Confederate States”. . . .
Perhaps the most intriguing development occurred in late March when the two tariffs stood side by side. Over a hundred leading commercial importers in New York, as well as a similar group in Boston, informed the collector of customs they would not pay duties on imported goods unless those same duties were also collected at Southern ports. This threat forced the Lincoln administration, and certainly Lincoln himself, to abandon his initial plan to turn over Fort Sumter to the Confederates. Only a month before, these merchants had favored giving up the forts
At the very end of March, at the very time Lincoln told his cabinet he was going to reinforce Fort Sumter, a committee of these New York merchants visited Lincoln. We have no record of what was said, but a Washington newspaperman learned that at the meeting the merchants had placed great emphasis on the tariff issue. . . . (Charles Adams, When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000, pp. 61, 63-66, original emphasis)
Rather than lower the high federal tariff and embrace free trade, most Republican leaders decided they could not allow the South to go in peace. It seems apparent that economic concerns played a major role, if not the decisive role, in their decision to violently oppose secession.
Now that we’ve considered why Republican leaders opposed secession, let’s discuss why the South seceded. Nearly all textbooks give the impression that the South withdrew from the Union merely to protect the institution of slavery. This is a misleading, overly simplistic characterization. Slavery was not the only factor that led the South to secede. In fact, some of the wealthiest slaveholders opposed secession. They believed, for good reason, that slavery would actually be safer in the Union than out of it. Historian William Klingaman notes that even Lincoln argued that the South would have a harder time protecting slavery outside the Union:
But secession, Lincoln argued, would actually make it harder for the South to preserve slavery. If the Southern states tried to leave the Union, they would lose all their constitutional guarantees. . . . (Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, New York: Viking Press, 2001, p. 32)
As mentioned previously, even as president, Lincoln supported a proposed constitutional amendment that would have made the federal government’s protection of slavery explicit and permanent. The Constitution already protected slavery, and in that day it was widely understood that the only way the federal government could act against slavery would be by a constitutional amendment, which had to be approved by three-fourths of the states. The proposed amendment that Lincoln supported would have made even that step impossible. Furthermore, in the years leading up to the Civil War, Lincoln acknowledged that slavery was protected by the Constitution. He also supported the fugitive slave laws. Some Southern statesmen didn’t believe Lincoln was going to threaten slavery’s existence. Yet, they supported secession anyway.
Most Southern leaders who advocated secession in order to protect slavery did so because they feared that Republican leaders would try to abolish slavery by unconstitutional means and that Southern slaveholders would not receive any compensation for their slaves. Southern spokesmen felt this would be unfair, since Northern slaveholders had been able to receive various forms of compensation for their slaves when most Northern states had abolished slavery several decades earlier. They knew that emancipation without compensation would do great damage to the Southern economy.
Critics note that many Southern statesmen voiced the view that slavery was a “positive good.” Yet, even the “positive good” advocates acknowledged that slavery had its evils and abuses. In fact, most Southerners rejected the arguments of the extreme defenders of slavery (John Garraty, The American Nation, Volume 1: A History of the United States to 1877, Third Edition, New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1975, p. 363). There were plenty of Southerners who were willing to see slavery abolished in a fair, gradual manner, as had been done in most Northern states. After all, 69-75 percent of Southern families did not own slaves. However, few Southerners believed the Republicans were interested in a fair, gradual emancipation program. The more extreme Republicans, who were known as “Radical Republicans,” certainly weren’t interested in such a program.
Few people today understand why the South distrusted the Republican Party. Not only was the Republican Party a new party, it was also the first purely regional (or sectional) party in the country’s history. Republican leaders frequently gave inflammatory anti-Southern speeches, some of which included egregious falsehoods and even threats (Susan-Mary Grant, North Over South: Northern Nationalism and American Identity in the Antebellum Era, University of Kansas Press, 2000). Historian William C. Cooper points out that the Republicans “had no interest in cultivating support in the South, which they branded as basically un-American,” and that “No major party had ever before so completely repudiated the South” (Jefferson Davis, American, Vintage Books Edition, New York: Vintage Books, 2000, pp. 294, 295). British historian Susan-Mary Grant notes that the Republican Party that came into being in 1854 was “a sectional party with a sectional ideology . . . that was predicated on opposition to the South, to the economic, social, and political reality of that section” (North Over South, p. 17).
Southerners were alarmed when dozens of Republican congressmen endorsed an advertisement for Hinton Helper’s book The Impending Crisis of the South, which spoke approvingly of a potential slave revolt that would kill untold numbers of Southern citizens in a “barbarous massacre.” The Republican Party even distributed an abridged edition of the book as a campaign document, and Republican editors added captions like “The Stupid Masses of the South” and “Revolution . . . Violently If We Must.”
Southerners also noticed that the Republicans broke the long-established tradition of having a sectionally balanced presidential ticket. For decades, the major political parties had almost always nominated tickets that consisted of one candidate from the North and one from the South. If nothing else, the major parties had always nominated tickets that appealed to more than just one part of the country. Each of the three other parties in the 1860 election nominated sectionally diverse tickets, but not the Republican Party. Another reason that Southerners were worried about the Republicans was that the party’s leaders made it clear they would push for several policies that the South believed were harmful and unconstitutional, such as a high protectionist tariff that favored Northern commerce, federal spending on “internal improvements,” and a significant expansion of the size and power of the federal government. Many Southerners feared that Republican leaders were determined to subjugate and exploit the South by any means. With these facts in mind, perhaps it’s not hard to understand why the election of Lincoln triggered the secession of seven Southern states.
One factor that led many Southern citizens to support secession was the fear that some abolitionists were determined to carry out armed attempts to incite slave insurrections in the Southern states. This fear became widespread when a violent Northern abolitionist named John Brown led an armed raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, on October 16, 1859, in an attempt to incite slave revolts throughout the South. Ironically, the first person Brown’s men killed was a free black man. They proceeded to seize the arsenal that evening but were dislodged the next morning by U.S. Marines. The raid failed, but it sent shock waves throughout the South. Subsequent investigation revealed that several prominent Northern abolitionists had supplied Brown with money and weapons. One of Brown’s wealthiest backers, Gerrit Smith, stated in writing that he hoped slaves would murder Southern slaveholders and rape Southern women.
A solid majority of Northern citizens condemned Brown’s actions, but a vocal minority did not. When Brown was put on trial after his capture, some predominantly Republican towns in the North held public meetings to glorify him and to defend his conduct. When Brown was executed, numerous abolitionist churches across the North rang their bells and held memorial ceremonies in Brown’s honor. Most Americans, in all parts of the country, disapproved of what Brown had done. However, Southerners understandably were alarmed by the support that was expressed for Brown by a vocal and influential minority in the North. They were also disturbed by the fact that virtually nothing was done to Brown’s Northern backers. As a result of Brown’s raid, many Southerners began to fear that Northern abolitionists were going to carry out more armed attempts to incite slave insurrections in the South. Brown’s attack caused a good number of Southern citizens who had previously opposed secession to change their minds.
As stated above, slavery was not the only factor that led to secession. If one reads the Declarations of Causes of Secession and the Ordinances of Secession that were issued by the first seven states of the Confederacy, one finds that there were several reasons these states wanted to be independent, and that some of the reasons had nothing to do with slavery. For example, the Georgia and Texas Declarations of Causes of Secession included economic complaints, in addition to concerns relating to slavery. The Texas declaration complained that unfair federal legislation was enriching the North at the expense of the Southern states:
They [the Northern states] have impoverished the slave-holding States by unequal and partial legislation, thereby enriching themselves by draining our substance.
The Georgia declaration complained about federal protectionism and subsidies for Northern business interests:
The material prosperity of the North was greatly dependent on the Federal Government; that of the South not at all. In the first years of the Republic the navigating, commercial, and manufacturing interests of the North began to seek profit and aggrandizement at the expense of the agricultural interests. Even the owners of fishing smacks sought and obtained bounties for pursuing their own business (which yet continue), and $500,000 [about $8.5 million in today’s dollars] is now paid them annually out of the Treasury. The navigating interests begged for protection against foreign shipbuilders and against competition in the coasting trade. Congress granted both requests, and by prohibitory acts gave an absolute monopoly of this business to each of their interests, which they enjoy without diminution to this day. Not content with these great and unjust advantages, they have sought to throw the legitimate burden of their business as much as possible upon the public; they have succeeded in throwing the cost of light-houses, buoys, and the maintenance of their seamen upon the Treasury, and the Government now pays above $2,000,000 annually [about $34 million today] for the support of these objects. These interests, in connection with the commercial and manufacturing classes, have also succeeded, by means of subventions to mail steamers and the reduction in postage, in relieving their business from the payment of about $7,000,000 annually [about $119 million today], throwing it upon the public Treasury under the name of postal deficiency. The manufacturing interests entered into the same struggle early, and have clamored steadily for Government bounties and special favors.
Eleven years earlier, Senator John Calhoun of South Carolina discussed some of the South’s concerns about Northern political and economic domination in a famous speech in the U.S. Senate in 1850:
Had this destruction [of the balance between the Northern and Southern states] been the operation of time without the interference of government, the South would have had no reason to complain; but such was not the fact. It was caused by the legislation of this government, which was appointed as the common agent of all and charged with the protection of the interests and security of all.
The legislation by which it has been effected may be classed under three heads: The first is that series of acts by which the South has been excluded from the common territory belonging to all the States as members of the federal Union–which have had the effect of extending vastly the portion allotted to the Northern section, and restricting within narrow limits the portion left the South. The next consists in adopting a system of revenue and disbursements by which an undue proportion of the burden of taxation has been imposed upon the South, and an undue proportion of its proceeds appropriated to the North. And the last is a system of political measures by which the original character of the government has been radically changed. . . .
I have not included the territory recently acquired by the treaty with Mexico. The North is making the most strenuous efforts to appropriate the whole to herself, by excluding the South from every foot of it. If she should succeed, it will add to that from which the South has already been excluded 526,078 square miles, and would increase the whole which the North has appropriated to herself to 1,764,023, not including the portion that she may succeed in excluding us from in Texas. To sum up the whole, the United States, since they declared their independence, have acquired 2,373,046 square miles of territory, from which the North will have excluded the South, if she should succeed in monopolizing the newly-acquired Territories, about three-fourths of the whole, leaving to the South but about one-fourth. Such is the first and great cause that has destroyed the equilibrium between the two sections in the government.
The next is the system of revenue and disbursements which has been adopted by the government. It is well known that the government has derived its revenue mainly from duties on imports. I shall not undertake to show that such duties must necessarily fall mainly on the exporting States, and that the South, as the great exporting portion of the Union, has in reality paid vastly more than her due proportion of the revenue; because I deem it unnecessary, as the subject has on so many occasions been fully discussed. Nor shall I, for the same reason, undertake to show that a far greater portion of the revenue has been disbursed in the North, than its due share; and that the joint effect of these causes has been to transfer a vast amount from South to North, which, under an equal system of revenue and disbursements, would not have been lost to her. If to this be added that many of the duties were imposed, not for revenue but for protection–that is, intended to put money, not in the Treasury, but directly into the pocket of the manufacturers–some conception may be formed of the immense amount which in the long course of sixty years has been transferred from South to North. (Calhoun, speech to the U.S. Senate on the Henry Clay compromise measures, March 4, 1850)
The South’s long-standing opposition to the federal tariff was a factor that led to secession. The South’s concern over the tariff was nothing new. South Carolina and the federal government nearly went to war over the tariff in 1832-1833. In the session of Congress before Lincoln’s inauguration, the House of Representatives passed a huge increase in the tariff, over the loud objections of Southern congressmen. Naturally, this alarmed Southern statesmen at all levels, since the South was usually hit hardest by the tariff. One only has to read the many speeches that Southern representatives gave against the 1860-1861 tariff increase, i.e., the Morrill Tariff, to see how seriously they took this issue. Moreover, in the congressional debates from the previous four decades, one can find dozens of Southern speeches against the tariff. Opposition to the tariff led some Southern leaders to talk of secession over thirty years before the Civil War occurred (Walter Brian Cisco, Taking A Stand: Portraits from the Southern Secession Movement, Shippensburg, Pennsylvania: White Mane Books, 2000, pp. 1-44). Scholars who argue that Southern statesmen didn’t really care about the tariff and that this was merely a “smoke screen” are ignoring a massive body of historical evidence.
The South had valid complaints about the tariff. Adams discusses the effects of the tariff on the Southern states:
The high tariff in the North compelled the Southern states to pay tribute to the North, either in taxes to fatten Republican coffers or in the inflated prices that had to be paid for Northern goods. Besides being unfair, this violated the uniformity command of the Constitution by having the South pay an undue proportion of the national revenue, which was expended more in the North than in the South. . . . (When In the Course of Human Events, p. 26)
Economist Frank Taussig, one of the foremost authorities on the tariff, acknowledged that the tariff fell “with particular weight” on the South:
The Southern members, who were almost to a man supporters of Jackson, were opposed unconditionally not only to an increase of duties, but to the high range which the tariff had already reached. They were convinced, and in the main justly convinced, that the taxes levied by the tariff fell with particular weight on the slave States. . . . (The Tariff History of the United States, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1910, p. 54, emphasis added)
Steven Weisman, in his study of the role that taxation has played in American history, notes that Northern economic exploitation of the South, particularly in the form of the tariff, was a major concern to Southerners:
The tariff would effectively raise prices on clothing, farm equipment and many other everyday necessities. Farmers in the South . . . squeezed by these high prices and struggling to sell their own farm products abroad, protested the high tariff. . . .
These were some of the factors that thrust Lincoln to the threshold of the most violent and transforming presidency in American history. . . .
South Carolina went first. The state’s grievances had been long-standing and not simply focused on slavery. Its major complaint went to the heart of the nation’s finances–tariffs. A generation earlier, South Carolina had provoked a states’ rights crisis over its doctrine that states could "nullify" or override, the national tariff system. The nullification fight in 1832 was actually a tax revolt. It pitted the state’s spokesman, Vice President John C. Calhoun, against President Andrew Jackson. Because tariffs rewarded manufacturers but punished farmers with higher prices on everything they needed–clothing, farm equipment and even essential food products like salt and meats–Calhoun argued that the tariff system was discriminatory and unconstitutional. Calhoun’s anti-tariff battle was a rebellion against a system seen throughout the South as protecting the producers of the North. . . .
The new [Confederate] president, Jefferson Davis, had been a hero of the Mexican War, a former Secretary of War to President Franklin Pierce, and a respected champion of the South as senator from Mississippi. He was a vigorous exponent of the view that the war was, at its core, not a fight to preserve slavery but a struggle to overthrow an exploitative economic system headquartered in the North.
There was a great deal of evidence to support Davis’s view of the South as the nation’s stepchild. . . . The South had to import two-thirds of its clothing and manufactured goods from outside the region, and southerners paid artificially high prices because of the high tariffs. The South even had to import food. . . .
From the perspective of the South, the North’s economy rested on a kind of state capitalism of trade barriers, government-sponsored railroads, coddling of trusts, suppression of labor and public investment in canals, roads and other infrastructures. Southern slave owners sought . . . to secure free trade, overseas markets and cheaper imports. Southern resentment of the tariff system propelled the Democratic Party to define itself as the main challenger to the primacy of the industrialist and capitalist overlords of the system. (The Great Tax Wars: Lincoln to Wilson–The Fierce Battles Over Money and Power that Transformed the Nation, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002, pp. 21-22, 52)
Weisman notes that even when New York merchants initially issued a resolution of support for the South’s right to leave in peace, Southerners suspected that the merchants’ support was based on their desire to maintain a commercial relationship that exploited the South:
As South Carolina and other states seceded, New York’s merchants issued a resolution of solidarity with the South and the right of its states to break away. . . . Southerners were cynical about the support, knowing that it derived from a commercial relationship that primarily benefited New York and exploited the South. (The Great Tax Wars, p. 76)
Weisman also points out that the Confederate Constitution’s prohibition against protective tariffs and government favoritism toward particular businesses was based on the South’s desire to avoid the Union practice of favoring certain industries. Under the Confederate Constitution, says Weisman,
State legislatures were given the right to overrule . . . [officials of the national Confederate government] on certain issues, and taxes and tariffs “designed to promote or foster any branch of industry” were barred, as were public expenditures to benefit a particular section of the populace. These clauses were a residue of the South’s desire to avoid the Union practice of showering largesse on certain industries. (The Great Tax Wars, p. 65)
Jeffrey R. Hummel, a professor of economics and history, notes the negative impact of the tariff on the Southern states and concedes that Southern complaints about the tariff were justified:
Despite a steady decline in import duties, tariffs fell disproportionately on Southerners, reducing their income from cotton production by at least 10 percent just before the Civil War. . . .
At least with respect to the tariff’s adverse impact, Southerners were not only absolutely correct but displayed a sophisticated understanding of economics. . . . The tariff was inefficient; it not only redistributed wealth from farmers and planters to manufacturers and laborers but overall made the country poorer. (Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War, Chicago: Open Court, 1996, pp. 39-40, 73)
Economists Mark Thornton and Robert Ekelund explain why the tariff was such an important issue to the South:
The South was basically an agrarian economy. This input-producing region’s major crops were tobacco, rice, and cotton, with much of the latter intended for export or for the textile mills of the North. Southerners had to earn their revenue to buy finished goods from the North and from abroad through the export of raw materials. Since tariffs on finished goods, such as textiles and luxuries, and on capital goods, such as machinery, raised the prices paid by Southerners, they believed correctly that the “terms of trade” were set against them by high protectionist tariffs. Thus, from the earliest days of the nation, the tariff issue was paramount to Southerners. (Tariffs, Blockades, and Inflation: The Economics of the Civil War, Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources Inc., 2004, p. 16)
Civil War scholar Webb Garrison, a former associate dean of Emory University, discusses the South’s long-standing problem with the tariff, the history of the tariff, and the fact that most Southerners believed their cost of living would go down if the South were independent:
Long before Charlestonians began taking over forts, the U.S. Customs Service and the tariff system had angered the South. Tariffs on imported goods served to protect the industrialized North and boosted the cost of manufactured goods in the agricultural South.
Such sectional differences had surfaced while the United States was still in its infancy. Congress had imposed an 8 percent tariff on imports in 1789, but by 1816 the rate had jumped to 25 percent and continued to rise. A ceiling was reached in 1828 when the so-called tariff of abominations boosted the cost of imported goods 45 percent. . . .
When the seceded states merged to form the Confederate States of America, most of the southern population believed their cost of living would decline because tariffs would no longer be collected. (Lincoln’s Little War, Nashville, Tennessee: Rutledge Hill Press, 1997, p. 27)
Historians William and Bruce Catton summarized the economic case that Southern leaders put forth in favor of secession:
On the economic front, long-standing Southern grievances against Northern financial and commercial exploitation, Northern high-tariff policies, Northern monopoly of the coastwise trade, and similar items, were contrasted to the bright future that awaited an independent South, secure and prosperous on a foundation of cotton, free trade, and an inexhaustible European market with no Northern middlemen to siphon off the profits. (Two Roads to Sumter: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and the March to Civil War, Edison, New Jersey: Castle Books, 2004, reprint of original edition, p. 251)
A major point of contention between the North and the South was the issue of the size and power of the federal government as defined by the Constitution. As mentioned earlier, Republican leaders supported a loose reading of the Constitution and wanted to expand the size and scope of the federal government, even if that meant giving the government powers that were not authorized by the Constitution. Among other things, they advocated government subsidies for certain big businesses, federal control of the banking system, a high protectionist tariff, and massive public works projects (called “internal improvements”). Most Southern statesmen opposed these policies and instead favored a strict reading of the Constitution. They believed the federal government should perform only those functions that were expressly delegated to it by the Constitution. From the earliest days of the republic, Southern and Northern leaders frequently battled over this issue. A recent study that abundantly documents this fact is John Ferling’s book Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 (Oxford University Press, 2004, see especially chapters 7-13).
Four of the eleven Southern states did not join in the first wave of secession and did not secede over slavery. Those four states—Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia—only seceded months later when Lincoln made it clear he was going to launch an invasion. In fact, those states initially voted against secession by fairly sizable majorities. However, they believed the Union should not be maintained by force. Therefore, when Lincoln announced he was calling up 75,000 troops to form an invasion force, they held new votes, and in each case the vote was strongly in favor of secession. Thus, four of the eleven states that comprised the Confederacy seceded because of their objection to the federal government’s use of force and not because of slavery.
Virtually no history textbooks mention the fact that each Confederate state retained the right to abolish slavery within its borders, and that the Confederate Constitution permitted the admission of free states to the Confederacy. In his analysis of the Confederate Constitution, historian Forrest McDonald says the following:
All states reserved the right to abolish slavery in their domains, and new states could be admitted without slavery if two-thirds of the existing states agreed—the idea being that the tier of free states bordering the Ohio River might in time wish to join the Confederacy. (States’ Rights and the Union, University of Kansas Press, 2000, p. 204)
Before we move on to the issue of the right of secession, it should be noted that Southern fears about Republican policies were soon proven valid. When the Republicans gained control of the federal government, they started America down the path of big government, higher taxes, the erosion of local control, and a disregard for the Constitution. Thornton and Ekelund discuss some of the economic and political consequences of the Republican victory over the South:
Tariffs were the centerpiece of Republican policy. They . . . implemented the Morrill Tariff Bill in 1862, which raised the level of the tax on imports from roughly 20 percent to 50 percent, where it remained for the rest of the century. . . .
Banking, particularly in the South, was harmed as a result of the war. The imperfect system of free banking and state-chartered banking was replaced with a system of national banks. As Robert Sharkey noted, “the seeds of decay had been planted. The National Banking System, with its yet unsuspected exploitative potentialities, had been established.” As a result, big business had better access to the money market, and small business was virtually shut out. Sharkey lamented, “Is it any wonder that the true advocates of free non-corporate enterprise such as Henry Carey screamed so unrestrainedly at what they called the ‘money monopolists’ of New York?” Banks from New York City that charged high interest rates on loans made to the South were “another contributing factor to the decline of the pre-Civil War type of free enterprise.” The Republicans’ system of national banking helped the robber barons to take over, and banking played a key role in the takeover. . . .
The defeat of the Confederacy was an ideological downfall for the cause of anti-Federalist, Jeffersonian, and Jacksonian traditions of small, limited government. . . . (Tariffs, Blockades, and Inflation, pp. 87, 89, 98-99)
Ekelund comments on the Republicans’ big-government policies in an article he wrote for the Ludwig Von Mises Institute’s website:
The Republican Party that emerged in the 1850s was an amalgamation of historical influences, third parties, and interest groups. One group that entered the Republican Party was the Free Soil Party, whose primary platform was free land and subsidies for farmers. In contrast, most Democrats favored selling off the public lands to finance government expenditures, keep tariff rates low, and prevent deficit spending. . . .
The ambitious economic agenda of the Republican Party had its roots in the economic platforms of Federalist icon Alexander Hamilton and Whig leader Henry Clay. They advocated protective tariffs for industry, a national bank, and plenty of public works and patronage. The flurry of new laws, regulations, and bureaucracies created by Lincoln and the Republican Party during the early 1860s foreshadowed Franklin Roosevelt’s "New Deal" for the volume, scope and questionable constitutionality of its legislative output.
In fact, the term "New Deal" was actually coined in March of 1865 by a newspaper editor in Raleigh, North Carolina, to characterize Lincoln and the Republican Party platform. Lincoln’s massive expansion of the federal government into the economy led Daniel Elazar to claim, " . . . one could easily call Lincoln’s presidency the ‘New Deal’ of the 1860s." Republicans established a much larger, more powerful, and more destructive federal government in the 1860s. . . ..
Protectionism was a high priority of the early Republican Party. They quickly enacted the Morrill Tariff, which raised tariff rates to extremely high levels, and their extreme protectionism continued throughout the era of Republican dominance.
There is really little debate that these Republicans were the primary proponents of protectionism, particularly in the areas of steel and textiles. . . .
In the area of deficit spending and the national debt, the early Republicans . . . produced large deficits and national debt. Pre-Civil War Democrats had worked effectively to eliminate the national debt and to close the national banks. (“The Awful Truth About Republicans,” Ludwig Von Mises Institute, March 25, 2004, http://www.mises.org/story/1476)
Ekelund goes on to discuss some of the harmful results of the Republicans’ banking and monetary policies:
In their early years they [the Republicans] nationalized money and banking, a policy that helped big-city banks at the expense of the common citizen, particularly in the South and West. As Robert Sharkey noted:
“As the National Banking System took shape after the war, it was apparent that human ingenuity would have had difficulty contriving a more perfect engine for class and sectional exploitation: Creditors finally obtaining the upper hand as opposed to debtors, and the developed East holding the whip over the undeveloped West and South. This tipping of the class and sectional balance of power was, in my opinion, the momentous change over the twenty-three-year period, 1850-1873.” ["Commercial Banking," in Economic Change in the Civil War Era: Proceedings of a Conference on American Economic Institutional Change, 1850-1873, and the Impact of the Civil War, Greenville, Delaware: Eleutherian Mills-Hagley Foundation, 1965, p. 27, original emphasis.]
Looking at the consequences of this legislation, leading monetary economists concluded:
“The provision of the Acts of 1863 and 1865 that established the national banking system were designed to remedy two perceived defects of the antebellum state banking system. . . . Unfortunately, the remedies did not work as intended by the architects of the national banking system. Instead, the system was characterized by monetary and cyclical instability, four banking panics, frequent stock market crashes, and other financial disturbances." [Michael D. Bordo, Peter Rappoport, and Anna J. Schwartz, "Money versus Credit Rationing: Evidence for the National Banking Era, 1880-1914," in Strategic Factors in Nineteenth Century American Economic Growth, edited by Claudia Goldin and Hugh Rockoff, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, pp. 189-223.] (Ekelund, “The Awful Truth About Republicans”)
Did the South Have the Right to Secede?
I believe the evidence is clear that the South had the right to secede. None other than Ulysses S. Grant, the commanding general of the Union army for much of the Civil War and later a president of the United States, admitted he believed that if any of the original thirteen states had wanted to secede in the early days of the Union, it was unlikely the other states would have challenged that state’s “right” to do so. Grant also conceded that he believed the founding fathers would have sanctioned the right of secession rather than see a war “between brothers.” Said Grant,
If there had been a desire on the part of any single State to withdraw from the compact at any time while the number of States was limited to the original thirteen, I do not suppose there would have been any to contest the right, no matter how much the determination might have been regretted. . . .
If they [the founding fathers] had foreseen it, the probabilities are they would have sanctioned the right of a State or States to withdraw rather than that there should be war between brothers. (The Personal Memoirs Of Ulysses S. Grant, Old Saybrook, Connecticut: Konecky & Konecky, 1992, reprint of original edition, pp. 130-131)
Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts wrote the following in his 1899 biography of the famous nationalist Daniel Webster:
When the Constitution was adopted by the votes of States at Philadelphia, and accepted by the votes of States in popular conventions, it is safe to say there was no man in this country, from Washington and Hamilton on the one side to George Clinton and George Mason on the other, who regarded our system of Government, when first adopted, as anything but an experiment entered upon by the States, and from which each and every State had the right to peaceably withdraw, a right which was very likely to be exercised. (Henry Cabot Lodge, Daniel Webster, Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1899, p. 176)
Union general Thomas Ewing acknowledged that the founding fathers did not address the issue of secession in the Constitution–he believed the war settled the question:
The North . . . recognizes the fact that the proximate cause of the war was the constitutional question of the right of secession — a question which, until it was settled by the war, had neither a right side nor a wrong side to it. Our forefathers in framing the Constitution purposely left the question unsettled; to have settled it distinctly in the Constitution would have been to prevent the formation of the Union of the thirteen States. They, therefore, committed that question to the future. . . . (Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 31, 1903, p. 89)
British historian Goldwin Smith argued that the history of the Union showed it was a voluntarily compact:
Few who have looked into the history can doubt that the Union originally was, and was generally taken by the parties to it to be, a compact; dissoluble, perhaps most of them would have said, at pleasure, dissoluble certainly on breach of the articles of Union. (Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 31, 1903, p. 87)
There is nothing in the Constitution that prohibits a state from peacefully and democratically separating from the Union. The Constitution doesn’t say that ratification is irrevocable. Nor does it give the citizens of a majority of states any right to prevent the citizens of a minority of states from withdrawing their states from the Union. Nor does it say that the Union itself is permanent. Lloyd Paul Stryker, who opposed secession, admitted the Southern states had an “arguable claim that no specific section of the Constitution stood in their way,” i.e., no section of the Constitution prohibited peaceful, democratic separation (Andrew Johnson: A Study in Courage, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1930, p. 447). Indeed, the right of secession is implied in the Tenth Amendment, which reads,
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
The Constitution does not give the federal government the power to force a state to remain in the Union against its will. President James Buchanan acknowledged this fact in a message to Congress shortly before Lincoln assumed office. Nor does the Constitution prohibit the citizens of a state from voting to repeal their state’s ratification of the Constitution. Therefore, by a plain reading of the Tenth Amendment, a state has the implied legal right to peacefully withdraw from the Union.
This view is strengthened by the fact that several of the states specified in their constitution or in their ratification ordinance that they should retain all rights and powers that were not expressly granted to the federal government by the U.S. Constitution. For example, Rhode Island:
We, the delegates of the people of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, duly elected and met in Convention, having maturely considered the Constitution for the United States of America. . . . declare and make known. . . .
That the powers of government may be reassumed by the people whensoever it shall become necessary to their happiness. That the rights of the states respectively to nominate and appoint all state officers, and every other power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by the said Constitution clearly delegated to the Congress of the United States, or to the departments of government thereof, remain to the people of the several states, or their respective state governments, to whom they may have granted the same; and that those clauses in the Constitution which declare that Congress shall not have or exercise certain powers, do not imply that Congress is entitled to any powers not given by the said Constitution; but such clauses are to be construed as exceptions to certain specified powers, or as inserted merely for greater caution. . . . The United States shall guaranty to each state its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Constitution expressly delegated to the United States. (Rhode Island ratification ordinance, May 29, 1790)
. . . all powers not expressly delegated by the aforesaid Constitution are reserved to the several states, to be by them exercised. (Massachusetts ratification ordinance, February 6, 1788)
The people of this commonwealth have the sole and exclusive right of governing themselves as a free, sovereign, and independent State, and do, and forever hereafter shall, exercise and enjoy every power, jurisdiction, and right which is not, or may not hereafter be, by them expressly delegated to the United States of America in Congress assembled. (Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1780, Article IV)
We, the delegates of the people of the state of New York, duly elected and met in Convention, having maturely considered the Constitution for the United States of America . . . declare and make known. . . .
That the powers of government may be reassumed by the people whensoever it shall become necessary to their happiness; that every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by the said Constitution clearly delegated to the Congress of the United States, or the departments of the government thereof, remains to the people of the several states, or to their respective state governments, to whom they may have granted the same; and that those clauses in the said Constitution, which declare that Congress shall not have or exercise certain powers, do not imply that Congress is entitled to any powers not given by the said Constitution; but such clauses are to be construed either as exceptions to certain specified powers, or as inserted merely for greater caution. (New York ratification ordinance, July 26, 1788)
In Convention of the people of the state of South Carolina, by their representatives, held in the city of Charleston. . . . The Convention, having maturely considered the Constitution, or form of government, reported to Congress by the Convention of Delegates from the United States of America. . . . Do, in the name and behalf of the people of this state, hereby assent to and ratify the said Constitution. . . .
This Convention doth also declare, that no section or paragraph of the said Constitution warrants a construction that the states do not retain every power not expressly relinquished by them, and vested in the general government of the Union. (South Carolina ratification ordinance, May 23, 1788)
We the Delegates of the people of Virginia . . . declare and make known that the powers granted under the Constitution, being derived from the people of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression, and that every power not granted thereby remains with them and at their will: that therefore no right of any denomination, can be cancelled, abridged, restrained or modified, by the Congress, by the Senate or House of Representatives acting in any capacity, by the President or any department or officer of the United States, except in those instances in which power is given by the Constitution for those purposes. . . .
That each state in the union shall respectively retain every power, jurisdiction and right, which is not by this constitution delegated to the Congress of the United States, or to the departments of the Foederal Government. (Virginia ratification ordinance, June 26, 1788)
If the founding fathers had intended ratification to be irrevocable, surely they would have said so at least once in the Constitution. If they had intended the federal government to have the power to use force to compel a state to remain in the Union, surely they would have specified such monumental authority somewhere in the Constitution.
Critics of the Confederacy maintain that certain clauses in the Constitution prohibit secession, even though not one of those clauses mentions the subject. They point out, for example, that the Constitution prohibits states from entering into treaties with foreign powers. They place particular emphasis on the Supremacy Clause, which reads as follows:
This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding. (Article 6, Paragraph 2)
However, it goes without saying that this clause and the clauses regarding state relations with foreign governments only apply to states that are in the Union. Again, there’s simply nothing in the Constitution that prohibits the citizens of a state from democratically revoking their state’s ratification of the Constitution. The explanations of the Supremacy Clause that are given in the Federalist Papers do not say the clause prohibits secession or makes ratification irrevocable.
Lincoln defenders make the curious argument that since the seceded states no longer recognized the Constitution and federal law as the supreme law of their land, secession violated the Supremacy Clause and was therefore illegal. But the Constitution makes it clear that it’s only the law of the land "between the states so ratifying the same” (Article 7), and nowhere does it say those states can never revoke their ratification. If a state revokes its ratification, then the Constitution is no longer operative within its borders. When the states joined the Union, they agreed that the Constitution, and federal laws that did not violate the Constitution, would be the supreme law of the land. They did not agree that this meant they could never leave the Union if they felt they needed to do so.
Imagine the following scenario: Suppose you joined an association. The association’s constitution said that when you became a member, you agreed to be bound by the association’s constitution and by all association rules that did not violate that constitution. But, the constitution did not say you could never leave the association. Nor did it say your membership was irrevocable or permanent. Nor did it say you needed the permission of other members before you could leave. It didn’t even say the association itself was permanent. After belonging to the association for a time, you decided you no longer wanted to be a member. You were willing to pay your share of the association’s debt and wanted to maintain good relations with it. How would you feel if the association attempted to force you to remain a member against your will, with the argument, "Sorry, you can’t leave the association because then you’ll no longer be bound by our constitution and rules"? Most people would view that argument as specious and unfair, if not dictatorial.
If the Union wasn’t formed by force, then it shouldn’t have been held together by force. The Constitution specified that it would take effect when nine states had ratified it (Article 7). At the time the Union was formed, two of the original thirteen states still had not ratified the Constitution. They were not subject to the Constitution but were recognized as sovereign, independent states. The federal government made no claim to having any right to force those two states to ratify the Constitution. And, no state or group of states presumed to have the right to force another state to join the Union either.
Lincoln and previous nationalists, such as Joseph Story, John Marshall, and Daniel Webster, argued that the Constitution was ratified by “We the people” acting as “one people,” i.e., by the people acting as a whole, and that therefore no state or group of states could leave the Union. But the Constitution was not ratified in this manner. In the original understanding of the sovereignty of the people, the people were sovereign only as citizens of their respective states, not as a whole. This original understanding of the people’s sovereignty can be seen in the fact that the Constitution was ratified by the people in their capacity as citizens of their respective states. It was not ratified by the people acting as “one people.” The ratification decision of one state’s citizens was not binding on the citizens of other states. The citizens of each state were free to accept or reject the Constitution, regardless of the decision of the citizens in other states. Founding father James Madison, often called “the father of the Constitution,” repeatedly explained that the people were sovereign, not as one mass, but as citizens of the various states:
. . . this assent and ratification is to be given by the people, not as individuals composing one entire nation, but as composing the distinct and independent States to which they respectively belong. (Federalist Paper Number 39)
In arguing for Virginia’s ratification of the Constitution, Madison said,
Give me leave to say something of the nature of the government. . . .
Who are the parties to it? The people–not the people as composing one great body, but the people as composing thirteen sovereignties.
Were it, as the gentleman asserts, a consolidated government, the assent of a majority of the people would be sufficient for its establishment: and as a majority have adopted it already, the remaining States would be bound by the act of the majority, even if they unanimously reprobated it. (Speech to the Convention of Virginia, June 6, 1788)
In his old age, Madison wrote to Daniel Webster to politely inform him that his “one people” theory of the founding of the Union was wrong, that the Constitution was ratified by the people “as embodied into the several States,” and that therefore it was “made by the States.” Madison said this was an “undisputed fact”:
It is fortunate when disputed theories, can be decided by undisputed facts. And here the undisputed fact is, that the Constitution was made by the people, but as embodied into the several States, who were parties to it; and therefore made by the States in their highest authoritative capacity. (Letter from James Madison to Daniel Webster, March 15, 1833)
In his highly acclaimed book on the formation of the federal Union, E Pluribus Unum: The Formation of the American Republic 1776-1790, McDonald explains the original understanding of the sovereignty of the people:
In an ultimate sense, the Constitution confirmed the proposition that original power resided in the people—not, however, in the people as a whole, but in them in their capacity as people of the several states. In 1787 the people were so divided because, having created or acquiesced in the creation of state governments, they were bound by prior contracts. They could create more local or more general governments, but only by agreeing, in their capacity as people of the several states, to relocate power previously lodged with the state governments. All powers not thus relocated, and not reserved by the people in explicit state constitutional limitations, remained in the state governments. In short, national or local governments, being the creatures of the states, could exercise only those powers explicitly or implicitly given them by the states; each state government could exercise all powers unless it was forbidden from doing so by the people of the state. But in the Constitution the states went a step further, and expressly denied to themselves the exercise of certain powers, such as those of interfering with the obligations of private contracts, passing ex post facto laws, and refusing to honor the laws of other states. This is the essence of the American federal system. . . .
There was . . . one cardinal difference between Britain and America which made a mere copying of the British system unfeasible. England had a hereditary monarchy and a hereditary nobility, each of which, along with the people, prevented the other from an unchecked expression of its will; and the two combined checked the people. In America, which lacked these hereditary institutions, it was necessary to devise some kind of structural substitute. This did not mean creating an artificial monarch and an aristocracy of wealth or education, as some of the delegates, notably [Alexander] Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris, proposed, but dividing the people into various aspects or capacities of themselves.
In other words, “the people” were not, in any part of the multilevel government, allowed to act as the whole people. Instead, for purposes of expressing their will they were separated from themselves both in space and in time. This was accomplished by separating the people, both in space and in time, from those they elected. . . .
The division of every voter into many artificial parts of himself was one of three aspects of the genius of the American constitutional system. (E Pluribus Unum: The Formation of the American Republic 1776-1790, Second Edition, Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Press, 1979, pp. 312, 314, 315)
This original understanding of the people’s sovereignty can also be seen in the system that the founding fathers established for the election of the president, namely, the Electoral College. “We the people” elect the president as citizens of our respective states, but not as one people. We vote in our respective states, and the candidate who wins in our state receives our state’s Electoral College votes. Thus, a president can be elected without a majority of the nationwide popular vote as long as he has won in enough states to give him a majority in the Electoral College. The last thing the framers wanted was pure majority rule. They understood that a purely majority-rule system often results in a tyranny of the majority.
Since the citizens of each state were the ultimate sovereign in deciding whether or not their state would join the Union, the citizens of each state should have been the ultimate sovereign in deciding whether or not their state would remain in the Union. The federal government was supposed to be the servant of the people, not their master. It was never intended that the citizens in a majority of states could employ the federal government as an instrument of violence to force the citizens in a minority of states to keep their states in the Union against their will.
As part of his denial of the right of secession, Lincoln took the erroneous position that the states were never sovereign out of the Union. Said Lincoln,
Our States have neither more nor less power than that reserved to them in the Union by the Constitution, no one of them ever having been a State out of the Union. The original ones passed into the Union even before they cast off their British colonial dependence, and the new ones each came into the Union directly from a condition of dependence, excepting Texas; and even Texas, in its temporary independence, was never designated a State. The new ones only took the designation of States on coming into the Union, while that name was first adopted for the old ones in and by the Declaration of Independence. . . . Having never been States, either in substance or in name, outside of the Union, whence this magical omnipotence of "State rights," asserting a claim of power to lawfully destroy the Union itself? Much is said about the "sovereignty" of the States, but the word even is not in the National Constitution, nor, as is believed, in any of the State constitutions. What is a "sovereignty" in the political sense of the term? Would it be far wrong to define it "a political community without a political superior"? Tested by this, no one of our States, except Texas, ever was a sovereignty. . . . (Special Session Message to Congress, July 4, 1861)
There is so much error and sophistry packed into these statements that it’s hard to know where to begin. It’s difficult to imagine what founding documents Lincoln could have thought contained evidence for these claims. For example, how could Lincoln have believed the states were never sovereign outside the Union when North Carolina and Rhode Island existed as independent nations, and were treated as such by the federal states, for over a year after the Constitution was ratified? What about the fact that Maryland existed as an independent nation for over three years before it finally ratified the Articles of Confederation? If, as Lincoln said, a sovereign state was a state that had no superior, that had no government to which it had to submit, then Maryland, North Carolina, and Rhode Island were clearly sovereign states outside the Union. By this definition, Texas was likewise a sovereign state before it joined the Union. Lincoln’s argument that Texas was never “designated a state” during its “temporary independence” is strained and evasive. Oddly, Lincoln went on to admit that Texas was “a sovereignty” before it joined the Union. Yes, indeed it was. Texas was a separate country, the Republic of Texas, for ten years before it became a member of the Union. Of course, Texas wasn’t a sovereign state in the Union during that period, but it was a sovereign state nonetheless–outside the Union.
It’s also hard to imagine how Lincoln could have believed the states were only first called and made states by the Declaration of Independence, which was issued in July 1776. In June 1775, the General Assembly of Rhode Island founded a navy to protect its shipping interests against British interference, and three days later a Rhode Island ship captured a British sloop in the first official naval action against England. Rhode Island formally declared its independence about a year later, on May 4, 1776. In January 1776, the New Hampshire assembly adopted a state constitution, and the state formally declared its independence four months later. South Carolina established itself as an independent state in March 1776, with John Rutledge as president and Henry Laurens as vice president. In April 1776, the North Carolina assembly instructed its delegates in the Continental Congress to vote for independence from England. Virginia issued its declaration of independence in June 1776. That same month in the Continental Congress, Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution that said the colonies were already “free and independent states" (Resolution of Richard Henry Lee, Journals of the Continental Congress, June 7, 1776). In 1774, founding father James Wilson said that the colonies, even as members of the British empire, were “distinct states, independent of each other,” and that therefore they had the right to control their own internal affairs (“Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament,” 1774).
In framing his argument that the states were never sovereign “out of the Union,” Lincoln used the word “Union” loosely and inaccurately. In essence, Lincoln claimed that “the Union” began when the colonies started to cooperate with each other against the British. This is why Lincoln said the colonies “passed into the Union even before they cast off their British colonial dependence.” But this is sheer fiction. The “Union” of the First Continental Congress was different than the “Union” of the Articles of Confederation, and both of those “Unions” were different than the federal Union. Lincoln’s mythical “Union” never even included all the colonies. Georgia refused to participate in the First Continental Congress. Only nine of the thirteen colonies sent delegates to the Stamp Act Congress of 1765, which issued the "Declaration of Rights.” As mentioned earlier, Maryland was an independent nation for over three years before it ratified the Articles of Confederation, and North Carolina and Rhode Island were independent nations until they ratified the federal Constitution. On a related note, it’s interesting to note that the First Continental Congress implicitly recognized the right of secession. When the Congress was considering an embargo on British trade, South Carolina threatened to withdraw if an exception weren’t made for rice imports, which were vital to the state’s economy. No one questioned South Carolina’s right to leave.
Lincoln’s understanding of the purpose of the Constitution was backward. He viewed it as being primarily designed to define and limit the powers of the states. But the historical record is clear that the Constitution’s chief purpose was to define the powers that the states were delegating to the federal government and to place limits on what the federal government could and could not do. That’s why the Ninth and Tenth Amendments were added to the Constitution. Madison pointed out that in the Constitution the federal government’s powers were “delegated” and were “few and defined” but that the powers of the states were “numerous and indefinite”:
The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. (Federalist Paper Number 45)
In the same treatise, Madison said that under the Constitution “the State government” would “have the advantage of [i.e., over] the Federal government”:
The State government will have the advantage of the Federal government, whether we compare them in respect to the immediate dependence of the one on the other; to the weight of personal influence which each side will possess; to the powers respectively vested in them. . . . (Federalist Paper Number 45)
Speaking of Madison, critics quote statements of his in which he argued against secession, but they ignore other statements that indicate Madison believed there were cases when a state could leave the Union. Neither side can cite Madison as wholly supporting their view. This is because Madison was inconsistent. At times he refused to support or enforce principles that he had clearly advocated on previous occasions. It should also be observed that Madison’s status as an authority on the Constitution and his role in its drafting are sometimes overstated. For example, at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, Madison’s ideas were often rejected by his fellow framers—in fact, they voted down forty of his seventy-one proposals. With these facts in mind, let’s consider statements from Madison that support secession.
When Madison discussed the conditions under which a state could secede from the Articles of Confederation, without the consent of the other states, he appealed to the natural right of self-preservation and to the principle that the safety and happiness of society were the objects to which all political institutions "must be sacrificed." Said Madison,
The first question [how a state could secede without approval from the other states] is answered at once by recurring to the absolute necessity of the case; to the great principle of self-preservation; to the transcendent law of nature and of nature’s God, which declares that the safety and happiness of society are the objects at which all political institutions aim, and to which all such institutions must be sacrificed. (Federalist Paper Number 43)
This is important because the Articles of Confederation expressly stated that the union they were creating was “perpetual” and that that union could only be altered by the approval of all the states. Now, if the natural right of self-preservation allowed a state to peacefully leave the "perpetual" union of the Articles of Confederation without the consent of the other states, then logic demands that this natural right would also permit a state to peacefully leave the federal Union, which was not described as perpetual. (Some authors argue that the phrase “to form a more perfect union” in the Constitution’s preamble means the Union was intended to be permanent and that therefore secession was illegal. But this phrase refers to the Union’s effectiveness, not to its duration. Something can be perfect but not necessarily perpetual. Many Americans believed the union of the Articles of Confederation had proven to be somewhat inefficient in certain respects. Therefore, they thought a “more perfect union” was needed. It is significant that even though the framers borrowed heavily from the Articles of Confederation when they wrote the Constitution, not once did they use the word “perpetual” in that document to describe the new union, even though the word “perpetual” appears five times in the Articles of Confederation.)
It’s true that Madison told Alexander Hamilton that if New York joined the Union, it had to do so "in toto and forever.” Yet, New York entered the Union on the basis of a ratification ordinance that said its citizens had the right to resume the powers of government if they felt they needed to do so, i.e., to withdraw their state from the Union and to resume all the powers they had conditionally ceded to the federal government. It’s likewise true that Madison told Nicholas Trist that no state could "at pleasure" leave the Union. But Madison also told Trist there were conditions in which a state could release itself from the Union. In his letter to Trist, Madison said,
Applying a like view of the subject to the case of the U. S. it results, that the compact being among individuals as embodied into States, no State can at pleasure release itself therefrom, and set up for itself. The compact can only be dissolved by the consent of the other parties, or by usurpations or abuses of power justly having that effect." (Letter from James Madison to Nicholas P. Trist, February 15, 1830, emphasis added)
Notice that Madison was talking about a state that wanted to "release itself" from the Union, and that he said this could be done by the consent of the other states or by usurpations or abuses that were so serious that they had the same effect. Thus, according to Madison, if a state was being subjected to abuses or usurpations, this could give the state the same right to leave the compact as if the other states had agreed to the separation. Notice, too, that Madison didn’t say, “No state can release itself from the compact.” He said no state could “at pleasure” release itself from the compact, which in and of itself implied there were conditions under which a state could separate. And, as noted, Madison gave those conditions—the consent of the other states or serious abuses of power or usurpations by the federal government.
Madison’s statements to Trist are consistent with what Madison said about states’ rights and the nature of the federal government. After all, it was Madison who said that the states had the right to decide when the federal government was abusing its powers and that in such cases the states could interpose their authority in order to protect their citizens. In his report on the Virginia Resolutions on the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, Madison said,
The constitution of the United States was formed by the sanction of the states, given by each in its sovereign capacity. It adds to the stability and dignity, as well as to the authority, of the constitution, that it rests upon this legitimate and solid foundation. The states, then, being the parties to the constitutional compact, and in their sovereign capacity, it follows of necessity that there can be no tribunal above their authority to decide, in the last resort, whether the compact made by them be violated and consequently that, as the parties to it, they must themselves decide, in the last resort, such questions as may be of sufficient magnitude to require their interposition. (The Virginia Report of 1799-1800, Report on the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798)
When the Constitution was being debated in the states, Madison said that one way the states could resist “unwarrantable” federal measures would be for their citizens to refuse to cooperate with “officers of the Union” (i.e., federal authorities). Madison added that in cases of “ambitious” federal encroachments on the authority of the states, the states could produce “plans of resistance” and could even resort to force to halt those encroachments:
On the other hand, should an unwarrantable measure of the federal government be unpopular in particular States, which would seldom fail to be the case, or even a warrantable measure be so, which may sometimes be the case, the means of opposition to it are powerful and at hand. The disquietude of the people; their repugnance and, perhaps, refusal to co-operate with the officers of the Union; the frowns of the executive magistracy of the State; the embarrassments created by legislative devices, which would often be added on such occasions, would oppose, in any State, difficulties not to be despised; would form, in a large State, very serious impediments; and where the sentiments of several adjoining States happened to be in unison, would present obstructions which the federal government would hardly be willing to encounter.
But ambitious encroachments of the federal government, on the authority of the State governments, would not excite the opposition of a single State, or of a few States only. They would be signals of general alarm. Every government would espouse the common cause. A correspondence would be opened. Plans of resistance would be concerted. One spirit would animate and conduct the whole. The same combinations, in short, would result from an apprehension of the federal, as was produced by the dread of a foreign, yoke [i.e., the colonists’ fear of British oppression]; and unless the projected innovations should be voluntarily renounced, the same appeal to a trial of force would be made in the one case as was made in the other. But what degree of madness could ever drive the federal government to such an extremity? In the contest with Great Britain, one part of the empire was employed against the other. The more numerous part invaded the rights of the less numerous part. The attempt was unjust and unwise. . . . (Federalist Paper Number 46, emphasis added)
In April 1830, Madison wrote to Robert Hayne that in "extreme cases of oppression" a state would be “absolved . . . from the Constitutional Compact to which it is a party" (in Gaillard Hunt, The Writings of James Madison, Volume 9, New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1910, p. 383).
The great early American constitutional scholar William Rawle said a state had the right to secede. Rawle was a contemporary of founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and was appointed by George Washington as the first U.S. Attorney for Pennsylvania. Rawle’s book A View of the Constitution of the United States was used as a legal textbook at a number of universities, including West Point, Dartmouth, and Harvard. To this day, scholars who debate legal issues relating to the First and Second Amendments refer to Rawle’s work. On the issue of secession, Rawle said,
It depends on the state itself to retain or abolish the principle of representation, because it depends on itself whether it will continue a member of the Union. To deny this right would be inconsistent with the principle on which all our political systems are founded, which is, that the people have in all cases, a right to determine how they will be governed.
This right must be considered as an ingredient in the original composition of the general government, which, though not expressed, was mutually understood. . . . (A View of the Constitution of the United States, 2nd Edition, 1829, Vol. 4, p. 571)
Another early American legal giant, George Tucker, also said a state had the right to secede. Like Rawle, Tucker was a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and corresponded with the former. Tucker came to be known as the “American Blackstone.” Tucker was a professor of law at the University of William and Mary. He served as the chief justice of the Virginia supreme court and was appointed as a federal district court judge by President James Madison. Tucker’s 1803 edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries, which he annotated to American law, was widely used for the teaching of law in the United States for years. On the issue of secession, Tucker wrote that the states’ participation in the Union was voluntary and that each state had the right to resume to “the most unlimited extent” the functions that it had delegated to the federal government:
The federal government, then, appears to be the organ through which the united republics communicate with foreign nations and with each other. Their submission to its operation is voluntary: its councils, its engagements, its authority are theirs, modified, and united. Its sovereignty is an emanation from theirs, not a flame by which they have been consumed, nor a vortex in which they are swallowed up. Each is still a perfect state, still sovereign, still independent, and still capable, should the situation require, to resume the exercise of its functions as such in the most unlimited extent. (Tucker, editor, Blackstone’s Commentaries: With Notes of Reference to the Constitution and Laws of the Federal Government of the United States, Volume 1, Philadelphia: William Birch and Abraham Small, 1803, Appendix: Note D, Section 3:IV)
The Union was never meant to be held together by force. The Southern states joined the Union voluntarily, and they should have been able to leave it voluntarily. A key principle of Americanism is the sacred right of self-government, that government should only govern “with the consent of the governed.” This noble idea is expressed in the Declaration of Independence. America came into existence by secession from England. There was only a war because England wouldn’t allow the American colonies to leave in peace.
George Washington’s Secretary of State, Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts, rightly said that one of the founding principles of America was the principle of “separation,” and he made it clear he was talking about peaceful separation. In fact, at one point, Pickering called for the Northern states to secede from the Union, and he envisioned a Northern “confederacy” that would maintain good relations with the Southern states (Letter from Timothy Pickering to George Cabot, January 29, 1804; McDonald, States’ Rights and the Union, p. 61; Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Volume 1, New York: De Capo Press, 1990, reprint of original edition, pp. 60-61). Said Pickering,
The Federalists are dissatisfied, because they see the public morals debased by the corrupt and corrupting system of our rulers. Men are tempted to become apostates, not to Federalism merely, but to virtue and to religion and to good government. . . . the principles of our revolution point to the remedy–a separation. That this can be accomplished, and without spilling one drop of blood, I have little doubt. . . . The people of the East cannot reconcile their habits, views, and interests with those of the South and West. The latter are beginning to rule with a rod of iron. . . .
A Northern confederacy would unite congenial characters, and present a fairer prospect of public happiness; while the Southern States, having a similarity of habits, might be left "to manage their own affairs in their own way." If a separation were to take place, our mutual wants would render a friendly and commercial intercourse inevitable. . . . (Letter from Timothy Pickering to George Cabot, January 29, 1804, emphasis added)
Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States, said in a letter to William Crawford in 1816 that if a state wanted to leave the Union, he would not hesitate to say “Let us separate,” even if he didn’t agree with the reasons the state wanted to leave (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Crawford, June 20, 1816). Critics point out that in one case Jefferson said secession would be a “baneful” event. But Jefferson never denied the right of secession. In fact, in a letter to James Madison in 1799, Jefferson suggested that Kentucky and Virginia should secede from the Union: Citing “the true principles of our federal compact,” he said that if the federal government continued to abuse its power, the citizens of the two states should "sever ourselves from that union we so much value, rather than give up the rights of self government which we have reserved, and in which alone we see liberty, safety and happiness" (see William Sterne Randle, Thomas Jefferson: A Life, New York: Henry Holt, 1993, pp. 534-536; see also Cisco, Taking A Stand, p. 18). In his eulogy of James Madison, John Quincy Adams discussed Jefferson’s views on nullification and secession:
Concurring in the doctrines that the separate States have a right to interpose in cases of palpable infraction of the constitution by the government of the United States, and that the alien and sedition acts presented a case of such infraction, Mr. Jefferson considered them as absolutely null and void, and thought the State legislatures competent, not only to declare, but to make them so, to resist their execution within their respective borders by physical force, and to secede from the Union, rather than to submit to them, if attempted to be carried into execution by force. (Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 1, 1876, p. 10)
The founding fathers specifically rejected the idea that the federal government could use force against a state to compel obedience. The only two situations in which the framers permitted the general government to use force against a state, or even in a state, were (1) if the state were invaded or (2) if the state’s legislature or governor requested federal assistance to deal with domestic violence. Constitutional scholar and former law professor John Remington Graham discusses this point:
It is an historical fact that, on two occasions during their deliberations, the framers in the Philadelphia Convention voted to deny Congress the power of calling forth military forces of the Union to compel obedience of a state, and on two further occasions they voted to deny Congress the power of sending the Federal army or navy into the territory of any state, except as allowed under Article IV, Section 4 of the United States Constitution–to repel a foreign invasion or at the request of its legislature or governor to deal with domestic violence. (A Constitutional History of Secession, Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Company, 2002, p. 287)
In commenting on Article IV, Section 4, George Tucker noted that it was a protection against the federal government using the pretext of providing “protection” as an excuse for unjustified intervention:
It may not he amiss further to observe, that every pretext for intermeddling with the domestic concerns of any state, under color of protecting it against domestic violence is taken away, by that part of the provision which renders an application from the legislative, or executive authority of the state endangered, necessary to be made to the federal government, before it’s interference can be at all proper. (Tucker, editor, Blackstone’s Commentaries: With Notes of Reference to the Constitution and Laws of the Federal Government of the United States, Volume 1, Appendix: Note D, Section 17:6)
As mentioned earlier, President James Buchanan, in his last annual message to Congress, warned that the federal government had no constitutional right to use force to keep a state in the Union nor to compel a seceded state to rejoin the Union. Buchanan noted that James Madison argued at the constitutional convention that a government based on the idea that force could be used against the states would be “fallacious.” Said Buchanan,
The question fairly stated is: Has the Constitution delegated to Congress the power to coerce a state into submission which is attempting to withdraw or has actually withdrawn from the confederacy? [Note: It was common to refer to the Union as a confederacy back then.] If answered in the affirmative, it must be on the principle that the power has been conferred upon Congress to declare and to make war against a state. After much serious reflection, I have arrived at the conclusion that no such power has been delegated to Congress or to any other department of the federal government. It is manifest upon an inspection of the Constitution that this is not among the specific and enumerated powers granted to Congress, and it is equally apparent that its exercise is not “necessary and proper for carrying into execution” any one of these powers. So far from this power having been delegated to Congress, it was expressly refused by the Convention which framed the Constitution.
It appears from the proceedings of that body that on the 31st of May, 1787, the clause “authorizing an exertion of the force of the whole against a delinquent state” came up for consideration. Mr. Madison opposed it in a brief but powerful speech, from which I shall extract but a single sentence. He observed:
“The use of force against a state would look more like a declaration of war than an infliction of punishment, and would probably be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound.”
Upon his motion the clause was unanimously postponed and was never, I believe, again presented. Soon afterward, on the 8th of June, 1787, when incidentally adverting to the subject, he said: “Any government for the United States formed on the supposed practicability of using force against the unconstitutional proceedings of the states would prove as visionary and fallacious as the government of Congress,” evidently meaning the then existing Congress of the old Confederation.
Without descending to particulars, it may be safely asserted that the power to make war against a state is at variance with the whole spirit and intent of the Constitution. . . .
The fact is that our Union rests upon public opinion and can never be cemented by the blood of its citizens shed in civil war. If it cannot live in the affections of the people, it must one day perish. Congress possesses many means of preserving it by conciliation, but the sword was not placed in their hand to preserve it by force. (Annual Message to Congress, December 3, 1860, Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, 1860-1861, pp. 19-20)
President Buchanan was correct. On May 31, 1787, during the debates on the Constitution, the founding fathers considered a clause "authorizing an exertion of the force of the whole against a delinquent state.” The clause was not approved. Madison himself spoke against it. Here is the relevant extract from the Journal of the Federal Convention:
The last clause of the sixth Resolution, authorizing an exertion of the force of the whole against a delinquent State, came next into consideration.
Mr. MADISON observed, that the more he reflected on the use of force, the more he doubted the practicability, the justice and the efficacy of it, when applied to people collectively, individually. Any union of the States containing such an ingredient seemed to provide for its own destruction. The use of force against a State would look more like a declaration of war than an infliction of punishment; and would probably be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound. (Journal of the Federal Convention, Vol. 1, May 31, 1787)
A few days later, on June 8, Madison again commented on this matter. As Buchanan correctly noted, Madison said that any government for the United States “formed on the supposed practicability of using force against the unconstitutional proceedings of the states would prove . . . visionary and fallacious. . . ." (Journal of the Federal Convention, Vol. 1, June 8, 1787) It’s worth noting that Madison didn’t approve of using force against the states even if the states were engaged in “unconstitutional proceedings.” Since the framers didn’t allow the federal government to use force against states that were performing unconstitutional acts, they certainly didn’t empower the federal government to use force against states that were not performing illegal acts.
In order to believe that the framers intended the federal government to have the right to compel a state to remain in the Union, one would have to ignore the fact that the framers rejected the idea of allowing the federal government to use force against a state. One would also have to believe that the founders gave the federal government a right that they didn’t believe the British government possessed. George Washington and many other Patriots believed the British were “unjust invaders” for attempting to force the colonies to remain under British control against their will, and they resented being called “rebels” and “traitors” for wanting independence (see, for example, Washington’s 18 January 1777 letter to Lord William Howe, the commander of the British forces in America at the time). James Madison said England’s attempt to force the colonies to submit to British authority was “unjust and unwise” (Federalist Paper Number 46). When American Patriots met in Philadelphia in 1775 and issued a declaration on their reasons for taking up arms, they made it clear they didn’t like being called “rebels” and “traitors“:
The general [British general Thomas Gage], further emulating his ministerial masters, by a proclamation bearing date on the 12th day of June, after venting the grossest falsehoods and calumnies against the good people of these colonies, proceeds to “declare them all, either by name or description, to be rebels and traitors, to supersede the course of the common law, and instead thereof to publish and order the use and exercise of the law martial." ("A Declaration by the Representatives of the United Colonies of North-America, Now Met in Congress at Philadelphia, Setting Forth the Causes and Necessity of Their Taking Up Arms," July 6, 1775)
Continental Army surgeon James Thacher didn’t like the label of "rebels" either–he complained of being “stigmatized” as “rebels” by the enemy:
The great majority of the people are happily united in the resolution to oppose, to the uttermost, the wicked attempts of the English cabinet. This class of people have assumed the appellation of Whigs; but by our enemies are stigmatized by the name of Rebels. (Journal of James Thacher, 1775)
Our Patriot forefathers also had a lot to say about the colonies’ natural right to self-government and independence. Samuel Adams talked about natural rights and the fact that every natural right not expressly surrendered remains with the people:
All men have a right to remain in a state of nature as long as they please; and in case of intolerable oppression, civil or religious, to leave the society they belong to, and enter into another.
When men enter into society, it is by voluntary consent; and they have a right to demand and insist upon the performance of such conditions and previous limitations as form an equitable original compact.
Every natural right not expressly given up, or, from the nature of a social compact, necessarily ceded, remains."
All positive and civil laws should conform, as far as possible, to the law of natural reason and equity." ("The Rights of the Colonists," November 1772)
In fact, Adams said the people’s sovereignty is so absolute that even if they should, for whatever reason, renounce an essential natural right, that right remained with them anyway:
If men, through fear, fraud, or mistake, should in terms renounce or give up any essential natural right, the eternal law of reason and the grand end of society would absolutely vacate such renunciation." (“The Rights of the Colonists”)
Every thing that is right or natural pleads for separation. . . . A government of our own is our natural right. (Common Sense, Philadelphia: W. & T. Bradford, 1776, III:19, 50, emphasis added)
Richard Henry Lee:
Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved. (Resolution of Richard Henry Lee, Journals of the Continental Congress, June 7, 1776)
The Sons of Liberty of Connecticut adopted a resolution that said the people had the right to reassume the authority they had delegated:
Resolved. 1st. That every form of government rightfully founded, originates from the consent of the people.
2d. That the boundaries set by the people in all constitutions are the only limits within which any officer can lawfully exercise authority.
3d. That whenever those bounds are exceeded, the people have a right to reassume the exercise of that authority which by nature they had before they delegated it to individuals. (Connecticut Resolutions on the Stamp Act, December 10, 1765, emphasis added)
John Adams, a key figure in the American Revolution who later became our second president, echoed these thoughts. He taught that the ultimate powers of government belonged to the citizens of the colonies, that the powers with which parliament and even the king ruled were in reality delegated powers that belonged to the citizens of each colony, and that those citizens had the right to resume those powers whenever they felt they were being misused badly enough. In fact, Adams viewed these principles as “the root and branch of the colonial cause.”
These principles are nothing more or less than the right of secession–one could also call this right the right of separation or the right of independence, as the Patriots usually did. Adams expressed these principles in his famous exchange with a Tory pen-named Massachusettensis (Adams, in turn, wrote under the pen name of Novanglus).
Historian Page Smith discussed Adams’ famous 1775 exchanges with the Tory Massachusettensis in his biography of Adams. Smith noted that the Tory correctly accused the Whig colonists, i.e., the Patriots, of believing that kings, not just legislatures or other elected bodies, but even kings,
. . . are but the ministers of the people; that their authority is delegated to them by the people, for their good, and they have a right to resume it, and place it in other hands, or keep it themselves, whenever it is made use of to oppress them. (John Adams, Volume 1: 1735-1784, Norwalk, CT: The Easton Press, 1962, Collector’s Edition, 190-191, emphasis added)
Smith then pointed out that Adams proudly and fiercely defended these very principles:
To this charge Adams replied that . . . those very declarations on the nature of government which Massachusettensis professed to scorn were “what are called revolution principles,” the principles “of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, and Sidney, Harrington, and Locke; the principles of nature and eternal reason; the principles on which the whole government over us now stands.” It was astonishing that any writer should be “so indiscreet, so immodest, as to insinuate a doubt concerning them.” They were proubdly acknowledged to be the root and branch of the colonial cause. (John Adams, p. 191)
Smith observed that Adams went on to assert that even Parliament had no authority over the colonies except to regulate their trade, and that even this authority was based solely on the consent of the colonies. Said Adams,
Parliament has no authority over them [the colonies], excepting to regulate their trade, and this not by any principle of common law, but merely by the consent of the colonies, founded on the obvious necessity . . . of the case. (John Adams, p. 191)
What most textbooks omit or skillfully obscure about the argument over taxation without representation is that the Patriots did not–I repeat, did not–think the answer was representation in Parliament. No, instead, they argued that that the colonies should be allowed to tax and govern themselves. Why? Because, as the Patriots pointed out–in fact, as Adams pointed out in his exchanges with Massachusettensis–even if the colonies were granted proportional representation in Parliament, they would still not have enough votes to prevent taxes from being imposed on them against their will. So the answer, said the Patriots, was for Parliament to allow the colonies to tax and govern themselves, as had been the case for many years until Parliament began imposing taxes on them. Adams put it this way:
The patriots of this Province desire nothing new; they wish only to keep their old privileges. For 150 years they had been allowed to tax themselves and govern their internal concerns as they thought best. Parliament governed their trade as they thought fit. This plan they wish may continue forever. (John Adams, p. 193)
The Patriots began to consider separating from England only when it became obvious that King George and Parliament would not allow the colonies to tax and govern themselves anymore.
There was a time when even Massachusetts Federalists said that nullification and secession were not treason but were actions that a state had the right to take if it believed it needed to do so. Historian James Banner points out the following:
The Federalist theory of interposition, so widely held after 1808, was rooted in the premise that the nation was a collection of “several independent confederated republics,” a “league” of equal and sovereign states which had surrendered only a portion of their authority to the central government under the Constitution. In constitutional arguments sharply reminiscent of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which they had only a few years earlier rejected, Federalists declared that the Constitution was variously a “treaty,” “contract,” or “association.” Each state was a free republic “united by a solemn compact under a federal government of limited powers.” These sovereign republics, and not the people, had been represented at Philadelphia, and the nation’s sovereignty derived directly from the sovereignty of the states.
Federalists concluded from these propositions that since the states had negotiated the Constitution, the states alone could determine when a national law violated the compact, when its obligations under the Constitution ceased, and when to denounce it. From this it irresistibly followed that if a state nullified a law, interposed its authority between the people and the national administration, or in the extremity seceded, it would not commit treason. The state would merely assume to itself its full sovereign powers as a republic, a remedy “prescribed by the law of nations." (To the Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origin of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789-1815, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1970, p. 118)
In discussing the arguments in the rising calls for secession made by Massachusetts Federalists as their opposition to the War of 1812 mounted, Banner paraphrases and quotes those arguments:
Because, it was said, the Constitution was “a treaty of alliance and confederation” and the government an association of states, then it followed “that whenever its provisions are violated, or its original principles departed from by a majority of the states or of their people, it is no longer an effective instrument, but that any state is at liberty by the spirit of that contract to withdraw itself from the union." (To the Hartford Convention, p. 301)
The principle of peaceful separation was as American as apple pie. But Lincoln, relying on an utterly erroneous understanding of the founding of the Union, declared that secession was “treason,” “insurrection,” and “rebellion.” If Lincoln had been alive during the Revolutionary War and had used the same kind of reasoning that he used against Southern secession, he would have sided with the British.
Lincoln defenders argue that secession was a hostile act because it constituted resistance to federal authority and that therefore secession was in fact “treason, rebellion, and insurrection.” This is specious, totalitarian reasoning. This is the same reasoning that the British used against the colonies. By this logic, all independence movements could be viewed as illegal by definition. Furthermore, if the Southern states had the right to secede, then federal authority ceased to exist in those states when they withdrew from the Union. Senator Joseph Lane of Oregon put it this way in a speech to the Senate on March 2, 1861, just days before the Confederacy was formed:
My residence is in the North, but I have never seen the day, and I never shall, when I will refuse justice as readily to the South as to the North. . . .
Sir, if there is, as I contend, the right of secession, then, whenever a State exercises that right, this Government has no laws in that State to execute, nor has it any property in any such state that can be protected by the power of this Government. In attempting, however, to substitute the smooth phrases “executing the laws” and “protecting public property” for coercion, for civil war, we have an important concession: that is, that this Government dare not go before the people with a plain avowal of its real purposes and of their consequences. No, sir; the policy is to inveigle the people of the North into civil war, by masking the designs in smooth and ambiguous terms. (Congressional Globe, Second Session, Thirty-Sixth Congress, p. 1347, in Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, pp. 216-217)
In addition, the South had no desire to overthrow the federal government. The South seceded in a peaceful, democratic manner, with the support of the overwhelming majority of Southern citizens. The Southern states used the same process to secede that the original thirteen states used to ratify the U.S. Constitution, i.e., by voting in special conventions comprised of delegates who were elected by the people. The one exception was Tennessee, which, instead of holding a convention, passed a declaration of independence in the state legislature and then held a referendum in which the declaration was approved by a margin of more than two to one. Two of the states that held conventions, Texas and Virginia, submitted their conventions’ decisions to a popular vote, even though the delegates to the conventions had been elected by the people, and in both cases secession won by overwhelming majorities—by a margin of three to one in Texas and by nearly four to one in Virginia.
Furthermore, most Southerners believed secession would be peaceful. In fact, it’s revealing that the early correspondence of the first Confederate Secretary of War, Leroy Walker, "clearly indicates he did not expect war" (Rembert Patrick, Jefferson Davis and His Cabinet, Louisiana State University Press, 1944, p. 106). As late as March 21, 1861, Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens believed it was more likely that war would be avoided:
The prospect of war is, at least, not so threatening as it has been. The idea of coercion, shadowed forth in President Lincoln’s inaugural, seems not to be followed up thus far so vigorously as was expected. Fort Sumter, it is believed, will soon be evacuated. What course will be pursued toward Fort Pickens, and the other forts on the gulf, is not so well understood. It is to be greatly desired that all of them should be surrendered. Our object is peace, not only with the North, but with the world. All matters relating to the public property, public liabilities of the Union when we were members of it, we are ready and willing to adjust and settle upon the principles of right, equity, and good faith. War can be of no more benefit to the North than to us. (“Cornerstone Speech,” March 21, 1861, Savannah, Georgia, in Henry Cleveland, editor, Alexander H. Stephens, in Public and Private: With Letters and Speeches, Philadelphia, 1886, pp. 727-728, original emphasis)
On the basis of the natural right of self-government alone, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the South had the right to leave the Union in peace. The declaration tells us that governments derive their just powers “from the consent of the governed,” that a people can “dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another” and can then assume “the separate and equal status” to which “the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them,” and that people have a natural right to “alter or abolish” their form of government. Two years before he wrote the declaration, Thomas Jefferson argued that the only bond the colonies had with England was their voluntary allegiance to the king (“A Summary of the Rights of British America,” 1774). And, as mentioned above, Jefferson said that if any state wanted to leave the Union, he would not hesitate to say, “Let us separate” (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Crawford, June 20, 1816).
Lincoln defenders contend that the Declaration of Independence merely refers to the natural right to revolt against tyranny. They argue there is no natural right of peaceful separation, only a natural right of violent revolution to escape oppression. This strikes me as a rather undemocratic viewpoint. For one thing, a revolution does not necessarily have to be violent. The Glorious Revolution in England, for example, was peaceful. Furthermore, is independence only to be achieved by violence? Is independence only for those who can fight their way to it? Do only the strong get to enjoy self-government? This is not what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and it’s not what the other founding fathers had in mind when they embraced the document (McDonald, States’ Rights and the Union, pp. 7-11).
The driving, core principle behind the American Revolution was that the colonies had the natural right to be independent if they so desired. The founding fathers said over and over again that the colonies had a natural, God-given right to release themselves from British authority. They resented the fact that the British refused to recognize this right and that the British forced them to fight for their independence. Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, who later became the Confederate president, commented on this issue in a speech he gave in the Senate two months before the Confederacy was established:
Now, sir, we are confusing language very much. Men speak of revolution; and when they say revolution they mean blood. Our fathers meant nothing of the sort. When they spoke of revolution they meant an unalienable right. When they declared as an unalienable right the power of the people to abrogate and modify their form of government whenever it did not answer the ends for which it was established, they did not mean that they were to sustain that by brute force. They meant that it was a right; and force could only be invoked when that right was wrongfully denied. Great Britain denied the right in the case of the colonies, and therefore our revolution for independence was bloody. If Great Britain had admitted the great American doctrine, there would have been no blood shed. . . .
If the Declaration of Independence be true (and who here gainsays it?), every community may dissolve its connection with any other community previously made, and have no other obligation than that which results from the breach of an alliance between States. Is it to be supposed; could any man . . . come to the conclusion that the men who fought the battles of the Revolution . . . in order that they might possess those unalienable rights which they had declared—terminated their great efforts by transmitting posterity to a condition in which they could only gain those rights by force? If so, the blood of the Revolution was shed in vain. . . . (Speech in the U.S. Senate, January 10, 1861, in The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Volume 1, pp. 531-532)
Lincoln defenders argue that the Declaration’s reference to “abolishing” an existing government (“alter or abolish” their form of government) must refer to revolution. But when Jefferson referred to a people’s right to “abolish” a government, he wasn’t necessarily talking about overthrowing that government. In context, when he said “abolish” he meant to withdraw from the authority of that government. Jefferson did not want to “abolish” the British government. He merely wanted the colonies to be released from British control.
John O’Sullivan, the editor of the influential United States Magazine and the man who coined the famous phrase “Manifest Destiny” because he believed God wanted America to expand, said that the South had the right to leave in peace and that to deny that right violated the Declaration of Independence. O’Sullivan argued that the North’s attempt to force the South back into the Union served “to stultify our revolution; to blaspheme our very Declaration of Independence; to repudiate all our history” (Grant, North Over South, p. 165; cf. Robert Divine, Robert Divine, T. H. Bren, George Fredrickson, and R. Hal Williams, editors, America Past and Present, Fifth Edition, New York: Longman, 1999, p. 360).
Northern abolitionist Lysander Spooner, though a harsh critic of slavery, disputed the Republican claim that secession was treason, and he argued that the North’s use of force to keep the South in the Union violated basic democratic principles:
The question of treason is distinct from that of slavery; and is the same that it would have been, if free States, instead of slave States, had seceded. . . .
The principle, on which the war was waged by the North, was simply this: That men may rightfully be compelled to submit to, and support, a government that they do not want; and that resistance, on their part, makes them traitors and criminals.
No principle, that is possible to be named, can be more self-evidently false than this; or more self-evidently fatal to all political freedom. Yet it triumphed in the field, and is now assumed to be established. If it really be established, the number of slaves, instead of having been diminished by the war, has been greatly increased; for a man, thus subjected to a government that he does not want, is a slave. And there is no difference, in principle–but only in degree–between political and chattel slavery. . . .
The North has thus virtually said to the world: It was all very well to prate of consent, so long as the objects to be accomplished were to liberate ourselves from our connection with England, and also to coax a scattered and jealous people into a great national union; but now that those purposes have been accomplished, and the power of the North has become consolidated, it is sufficient for us — as for all governments–simply to say: Our power is our right.
In proportion to her wealth and population, the North has probably expended more money and blood to maintain her power over an unwilling people, than any other government ever did. And in her estimation, it is apparently the chief glory of her success, and an adequate compensation for all her own losses, and an ample justification for all her devastation and carnage of the South, that all pretence of any necessity for consent to the perpetuity or power of government, is (as she thinks) forever expunged from the minds of the people. In short, the North exults beyond measure in the proof she has given, that a government, professedly resting on consent, will expend more life and treasure in crushing dissent, than any government, openly founded on force, has ever done.
And she claims that she has done all this in behalf of liberty! In behalf of free government! In behalf of the principle that government should rest on consent! (No Treason, Boston, 1867, Number 1, Introductory and Chapter I)
What Caused the War?
The Civil War was fought because Lincoln refused to allow the South to go in peace. Other Republican leaders and certain Northern business interests played key roles in the decision to use force, but ultimately Lincoln was the one who had to make the decision, and he chose to launch an invasion. The fighting and dying started when federal armies invaded the South. That’s why most of the battles were fought in the Southern states. If Lincoln had not launched an invasion, there would have been no war.
The Confederacy did not want war. One of the first things Jefferson Davis did after assuming office as president of the Confederacy was to send a peace delegation to Washington, D.C., in an effort to establish friendly ties with the federal government (Cooper, Jefferson Davis, American, pp. 360-362; Kenneth Davis, Don’t Know Much About the Civil War, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996, pp. 156-157). The Confederacy offered to pay the South’s share of the national debt and to pay compensation for all federal installations in the Southern states (Charles Roland, The Confederacy, University of Chicago Press, 1960, p. 28; Patrick, Jefferson Davis and His Cabinet, p. 77; William C. Davis, Look Away! A History of the Confederate States of America, New York: The Free Press, 2002, p. 87). The Confederacy also announced that Northern ships would continue to enjoy free navigation of the Mississippi River (Hummel, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, p. 138; Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Volume 1, pp. 210-213). Yet, Lincoln rejected all Confederate peace offers and insisted that federal armies would invade if the Southern states didn’t renounce their independence and recognize federal authority (and Lincoln specified that this included paying the federal tariff).
“Why,” one may ask, “did Confederates sometimes refer to themselves as ‘rebels’?” Actually, many Confederates resented that term (see, for example, Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Volume 1, pp. 282-284). Those Confederates who described themselves as “rebels” did so in sarcastic defiance and only in the sense that they were “rebelling” against being invaded and subjugated. Lincoln, on the other hand, labeled Confederates as “rebels” in order to reinforce his fraudulent claim that the South was trying to destroy democratic government.
It should be pointed out that many Northern citizens opposed the war and believed the South should be allowed to leave in peace. Dozens of Northern newspapers expressed the view that the Southern states had the right to peacefully leave the Union and that it would be wrong to use force to compel them to stay. Even President James Buchanan told Congress in an official message shortly before Lincoln assumed office that the federal government had no right to use force against the seceded states.
Who Started the War?
The standard textbook answer to this question is that the South obviously started the war because it “fired the first shot” by attacking Fort Sumter, which was located in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. Most textbooks don’t mention several facts that put the attack in proper perspective. For example, after the Fort Sumter incident, the Confederacy continued to express its desire for peaceful relations with the North. Not a single federal soldier was killed in the attack. The Confederates allowed the federal troops at the fort to return to the North in peace after they surrendered. South Carolina and then the Confederacy offered to pay compensation for the fort. Lincoln later admitted he deliberately provoked the attack so he could use it as justification for war. The Confederates only attacked the fort after they learned that Lincoln had sent an armed naval convoy to resupply the federal garrison at the fort. The sending of the convoy violated the repeated promises of Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, that the fort would be evacuated. Seward continued to promise the Confederate representatives that the fort would be evacuated even after he knew that Lincoln had decided to send the convoy. Before Lincoln made his final decision, the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, warned him that sending a convoy to Fort Sumter would be a “provocation.” Major John Anderson, the Union officer who commanded the federal garrison at the fort, opposed sending the convoy, because he felt it would violate the assurances that the fort would be evacuated, because he knew it would be viewed as a hostile act, and because he did not want war. Several weeks before the Fort Sumter incident, Lincoln virtually declared war on the South in his inaugural address, even though he knew the Confederacy wanted peaceful relations.
In his inaugural speech, given weeks before the attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln threatened to invade the seceded states if they didn’t continue to pay federal “duties and imposts” (the tariff) and if they didn’t allow the federal government to occupy and maintain all federal installations within their borders. Imagine what the American Patriots would have thought if the British had said to them, “We want peace. But, we’re going to invade you if you don’t keep paying our tariff and if you don’t allow us to occupy and maintain all British installations within your borders.” The colonists would have rightly regarded this as a virtual declaration of war. Of course, the British did in effect say this to the colonies. This was the same position that Lincoln presented to the Confederate states weeks before the Fort Sumter attack. Furthermore, five months earlier, some Republicans in Congress publicly swore “by everything in the heavens above and the earth beneath” that they would convert the seceded states “into a wilderness” (James McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, New York: Ballantine Books, 1988, p. 251).
Jefferson Davis argued that the attack on Fort Sumter was an act of self-defense:
The attempt to represent us as the aggressors in the conflict which ensued is as unfounded as the complaint made by the wolf against the lamb in the familiar fable. He who makes the assault is not necessarily he that strikes the first blow or fires the first gun. To have awaited further strengthening of their position by land and naval forces, with hostile purpose now declared, for the sake of having them “fire the first gun” would have been as unwise as it would be to hesitate to strike down the arm of the assailant, who levels a deadly weapon at one’s breast, until he has actually fired. After the assault was made by the hostile descent of the fleet, the reduction of Fort Sumter was a measure of defense rendered absolutely and immediately necessary. (The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Peter Smith Edition, Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1971, reprint of original edition, p. 154, original emphasis)
Davis had a valid point. The naval convoy that Lincoln sent to Fort Sumter was no innocent “relief” flotilla. It included warships, over one thousand troops, landing craft, and plenty of ammunition. It was being sent to Charleston against the wishes of South Carolina and the Confederacy, and in violation of the repeated high-level assurances that the fort would be evacuated. Any country on earth would view the sending of an unwanted armed naval convoy into one of its major ports as an act of aggression. The Confederates were well aware that Lincoln had already threatened to invade the Confederate states if they did not in effect give up their independence or if they didn’t pay the federal tariff, and that some congressional Republicans had already sworn to turn the Deep South states “into a wilderness.” When all the facts are considered, the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter can be viewed as a justified preemptive defensive reaction to the impending arrival of an unwanted naval force.
If Lincoln had desired peace, he knew all he had to do was evacuate Fort Sumter, as his own Secretary of State had been promising would be done for weeks. When the Confederacy was told the fort was going to be evacuated, Confederate forces stopped building up the defenses around the harbor and celebrated. Across the harbor, Major Anderson was grateful the fort would be evacuated and that therefore North and South would separate peacefully:
Confidently, he [Seward] told Supreme Court Justice John Campbell that Sumter was to be evacuated in three days. Campbell relayed this to the commissioners [the Confederate peace commissioners] and they promptly informed President Davis. The news of Anderson’s imminent departure was believed in the South. Troops stopped work on the Charleston batteries and fired salutes in celebration. The major [Major Anderson] too assumed it was true and thanked God that “the separation which has been inevitable for months, will be consummated without the shedding of one droop of blood.” Since war was thus avoided he hoped that the departed states “may at some future time be won back by conciliation and justice.” (Cisco, Taking A Stand, pp. 105-106)
But, sadly, Lincoln didn’t pursue peace with the Confederacy. For a while it seemed as though he was prepared to evacuate Fort Sumter, in spite of his earlier statements to the contrary. Initially all but two of his cabinet members urged evacuation, as did his General-in-Chief, General Winfield Scott. At the time Lincoln decided to send the naval convoy to Fort Sumter, a majority of his cabinet opposed the action. However, Radical Republicans and influential Northern business interests applied intense pressure on Lincoln and on his cabinet to maintain the federal garrison at the fort. Radicals in Congress even threatened impeachment if the fort were evacuated (Catton and Catton, Two Roads to Sumter, p. 277).
As the pressure for aggression mounted, Lincoln decided to provoke an attack on the fort in order to use the attack as a pretext for invasion. Some Northerners saw through Lincoln’s ploy. But in the heat of the moment many Northerners were fooled by it, while others were already so anti-Southern that they didn’t care. A number of Northern newspapers opined that Lincoln had provoked the attack in order to use it as an excuse to wage war on the South. Lincoln himself later admitted that he provoked the attack for that purpose (Francis Butler Simkins, A History of the South, Third Edition, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963, pp. 213, 215-216; J. G. Randall and David Donald, The Civil War and Reconstruction, Lexington, Massachusetts: D. C. Heath and Company, 1969, p. 174).
Some Northern leaders who wanted peace urged that Fort Sumter be evacuated. Among those leaders was General-in-Chief Winfield Scott and Senator Stephen Douglas, one of the most prominent Northern members of the U.S. Senate. Scott and Douglas both recognized that the continued federal occupation of Fort Sumter was a virtual declaration of war against the Confederacy. Any country on earth would strongly resent the unwanted occupation of an island in one of its major harbors.
Before the Confederacy was established, South Carolina, the first state to secede, sent commissioners to Washington in an effort to negotiate the peaceful evacuation of the federal garrison in Charleston. The garrison was then located at Fort Moultrie. Without warning and without specific orders to do so, the garrison destroyed the guns and gun carriages at Fort Moultrie, abandoned it, and then occupied Fort Sumter. Understandably, Southerners viewed this as a hostile act. President Buchanan was still in office at this time. He had no intention of invading the South, and he had not ordered the occupation of Fort Sumter, but he wavered about evacuating the fort. He was under intense pressure from Northern hardliners on the one hand and from Southern members of Congress and peace advocates on the other hand. He eventually decided against evacuation. One of the commissioners from South Carolina, I. W. Hayne, said the following in a letter to President Buchanan after he refused to evacuate the fort:
You say that the fort was garrisoned for our protection, and is held for the same purposes for which it has ever been held since its construction. Are you not aware, that to hold, in the territory of a foreign power, a fortress against her will, avowedly for the purpose of protecting her citizens, is perhaps the highest insult which one government can offer to another? But Fort Sumter was never garrisoned at all until South Carolina had dissolved her connection with your government. This garrison entered it in the night, with every circumstance of secrecy, after spiking the guns and burning the gun-carriages and cutting down the flag-staff of an adjacent fort, which was then abandoned. South Carolina had not taken Fort Sumter into her own possession, only because of her misplaced confidence in a government which deceived her. (In Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Peter Smith Edition, p. 119)
Republicans protested loudly over the fact that several Southern states seized numerous federal installations before Lincoln assumed office and in a few cases before the state had voted to secede. Modern critics tend to make a mountain out of a molehill over this issue, as if those seizures alone justified a brutal invasion. First of all, it should be kept in mind that the seizures were triggered by the federal seizure of Fort Sumter, which was done in violation of the status quo agreement between President Buchanan and South Carolina. Nearly all the seizures occurred after the state had already seceded, so in those cases the state arguably had every right to assume control of federal facilities within its borders. The relatively few pre-secession seizures took place when there was little if any doubt the state was going to secede. In one case, local citizens seized a federal installation on their own initiative. When the governor learned of the seizure, he ordered the citizens to leave the facility. Not one of the seizures involved the loss of life. A number of the federal facilities that were seized were of little consequence and were manned only by small garrisons.
Admittedly, the pre-secession seizures, though few in number, were unwise and legally problematic. However, let’s keep in mind that these seizures posed no threat to the federal government, that they were bloodless, and that the Confederacy offered to pay compensation for all federal installations in the South. The seizures certainly didn’t provide any credible justification for a federal invasion, and they were hardly what one could call “aggression” in any meaningful sense of the word. Additionally, it needs to be emphasized that the Republicans would have been just as determined to invade the South even if no federal installations had been seized. After all, some Republicans began voicing dire threats against the seceded states before any federal installations were seized. The seizures merely provided Republicans with another excuse to refuse to allow the South to go in peace.
The Emancipation Proclamation
Everyone can agree that slavery needed to be abolished. However, the Emancipation Proclamation, signed on January 1, 1863, left over 400,000 slaves in bondage. Let’s take a moment to consider the purpose, nature, and legality of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The proclamation was a war measure, as the document itself states. The Radical Republicans hoped the proclamation would produce a slave revolt in the South, even if this resulted in the deaths of thousands of women and children on plantations and farms. (Perhaps it’s an indication of how most slaves were treated that no such revolt ever occurred, even though many plantations and farms were being run by women and children at the time, since most of the men were engaged in the war effort.)
When it was issued, the proclamation did not free a single slave in any of the four Union slave states nor in any of the regions of the South that were then under federal control. The proclamation excluded the slaves in those areas. The proclamation only applied to slaves in the Confederate states, where Lincoln had no authority to enforce it. Slavery continued in the Northern slave states and in the South for the rest of the war and wasn’t abolished until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in late 1865. Historians John Blum and Bruce Catton commented on the limited nature of the proclamation:
The Emancipation Proclamation asserted freedom for slaves in those areas that were not under control of the federal government and left slavery untouched in areas where federal control was effective. It seemed a halting measure of dubious effect and shaky legality, and the Confederates denounced it as a call for a slave revolt. (In Blum and Catton, Edmund Morgan, Arthur Schlesinger, Kenneth Stampp, and C. Vann Woodward, editors, The National Experience: A History of the United States, Second Edition, New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1968, p. 360)
African-American scholar Lerone Bennett presents evidence that Lincoln only issued the proclamation under intense pressure from the Radical Republicans, who were threatening to cut off funds to the army if emancipation wasn’t made a war objective, and that Lincoln only began to seriously consider the Radicals’ demands after Union forces suffered several defeats (Bennett, Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream, Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, 2000, pp. 23-24, 415-420, 498-504; see also Klingaman, Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, pp. 139, 148-149, 200-202). Bennett also shows that Lincoln sought to undermine the proclamation almost as soon as he issued it. Even pro-Lincoln scholars J. G. Randall and David Donald acknowledged that Lincoln was much more enthusiastic about his compensated-emancipation plan than he was about the Emancipation Proclamation. After noting that Lincoln enthusiastically pushed for compensated emancipation, they said, “It does not appear that Lincoln ever showed such enthusiasm concerning the proclamation” (The Civil War and Reconstruction, p. 384).
The proclamation provided no compensation for slaveholders, even though Lincoln himself had said this should be done, and even though most slaveholders treated their slaves humanely (as even many abolitionists had once been willing to admit). Few Northern abolitionists had ever supported compensated emancipation. The Radical Republicans certainly weren’t about to support such a plan. They didn’t seem to care that several Northern states had reaped fantastic profits from the slave trade. Nor did they seem to care that when most Northern states had abolished slavery they had done so gradually and in a manner that enabled Northern slaveholders to recover the cost of their slaves.
If the Southern states were still actually in the Union, as Lincoln incredibly claimed, then the Emancipation Proclamation was unconstitutional. Neither Lincoln nor Congress had the right to abolish slavery in any state. The only legal ways to abolish it would have been by a constitutional amendment or by the states abolishing it on their own.
Of course, the Southern states had in fact left the Union, and everyone knew it. Lincoln’s denial of this fact was part of his confused legal justification for invading the Southern states. Since the Southern states were no longer part of the federal compact, the Emancipation Proclamation amounted to an attempt to incite a slave revolt in another country, in spite of the proclamation’s weak, ambiguous disclaimer to the contrary. Certainly the Radicals hoped the proclamation would spark a slave revolt, regardless of the cost in human lives.
It should be pointed out that American leaders reacted angrily when the British tried to incite a slave revolt in the American colonies during the Revolutionary War. This was a serious threat, since slaves were held in each of the thirteen colonies at the time. The British offered freedom to American slaves who would fight in the British army, and they encouraged slaves to sabotage the colonial war effort. Not surprisingly, tens of thousands of slaves flocked to British army encampments. Fortunately, however, not enough slaves fought for the British to turn the tide against the Patriots. At the end of the war, at least 15,000 former slaves accompanied British troops as they evacuated New York, Charleston, Savannah, and other cities (Hummel, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, p. 10; James and Lois Horton, In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community And Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 60-62).
If the Emancipation Proclamation had covered all slaves, if it had included compensation for slaveholders, and if it had contained guarantees against a slave revolt, it would have been on solid moral ground. It still would have been unconstitutional, but it would have been consistent, fair, and moral. However, the proclamation contained none of these things. It was intended as a war measure. It left Northern slaves in bondage. Its real purpose was to advance the effort to subjugate the South, even if that meant causing the deaths of thousands of Southern women and children in a slave revolt. The Radicals and other Republicans were using Southern slaves as pawns in their effort to conquer the South.
Many Southern heritage defenders argue that the Emancipation Proclamation “did not free a single slave.” In one respect, this is true. At the time it was issued, the proclamation didn’t free any slaves, since it only applied to Confederate territory. However, as the war continued, thousands of slaves did in fact achieve freedom because of the proclamation. Prior to the issuance of the proclamation, numerous Union commanders refused to help or harbor runaway slaves. This refusal largely vanished after the proclamation took effect.
Republicans, the North, and Racism
(NOTE: In this section it will be necessary to quote some offensive words and statements from the Civil War era. I apologize to those readers who are offended by them.)
The same Republican-controlled Congress that eventually made forceful emancipation a secondary goal of the war and that imposed oppressive Reconstruction rule on the South after the war, also sanctioned the federal government’s terrible mistreatment of the American Indians. Historian C. Vann Woodward put it this way:
The same Congress that devised Radical Reconstruction . . . approved strict segregation and inequality for the Indian of the West. (In Blum and Catton et al, editors, The National Experience, p. 416)
With the Republicans firmly in control of the federal government, the Union army began a series of brutal campaigns against the American Indians a few months after the Confederate commanding general, Robert E. Lee, surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia. Federal forces and Northern militias cheated and abused the Indians on certain occasions during the war, but the federal campaigns against the Indians that started with the Sioux War in 1865 were downright vicious and remain a stain on our history. Under Republican rule, the federal government ordered forced relocations, engaged in shameful treaty violations, and authorized merciless attacks in which thousands of Indians, including many women and children, were killed. Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Phil Sheridan, fresh from having ravaged the South, were responsible for many of those attacks. The general who ordered the first post-war campaign against the Indians was Ulysses S. Grant. Much of the worst mistreatment of the Indians occurred when Grant was president (1868-1876). Republicans occupied the White House for all but seven of the thirty-one years from 1861 to 1892 (three of those seven years were under Lincoln’s vice president, Andrew Johnson, and the remaining four years didn’t come until 1884-1888). The Republicans controlled Congress for the majority of that period as well, especially from 1861 to 1874. Woodward described the federal treatment of the Indians from the beginning of the Civil War until 1890:
Indian war broke out in Colorado about the time the Civil War was starting in the East. The immediate provocation was the effort of government officials to force the Arapaho and Cheyenne to abandon all claim to the area that had been granted them forever only ten years before. . . . Chief Black Kettle of the Cheyenne, after being assured of protection, was surprised and trapped by a force led by Colonel John M. Chivington on the night of November 28, 1864. Ignoring Black Kettle’s attempts to surrender, the militia shot, knifed, scalped, clubbed, and mutilated the Indians indiscriminately until the ground was literally littered with men, women, and children. . . .
Hardly had peace been restored to the Southwest in the fall of 1865 when Indian war broke out in the Northwest. The bloody Sioux War of 1865-67 was brought on by many forces, but it was triggered by the demands of minors who had invaded the Sioux country. . . .
The Chivington and Fetterman massacres, together with scores of minor battles and endless shooting scrapes, prompted the federal government to review its Indian policy in 1867. . . .
The new policy meant that the Indians were to abandon their way of life, submit to segregation in small out-of-the-way reservations on land spurned by the white man, and accept government tutelage in learning “to walk the white man’s road.” The Black Hills section of the Dakota Territory was to be set aside for the northern tribes. Poor lands in the western part of what is now Oklahoma, of which the five civilized tribes of the Southeast had just been defrauded on false charges of treason because of their Confederate sympathies, were to be divided among the plains Indians of the Southwest. . . .
But many Indians refused to renounce their way of life and enter meekly into the reservations. When they took the warpath in the summer of 1868, General Sherman unleashed his troopers and launched a decade of remorseless war against them. “I will urge General Sheridan to push his measures for the utter destruction and subjugation of all who are outside [the reservations] in a hostile attitude,” Sherman wrote. “I propose that [he] shall prosecute the war with vindictive earnestness against all hostile Indians, till they are obliterated or beg for mercy. . . .”
By the end of 1874 all seemed calm. Then in 1875, when government authorities permitted tens of thousands of gold-prospectors to crowd into the Black Hills, the outraged Sioux and other northern Indians reacted violently. . . . the Indians were compelled to surrender the following fall. . . . The Nez Perce Indians of Oregon staged a rebellion that was repressed in 1877, and the survivors of this once-proud tribe were herded into a barren preserve in Indian Territory to be ravaged by disease and hunger. The last incident of the Indian wars was the sickening “Battle” of Wounded Knee in 1890, in which United States troops mowed down two hundred Dakota men, women, and children. (In Blum and Catton et al, editors, The National Experience, pp. 416-417)
I agree with Thomas DiLorenzo’s point that the Republicans’ treatment of the Indians raises questions about their professed concern for social justice:
Before being elected president, and while still commander of the U.S. Army, Ulysses S. Grant gave General Sherman the assignment, in July of 1865, of conducting a campaign of ethnic genocide against the Plains Indians to make way for the government-subsidized railroads. “We are not going to let a few thieving, ragged Indians check and stop the progress of the railroads,” Sherman wrote to Grant in 1866. “We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women, and children.”
The eradication of the Plains Indians was yet another subsidy to the railroad industry, albeit an indirect one. Rather than paying for rights of way across Indian lands, as James J. Hill’s nonsubsidized Great Northern Railroad did, the government-subsidized Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads got the government to either kill or place on reservations every last Indian by 1890.
Sherman instructed his army that “during an assault [on an Indian village] the soldiers can not pause to distinguish between male and female, or even discriminate as to age. As long as resistance is made, death must be meted out.” As Sherman biographer John Marszalek wrote, “Sherman viewed Indians as he viewed recalcitrant Southerners during the war and newly freed people after: resisters to the legitimate forces of an orderly society.” Of course, the chaos of entire Indian villages, women and children included, being wiped out by federal artillery is hardly an “orderly” scene. . . .
Sherman and Sheridan purposely planned their raids during the winter months when they knew entire families would be together. They killed all the animals as well as the people, ensuring that any survivors would not survive for very long. . . .
The fact that the war against the Plains Indians began just three months after Lee’s surrender calls into question yet again the notion that racial injustices in the South were the primary motivation for Northerners’ willingness to wage such a long and destructive war. No political party purporting to be sensitive to racial injustice could possibly have even contemplated doing to the Indians what the United States government did to them.
Both the Southern Confederates and the Indians stood in the way of the Whig/Republican dream of a North American economic empire, complete with a subsidized transcontinental railroad, a nationalized banking system, and protectionist tariffs. Consequently, both groups were conquered and subjugated by the most violent means. (The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, Paperback Edition, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003, pp. 220-223)
Another example of Republican hypocrisy was the Republican Party’s platform for the 1868 presidential election. Ulysses S. Grant ran for president on this platform, and won handily. The platform stated that the Southern states should be forced to allow blacks to vote but that the Northern states should be allowed to decide this issue for themselves. The Republicans took this position even though every Northern state that had voted on amendments for black voting rights in the preceding three years had soundly defeated those amendments. Republican leaders knew that racism was so widespread in the North that they would lose the election if they advocated forcing the Northern states to allow blacks to vote. Many Republicans themselves weren’t enthusiastic about voting rights for Northern blacks anyway.
If the Republicans’ primary concern had been to ensure that blacks were allowed to vote, they would have insisted on black voting rights in all regions of the country. If they had done so, at least their position would have been consistent and morally defensible. But they didn’t do this. Furthermore, subsequent events suggest that the Republicans enforced black voting rights in the South primarily to expand their political power into that region. Once they achieved that power they shamelessly plundered Southern taxpayers of all races. When the Republicans felt they no longer needed to maintain their power in the South, most of them seemed to lose interest in voting rights for African Americans.
Many Republican leaders, including some of the Radicals, held racist views. Thaddeus Stevens, the leader of the Radicals in the House, not only opposed racial integration but believed blacks were less intelligent than whites. In the words of friendly biographer Fawn Brodie, Stevens “insisted that he had never held to the doctrine of Negro equality” (Fawn Brodie, Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1959, p. 193; Hummel, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, p. 300). Incidentally, Stevens also believed the Constitution was “a worthless bit of old parchment” (Brodie, Thaddeus Stevens, p. 292). Another powerful Radical in the House, George Julian, lectured his fellow Republicans about their racism, saying, “The real trouble is that we hate the negro. It is not his ignorance that offends us, but his color. . . .” (Kenneth Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877, Vintage Books Edition, New York: Vintage Books, 1965, p. 102). Benjamin Wade, a leading Radical in the Senate, was overheard “railing about too many ‘nigger’ cooks in the capital” and complaining that he had eaten so many meals “cooked by Niggers” that he could “smell and taste the Nigger all over” (Klingaman, Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, p. 53). In the 1860 election campaign, numerous Republican leaders championed their party as the true “White Man’s Party” that would keep the western territories safe for white labor (McPherson, Ordeal By Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982, p. 123). Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, the man who claimed in 1858 that there was an “irrepressible conflict” between the free states and the slaveholding states, spoke for many Republicans when he said,
The North has nothing to do with the Negroes. I have no more concern for them than I have for the Hottentots. . . . They are not of our race. (In Klingaman, Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, p. 295)
Lincoln himself held racist views. As a politician in Illinois, Lincoln voted to deny blacks the right to vote, and he supported the state’s oppressive “black code.” Lincoln used the N-word, even in public statements, and even as president. Lincoln referred to the Declaration of Independence as “the white man’s charter of freedom.” He also said he did not support allowing blacks to be citizens, explaining, “I am not in favor of negro citizenship” (The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 3, edited by Roy Basler, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1952-1955, p. 179). In an 1858 speech, Lincoln left no doubt about his views on race:
I will say, then, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way, the social and political equality of the white and black races; that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters of the free negroes, or jurors, or qualifying them to hold office, or having them to marry white people. I will say in addition, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races, which, I suppose, will forever forbid the two races living together upon terms of social and political equality, and inasmuch as they cannot so live, that while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, that I as much as any other man am in favor of the superior position being assigned to the white man. (Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, New York: The Library of America, 1989, edited by Don Fehrenbacher, p. 751)
To be fair, it should be noted that Lincoln was by no means alone in his views. The sad truth is that in those days the vast majority of white Americans, in all parts of the country, shared Lincoln’s racial attitudes. Most whites believed that the white race was the superior race and that therefore blacks and other minorities belonged to inferior races. Many textbooks give the false impression that white supremacy was mainly confined to the South, but this problem was widespread in the North as well. Numerous historians have acknowledged this fact. In many cases, the “free” states weren’t very free for blacks. Historian Robert Cruden:
To understand something of the nature of that problem we must look at the position of the American Negro in the 1860s. . . . Throughout the nation there were 488,000 free Negroes. . . . Most free Negroes—258,000—lived in the South. . . .
“Free people of color” were welcome in few places. In the North they were almost universally segregated, excluded from public life, and their children barred from white public schools. In those areas where separate Negro schools were provided they were inadequately financed and instruction was poor. . . .
The situation of the black American when the war ended was ambiguous. . . . Northerners as a whole, willing to concede freedom, were hostile to equality. Many of them dreaded an incursion of black folk after the war—especially among lower paid workers who feared Negro competition and some not so poorly paid who resented possible Negro entry into their crafts. The use of Negroes as strikebreakers during the war and their employment in areas where whites were out of work resulted in agitation and riots and intensified anti-Negro feeling.
Such sentiment, however, was by no means confined to workingmen. Between 1865 and 1867 voters in Connecticut, Wisconsin, and Ohio rejected proposals for Negro suffrage [the right to vote]; in 1868 only 8 out of 16 Northern states permitted Negroes to vote. Oregon even continued its pre-war prohibition against the entry of free Negroes. . . . (The Negro in Reconstruction, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969, pp. 6, 12-13)
Historian James McPherson:
The Indiana constitutional convention of 1851 adopted a provision forbidding black migration into the state. This supplemented the state’s laws barring blacks already there from voting, serving on juries or in the militia, testifying against whites in court, marrying whites, or going to school with whites. Iowa and Illinois had similar laws on the books and banned black immigration by statute in 1851 and 1853 respectively. These measures reflected the racist sentiments of most whites in those states. (Ordeal By Fire, p. 80)
African-American scholars John Franklin and Alfred Moss:
There can be no doubt that many blacks were sorely mistreated in the North and West. Observers like Fanny Kemble and Frederick L. Olmsted mentioned incidents in their writings. Kemble said of Northern blacks, “They are not slaves indeed, but they are pariahs, debarred from every fellowship save with their own despised race. . . . All hands are extended to thrust them out, all fingers point at their dusky skin, all tongues . . . have learned to turn the very name of their race into an insult and a reproach.” Olmsted seems to have believed the Louisiana black who told him that they could associate with whites more freely in the South than in the North and that he preferred to live in the South because he was less likely to be insulted there. (From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000, p. 185)
Historian Michael F. Holt:
Many Northern whites also wanted to keep slaves out of the West in order to keep blacks out. The North was a pervasively racist society where free blacks suffered social, economic, and political discrimination; some midwestern states, indeed, legally banned the entry of blacks within their borders. Bigots, they sought to bar African-American slaves from the West. [David] Wilmot himself proudly and repeatedly called his measure [to bar slavery from new western territories] the “White Man’s Proviso.” (The Fate of Their Country: Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming of the Civil War, New York: Hill and Wang, 2004, p. 27)
Historian C. Vann Woodward:
For all that, the Northern Negro was made painfully and constantly aware that he lived in a society dedicated to the doctrine of white supremacy and Negro inferiority. The major political parties, whatever their position on slavery, vied with each other in their devotion to this doctrine, and extremely few politicians of importance dared question them. Their constituencies firmly believed that the Negroes were incapable of being assimilated politically, socially, or physically into white society. They made sure in numerous ways that the Negro understood his “place” and that he was severely confined to it. One of these ways was segregation, and with the backing of legal and extra-legal codes the system permeated all aspects of Negro life in the free states by 1860.
Leon F. Litwak, in his authoritative account, North of Slavery, describes the system in full development. “In virtually every phase of existence,” he writes, “Negroes found themselves systematically separated from whites. They were either excluded from railway cars, omnibuses, stagecoaches, and steamboats or assigned to special “Jim Crow” sections; they sat, when permitted, in secluded and remote corners of theaters and lecture halls; they could not enter most hotels, restaurants, and resorts, except as servants; they prayed in “Negro pews” in the white churches, and if partaking of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, they waited until the whites had been served the bread and wine. Moreover, they were often educated in segregated schools, nursed in segregated hospitals, and buried in segregated cemeteries.”
In very few instances were Negroes and other opponents of segregation able to make any progress against the system. Railroads in Massachusetts and schools in Boston eliminated Jim Crow before the Civil War. But there and elsewhere Negroes were often segregated in public accommodations and severely segregated in housing. Whites of South Boston boasted in 1847 that “not a single colored family” lived among them. Boston had her “Nigger Hill” and her “New Guinea,” Cincinnati her “Little Africa,” and New York and Philadelphia their comparable ghettoes—for which Richmond, Charleston, New Orleans, and St. Louis had no counterparts. A Negro leader in Boston observed in 1860 that “it is five times as hard to get a house in a good location in Boston as in Philadelphia, and it is ten times as difficult for a colored mechanic to get work here as in Charleston.”
Generally speaking, the farther west the Negro went in the free states the harsher he found the proscription and segregation. Indiana, Illinois, and Oregon incorporated in their constitutions provisions restricting the admission of Negroes in their borders, and most states carved from the old Northwest Territory either barred Negroes in some degree or required that they post bond guaranteeing good behavior. Alexis de Toqueville was amazed at the depth of racial bias he encountered in the North. “The prejudice of race,” he wrote, “appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known.”
Racial discrimination in political and civil rights was the rule in the free states and any relaxation the exception. The advance of universal white manhood suffrage in the Jacksonian period had been accomplished by Negro disenfranchisement. Only 6 percent of the Northern Negroes lived in the five states—Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, and Rhode Island—that by 1860 permitted them to vote. The Negro’s rights were curtailed in the courts as well as at the polls. By custom or by law Negroes were excluded from jury service throughout the North. Only in Massachusetts, and there not until 1855, were they admitted as jurors. Five Western states prohibited Negro testimony in cases where a white man was a party. The ban against Negro jurors, witnesses, and judges, as well as the economic degradation of the race, help to explain the disproportionate numbers of Negroes in Northern prisons and the heavy limitations on the protection of Negro life, liberty, and property.
By the eve of the Civil War the North had sharply defined its position on white supremacy, Negro subordination, and racial segregation. The political party that took control of the federal government at that time was in accord with this position, and Abraham Lincoln as its foremost spokesman was on record with repeated endorsements. . . .
It is clear that when its victory was complete and the time came, the North was not in the best possible position to instruct the South, either by precedent and example, or by force of conviction, on the implementation of what eventually became one of the professed war aims of the Union cause—racial equality. (Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, Commemorative Edition, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 18-21)
Historian David R. Roediger:
Historians have noticed the rise in racism in the urban North before the Civil War—a racism expressed in attacks on vestigial Black civil rights, in physical attacks on Blacks by white crowds, in the growth of racist invective, in color bars in employment and in the huge popularity of minstrel shows. . . .
We have seen the extent to which triumphant republicanism proved compatible with the casting of Blacks as “anticitizens” to be excluded from civic affairs. For example, anyone the color of Crispus Attacks, the martyr of Boston’s crowd before the American Revolution, would have been barred from many Independence Day celebrations by the early nineteenth century. . . .
. . . the most common role for Black Philadelphians in antebellum Christmas maskings was as victims of blackfaced mobs [i.e., mobs of white people who had blackened their faces or wearing black masks]. . . . In 1834, blacked-up Philadelphians attacked Blacks in a major race riot not connected to Christmas maskings. In 1840, Blacks celebrating the Christmas season as part of the street processions were set upon by attackers in blackface. . . . But even when not celebrating on the streets, Blacks could not avoid attacks from those dressed as Jim Crow or Aunt Sally. Christmas racial clashes, initiated by blackface mobs, took place regularly between 1837 and 1848, with the last erupting into full-scale riot. Some of the violence involved white and Black gangs, but on other occasions, blacked-up mobs attacked African-Americans who were in church. . . .
The movement of “contraband” exslaves into Illinois in 1862 drew widespread criticism as a betrayal of “white labor,” with Illinois soldiers voting in 1862 for a Negro exclusion article to be inserted into the state constitution. Race riots anticipating emancipation expressed white workers’ fears of job competition even in cities where it was highly unlikely that an exodus of freedpeople would quickly swell the population. Serious pre-emancipation hate strikes against Black employment and physical attacks on Black workers by whites thus occurred not only in Brooklyn, New York City and Cincinnati, but also in such cities as Chicago, Detroit, Boston and even St. Paul [Minnesota]. (Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, Revised Edition, New York and London: Verso, 1991, pp. 96, 100-101, 105-106, 171-172)
Historian Joanne Pope Melish:
The emancipation of slaves in New England, beginning around 1780, was a gradual process, whether by post nati statute, as in Rhode Island and Connecticut, or by effect, as in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, where ambiguous judicial decisions and constitutional interpretations discouraged slaveholding without clearly outlawing it. . . . The emancipation process took place during the post-Revolutionary period of social and economic uncertainty that interrogated the stability of social identity and the meaning of citizenship for whites as well as people of color [blacks]. . . .
Even more problematic was the promise implicit in antislavery rhetoric that abolition, by ending “the problem”—the sin of slavery and the troublesome presence of slaves—would result in the eventual absence of people of color themselves. In other words, whites anticipated that free people of color would, by some undefined moment (always imminent), have disappeared.
New England whites employed an array of strategies to effect the removal promised by antislavery rhetoric and to efface [erase] people of color and their history in New England. Some of these efforts were symbolic: representing people of color as ridiculous or dangerous “strangers” in anecdotes, cartoons, and broadsides; emphasizing slavery and “race” as “southern problems”; characterizing New England slavery as brief and mild, or even denying its having existed; inventing games and instructional problems in which the object was to make “the negroes” disappear; digging up the corpses of people of color. Other efforts aimed to eliminate the presence of living people of color: conducting official roundups and “warnings-out”; rioting in and vandalizing black neighborhoods. Finally, some efforts involved both symbolic and physical elements, such as the American Colonization Society’s campaign to demonize free people of color and raise funds to ship them to Africa. . . .[Ralph Waldo] Emerson’s perceptive if simplistic observation about abolitionists of the 1850s applies as well to eighteenth-century antislavery activists: “The abolitionist wishes to abolish slavery, but because he wishes to abolish the black man.” Many whites had imagined that gradual emancipation would ultimately restore New England to an idealized original state as an orderly, homogeneous white society. . . .
The hardening ideology of “race”—innate, permanent difference, located within the body as part of each person’s essential nature—effectively contained and managed people of color, as had the old institution of slavery. . . .
As sectional controversy intensified, the mystique of a historically free, white New England provided a unique moral dimension to the Unionist position there, linking nineteenth-century Unionist redeemers with seventeenth-century Puritan ones. Thus, when Lewis Simpson invokes Emerson as the quintessence of the New England mind of the early nineteenth century, heir to Fisher Aimes in having discovered by 1837 the “absolute cultural contrast between the South and New England,” he locates the sources of this contrast in assumptions about a “whites-only republic of man” implicit in Emerson’s rather abstract opposition to slavery. Simpson suggests that the governing mythology of this vision may be found in Emerson’s musings that “the dark man, the black man declines. . . . It will happen by and by, that the black man will only be destined for museums like the Dodo.” But the “superior good order” of the New England nation-state had already come to be predicated upon the present and historical absence of slaves/people of color there, in contradistinction to the suffocating and historical presence of slaves in the South. Emerson’s plan for a whites-only republic assumed the existence of a whites-only New England already in place. This assumption was not confined to Emerson, or to intellectuals, but was a fundamental element of New England ideology that fueled and was fueled by a powerful sectional nationalism. . . .
But the issue of the extension of slavery racialized the question of the nature of the model society, and “what New England is now” comprised not only judgments about the superiority of small-town commerce and free labor over large-scale, slave-dependent agriculture in the present but also assumptions about the development of New England in the past as a region that was historically “white” as well as “free.” In this context, efforts to remove free people of color from New England and to efface their history of enslavement there became critically important political maneuvers. A virtual amnesia about local slavery and a kind of perpetual, indignant surprise at the continuing presence of people of color became common ingredients in the epic of preeminent New England as it was shaped in the years after 1815. . . .
The moral authority asserted by the idea of a free, white New England also served to rationalize the ambitions of many New Englanders and, ultimately, northerners—both intellectuals and entrepreneurs—to dominate the South commercially and culturally. . . . As Emerson said in support of the confiscation of southerners’ property at the end of the war, “You at once open the whole South to the enterprise and genius of new men of all nations, and extend New England from Canada to the Gulf to the Pacific.”
When radical abolitionists—advocating immediate, uncompensated emancipation—began to gain adherents in the mid-1830s, they vilified the colonizationist argument, but their own position rested on quite similar assumptions about the superiority of Yankee blood and culture. The observation of Theodore Parker, leading Boston preacher and committed abolitionist, that “the Anglo-Saxon people . . . is the best specimen of mankind which has ever attained great power in the world”—although made later, in 1857—is quite typical of the thinking prevalent among New England abolitionists.
The few abolitionists who acknowledged New England’s indigenous history of slaveholding also minimized its extent and effect. . . .
The growing enmity on the part of whites was clearly reflected in their public language; the use of the word “nigger” in particular seemed to operate as a kind of coagulate of the resentments that had been growing in white communities in tandem with the size and visibility of the population of free people of color. People of color themselves understood clearly how the term served to enact the embodiment of innate, permanent inferiority. Hosea Easton described the process in his 1837 Treatise on the Intellectual Character, and Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the United States:
“Negro or nigger, is . . . employed to impose contempt upon them as an inferior race, and also to express their deformity of person. Nigger lips, nigger shins, nigger heels, are phrases universally common among the juvenile class of society, and full well understood by them. . . . Children in infancy receive oral instruction from the nurse. The first lessons given are, . . . go to sleep, if you don’t the old nigger will carry you off; don’t you cry—Hark; the old nigger’s coming—how ugly you are, you are worse than a little nigger. . . . to inspire their half-grown misses and masters to improvement, they are told that if they do this or that, . . . they will be poor or ignorant as a nigger, or that they will be black as a nigger; or have no more credit than a nigger.”
In an explicit reference to the scurrilous, lampooning broadsides then circulating widely in the streets of Boston, Easton noted, “This kind of instruction is not altogether oral. Cuts and placards descriptive of the negro’s deformity, are everywhere displayed to the observation of the young, with corresponding broken lingo, the very character of which is marked with design. Many of the popular book stores, in commercial towns and cities, have their show-windows lined with them. The barrooms of the most popular public houses in the country, sometimes have their ceiling literally covered with them”. . . .
A New England identity remained somewhat appealing because for over half a century the idea of New England as a refuge of freedom had retained a stubborn hold on the imagination of people of color, despite bitter experience to the contrary. Even though, as gradual emancipation followed slavery into an ever receding past, “racial” thinking and practices in New England became increasingly oppressive, New England was free in the technical sense that the legal machinery of slavery had generally ceased to function there. . . .
But the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 stripped away even the legal convention of “freedom” and overshadowed the few formal advances, laying bare the reality of northern “racial” thinking and practices. Martin Delany spoke for a growing number of distinctly disenchanted northern people of color in 1852 when he stated baldly that the “free” states were nothing of the kind. . . .[Frederick] Douglass, too, had abandoned all suggestions of northern “racial” progress by 1853, and asked scathingly, “What stone has been left unturned to degrade us? What hand has refused to inflame the popular prejudice against us? . . . What wit has not laughed at us in our wretchedness? . . . Few, few, very few”. . . .
What Harriet Wilson published in 1859 was a remarkably clear-eyed assessment of the racialized structure of New England life which had developed in the more than half a century following the first steps toward emancipation of New England slaves. Her blunt portrayal of the mechanics of “racial” essentialism and its reproduction in New England households dismantled the mythology of the New England “free” states and indicted the model of “fire-side culture” that was the engine of its reproduction. . . .
The engagement of New England in the Civil War can be read, as Lewis Simpson suggests, as a nationalist and culturally imperialist enterprise fueled at least in substantial part by the “racial” essentialism on the one hand and the mythology of “freedom” on the other which Wilson so shrewdly dissected.
Ultimately, of course, the Civil War ended American slavery finally and completely, but northern people of color were not thereby released from racial thinking and practices whose origins were lost in a largely suppressed history of northern slavery and gradual emancipation. . . .
Long after the war ended, the presence of people of color in New England continued to be regarded by many whites as unaccountable, a puzzling and irritating refusal of “the Negro” to follow the dodo into extinction as Emerson—echoing the implicit promises of antislavery activists in the Revolutionary period—had so confidently predicted. (Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860, Cornell Paperbacks Edition, Cornell University Press, 2000, pp. 1, 2, 164, 217-218, 220-221, 244-245, 264-265, 284-285, original emphasis)
Historian Merton Dillon:
The ending of slavery in the North had not been accompanied by change in the racial attitudes that for so long had supported it. If anything, prejudice increased as the numbers of free Blacks grew and as the insecurities resulting from rapid economic and social change were felt throughout white society. Prejudice was not expressed in verbal slurs and social slights alone. Far more serious was the fact that custom barred most Blacks from economic and educational opportunity. Although striking examples can be cited of Blacks who overcame all such obstacles, the majority were shut out by prejudice from sharing in the profits and advantages of the growing American economy. . . .
Most Northerners still preferred that Blacks remain in the South and not attempt to settle in Northern white communities. In 1845—after more than a decade of intense abolitionist agitation—an Illinois state legislative committee asserted that “by nature, education, and association, it is believed that the negro is inferior to the white man, physically, morally, and intellectually: whether this be true to the fullest extent matters not, when we take into consideration the fact that such is the opinion of the vast majority of our citizens.” (The Abolitionists: The Growth of a Dissenting Minority, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1974, pp. 20-21, 74)
In the first half of the nineteenth century, state legislatures in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut took away Negroes’ right to vote; and voters in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Maine, Iowa, and Wisconsin approved new constitutions that limited suffrage to whites. In Ohio, Negro males were permitted to vote only if they had "a greater visible admixture of white than colored blood”. . . .
City officials [in Washington. D.C.] restricted Negro immigrants to the malaria-ridden lowlands known as “Murder Bay” by the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, or to Negro Hill on North Tenth Street, a safe distance from the respectable parts of town. . . .
In early March , Congress took up a bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. Introduced by Senator Wilson, the measure provided payment to loyal owners of $300 per slave, provided they freed their property within ninety days. . . . At Lincoln’s request, the Senate added a rider offering steamship tickets to any freed slaves who wished to emigrate to Haiti or Liberia. . . .
Residents of Washington fought the measure with petitions and letters. Local newspapers published editorials denouncing the bill. . . .
Washington’s mayor and board of aldermen pleaded with Congress not to pass the bill. They feared it would make the capital, located between the slaveholding states of Maryland and Virginia, “an asylum for free negroes, a population undesirable in every American community, and which it has been deemed necessary to exclude altogether from some even of the non-slaveholding states”. . . . White Washingtonians aimed to keep them subservient, especially after Congress forced the repeal of the city’s black codes. In the summer of 1862, a congressional committee discovered that in the absence of slavery in the nation’s capital, white prejudice against Negroes grew stronger. Whites were quick to file complaints against Negroes, especially for theft, and gangs of white thugs attacked Negroes with increasing frequency. . . .
Passage of the Confiscation Act did not resolve the debate over emancipation in Congress. The bill itself freed no slaves. . . . At the same time, however, prejudice against Negroes was rising among white northerners. Some whites blamed Negroes for causing the war. . . . Other whites, particularly Irish immigrants living in Northern cities, feared that freed slaves might migrate north and compete with them as a source of cheap labor.
“There is but one thing, sir, that we want here,” announced an Ohioan to a visiting journalist, “and that is to get rid of the niggers.” A lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society reported that denunciations of Negroes “were never more common in my hearing. Many Republicans unite with Democrats in cursing the ‘niggers,’ and in declaring that the slaves, if possibly emancipated by the war, must be removed from the country”. . . .
When several state governments found it necessary to institute conscription in the summer of 1862, anti-Negro riots broke out among . . . communities in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ohio, where protestors insisted that “we won’t fight to free the nigger.” Before the summer ended, more violent demonstrations against Negroes erupted in Cincinnati and New York. . . .
Midwestern opponents of the proclamation [the Emancipation Proclamation] raised the specter of several million free Negroes fleeing Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana for Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Anti-Negro feeling in the region was on the rise; only a few months earlier, the Ohio state legislature had defeated by only two votes a measure to remove all Negroes already residing in the state. . . . Mass meetings in the Midwest protesting emancipation and the war degenerated into violence. Race riots erupted in Detroit when whites attacked Negroes, killing several and burning dozens of homes. . . .
In the summer of 1863, New York City was primed for an explosion. . . . On the stifling hot, muggy morning of July 13, a band of Irish toughs attacked the Ninth District draft office, smashing furniture and setting the building ablaze. . . . The movement quickly spread throughout the city’s working-class sections in the Upper East Side. . . . Rioters cut down telegraph poles to sever police communications, tore up railroad tracks, attacked the police and provost marshal’s guard on the streets. . . . They attacked the homes of abolitionists and assaulted every Negro in sight, invading Negroes’ houses and pulling them off steamboats and streetcars to savagely beat them or hang them from lampposts. An English visitor witnessed whites chasing a Negro down an avenue, shouting “Kill the black son of a bitch!” and “Kill all niggers!” Employers were warned “not to put any niggers to work.”
Late in the afternoon, a mob set fire to the Colored Orphan Asylum at Fifth Avenue and Forty-Third Street. Fortunately, most of the children had escaped moments earlier. When firemen attempted to put out the blaze, the rioters destroyed the hydrants. . . .
Racial prejudice grew stronger in the riot’s aftermath. Fearful of renewed trouble, employers refused to hire Negroes; New Yorkers who befriended Negroes found themselves threatened by white laborers. Eventually one-third of the city’s black population left to seek better opportunities elsewhere. (Klingaman, Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, p. 54, 91, 117-118, 132, 164-165, 246-247, 262-264)
When it came to the issue of using blacks as soldiers in the Union army, most Northern whites either opposed the measure or favored it primarily because they wanted to save the lives of as many white soldiers as possible. Klingaman:
“Certainly we hope we may never have to confess to the world that the United States government has to seek an ally in the negro to regain its authority,” declared an editorial in the Milwaukee Sentinel. “We don’t want to fight alongside with the nigger,” agreed a recruit from New York. “We think we are a too superior race for that”. . . .
Vice President Hamlin probably reflected northerners’ opinion . . . when he told a rally in Bangor [Maine] in July that “we want to save, as much as possible, our men, even if it is done by men a little blacker than myself.” Governor Samuel Kirkwood of Iowa put the matter more baldly when he voiced a desire to see “some dead niggers as well as dead white men.” (Klingaman, Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, pp. 160-161)
Several Northern states rejected the Fifteenth Amendment, which was designed to guarantee voting rights for African Americans and for other minorities. The amendment was submitted to the states for ratification in February 1869. The Northern states of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, and Oregon rejected it. So did California and Kentucky, both of which had sided with the Union during the war. New York ratified the amendment but then quickly renounced its ratification. All but two of these states waited decades before finally approving the amendment. (Ohio and New Jersey initially rejected the amendment but then ratified it a year or two later, in 1870 and 1871 respectively.)
To judge from some books on the Civil War, one would never guess that slavery started in the North and that it existed there for decades. In fact, slavery survived in two Northern states until the middle of the Civil War. Slavery continued in two other Northern states until the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery several months after the war. One rarely reads about the conditions of Northern slavery. One excellent study on the subject is James and Lois Horton’s fascinating book In Hope Of Liberty: Culture, Community And Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). Among other things, the Hortons document the following:
* Northern whites violently overreacted to rumors of slave conspiracies, and reacted even more harshly to actual slave revolts. In some cases, numerous slaves were tortured and then killed, and parts of their bodies were put on display as a warning to other slaves.
* Northern masters generally opposed allowing their slaves to learn to read and write, for fear this would make them harder to control and even dangerous. Slave revolts intensified Northern opposition to slave literacy.
* Northern governments enacted and enforced fugitive slave laws, i.e., they forced the return of runaway slaves. One Northern government even signed a fugitive slave treaty with local Indians in order to prevent slaves from running away to live among those Indians.
* Northern masters tended to discourage slave marriages and apparently weren’t overly concerned about keeping slave families intact. (This is in contrast to Southern masters, who encouraged slave marriages and who usually strove to keep slave families intact. Even James McPherson admits that 66-80 percent of slave marriages were not broken up. Data from the New Orleans slave market, the largest in the region, show that Southern masters were reluctant to break up slave families, contrary to the abolitionist myth that slave families were routinely broken by the domestic slave trade.)
* After most Northern states abolished slavery, ex-slaves actually found themselves shut out from nearly all skilled labor jobs in the North, whereas in the South free blacks and slaves alike had more access to such jobs.
* When most Northern states abolished slavery, racial prejudice against Northern blacks actually became worse, for a number of reasons, such as perceived labor competition and the fact that the social contact that had been required by the reality of slavery was no longer necessary.
* Northern society was dominated by a wealthy elite. (Interestingly, the Hortons observe that throughout New England only 25 percent of adult males owned enough property to quality to vote, whereas in the Southern colonies the percentage of adult males eligible to vote was over 50 percent.)
* Northern governments passed numerous “black laws” that discriminated against blacks. Some of these laws prohibited interracial marriage and imposed stiff penalties for violators.
* Runaway slaves were a constant problem. Northern newspapers routinely carried notices of masters looking for runaways.
* Some Northern governments passed laws to encourage the African slave trade. (In fact, several Northern states made huge fortunes from the slave trade.)
* In most cases, Northern emancipation was gradual and included generous clauses that allowed Northern masters to recoup most or all of the cost of their slaves.
* In Northern areas where slavery was more economically viable, there was stronger opposition to emancipation. This opposition was overcome by the very gradual nature of the emancipation programs and by the fact that they allowed slaveholders to largely recover the cost of their slaves, if not make a small profit.
The Hortons also document some interesting facts about the British and American approaches to slaves and slavery during the Revolutionary War. Students of the Civil War will see some interesting parallels between the Civil War and the Revolutionary War with regard to these issues. For example:
* Shortly after the Continental Army was formed, slaves and free blacks were barred from serving in it. Lord Dunmore, on the other hand, offered freedom to slaves who would serve the British cause.
* Most blacks in the American army were used in menial labor positions, not as combat troops.
* Although the commanding general of the Continental Army issued an order allowing for the enlistment of free blacks in December 1775, colonial governments and the Continental Congress were slow to approve this change.
* Some New England governments didn’t reverse the ban on black enlistment until three years after Lord Dunmore began recruiting American slaves for the British army. The Continental Congress didn’t reverse the ban until four years after Lord Dunmore’s proclamation.
* The Americans considered it insulting for the British to use their own slaves against them. Lord Dunmore made note that the use of black soldiers was sure to anger and distress the American “rebels.” The Hortons add, “For many Americans such behavior [the British use of American slaves as soldiers] confirmed their belief that England intended to instigate ‘race war’ to subdue the colonies” (p. 62).
* As many as 100,000 slaves ran away from their masters during the Revolutionary War and flocked to British lines. Thousands of them fought for the British.
* At least 15,000 ex-slaves evacuated with the British army.
* British abolitionist politicians noted the inconsistency in the American position of “yelping” for liberty while upholding slavery. Samuel Johnson said, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” Another British critic said, “If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his frightened slaves.”
Was the War Fought Over Slavery?
The war was fought over Southern independence, not over slavery. Lincoln said repeatedly the war was not being fought over slavery. In August 1862, over a year after the war started, Lincoln wrote an open letter to a prominent Republican abolitionist, Horace Greeley, in which he said he did not agree with those who would only “save the Union” if they could destroy slavery at the same time. Lincoln added that if he could “save the Union” without freeing a single slave, he would do so. Said Lincoln,
If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them.
My paramount objective is to save the Union and not either to save or destroy slavery.
If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it. If I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it. And if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862, published in the New York Tribune)
In July 1861, after the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) had been fought, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution, by an overwhelming majority, that declared the war was not being fought to disturb slavery, nor to subjugate the South, but only to “maintain the Union.” A few months later, in September, a group of Radicals visited Lincoln to urge him to make compulsory emancipation a war objective. Lincoln declined, telling the Radicals, “We didn’t go into the war to put down slavery, but to put the flag back” (Brodie, Thaddeus Stevens, p. 155; Klingaman, Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, pp. 75-76). Later on, about halfway through the war, the Radicals and other Republicans succeeded in making the uncompensated abolition of Southern slavery a secondary goal of the war. However, the primary purpose of the federal invasion was always to destroy Southern independence and to force the seceded states back into the Union.
Historian Jeff Riggenbach has published an insightful overview of American history that includes a refreshingly candid, sensible analysis of the causes of the Civil War. Among other things, Riggenbach says,
As Gore Vidal presents it in Lincoln, the U.S. Civil War was caused, not by slavery, but by the intransigence of President Lincoln, who insisted adamantly that no state could legitimately secede from the Union and that the Union could never be broken up. In Vidal’s account, Lincoln cared nothing for the plight of the slaves. Nor did he care about the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of individual liberty: he shut down newspapers that opposed the war, imprisoning their editors; he held prisoners indefinitely, flouting habeas corpus; he imposed the first military draft in the nation’s history, then used troops to crush the riots that resulted; he financed his war by imposing and collecting the nation’s first tax on incomes, despite the lack of any constitutional basis for such a levy.
Vidal might well have found inspiration for such a view of the war in the writings of Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams. For, as Beard wrote in 1927 in Volume II of The Rise of American Civilization,
"Since the abolition of slavery never appeared in the platform of any great political party, since the only appeal ever made to the electorate on that issue was scornfully repulsed, since the spokesman of the Republicans emphatically declared that his party never intended to interfere with slavery in the states in any shape or form, it seems reasonable to assume that the institution of slavery was not the fundamental issue during the epoch preceding the bombardment of Fort Sumter."
Williams agreed. In his Contours of American History (1961), he wrote that “neither Lincoln nor the majority of northerners entered the war in an abolitionist frame of mind or entertaining abolitionist objectives.” Williams is even more explicit in his 1976 book America Confronts a Revolutionary World: 1776-1976. “Put simply,” he writes, “the cause of the Civil War was the refusal of Lincoln and other northerners to honor the revolutionary right of self-determination – the touchstone of the American Revolution". . . .[Jeffrey R.] Hummel’s view of the Civil War is remarkably like Vidal’s. “Historians and buffs debate the fundamental causes of the American Civil War almost as hotly today as the combatants did then,” he writes. “We can simplify our understanding of the Civil War’s causes, however, if we follow the advice of one eminent historian, Eric Foner, and ask two separate questions. Why did the southern states want to leave the Union? And why did the northern states refuse to let them go?” These are two separate questions, Hummel insists, because “[e]ven if slavery explains why the southern states left the Union, it does not necessarily either explain or justify the national government’s refusal to recognize their independence.” In fact, he maintains, “[n]ot only does slavery fail to explain why the northern states resorted to coercion, but letting the lower South go in peace was a viable, untried antislavery option. As the most militant abolitionists themselves demonstrated, there was no contradiction between condemning slavery and advocating secession.”
In fact, as Hummel points out, one of the most prominent leaders of the abolitionist movement, William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the weekly abolitionist paper The Liberator and one of the organizers of the leading abolitionist organization, the American Anti-Slavery Society, was an enthusiastic proponent of secession – for the North. Garrison and his followers “felt that this best hastened the destruction of slavery by allowing the free states to get out from under the Constitution’s fugitive slave provision.” The seceded North, in Garrison’s vision, would have “become a haven for runaway slaves”. . . .
In effect, Lincoln refused to allow, first the lower South, then the entire Confederacy, to go in peace because he was committed to a conception of the United States as a perpetual nation, with whose central government the component states had no right to end their association – he was committed, not to a voluntary Union, but to a compulsory one. (“An Introduction to Revisionism,” LewRockwell, http://lewrockwell.com/riggenbach/riggenbach3-4.html)
The war itself really had nothing directly to do with slavery. It’s true that disputes over slavery were the most important factors behind the first wave of secession, but secession and the war were two separate events. Additionally, four of the Southern states did not secede over slavery. Secession was a peaceful, democratic process. The seceded states posed no threat to the federal government, and they had no intention of trying to overthrow the federal government. The Confederate states wanted to live in peace with the North and offered to pay their share of the national debt and to pay compensation for all federal forts in the South. If Lincoln had not decided to use force to compel the South to rejoin the Union, there would have been no war. If Republican leaders and their financial backers had welcomed Confederate efforts to establish peaceful relations, there would have been no war.
Some will make the argument that had it not been for slavery there would have been no war and that therefore slavery caused the war or that the war was fought over slavery. This is not a logical argument. It’s probably true that there would have been no war if there had been no slavery. However, even this is not certain. After all, South Carolina and the federal government nearly went to war over the federal tariff in 1832-1833. In any event, even if there would have been no war if slavery had not existed, this does not mean the war was fought over slavery or that slavery caused the war.
We must distinguish between factors and causes. Slavery was one of several factors that led to the war, but the cause of the conflict was the Republicans’ refusal to allow the South to leave in peace. The role that slavery played as a factor that led to the war was similar to the role that oil played as a factor that led to the first Gulf War in 1991. If there had been no Kuwaiti oil fields, Iraq would not have invaded Kuwait and the first Gulf War would not have been fought. But, no credible analyst would suggest that therefore that war was “fought over oil” or that oil “caused” the war. The first Gulf War was fought because Iraq invaded Kuwait. America and her allies fought the war in order to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. It’s true that America liberated Kuwait in large part to ensure a stable flow of oil from the country, but there would have been no war if Iraq had not invaded Kuwait. Furthermore, the Kuwaitis who fought in the war were fighting first and foremost to repel an invader and to regain their independence, not to protect their oil fields.
If the Southern states had not seceded, there would have been no war–and slavery would have continued. If the Southern states had surrendered when Lincoln issued his call-up for an invasion force, there would have been no war–and slavery would have continued. If Jefferson Davis’s first announcement as Confederate president had been that the Confederacy was going to abolish slavery, Lincoln and the Radicals still would have invaded the South. If the Confederacy had informed Lincoln at any point during the war that it was going to start an emancipation program, Lincoln would not have suddenly called off the federal invasion. Not once did any Republican leader offer to halt the federal invasion if the South would agree to abolish slavery. The key issue was Southern independence, not slavery.
The reaction of the Northern abolitionists to the proposal of fellow abolitionist Moncure Conway is further proof the war was not fought over slavery. Nearly all the abolitionists supported the Radicals. Conway, on the other hand, was a pacifist. Yet, at first Conway reluctantly supported the invasion of the South. “But,” notes Hummel, “the increasing bloodshed sickened him.” So, when Conway was in England in 1863, he proposed to a Confederate envoy that if the South freed the slaves the abolitionists would oppose the war. Conway also said he would support the continuation of the Confederacy as long as the Confederacy abolished slavery. Strangely enough, leading abolitionists had selected Conway to go to England in order to convince the British that the war was being fought to free the slaves. However, when Conway’s proposal for Southern independence coupled with abolition was published, most abolitionists reacted with outrage and withdrew their support from him, and no Republican leader expressed support for his proposal. Obviously, their main goal was to crush the South, even if the South freed its slaves. Notes Hummel,
The cries of protest on this side of the Atlantic that greeted the proposal’s publication made clear that most abolitionists now wanted to subdue and punish the South, slavery or no. (Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, p. 206)
As one reads the speeches and letters of Confederate leaders during the war, it becomes apparent that they certainly didn’t believe their main reason for fighting was to preserve slavery. For example, beginning in late 1862, James Phelan, Joseph Bradford, and Reuben Davis wrote to Jefferson Davis to express concern that some opponents were claiming the war "was for the defense of the institution of slavery" (Cooper, Jefferson Davis, American, pp. 479-480, 765). They called those who were making this claim "demagogues." Cooper notes that when two Northerners visited Jefferson Davis during the war, Davis insisted "the Confederates were not battling for slavery" and that "slavery had never been the key issue" (Jefferson Davis, American, p. 524). McPherson notes that Jefferson Davis repeatedly said the South was fighting for its independence and that the Southern states merely wanted to be left alone:
Jefferson Davis said repeatedly that the South was fighting for the same “sacred right of self-government” that the revolutionary fathers had fought for. In his first message to Congress [the Confederate Congress] after the fall of Sumter, Davis proclaimed that the Confederacy would “seek no conquest, no aggrandizement, no concession of any kind from the States with which were lately confederated; all we ask is to be let alone.” (The Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 310)
To most Southerners, independence was more important than was the continuation of slavery. This is not surprising, since less than 10 percent of Southern citizens actually held title to slaves, and since 69-75 percent of Southern families were not slaveholders (John Niven, The Coming of the Civil War: 1837-1861, Arlington Heights, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1990, p. 34; Divine et al, editors, America Past and Present, p. 389; see also the 1860 Census). Early in the war, James Alcorn, a powerful planter-politician from Mississippi, began to talk openly about emancipation. Duncan Kenner, one of the most powerful slaveholders in the South and a chairman in the Confederate Congress, urged that slavery be abolished in 1862. Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s most famous general, believed slavery was evil and favored gradual emancipation. The Confederate Secretary of State, Judah Benjamin, and Governor William Smith of Virginia, also supported ending slavery. Several Southern governors supported emancipation for slaves who served in the Confederate army. By late 1864, Jefferson Davis himself was prepared to abolish slavery in order to gain European diplomatic recognition and thus save the Confederacy, which shows that independence was more important to him than was the preservation of slavery. Hummel, though critical of the South on many points, observes the following:
Jefferson Davis summarily rejected Lincoln’s demands [for the dissolution of the Confederacy], yet he might have given in on southern emancipation in return for Southern independence. His countrymen were already debating the revolutionary expedient of arming slaves to fight for the Confederacy, even though they knew that this meant an end to their peculiar institution [slavery]. As early as August 1863, an editorial in the Jackson Mississippian declared that slavery should not be “a barrier to our independence. If it is found in the way—if it proves an insurmountable object of the achievement of our liberty and separate nationality, away with it! Let it perish!” This was a drastic step, but “we must make up our minds to one solemn duty, the first duty of the patriot, and that is to save ourselves from the rapacious North, whatever the cost.”
General Lee added his prestige to the proposal: “We must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves used against us, or use them ourselves at the risk of the effects which may be produced upon our social institutions,” he warned. “My own opinion is that we should employ them without delay. . . . The best means of securing the efficiency and fidelity of this auxiliary force would be to accompany the measure with a well-digested plan of gradual and general emancipation.” In March of 1865, the Confederate Congress narrowly authorized the recruitment of 300,000 slaves, while the Davis Administration promised full emancipation to the British and French governments in exchange for diplomatic recognition. (Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, pp. 280-281)
A Confederate soldier who was captured early in the war expressed the South’s reason for fighting in simple yet eloquent terms. He wore a ragged homemade uniform, and like most other Southerners he didn’t own any slaves. When Union soldiers asked him why he was fighting for the Confederacy, he replied, “I’m fighting because you’re down here” (McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 311, emphasis added).
To judge from their own letters, most Union soldiers didn’t believe the war was being fought over slavery and didn’t really care about the fate of the slaves. As McPherson observes, Bell Wiley studied the attitudes of Union soldiers on emancipation and concluded that barely one in ten “had any real interest in emancipation per se” (For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 117). Based on his own analysis of a representative sampling of the letters of federal troops, McPherson concludes that probably less than one in ten Union soldiers fought solely for the abolition of slavery; such soldiers, he says, were “rare indeed” (For Cause and Comrades, p. 117). He adds that for the first half of the war, only thirty percent of the men in blue viewed the abolition of slavery as a necessary part of the primary goal of preserving the Union (For Cause and Comrades, pp. 117-118). The percentage rose substantially later in the war, but it’s unclear by exactly how much. McPherson also points out that “few Union soldiers professed to fight for racial equality” (For Cause and Comrades, p. 117). Thus, it’s not surprising that many if not most of the Union soldiers who linked emancipation with preserving the Union did so only because they saw it as a military measure—i.e., as something that would weaken the Confederate war effort—and not because they cared about the slaves themselves. McPherson explains,
The attitudes of a good many soldiers on the matter were more pragmatic than altruistic. They understood that every slave laborer who emancipated himself by coming into Union lines weakened the Confederate war effort. It also strengthened the Union army. “I don’t care a damn for the darkies,” wrote an Illinois lieutenant, but “I couldn’t help to send a runaway nigger back. I’m blamed if I could. I honestly believe that this army [in Tennessee] has taken 500 niggers away with them.” In fact, “I have 11 negroes in my company now. They do every particle of the dirty work. Two women among them do the washing for the company.” Another Illinois soldier, an infantry sergeant, wrote from Corinth, Mississippi, in 1862 that “every regiment has nigger teamsters and cooks which puts that many more men back in the ranks. . . . It will make a difference in the regiment of not less than 75 men that will carry guns that did not before we got niggers”. . . .
The second factor that converted many soldiers to emancipation was a growing conviction that it really did hurt the enemy and help their own side. “I have always until lately been opposed to Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation,” wrote a private in the 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry, a distiller by trade, in May 1863, “but I have lately been convinced that it was just the thing that was needed to weaken the strength of the rebels. . . .” (For Cause and Comrades, pp. 119, 125)
What Happened at Andersonville Prison?
The question that really should be asked is, Why did thousands of Confederate prisoners die of starvation, disease, and exposure in Northern prison camps when the Union army could have easily given them adequate food, housing, and medical care?
Yes, thousands of Union prisoners died of starvation, disease, and exposure at the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, but that was because the Confederacy simply didn’t have enough food, medicine, and facilities to care for them. During this same period, tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers were going hungry on a regular basis and lacked adequate medical supplies, because of the Union naval blockade and because of the inhumane destruction that Union armies were inflicting on the South. Confederate authorities tried to obtain medical supplies for the Union prisoners at Andersonville, but Lincoln refused to sell them, even though the Confederates offered to allow Union doctors to accompany the supplies to ensure they were used for Union prisoners. After the war, even some Union officers placed the blame for Andersonville squarely on Lincoln and Grant, not on the Confederacy.
One of the most balanced treatments of the issue of Andersonville can be found in J. G. Randall and David Donald’s highly acclaimed book The Civil War and Reconstruction. No one would argue that Randall and Donald were pro-Confederate historians—in fact, they were decidedly pro-Union in their outlook. However, on most issues they were fair and objective, and one of those issues was the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville. Among other things, Randall and Donald said,
The Andersonville prison, until the soldiers built huts for themselves, was but a stockaded enclosure of sixteen and a half acres in southwestern Georgia. Mosquito-infested tents; myriads of maggots; pollution and filth due to lack of sanitation; soldiers dying by thousands; men desperately attempting to tunnel their way to freedom; prison mates turning on their fellows whom they suspected of treachery or theft; unbaked rations; inadequate hospital facilities; escaping men hunted down by bloodhounds—such are the details that come down to us from incontrovertible sources. The causes of such conditions are to be found in the sheer inability of officers in charge to cope with the immense number of prisoners pouring in on them before preparations could be made to receive them, the insurmountable difficulties in obtaining supplies and equipment, and the poverty of the Confederacy in material resources. Union prisoners at Andersonville were in no worse case than many of the soldiers of Lee’s army; and it should be remembered that “the prisoners received the same rations as the soldiers who were guarding them” [quoting pro-Northern historian James F. Rhodes]. . . .
The sickening story of Andersonville, however, is not to be set down, in the manner of lurid prison literature, as a chapter in Confederate cruelty; it is the tragedy of an impossible situation forced by the barbarity of war. . . . As Dr. Hesseltine points out, the harrowing personal memoirs of prisoners, which generally follow a set pattern, are to be taken cum grano salis; and the careful student will tend to agree with him in rejecting the legend of willful Southern atrocities. (The Civil War and Reconstruction, pp. 336-337)
Even McPherson agrees that Confederate authorities did not deliberately mistreat Union prisoners:
Few if any historians would now contend that the Confederacy deliberately mistreated prisoners. Rather, they would concur with contemporary opinions—held by some northerners as well as southerners—that a deficiency of resources and the deterioration of the southern economy were mainly responsible for the sufferings of Union prisoners. The South could not feet its own soldiers and civilians; how could it feed enemy prisoners? (The Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 800)
At least some Union generals knew that the Confederates didn’t even have enough food and medicine for their own soldiers. It’s revealing that General Dan Sickles told Lincoln that retaliation for alleged Confederate abuses of Union prisoners would be ineffective because the Confederates simply didn’t have enough supplies to care for their own troops. On August 10, 1864, Sickles wrote the following to Lincoln:
Apart from the objections which exist to the policy of retaliation, it is at least doubtful whether it would inure to the benefit of our men, for the reason that the enemy are reported to be without the means to supply clothing, medicines and other medical supplies even to their own troops. (Official Records, Series 2, Volume 7, p. 575)
Union soldier Edward Boate was a prisoner at Andersonville in 1864. He wrote about his experiences in the New York Times shortly after the war. He placed the blame for the deaths at Andersonville on Union leaders:
You rulers who make the charge that the rebels intentionally killed off our men, when I can honestly swear they were doing everything in their power to sustain us, do not lay this flattering unction to your souls. You abandoned your brave men in the hour of their cruelest need. They fought for the Union and you reached no hand out to save the old faithful, loyal and devoted servants of the country. You may try to shift the blame from your own shoulders, but posterity will saddle the responsibility where it justly belongs. (In Mauriel Joslyn, “The U.S. Policy of Retaliation on Confederate Prisoners of War,” in J. H. Segars, editor, Andersonville: The Southern Perspective, Atlanta, Georgia: Southern Heritage Press, 1995, p. 145)
Much could be said about the thousands of Confederate prisoners who died in Union prison camps and about the horrible conditions in many of those camps. The Union had no excuse for not adequately caring for its Confederate prisoners. Unlike the Confederacy, which was literally starving and was being invaded and blockaded, the Union had more than enough food, medicine, and equipment. There was no reason that a single Confederate prisoner should have died of starvation or exposure. Even Kenneth Davis, who is very critical of the Confederacy on nearly all issues, admits that thousands of Confederate prisoners were deliberately mistreated by the Union army:
The worst Union prison was in Elmira, in upstate New York, where 2,963 Confederate soldiers died, nearly a quarter of the 12,123 men held there. This death rate was only slightly less than Andersonville’s and more than double the average death rate in the other Union prison camps. Built in May 1864, after prisoner exchanges were halted, the camp was designed to hold 5,000 men. The deaths at Elmira were caused by diseases brought on by starvation and terrible living conditions. During a bitterly cold winter, clothes sent by families for the prisoners were deliberately withheld, and hundreds of men, forced to live in tents with no blankets, froze to death. In May 1864 War Secretary [Edwin] Stanton ordered prisoner rations reduced to the same amount issued to Confederate soldiers. This supposedly ensured that Confederate prisoners were receiving the equivalent of the rations Union prisoners were getting. In other words, in the midst of plenty in the Union, malnourished Confederate prisoners suffered epidemics of scurvy, diarrhea, pneumonia, and smallpox. (Don’t Know Much About the Civil War, p. 354)
Stanton knew full well that most Confederate soldiers in the field were receiving very sparse rations and that in some cases were going without food for days at a time. He had to know it was grossly unfair and inhumane to reduce Confederate prisoner rations to the same amount that Confederate soldiers were receiving. The deliberately cruel manner in which Stanton and the Union army treated thousands of Confederate prisoners is one of the most overlooked stories of the Civil War.
In January 1865, Senator Henry Lane of Indiana introduced Senate Resolution 97, also known as the Retaliatory Orders. Senate Resolution 97 openly called for Confederate prisoners to be treated barbarically. The preamble to the resolution declared,
Rebel prisoners in our hands are to be subjected to a treatment finding its parallels only in the conduct of savage tribes and resulting in the death of multitudes by the slow but designed process of starvation and by mortal diseases occasioned by insufficient and unhealthy food and wanton exposure of their persons to the inclemency of the weather. (Congressional Globe, 38th Congress, 2nd session, January 24, 1865, p. 381)
Senate Resolution 97 was approved by the U.S. Senate on January 31, 1865. This meant that the abuse of Confederate prisoners was endorsed by the U.S. Senate. The mistreatment of Confederate prisoners had already been going on well before Senate Resolution 97 was passed, but the resolution’s passage gave the mistreatment the Senate’s stamp of approval. Fortunately, the resolution was almost immediately made irrelevant when prisoner exchanges were finally resumed a short time later. Still, it’s sickening that the U.S. Senate officially endorsed the cruel treatment of Confederate prisoners.
The tragedy at Andersonville never would have happened if the Union had not halted prisoner exchanges in 1863. For all intents and purposes, the exchanges stopped in 1863—they were formally halted in the spring of 1864 by Ulysses S. Grant. Confederate authorities continued to make offers for prisoner exchanges. Lincoln and Grant claimed they refused these offers because at the time the Confederates would not include most black Union prisoners in the exchanges.
I suspect the real reason Lincoln and Grant refused to continue prisoner exchanges was that they wanted to deprive the Confederate army of manpower, even though they knew the Confederacy was in no position to properly care for the thousands of Union prisoners in its prison camps. In fact, in August 1864 Grant said exchanging prisoners would help the Confederacy more than the Union, adding, "We have to fight until the military power of the South is exhausted. . . .” In other words, Grant was willing to allow Union prisoners to continue to suffer and die in order to defeat the Confederacy. McPherson denies this was the real reason behind the suspension of exchanges; he notes that Grant made these comments "more than a year after the exchange cartel had broken down over the Negro prisoner question" (The Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 800). However, one can also argue that Grant was expressing his real motive for opposing the resumption of exchanges, regardless of when he made the statement.
I find it somewhat hard to believe that men like Lincoln and Grant refused to resume prisoner exchanges because of the Confederate policy on black Union prisoners. Lincoln doggedly opposed using blacks as soldiers until Union casualties began to mount and the Radicals forced his hand. When Lincoln was finally forced to use blacks as soldiers after signing the Emancipation Proclamation, he refused to give them the same pay as white soldiers, until Congress compelled him to do so. Lincoln’s concern for black troops was nowhere to be seen when he declined to halt the shameful execution of a black federal soldier named William Walker, who had been convicted of “mutiny” for protesting the unequal-pay policy. Bennett notes that although Lincoln repeatedly pardoned white soldiers who had been sentenced to death, he refused to pardon Walker:
Still more unmistakable evidence of Lincoln’s orientation can be found in his failure to provide equal pay and equal protection for Black soldiers. . . . Before Congress rectified Lincoln’s error, a brave Black sergeant named William Walker, who participated in a protest against Lincoln’s policy, was arrested and charged with mutiny. At his trial, he pleaded in extenuation that “nearly the whole of his regiment acted in like manner as himself,” that “when the Regiment stacked arms and refused further duty. . . . I did not exercise any command over them” and that “I carried my arms and equipment back with me to my company street.”
Ignoring this testimony and pleas from major leaders, including some Union officers, a military court sentenced Sergeant Walker to death. Although Lincoln repeatedly overruled death sentences of White soldiers, he looked the other way when, on February 29, 1864, at 9 o’clock in the morning, Sergeant William Walker . . . was “shot to death with musketry” in the presence of his brigade. . . . A biting footnote was added by Massachusetts Governor Andrew, who said that “the Lincoln administration which found no law to pay Walker except as a nondescript or contraband, nevertheless found law enough to shoot him as a soldier.” (Forced Into Glory, p. 543)
Grant’s concern for humanity was nowhere to be seen when he bombed the civilian population of Vicksburg, Mississippi, for weeks, forcing them to live underground in man-made caves and to eat dogs, rats, and mules. Rather than appear “weak,” he left his own wounded men to suffer and die on the battlefield at Vicksburg for three days, stubbornly refusing to call for a medical truce that could have saved the lives of many of those soldiers. He also ordered and sanctioned vicious, genocidal attacks on the American Indians after the war.
It’s true that when the Confederacy offered to include black prisoners in the exchanges, Lincoln and Grant accepted the offer. But this didn’t occur until late January 1865, when it seemed clear the Union was going to win the war and win it fairly soon. It would have been interesting to see what Lincoln and Grant’s response would have been if the Confederacy had made this offer several months earlier.
After the war, Lincoln’s assistant Secretary of War, Charles Dana, blamed Grant for the breakdown in prisoner exchanges, saying "the evidence proves that it was not the Confederates who insisted on keeping our prisoners in distress, want and disease, but the commander of our armies" (in Lynn Tyler, A Confederate Catechism, Dahlonega, Georgia: Crown Rights Book Company, 2000, reprint, p. 36, quoting from "Treatment of Prisoners During the War Between the States," Southern Historical Papers, Vol. 1, pp. 112-327). Dana told the New York Sun that “the fact is unquestionable that while the Confederates desired to exchange prisoners, to send our men home, and to get back their own men, General Grant steadily and strenuously resisted such an exchange” (Mildred Rutherford, Truths of History, Dahlonega, Georgia: Crown Rights Book Company, reprint of original 1920 edition, p. 21).
Why did the Confederacy initially decline to include black Union prisoners in prisoner exchanges? Confederate leaders considered the Union army’s use of former Southern slaves as a federally sanctioned slave revolt. The Confederacy was willing to exchange black Union prisoners who had been legally free when they enlisted, but they did not believe they should have to return prisoners who were runaway or captured slaves. From the Confederate viewpoint, since those slaves had either run away or had been stolen, they had no right to be soldiers in the federal forces that were invading the South. I can certainly sympathize with those runaway slaves who joined the Union army in the hope of securing freedom for themselves and for their fellow slaves. But I can also understand why the Confederates felt the way they did on the matter.
Critics point out that when Union forces began using slaves as soldiers, Confederate leaders announced that those soldiers and their white officers would be prosecuted for slave insurrection and executed. These critics never mention that the Confederates’ reaction to the use of slave soldiers against them was essentially identical to the American Patriots’ reaction to the British use of runaway slaves as soldiers during the Revolutionary War. American Patriot leaders, including George Washington, were alarmed and resentful when they learned that the British were offering freedom to American slaves who would fight in the British army. In fact, the colonial legislature of Virginia, without any protest from the other colonies, issued a warning that American slaves who were caught fighting for the British would be executed.
At the start of the Civil War, the Union general in command of the Army of the Potomac, with no objection from Lincoln, issued a proclamation to the citizens of Virginia in which he said he would violently suppress any slave revolt. But, later in the war, as Union casualties began to mount, and under pressure from Radical Republicans, Lincoln decided to allow federal forces to use Southern slaves as soldiers.
To most Southern citizens, the Union’s employment of Southern slaves as soldiers was a federally backed slave insurrection. Slavery was still legal in the four Union slave states, as it was in the South. Yet, Union armies didn’t invade and devastate the Northern slave states, only the Southern states. It should also be pointed out that in those days emancipating an enemy’s slaves, and especially using them as soldiers against him, was widely viewed as a violation of the rules of war. As mentioned above, George Washington and other Patriot leaders were alarmed and angered by the British use of American slaves as soldiers. Moving forward a few decades, in 1820 U.S. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams attacked the British claim that emancipating an enemy’s slaves was a legitimate right of war. Adams declared,
No such right is acknowledged as a law of war by writers who admit any limitation. (In Robert Durden, The Black and the Gray: The Confederate Debate on Emancipation, Louisiana Paperback Edition, Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2000, reprint of 1972 edition, p. 27)
Indeed, Adams compared emancipating an enemy’s slaves with executing prisoners of war. In addition, in the discussions relating to the peace treaty of 1814, the U.S. took the position that "the emancipation of an enemy’s slaves is not among the acts of legitimate warfare" (in Durden, The Black and the Gray, p. 27).
One of the reasons that Pennsylvania gave for separating from England in its 24 June 1776 proclamation was that King George had attempted to incite a slave revolt (along with an Indian revolt):
Whereas George the Third, King of Great-Britain, in violation of the Principles of the British Constitution; and of the Laws of Justice and Humanity, hath by an Accumulation of Oppressions unparalleled in History . . . hath excited the Savages of the country to carry on a war against us; as also the Negroes to imbrue their Hands in the blood of their masters, in a manner unpracticed by civilized nations. (“Provincial Conference of Committees of Committees of the Province of Pennsylvania,” June 18-25, 1776, cf. Durden, The Black and the Gray, p. 26)
Another fact that critics rarely mention is that Confederate forces rarely carried out the execution threat (Garraty, The American Nation, Volume 1: A History of the United States to 1877, p. 418; Randall and Donald, The Civil War and Reconstruction, pp. 393-395). Indeed, a credible case can be made that the number of Southern slaves killed by Union troops was considerably larger than the number of black Union soldiers executed by Confederate troops. And, just to provide some historical perspective, it should be kept in mind that the number of slaves who died on Northern slave ships during the the American involvement in the overseas slave trade was greater than the total number of slaves who died in combat during the Civil War.
Did the South Control the Federal Government Until 1860?
The claim is frequently made that the South controlled the federal government until the 1860 election, and that therefore the South showed a lack of tolerance and fairness when it seceded in response to Lincoln’s victory. However, anyone who is familiar with American history knows that the South did not control the federal government until 1860. Many Northern politicians and writers trumpeted this myth for political and propaganda purposes. A major component of this myth was that the alleged “Slave Power” in the South was behind the South’s supposed domination of the federal government. Some Northern leaders even claimed there was a “Slave Power conspiracy” to impose slavery on the entire country. When the war ended, Radical Republicans issued dire warnings about the need to crush this supposed Slave Power in order to justify their subjugation and looting of the defeated South.
For one thing, wealthy Southern plantation owners, i.e., the men who allegedly comprised the supposed Slave Power, did not dictate Southern politics. Moreover, they were by no means uniform in their political beliefs. In fact, many affluent planters were Whigs (Frank Owsley, Plain Folk of the Old South, LSU Press Edition, LSU Press, 1982, pp. 141-142; Arthur Schlesinger, The Age of Jackson, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1945, p. 453; McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 242). And, as mentioned earlier, some of the wealthiest slaveholders opposed secession. In Georgia, for example, many counties with heavy concentrations of Whig slaveholders voted against secession (McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 242). Randall and Donald pointed out that the plantation aristocracy did not control the South’s political destinies:
Nor is it to be inferred that a plantation “aristocracy” somehow controlled the political destinies of the region, for the current of democracy had eroded the powers of the gentry until “whatever influence the planters exercised over the political action of the common people was of a personal and local nature” [quoting Owsley, Plain Folk of the Old South, p. 139]. (The Civil War and Reconstruction, pp. 40-41)
Even in the very conservative Deep South state of Mississippi, plantation aristocrats did not dictate political affairs. In discussing Mississippi politics and Jefferson Davis’s political campaigns in that state, Cooper notes the following:
White manhood suffrage had existed since 1832, and the sovereign voters required wooing and intermingling from their prospective officeholders. . . .
This was emphatically not a political world in which rich planters controlled candidates and elections while sipping sherry and juleps in elegant drawing rooms. Energetic campaigning antedated Davis’s entry into the arena and did not diminish during his time as a participant. From 1844 until 1860, Davis participated fully and willingly in the demanding ordeal set up by Mississippi voters for those who wanted their allegiance. (Jefferson Davis, American, p. 106)
Historian Francis Butler Simkins called attention to the democratic reforms that the South began to adopt in the early 1800s:
Facts prove that the states of the Old South, through a series of progressive reforms, conformed to the contemporary definition of democracy as “an equal division of political rights, not of property.” They cast aside the Colonial heritage of suffrage restrictions, property qualifications for officeholding, and unequal apportionment of legislative representation. Kentucky, Maryland, and South Carolina established universal white manhood suffrage by 1810. Popular dissatisfaction with aristocratic privilege caused six Southern states in the 1830s to hold constitutional conventions dedicated to democratic reform. Consequently, property qualifications for voting were abolished in all Southern states except Virginia, North Carolina, and Louisiana, and for officeholding in all except South Carolina and Louisiana. Progress was also made in the reapportionment of legislative representation to give a more accurate proportion of the seats in the interior counties. In the 1850s constitutional reforms in seven states abolished almost all the remaining aristocratic privileges except in South Carolina. Until after the Civil War that state continued to have governors and Presidential electors chosen by the legislature, and to apportion legislative representation through a combination of property and white population.
These restrictions, however, were not more comprehensive than those prevailing in Massachusetts until 1853 and in Rhode Island until 1888. (A History of the South, pp. 108-109)
If the South truly “controlled” the federal government until 1860, one can only wonder why the federal tariff was never as low as the South wanted it to be, why Congress gave the Northern states a legal monopoly in the lucrative shipbuilding business and why this monopoly was never repealed, why it took ten years for Texas to be admitted as a state, why Cuba was never annexed, how the Missouri Compromise became law in 1820, how the Tariff of Abominations passed Congress in 1828, how the Force Bill passed Congress in 1833, how the tariff act of 1842 passed Congress, how the John Calhoun resolutions of 1847-1848 were all defeated, how the Wilmot Proviso passed the House of Representatives twice, how the Compromise of 1850 was enacted, why Kansas wasn’t admitted as a slave state, why the Missouri Compromise line wasn’t extended to the west coast, and how the draconian Morrill Tariff passed the House in 1860. Some critics claim that Southern congressmen supported the 1828 Tariff of Abominations, but in point of fact most Southern congressmen voted against it (see Taussig, The Tariff History of the United States, pp. 61-62).
It’s true that there were periods when the South had more influence on federal policy than did the North, but there were also periods when this was not the case. At no time did the South control the federal government in terms of doing whatever it wanted. Cooper notes that “after mid-1854 no chance remained for a congressional majority on any initiative marked as a southern measure” (Jefferson Davis, American, p. 284). The South was usually able to block or modify unwanted bills in the Senate, but not always, and the South was frequently unable to defeat unwanted bills in the House. As early as 1819 “the North had built up a decisive majority in the House of Representatives” (Divine et al, editors, America Past and Present, p. 281). Historian John Niven notes that the South continued to lose ground in the House from 1830 to 1840:
The House of Representatives, whose membership was based on the census returns for each state, reflected this growing disparity [between the populations of the North and the South]. Even counting three-fifths of the slave population (as the federal Constitution provided), free states increased their majority from twenty-three seats in 1830 to twenty-nine seats in 1840. The disparity expressed in total seats was 149 representatives from the free states to 88 from the slave states. (The Coming of the Civil War, p. 21)
As for the presidency, Presidents John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, William Harrison, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan were all Northern politicians. And who were the Southern presidents? They were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James K. Polk, and Zachary Taylor. So the South by no means enjoyed exclusive control of the White House prior to the war. Furthermore, the “Southern” presidents didn’t automatically take the South’s side on all issues, just as the “Northern” presidents didn’t automatically take the North’s side on all issues. For example, President Taylor sided with Northern politicians on crucial aspects of the Compromise of 1850 and also supported the Wilmot Proviso, even though he himself was a slaveholder.
When the South did exercise considerable influence on federal policy, it used that influence toward efforts to reduce taxes, to limit the growth of the federal government, to curb or eliminate harmful protectionist trade policies, to impose fiscal responsibility on federal spending, to abolish the corrupt United States Bank, to preserve our free banking system, to prohibit the use of tax dollars for wasteful corporate welfare schemes, to expand the land area of the United States by acquiring new territory, to preserve the sovereignty of the states, and to enforce a strict interpretation of the Constitution. Under Southern leadership, Texas was finally admitted to the Union and the gigantic land area of the Mexican Cession became American territory. And if the efforts of Southern leaders to acquire Cuba had been successful, that beautiful island would have become an American state, there would have been no Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Cuban people wouldn’t be suffering under Fidel Castro’s oppressive Marxist regime (which has been in power for over forty years now).
I’m not saying that Southern politicians did no wrong. For example, the Southern-inspired 1836-1844 gag rule in the House of Representatives preventing debate on petitions to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia was unfortunate, though many Northern congressmen supported the rule as well. The largely Southern-backed Lecompton Constitution for Kansas was admittedly unfair, and fortunately the people of Kansas were eventually able to vote it down. But such cases were the exception, not the rule. Most of the time Southern politicians used their influence to pursue good, sound policies that benefited all citizens.
All Americans should be grateful that most Northern politicians did not get their way during crucial times in the decades leading up to the Civil War. If the Northern Federalists, followed by the Northern Whigs, had been in control of the government during certain key periods before the war, America would be a much smaller country today, and probably a poorer and weaker one. How would things have been different if the Northern Whigs had had their way? Texas would not have become a state. The Mexican War would not have been fought (some Northern Whigs viewed the war as another act of the “Slave Power,” and the Massachusetts legislature declared the war was being fought with “the triple object of extending slavery, of strengthening the slave power, and of obtaining the control of the free states”). If the Mexican War had not been waged, the massive land area of the Mexican Cession, which now includes Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah, would have remained part of Mexico. With regard to domestic policy, if the Northern Whigs had had their way, the tariff would have been even higher than it was, the federal government would have grown significantly, federal spending would have increased markedly, corporate welfare would have exploded, and our system of free banking would have been destroyed much sooner (the Republicans destroyed it during the Civil War).
If the Northern Federalists had been in power in the early 1800s, the Louisiana Purchase would have been blocked. Fortunately, the Federalists failed in their effort to defeat the purchase, and the Senate ratified the Louisiana Purchase Treaty on October 20, 1803. The lands acquired by the purchase included parts or all of the present-day states of Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Kansas.
In addition, if the Federalist-dominated New England states had had their way, the War of 1812 with Britain may have had a different outcome. The New England states refused to help with the war effort and actually aided the British:
New Englanders refused to cooperate with the war effort. . . . New Englanders carried on a lucrative, though illegal, commerce with the enemy. When the U.S. Treasury appealed for loans to finance the war, wealthy northern merchants failed to respond. (Divine et al, editors, America Past and Present, p. 254)
Historian Kenneth Stampp:
New England Federalists throughout the war regarded the . . . politicians in Washington, not the British, as their mortal enemies. And, having regained political control of all the New England states, they were in a position to translate their angry polemics into defiant deeds.
Federalist governors contested federal calls on the state militias. . . . Federalists discouraged voluntary enlistments. . . . Federalists resisted tax measures and boycotted government loans. . . . Meanwhile, New Englanders defiantly continued to trade with Canada and even furnished supplies to the British fleet. (In Blum and Catton et al, editors, The National Experience, pp. 185-186)
Historian Forrest McDonald:
New Englanders protested loudly and refused to cooperate in the prosecution of the war. With congressional authorization, Madison issued a call for 100,000 militiamen, but those in New England refused to hear the call, and the governor of Massachusetts intervened to prevent their being forced into service. . . . Similarly, bankers in the region refused to subscribe to loans to the United States, despite the government’s sore need for funds, and they exerted pressure on their clients to boycott the loans as well.
But the Yankees went beyond resistance into activities that were literally treasonable, even by the Constitution’s restricted definition of that crime. Through well-established connections in Canada, they conducted a lucrative trade with the enemy, and Canadian officials readily granted them British passes for carrying foodstuffs and supplies to the British army fighting the French in Spain and Portugal. So lucrative was their trade that by the winter of 1813-1814, hard currency from everywhere in the United States had gravitated to New England, where investors chose to put their surpluses into British bills of exchange “to avoid the temptation of lending money to support Madison’s measures”. . . .
What was more important in dividing Americans in their attitudes toward the war was a British blockade, imposed partially by the end of 1812 and made total by the middle of 1813—except for New England, which was under no British restrictions. The rest of the country suffered grievously, banks collapsed, and the general government forfeited on its interest payments and was reduced to issuing fiat money at large discounts; New England thrived. It was almost as if the area had gone beyond secession and become a British province. Indeed, the Federalist press in Massachusetts talked of taking that course. . . . (States’ Rights and the Union, pp. 66-68)
When the Northern Federalists gained control of the federal government in 1796, they tried to use their newly found power to silence political opponents. In 1798 they passed the infamous Sedition Act, which made it illegal to “falsely” criticize a federal official:
The Federalists did not rely solely on the army to crush political dissent. During the summer of 1798, the party’s majority in Congress passed a group of bills known collectively as the Alien and Sedition Acts. This legislation authorized the use of federal courts and the powers of the presidency to silence [political opponents]. . . . The acts were born of fear and vindictiveness, and in their efforts to punish the followers of Jefferson, the Federalists created the nation’s first major crisis over civil liberties. . . .
The Sedition Law struck at the heart of free political exchange. It defined criticism of the U.S. government as criminal libel. (Divine et al, editors, America Past and Present, pp. 223-224)
Historian Edmund Morgan wrote that the Sedition Act “was one of the most repressive measures ever directed against political activity in the United States” (in Blum and Catton et al, editors, The National Experience, p. 162). Legal scholar John Remington Graham observes that the Sedition Act “broadly criminalized libel against public officers of the United States, and was vindictively enforced by the party in power against the party out of power” (A Constitutional History of Secession, p. 110). Graham continues,
As if freedom of the press had not become part of constitutional heritage in the United States, Congressman Matthew Lyon of Vermont was convicted under the Sedition Act for writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper under the loaded jury instructions of an outraged Federal judge. Lyons was reelected to Congress as he sat in prison. There were many such abuses. (A Constitutional History of Secession, p. 110)
Historian John Garraty:
Finally, there was the Sedition Act. Its first section, making it a crime “to impede the operation of any law” or attempt to instigate a riot or insurrection, was reasonable enough; but the act also made it illegal to publish, or even to utter, any “false, scandalous and malicious” criticism of high government officials.
Although based on English precedents . . . this proviso rested, as James Madison said, on “the exploded doctrine” that government officials “are the masters and not the servants of the people.” To criticize a king is to try to undermine the respect of his subjects. . . . To criticize an elected official in a republic is to express dissatisfaction with the way one’s agent is performing his assigned task, certainly no threat to the state itself. The fundamental difference between these two modes of thought escaped the Federalists of 1798.
This, of course, is mere theory. Far worse was the Federalists’ practice under the Sedition Act. As the election of 1800 approached, they made a systematic attempt to silence the leading . . . [opposition] newspapers of the country. Twenty-five persons were prosecuted and ten convicted, all in patently unfair trials. In typical cases, editor Thomas Cooper was sentenced to six months in jailed and fined $400 [a substantial amount of money at the time], editor Charles Hall got three months and a $200 fine, editor James Callender got nine months and a $200 fine. (John Garraty, The American Nation, Volume 1: A History of the United States to 1877, p. 155)
Founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and James Madison rightly viewed the Sedition Act as a dangerous step toward a police state. In response to this threat to free speech and liberty, Jefferson authored the Kentucky Resolutions, while Madison authored the Virginia Resolutions, and their respective state legislatures approved them. The resolutions declared that the states had the right, even the duty, to protect their citizens against dangerous and unconstitutional federal abuses, such as the Sedition Act, and that ultimately it was up to the states to determine the legality of federal law if all other checks and balances failed. All the Northern states rejected these resolutions, even as patriotic citizens were being unjustly jailed under the Sedition Act. A strong majority of Americans, however, decided the Federalists had gone too far and swept them out of power two years later in the next election: The Federalists lost the presidency and lost control of both chambers of Congress in the 1800 election. Walter Brian Cisco discusses the Northern states’ reaction to the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions:
In the summer of 1798 a Federalist Congress passed, and President Adams signed, a series of acts designed to strengthen the government’s hand and to silence domestic critics. . . . The most controversial measure was the Sedition Act. . . . For a period of two years it was declared unlawful for anyone to “write, print, utter, or publish” anything “false, scandalous and malicious” against those in federal office. It was further declared seditious to bring Congress or the president “into contempt or disrepute” or to “excite against them . . . the hatred of the good people of the United States.” Less than seven years after the adoption of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights a Federalist majority had cast aside the free speech protections of the First Amendment. . . .
Dominated by Federalist legislators, all of the Northern states denounced the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions. States may not determine the constitutionality of federal laws, replied New Hampshire—only the federal judiciary has that prerogative. For a state to stand in the way of federal authority might cause “civil discord,” claimed Rhode Island, resulting in “many evil and fatal consequences.” Vermont, having entered the Union as the fourteenth state after years as an independent republic, ventured the opinion that, “The people of the United States formed the federal constitution, and not the states.” Madison expressed astonishment at such reasoning. . . . Kentucky legislators answered their critics by passing another resolution. In it they declared that to allow the federal government to determine the extent of its own powers, through the federal judiciary or elsewhere, would lead to “despotism.” Should federal authorities trample on the Constitution, the “rightful remedy” was “nullification” of the offending act by state intervention. . . .
In a 1799 letter to Madison, Jefferson went so far as to speak of the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions as a defense of the ultimate power “to sever ourselves from . . . the Union . . . rather than give up the rights of self-government.” (Taking A Stand, pp. 16, 18)
Historian Frank Owsley pointed out that Jefferson and other early American leaders invoked the principle of states’ rights in response to the troubling abuses that occurred as a result of the Sedition Act:
Under the Sedition Act men had been prosecuted for criticizing the President or members of Congress or judges and had been sent to prison in violation of the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech. Opinion had been suppressed, meetings broken up, arbitrary arrests made, men held without trial, in fact, the whole body of personal liberties had been brushed aside by the Federalist or centralizing party. . . . Jefferson and Madison, supported by the state-rights apostle of Virginia, John Taylor of Caroline, and . . . John Randolph, proclaimed that the federal government had thus shown itself to be an unsafe protector of liberty. So Jefferson announced in his inaugural . . . that the states were the safest guardians of human liberty and called on all to support “the state governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwark against anti-republican tendencies.” The founder of the party of the agrarian South and West upheld state rights as the safest guardian of the liberties and the domestic interests of the people. (“The Irrepressible Conflict,” in Edwin Rozwenc, editor, The Causes of the American Civil War, Second Edition, Lexington, Massachusetts: D. C. Heath and Company, 1972, p. 119)
When Northern Federalists sought to block the admission of Missouri as a state unless it abolished slavery, Jefferson suspected that their real motive was power and not a concern about slavery itself:
Six years later the territorial legislature of Missouri asked for admission. The House of Representatives in Washington approved, but attached an amendment requiring that Missouri phase out slavery after statehood. The Senate balked at such a stipulation. . . . Jefferson saw Northern sectionalism conspiring to keep additional Southern states out of the Union. The question of slavery carried with it, according to the former president, “just enough semblance of morality to throw dust into the eyes of the people, and to fanaticize them; while with the knowing ones it is simply a question of power.” (Cisco, Taking A Stand, p. 59)
In a letter to William Pinckney, Jefferson said,
The Missouri question is a mere party trick. The leaders of Federalism, defeated in their schemes of obtaining power by rallying partisans to the principle of monarchism . . . have changed their tack and thrown out another barrel to the whale. They are taking advantage of the virtuous feelings of the people to effect a division of parties by a geographical line. They expect that this will ensure them, on local principles, the majority that they could never obtain on principles of Federalism. (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Pinckney, September 20, 1820; cf. Robert Catlett Cave, The Men In Gray, Crawfordville, Georgia: Ruffin Flag Company, 1997, reprint of original edition, p. 134)
The battle over Missouri and the Missouri Compromise brings us to the charge that the South was trying to impose slavery on the western territories. Confusion and misrepresentation abound on this issue.
The Missouri Compromise, passed in 1820, limited the extension of slavery to a small section of the territories of the Louisiana Purchase. The compromise prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Purchase north of the southern border of Missouri, or above the latitude of 36o30’, while allowing it below that line and in Missouri itself. This meant that roughly 65 percent of the area of the Louisiana Purchase was off-limits to slaveholders who wanted to travel or settle there with their slaves. When the United States acquired an even larger area of western territory as a result of the Mexican Cession, slavery was still barred from roughly 65 percent of the territories. If a slaveholder traveled with his slave through any part of the territories where slavery was prohibited, he ran the risk of losing his slave without compensation. If a slaveholder wanted to settle in those territories, he couldn’t bring any slaves with him. Most Southern leaders felt this was unfair and unconstitutional.
In 1856 the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Roger Taney, ruled in the Dred Scott decision that Congress did not have the right to ban slavery in the territories and that therefore the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. However, the Republicans made it clear that if they gained control of Congress, they would attempt to ban slavery in all the territories, even though the Supreme Court had just ruled that Congress had no right to ban slavery in any territory. Most Southern leaders viewed the Republican position as unfair and lawless. Under Republican territorial policy, founding fathers like George Washington and James Madison, both of whom were slaveholders, would have been barred from settling in the territories unless they came there without their slaves.
The Southern position was that each territory had the right to abolish or legalize slavery when it applied for statehood, but that until then slaveholders should have equal access to the territories. Southern leaders argued that since the territories were supposed to be the common possession of all citizens, it was unfair to ban slaveholders from them, especially since slaveholders had played an important role in winning the Mexican War, which resulted in the acquisition of the territories granted in the Mexican Cession.
Most Southern leaders viewed equal access to the territories as a matter of honor and principle, as well as a matter of law. They knew that relatively few slaveholders had relocated into those territories where slavery was legal. They also knew that very few slaveholders had moved into the territories even after the Supreme Court ruled in 1857 that Congress could not prohibit slavery in any of the territories. However, Southern statesmen felt it was wrong in principle to treat slaveholders as second-class citizens by denying them equal access to the territories. They knew that Northern wage slavery wasn’t banned from the territories. They knew that Northern factory owners who cruelly abused their workers enjoyed full access to the territories and were free to bring their inhumane sweatshops with them. They knew that most slaveholders treated their slaves better than many Northern factory owners treated their workers. So most Southern leaders felt it was unfair and insulting to deny slaveholders equal access to the territories.
There were two major Southern positions on what should be done to provide slaveholders full access to the territories. One position, advocated by Senator Albert Brown, was that federal legislation should mandate the protection of slavery in each territory until the territory became a state. The other position, advanced by men like Jefferson Davis, James Orr, and Alexander Stephens, was that the people of each territory should be able to decide whether or not to allow slaveholders to travel or settle among them with their slaves (Cooper, Jefferson Davis, American, pp. 327-329). The Republicans, on the other hand, argued that under no circumstances should any new territory be allowed to permit slavery, even though the territory could choose to abolish slavery when it became a state.
It’s often overlooked that the main dispute over slavery between Northern and Southern leaders involved the extension of slavery into the territories, not the continuation of slavery where it already existed. Most Republicans were not opposed to the continuation of slavery in those states where it was already established. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, the majority of the men in Lincoln’s cabinet had no interest in disturbing slavery where it already existed, and Lincoln himself not only shared this view but supported a proposed constitutional amendment that would have made it permanently impossible for the federal government to abolish slavery in any of the existing slave states. The key dispute was over the extension of slavery into the territories.
If the Republicans had been willing to compromise to a relatively small degree on the extension of slavery, the Deep South states may very well have rejoined the Union soon after they seceded (in fact, they may not have seceded at all if the Republicans had not insisted on banning slavery in all the territories). Shortly after South Carolina voted for secession, Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky offered a widely popular compromise plan that would have permitted slavery in only 20 percent of the territories. This would have meant a substantial reduction in the percentage of the territories open to slavery under the Missouri Compromise. Nevertheless, key Southern leaders, including Jefferson Davis and Robert Toombs, said they would accept the proposal. But the Republicans in the Senate, at Lincoln’s direction, rejected the Crittenden Compromise. And, when Senator Crittenden and others tried to allow the people themselves to vote directly on the plan in a national referendum, the Republicans blocked any further action on the proposal, even though they were aware that a majority of the people probably supported it. Northern abolitionist Horace Greeley later declared that in a popular referendum the compromise plan would have won by “an overwhelming majority” (Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln, Volume 2, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950, pp. 401-402). Historian Allan Nevins discussed the plan’s popularity:
That Crittenden’s scheme had wide and enthusiastic public support there could be no question. John A. Dix, Edward Everett, and Robert Winthrop no sooner saw it than they wrote approbatory [approving] letters. Martin Van Buren declared that the amendments [proposed in Crittenden’s plan] would certainly be ratified by three-fourths of the States. The Senator received hundreds of assurances from all over the North and the border States that his policy had reached the popular heart. It took time to hold meetings and get memorials signed, but before long resolutions and petitions were pouring in upon Congress. In New York City, sixty-three thousand people signed an endorsement of the plan; another document bore the names of fourteen thousand women, scattered from North Carolina to Vermont. From St. Louis came nearly a hundred foolscap pages of names, wrapped in the American flag. Greeley [an influential New York newspaper editor and owner], who had as good opportunities for knowing public sentiment as any man in the country, later wrote that supporters of the Crittenden Compromise could claim with good reason that a large majority of people favored it. . . .
Early in January, Crittenden rose in the Senate to make the remarkable proposal that his compromise should be submitted to the people of the entire nation for their solemn judgment, as expressed by a popular vote. . . . The proposal inspired widespread enthusiasm. . . . Because of Republican obstruction, interposing delay after delay, it never came to a vote in the Senate. . . . (The Emergence of Lincoln, pp. 392-393, 401-402)
Historian David Potter says the following about the defeat of the Crittenden Compromise:
What do we mean, specifically, by saying that the Republican party rejected compromise? Certain facts are reasonably familiar in this connection, and may be briefly recalled. In December, 1860, at the time when a number of secession conventions had been called in the Southern states but before any ordinances of secession had been adopted, various political leaders brought forward proposals to give assurances to the Southerners. The most prominent of these was the plan by Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky to place an amendment in the Constitution which would restore and extend the former Missouri Compromise line of 36-30, prohibiting slavery in Federal territory north of the line and sanctioning it south of the line. In a Senate committee, this proposal was defeated with five Republicans voting against it and none in favor of it, while the non-Republicans favored it six to two. On January 16, after four states had adopted ordinances of secession, an effort was made to get the Crittenden measure out of committee and on to the floor of the Senate. This effort was defeated by 25 votes against to 23 in favor. This was done on a strict party vote, all 25 of the votes to defeat being cast by Republicans. None of those in favor were Republicans. On March 2, after the secession of the lower South was complete, the Crittenden proposal was permitted to come to a vote [by the full Senate]. In the Senate, it was defeated 19 to 20. All 20 of the negative votes were Republican, not one of the affirmative votes was so. In the House, it was defeated 80 to 113. Not one of the 80 was a Republican, but 110 of the 113 were Republicans. (David Potter, "Why the Republicans Rejected Both Compromise and Secession," in Edwin C. Rozwenc, The Causes of the American Civil War, Second Edition, Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and Company, 1972, p. 309)
It’s important to understand that most Republicans wanted to ban slavery from the territories primarily because they wanted to reserve the territories for white workers. When they were Whigs or Free Soilers in 1846-1849, most Republican politicians, including Lincoln, supported the Wilmot Proviso, which at one point would have banned free blacks from moving into the territories, in addition to banning slavery there (Divine et al, editors, America Past and Present, p. 413). Also, as mentioned previously, in the 1860 election campaign many Republican candidates championed their party as the true “White Man’s Party” that would reserve the territories for white labor. Wilmot himself proudly called his proposal the “White Man’s Proviso” (Holt, The Fate of Their Country, p. 27). Lincoln’s attitude on this issue reflected the thinking of most Republicans:
Now irrespective of the moral aspect of this question as to whether there is a right or wrong in enslaving a negro, I am still in favor of our new Territories being in such a condition that white men may find a home—may find some spot where they can better their condition—where they can settle upon new soil and better their condition in life. I am in favor of this not merely (I must say it here as I have elsewhere) for our own people who are born amongst us, but as an outlet for free white people everywhere, the world over. . . . (Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, New York: The Library of America, 1989, edited by Don Fehrenbacher, p. 807)
Textbooks and virtually all history books summarily dismiss the Supreme Court’s position on the Missouri Compromise in the 1857 Dred Scott ruling. However, the court’s position on this issue is by no means untenable. Critics of the decision note that the congress of the Articles of Confederation passed the Northwest Ordinance, which banned slavery in what was then the Northwest Territory (and permitted it in the territorial lands south of the Ohio River). But this does not prove the federal congress had the right to ban slavery in territories of the federal union (Davis, Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Volume 1, pp. 3-9; Benjamin Franklin Grady, The Case of the South Against the North, Dahlonega, Georgia: Crown Rights Book Company, 2003, reprint of original edition, pp. 258-260; Alexander Stephens, A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, Volume 1, Philadelphia: The National Publishing Company, 1868, Appendix G). James Madison, the “father of the Constitution,” argued that slaveholders had the right to travel throughout the Union with their slaves and that Congress had no right to ban slavery in territories belonging to the United States (Cisco, Taking A Stand, p. 59). During the congressional debates on the Missouri Compromise, Charles Pinckney, who had been a member of the Constitutional Convention, “reminded the House of Representatives that the framers never intended that Congress involve itself in slavery” (Cisco, Taking A Stand, p. 59).
On an aside note, Chief Justice Taney’s reputation has been unfairly brutalized over the Dred Scott decision. Taney’s position on the Missouri Compromise was and is credible and defensible, and if he had stopped there he would have been on solid ground. But, tragically and mistakenly, Taney also ruled in Dred Scott that the Constitution barred blacks from federal citizenship, and that the sublime statement in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” did not apply to blacks. Civil rights advocates were justifiably outraged by these arguments.
However, before we judge Taney too harshly, a few things should be said in his defense. Although he argued that the Constitution did not permit blacks to be federal citizens, he added that they could receive state citizenship. He made it clear that the court’s ruling did not prevent states from conferring full citizenship on slaves, and that the court’s decision only involved federal citizenship. As for Taney’s mistaken belief that blacks were not included in the phrase “all men are created equal,” even many Northerners shared this view at the time, including Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois. Lincoln himself didn’t believe the phrase referred to inherent equality but only to legal equality in certain respects, and more than once he called the Declaration of Independence "the white-man’s charter of freedom" (Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, pp. 269, 477; see also Bennett, Forced Into Glory, pp. 303-304).
Taney hinted that he realized that the denial of federal citizenship to slaves was unjust but that he felt bound by the Constitution to reach the decision that he reached. He pointed out that it was not the place of judges to rule on the basis of justice or injustice in deciding the legality of laws, but on the basis of the text of the Constitution and the original intent of its authors. Said Taney,
It is not the province of the court to decide upon the justice or injustice, the policy or impolicy, of these laws. The decision of that question belonged to the political or law-making power; to those who formed the sovereignty and framed the constitution. The duty of the court is, to interpret the instrument they have framed, with the best lights we can obtain on the subject, and to administer it as we find it, according to its true intent and meaning when it was adopted.
The change in public opinion and feeling in relation to the African race, which has taken place since the adoption of the Constitution, cannot change its construction and meaning, and it must be construed and administered now according to its true meaning and intention when it was formed and adopted.
It should also be pointed out that Taney had no love for slavery. In fact, Taney disliked slavery and had long since freed his own slaves. Very few textbooks mention these facts. To his credit, McPherson mentions them in his book The Battle Cry of Freedom. McPherson also notes that Taney was “committed to liberating American enterprise from the shackles of special privilege,” that as President Jackson’s Secretary of the Treasury he helped destroy the Second Bank of the United States, and that as a Supreme Court justice he ruled against special corporate charters (The Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 173). Northern historian James Ford Rhodes observed that in the years leading up to the Dred Scott decision, Taney “had gained a solid reputation for accurate knowledge of law and clearness of statement” (“Antecedents of the American Civil War,” in Rozwenc, editor, The Causes of the American Civil War, p. 58). Incidentally, when Lincoln began to forcefully suppress political opposition at the start of the war, it was Taney who had the courage to tell Lincoln, in Ex Parte Merryman, that he had no right to suspend habeas corpus protection against illegal arrest and that only Congress had that right. (Lincoln ignored the decision and tried to have Taney arrested.)
Events in Kansas in 1855 and 1856 are often cited as evidence of a Southern attempt to violently impose slavery on a territory against its will. Proslavery and antislavery factions resorted to using violence in their efforts to control the territory’s destiny. Both sides were guilty of excesses and crimes. Northern newspapers printed wildly misleading accounts of the situation, accusing proslavery forces of widespread, unrestrained violence in the territory. The amount of violence in the territory was overstated. Much of the violence, if not most of it, was not related to the slavery issue. “Bleeding Kansas” became a rallying cry for abolitionists and sparked fistfights in Congress. McDonald comments on the events in Kansas as follows:
Actually, the violence in “Bleeding Kansas” was not appreciably more severe than was common in newly opened frontier communities, and a lot of it involved land claims and other disputes having no bearing upon slavery. But newspapers in the Northeast carried sensational stories almost daily and portrayed the actions as representing unmitigated proslavery aggression. (States’ Rights and the Union, p. 171)
Historian Thomas Woods:
It was fairly clear that slavery would not take root in Nebraska, but the outcome in Kansas was not so certain. Supporters and opponents of slavery flocked to Kansas to influence the vote. The typical textbook describes Kansas as the scene of ceaseless slavery-related violence. Recent scholarship, however, casts doubt on this perception. Eyewitness accounts and newspaper reports appear to have been unreliable, even wildly exaggerated. In their own propaganda, both sides tended to inflate the number of killings to call attention to their own plight or to impress readers with the number of casualties they managed to inflict on their opponents. “Political killings,” writes research Dale Watts, “account for about one-third of the total violent deaths. They were not common. The streets and byways did not run red with blood as some writers have imagined.”
A recent study concluded that of the 157 violent deaths that occurred during Kansas’s territorial period, fifty-six appear to have had some connection to the political situation or to the slavery issue. (The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2004, pp. 49-50)
Any response to the charge that the South controlled the federal government before the war wouldn’t be complete without an examination of the Brooks-Sumner incident. The incident is often cited as an example of the South’s alleged intolerance and barbarism even in the halls of Congress. On May 22, 1856, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina walked onto the floor of the Senate carrying a cane. Brooks was looking for Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Sumner, a Radical Republican, had crudely insulted Brooks’s aged uncle, Senator Andrew Butler, in a Senate speech two days earlier. Brooks saw Sumner sitting at his desk on the Senate floor. He approached Sumner, told him his speech was insulting, and without warning proceeded to strike him several times with the cane. Sumner struggled to rise from his desk, but collapsed as Brooks continued to strike him. The nature of the injuries that Sumner suffered is still debated, but there is evidence they may have been serious. Over the next several months, Sumner did return to the Senate two or three times to cast votes on key issues, but some of his wounds became infected and he suffered painful headaches. He then went on an extended trip to Europe to seek a cure for his headaches. While in Europe, he “led a fairly active social life” (Brodie, Thaddeus Stevens, p. 127). He returned to the Senate full-time three years later. To his credit, Sumner publicly forgave Brooks for the assault. For his part, Brooks viewed the attack as an unpleasant duty required by the code of honor, and he explained that he had not intended to hurt Sumner but only to punish him for his insulting speech.
Shortly after the attack, Northern congressmen tried to expel Brooks from the House, but they failed to achieve the two-thirds majority required for expulsion. Northern politicians were outraged that Southern representatives wouldn’t vote to expel Brooks. Not all Southern congressmen necessarily condoned Brooks’s assault, but most of them believed that Sumner had behaved in a rudely provocative manner and that therefore Brooks’s conduct did not warrant expulsion. I can’t condone Brooks’s behavior. By any reasonable measurement, his use of force was unacceptable. I suspect I would have voted to expel him from the House, or at least to censure him (he was in fact censured). However, I agree with Lloyd Paul Stryker that the attack “was provoked if any ever was” (Andrew Johnson, p. 51). Senator Douglas of Illinois found Sumner’s speech so inflammatory that he accused Sumner of trying “to provoke some one of us to kick him as one would a dog in the street” (Stryker, Andrew Johnson, pp. 50-51). Randall and Donald said the speech was “intemperate and abusive” and that it included “ugly denunciation” and “an offensive personal attack” against Brooks’s uncle (The Civil War and Reconstruction, p. 101). Simkins said the following about the Brooks-Sumner incident:
The way in which events in Kansas poisoned the atmosphere is vividly illustrated by the Brooks-Sumner affair in the halls of Congress. A few days before John Brown’s attack at Pottawatomie, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts delivered his “Crime Against Kansas” speech in which he accepted without question the authenticity of every charge against the proslavery element in Kansas, and heaped personal abuse upon the unoffending and aged Senator Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina. “It is his object,” commented Douglas on the effort of the Massachusetts senator, “to provoke some one of us to kick him as one would a dog in the street, that he may get sympathy upon the just chastisement.” Two days after Sumner had spoken, Douglas’s suggestion was carried out. Preston S. Brooks, a representative from South Carolina and a kinsman of Butler, got the satisfaction of a Southern gentleman by beating the vituperative New Englander into insensibility with a gutta-percha walking stick while Sumner was sitting at his desk in the Senate. . . .
Many Southerners believed that Brooks’s act was unwise because it played into the hands of the abolitionists, although there were few who felt that it was not justified. His Southern colleagues prevented his expulsion from Congress by refusing the necessary two-thirds majority, and when he resigned voluntarily he was re-elected with only six votes cast against him. Enthusiastic friends presented him with suitably inscribed canes and wrote exultant editorials. Brooks did not like these vulgar manifestations of approval. He was a courtly gentleman far removed from the ruffian depicted in the abolitionist propaganda. To him the chastisement of Sumner was an unpleasant duty under a code of honor which required that the slanderer of a helpless kinsman should not go unpunished. (A History of the South, p. 200)
Historian Lyon G. Tyler, son of President John Tyler, pointed out that when one Northern congressman attacked another Northern congressman in an earlier incident similar to the Brooks-Sumner affair, neither offender was expelled and both were reelected:
The remarkable point is that New England set the example for Sumner’s flagellation. In 1798 Roger Griswold, a high-strutting Federalist of Connecticut, grossly insulted Matthew Lyon, a Democratic Republican of Vermont, and Lyon spat in his face. A motion was made to expel Lyon, but his party in Congress, while condemning his conduct, thought that he had great provocation and refused to vote for it. Thereupon after several weeks Griswold attacked Lyon, while writing at his desk, with a thick hickory cane, rather a contrast to the small gutta-percha stick employed by Brooks, which was hollow and broke into pieces in Brooks’s hand. Lyon was, like Sumner, caught in his seat, but he managed with his arm to protect his head from injury and, releasing himself, gallantly charged his opponent. . . . The House refused to expel either Griswold or Lyon, and by vote of their New England constituents both were returned to Congress at the next election in 1800. Were their constituencies necessarily degraded on this account? (A Confederate Catechism, pp. 54-55)
The Reconstruction Era
Time only allows me to provide a limited sketch of the “Reconstruction” program that the Republicans imposed on the South after the war. I don’t deny that some good things were accomplished during Reconstruction. Nor do I deny that Reconstruction, as bad as it was, could have been worse. However, most textbooks only talk about the good aspects of Reconstruction, while they ignore or minimize the negative aspects. The unjust, illegal aspects of Reconstruction merit discussion.
Reconstruction began in 1865 and officially ended in 1877. The Radicals took substantial control of Reconstruction in 1867. Reconstruction was bad enough from the outset, but it became much worse under Radical influence. The Radicals illegally placed the South under military rule. They divided the South into five military districts, each governed by a Union army general. They nullified the recent Southern elections and refused to allow Southern congressmen to take their seats in Congress, even though these men had been elected in elections that were just as valid as any election that had been held in the North. Not content with their political subjugation of the South, the Radicals and other Republicans allowed the Southern states to be looted and exploited for years by Northern business interests and by corrupt Reconstruction governments. The Radicals did these things over the strenuous objections of Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson.
The Radicals also shamelessly contradicted Lincoln’s earlier Republican claim that the Southern states had not left the Union. During the war, Lincoln and other Republicans made the bizarre argument that the Southern states had not really left the Union but that they had been taken over by “combinations” too powerful for local authorities to suppress. According to this pathetic argument, Lincoln wasn’t invading the Southern states; rather, he was merely liberating them from the “combinations” that had supposedly seized control of them. Many Radicals never accepted this argument because they feared it would make it harder for them to subjugate the Southern states when the war was over. Once the war ended, the Radicals insisted that the Southern states had left the Union, and that they couldn’t be readmitted until they complied with Republican demands. This position made a mockery of the Republicans’ pre-war assertion that the war was not being waged to subjugate the South.
During the worst period of Reconstruction, Southerners who voiced objections to Republican policy could be jailed, and even executed, without indictment or trial. Southern newspapers that criticized Reconstruction ran the real risk of being shut down, and some newspapers were closed down for this reason. Federal troops were stationed all over the South, and in some cases their conduct was disgraceful and abusive. Many Republican operatives and other Northerners who came to the South poisoned race relations by inciting former slaves to hate and persecute Southern whites. The Republicans made it illegal for males who had served in the Confederate army or in the Confederate government to vote or hold public office. Ex-Confederates could only vote if they were willing to lie by taking the “ironclad oath.” The oath disqualified any man who had served in the Confederacy or who had even “aided” the Confederacy. Of course, this excluded a large majority of Southern men. To their credit, some Southern black leaders opposed denying former Confederates the right to vote, but their efforts were unsuccessful. New Southern legislatures and governors were chosen in elections in which most former Confederates were barred from voting. These corrupt Reconstruction state governments imposed oppressive taxes on their citizens and also stole or wasted a staggering amount of taxpayer money. Historian Albert B. Moore noted the vindictive, unjust nature of Reconstruction:
The war set the stage for a complete reconstruction of the South. Furious hatred, politics, economic considerations, and a curious conviction that God had joined a righteous North to use it as an instrument for the purging of the wicked South gave a keen edge to the old reconstruction urge. The victories of bullets and bayonets were followed by the equally victorious attack of tongues and press. Ministers mounted their pulpits on Easter Sunday, the day following President Lincoln’s tragic death, and assured their sad auditors that God’s will had been done, that the President had been removed because his heart was too merciful to punish the South as God required. An eminent New York divine assured his audience that the vice-regent of Christ, the new president, Andrew Johnson, was mandated from on high “to hew the rebels in pieces before the Lord.” “So let us say,” with becoming piety and sweet submissiveness he enjoined, “God’s will be done.” Whether the ministers thought, after they discovered that Johnson was opposed to a reign of terror, that the Lord had made a mistake is not a matter of record. . . .
Many unfriendly writers invaded the South, found what they wanted, and wrote books, articles, and editorials that strengthened the conviction that the South must be torn to pieces and made anew. Books, journals, and newspapers stimulated the impulse to be vigilant and stern, to repress and purge. . . .
The repudiation of its debts impoverished the South and destroyed its financial relationships. While the South lost its debts, it had to pay its full share of the northern debts which amounted to about four-fifths of the total northern war expenses. The money for this debt was spent in the North for its upbuilding. It paid also its share of the $20,000,000 returned by the Federal treasury to the northern states for direct taxes collected from them during the war, and of extravagant pensions to Union soldiers. Professor James L. Sellers estimates that the Sound paid in these ways an indemnity of at least a billion dollars to the North. . . .
It would be safe to say that the people of the North never understood how the South suffered during the Radical regime. The Radicals who controlled most of the organs of public opinion were in no attitude of mind to listen to southern complaints, and most people were too busy with the pursuit of alluring business opportunities that unfolded before them to think much of what was going on down South. . . .
The South staggered out of the Reconstruction, which ended officially in 1877, embittered, impoverished, encumbered with debt, and discredited by Radical propaganda. . . . The tax load had been devastating. The lands of thousands upon thousands had been sold for taxes. Huge state and local debts, much of which was fraudulent, had been piled up. So many bonds, legal and illegal, had been sold that public credit was destroyed. (In Gerald Grob and George Billias, editors, Interpretations of American History, Volume 2, New York: The Free Press, 1967, pp. 33-35, 37-38, original emphasis)
Hummel notes the heavy tax burden that was imposed on the South after the war:
. . . the war-ravaged South suffered under some of the heaviest state and local taxation in proportion to wealth in U.S. history. Tax rates in 1870 were three or four times what they had been in 1860, even though property values had declined significantly. Many who had not lost their land already were now forced into bankruptcy. At one point 15 percent of all taxable land in Mississippi was up for sale because of tax defaults. (Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, p. 316)
Economist Thomas DiLorenzo discusses some of the ways in which Republicans and Northern business interests exploited the South during Reconstruction:
What did the Republican Party do with its monopolistic political power? First, it plundered Southern taxpayers by greatly expanding state and local governmental budgets. Little of this governmental expansion benefited the general public; the main beneficiaries were the thousands of “carpetbaggers” (and a few “scalawags”) who populated the newly bloated governmental bureaucracies and who benefited from government contracts. . . .
The biggest item on the agenda of the Republicans was government subsidies to the corporations that bankrolled the Republican Party. The Confederate Constitution outlawed such corporate welfare, but with the defeat of the Confederate armies there was no longer any opposition to it.
From 1866 to 1872 the eleven southern states amassed nearly $132 million in state debt for railroad subsidies alone. In countless instances bonds were issued but were backed by no property of any value. In many states bonds were sold before work began on railroads, and “dishonest promoters sold these bonds for what they could get and never built the roads.” [Quoting E. M. Coulter, The South during Reconstruction, LSU Press, p. 150]. . . .
The federal government established a “Land Commission” that was ostensibly set up to buy property and turn it into homesteads for ex-slaves. Instead, most of the land was handed out to those with good connections to the Republican Party. . . . Many recipients of land grants were paid “front men” for mining and timber companies.
Many of the Republican Party operatives who dominated Southern legislatures during Reconstruction literally sold their votes for cash on a daily basis: The going rate was just under $300 per vote. . . . The expansion of government provided myriad opportunities for bribery, and Republican Party opportunists took great advantage of them. . . .
The historian E. Merton Coulter catalogued myriad ways in which Republican Party operatives figured out how to loot Southern taxpayers:
* By 1870 the cost of printing alone to the government of Florida exceeded the entire state budget for 1860. The legislature sold to its friends (and to itself) over a million acres of public land for five cents an acre.
* The South Carolina legislature paid supporters $75,000 to take a state census in 1869, although the federal government was to do the same thing a year later for $43,000. It also paid the House Speaker an extra $1,000 in compensation after he lost $1,000 on a horse race.
* Before the war a session of the Louisiana legislature cost about $100,000 to run; after the war the cost exceeded $1 million because of lavish spending on lunches, alcohol, women’s apparel, and even coffins. The Louisiana legislature also purchased a hotel for $250,000 that had just sold for $84,000 and chartered a navigation company and purchased $100,000 in stock even though the company never came into being. . . .
* Taxes on property were increased by intolerable amounts so that the governmental agents could then confiscate the property for “unpaid taxes”. . . . By 1872 property taxes in the South were, on average, about four times what they were in 1860. In South Carolina, the birthplace of the secessionist movement, they were thirty times higher. This was devastating to the Southern economy and makes a mockery of the very term “Reconstruction.”
The tax collectors stole much of this money. More than half a million dollars in taxes collected in 1872 were never turned in to the Florida treasury. . . .
Although the South was economically destitute, a punitive five cents per pound federal tax was placed on cotton, making it difficult, if not impossible, for many cotton growers to stay in business. A military order stated that anyone who had sold cotton to the Confederate government must give up his cotton to the U.S. government. Hundreds of U.S. Treasury agents swarmed over the South, confiscating cotton with the backing of armed U.S. troops. Little money was raised for the U.S. Treasury, however, for the Treasury agents embezzled much of it. . . .
In order to keep this corrupt system running, the Republican-controlled governments subsidized pro-Republican newspapers to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars annually and, in some cases, granted them legal monopolies in the newspaper business in particular towns. In effect, the Republicans were extending Lincoln’s policy of censoring or shutting down opposition newspapers in the North during the war. (The Real Lincoln, pp. 211-212, 213, 214, 215-217)
Steven Weisman discusses some of the ways that the Republicans punished and exploited the South during Reconstruction:
The election in the fall of 1866 cemented the control of Congress by radical Republicans, emboldening them not only in their punitive approach to the South but also in their drive for high tariffs and muscular government on behalf of business. Among the harshest of the Reconstruction Era steps directed at the South was the invalidation of the entire Confederate debt. Congress also ruled out any possibility of slaveholders being compensated for the loss of their slaves. Beyond the total destruction of vast swathes of Confederate farmlands and cities, these steps wiped out billions of dollars of assets held by the South’s aristocracy. By contrast, in the North, everything possible was done to redeem the Union’s debt. (The Great Tax Wars, p. 95)
As noted, Northern business interests took full advantage of the South’s subjugation during Reconstruction. African-American scholars Franklin and Moss note that “Northern financiers and industrialists took advantage of the opportunity to impose their economic control on the South, and much of it endured for generations” (From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, p. 264). Kenneth Davis concedes that Southern railroad companies were "burdened for decades by unfair rates and restrictive tariffs set by Northerners, who controlled the vast majority of railways and the legislatures that set rates" (Don’t Know Much About the Civil War, pp. 425-426).
“But,” some will ask, “wasn’t slavery abolished under Reconstruction?” Yes, slavery was abolished during the Johnson phase of Reconstruction when the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified on December 18, 1865. We can all agree that slavery was wrong and that it needed to be abolished. But it was abolished in a way that was unfair and that caused enormous damage to the Southern economy. Under the Thirteenth Amendment, Southern slaveholders received no compensation for their slaves. The abolition of slavery without compensation cost the South about two billion dollars in capital, and it reduced real estate values by at least that amount. In terms of modern monetary value, this represented a total loss of over sixty billion dollars.
Southern slaveholders should have been able to recover the cost of their slaves, just as Northern slaveholders had been able to do decades earlier. Most Southern slaveholders treated their slaves humanely. Many of these men believed they had a Christian duty to properly and respectfully care for their slaves. One doesn’t have to condone human bondage to acknowledge that in most cases Southern slavery was administered humanely. This isn’t the place for an extended discussion on Southern slavery, but the following facts should be noted:
* When the Works Progress Administration interviewed thousands of ex-slaves in the 1930s, most of those who commented on how they were treated said their masters were good men.
* Southern slaves had a life expectancy that was comparable to urban populations and higher than in some European nations. In fact, slaves had a longer life expectancy than did Northern factory workers.
* The diet and housing of slaves were comparable to, if not usually better than, the diet and housing of Northern factory workers. According to the 1860 Census, there were 5.2 persons per house among slave households on large plantations, whereas there were 5.3 persons per house among free households. In the vast majority of cases, a slave family lived in a house, not in a dormitory with other families.
* In many cases slaves received a greater share of the product of their labor than did many Northern factory workers.
* Most slaves marriages were not broken up. McPherson, a pro-Northern historian, acknowledges that 66-80 percent of slave marriages remained intact. An interesting statistic is that nearly 40 percent of the marriages performed in Southern Episcopal churches between 1800 and 1860 were slave marriages. On average, only one out of every twenty-two slaveholders sold a slave in a year, and about one-third of those cases occurred in the sale of estates of masters who had died. The records from the New Orleans slave market indicate that no more than 13 percent of slave sales resulted in the breaking up of slave marriages.
* Most slave overseers were black.
* The suicide rate among slaves was much lower than the suicide rate among whites.
* Hundreds of thousands of slaves, if not millions, were converted to Christianity under slavery.
* Even in the 1850s some slaves were able to buy their freedom, partly because they were permitted to earn money.
For documentation of the above facts, see Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, Norton Edition with Afterword, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989, pp. 38-157; McPherson, Ordeal By Fire, pp. 34-36; Walter Kennedy, Myths of American Slavery, Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing, 2003, pp. 101-139; John J. Dwyer, editor, The War Between the States: America’s Uncivil War, Denton, Texas: Bluebonnett Press, 2005, pp. 67-86; Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Vintage Books Edition, New York: Vintage Books, 1974, pp. 325-565.
Granted, no matter how humanely slavery was administered, it was still wrong. The point is that most Southern slaveholders did not deserve to lose their slaves without compensation, and that this unfair policy did great damage to the South’s economy.
Textbooks note the fact that Radical Reconstruction included civil rights reforms that enabled former slaves to vote. However, they almost never mention information that sheds important light on those reforms. If the Republicans had enacted and implemented these reforms in a legal, ethical manner, and if their motives for doing so had been noble, they would deserve nothing but praise. But such was not the case. Most Republican leaders supported the imposition of these reforms because they wanted to control and exploit the Southern states, not because they really cared about the fate of the ex-slaves. Republican operatives manipulated, and sometimes even coerced, ex-slaves to vote Republican so the Republican Party could take over Southern state governments. Many Republican operatives who came to the South during Reconstruction did all they could to poison race relations between ex-slaves and Southern whites. Once the Republicans took control of Southern state governments, they proceeded to engage in large-scale corruption and oppression, which harmed blacks and whites alike. A respected moderate Southern leader in Mississippi warned President Johnson that the Republican-created Freedmen’s Bureau was “demoralizing the negroes, robbing and defrauding them” (Felicity Allen, Jefferson Davis: Unconquerable Heart, Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1999, p. 472). DiLorenzo sheds further light on how and why the Republicans imposed civil rights reforms during Reconstruction:
Great resources were expended on registering the adult male ex-slaves to vote, while a law denying the franchise to anyone involved in the late “rebellion” disenfranchised [took away the right to vote from] most Southern white men. So rigorous were the restrictions placed on white Southern males that anyone who even organized contributions of food and clothing for family and friends in the Confederate army was disenfranchised, as were all those who purchased bonds from the Confederate government. Even if one did not participate in the war effort, voter registration required one to publicly proclaim that one’s sympathies were with the Federal armies during the war. . . .
The federally funded “Union Leagues” were run by Republican Party operatives and administered voter registration of the ex-slaves. This, too, was a dramatic change in the nation’s political life, for tax dollars taken from taxpayers of all political parties were being used to register only Republican voters. The ex-slaves were promised many things, including the property of white Southerners, if they registered and voted Republican and, at times, were threatened or intimidated if they dared to register Democrat. All of this was funded with federal tax dollars. . . . For years, these men, along with government bureaucrats associated with the “Freedmen’s Bureau,” promised blacks that if they voted Republican they would be given the property of the white population (and, of course, they never were).
Missionaries and many other people assisted the ex-slaves in integrating into society, but the primary concern of the Party of Lincoln was to get them registered to vote Republican, not to educate them, feed them, or help them find employment. The result was that by 1868 ten of the fourteen southern U.S. senators, twenty of the thirty-give representatives, and four of the seven governors were Northern Republicans who had never met their constituents until after the war. . . .
If Northerners in general and the Republican Party in particular wanted blacks to be given the vote because of their concern for social equality, then one has to wonder why voters in Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, and Kansas refused to extend the right to vote to blacks in 1867 and 1868. . . . (The Real Lincoln, pp. 208-210, original emphasis)
Congressman Lawrence Patton McDonald discussed some of the illegal measures and negative consequences of the Radicals’ reconstruction program:
After a brief period of vacillation, Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln, earnestly tried to carry out Lincoln’s reconstruction program. But Johnson did not have enough influence in the country, or with Congress. Radical Republicans (as they were then called) controlled Congress. They hated the South and wanted to punish it. They were also power-hungry men who wanted to maintain their control of the entire nation, North and South. Their control of Congress was complete—but it would vanish overnight if freely elected southerners returned to Washington and voted with the existing minority that wanted to follow Lincoln’s reconstruction policy.
The Radical Republicans succeeded in getting their reconstruction programs enacted into law; and then, to make their principal features permanently binding, they proposed the Fourteenth Amendment. Two-thirds of both chambers of Congress did not vote for the resolution proposing the Fourteenth Amendment, as must be done under the Constitution for legal passage of such a resolution. The Radical Republican majority resolved that the resolution did pass, and submitted it to the states for ratification. Three-fourths of the states did not ratify the proposed amendment, as required by the Constitution; but the Radical Republican majority in Congress had the Secretary of State proclaim it ratified anyway—on July 20, 1868. By then, the Radical Republicans controlled not only Congress but also the executive branch. They had the judicial branch thoroughly intimidated, and their cohorts controlled many state governments in the North. . . .
Two hundred years of slavery created relationships that would have been slow to change for the better under the best of circumstances. Negroes were freed under the worst of circumstances—suddenly, by a storm of violence. And they were started, unprepared, on the long road toward the responsibilities as well as the blessings of freedom, amidst a volcano of hatreds which the violence had caused. Conceivably, the road would have been smoother and the trip faster, if the freed blacks could have lived amidst the whites who were hailed as their liberators [i.e., Northern whites], with no outsiders around to agitate mutual hatreds, resentments, and fears. Unfortunately, it was the other way around.
The military power that destroyed white supremacy in the South established black supremacy. Under the protection of this invading military force, white outsiders manipulated and used southern Negroes, but did not educate them, or even permit them to learn much about the burdens and responsibilities that freedom itself imposes. When northern military rule was withdrawn in 1877, and white supremacy was again established in the South, southern blacks and whites were in even worse condition (socially and economically) to establish a harmonious society than they would have been in if left alone at the end of the Civil War. (Lawrence Patton McDonald, We Hold These Truths: A Reverent Review of the U.S. Constitution, Seal Beach, California: ’76 Press, 1976, pp. 55-56, 92)
Civil rights could and should have been advanced through legal, ethical means. Yes, this would have taken longer, but it would have preserved the constitutional republic that our founding fathers gave us, and all Americans would have been better off in the long run. Instead, in the name of imposing civil rights on the South, the Republicans subverted the rule of law, permitted Republican operatives to engage in astonishing corruption, looted the South for years, poisoned race relations, illegally and unethically amended the Constitution, further destroyed the balance of power between the states and the federal government, and empowered the federal government to perform functions that the founding fathers did not want it to perform. The Radicals claimed that drastic measures against the South, including the imposition of military rule, were necessary because of Southern black codes and because of alleged lawlessness in the region. Historian William Dunning of Columbia University rejected these arguments as specious:
As a justification for military rule, it was declared . . . that “no legal state governments or adequate protection for life or property” existed in the “rebel states” enumerated. Thus the organizations which Lincoln and Johnson had with so much care nurtured into vigorous life were formally pronounced by Congress destitute of legality as state governments and “subject to the paramount authority of the United States to abolish, modify, control, or supersede the same.” The absence of adequate protection for life and property was a conclusion which the majority [in Congress] drew from the Memphis and New Orleans riots, and from the reports of outrages on freedmen and Unionists. These occasional and widely scattered disturbances were in fact a wholly insufficient basis for the sweeping generalization that was made as to conditions in the South. In most parts of that section life and property were, despite the effects of the war, as well protected as had ever been the case. But the radical program was not restricted by a careful regard for the facts. Nor was it, on the other hand, restricted by any careful regard for constitutional law. The clauses of the act [the Radical Reconstruction Act] authorizing military commissions for the trial and punishment of crime were in direct and contemptuous disregard of the Supreme Court’s opinion in the Milligan case, rendered less than three months before, and were based upon the theory that a state of war still existed, though executive, judiciary, and Congress itself had concurred in regarded in regarding the war as long since ended. . . .
The reasoning by which the policy of Congress was justified in the North was regarded in the South as founded on falsehood and malice. So far as the “black codes” were concerned, it was pointed out that they could not be alleged as evidences of a tendency to restore slavery or introduce peonage, since the offensive acts had in many of the states been repealed by the legislatures themselves, and in all had been duly superseded by the civil rights act. (Reconstruction, Political and Economic 1865-1877, Harper Torchbook Edition, New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1962, pp. 93-94, 110)
Thomas E. Woods says the following about the black codes:
These codes curtailed black liberty in various degrees and the Radicals described them as a continuation of slavery. But the codes were essentially based on Northern vagrancy laws and other restrictive legislation that was still on the books when the Reconstruction Acts were drawn up. Historian Ralph Selph Henry contends that “there was hardly a feature of the apprenticeship and vagrancy acts of Mississippi, and of the other Southern states, which was not substantially duplicated in some of these Northern laws, while many of the Northern provisions were more harsh in their terms than anything proposed in the South.
In the northeast, as well as in Indiana and Wisconsin, the vagrancy laws were as broad as anything in the South, with more severe punishments for violating them. “One without employment wandering abroad, begging, and ‘not giving a good account of himself,’ might be imprisoned as a vagrant, for periods varying from ninety days to three years, in various Northern states.”
Two modern scholars, H. A. Scott Trask and Carey Roberts, contend that the black codes have been misunderstood in their intent and exaggerated in their impact:
“Most granted, or recognized, important legal rights for the freedmen, such as the right to hold property, to marry, to make contracts, to sue, and to testify in court. Many mandated penalties for vagrancy, but the intention there was not to bind them to the land in a state of perpetual serfdom, as was charged by the Northern Radicals, but to end what had become an intolerable situation—the wandering across the South of large numbers of freedmen who were without food, money, jobs, or homes. Such a situation was leading to crime, fear, and violence.”
The sense of moral righteousness that dominated fashionable Northern opinion often blinded Northerners to their own problems. The Chicago Tribune protested the black codes of Mississippi without for a moment reflecting on the laws in its own state. In Illinois, any free black in the state who could not produce a certificate of freedom and who had not posted a bond of one thousand dollars was subject to arrest and to be hired out as a laborer for a year. Illinois continued to forbid the testimony of blacks in cases involving whites. (The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, pp. 80-81)
Historian John Blum, though critical of certain aspects of the black codes, says the provisions against vagrancy were required by conditions at the time:
The moderates as well as the Radicals objected . . . to the “black codes” that the former Confederate states adopted. These codes represented the initial Southern effort to regulate the economic and social lives of the freed slaves. Many of the Negroes, without experience with freedom, drifted aimlessly about the country, expecting charity and avoiding work, sometimes stealing or carousing. The “black codes” were designed to discourage vagrancy and to minimize race friction. (In Blum and Catton et al, editors, The National Experience, p. 377)
Historian John Garraty concludes that when viewed in historical perspective, even the most restrictive of the black codes were a marked improvement over slavery:
. . . the so-called Black Codes enacted by Southern governments to control former slaves alarmed the North. These varied in severity from state to state. When seen in historical perspective, even the strictest codes represented a considerable improvement over slavery. Most permitted blacks to sue and to testify in court, at least in cases involving members of their own race. Blacks were allowed to own certain kinds of property; marriages were made legal; other rights were guaranteed. (The American Nation, Volume 2: A History of the United States Since 1865, Eighth Edition, New York: HarperCollins, 1995, p. 434)
I would like to conclude this discussion on Reconstruction by quoting a substantial portion of President Johnson’s veto of the first Radical Reconstruction Act. Before doing so, I should point out that the Radicals tried to remove Johnson from office because he opposed their Reconstruction program, even though he had staunchly supported the war and had opposed secession. When Lincoln was assassinated, some Radicals said Lincoln’s death was “a godsend to the country” because they believed Johnson, unlike Lincoln, would help them ravage the South (Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877, p. 50; John Hope Franklin, Reconstruction After the Civil War, University of Chicago Press, 1961, pp. 26-30). When the Radicals realized Johnson was not going to cooperate with them, they turned on him with a vengeance. They impeached him in the House and then put him on trial in the Senate, on the basis of utterly frivolous charges–they fell just one vote short of the two-thirds majority required for conviction. Amazingly, a few Radicals even tried to frame Johnson for Lincoln’s murder. President Johnson came to suspect that some of the Radicals had been behind Lincoln’s assassination because Lincoln, for whatever reasons, apparently opposed their plans to oppress and plunder the defeated South. In any case, the Radicals overturned Johnson’s veto. Therefore, their Reconstruction program became law and was imposed on ten of the eleven Southern states (the one exception was Tennessee). Here is some of what President Johnson had to say about the first Radical Reconstruction Act and why he refused to sign it:
I have examined the bill "to provide for the more efficient government of the rebel States" with the care and the anxiety which its transcendent importance is calculated to awaken. I am unable to give it my assent for reasons so grave that I hope a statement of them may have some influence on the minds of the patriotic and enlightened men with whom the decision must ultimately rest. The bill places all the people of the ten States therein named under the absolute domination of military rulers. . . .
The bill . . . would seem to show upon its face that the establishment of peace and good order is not its real object. The fifth section declares that the preceding sections shall cease to operate in any State where certain events shall have happened. . . . All these conditions must be fulfilled before the people of any of these States can be relieved from the bondage of military domination; but when they are fulfilled, then immediately the pains and penalties of the bill are to cease, no matter whether there be peace and order or not, and without any reference to the security of life or property. The excuse given for the bill in the preamble is admitted by the bill itself not to be real. The military rule which it establishes is plainly to be used, not for any purpose of order or for the prevention of crime, but solely as a means of coercing the people into the adoption of principles and measures to which it is known that they are opposed, and upon which they have an undeniable right to exercise their own judgment.
I submit to Congress whether this measure is not in its whole character, scope, and object without precedent and without authority, in palpable conflict with the plainest provisions of the Constitution, and utterly destructive to those great principles of liberty and humanity for which our ancestors on both sides of the Atlantic have shed so much blood and expended so much treasure.
The ten States named in the bill are divided into five districts. For each district an officer of the Army, not below the rank of a brigadier-general, is to be appointed to rule over the people; and he is to be supported with an efficient military force to enable him to perform his duties and enforce his authority. Those duties and that authority, as defined by the third section of the bill, are "to protect all persons in their rights of person and property, to suppress insurrection, disorder, and violence, and to punish or cause to be punished all disturbers of the public peace or criminals."
The power thus given to the commanding officer over all the people of each district is that of an absolute monarch. His mere will is to take the place of all law. The law of the States is now the only rule applicable to the subjects placed under his control, and that is completely displaced by the clause which declares all interference of State authority to be null and void. He alone is permitted to determine what are rights of person or property, and he may protect them in such way as in his discretion may seem proper. It places at his free disposal all the lands and goods in his district, and he may distribute them without let or hindrance to whom he pleases. Being bound by no State law, and there being no other law to regulate the subject, he may make a criminal code of his own; and he can make it as bloody as any recorded in history, or he can reserve the privilege of acting upon the impulse of his private passions in each case that arises. He is bound by no rules of evidence; there is, indeed, no provision by which he is authorized or required to take any evidence at all. Everything is a crime which he chooses to call so, and all persons are condemned whom he pronounces to be guilty. He is not bound to keep and record or make any report of his proceedings. He may arrest his victims wherever he finds them, without warrant, accusation, or proof of probable cause. If he gives them a trial before he inflicts the punishment, he gives it of his grace and mercy, not because he is commanded so to do. It is plain that the authority here given to the military officer amounts to absolute despotism. But to make it still more unendurable, the bill provides that it may be delegated to as many subordinates as he chooses to appoint, for it declares that he shall "punish or cause to be punished."
Such a power has not been wielded by any monarch in England for more than five hundred years. In all that time no people who speak the English language have borne such servitude. It reduces the whole population of the ten States–all persons, of every color, sex, and condition, and every stranger within their limits–to the most abject and degrading slavery. No master ever had a control so absolute over the slaves as this bill gives to the military officers over both white and colored persons.
I come now to a question which is, if possible still more important. Have we the power to establish and carry into execution a measure like this? I answer, Certainly not, if we derive our authority from the Constitution and if we are bound by the limitations which it imposes. This proposition is perfectly clear, that no branch of the Federal Government–executive, legislative, or judicial–can have any just powers except those which it derives through and exercises under the organic law of the Union. Outside of the Constitution we have no legal authority more than private citizens, and within it we have only so much as that instrument gives us. This broad principle limits all our functions and applies to all subjects. It protects not only the citizens of States which are within the Union, but it shields every human being who comes or is brought under our jurisdiction. We have no right to do in one place more than in another that which the Constitution says we shall not do at all. . . .
I need not say to the representatives of the American people that their Constitution forbids the exercise of judicial power in any way but one–that is, by the ordained and established courts. It is equally well known that in all criminal cases a trial by jury is made indispensable by the express words of that instrument. . . .
An act of Congress is proposed which, if carried out, would deny a trial by the lawful courts and juries to 9,000,000 American citizens and to their posterity for an indefinite period. It seems to be scarcely possible that anyone should seriously believe this consistent with a Constitution which declares in simple, plain, and unambiguous language that all persons shall have that right and that no person shall ever in any case be deprived of it. The Constitution also forbids the arrest of the citizen without judicial warrant, founded on probable cause. This bill authorizes an arrest without warrant, at the pleasure of a military commander. The Constitution declares that "no person shall be held to answer for a capital or otherwise infamous crime unless on presentment by a grand jury". . . .
The United States are bound to guarantee to each State a republican form of government. Can it be pretended that this obligation is not palpably broken if we carry out a measure like this, which wipes away every vestige of republican government in ten States and puts the life, property, liberty, and honor of all the people in each of them under the domination of a single person clothed with unlimited authority?. . .
It is a part of our public history which can never be forgotten that both houses of Congress, in July 1861, declared in the form of a solemn resolution that the war was and should be carried on for no purpose of subjugation. . . . This resolution was adopted and sent forth to the world unanimously by the Senate and with only two dissenting voices in the House. It was accepted by the friends of the Union in the South as well as in the North as expressing honestly and truly the object of the war. On the faith of it many thousands of persons in both sections gave their lives and their fortunes to the cause. To repudiate it now by refusing to the States and to the individuals within them the rights which the Constitution and laws of the Union would secure to them is a breach of our plighted honor for which I can imagine no excuse and to which I can not voluntarily become a party. . . . (Veto of the first Reconstruction Act, March 2, 1867)
The True Nature of the War
In reality, the Civil War was not a civil war. In a civil war, two or more factions fight for control of the national government. But the South was not trying to overthrow the national government, nor was it trying to achieve exclusive control of the government. The South merely wanted to leave the federal government in peace and was willing to pay its share of the national debt and to pay compensation for federal installations in the Southern states. The Confederacy tried to establish peaceful relations with the federal government, but Lincoln refused to even meet with Confederate representatives.
The Civil War was a war of aggression against the South. Republican leaders and their wealthy Northern backers used the force of the federal government to destroy Southern independence. Some of these men despised the South. Radical Republicans saw in secession an excuse to subjugate and exploit the Southern states. Northern business leaders who favored protectionism feared that their financial empires would be threatened if the Confederate states were able to trade directly with other nations with the much lower Confederate tariff. The Republicans weren’t about to lower the tariff, since they were committed to drastically raising it (which they did soon after the South seceded). Rather than fairly compete with the low Confederate tariff by lowering the federal tariff, the Republicans and many Northern moneymen opted to destroy the Confederacy by force. As discussed earlier, Charles Adams demonstrates that after the Confederacy announced its low tariff, influential Northern business interests began to strongly oppose peaceful separation, and Lincoln adopted a hardline stance on Fort Sumter (When In the Course of Human Events, pp. 61-70). Simkins said the following about the motives behind the federal invasion, race relations in the North, and what happened when Southern influence was removed from the federal government:
Northern industrial and financial leaders wished to destroy the influence of the agrarian South in Washington in order to use the powers of the federal government to their own advantage. Northern common people wished slavery restricted or abolished because they objected to the competition of cheap labor, not because they wished to make the bondsmen their equals. Both of these groups revealed their intentions when Southern influence was removed from the federal capital and when the Negro was free. The business leaders imposed high tariffs, constitutional protection to corporations, monetary deflation, and centralized banking. The common people denied the free Negro access to Western lands [the western territories] and imposed upon him caste restrictions in some respects sharper than those of the South. “It is not humanity,” said Jefferson Davis to the North in 1861, “that influences you in the position that you now occupy before the country. . . . It is that you may have a majority in the Congress of the United States and convert the government into an engine of Northern aggrandizement. It is that your section may grow in power and prosperity upon treasures unjustly taken from the South.” (A History of the South, p. 190)
Weisman, after opining that “the great economic changes and tensions of the era” were a major cause of the war, takes note of the relevant conclusions of historians Charles and Mary Beard in their widely acclaimed book The Rise of American Civilization:
In their seminal work The Rise of American Civilization, Charles and Mary Beard argued that the Civil War constituted a second American Revolution, with the manufacturing base of the North solidifying control over the rest of the country, crushing the South militarily and wielding the economic power to take control of the West. For the Beards, the regressive tariff system was the core of this system of control, because tariffs helped to build up industry at the cost of those in the farm sector, placing the burden of government on the consuming masses rather than the capitalist and owner classes. (The Great Tax Wars, pp. 102-103)
Even Lerone Bennett, an African-American scholar who is strongly critical of the Confederacy, agrees that the Northern industrialists supported the war for monetary gain, had no interest in emancipation, and used blacks as pawns:
There was finally—and conclusively—the game plan of the Northern industrialists, who were fighting not for Black freedom or, to tell the truth, White freedom, but for the freedom to exploit and develop the American market. Everything indeed suggests that Ralph J. Bunche was correct when he said that the freeing of the slaves was “only an incident in the violent clash of interests between the industrial North and the agricultural South—a conflict that was resolved in favor of the industrial North. In this struggle the Negro was an innocent pawn.” (Forced Into Glory, pp. 547-548)
Lysander Spooner, though an ardent abolitionist, harbored no illusions about why the Republicans invaded the South. Spooner was so radical in his opposition to slavery that he participated in a plan to free John Brown, the violent abolitionist who murdered proslavery settlers in Kansas and who tried to incite slave revolts throughout the South with his raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Yet, in spite of his passionate opposition to slavery, Spooner was sharply critical of the Republicans. He opposed their use of force against the South. He blamed the war on the Republicans and called the war evil. He also opposed Radical Reconstruction. He argued that Northern industrialists and merchants supported the war and Radical Reconstruction in order to maintain the North’s economic dominance:
And it was to enforce this price in the future — that is, to monopolize the Southern markets, to maintain their industrial and commercial control over the South — that these Northern manufacturers and merchants lent some of the profits of their former monopolies for the war, in order to secure to themselves the same, or greater, monopolies in the future. These — and not any love of liberty or justice — were the motives on which the money for the war was lent by the North. In short, the North said to the slave-holders: If you will not pay us our price (give us control of your markets) for our assistance against your slaves, we will secure the same price (keep control of your markets) by helping your slaves against you, and using them as our tools for maintaining dominion over you; for the control of your markets we will have, whether the tools we use for that purpose be black or white, and be the cost, in blood and money, what it may.
On this principle, and from this motive, and not from any love of liberty, or justice, the money was lent in enormous amounts, and at enormous rates of interest. And it was only by means of these loans that the objects of the war were accomplished.
And now these lenders of blood-money demand their pay; and the government, so called, becomes their tool, their servile, slavish, villainous tool, to extort it from the labor of the enslaved people both of the North and South. It is to be extorted by every form of direct, and indirect, and unequal taxation. Not only the nominal debt and interest — enormous as the latter was — are to be paid in full; but these holders of the debt are to be paid still further — and perhaps doubly, triply, or quadruply paid — by such tariffs on imports as will enable our home manufacturers to realize enormous prices for their commodities; also by such monopolies in banking as will enable them to keep control of, and thus enslave and plunder, the industry and trade of the great body of the Northern people themselves. In short, the industrial and commercial slavery of the great body of the people, North and South, black and white, is the price which these lenders of blood money demand, and insist upon, and are determined to secure, in return for the money lent for the war.
This program having been fully arranged and systematized, they put their sword into the hands of the chief murderer of the war, and charge him to carry their scheme into effect. And now he, speaking as their organ, says, "Let us have peace."
The meaning of this is: Submit quietly to all the robbery and slavery we have arranged for you, and you can have "peace." But in case you resist, the same lenders of blood-money, who furnished the means to subdue the South, will furnish the means again to subdue you.
These are the terms on which alone this government, or, with few exceptions, any other, ever gives "peace" to its people.
The whole affair, on the part of those who furnished the money, has been, and now is, a deliberate scheme of robbery and murder; not merely to monopolize the markets of the South, but also to monopolize the currency, and thus control the industry and trade, and thus plunder and enslave the laborers, of both North and South. And Congress and the president are today the merest tools for these purposes. They are obliged to be, for they know that their own power, as rulers, so-called, is at an end, the moment their credit with the blood-money loan-mongers fails. They are like a bankrupt in the hands of an extortioner. They dare not say nay to any demand made upon them. And to hide at once, if possible, both their servility and crimes, they attempt to divert public attention, by crying out that they have "Abolished Slavery!" That they have "Saved the Country!" That they have "Preserved our Glorious Union!" and that, in now paying the "National Debt," as they call it (as if the people themselves, all of them who are to be taxed for its payment, had really and voluntarily joined in contracting it), they are simply "Maintaining the National Honor!"
By "maintaining the national honor," they mean simply that they themselves, open robbers and murderers, assume to be the nation, and will keep faith with those who lend them the money necessary to enable them to crush the great body of the people under their feet; and will faithfully appropriate, from the proceeds of their future robberies and murders, enough to pay all their loans, principal and interest.
The pretense that the "abolition of slavery" was either a motive or justification for the war, is a fraud of the same character with that of "maintaining the national honor." Who, but such usurpers, robbers, and murderers as they, ever established slavery? Or what government, except one resting upon the sword, like the one we now have, was ever capable of maintaining slavery? And why did these men abolish slavery? Not from any love of liberty in general — not as an act of justice to the black man himself, but only "as a war measure," and because they wanted his assistance, and that of his friends, in carrying on the war they had undertaken for maintaining and intensifying that political, commercial, and industrial slavery, to which they have subjected the great body of the people, both black and white. And yet these imposters now cry out that they have abolished the chattel slavery of the black man — although that was not the motive of the war — as if they thought they could thereby conceal, atone for, or justify that other slavery which they were fighting to perpetuate, and to render more rigorous and inexorable than it ever was before. . . .
Still another of the frauds of these men is, that they are now establishing, and that the war was designed to establish, "a government of consent." The only idea they have ever manifested as to what is a government of consent, is this — that it is one to which everybody must consent, or be shot. This idea was the dominant one on which the war was carried on; and it is the dominant one, now that we have got what is called "peace."
Their pretenses that they have "Saved the Country," and "Preserved our Glorious Union," are frauds like all the rest of their pretenses. By them they mean simply that they have subjugated, and maintained their power over, an unwilling people. This they call "Saving the Country"; as if an enslaved and subjugated people — or as if any people kept in subjection by the sword (as it is intended that all of us shall be hereafter) — could be said to have any country. This, too, they call "Preserving our Glorious Union"; as if there could be said to be any Union, glorious or inglorious, that was not voluntary. Or as if there could be said to be any union between masters and slaves; between those who conquer, and those who are subjugated. All these cries of having "abolished slavery," of having "saved the country," of having "preserved the union," of establishing "a government of consent," and of "maintaining the national honor," are all gross, shameless, transparent cheats — so transparent that they ought to deceive no one — when uttered as justifications for the war, or for the government that has succeeded the war, or for now compelling the people to pay the cost of the war, or for compelling anybody to support a government that he does not want. (No Treason, Boston, 1870, Number 6, Chapter XVIII, original emphasis)
Many Republican leaders, while claiming they were “saving the Union” and preserving representative government, were undemocratic and despotic. The worst offenders were the Radical Republicans, but other Republicans were not blameless either. The Republicans and their generals imprisoned thousands of Northern citizens in order to suppress Northern opposition to the war. They shut down hundreds of Northern newspapers and jailed dozens of newspaper editors for expressing “unpatriotic” views. They suspended the writ of habeas corpus (protection against unlawful arrest), rigged elections, prevented two Northern legislatures from convening, and branded as “traitors” Northern political opponents who spoke out against the war and/or against Republican violations of civil rights. In one case, they arrested thirty-one members of the Maryland legislature and sealed off the town where the legislature was meeting. When it became known that former president Franklin Pierce believed the war was cruel and unnecessary, Republicans accused him of treason and nearly had him arrested. (Pierce feared the true purpose of the war was to wipe out the states as sovereign entities and to drastically increase the power of the federal government in violation of the Constitution. Pierce also believed it was wrong to hold the Union together by force.)
The Republicans and their generals waged a shameful form of “total war” against the South, causing the deaths of some 50,000 Southern civilians and wiping out whole towns in the process. They hired thousands of unscrupulous mercenaries, including many criminals fresh from European jails. They violated just about every rule of civilized warfare known to man. They used tactics that today would justify prosecution for war crimes. A few Union generals, including George McClellan, objected to this cruel form of warfare, and at least one general, Don C. Buell, resigned from the army in protest–but these men were the exception, not the rule. On the other hand, the vast majority of Confederate generals refused to use the brutal tactics that so many Union generals were using. At one point, some Confederate officials urged Jefferson Davis to order Confederate forces to employ the barbaric tactics that were being used by Union generals like William Tecumseh Sherman and Phil Sheridan, but Davis refused. If the South had won, several Union generals could have been tried and hung for war crimes. Most Republican leaders, including Lincoln, strongly backed those generals. (A sobering collection of Union war atrocities is presented in Thomas Bland Keys’ book The Uncivil War: Union Army and Navy Excesses in the Official Records, Biloxi, Mississippi: The Beauvoir Press, 1991, which is based almost exclusively on official federal records.)
After the war, most Republican leaders continued to violate the Constitution. They imposed a clearly illegal military rule on the Southern states and proceeded to plunder those states for years. The Radicals and their supporters in the federal army accused and jailed Jefferson Davis on the absurd charge that he was involved in the conspiracy that killed Lincoln. They based this charge on evidence that was later found to be fraudulent. They tried to remove President Johnson from office for opposing their illegal plans to ravage the South and for daring to defy their attempt to prevent him from replacing Edwin Stanton as Secretary of War. Can you imagine the outcry that would arise today if Congress tried to force the president to retain a cabinet member against his will? The Radicals also sought to remove Johnson because he had attacked them in his campaign speeches: Incredibly, one of the charges on which the Radicals impeached Johnson in the House was that his speeches in the 1866 election campaign allegedly constituted “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
The Radicals came close to establishing a military dictatorship in the name of “reconstructing” the defeated Southern states. The Radicals passed a bill that said the military didn’t have to obey the president’s orders unless the commanding general of the Army approved those orders (McDonald, States’ Rights and the Union, p. 213). The bill also made it a crime for any officer to obey orders except those that came from the commanding general (Brodie, Thaddeus Stevens, p. 298). Just imagine what most Americans would think if Congress even considered such a law in our day—it would be denounced as a dangerous step toward military dictatorship.
Or, just imagine what most Americans today would think if the Secretary of Defense refused to step down when suspended by the president but instead barricaded himself in his office, issued an order for the arrest of the man appointed to replace him, and asked friendly members of Congress to intervene. And imagine what most Americans would think if the commanding general of the Army then stationed troops around the Pentagon in order to keep the Secretary of Defense in power against the president’s express wishes. Impossible? Couldn’t happen in America? Well, that’s exactly what happened when President Johnson tried to replace Stanton as Secretary of War. When Johnson appointed Lorenzo Thomas to replace Stanton, Stanton barricaded himself in his office, issued an order for Thomas’s arrest, and asked his fellow Radicals to help him remain in power. General Ulysses S. Grant then stationed troops around the War Department building and authorized them to call for reinforcements if necessary. Historian Elizabeth D. Leonard says the following about this episode:
Meanwhile, General Grant in effect placed the army in direct opposition to the President by publicly throwing his support behind Stanton and positioning armed guards around the War Department building. This immediately gave rise to anxious rumors that violence, and perhaps even a new civil war, was about to erupt in the capital. (Lincoln’s Avengers: Justice, Revenge, and Reunion after the Civil War, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004, p. 279)
During this same period, Grant told President Johnson that he would only obey his orders if they were written. This was serious insubordination. “Since when,” asked Stryker, “had a general the right to tell the President of the United States that he would disobey his commands unless they were in writing?” (Andrew Johnson, p. 547). Since Stanton was illegally refusing to step down as Secretary of War, Johnson issued a written order to Grant that he not obey orders from Stanton unless he knew for a fact that Johnson had authorized them. Grant then suggested to Johnson, in writing, that he would not obey this order and that he would continue to assume that Stanton’s orders were authorized by the president (Andrew Johnson, p. 549). During Johnson’s trial in the Senate, Grant took the highly inappropriate step of writing to Senator Henderson of Missouri to urge him to vote for a guilty verdict.
There were other Radical abuses. In January 1868, the Radicals and most of their fellow Republicans passed a bill, over Johnson’s veto, that transferred all of Johnson’s authority in Reconstruction to General Grant. The Radicals also worked to deny President Johnson his constitutional authority to appoint justices to the Supreme Court by amending the Judiciary Act so the president couldn’t fill vacancies that might occur on the high court (McDonald, States’ Rights and the Union, p. 211). After Edwin Stanton barricaded himself in his office and asked the Radicals for help, two Radicals, Senator Zachary Chandler and Representative John Logan, personally led a company of one hundred men to guard the War Department building (Brodie, Thaddeus Stevens, p. 335).
When even the Lincoln-packed Supreme Court tried to curb Radical lawlessness, the Radicals reacted with outrage. In the Ex Parte Milligan case, the high court finally gathered enough courage to conclude that it was illegal to impose military rule on civilians in non-combat areas where civil courts were still in operation (which was what the Republicans had been doing, in the North, for much of the war). The Radicals were furious with this ruling, partly because it implied they had committed judicial murder, since several civilians had been sentenced to death by federal military courts. Then, in Ex Parte McCardle, the Supreme Court upheld the right of habeas corpus and reaffirmed the principle that civilians couldn’t be tried in military courts when civil courts were available. The Radicals were so angered by this decision that they introduced bills in Congress that would have (1) abolished the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction in all habeas corpus cases, (2) ended all judicial review of acts of Congress, and (3) prohibited the high court from reviewing cases that involved “political questions,” including the Reconstruction Act. This was an open attack on basic American concepts of government, justice, and due process. For example, if the Supreme Court were denied jurisdiction in habeas corpus cases, it would be unable to protect citizens against unlawful arrest and imprisonment. That was exactly what the Radicals wanted. Forrest McDonald observes,
That decision [Ex Parte McCardle] elicited the most outraged Radical response yet. Three drastic bills were introduced in Congress: to abolish the Court’s jurisdiction in all habeas corpus cases; to abolish entirely judicial review of acts of Congress; and to deny the Court power to review “political questions,” including cases arising under the Reconstruction Act. Loud protests against the measures were heard throughout the country, and none was passed. Had they been enacted, the Court would have been destroyed as an arbiter of the Constitution. (States’ Rights and the Union, p. 218)
Gideon Welles, a cabinet member under both Lincoln and Johnson, viewed the Radicals with disdain and distrust.
“Hate, revenge, and persecution enter largely into their composition,” wrote Gideon Welles. “These fanatics want a God to punish, not to love, those who do not agree with them”. . . .
Four fifths of the radicals, he wrote, “are small party men . . . without any knowledge of the science of government or of our Constitution. With them all, the great, overpowering purpose and aim are office and patronage. Most of their legislation relates to office and their highest conception of legislative duty has in view place and how to get it”. . . .
“These Radical patriots are swindling the country while imposing on its credulity,” wrote Welles. “The granting of acts of incorporation, bounties, special privileges, favors, and profligate legislation of every description is shocking.” (Stampp in Grob and Billias, editors, Interpretations of American History, Volume 2, pp. 58-59, 60)
Northern Democrat W. C. Prime, who strongly opposed secession, said the Radical Republicans wanted war in order to achieve political power. He argued that the Radicals prevented the federal army from winning the war quickly because they wanted to prolong the war until they were in a position to subjugate the South after the fighting ended. Said Prime,
The history of the war is inextricably involved in the history of party politics. No one can understand the former without knowledge of the latter. . . .
Congress, at the moment of McClellan’s arrival in Washington, as if to instruct him in his duty, expressed the unanimous sentiment of the North in a resolution which declared “. . . this war is not waged, on our part, in any spirit of oppression, nor for any purpose of conquest or subjugation, nor purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the rights or established institutions of those States [the Southern states], but to defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution and to preserve the Union, with all the dignity, equality, and rights of the several States unimpaired; and as soon as these objects are accomplished the war ought to cease.”
McClellan accepted this instruction. It expressed his own views. . . .
But if this purpose were achieved in this way, the Southern States . . . would reappear in future elections as a solid South against the machine politicians who had gained power in 1860. If the white vote could be suppressed and the slaves be freed with the immediate right of suffrage, their vote might be controlled and a solid South secured for those who had given them the right of voting. . . .
Various schemes were devised to accomplish the desired end. For a time efforts were made to induce the North to adopt a policy which Mr. Chase [Salmon P. Chase] formulated in an interview with Mr. Wade of the Senate and Mr. Ashley of the House, December 11, 1861 [both of whom were Radicals].
Mr. Chase said that a State attempting to secede, the State government being placed in hostility to the Federal government, “the State organization was forfeited, and it lapsed into the condition of a Territory”; that “we could organize territorial courts, and, as soon as it became necessary, a territorial government”; that “those States [the Southern states] could not properly be considered as States in the Union, but must be readmitted from time to time as Congress should provide.” Mr. Wade and Mr. Ashley were understood to concur in this doctrine; and, as a matter of fact, it was given out as sound doctrine and was widely advocated in newspapers and at war meetings engineered by politicians in various parts of the North.
Mr. Chase was too good a lawyer not to recognize the absurdity of the doctrine as American law. . . .
There was a body of noble, conservative, and patriotic men in the old Republican party strong enough to interpose many obstacles in the way of the radicals. The latter adopted the customary tactics of unscrupulous partisans in this country, and visited on all who opposed them storms of foul epithets and charges. . . .Mr. Lincoln was alternately praised and vilified. But no one of the radical coalition was his friend or desired his continuance at the head of the party. Some old Democratic politicians, recognizing good prospects of its success, joined the radical party. Congress in time yielded to its control. A committee called The Committee on the Conduct of the War was created, to be the machine of partisan politics, in control of the most unscrupulous leaders of the combination, who used it to good effect in the deception of the confiding people of the country. (“Biographical Sketch,” in W. C. Prime, editor, McClellan’s Own Story: The War for the Union, New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1887, pp. 5-8)
General George McClellan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac and the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 1864, said the Radicals’ real goal wasn’t the restoration of the Union but political power:
The real object of the radical leaders was not the restoration of the Union, but the permanent ascendancy of their party, and to this they were ready to sacrifice the Union, if necessary. (McCllellan’s Own Story, p. 149)
When it became clear to the Radicals that McClellan would have no part in their plans to ravage the South, they turned on him with a vengeance. McClellan said the Radicals “directed all their efforts to prevent my achieving success” (McClellan’s Own Story, p. 159). McClellan also said that Edwin Stanton became Secretary of War after the Radical Republicans and a group of New York bankers worked to have Lincoln fire the existing Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, because, for all his failings, Cameron was not interested in subjugating the South (McClellan’s Own Story, pp. 152-161; see also Prime’s comments on this on pp. 5-10). On an aside note, it’s worth mentioning that early in the war, before Stanton realized that McClellan opposed the Radicals, Stanton urged McClellan to seize control of the federal government, i.e., to take control via a military coup (McClellan’s Own Story, p. 152).
I’m not arguing that all the Radicals were corrupt or that everything they believed was wrong. Although I share the view that many of the Radicals were more interested in power than in civil rights, I also believe that some of them were sincere. Many of the Radicals deserve credit for eventually forcing Lincoln to provide equal pay for black federal soldiers during the war and for trying to provide food, clothing, and income for former slaves after the war. Some of the Radicals loudly objected when the federal army began to brutalize the American Indians after the war. For the most part, the Radicals’ positions on civil rights issues were commendable and enlightened. However, in many cases the Radicals used ruthless, illegal, and unethical methods to achieve their civil rights objectives, and some of their other objectives were dishonorable and despotic. The Radicals had little regard for the Constitution or for the rule of law. They would ignore or distort the Constitution whenever they felt they needed to do so.
In a very real sense, the Civil War was not North vs. South; rather, it was Republican leaders and powerful Northern business interests vs. the rest of the country. Although the vast majority of Southerners supported the Confederacy, at least 40 percent of Northerners did not support the Republicans and wanted to halt or even abandon the federal invasion of the South. Before the war, dozens of Northern newspapers voiced the view that the South should be allowed to depart in peace. During the war, so many Northern citizens opposed Lincoln’s policies that the Republicans had to impose military rule on large areas of the North.
A good indication of Lincoln’s significant lack of Northern support can be seen in the results of the 1864 presidential election. Amazingly, Lincoln’s opponent in that election, George McClellan, received 41 percent of the vote, even though by then a Northern victory seemed likely, even though the Republicans engaged in questionable polling-place tactics in a number of areas, and even though the Republicans had muzzled a great deal of criticism of the war in the Northern press.
At just about any point in the war, it’s probable that a majority of Americans opposed the use of force to hold the Union together. If Southern citizens had voted even in the 1864 election, McClellan may very well have received a majority of the popular vote, especially if the election had been conducted fairly. If the election had been held in 1862 and had included Southern citizens, Lincoln almost certainly would have lost the popular vote in a landslide. If Northern citizens had known in advance what Lincoln was going to do in response to secession, it’s unlikely that he would have been elected in the first place. It should be remembered that when Lincoln won the 1860 election, he only received 39.9 percent of the popular vote. The conservative vote was split between three candidates, Stephen Douglas, John Breckinridge, and John Bell, each of whom, incidentally, later voiced opposition to using force to maintain the Union (although Douglas waffled on the force issue, he supported the Crittenden Compromise and also urged that Fort Sumter be evacuated). Lincoln received about 1.9 million votes, while Douglas, Breckinridge, and Bell received about 2.8 million votes. However, Lincoln won the election because 122 of the 152 Electoral College votes that he needed for victory were concentrated in just six Northern states.
One of the many untold stories of the Civil War is the fact that many Indians, Hispanics, and African Americans supported and even fought for the Confederacy. The five tribes of the Indian Territory supported the Confederacy and contributed thousands of troops to the Confederate army. One Confederate general was a Cherokee Indian and was one of the last flag officers to surrender his troops at the end of the war.
Thousands of Hispanics served as soldiers in the Confederate army, and some even served as commissioned officers. In his book Hispanic Confederates (Clearfield Company, 1999), John O’Donnell-Rosales identifies over 5,000 Hispanic Confederate soldiers by name and unit. The Confederate commissioner to northern Mexico was a Cuban named José Agustín Quintero. Hispanic American Santos Benavides commanded the Confederate 33rd Texas Cavalry, the Mexican-American unit that defeated Union forces in the 1864 Battle of Laredo. Santiago Vidaurri, the governor of the Mexican border states of Coahuila and Nuevo León, offered to have northern Mexico secede and join the Confederacy, but Jefferson Davis declined the offer because he was afraid Lincoln would then blockade Mexican ports.
There is evidence that thousands of African Americans fought for the Confederacy. For example, the chief inspector of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, Dr. Lewis Steiner, reported that he saw about 3,000 well-armed black Confederate soldiers in Stonewall Jackson’s army and that those soldiers were "manifestly an integral portion of the Southern Confederate Army." Said Steiner,
Wednesday, September 10–At four o’clock this morning the rebel army began to move from our town, Jackson’s force taking the advance. The movement continued until eight o’clock P.M., occupying sixteen hours. The most liberal calculations could not give them more than 64,000 men. Over 3,000 negroes must be included in this number. These were clad in all kinds of uniforms, not only in cast-off or captured United States uniforms, but in coats with Southern buttons, State buttons, etc. These were shabby, but not shabbier or seedier than those worn by white men in rebel ranks. Most of the negroes had arms, rifles, muskets, sabres, bowie-knives, dirks, etc. They were supplied, in many instances, with knapsacks, haversacks, canteens, etc., and were manifestly an integral portion of the Southern Confederacy Army. They were seen riding on horses and mules, driving wagons, riding on caissons, in ambulances, with the staff of Generals, and promiscuously mixed up with all the rebel horde. (Report of Lewis H. Steiner, New York: Anson D. F. Randolph, 1862, pp. 10-11)
In a Union army battle report, a “General D. Stuart” complained about the deadly effectiveness of the black Confederate soldiers whom his troops had encountered. Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest had slaves and free blacks serving in units under his command, and said of them, “These boys stayed with me . . . and better Confederates did not live.” After the Battle of Gettysburg, Union forces took seven black Confederate soldiers as prisoners, as was noted in a Northern newspaper at the time, which said, “. . . reported among the rebel prisoners were seven blacks in Confederate uniforms fully armed as soldiers.” None other than African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass complained that there were “many” blacks in the Confederate army who were armed and “ready to shoot down” Union soldiers. During the Battle of Chickamauga, slaves serving Confederate soldiers armed themselves and asked permission to join the fight—and when they received that permission they fought commendably. Their commander, Captain J. B. Briggs, later noted that these men “filled a portion of the line of advance as well as any company of the regiment.” There are numerous accounts of slaves assisting Confederate soldiers in battle and helping them to escape capture afterward (see, for example, Francis Springer, War for What?, Springfield, Tennessee: Nippert Publishing Company, 1990, pp. 172-183). After the war, hundreds of African Americans received Confederate veterans’ pensions. Photos of reunions of Confederate veterans show African Americans in attendance. As strange as it may seem to most people in our day, many Southern slaves and free blacks felt loyalty to the South and viewed Union troops as invaders. Says Cisco,
Down in Charleston, free blacks . . . declared that “our allegiance is due to South Carolina and in her defense, we will offer up our lives, and all that is dear to us.” Even slaves routinely expressed loyalty to their homeland, thousands serving the Confederate Army faithfully. (Taking A Stand, p. 112)
In the July 1919 issue of The Journal of Negro History, Charles S. Wesley discussed the issue of blacks in the Confederate army:
The loyalty of the slave in guarding home and family during his master’s absence has long been eloquently orated. The Negroes’ loyalty extended itself even to service in the Confederate army. Believing their land invaded by hostile foes, slaves eagerly offered themselves for service in actual warfare. . . .
At the outbreak of the war, an observer in Charleston noted the war-time preparations and called particular attention to “the thousand Negroes who, so far from inclining to insurrections, were grinning from ear to ear at the prospect of shooting the Yankees.” In the same city, one of the daily papers stated in early January that 150 free colored men had offered their services to the Confederate Government, and at Memphis a recruiting office was opened. In June 1861 the Legislature of Tennessee authorized Governor Harris to receive into the state military service all male persons of color between the ages of fifteen and fifty and to provide them with eight dollars a month, clothing, and rations. . . . In the same state, under the command of Confederate officers, marched a procession of several hundred colored men carrying shovels, axes, and blankets. The observer adds, “they were brimful of patriotism, shouting for Jeff Davis and singing war songs.” A paper in Lynchburg, Virginia, commenting on the enlistment of seventy free Negroes to fight for the defense of the State, concluded with “three cheers for the patriotic Negroes of Lynchburg.”
Two weeks after the firing on Fort Sumter, several companies of volunteers of color passed through Augusta, Georgia, on their way to Virginia to engage in actual war. . . . In November of the same year, a military review was held in New Orleans, where twenty-eight thousand troops passed before Governor Moore, General Lowell, and General Ruggles. The line of march extended beyond seven miles and included one regiment comprised of 1,400 free colored men. (In J. H. Segars and Charles Kelly Barrow, editors, Black Southerners in Confederate Armies: A Collection of Historical Accounts, Atlanta, Georgia: Southern Lion Books, 2001, pp. 2-4)
Civil War author Francis Springer noted two other accounts of free blacks showing support for the Confederacy:
The Petersburg Daily Express of April 26, 1861, had it that 300 free Negroes about to leave the city to work on fortifications, assembled at the courthouse to hear a speech by ex-mayor John Dodson. Charles Tinsley, one of the free Negroes, said, “We are willing to aid Virginia’s cause to the utmost extent of our ability.” He stepped forward to receive the Confederate flag, stating, “I could feel no greater pride, no more genuine gratification than to plant this flag on Fortress Monroe.” Other work crews marched through the city, singing, headed for the fortifications, according to reports of the times. The Charleston Evening News said that about 125 free Negroes arrived in Petersburg, uniformed in red shirts and dark pants, all in fine spirits and carrying the flag of the Confederacy on their way to work in fortifications around Norfolk. (War for What?, p. 86)
Springer also discussed an incident in which a group of slaves who had been forced to serve in the Union army volunteered to fight for the Confederacy after they were captured by Confederate forces:
Some Union Negro troops, captured by General Forrest on his last Tennessee raid, had been put to work on some fortifications in Mobile Bay. On an inspection tour, General Richard Taylor complimented them on their work, whereupon one of their leading members said, “Give us some guns, Marse General, and we’ll fight for you too. We’d rather fight for our own white folks than for strangers.” Evidently they were Southern Negroes who had been impressed [forced] into service on the Union side. (War for What?, p. 106)
As mentioned above, there are many accounts of slaves coming to the aid of Confederate soldiers during and after combat. Perhaps this is an indication that Confederate officers usually tried to properly care for the slaves who were working in their units. General Braxton Bragg, commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, issued a written order that “All employees of this army, black as well as white, shall receive the same rations, quarters, and medical treatment.”
In late April 1862, General John B. Magruder of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia learned that Secretary of War George Randolph had received complaints about how slaves were being treated in his unit. Magruder wrote to Randolph to assure him that his unit was doing all it could to properly care for its slaves. We should pause to note two things here: One, that apparently some Confederate citizens took the time to raise concerns about the treatment of the slaves in Magruder’s army. And, two, that Magruder felt he needed to respond to the complaints by writing a letter to the Secretary of War himself. In his letter, Magruder said the following:
Sir, I have learned that complaints have been made to you of the treatment of the slaves employed in this army.
It is quite true that much hardship has been endured by the negroes in the recent prosecution of the defensive works on our lines; but this has been unavoidable, owing to the constant and long-continued wet weather. Every precaution has been adopted to secure their health and safety as far as circumstances would allow. The soldiers, however, have been more exposed and have suffered far more than the slaves. The latter [the slaves] have always slept under cover and have had fires to make them comfortable, while the men have been working in the rain, have stood in the trenches and rifle pits in mud and water almost knee-deep, without shelter, fire, or sufficient food. There has been sickness among the soldiers and the slaves, but far more among the former than the latter. (Letter from General John B. Magruder to Secretary of War George Randolph, April 29, 1862, in Segars and Barrow, Black Southerners in Confederate Armies, p. 44)
Another untold story of the Civil War is the brutal way that many Union forces treated Southern slaves. One Union unit, commanded by Colonel John Turchin, moved into Athens, Georgia, and, with Turchin’s approval, spent weeks in the slave huts “debauching the females.” Turchin’s superior officers court-martialed and convicted him for his crimes. (Amazingly, Lincoln later promoted Turchin to brigadier general.) In another case, Colonel Ignatz Kappner reported to his superiors that Union troops “broke en masse in the camps of the colored women and are committing all sorts of outrage.” In some cases, Union soldiers would torture and even kill slaves who would not reveal the location of their masters’ valuables. Union soldiers usually viewed captured or runaway slaves as “contrabands” and often mistreated them. Says McPherson,
While northern soldiers had no love for slavery, most of them had no love for slaves either. . . . While some Yanks treated contrabands with a degree of equity and benevolence, the more typical response was indifference, contempt, and cruelty. Soon after Union forces captured Port Royal, South Carolina, in November 1861, a private described an incident there that made him “ashamed of America”: “About 8-10 soldiers from the New York 47th chased some Negro women but they escaped, so they took a Negro girl about 7-9 years old, and raped her.” From Virginia a Connecticut soldier wrote that some men of his regiment had taken “two Nigger wenches [women] . . . turned them upon their heads, and put tobacco, chips, sticks, lighted cigars and sand into their behinds.” Even when Billy Yank welcomed the contrabands, he often did so from utilitarian rather than humanitarian motives. “Officers and men are having an easy time,” wrote a Maine soldier from occupied Louisiana in 1862. “We have Negroes to do all fatigue work, cooking and washing clothes." (The Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 497, emphasis added)
The case of the Union army’s treatment of the slaves in Bisland, Louisiana, is another example of federal mistreatment of Southern slaves. When Union forces occupied the area around Bisland, they caused the deaths of numerous slaves and left hundreds of others in terrible condition. When Confederate forces recaptured the area, they found shallow graves where slaves had been hastily buried. They found a local sugar house filled with dead and dying slaves. In one location the roads were lined with slaves who were half-starved, sick, and unable to care for themselves. Upon seeing the plight of the Bisland slaves, the Confederate troops provided them with food, medicine, and transportation, saving hundreds of them from certain death (James and Walter Kennedy, The South Was Right!, Second Edition, Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Company, 1994, pp. 143-144; David Edmonds, editor, The Conduct of Federal Troops in Louisiana, Lafayette, Louisiana: The Acadiana Press, 1988, pp. 116-119).
In his book War Crimes Against Southern Civilians (Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Company, 2007), Walter Brian Cisco presents numerous accounts of Southern slaves and free blacks being robbed, abused, raped, and even murdered by federal troops (pp. 169-186). What follows is a small sampling of the cases that Cisco documents:
Nashville’s blue-clad conquerors were feared by black civilians. When Ohio soldiers were unable to find seats in a crowded theater one evening in September 1862, they invaded the “Negro gallery” and began shoving patrons out of their way. “In ten minutes,” read a report, “every Negro had been badly beaten and ejected, some of them being thrown entirely down the stairs, from the top to the bottom.” After the performance, troops went about the streets of the city attacking every African American in sight.
Robbery was common, as was sexual abuse of black women by Yankee soldiers. A U.S. cavalry regiment recruited from among East Tennessee Unionists and described by one girl as “the meanest men I ever saw” rode into Gallatin in May 1864 and began a reign of terror. They torched newly established schools for black children, murdered one freedman, and swore they would—as soon as they could—kill every black in town.
Liberty County in rural southeast Georgia had in antebellum times an unusually large number of free blacks, and some had gradually and laboriously accumulated substantial property. Many of those still in bondage had also managed to earn money with their skilled labor and purchased stock and grew crops of their own. When Sherman’s troops came through in 1864 everything was stolen or destroyed, whether owned by planters or by hard-working slaves. A white diarist recorded that black women were particularly threatened by the invaders. “These men were so outrageous at the Negro houses, that the Negro men were obligated to slap at their horses [causing them to bolt] for the protection of their wives, and in some instances they rescued them from the hands of those infamous creatures.” One historian concluded that in Liberty County, “indiscriminate confiscation of black property, and other anti-Negro acts committed by Sherman’s army, had a corrosive effect on the enthusiasm with which many had welcomed him.” (Cisco, War Crimes Against Southern Civilians, pp. 174-175)
Textbooks note that approximately 150,000 slaves served in the Union army, but they rarely inform the reader that thousands of those men were forced to serve. Union army records and other sources document that thousands of slaves were abducted and then forced into federal military service; some were taken from their plantations during Union raids, while others were seized in areas that were occupied by federal forces. General John Logan told General Grant, “A major of colored troops is here capturing negroes, with or without their consent.” General Lovell Rousseau informed General G. H. Thomas that “officers in command of colored troops are in constant habit of pressing [i.e., forcing] all able-bodied slaves into the military service of the U.S.” Even in the Union slave state of Kentucky, federal gunboats raided plantations, “carrying off slaves to help build military railroads, fortifications, and wagon roads” (Klingaman, Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, p. 161). In May 1862, federal troops in South Carolina forcefully rounded up hundreds of slaves in compliance with General David Hunter’s order to raise two regiments of black troops from slaves (or “contrabands”) in his region. Edward Pierce, a special agent with the U.S. Department of the Treasury in Port Royal, South Carolina, described one conscription scene in a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase dated May 12, 1862:
The scenes of today . . . have been distressing. . . . Some 500 men were hurried . . . from Ladies and Saint Helena to Beaufort . . . and then carried to Hilton Head. . . . The negroes were sad. . . . The superintendents . . . aided the military in the disagreeable affair, disavowing the act. Sometimes whole plantations, learning what was going on, ran off into the woods for refuge. Others, with no means of escape, submitted passively to the inevitable decree. . . . (Keys, The Uncivil War, p. 21)
The next day Pierce wrote to General Hunter to tell him about the consequences of his order. He said slaves were taken suddenly and weren’t allowed to go home before leaving. He added that some of the slaves wailed and screamed and that others fled into the woods but were pursued by soldiers:
The colored people became suspicious of the presence of the companies of soldiers detailed for the service. . . . They were taken from the fields without being allowed to go to their homes even to get a jacket. . . . There was sadness in all. As those on this plantation were called in from the fields, the soldiers, under orders, and while on the steps of my headquarters, loaded their guns, so that the negroes might see what would take place in case they attempted to get away. . . .
On some plantations the wailing and screaming were loud and the women threw themselves in despair on the ground. On some plantations the people took to the woods and were hunted up by the soldiers. (Keys, The Uncivil War, pp. 21-22)
Cisco discusses cases of slaves being forced into federal military service in Mississippi and Tennessee:
When Federals came through the neighborhoods of Guntown and Saltillo, Mississippi, they committed the usual theft and destruction of property. But they were particularly zealous to take all the slaves they could, presumably needing their labor. Reverend James Agnew wrote in this journal that “the Yankees shot two of [Thomas] Burris’s Negroes down in the yard because they would not go with him.”
“I won’t trust niggers to fight yet,” wrote William T. Sherman in the spring of 1864, “but don’t object to the government taking them from the enemy, and making such use of them as experience may suggest.” In Union-occupied Tennessee the army impressed blacks and put them to work at hard labor or hired them out to private contractors who often literally starved them. When the Federal army decided to build fortifications around Nashville, they made a surprise raid on blacks living there and “gathered them in from barber-shops, kitchens, and even churches,” wrote one of their kidnappers. “Many who traded Southern owners and overseers for Yankee bosses,” observed an historian, “very quickly discarded any lingering notions about Northern benevolence.” Those put to work for the army were poorly fed, not properly sheltered, and paid little or nothing. Death was common. One Union army officer in Nashville admitted that “colored men here are treated like brutes.” A Davidson County civilian saw blacks working in an army camp and thought them “the most miserable wretched looking creatures I ever saw”; those who became sick were treated as if “they were so many dogs.” (Cisco, War Crimes Against Southern Civilians, p. 174)
The conscription of slaves by federal forces continued even after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. For example, several months after the proclamation was issued, General Innis Palmer wanted to provide “laborers” for federal troops at Fort Monroe, Virginia. He informed his superior on September 1, 1864, that even though he was having trouble “collecting the colored men” for this purpose, he had already sent 221 of them and was expecting to get “a large lot” the next day:
. . . the negroes will not go voluntarily, so I am obliged to force them. I have sent seventy-one and will send this afternoon about 150. I expect to get a large lot tomorrow. . . The matter of collecting the colored men for laborers has been one of some difficulty, but I hope to send up a respectable force. . . . They will not go willingly. . . . They must be forced to go. . . . I am aware that this may be considered a harsh measure, but . . . we must not stop at trifles. (Keys, The Uncivil War, p. 106)
Southern family journals and letters contain numerous accounts of Union soldiers forcefully removing slaves from their homes, even when the slaves made it clear they didn’t want to leave (see, for example, Henry Steele Commager, editor, The Civil War Archive: The History of the Civil War in Documents, New York: Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, 2000, pp. 333-336, 675-677).
I’m not suggesting that all slaves remained loyal to their masters or to the South during the war. Many thousands of Southern slaves did in fact flock to Union lines, just as thousands of American slaves flocked to British lines during the Revolutionary War. But many if not most Southern slaves remained loyal, and quite of few of them viewed Union troops as invaders.
What If the South Had Been Allowed to Go in Peace?
Did the world end when America became a separate country from England? No, and not only have America and England long been staunch allies and close trading partners, but their peoples continue to share many friendships and family relationships. Norway seceded from Sweden, without a war, and the two countries still enjoy friendly relations. Although I don’t advocate modern secession, and although I’m proud of the many good things that America has done, I don’t think it would have been the end of the world if the South had been allowed to go in peace.
I think both the U.S.A. and the C.S.A. would have flourished. Interchange between the states of the two nations would have continued almost exactly as before. If anything, the presence of a prosperous low-tax, limited-government Southern confederacy would have been a powerful incentive for the federal government to limit taxes and to adhere more closely to the Constitution.
Some critics have suggested that if the Confederacy had survived, World War II may have had a different outcome. But the fact that England and America separated didn’t prevent them from later joining forces to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II. The U.S. and the Confederacy certainly would have teamed up to do the same thing.
If the South had been permitted to go in peace, slavery would have died a natural death in a matter of a few decades, if not sooner. Before the war, even some Northern politicians, such as William Seward, said slavery was a dying institution. The percentage of Southern whites who belonged to slaveholding families dropped by 5 percent from 1850-1860 (Divine et al, editor, America Past and Present, p. 389). Historian Allan Nevins noted that by the 1850s "slavery was dying all around the edges of its domain" (The Emergence of Lincoln, Volume 2, p. 469). Although slavery was still economically profitable, its days were numbered. Interestingly, some of the most vocal Northern abolitionists, including Wendell Phillips, welcomed the South’s secession because they believed Southern slavery would die out more quickly if the South were no longer part of the Union. Historians Randall and Donald, after noting the Confederacy’s move toward officially using slaves as soldiers and the support of key Confederate leaders for granting freedom to slaves and their families for faithful military service, acknowledged that the Confederacy may very well have abolished slavery even if it had survived the war:
On November 7, 1864, President Davis went so far as to approve the employment of slave-soldiers as preferable to subjugation, and on February 11, 1865, the Confederate House of Representatives voted that if the President should not be able to raise sufficient troops otherwise, he was authorized to call for additional levies “from such classes . . . irrespective of color . . . as the . . . authorities . . . may determine”. . . . There was no mistaking the meaning of this action. The fundamental social concept of slavery was slipping; an opening wedge for emancipation had been inserted. Lee’s opinion agreed with that of the President and Congress. On January 11, 1865, he wrote advising the enlistment of slaves as soldiers and the granting of “immediate freedom to all who enlist, and freedom at the end of the war to the families of those who discharge their duties faithfully. . . .” This fact, together with other indications, suggests that, even if the Confederacy had survived the war, there was a strong possibility that slavery would be voluntarily abandoned in the South. (The Civil War and Reconstruction, p. 522)
If the South had been allowed to leave in peace, over 600,000 soldiers (over half of them from the North) would have been spared death. Over 50,000 Southern civilians likewise would have been spared death. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers would not have been wounded for life. Millions of families would have been spared sorrow and anguish over their dead and wounded loved ones. Billions of dollars in property damage would have been avoided. And, race relations would not have suffered the poisoning that they experienced during and after the war.
“But,” some will ask, “wouldn’t the Union have been destroyed if the Confederacy had survived?” This was one of Lincoln’s erroneous arguments. The Union would not have been “destroyed” if the South had been allowed to leave in peace. The Union still would have had 23 states, compared to the Confederacy’s 11 states, and it would have retained control over the vast western territories. The Union’s population was more than twice the size of the Confederacy’s. In addition, the Union had nine times more factories than the Confederacy, twenty times more pig iron, seventeen times more textiles, two and a half times more miles of railroad tracks, thirty-two times more firearms, and nine times more production value. The Union still would have been one of the largest and most powerful countries on the earth even without the eleven states of the Confederacy. So the Union would have been just fine if the Republicans had allowed the South to go in peace. (In fact, if the Republicans had welcomed the Confederacy’s initial peace initiatives, the Upper South states probably would have remained in the Union and the Confederacy would have been limited to the seven states of the Deep South. As mentioned earlier, the four Upper South states only joined the Confederacy after Lincoln made it clear he was going to invade the Deep South states. Of course, if the two nations had lived in peace, the Union would have needed to lower its tariff in order to compete with the low Confederate tariff, but that could have been done in a matter of days by the U.S. Congress.)
What would the South be like today if the Confederacy had survived? No one can say with certainty, but it’s likely that taxes of all kinds would be much lower. Citizens would have much less government interference in their lives. Parents would have more control over their children’s education and over their local schools. Southern schools would most likely allow voluntary prayer, moral instruction, nativity plays at Christmas time, and formal Bible reading (as our schools used to do until the 1960s, when the Supreme Court suddenly decided these things were somehow “unconstitutional”). There would be tough anti-pornography laws, and those laws would be enforced. The lives of unborn children would be protected by law. There would be no question that marriage should be reserved for a man and a woman. And, a state government could place a Ten Commandments monument in front of a state judicial building without having to worry about a federal judge ordering its removal on the basis of an erroneous interpretation of the Constitution.
I also think that if the South had been allowed to go in peace, it may have eventually rejoined the Union. But, if not, I don’t think it would have been the end of the world if the South had remained independent. England and America have managed to do very well as separate nations. So have Norway and Sweden. So have Canada and England. So have Australia and England. I think the Confederacy and the United States could have done the same thing.
Some people think it is unpatriotic or divisive to defend the Southern side of the Civil War. As a retired U.S. Army veteran and a flag-waving patriot, I reject that view. Confederate citizens were Americans too. They were citizens of the “Confederate States of America.” Their heroes included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Mason, Davy Crockett, and Andrew Jackson. The official Confederate seal featured the image of George Washington on his horse. The Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, was a former U.S. Army officer, a genuine hero in the Mexican War, an outstanding U.S. Secretary of War, and a highly respected member of the U.S. Senate. Dozens of other Confederate officials had likewise served faithfully in the U.S. government. One of the members of the Confederate Congress was former U.S. president John Tyler.
It is time for the demonization and smearing of the Confederacy to stop. Compared with other nations of its day, the Confederacy was one of the most democratic countries in the world. Even during the war, the Confederacy held elections and had a vibrant free press. In fact, on balance, the Confederacy was more democratic than some nations in our day. Confederate citizens enjoyed every right that we now enjoy, if not more. The Confederacy sought peace with the federal government and only fought because it was invaded. The Confederate Constitution was patterned after the U.S. Constitution and contained improvements that even some Northern commentators acknowledged were praiseworthy. (An excellent study of the Confederate Constitution is Marshall DeRosa’s book The Confederate Constitution of 1861: An Inquiry into American Constitutionalism, University of Missouri Press, 1991.)
Yes, the Confederacy permitted slavery, but it left the door open for the admission of free states and for the abolition of slavery at the state level. Let’s keep in mind, too, that the American colonies permitted slavery for decades, that the United States permitted slavery for over half a century, that several Northern states made huge fortunes from the slave trade, and that many of our founding fathers were slaveholders, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, James Madison, John Rutledge, George Mason, and Benjamin Franklin. Let’s also keep in mind that most Confederate citizens did not own slaves, and that by late 1864 key Confederate leaders were prepared to abolish slavery.
I agree with the sentiments that former Confederate army officer Robert Catlett Cave expressed in 1911:
Does the propriety of discussing the causes of the War Between the States belong exclusively to Northern writers and speakers? Did the South, when she laid down her arms, surrender the right to state in self-justification her reasons for taking them up? If not, I fail to see how it can be improper, when perpetuating the memory of the Confederate dead, at least to attempt to correct false and injurious representations of their aims and deeds and to hand down their achievements to posterity as worthy of honorable remembrance. (The Men in Gray, pp. 11-12)
I also agree with James Webb, who served as Secretary of the Navy and Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan:
. . . to tar the sacrifices of the Confederate soldier as simple acts of racism, and reduce the battle flag under which he fought to nothing more than the symbol of a racist heritage, is one of the great blasphemies of our modern age. (Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, New York: Broadway Books, 2004, p. 225)