The South’s Secession
The United States is a product of many significant historic events that have helped to create the foundation of our nation. One of these events includes the secession of the South from the Union in the 19th century. Our nation, exhibiting a clear political and social barrier between north and south, was amidst turmoil and divide. America was becoming increasingly separated by both beliefs and geography. Once the Missouri Compromise of 1820 made the divide rational and present, Antebellum America began to irreversibly change. The secession of the South was a difficult but necessary decision that would ultimately lead to one of the bloodiest wars in American history. The Civil War was compounded by the two sides’ vastly opposing ideals, protection of slavery for the South, divide of the political system, and the eventual controversial election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. The South was determined to defend their land and ideals, even in the midst of harsh opposition.
There are several factors that make up the differences between the North and the South. Demographics, culture, beliefs, and climate are a few of many reasons that the opposing sides had such vast problems in the 19th century. One of the major reasons pertaining to the South’s decision for secession was their need for slavery to maintain agriculture, which nearly completely funded the South’s economy. The South was the major supplier of several of the nation’s essentials such as sugar, tobacco, and cotton. The terrain, mostly flat, made it very easy to transport products available for trade. The Mississippi River, combined with rich farming grounds, served as the ideal transportation system for the South and its crops. There was clear economic divide between the North and South because the industrial market of the north served as the primary economic income, maintained often by different means of labor. They did not understand the need for slaves; however, the South did not have the money to pay workers to keep their plantations running without them. The North had land bordered by ocean as well as the Appalachian Mountains, which made transportation more difficult than that of the South. The railroads became an essential mode of transportation for the North and their industrialized goods. Overall, the North was progressing into a world of urban industry, while the South was built upon agriculture and trade. Each of these significant contrasts between the North and South pose very important factors in the rift and eventual secession of the South.
The overriding difference between the South and North became emphasized further with the initiation of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The geographic divide from the compromise drew a line between the free states of the North and slave states of the South. The thought of emancipation of slaves was irrational for the South due to their need for labor to maintain the day-to-day work required by the farms. From class we see the South’s population of whites to slaves was just over 10,000 in favor of the whites. If slaves became free, those living in the South realized that this would cause even more turmoil than a possible secession from the North. The politics of slavery continued into religion when in 1845 the Methodist and Baptist churches divided. Southern Baptists firmly believed that it was their God-given right to own and utilize slaves. In contrast, Northerners thought the church should not be involved in matters such as these. In addition to moral and religious differences regarding slavery, The Wilmont Proviso of 1846 added to their desire to rid America of slavery and keep it from spreading any farther west. The document stated that all land acquired from the Mexican war would be slave-free. After passing in the House it failed in the Senate due to the South’s representation advantage over the North. The bill served as a tangible representation of the North’s strong beliefs against slavery. As Kansas and Nebraska neared annexation in 1854, they were not sure whether they would be free or slave states. For this, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, which would rid the nation of the constraints of the Missouri Compromise, and allow states to choose their own affiliation to be free or slave states. In regards to democracy, the state’s autonomy sounded like a good idea, but ended up causing civil unrest in Kansas. The conflicts that arose from Kansas and Nebraska, named ‘’Bloody Kansas’’, showed that the North would do anything, even war, to abolish slavery in the United States. Instances like this revealed slavery to be the major focal point of the disarray between the North and South. With this unrest, slaves had started to develop a greater desire to be free and also confidence to speak out. One of the prominent slave names of this time was Dred Scott. Scott, along with his wife, argued for their freedom in court. He argument was since he lived four years in Illinois and Wisconsin, which at this time were slave-free states, he should be granted freedom. The Supreme Court would end up deciding 7-2 against Scott, stating that no person of African ancestry could be a citizen of the United States, and therefore was not considered free. As one of the first black slaves to fight for his freedom, the case gained a lot of attention, primarily in the North. A known abolitionist, John Brown, believed in and advocated for armed insurrection to overthrow slavery. First famous for his first coordinated movement called ‘’Bleeding Kansas’’ in 1856, Brown later heard of these court rulings and took action in 1859. He led an attack on Harpers Ferry, Virginia in efforts to arm slaves in order to liberate them. This plan failed and resulted in 7 deaths. John Brown was eventually tried for treason and executed. Harpers Ferry would solidify the South’s anxiety of the North’s strong feelings against slavery. Many papers were published throughout the North defending Brown. One read: ‘’Gathering all the factors and rumors concerning the late affair at Harpers Ferry, it is difficult to decide whether it should be called a ludicrous tragedy or a solemn farce,’’ Secession Era Editorials Project “Daily Evening Transcipt,”. While the South viewed brown as a man of treason rightfully, he would be seen as a martyr in the North.
One of the most controversial elections in U.S. history was the election of 1860. Many historians believe that the nomination and election of Lincoln served as the tipping point for the South in their decision to secede. Lincoln was not well known, and at the start of ‘’The Wigwam” in Chicago, he was 6th on the list of nominees. He performed well in debates against Douglas but lacked real experience as compared to other politicians running. The South believed Lincoln did not have their best interest in mind pertaining to slavery, even though in his Inaugural Address Lincoln stated, ‘’ I have no purpose directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so,” Abraham Lincoln ‘’First Inaugural Address,’’ The Civil War and Reconstruction. However, he later contradicted himself in a series of debates with Douglas in Illinois where he claimed slavery was “a wrong which the nation’s founders had earmarked for extinction,” Abraham Lincoln ‘’The Lincoln-Douglas Debates,’’ Disunion! The Coming of The American Civil War. The election was a four-way battle between Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, John Bell, and John Breckinridge. Douglas, a northern democrat, was the only representative to go around the country to campaign. Lincoln would end up winning only 40% of the popular vote, and the majority of electoral votes outright. Even though Breckenridge won the Deep South states and Douglas won Missouri, it was not enough to overpower the popularity of Abraham Lincoln in the North. The results of this election led the South to feel as if they were out of options, thus begun the great separation of the United States. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union. Even though the South as a whole was likely to secede as one, there remained differences throughout the southern states. The Upper South required a referendum, not sufficient unless ratified with the people. The Lower South’s views varied between pro-secessionist and pro-unionist, which complicated the decision of secession to be determined by the remaining states. There were many conditional Unionists that thought secession was not yet a must for the South. Although there was doubt and divide in the Lower South, once President Lincoln called for troops to Fort Sumter, the remaining southern states were forced to secede to help defend their land and create a unified front.
The vast bloodshed of the Civil War after the secession was something the South viewed as inevitable. The South desired its own identity and freedom to determine how they operated as a whole, which was due to the array of differences between the political, religious, economic, and geographic aspects between the North and South. With the secession of the South, the Confederate states of America were formed, and the South gained a sense of pride and independence that they had not experienced prior to the Civil War. The two sides opposing ideals, uprisings, and eventual election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 would give the south no choice but to separate themselves from the north and operate by themselves. The decision of the South to secede would affect American history to this day, by leading to one of the bloodiest wars on American soil: The American Civil War.
Stanley Harrold, The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Reader (Malden, MA:
Elizabeth Varon, Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
“Daily Evening Transcript.” Review. (Boston) 24 October 1859: n. page. Secession Era Editorials Project:. Web. 18 Sept. 2018.