Why Did the South Secede?

February 2, 2012

History is important. Through it we can understand our future, understand politics, understand economics, and understand almost everything a little better. And that’s why having a proper understanding of historical events is important — having a warped view of history gives us a warped view of the present.

Of all of the misunderstood events in history, the American Civil War is probably the worst of the lot. Most students believe that the South was fighting to keep all of the slaves in bondage, while the benevolent Yankees were fighting to free the slaves in captivity — nothing could be further from the truth.

History books are written by the victors. This simple-yet-powerful sentence explains why the “winners” of every war rarely are seen as the “bad guys” for quite some time after the war.

The winners get to rewrite the story to cast themselves as heroes whether they deserve it or not, and that story is going to be a powerful one. My intellectual hero — Richard Maybury — explained it in simple terms:

‎”In our government-controlled schools we are taught that Lincoln was our greatest president because his war ended slavery and saved the Union. As usual, the other side of the story – the side that reflects poorly on the government – somehow gets lost.”

Let’s take a look at the real story — what Lincoln really said — and what the real reasons were for the South deciding to secede.

Freedom vs. Slavery?

The modern narrative that most people are taught is that the North wanted to abolish slavery and the South wanted to keep it in tact. This is demonstrated in movies, magazines, books, and perpetually taught in elementary schools, high schools, and college. It’s also dead wrong.

Abraham Lincoln flat out rejected it, saying in his first inaugural address:

‎”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.”

Later in his presidency, Lincoln wrote the following:

If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and 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.”

The motivation of Lincoln was consolidating political power — not freeing the slaves. The notion that he was trying to free the slaves from the get-go is a complete fabrication. Lincoln also was a racist, even though he thought slavery was wrong, and explained so in a debate with Douglas before he was president:

I am not now, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social or political equality of the white and black races. I am not now nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor of intermarriages with white people. There is a physical difference between the white and the black races which will forever forbid the two races living together on social or political equality. There must be a position of superior and inferior, and I am in favor of assigning the superior position to the white man.”

The notion of Lincoln being a benevolent color-blind freer of slaves is simply not true. It’s a fantasy cooked up by the men who won the war. After all, if you’re telling your grandkids that you waged a war that killed 600,000 men, that destroyed the city of Atlanta, and millions of people were wounded, it doesn’t sound good to say “we did it for political power”.

If the above wasn’t enough, Lincoln also made it clear that the black regiments in the military were to be used as cannon fodder. He used them like animals — to be killed before his precious white troops. He even explained such in a letter during the war in 1863:

“I thought that in your struggle for the Union, to whatever extent the negroes should cease helping the enemy, to that extent it weakened the enemy in his resistance to you. Do you think differently? I thought that whatever negroes can be got to do as soldiers, leaves just so much less for white soldiers to do, in saving the Union.”

The Civil War was not over freeing the slaves. The victor writes the history books.

Why the South Really Seceded:

So what were the real reasons the South seceded? The following should be helpful to understand:

  • Anti-South Party. The GOP was anti-southern. For the first time in the nation’s history, a political party was based on location rather than just different views. The south was demonized. That meant that their future of political influence was questioned because they had slaves. The impacts here would be much, much more than just slavery, as explained above “vote yourself a farm, vote yourself a tariff”.
  • Anti-South Tariffs. In the 1830s, the US government passed tariff essentially forcing the South to buy products from the North. Meanwhile, the South had to compete against the global market. The tariff laws were written in such a way as to force the South to enrich the North. This was feared to get worse and worse, especially since Lincoln — a member of the new “anti-South” party — was elected.
  • No Nullification. Nullification and other “state sovereignty” rights were essentially run down, ignored, or made impossible — this means the original “government” the South was agreeing to essentially didn’t exist. The “strong central government” camp had become much more powerful than the state-sovereignty camp, at least in DC.
  • Capping Southern Influence. Refusing new slave states to be created was essentially a political move that destroyed Southern influence — southern influences were suddenly capped, while northern influences could continue to grow and get more and more of an influence in congress. The North was soon to completely overpower the North in the federal government, leaving the South in a position where they were essentially forced to do whatever the North wanted.
  • Structure of Government. The North repeatedly was trying to change the constitution to make the senate elected by popular vote rather than state legislatures. They succeeded after the war. This was a huge change in the structure of government — the state governments are now not represented by the federal government. This was an attack on states across the board. The South wanted state sovereignty, and the North wanted the federal government to more able to regulate the internal affairs of the states — and not just in slavery.
  • No Need for the North. The South rightly believed that there simply wasn’t a reason for the South to need the North. Since they were being politically isolated and economically exploited, they believed there was nothing keeping them to stay in the North. They also believed that leaving the Union at any time was their contractual right.

Was slavery wrong? Absolutely. It was wrong. But the war wasn’t over freeing those already enslaved. Lincoln said this. If the South stayed in the Union, there’s a good chance that slavery would have existed for decades longer, because there was no constitutional way for the North to abolish slavery without the South’s consent — and they weren’t going to do that.

The Civil War wasn’t over “freeing the slaves”. It was about politics and regional influence — the North and South were at odds, and the South believed it was better off alone. Were they right? There’s no telling.

Slavery was a great crime against millions of people. It was wrong on a fundamental way. It was inhumane, evil, and disgusting. But “ending slavery” simply wasn’t what the war was about.

History is written by the victor, and nothing could be more clear than this being exactly an example of that. Other wars and events are also “told” in a lopsided manner in the textbooks. World War I, World War II, the Great Depression — many of these stories usually ignore basic historical facts, and are told in such a way as to glorify our government. When reading about history, always remember that the real story might be very different than the story in the book.

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