(July 12, 2018) Formal resolutions explaining why selected Southern states such as South Carolina and Mississippi elected to secede are often cited as “proof” that slavery was the Civil War’s dominant cause. Nonetheless, the statements were explanations for secession, not war. The great fallacy of the presently dominant James McPherson school of Civil War history is to equate the reasons the South seceded with the reasons the Northern states chose to militarily coerce them back into the Union. The overly-simplified interpretation leads to the currently popular opinion that the North fought to end slavery and the South to preserve it.
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In truth, however, few contemporaries believed that a Southern Confederacy militarily threatened the Northern states. It was, for example, unlikely to invade the North. Therefore, a number of prominent Yankees concluded that the South should be allowed to leave peaceably and remain a familiar, but independent, neighbor. Among them was abolitionist Horace Greeley who was the editor of The New York Tribune, then one of America’s two most influential newspapers. Greeley wrote, “We have repeatedly said . . . that if the slave states choose to form an independent nation, they have the right to do so.” President James Buchanan added that many Republicans shared Greeley’s opinion: “Leading Republicans everywhere scornfully exclaimed ‘Let them go;’ ‘We can do better without them;’ ‘Let the Union slide,’ and other language of the same import.”
To understand why the result was Civil War, students should consider Northern reaction to disunion as well as Southern reasons for secession. Just as some Southern states issued formal explanations for secession, a number of Northern states released official reactions to Southern secession. This post evaluates the eight resolutions jointly approved by Minnesota’s legislature on January 19, 1861 after five Southern states had seceded. Future posts will look at other states.
Minnesota’s resolutions unmistakably affirmed that the state would provide “resource(s)” for the federal government to militarily force the South back into the Union. Most condemned Southern secession as being “without excuse or justification.” But in sum the resolutions show that Minnesotans chiefly desired to preserve the Union. They made no statement about wanting to free Southern slaves. In fact, none of the resolutions even mention slavery.
Not until the seventh resolution does the Minnesota legislature provide a concrete explanation for wanting to preserve the Union:
7. Resolved, That we never will consent or submit to the obstruction of the free navigation of the Mississippi river, from it source to its mouth, by any power hostile to the Federal Government.
Thus, Minnesota’s true reasons for opposing the Confederacy seem to center on worries about the economic impact of disunion. Such concerns about trade disruption were common among most Northern states. As explained in this post, the avoidance of such consequences appears to be the chief reason the Northern states chose to inaugurate Civil War.