(September 22, 2019) Most modern Civil War historians cite some of the Cotton State secession documents as “proof” that the Civil War was chiefly about slavery. As documented here, at least four of the initial seven Confederate states that seceded before President Lincoln’s April 15, 1861 call for 75,000 troops to coerce them back into the Union cited slavery as an important reason for secession. The additional four upper-South states of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas seceded only after Lincoln’s call for troops.
Most of today’s historians, however, make three errors in judging the secession Declaration of Causes as “proof” that the war was all about slavery. First, they ignore the fact that the four upper-South states with half the white population of the eleven-state Confederacy only seceded after Lincoln forced them to choose between invading the sovereignty of the Cotton States, or fighting to prevent the invasion. They had remained Union-loyal while the Cotton States were seceding because they concluded that their own secession was unnecessary to protect their rights. Second, the historians fail to consider the reasons mentioned in the corresponding general assembly resolutions of Northern states in response to Southern secession. Third, they equate the reasons for secession with the reasons for the war, even though secession need not have led to war.
Regarding the second point, the general assemblies of at least the ten Northern (free) states listed below passed resolutions opposing secession. None sought to end slavery. New Jersey even recommended the Crittenden Compromise, which would have forever protected slavery from federal action. The main goal of the resolutions was to avoid disunion, which generally led the ten states to regard secession as “treason” or “rebellion.” Since none wanted to end slavery, it is illogical to argue that the war was all about slavery merely because some of the first seven seceding Cotton States considered secession a way to protect slavery.
Free States With General Assembly Resolutions Against Southern Secession
(None wanted to end slavery)
- New Jersey
- New York
Regarding the third point, the reason why there is not necessarily an equivalency between secession and war is because the North could have let the South leave in peace. There was no danger that the South would militarily invade the North. In fact, many Republican and Democrat Northern leaders were prepared to at least acquiesce to Southern secession. Examples include George McClellan, Horace Greeley and Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s future War Secretary.
Significantly, the resolutions from Northern states above show that they would fight to “preserve the Union.” The cited reasons, such as the “freedom,” “prosperity” and “happiness” allegedly enabled by the Federal Union, are vague abstractions that may be mere obfuscations designed to camouflage a real goal to avoid the economic consequences of disunion.
A truncated Union separated from its Southern states, for example, would likely face two significant economic problems.
First, it could not hope to maintain a favorable balance of payments. The salve states accounted for about 70% of America’s exports on the eve of the Civil War. Thus, without the South’s export economy, America might become a perpetual debtor nation forever at the mercy of its stronger trading partners that would deplete her gold supply in order to settle the persistent trade imbalances.
Second, since the Confederate constitution outlawed protective tariffs, her lower tariffs would confront the remaining states of the abridged Union with two consequences. First, since ninety percent of Federal taxes came from tariffs, the government’s revenue loss would be sizable. Articles imported into the Confederacy from Europe would divert tariff revenue from the North to the South. Second, and more importantly, a low Confederate tariff would induce Southerners to buy manufactured goods from Europe as opposed to the Northern states where prices were artificially inflated by protective tariffs. Tariffs in 1860 amounted to $54 million, but the import-protected goods and trading revenues in the North associated with Southern trade totaled $200 – $400 million (Southern Wealth & Northern Profits Kettell).
If modern historians had taught students about the anti-secession resolutions from the Northern states together with the secession cause declarations, the true difference between the two regions would be more discernible. The South wanted self-determination and peace whereas the North wanted economic hegemony.
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To learn how the Confederacy nearly won its independence during the six months from June to December 1862, consider reading:
The Confederacy at Flood Tide: by Philip Leigh
Indiana: Laws of the State of Indiana, (J. P Chapman, 1861), 188
Maine: State of Maine Website
Massachusetts: History of the 5th Massachusetts, p. 29
Michigan: Acts of the Michigan Legislature, 1861, p. 579
Minnesota: Journal of the Senate of Missouri, 1861, p. 194
New Jersey: Journal of the Assembly of New York, 1861, p. 231
New York: Revised Statutes of New York, 1863, p. 107
Ohio: Journal of Ohio Senate, 2nd Session, 1861, p. 19
Pennsylvania: Journal of Wisconsin Assembly: 1861, p. 206
Wisconsin: General Acts of Wisconsin Legislature, 1861, p. 345