If you grew up in the South, and especially if you’re white, you’ve likely been told repeatedly (maybe even in a classroom) that “the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery.” (They might have even called it the “War Between the States” or even the “War of Northern Aggression.”) “It was about economics,” they might say. Or, almost always, “It was over state’s rights,” as if that somehow means that it wasn’t actually over a state’s right to allow its white citizens to own and abuse black human beings. It’s remarkable how many white southerners, and others around the country, actually believe this myth. And it is regularly used as an excuse to justify keeping the Confederate battle flag and other symbols of the Confederacy and the “lost cause” of slavery imbedded into government, public and private schools, and some state universities in every way possible—especially in the taxpayer-funded state flags that still adorn several state capitols, including Mississippi’s.
But the problem is: The Confederate leaders themselves had no reason then to hide what they were fighting the Civil War over. They were forthright about both why they were seceding into the Confederacy and their beliefs about the white supremacy (and its spoils of wealth) that they were willing to fighting to keep in place. Ever since I first read Mississippi’s Declaration of Secession, I’ve used it as a response to someone who decides to spread these myths in my presence.
Now, in the wake of the Charleston massacre by an apparent white supremacist, and as the country is engaging in a welcome conversation about the Confederate flag, I’ve compiled a list of primary sources from the mouths and pens of the Confederate leaders themselves that could prove useful as you deal with the myths that continue to be used to justify racism and racist symbols. (Hat tip to Kristy Wittman Howell who had posted several of the more obscure links on Facebook.) Please suggest others in the comments.
Mississippi’s Declaration of Secession: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product, which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”
All the Declarations of Secession by southern states that did them: From Texas’ Declaration: “In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color– a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.”
Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ “Corner Stone Speech” in Savannah on March 21, 1861 “Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material-the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made “one star to differ from another star in glory. The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to His laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws.”
U.S. VP John C. Calhoun’s “Slavery is a Positive Good Speech” “Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.
“In the meantime, the white or European race, has not degenerated. It has kept pace with its brethren in other sections of the Union where slavery does not exist. It is odious to make comparison; but I appeal to all sides whether the South is not equal in virtue, intelligence, patriotism, courage, disinterestedness, and all the high qualities which adorn our nature.”
The Constitution of the CSA: ” (3) The Confederate States may acquire new territory; and Congress shall have power to legislate and provide governments for the inhabitants of all territory belonging to the Confederate States, lying without the limits of the several Sates; and may permit them, at such times, and in such manner as it may by law provide, to form States to be admitted into the Confederacy. In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected be Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.”
The Complete Text of Mississippi’s Secession Convention Lots to read here, but here’s a snippet Joel H Berry of Tippah about levying a “special additional tax on negroes”:
“In providing means for the defence of the State, there is no good reason why negroes should not bear as great a burthen as any other property. I do not wish my position upon this question to be misunderstood. I am utterly opposed to class legislation, or of making any discrimination against negro property, or of doing anything else that would be prejudicial to the institution of slavery. No one, sir, believes more strongly than I do in the great truth enunciated by Mr. Calhoun: that African slavery, as it exists in the South, is a blessing to both the white and black races. In no other country, nor in any other age of the world, so far as their history is known, have the African race attained so high an elevation, or enjoyed so much happiness, as they have in a state of servitude in the South. On the other hand, there is no place upon earth where the poorer classes of white people occupy so high a position as they do here, where African slavery exists. An abiding conviction of these truths upon the public mind gives to slavery its chief strength. It is this conviction that places it so high in the affections of the people. We should be careful to do nothing here that would, in the slightest degree, diminish this attachment for it.”
Jefferson Davis’ 1858 speech to the Mississippi Legislature: “(Senator and abolitionist Seward) seeks to alarm his auditors by assuring them of the purpose on the part of the South and the Democratic to force slavery upon all the States of the Union. Absurd as all this may seem to you, and incredulous as you may be of its acceptance by any intelligent portion of the citizens of the United States, I have reason to believe that it has been inculcated to no small extent in the Northern mind.
“It requires but a cursory examination of the Constitution of the United States; but a partial knowledge of its history and of the motives of the men who formed it, to see how utterly fallacious it is to ascribe to them the purpose of interfering with the domestic institutions of any of the States. But if a disrespect for that instrument, a fanatical disregard of its purposes, should ever induce a majority, however large, to seek by amending the Constitution, to pervert it from its original object, and to deprive you of the quality which your fathers bequeathed to you, I say let the star of Mississippi be snatched from the constellation to shine by its inherent light, if it must be so, through all the storms and clouds of war.
“The same dangerously powerful man describes the institution of slavery as degrading to labor, as intolerant and inhuman, and says the white laborer among us is not enslaved only because he cannot yet be reduced to bondage. Where he learned his lesson, I am at a loss to imagine; certainly not by observation, for you all know that by interest, if not by higher motive, slave labor bears to capital as kind a relation as can exist between them anywhere; that it removes from us all that controversy between the laborer and the capitalist, which has filled Europe with starving millions and made their poorhouses an onerous charge. You too know, that among us, white men have an equality resulting form a presence of a lower caste, which cannot exist where white men fill the position here occupied by the servile race. The mechanic who comes among us, employing the less intellectual labor of the African, takes the position which only a master-workman occupies where all the mechanics are white, and therefore it is that our mechanics hold their position of absolute equality among us.
“I say to you here as I have said to the Democracy of New York, if it should ever come to pass that the Constitution shall be perverted to the destruction of our rights so that we shall have the mere right as a feeble minority unprotected by the barrier of the Constitution to give an ineffectual negative vote in the Halls of Congress, we shall then bear to the federal government the relation our colonial fathers did to the British crown, and if we are worthy of our lineage we will in that event redeem our rights even if it be through the process of revolution.”
Speech of Secession Commissioner S.F. Hale of Alabama to Gov. Magoffin of Kentucky encouraging secession to avoid racial equality and the “lust of half-civilized Africans.” “(Seward) claims for free negroes the right of suffrage, and an equal voice in the Government—in a word, all the rights of citizenship, although the Federal Constitution, as construed by the highest judicial tribunal in the world, does not recognize Africans imported into this country as slaves, or their descendants, whether free or slaves, as citizens. These were the issues presented in the last Presidential canvass, and upon these the American people passed at the ballot-box.
“Upon the principles then announced by Mr. Lincoln and his leading friends, we are bound to expect his administration to be conducted. Hence it is, that in high places, among the Republican party, the election of Mr. Lincoln is hailed, not simply as it change of Administration, but as the inauguration of new principles, and a new theory of Government, and even as the downfall of slavery. Therefore it is that the election of Mr. Lincoln cannot be regarded otherwise than a solemn declaration, on the part of a great majority of the Northern people, of hostility to the South, her property and her institutions—nothing less than an open declaration of war—for the triumph of this new theory of Government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations, and. her wives and daughters to pollution and violation, to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans. Especially is this true in the cotton-growing States, where, in many localities, the slave outnumbers the white population ten to one.”
Correspondence between AL Gov. A.B. Moore and his secession commissioner to Delaware: Moore: “(Lincoln) may suppose that the people of the slave-holding States will be satisfied with the assurance that he does not intend to interfere with slavery in the States; but, in thus supposing, he supposes further, that they have not the manhood and honor to assert and maintain, or do not possess the intelligence to understand, their rights in the Territories or wherever else the jurisdiction of the Government extends, and that they are willing to surrender all the outposts, and leave the citadel unguarded, liable to first covert then open attacks. Notwithstanding this assurance, common sense and experience, our knowledge of human nature and all history, teach that, believing slavery to be a moral and political evil, a wrong to the Government, and that these States cannot exist half free and half slave, Mr. Lincoln will exert all his powers, influence, and patronage ‘to place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction.’
Lincoln, to whom Moore responded in that letter: “I think we want, and must have, a national policy in regard to the institution of slavery that acknowledges and deals with that institution as being wrong. Whoever desires the prevention of the spread of slavery and the nationalization of that institution yields all when he yields to any policy that either recognizes slavery as being right or as being an indifferent thing.
Nothing will make you successful but setting up a policy which shall treat the thing as being wrong. When I say this I do not mean to say that this General Government is charged with the duty of redressing or preventing all the wrongs in the world, but I do think that it is charged with preventing and redressing all wrongs which are wrongs to itself. This Government is expressly charged with the duty of providing for the general welfare. We believe that the spreading and perpetuity of the institution of slavery impairs the general welfare. We believe, nay, we know, that that is the only thing that has ever threatened the perpetuity of the Union itself. The only thing which has ever menaced the destruction of the Government under which we live is this very thing. To repress this thing is, we think, providing for the general welfare.
“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.”
“It wasn’t about slavery!”
So goes the inevitable response when one brings up the Civil War within earshot of a Confederate apologist. They are nothing if not predictable.
Despite being Michigan-born—and living, at various times, in the East and Midwest—I grew up hearing this claim. It’s a pervasive myth, even outside the Old Confederate South.
I’ve heard it my entire life, both in everyday and academic settings. But it wasn’t until last summer that I decided to search out the original documents from the Confederate states which outlined their reason for seceding. The impetus? I wrote about the Civil War as the necessary consequence of America’s original sin, and received the following comment:
Ah, “states’ rights,” the great fig leaf of those who wax poetic about the nobility of the Confederate cause.
From where does the myth come that the War Between the States began primarily for any reason other than slavery? As it turns out, a lot of places.
Confederate monuments litter the nation, like South Carolina’s at Gettysburg, which claims that, “Abiding faith in the sacredness of States Rights provided their creed.”
Confederate President Jefferson Davis, trying desperately to rehabilitate his image after the war, claimed that the “existence of African servitude was in no wise the cause of the conflict.” Alexander Stephens, who we’ll revisit in a moment, claimed “the War had its origin in opposing principles.”
This belief in a conflict of “opposing principles” is the foundation myth for the Lost Cause, the neo-Confederate effort over the subsequent 150 years to rewrite the Confederacy’s origin story.
It’s not just historical accounts that obfuscate the conflict’s true nature. One can also find contemporary commentary, not hidden away but in the most prominent places, denying the causal role of slavery in the Civil War. Gavin McInnes, who has been given lots of air time on Fox News, suggests that the conflict was “not about slavery,” and that “it was about secession.” McInnes suggested his Twitter followers “Google it,” a bold tactic indeed when your claims are easily disconfirmable.
McInnes is obviously a low-wattage provocateur, but what’s interesting is how the states’ rights explanation has influenced those who really should know better. As a military man and competent thinker in his own right, President Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, seemed to favor the states’ rights narrative in an interview last fall.
I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it’s different today.
As Civil War historian Caleb McDaniel notes in the Atlantic, “The truth is that Lee and his fellow slaveholders were ardent nationalists in the decades leading up to the Civil War.” This is not surprising, says McDaniel. After all, “For most of its history, the nation had usually protected and served the interests of slaveholders.”
What changed? What caused many of the slaveholding states to ditch their deep nationalist commitment? McDaniel writes: “the rise of the Republican Party and the election of Abraham Lincoln, who refused to use national power to advance slavery any longer.”
So what we have is clear evidence of Southern states, and men like Lee, ardently supporting nationalist causes in the years leading up to the Civil War — that is, in the years during which the nation supported their ability to perpetuate the “peculiar institution” — but then abandoning the project the moment slavery’s prospects were seriously threatened. It’s fairly open and shut: slavery was the cause.
But perhaps most surprising is how pervasive the states’ rights idea is in education. In his book Lies My Teacher Told Me, Jim Loewen says that 60 to 75 percent of high-school history teachers, not just in the South but across the country, believe and teach that the South seceded primarily due to states’ rights, and textbooks intentionally obfuscate the war’s primary cause.
Well, here’s the thing. It turns out several of the states in the Confederacy are super helpful on this point. They actually wrote down not just that they were leaving the Union, but why they were doing so.
They are called “Declaration of Causes”; there’s a website and everything.
One evening, I decided to take some time and read through them. Certainly, these documents form the basis of all those claims that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, right? Let’s find out.
First up, Mississippi. What I appreciate about Mississippi is they don’t seem to want to waste anyone’s time with a lengthy preamble about states’ rights. It turns out that we arrive at the slavery factor pretty quickly in this document:
A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.
In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery–the greatest material interest of the world.
Not to be outdone, Georgia mentions slavery in the second sentence:
The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years, we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.
Texas adopted what can only be described as a whiny tone when sounding the alarm on Northern states for failing to help Texas maintain an orderly slave labor system. It’s basically a paraphrase of: “You states in the north are not helping us do slavery to the utmost of our abilities! Shame on you!” In their own words:
The States of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, by solemn legislative enactments, have deliberately, directly or indirectly violated the 3rd clause of the 2nd section of the 4th article [the fugitive slave clause] …
“Noble” Virginia puts it in their opening paragraph, with helpful capitalization:
… the Federal Government, having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.
Apparently, in South Carolina “life, liberty, and the pursuit of fugitive slaves” were considered inalienable rights:
We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof.
The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: “No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”
You have to dig a little for Alabama, but ultimately, the state doesn’t disappoint. In a call for a convention with the other Confederate states, it lists six ways the Civil War was about slavery:
Our delegates selected shall be instructed to submit to the general convention the following basis of a settlement of the existing difficulties between the Northern and Southern States, to wit:
1. A faithful execution of the fugitive slave law …
2. A more stringent and explicit provision for the surrender of criminals charged with offenses against laws of one State and escaping into another.
3. A guaranty that slavery shall not be abolished in the District of Columbia …
4. A guaranty that the interstate slave-trade shall not be interfered with.
5. A protection to slavery in the Territories …
6. The right of transit through free States with slave property.
Alexander Hamilton Stephens, who happened to be Vice President of the Confederacy, doesn’t want to be tedious about the truth when giving a speech about the shiny new Confederate Constitution:
But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization.
[Our government’s] foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.
The chief complaint of many of the Confederate states, that the Fugitive Slave Act wasn’t being enforced, is ironic considering that it was a federal law that…wait for it…stripped rights from the Northern states to treat runaway slaves in the manner they saw fit. So deep was the Confederate commitment to states’ rights that they apparently believed the Northern states shouldn’t be able to exercise their own.
At this point, Confederate apologists might say, “Well, it wasn’t only about slavery,” which is about as comforting as your significant other saying, “Well, it’s not only about this other person I’m seeing.”
It’s true that not all 11 Confederate states outlined their reasons for leaving the Union. Yet what’s also true is that of the documents I found, all of them mention slavery. Every. Single. One.
There wasn’t a single official document outlining reasons for secession that did not mention slavery as a motivating cause. Maybe they exist, but I’m not holding my breath.
Primary sources can be pesky things.
This is part of a series which explores the Conservative Moral Hierarchy as elucidated by George Lakoff. Lakoff didn’t create this hierarchy, what he did is point out how this traditional structure explains American politics. We’ve spent so much time and effort on exploring the Conservative Moral Hierarchy because it has an enormous amount of explanatory power in today’s politics.