The historian Sean Wilentz wrote an op-ed for the New York Times a while back asking if the United States Constitution recognized slavery in national law prior to the Civil War. Wilentz answers “No,” and other academic historians have responded with a flurry of blog posts, articles, and tweets. There are too many to link here, but thankfully Al Mackey has already done the work of collecting most of the worthy responses on his website. The latest response to Wilentz comes from Daniel W. Crofts at the History News Network, and Dr. Crofts’ response now provokes a response from me.
Crofts focuses his essay on a second contention from Wilentz: that disagreements over the meaning of the Constitution were “the rock that split the Union in 1860-61.” Crofts counters this argument by asserting that constitutional disagreements between Northerners and Southerners only played a small role in explaining the outbreak of Civil War. Instead, he contends, the very act of Confederate secession itself was responsible for the start of the war. Most Unionists who actively supported a forceful response to secession did so not because of their anti-slavery convictions (if they had any), but because they viewed the idea of a state or states unilaterally leaving the country because their preferred candidate lost an election was a direct affront to the principles of popular government and republican rule of law. Secession set a bad precedent and imperiled the future of the United States, and these concerns largely explain the motivations underlying Unionists’ military response to the Confederacy following the firing of Fort Sumter.
While I think there’s a certain risk in arguing that secession was responsible for the war’s outbreak without also understanding how political disagreements over slavery and the constitution made secession a viable option to future Confederates in 1860-61, I believe Crofts is correct in this argument. It also lines up nicely with similar arguments made by Gary Gallagher in his book The Union War, a book I consider to be one of the finest works of scholarship published during the Civil War Sesquicentennial.
I believe Crofts takes his thesis too far, however, by embracing a common argument about secession–most recently made elsewhere by Jon Grinspan–that I call the Confederate Insanity Plea. To wit:
Blind to abundant historical evidence that war had the potential to disrupt slavery, secessionists sleepwalked heedlessly into catastrophe. The Republican Party posed no danger to slavery. But war did. Lincoln’s treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase, observed retrospectively that white Southerners had fallen victim to collective “insanity.” Had they stayed in the Union, they might have kept slavery “for many years to come.” No party or public feeling in the North “could ever have hoped” to touch it.
This conclusion strikes me as odd – just as odd as Wilentz’s assertion that the majority of Unionists enlisted in the U.S. military to defend an antislavery interpretation of the Constitution. Of course the Republican party posted a danger to slavery. How else do you explain the coming of Confederate secession in the first place?
Although Crofts apparently also takes issue with James Oakes‘ explanation for the coming of war, I agree with Oakes. The leading Southern advocates for disunion considered secession a better option for protecting their slave property than living under a Republican government opposed to the further westward expansion of slavery. It made no difference to them that Lincoln had never advocated the complete and immediate abolition of slavery or embraced the support of radical abolitionists during his candidacy. It made no difference to them that Republicans took pains to disavow any intentions of abolishing slavery where it already existed. And it made no difference that Republicans had previously expressed their wish to maintain their Union with slaveholders. To the Fire Eaters these distinctions were meaningless because the Republicans, by preventing the westward expansion of slavery, had hoped to establish a “Cordon of Freedom” that would limit slavery’s growth and, in due time, hasten its eventual demise. Whether a Northerner proclaimed himself a Republican or an abolitionist was meaningless to secession advocates because the end goal for both was the same: the eventual end of slavery in the United States.
Although his scholarship in now dated, Allan Nevins succinctly captured one fundamental issue for secessionists about the Republicans: “Was the Negro to be allowed, as a result of the shift of power signalized by Lincoln’s election, to take the first step toward an ultimate position of general economic, political, and social equality with the white man? Or was he to be held immobile in a degraded, servile position?” (470-471)
The first state to secede following the 1860 election was South Carolina, and their Declaration of Secession clearly views the Republican party as a threat to slavery:
For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.
This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.
On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.
The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.
To simply attribute the concerns of leading secessionists to the machinations of “insanity” is flawed. The insanity argument is an exercise in excuse-making that denies agency to leading Confederates in the choice for disunion, and it minimizes the importance of their own words in Declarations of Secession such as the one above. Secession was not the result of insane reasoning but deliberate, calculated thinking that matured over years of sectional conflict over slavery and the nature of the Union. Actions occur only when you first perceive that action is necessary, and whether or not secessionist perceptions of the Republican party were truly accurate is not so important as understanding that those perceptions led to calculated actions with deadly consequences.
Finally, while scholars today looking back in hindsight can agree with Crofts by seeing secession’s failure as hastening slavery’s destruction, we might choose to qualify that statement by stressing that few people at the outbreak of the war could have predicted that such an outcome would enact so much change in four years. Secession did not automatically guarantee slavery’s demise because the end results of secession could have played out in any number of ways. A successful Confederate effort would have perpetuated slavery indefinitely, and even an unsuccessful effort could have maintained slavery; had George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign of 1862 succeeded in ending the rebellion, slavery could have arguably continued where it already existed and been protected under the Lincoln administration (see Glenn David Brasher’s recent work on African Americans and the Peninsula Campaign for further discussion). Changing circumstances on the battlefield and the ever-evolving views of the Republican party towards slavery, however, contributed to the institution’s destruction. That the Lincoln administration eventually embraced emancipation as a war aim and passed the thirteenth amendment abolishing slavery, both with the popular support of loyal Unionists, must also be considered as crucial factors in the end of slavery in addition to the act of secession itself.
So, to recap, repeat, and TL,DR: Crofts is correct in asserting that the act of secession motivated Unionists to enlist in the U.S. military in 1861 more so than any sort of antislavery conviction or constitutional interpretation, but I think he errs in dismissing Confederate secession as an act of insanity and asserting that the Republican party posed no threat to slavery because they had promised to protect it where it had already existed.