Confederate Secession Was Not a Moment of “Insanity”

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.

Cheers

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9 responses

  1. “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.”

    Nick,

    Just a couple of points. Lincoln wanted to stop the spread of negroes westward, he wanted to make the territories homes to white men. It had nothing to do with “freedom”

    Mr. Lincoln’s Reply in the Alton Joint Debate.
    I am in favor of this not merely (I must say it here as I have elsewhere) for our own people who are born amongst us, but as an outlet for free white people everywhere, the world over—in which Hans, and Baptiste, and Patrick, and all other men from all the world, may find new homes and better their condition in life.

    Charleston, Illinois on September 18, 1858
    I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and

    **************************************

    Do you have any figures on the Union enlistments prior to Fort Sumter, during the secession movement, and after. I believe after this action Lincoln called for troops after the firing.

    On another point slavery was not an THE issue, but abuses of the Constitution as clearly laid out in the Georgia and South Carolina secession docs. Slavery was not threatened by Lincoln, he said so in his first inaugural, and his letter to Horace Greely. Also West Virginia came into the Union as a slave state.

    The issue to war was money.

    George Purvis
    Cold Southern Steel

  2. Welcome back, George.

    There has been an abundance of scholarship on Lincoln’s views towards race, and it is clear that Lincoln–and indeed, the entire Free-Soil movement–possessed prejudices against blacks that were common for his time. The statement you quote from the Charleston debate testifies to that fact. That said, the Republican party’s views towards blacks settling in the western territories was not unified. Some favored black settlement, while others like Frank Blair favored colonization. Lincoln’s own views towards blacks in the 1850s are complex and paradoxical and necessarily require that we put them into context.

    Putting Lincoln’s words into context requires that we make an important distinction between race and slavery. The two are not the same, and as Lincoln’s words during the Lincoln-Douglas debates suggest, one could be opposed to slavery while also opposed to political and social equality between whites and blacks. The thrust of my post here is not to analyze Lincoln and the Republicans’ views on race or equality, but their views on slavery and how those views towards slavery influenced the coming of secession. I will grant you that Lincoln’s words definitely come off as racist at times, but Lincoln’s racism is not the topic under discussion here. Nevertheless I think it’s important to address your points.

    The quote you select from the Alton Joint Debate does not demonstrate Lincoln making an argument to keep blacks out of the west, but only that whites would have a chance to settle in new areas without slavery. He does not state one way or the other as to whether he’d encourage black settlement in the west. Again, the distinction between conversations about race and conversations about slavery is crucial. During the debates Stephen Douglas kept engaging in what we’d call “race-baiting” today. He accused Lincoln of favoring racial equality, miscegenation, and black citizenship. Lincoln described Douglas’s position as “his beautiful fabrication” and argued that discussions of race were besides the point, because the real issue in his mind was the fate of slavery in new western territories, not the status of blacks in those territories. So if we include Lincoln’s words right after the passage you quote, it changes the context of Lincoln’s viewpoint:

    “I have stated upon former occasions, and I may as well state again, what I understand to be the real issue in this controversy between Judge Douglas and myself. On the point of my wanting to make war between the free and the slave States, there has been no issue between us. So, too, when he assumes that I am in favor of introducing a perfect social and political equality between the white and black races. These are false issues, upon which Judge Douglas has tried to force the controversy. There is no foundation in truth for the charge that I maintain either of these propositions. The real issue in this controversy-the one pressing upon every mind-is the sentiment on the part of one class that looks upon the institution of slavery as a wrong, and of another class that does not look upon it as a wrong. The sentiment that contemplates the institution of slavery in this country as a wrong is the sentiment of the Republican party. It is the sentiment around which all their actions-all their arguments circle-from which all their propositions radiate. They look upon it as being a moral, social and political wrong; and while they contemplate it as such, they nevertheless have due regard for its actual existence among us, and the difficulties of getting rid of it in any satisfactory way and to all the constitutional obligations thrown about it. Yet having a due regard for these, they desire a policy in regard to it that looks to its not creating any more danger. They insist that it should as far as may be, be treated as a wrong, and one of the methods of treating it as a wrong is to make provision that it shall grow no larger. [Loud applause.] They also desire a policy that looks to a peaceful end of slavery at sometime, as being wrong. These are the views they entertain in regard to it as I understand them; and all their sentiments-all their arguments and propositions are brought within this range. I have said and I repeat it here, that if there be a man amongst us who does not think that the institution of slavery is wrong in any one of the aspects of which I have spoken, he is misplaced and ought not to be with us. And if there be a man amongst us who is so impatient of it as a wrong as to disregard its actual presence among us and the difficulty of getting rid of it suddenly in a satisfactory way, and to disregard the constitutional obligations thrown about it, that man is misplaced if he is on our platform. We disclaim sympathy with him in practical action. He is not placed properly with us.”

    So, to bring this discussion back to the point of my blog post, my contention is that the Republican platform of banning slavery in the new Western territories was perceived as a grave threat to slave property in all parts of the country, and does much to explain the desire among Southern Fire Eaters to secede upon Lincoln’s election to the Presidency. That Lincoln held racial prejudices is a fact I do not deny, but it does not change the thrust of my arguments here.

    ***
    “Do you have any figures on the Union enlistments prior to Fort Sumter, during the secession movement, and after. I believe after this action Lincoln called for troops after the firing.”

    Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteer troops following the firing of Fort Sumter in April 1861.

    ***

    “On another point slavery was not an THE issue, but abuses of the Constitution as clearly laid out in the Georgia and South Carolina secession docs.”

    From the Georgia Declaration of Secession:

    “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. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic.”

    From the South Carolina Declaration of Secession:

    “The ends for which the Constitution was framed are declared by itself to be “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

    “These ends it endeavored to accomplish by a Federal Government, in which each State was recognized as an equal, and had separate control over its own institutions. The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.

    “We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.”

    ***

    “West Virginia came into the Union as a slave state.”

    True, but slavery had already existed in the area prior to it becoming a state, and Lincoln demanded a plan of gradual emancipation before accepting West Virginia’s statehood. As an article on West Virginia Arts & History explains (http://www.wvculture.org/history/statehoo.html),

    “When Congress addressed the West Virginia statehood bill, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner demanded an emancipation clause to prevent the creation of another slave state. Restored Government Senator Carlile wanted a statewide election to decide the issue. Finally, a compromise between Senator Willey and Committee on Territories Chairman Benjamin Wade of Ohio resulted in the Willey Amendment, which read: “The children of slaves born within the limits of this State after the fourth day of July, eighteen hundred and sixty-three, shall be free; and all slaves within the said State who shall, at the time aforesaid, be under the age of ten years, shall be free when they arrive at the age of twenty-one years; and all slaves over ten and under twenty-one years, shall be free when they arrive at the age of twenty-five years; and no slave shall be permitted to come into the State for permanent residence therein.”

    ***

    “The issue to war was money.”

    The Georgia Declaration of Secession complained that through the Republicans “declared principles and policy they have outlawed $3,000,000,000 of our property in the common territories of the Union; put it under the ban of the Republic in the States where it exists and out of the protection of Federal law everywhere,” so maybe you’re right on that count 🙂

    1. You used that word “context” again. That and facts. I liked your original post. I will post a reply on it later.

      1. Thanks, Jimmy. I look forward to reading your response.

        1. Nick,

          Thank you for the kind welcome.

          I still stick to my original post Lincoln did not want the territories opened up to Blacks. That is evident and has been proven by his words, it is also proven by his actions regarding West Virginia. He did not care about any sort of freedom for the slaves and certainly did not want free Blacks in the territories.

          Thank you for posting the posting the portions of the Secession documents. Anyone reading them gets a good history lesson on the formation of our country — the importance of upholding the Constitution.

          The fact that slavery had existed in the portion of Virginia that became West Virginia has no bearing on Lincolns actions. he could have said no, come in as free or don’t come.

          No back to the point of your blog post. you cited this “that the act of secession motivated Unionists to enlist in the U.S. military in 1861.” You later tell me Lincoln called for 75,000 troops after the firing on Sumter. How can both statements be true unless you are saying the firing on Sumter was part of the secession acts.

          South Carolina
          THE PEOPLE of the state of South Carolina, in convention assembled, on the 2nd day of April, A.D. 1852, declared that the frequent violations of the Constitution of the United States by the federal government, and its encroachments upon the reserved rights of the states, fully justified this state in their withdrawal from the federal Union; but in deference to the opinions and wishes of the other slaveholding states, she forbore at that time to exercise this right. Since that time, these encroachments have continued to increase, and further forbearance ceases to be a virtue.

          Georgia
          Even the owners of fishing smacks sought and obtained bounties for pursuing their own business (which yet continue), and $500,000 is now paid them annually out of the Treasury. The navigating interests begged for protection against foreign shipbuilders and against competition in the coasting trade. Congress granted both requests, and by prohibitory acts gave an absolute monopoly of this business to each of their interests, which they enjoy without diminution to this day. Not content with these great and unjust advantages, they have sought to throw the legitimate burden of their business as much as possible upon the public; they have succeeded in throwing the cost of light-houses, buoys, and the maintenance of their seamen upon the Treasury, and the Government now pays above $2,000,000 annually for the support of these objects. Theses interests, in connection with the commercial and manufacturing classes, have also succeeded, by means of subventions to mail steamers and the reduction in postage, in relieving their business from the payment of about $7,000,000 annually, throwing it upon the public Treasury under the name of postal deficiency. The manufacturing interests entered into the same struggle early, and has clamored steadily for Government bounties and special favors.

          Now we also see Constitutional abuses and money as causes of secession, as I pointed out. The one factor causing the war — the collection of revenue.

          Have a Dixie Day

          1. Thanks, George.

            You are entitled to your views, but your view regarding Lincoln’s perspective on black settlement in the west has not been proven with the evidence you have submitted here. I have carefully explained why already, and have also explained that Lincoln’s views on race are irrelevant for the purposes of this discussion because his racism–real or imagined–was not a factor in the South’s choice to secede.

            Since West Virginia was originally part of a pre-existing state prior to its statehood during the war, I don’t know how you come away arguing that Lincoln opposed black settlement in the new western territories because he called for a gradual emancipation policy in the state’s constitution. I agree that he could have simply demanded complete emancipation in WV in order for them to become a state, but he tried to broker a compromise that would allow for WV’s admission while ensuring slavery’s eventual demise there. He would have been subject to charges of being a dictator had he demanded immediate and uncompensated emancipation, seeing as though the unionists within the state opposed any sort of emancipation.

            To your final point, of course the firing of Fort Sumter was an act of secession. There is literally no other way to interpret it.

            You have a great day, George.

  3. I think I will focus on the moment of insanity concern. I do not think the secessionists were crazy. They gambled on three things that had to happen to make their dream occur. The first was inaction by the people of the northern states regarding secession. The secessionists obviously misjudged the people not only in the North, but in the South as well. An overwhelming majority in the North rejected secession, many to the point of advocating the use of military force to make states comply with the Constitution. These people were determined enough to go through four years of brutal war, a conflict in which they looked to be losing for much of it or at least not meeting their goal of defeating the Confederate Army.

    The secessionists really thought the people in the North would just let the southern states leave. They thought those people would not react the way they did or in such numbers. That was a big mistake, but one that could be overcome if the other two fell into place. The second gamble that came up snake-eyes for the secessionists was the recognition of the Confederacy by European nations, specifically Great Britain and France. Had they recognized the Confederacy and began to ship supplies and engaged in trade with the rebels, it is very possible that the Confederacy would have survived in some form.

    Instead, those European nations rejected the very foundation of the Confederacy, slavery. That’s right. The foundation of the Confederacy, the very thing that the secessionists rallied around as their reason for secession, was a political anathema to British and French peoples. Nothing else kept the Europeans from grabbing the single greatest opportunity since the Revolution to divide the United States and possibly prevent the ascendancy of the US on the global stage. That also shows just how repugnant slavery was to Europeans by 1860.

    The third gamble was misjudging the people in the Border States and even the people in the Confederacy itself. Secession did not have the support of most people in the eight Border States. Secession was rejected outright in several of those states. The only reason four of them went with the Confederacy was Lincoln’s calling for troops after the treasonous attack on Fort Sumter. That attack was ordered by Jefferson Davis in an attempt to force the issue and it partially succeeded. Four of the Border States did join the Confederacy, but not the rest. Furthermore, large areas of those states contained significant numbers of people who rejected secession openly.

    In fact, fully one third of the people in the 11 states that formed the Confederacy rejected secession. That does not count the slaves either. Every state but South Carolina fielded at least one regiment of troops to the US Army and all of seceding states supplied at least one or more regiments of USCT (I do have to double check Texas on that though). That reflects the blind eye the secessionists took regarding the actions of people. They depended upon inaction, recognition, and support from three groups of people and got none. The result was a bloody civil war that permanently altered the nation, alteration that was the direct result of the actions of the secessionists. That was not insanity. Maybe ignorance and bad judgment, but not insanity.

    The expansion of slavery was absolutely critical to the survival of slavery. The secessionists knew this and they did not keep it a secret. It was spoken about openly for years and on full display at the secession conventions. If slavery could not expand, then the system the people in the South relied upon would wither and die. They were concerned about that and called it their way of life. It was just that, their way of life. That way of life absolutely depended upon slavery and the white supremacy that enabled it to exist. That is why so many poor white southerners would fight and die for the Confederacy and the elite class of slave owners.

    I agree with your post, Nick. The primary sources pretty much flat out say it. Multiple historians have written about this. William Freehling, Charles Dew, James McPherson, James Oakes, Allan Nevins, Daniel Potter, Michael Holt, William Davis, and others point it out as well. That is why they disagree so strongly with Wilentz. Crofts is correct on the Constitution and incorrect on secession starting the war. It really was not about what the Constitution said. It was about what some wanted the Constitution to have said. South Carolina’s secession ordinance is a good example. In it the secessionists point out several things that had been rejected by the Supreme Court such as the compact theory.

    To question the role of slavery in the causation of the Civil War is pure folly based on the primary sources. The people of the past knew what slavery was and they stated multiple times regarding it causing the war. Secession would not have occurred without slavery. The secession ordinances are abundantly clear on this as are all the documents from the secession conventions. The war began because of Davis’ order to attack Ft. Sumter because the secessionists were not accomplishing their goals. They had misjudged the three groups of people. Yet, without slavery, secession would not have occurred. You could have slavery exist without secession, but not secession without slavery.

    This is kind of an assignment in my survey course. What was the cause of the Civil War? I spend an entire class period on this. It is that important. So there is a long post, much longer than I intended it to be.

    1. Thanks, Jimmy. I really appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts here, and you make some really great points. The international context is especially important – Don Doyle’s recent book on the Civil War within an international context shows just how much the secessionists had counted on foreign support for their effort, and it proved to be a terrible blow to the cause. That said, it is much more reasonable to say that the choice to secede–and the process by which the attempt happened–could be considered as mistaken or flawed, but it was not the product of insanity.

      1. I would say it was an act of collective stupidity rather than insanity. They just made too many assumptions and did not allow for those assumptions to be wrong. This is nothing unique. People do it all the time.

        We constantly see people develop opinions based on flimsy evidence. When those opinions are refuted or proven incorrect by solid evidence, the people reject the facts that prove them wrong and stick to their original opinions. They dig in and refuse to even consider evidence that proves them wrong.

        In many ways, the secessionists did just that. They had a set of opinions and rejected all the evidence that refuted their opinions. Obviously they were wrong.

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