Conventional histories invariably portray the secession of the South from the Union as an almost inevitable response to Abraham Lincoln’s election as President in 1860. In fact, there was a stronger argument for the North to secede in 1861 and very little reason for the South to do so.
The decade of the 1850’s was an almost complete disaster from the point of view of anti-slavery northerners, starting with what they saw as an infamous appeasement of the South in the so-called Compromise of 1850 and ending with a complete abdication to slavery in the Dred Scott Case of 1857. As a result of these laws and legal decisions, anti-slavery northerners felt that no one, white or black, was safe from enslavement and no place would be free from slavery.
The Compromise of 1850 both expanded the territory within which slavery could legally exist and contained a Fugitive Slave Act. This Act provided that anyone could be accused by a slave-catcher of being a fugitive slave and then had to prove that he or she was not a slave. If the person could not present this proof, he or she could be taken away as a slave. Since many “black” slaves were the product of sexual relations between white masters and slave women, many “blacks” had complexions that were as light, and even lighter, than those of “whites.” As a result, a free white person could be accused of being an escaped black slave and if the person could not prove that he or she was not a slave, the person could be taken away as a slave.
The safeguards provided in the Fugitive Slave Act against mistakenly identifying a freeman as a slave were not very safe. If someone was accused of being a fugitive slave, the person had the right to a hearing in which the person could try to prove that he or she was not a slave. Those hearings were not, however, conducted in a regular court with a judge but in front of a special United States Commissioner who would be paid five dollars for each case in which a person was found to be a freeman and ten dollars for every case in which a person was found to be a slave. As such, the system encouraged Commissioners to find that people were slaves.
Finally, under the Fugitive Slave Act, every northern free person was required to help capture fugitive slaves, and was thereby required to be a participant in and a supporter of the slave system. The law made every northerner a servant of southern slave owners for purposes of keeping the southerners’ slaves in captivity.
The Compromise of 1850 was seen by anti-slavery northerners as the subjugation of the North by the South. In subjecting white people to the possibility of being taken as fugitive slaves, and making every northerner an accomplice in the slave system, the law was seen by northerners, even by many who were not against slavery, as an incursion of the slave system into the North.
If the Compromise of 1850 represented an incursion of slavery into the free states, the Dred Scott decision of 1857 represented an invasion of slavery into the North and an end to freedom in the United States. In striking down the Missouri Compromise and holding as a matter of constitutional law that a person may take his property, including his slave property, anywhere in the United States, the Supreme Court effectively held that there was no such thing as a free state.
If, as the Supreme Court held, a southern slave owner could take his slaves into a northern “free” state and retain title and control of them as slaves, then slavery was seemingly legal and protected by the Constitution everywhere in the United States. In sum, the United States was a slave country in its entirety and only a Constitutional amendment overturning the Dred Scott decision could change the situation.
While the election of Lincoln as President in 1860 was a victory for anti-slavery advocates, it was a hollow victory that could have had no effect on the status of slavery in the country and that provided no hope whatsoever that slavery could be limited in the country let alone eliminated.
Lincoln got only some 40% of the votes in the election of 1860, almost all from the North. The other 60% of the votes were divided among three other pro-slavery candidates. Since Lincoln’s Republican Party was a regional party that was strong only in the North, there was little hope that it could become a national party that could influence slavery politics in the country as a whole.
The South had a big advantage in national politics because under the Constitution each slave was counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of allocating members of the House of Representatives and presidential votes in the Electoral College. Under this system, eight of the first fifteen presidents of the United States were from the South and the others were essentially elected by the South. Five of the nine Supreme Court Justices during the 1850’s were southerners which meant that the Constitution was firmly controlled by proponents of slavery. Despite Lincoln’s election, there was no reason to believe that this would change.
In any case, a Constitutional amendment affecting slavery seemed foreclosed forever. A Constitutional amendment must be approved by 2/3 of the House and the Senate and by 3/4 of the states. Congress in 1860 was about evenly divided between pro-slavery and anti-slavery advocates. This gave no hope of getting the 2/3 majorities in both the House and the Senate needed for proposing a Constitutional amendment affecting slavery. Even more important, there were thirty-four states in the United States in 1861 of which fifteen were slave states. There was no way that a Constitutional amendment limiting or eliminating slavery was going to be approved by 3/4 of the states in 1861 or at any time thereafter.
In the face of these facts, influential anti-slavery northerners such as William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Theodore Parker, Horace Greely and Ralph Waldo Emerson called for the separation of the North from the South in order for the North to escape what they saw as the stranglehold of “The Slave Power” over the United States.
So why didn’t the North secede? There were probably a combination of reasons. One reason was patriotism — the belief in American’s preeminent role in bringing peace, prosperity, liberty and democracy to the world — of which there was an upsurge in the North during the mid-nineteenth century before the Civil War.
Economics was another reason. Southern and northern economies were intertwined. Southern cotton fed northern mills and northern food crops fed southern slaves. Cotton was also the major American export which paid for goods imported from Europe.
Another reason was democratic idealism which Lincoln articulated in his Gettysburg Address: the desire to prove that democracy could work and endure. The prevailing opinion in Europe at that time was that democracy could not last, that democratic countries would inevitably descend into factional and sectional conflicts and eventually fall apart. Northerners needed to prove that theory was wrong.
Still another reason was geopolitical. If the North seceded and the slave South became a separate nation, the South would likely become a dependency and ally of England. That would leave the North surrounded by English Canada and a South dependent on England. Since the United States and England were not on friendly terms — the United States had tried to stir up Canadian rebels for independence during the 1830’s and had engaged in a vehement dispute with England over the boundaries of the Pacific Northwest during the 1840’s — this was not a desirable prospect.
Finally, there were those who did not want to run away from the fight over slavery and thereby leave the southern slaves in the lurch.
Who do you think they had the better of the argument? Should the North have seceded in 1861?
Note: This issue is discussed at greater length with citations and quotations in the chapter entitled “Choice #9: The Coming of the Civil War: Why Didn’t the North Secede and Why Did the South?” of my recently published book Was the American Revolution a Mistake? Reaching Students and Reinforcing Patriotism through Teaching History as Choice (AuthorHouse, 2013).