Conventional history has it that secessionist sentiment was rampant in the South during the 1850’s and that the election of Lincoln in 1860 was the straw that broke the camel’s back and led to a secessionist stampede. This was not so. Secession was not popular in the South before the attack on Fort Sumter in April, 1861 that began the Civil War. Prior to that attack, the great majority of slave states had rejected secession and even within those states that had seceded following Lincoln’s election, large minorities of white people, and possibly even majorities, opposed secession.
Most slave owners in the South felt comfortable with the political and economic situation in 1860. Lincoln had won the presidential election with only 40% of the vote, with 60% going to pro-slavery candidates. Congress was effectively stalemated between pro and anti-slavery members. The Fugitive Slave Act and the Dred Scott decision were the laws of the land and there was very little chance of these laws being changed in the foreseeable future. This seemed especially the case since “Cotton was King” and the North was economically dependent on Southern trade. Most slave owners felt that the North needed the slave South economically. They also felt that the South needed the North to help control and contain the slaves. For most southern supporters of slavery, including prominent figures such as Alexander Stephens, who later became the vice-president of the Confederacy, the Union was slavery’s best protection.
So, how did it happen that almost the whole slave South seceded by the spring of 1861?
A relatively small but very vocal group of southern “Fire Eaters,” led by Robert Barnwell Rhett and James Hammond of South Carolina and James Loundes Yancey of Georgia, were convinced that the North was out to abolish slavery and that if the South did not get out of the Union soon, it would soon be too late. Comparing their situation to that of the colonies before the American Revolution, and taking a position that mixed overwrought fear with unfounded self-confidence, they promoted secession during the 1850’s and especially after the election of 1860 as a preemptive strike to forestall the tyranny of the North before it could get started.
As bad as political developments of the 1850’s seemed to anti-slavery northerners, they seemed worse to southern Fire Eaters, almost as though the two groups were living in alternate universes and were not experiencing the same events. From the Fire Eaters’ perspective, the pattern of significant events of the 1850’s had begun with the acrimonious debate over the Wilmot Proviso, which was intended to prohibit slavery in any new territories, had proceeded with the formation in 1854 of the Republican Party, which was dedicated to restricting and maybe even ending slavery, and had culminated in John Brown’s terrorist raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, which was intended to start a bloody slave revolution. The election of Lincoln in 1860 was seen as a sign they must make a move to save slavery through secession before it was too late.
Although the North had not yet done anything to overturn slavery, and was in no position to do so, the Fire Eaters stirred fears in white southerners that the North was growing faster than the South and would eventually overwhelm it. They warned that northerners were continuously agitating among the slaves, promoting runaways and provoking rebellions. They complained about northern assistance to runaway slaves and, ironically, thereby helped publicize the Underground Railroad to potential runaways. Essentially feeding their own fears while trying to provoke the fears of their southern white compatriots, Fire Eaters reinforced the conclusion with which they had started: that the South must make a pre-emptive move to secede.
Fire Eaters were also afraid of the potential spread of abolitionism among southern whites if they stayed within the Union. Most southern whites were hurt by the slave system. Only some 25% of white southerners owned any slaves and fewer than 10% of these owned over 75% of the slaves. This small minority of large-scale slave owners lived on big plantations and monopolized most of the best land in the South. Given their use of slave labor and their ownership of the most fertile land, these plantation owners were able to produce larger crops at lower cost than the mass of small farmers. As a result, small farmers were paid lower prices for their crops and made less money than if they weren’t competing against slave labor. Similarly, southern white craftsmen and white workers earned less for their labor because they were competing against slave labor. Southern whites before the Civil War had a lower standard of living and a lower life expectancy than both northern whites and northern blacks.
Fire Eaters countered economic arguments against slavery with racial and cultural appeals. They stoked fears among whites of blacks taking over the South if slavery was abolished and portrayed abolitionism as a clear and present danger, especially after the election of Lincoln. They also made the protection of slavery the focal point of a broad-based opposition to what they portrayed as liberal northern attitudes and policies that favored big government, high taxes, wasteful social and economic programs, costly public education, free speech, egalitarian gender relations, and other hot-button political and cultural issues. Fire Eaters portrayed themselves as the protectors of a romantic conservative tradition that was being undermined by northern liberalism, and they portrayed threats to the expansion of slavery as threats to this southern way of life. White people were harangued to support this heroic tradition by defending slavery.
Fire Eaters compounded their assertion of southern cultural superiority with an inflated faith in southern military prowess. They believed that the South was better prepared militarily than the North, since southerners were a larger percentage of the officer corps of the United States Army and a larger percentage of southerners had guns and used guns both to hunt animals and to defend themselves against slaves. So, if northerners wanted to fight against southern secession, the South would whip them. Fire Eaters also believed that the South would get support from England in any war against the North since England was so dependent on southern cotton.
At the beginning of their campaign, Fire Eaters had hoped that the Wilmot Proviso, which prohibited slavery in territories gained in the late 1840’s from Mexico, would be enacted by Congress in 1850 because it might serve as a provocation for southern secession. Thereafter, they sought to goad South Carolina, historically the most radically pro-slavery colony and state, into secession. They hoped that this would provoke a northern overreaction similar to the British reaction to the Boston Tea Party and, thereby, provoke a general southern insurrection similar to the American Revolution. With the election of Lincoln, they hysterically portrayed the situation as a now or never crisis. This time their cries of “Wolf” worked.
With South Carolina leading the way, seven states seceded in the aftermath of the election of 1860 but even then pro-union southerners such as Senator Crittenden of Kentucky tried to propose a compromise that would bring those states back and keep others from seceding. Those efforts were thwarted by southern radicals and finally ended with the attack engineered by Fire Eaters in secessionist South Carolina on the federal Fort Sumter. This attack was ironically portrayed by Fire Eaters as an act of aggression by the North on the South. With the South ostensibly under attack, other slave states seceded from the Union and the Civil War was on.
As with the American Revolution, the war known in the North as the Civil War but in the South as the War for Southern Independence was the result of an assiduous campaign by a determined minority that believed it knew better than the majority what was best for their country. But the results of this attempted revolution were very different from those of the last and the war to save slavery became the war that ended slavery.
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).