Would the United States still have slavery if the South had not seceded in 1861? Conclusion: Very likely.

Burton Weltman

Slavery had been on the decline in the Western Hemisphere during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  It had been abolished in Haiti in 1791 and Canada in 1793.  And as Latin America countries gained their independence from Spain during the early nineteenth century, they abolished slavery: Argentina in 1813; Peru in 1821; Chile, Ecuador, Columbia, Panama, and Venezuela in 1823; Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica in 1824.  Mexican revolutionaries proclaimed the abolition of slavery in Mexico in 1810 and slavery was officially abolished there in 1829, although the practice continued illegally in the area of Mexico that became Texas.  Britain abolished slavery in her colonies during the 1830’s.

But slavery still thrived during the mid-nineteenth century in Brazil, by far the largest holder of slaves in the New World, and in Cuba.  And slavery expanded in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and Central America after 1850 in the midst of a boom in those countries in the growing and processing of rubber.  Various forms of involuntary servitude were also widely practiced in India, China and the Middle East throughout the nineteenth century.  When the South seceded from the Union in 1860-1861, slavery was still a going concern in the United States and elsewhere in the world and might have gone on further and farther but for the consequences of the Civil War.

The abolition of slavery in the United States had a profound effect on the history of slavery in the world.  If slavery had not been abolished here during the 1860’s, the United States would have emerged during the late nineteenth century as the world’s largest economy, the world’s largest and leading democracy and the world’s leading slave-holding country.  The power and prestige of the United States could have given the institution of slavery a legitimacy and impetus that could have carried the institution into and through the twentieth century.

It cannot be assumed that the development of democracy in the United States during the twentieth century, including the right to vote for women, would somehow have led to the end of slavery.  Slavery has existed alongside democracy in several societies in the world, including ancient Athens as well as the early United States.  It has even been argued that the emergence of democracy in both of those societies was a product of slavery.  Slaves performed the societies’ demeaning tasks which enabled the free men to associate with each other on the relatively equal terms necessary for democracy.

Nor can it be assumed that the industrialization of the North during the late nineteenth century was incompatible with slavery in the South.  The industrialization of the North during the early nineteenth century had been perfectly compatible with slavery in the South and even depended to some extent on slavery.  Southern slaves produced cheap cotton that was manufactured into cloth and clothes by free northern workers.  This sort of division of labor could have continued.  It also seems likely that slaves could have been used as factory labor in an industrializing South and, given the potential effects of the Dred Scott decision which seemed to have opened the whole country to slavery, possibly even in the North.

Nor, finally, can it be assumed that the refinement of morals and manners that has occurred in the United States during the twentieth century would have somehow produced an environment incompatible with the continuance of slavery.  Americans and people elsewhere have been all too able to compartmentalize separately their high-tone feelings and their low-life prejudices.  I am reminded, although it is an extreme case, of the Commandant of Auschwitz who was able to record the noblest thoughts about his family, friends and flowers in his diary alongside statistics and comments about his day’s work exterminating human beings.

There were thirty-four states in the United States in 1860 of which fifteen were slave states.  It takes the support of three-quarters of the states to approve a Constitutional Amendment.  Thirteen southern slave states seceded to form the Confederate States of America.  In their absence, anti-slavery northerners mustered enough votes in Congress and among the remaining states to ratify the 13th Amendment and abolish slavery.  When the Confederacy lost the war, the Confederate states were required to ratify the 13th Amendment as a condition of their regaining their rights and powers as members of the Union.

The bottom line is that if slaveholders in the South had not made what was for them a disastrous blunder in seceding from the Union in 1860-1861, the votes in Congress and among the states to abolish slavery would not have been there during the late nineteenth century and might still not be there today.  There are fifty states today and the negative votes of fifteen slave states would still be more than enough to squelch an amendment to abolish slavery.  In any case, the United States would almost certainly have entered the twentieth century as the world’s leading superpower with slavery as a thriving institution in an otherwise democratizing society.  And might still be today.

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).


Would the United States still have slavery if the South had not seceded in 1861? Part II: Why did the South secede?

Burton Weltman

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).

Would the United States still have slavery if the South had not seceded in 1861? Part I: Shouldn’t the North have seceded from the Union instead of the South?

Burton Weltman

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).

What to think about Thomas Jefferson’s slaves?: Distinguishing between Questioning, Criticizing and Condemning People and Events in Approaching History as Choice.

Burton Weltman

In approaching history as a process of people making choices, I think it is important to distinguish between questioning, criticizing and condemning people and events.  To question is not necessarily to criticize.  To criticize is not necessarily to condemn.  And to condemn in part is not necessarily to condemn in whole.  These are distinctions that we make in our own lives and that are applicable to history as well.

Questioning is an almost automatic human response.  We are constantly evaluating and reevaluating things we have done, things other people have done, and things in general all around us.  Whether it’s a businessperson evaluating a sales campaign, a government official evaluating a public policy, or a Little League coach evaluating a strategic move, we are continually looking at decisions we have made and asking whether we could have done better.

But to question is not necessarily to criticize.  Your answer may be that the decision being questioned was right or was at least the best choice under the circumstances.  Questioning a decision is a way of clarifying the situation so that you can either reinforce your initial decision or revise it if necessary.  As such, in asking historical questions such as “Was the American Revolution a mistake,” a question that George Washington among others repeatedly asked in the aftermath of the Revolution, you are not necessarily saying that it was a mistake.  Your answer may be, as Washington’s ultimately was, “No, it was the right thing to do.”

Criticizing is not the same thing as condemning.  To criticize something as a mistake is not to condemn it or the people who supported it as bad or evil.  We all make mistakes, sometimes even when we have the best intentions, the best available information, and the greatest decision-making skills.  As such, if you were to decide, as many of the Founders did, that the American Revolution was in some respects or even entirely a mistake, you would not necessarily be condemning the Revolution or the Revolutionaries.  The Founders could have been mistaken in making the Revolution or in some aspects of making the Revolution, as Washington among other Founders sometimes thought, but could still have been good people trying to do a good thing.

You can condemn something or someone in part without condemning the thing or the person entirely.  That is, a person might do something bad or evil without being a bad or evil person.  Many Founders, for example, supported the American Revolution because they were afraid that Britain was moving toward abolishing slavery in the colonies as it had already been abolished in England.  In the opinion of almost everyone now and most people during the Revolution  (don’t forget, as most textbooks do, to include the slaves when you total up the “people” during the Revolution), slavery was evil and supporting slavery was evil.  But that doesn’t mean that everything slave owners such as Thomas Jefferson did was evil or that they were evil people.

What do you think?