The goal of secession, said Jefferson Davis, was to protect the rights of “sovereign states” from “tremendous and sweeping usurpation” by the federal government. “The truth remains intact and incontrovertible, that the existence of African servitude was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.”
Was this the primary reason that the Southern States seceded in 1860? To determine this it is necessary to investigate whether his statement is consistent with words, writings, and actions of Southern politicians leading up to the secession and ultimate war. That is, what does the evidence show was the goal of secession.
The political situation in 1860 was Lincoln, a republican, had been elected to the presidency, but not by a large majority and the democrats might have been able to control the Senate. Thus, while they were losing some political ground there was no evidence of the eminent passing of abolition of slavery bill or of losing significant power in the congress. At this point states’ rights was not a critical issue.
In 1850 cotton was the major export of the US and slaves were the primary capital asset of the country. The South was a slave society and could not exist economically without slaves. Thus, cotton and it means of production, slaves, were of utmost importance to the economy of the South.
As discussed in the lectures, as the United States added new territories it became clear to Southern politicians that they were losing power to the North and the potential for abolition was growing. The South became obsessed with retaining slavery. Because slavery was such an immoral act, there was no way to argue directly for its continuance. So their strategy became to focus on an indirectly related constitutional issue, states’ rights. However, virtually everything they did and said was about slavery. Except for slavery no other issue concerned states rights.
To illustrate this point I will discuss a few of the important documents of the time.
The 1850 Compromise contained statements that the new New Mexico Territory and Utah Territory could in principle decide in the future to become slave states; the fugitive slave act was strengthened and; slave trade was banned in Washington DC. There was no mention of either increased or decreased states right for the new territories.
The Mississippi secession document starts with this preamble:
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.
Clearly this is an admission that by far the biggest issue on their minds was slavery.
Four of the reasons listed in the South Carolina secession document were issues of slavery. None had anything to do with state sovereignty.
The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 opened new lands for settlement, and had the effect of repealing the Missouri Compromise allowing white male settlers to determine through popular sovereignty whether they would allow slavery. The result was that both sides flooded into Kansas with the goal of voting slavery up or down, leading much bloodshed. There was no mention of states’ rights in that act.
Davis' statement is demonstrably untrue. His revisionist spin on the cause of the conflict cannot be reconciled with the historical record. While most of the seceding States did not give reasons for their decision to secede, a handful of States did offer reasons and they overwhelmingly centered on the issue of slavery.
Thus, Davis’s comments of yesteryear, like FOX news today, bear no resemblance to the true facts of that situation.