US History/Secession

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Secession and the Southern Confederacy[edit]

With the demise of the Whig Party and the split of the Northern and Southern branches of the Democratic Party, the opportunity afforded itself for the recently organized Republican Party to increase its political power in both chambers of Congress and to successfully elect Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency. Wendell Phillips acknowledged that the Republican Party was "a sectional party, organized against the South." Several other leading Republicans even went so far as to advocate civil war in order to keep the Southern States in a condition of subordination to a Northern majority.


Southern leaders, such as John C. Calhoun, had warned that if the North ever gained control of the federal Government the rights of the Southern people would be lost. In the Republicans' pledge to confine slavery within the existing States and to prevent its spread into the common Territories was perceived an intent to destroy the rights of the Southern people wholesale. Many Republicans, such as the former Whig and Henry Clay admirer, Abraham Lincoln, also openly advocated a high tariff and internal improvement system (which Clay had named, "The American System"). Historically, high tariffs benefited Northern industry and had adverse effects on the price of exported Southern cotton.

Why They Fought[edit]

Consequently, the conflict between the North and the South had much more to do with differing views on the relation of the States to the federal Government, the extent of State power, and economics rather than the issues of slavery or African-American rights. In fact, some of the Northern people deplored Abolitionism and were opposed to African-American equality. Even Lincoln openly declared himself in opposition to African-American citizenship. Most of the Northern States had various anti-African American laws on the books and Lincoln's own State of Illinois altered its constitution in 1862 to prohibit the immigration of free African Americans entirely.


Upon receiving news of Lincoln's election, the South Carolina Convention voted for secession on December 20, 1860. In the next few months, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had all seceded and joined South Carolina in forming the Confederate States of America. The other four Southern States - Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas - originally voted against secession, but later joined the Southern Confederacy when Lincoln's call for 75,000 militia was issued on April 15, 1861.


Secession was generally accepted as a revolutionary, if not a constitutional right, by both North and South prior to the actual secession of the seven Gulf States. In fact, secession was first threatened in the early years of the Union by the State of Massachusetts, and the threat was repeated several times over the decades preceding the War Between the States. A Northern Confederacy of the New England States was proposed and nearly formed in protest of the War of 1812. Of course, Southern leaders such as Jefferson Davis believed that since the original thirteen States had voluntarily acceded to the Union, they could also rescind that accession and lawfully secede. This act of secession was to be voted upon and declared to the world by the same sovereign power which had brought the State into the Union - that of the people assembled in convention. According to this logic, those States which were admitted to the Union after 1789 also retained this right of secession, since the main ground of their admission was that they would stand "on equal footing" with the other States. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution was also appealed to with the claim that the several States never surrendered their sovereignty to the federal Government, and could therefore recall their delegated powers from their common agent by withdrawing from the Union.

Lincoln's View[edit]

Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, insisted that the relation of the States to the Federal Government was akin to that of counties to States. He believed that the Union preceded the States, rather than vice versa, and that State sovereignty was a myth. Consequently, secession was treason and could only result in anarchy. For these views, he relied upon Daniel Webster's speeches in the Senate in the early 1830s.

Jefferson Davis[edit]

Jefferson Davis (June 3, 1808 – December 6, 1889) was an American soldier and politician, most famous for serving as the first and only President of the Confederate States, leading the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War. Before the Civil War, Davis served in the Mississippi Legislature, the U.S. House and U.S. Senate. He fought in the Mexican-American War as a colonel of a volunteer regiment. Later he became Secretary of War in the cabinet of U.S. President Franklin Pierce.