So, which is it: Slavery or states’ rights? One would think that 15 decades after the firing on Fort Sumter, we would have gotten closer to answering the question of what caused the South to secede.
Yet, the public debate continues to rage.
Over the next four years, newspapers, Web pages, the airwaves and barrooms will be filled with arguments over this fundamental question.
But much of this will be based on wishful thinking, not primary documents of the day.
Rarely, in our rush to define the nature of secession, do we ask the secessionists what they thought they were doing.
After all, secession was debated at length following Abraham Lincoln’s election in the autumn of 1860. The paper trail stretches more than 8,000 pages.
The political wrangling filled the halls of Congress, 11 state secession conventions and the general assemblies of Tennessee and Kentucky.
The proceedings from these frenzied arenas were published with a sense of urgency.
It was indeed a national drama, one that left many observations by those with key roles:
“The question of Slavery is the rock upon which the Old Government split: it is the cause of secession,” pronounced one delegate from Alabama’s convention.
A senator from Mississippi argued: “We claim that there is property in slaves, and they deny it. Until we shall settle, upon some basis, that point of controversy, it is idle to talk of going any further.”
A delegate to Virginia’s convention declared: “Sir, the great question which is now uprooting this Government to its foundation — the great question which underlies all our deliberations here, is the question of African slavery.”
By the time of Lincoln’s victory in November 1860, white Southerners had convinced themselves that Lincoln was an abolitionist and that as soon as he took office on March 4, 1861, the curtain would come down on the South’s economic engine — slavery.
As one delegate to South Carolina’s convention asserted, the Palmetto State “first felt the blow inflicted by the election of an enemy to Southern institutions, elected by Abolition States upon Abolition issues.”
Missouri’s Trusten Polk was more specific. What could the slave-holding states expect, he lectured the U.S. Senate following the Republican victory, “but that all the patronage and all the power of the Federal Government, in all its departments, would be brought to bear upon the institution of slavery in the South, in order to compass its destruction?”
The formal declarations of secession from South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas all announced that Republican threats to slavery prompted their leaving.
Mississippi’s convention put it most emphatically. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world … and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”
With Lincoln heading to the White House, “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.”
While Polk believed the victory of the “abolitionists” in 1860 was reason enough for the state to secede, Rep. John Richard Barret, a fellow Missourian, was of a different mind.
Agreeing that Republicans were abolitionists by a different name, Barret argued strongly against disunion suggesting that “while it may bring upon the country the direst of all calamities, it is a remedy for no evil, real or imaginary.”
The 104 delegates to the Missouri’s secession convention tended to favor Barret’s view of the situation over Polk’s.
Like Barret, they tended to believed the institution of slavery actually was better protected under the Constitution of the United States than under some other compact.
As Sample Orr, a delegate from Green County, argued practically that, “The only salvation for the institution of slavery is her adherence to the Government that protects slavery. Now, if they (fugitive slaves) go to Illinois, we get some of them back; but in the case of secession, we get none.”
Since the acquisition of the Mexican Cession in 1848, Congress had debated the issue of slavery in Western territories.
It formed much of the Compromise of 1850, echoed throughout the Kansas-Nebraska controversy, was decided — or so many thought — by the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision, became the center of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and marked the pivot upon which the election of 1860 turned.
M.L. Linton, representing St. Louis, thought the extension of slavery into the West was a spurious argument. The desert West was completely unsuited for the institution.
“The South desires to be permitted to do what she would not do if permitted, namely, to carry slavery into Territories unfitted for it. What a cause to fight for and to bleed for — a war for the extension of slavery where it could not exist!”
Abram Comingo of Independence agreed.
“There is no disguising the fact,” he asserted, “that unless this question is adjusted in a satisfactory manner, civil war will ensue, as well as a total dissolution and disruption.”
Ultimately, the delegates to Missouri’s convention agreed with Uriel Wright from St. Louis that “if secession is right, there can never be any government on earth. Our Government will be the last, if secession be right.”
They also understood that while Republicans had won the executive branch, Democrats had won the congressional elections of 1860 and would control both houses of Congress for the next two years.
In addition, the judicial branch remained firmly in the control of Roger B. Taney, the pro-slavery chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Unlike the states of the Deep South, Missouri opted for reason over passion.
Missouri’s secession convention deliberated for three weeks and confronted the same issues and perceived threats to slavery that prompted 11 other states to secede.
At the end of the day, however, they determined that the election of an anti-slavery Republican president was not sufficient cause for disunion.
On March 19, 1861, with only one dissenting vote, the delegates agreed that “there is no adequate cause to impel Missouri to dissolve her connection with the Federal Union, but on the contrary she will labor for such an adjustment of existing troubles as will secure the peace as well as the rights and equality of all the States.”