Why Did The South (United States) Resort To Secession In 1861?

By Hanh Do

Thesis: The United States South seceded not only because of slavery, but also because of the issue of states' rights and the unfair advantage that the North had with their power of the government.

I. The tipping of the political balance between the North and South was becoming obvious and intolerable for the South.

  • The North had a larger population of people ("despotic majority of numbers"), the South felt outnumbered in Congress
  • Southerners were dismayed by the triumph of the new sectional Republican Party which seemed to threaten their rights as a slaveholding minority. The election of President Lincoln in 1860 was the last straw.
  • The North passed the personal liberty laws which were meant to counteract the Fugitive Slave Act (part of Compromise of 1850 which refused fugitive slaves the right to a trial). This raised tensions.
  • Weary of free-soil criticism, abolitionist nagging, and northern interference in the form of the Underground Railroad and John Brown's Raid ("All we ask is to be let alone" -Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy)

II. The North and the South were much too different to compromise, each had their own beliefs and culture.

  • The two sides had "grown up" separately and could not easily agree upon the decision of slavery, since the South depended on it for their economy and the North depended on manufacturing.
  • They were made up of very different people: the South had wealthy landowners with negro slaves, while the North had wealthy entrepreneurs who employed immigrants. Many in the North thought slavery was immoral, but the South depended on it.
  • Many attempts at compromise only raised tensions (Wilmot Proviso of 1846, Kansas-Nebrask Act of 1854 repealed Missouri Compromise), and the deaths of the great compromisers Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John Calhoun in 1850-52 ended much of the possibility of compromise.

III. Many Southerners felt their departure would be unopposed, and so secession was an easy way out of their problems.

  • They were sure the North would not or could not fight.
  • This was because the North was made up of mainly manufacturers and bankers (and therefore heavily dependent on Southern cotton and markets).
  • If war came, the debt owed to the Northern creditors by the South would be repudiated.

IV. Secession seemed like the only and best option left in order to pursue their own beliefs. The South was influenced by others around the world as well as the past.

  • Leaders saw it as an opportunity to cast aside generations of "vasalage" to the North
  • Impulses of Nationalism were going on in Italy, Germany, Poland, and many other countries. It was also growing in the South because they felt they were being ruled by the North, which made them hostile.
  • The South believed in the principles of self-determination (from the Declaration of Independence). They felt like they were doing nothing wrong
  • They wanted to follow historical parallels, as in 1776 when George Washington seceded from the British Empire.

V. Conclusion

  • Many reasons contributed to the secession of the United States South, but they all stem from the desire of the South to keep their slaveholding rights and representation in the government.
  • The economic aspect of the two sides were much too different to find policies of the United States to agree upon. The North depended on cheap labor, and slavery threatened that. But the South refused to allow new states to be free states or else they would be outnumbered in the senate.
  • The South felt they were doing nothing wrong, since they were already being treated unfairly.
  • South Carolina was the first state to secede in January 1861, leading the rest of the south to follow. This would lead to the most historic division in the United States: the Civil war.
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