**Author’s NOTE: This short paper was written for a client for their school paper in a college course entitled The Civil War and Reconstruction Fall 2021.
In the discourse surrounding the Southern states’ secession from the Union, there are commonly three different narratives prevalent. Of these three, the first, and most common narrative is that which conflates the rationale surrounding Southern secession with the justification of enslavement of Africans as agricultural laborers. The slavery argument revolves around the Southern states’ deep economic dependency on slavery for agricultural wealth, due to their warmer climate and more abundant land availability. Southern states could easily yield cash crops upon which America as a whole depended and from which America as a whole benefitted, including cotton which was “King” of the textile industry.
The South was shaped by the social element of white supremacy without which there was a large fear that the enslaved Africans that built the country would overtake the power. This justification of their enslavement shaped the entire culture, as this power dynamic was prevalent in all social layers of American society, and necessitated racial discrimination to allow the Southern system to sustain. It was economically, politically, culturally vital for the white ruling class in the North and South to have slavery prevail; thus blaming succession on the South only was highly disingenuous.
Slavery was seen as civilised and for the slaves’ good. This justification was useful for order and dignity in the South and United States as a whole. The argument for legitimising this practice was the idea that it was necessary, lest, presumably, the “savage Africans”, largely regarded as ignorant and uncultured, take over their masters in larger numbers. This fear revolved around the idea that freed Africans and their descendants would bring the country to ruin despite having literally built the nation by shaping the economic prestige of the country.
Northerners were agitated by the South’s economic superiority directly caused by capitalising off of slavery. Even with the burgeoning industrialisation bolstering the Northern economy, the South was clearly benefiting more from the free labor of enslaved Africans and American-born African descendants. South Carolina secceeded first on December 20th 1860, directly reasoning that for the North to outlaw slavery would destroy their sense of culture, civilisation, and economic standing. The concept of Emancipation as a threat to the South was due to the climate of the South and the profitability of cash crops, thus, justifying slavery as a “harmless” pasttime upon which their “genteel” civilisation hinged.
Northerners, Southerners implicitly argued, envied the prosperity of the South. Glorifying “Old Dixie” and its clean, dignified, even indulgent Antebellum culture was distinctly contrasted with the “dirty”, industrial, overpopulated cultural climate of the smaller Northern states. There were complaints that slaves who shouldn’t be able to vote would ignorantly vote for Northern Republicans. This was seen to disenfranchise Southerners by voting for a political party whose ideology threatened the South’s sustainability both economically and culturally.
Ironically, however, even in the north, Blacks didn’t have the vote and it was whites who voted overwhelmingly Republican. Republican policies were seen as a threat to the South’s Democratic views. Ironically, it was the sentiment of democracy that justified their freedom of choice to secede. The decision to secede was seen as rebellion and protection against what seemed a forced imposition on their way of life. This move is similar to today’s time where, for instance– and perhaps ironically– Southern states overwhelmingly against vaccine policies threaten to secede from the United States again.
Mississippi seceded next, standing firmly upon the issue of slavery as vital to their commerce and trade. The heat of the near-tropical Southern regions ensured the abundance– and profitability– of the lucrative cash crops– notably cotton, rice, hemp, various tea leaves, and tobacco. These cash crops were harvested exclusively by slave labor which constituted the largest and most important portions of America’s needs and luxuries– clothing and textiles (hemp and cotton), food (rice and tea leaves), and the largely growing tobacco industry.
Mississippi justified slave labor and its inextricable justification of racism and ethnic dehumanisation due to the acceptance that the African-originated enslaved had the biological makeup (their melanated skin, fast twitch muscle fibers, and higher physical endurance, for instance) to endure the rigors of the near-tropical sun and humidity to make them ideal for harvesting in bulk and upon whose burdened shoulders lay the success of the seceding states. The South’s commerce depended upon slavery, and the North, seen as hostile and perhaps envious of the South’s wealth and ingenuity, sought to ruin the South out of spite as Industrialisation, for them, was seen as superior and more desirable than the “barbarity” of enslavement. This was in part, perhaps because the North was made up of more W.A.S.P.s (White Anglo-Saxan Protestants) who believed in “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” Protestant Work Ethic rather than the distinctly Indulgent Catholic-Christian views of the “Bible Belt” South that seemed to justify slavery by its own scriptures. The North encroached upon the security of Southern culture, societal hierarchies, and economic standing. Republican party policies were seen as hostile to economic and domestic institutions of the South. Denouncing racial equality due to racist fears of Black ‘savages’ predisposition to crime and vagrancy, slave-owning states denounced, likewise, republican ideals that supported racial equality.
Alternately, the “States’ Rights” argument was seen as moralistic and abstractly legalistic. This perspective was hinged upon the ideological aversion of Southern states against executive and legislative overreach by federal government. In other words, the argument was more about the freedom of states’ choice of self-governance and rebellion against the Federal government’s “meddling.” This perspective seemed less racist than a pragmatic Southern fear of becoming a political minority, the proponents of this argument insisting on principle as opposed to policy.
In the “States’ Rights” argument, the “blame” of secession was distributed among both parties. In this perspective, the South was acting in self defense against political and cultural oppression of Northern states. This viewpoint rejects legitimacy of slavery argument but argues instead for the violence of what was seen as an unecessary cultural struggle between Nothern and Southern ways of life, a conflict between the supremacy of economies agricultural and industrial, rather than supremacy of race. In this argument, there was blame placed on the North for pressuring and demoralising the South, essentially bullying the South as an uneducated and primitive genteel society. Overall, it was the Southern states pushed to independence due to Northern hostility and discrimination.
The third narrative is what is known as the “Lost Cause Argument,” nearly universally rejected as a viable narrative by most credible historians because it did not account for the importance of slavery and slavery’s necessitated racism as an inextricably important part of Southern culture despite the North, in reality, being just as– if not more– racist and discriminatory to Blacks and the newer influxes of immigrant minorities: contrary to popular belief, many German, Dutch, and Irish planters were slaverowners in the South as well, growing to great wealth denied them in the North, where they were vehemently disccriminated against, themselves.
The arguments of States Rights vs Slavery were two sides of a coin, where, in both, Secession becomes, essentially, a move against submission to the North’s pressure to change their way of life.
Words written Copyright (c) Gloria C. Steele, November 28, 2021
***Paper submitted to client Sun, Nov 28, 6:24 PM. Course materials provided by client’s Professor for the completion of the essay provided below: