The debate over the Confederate flag has once again made its way to the forefront of American society, bringing with it the inevitable discussion about the legacy of the Civil War.
One of the most widely circulated myths about the Civil War is that the conflict was over states’ rights. Over the past few days, I’ve heard a number of people make this claim as part of their defense of the Confederate legacy.
Let’s be clear, there was only ONE state right that the Confederacy really cared about: the right to own slaves. But you don’t have to take my word for it — there’s plenty of documents to prove it.
Every time a state seceded to join the Confederacy, they published a document explaining their reasons for leaving the Union; these documents are known as Declaration of Causes of Secession. When you read these declarations, it quickly becomes clear that the Confederate states’ main reason for seceding was because the northern states stopped recognizing their right to own slaves.
Let’s look at a few of these documents and see what they had to say about slavery. I’ll start with South Carolina’s Declaration of Causes of Secession, since the state is at the center of the current controversy.
South Carolina’s declaration argues that the institution of slavery was protected by rules that were established when the U.S. Federal Government was first created:
“The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.”
But as abolitionist sentiment grew in the North, a number of states decided that they were no longer going to capture and return runaway slaves to their owners in the South. The declaration continues…
“We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of Slavery; they have permitted the open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.”
Ironically, the northern states were actually exercising their states’ rights by ignoring the federal laws about returning fugitive slaves; this fact is rarely mentioned when people argue that the Civil War was about states’ rights, however.
In total, the word slave (or some form of it) appears 18 times in South Carolina’s Declaration of Causes. It’s also worth noting that the southern states are always expressly referred to as “slaveholding states” in the document.
Texas’ Declaration of Causes for Secession is even more explicit about slavery being the main issue:
“[Texas] was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery–the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits–a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy. Those ties have been strengthened by association. But what has been the course of the government of the United States, and of the people and authorities of the non-slave-holding States, since our connection with them?”
The document goes on to defend slavery as a “beneficent system”, and even argues that the institution of slavery is rooted in the laws of God and nature:
“In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon the unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color–a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and the negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States…”
Besides arguing that slavery is somehow beneficial to slaves, the document also warns that giving African-Americans equal rights to whites would basically bring about the end of American society:
“That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding States.”
There are 21 mentions of the word “slave” in Texas’ secession declaration.
Georgia’s declaration wastes no time getting to the point. The second sentence of the document reads,
“For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.” [Editor’s note: “confederate States” here refers to all of the states in the U.S. at the time — it’s a reference to the Articles of Confederation, the first official agreement to unify the 13 original colonies.]
Georgia’s argument for secession is based primarily on the state’s opposition to the Republican Party and its anti-slavery platform. The document was written a year after Abraham Lincoln (a Republican) won the presidential election in 1860. It goes on to say,
“The prohibition of slavery in the Territories, hostility to it everywhere, the equality of the black and white races, disregard of all constitutional guarantees it its favor, were boldly proclaimed by [the Republican party’s] leaders and applauded by its followers. With these principles on their banners and these utterances on their lips the majority of the people of the North demand that we shall receive them as our rulers. The prohibition of slavery in the Territories is the cardinal principle of this organization.”
Georgia’s declaration also mentions one of the Confederacy’s biggest reasons for wanting to keep slavery around: money. In its final paragraph, the document says that the North can’t be trusted. The reasoning? “Because by their declared principles and policy they have outlawed $3,000,000,000 of our property [ie. slaves] in the common territories of the Union.”
Total mentions of the term “slave” in Georgia’s secession declaration: 35.
Mississippi’s Declaration of Causes of Secession is probably the most upfront about slavery, though:
“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.”
I understand that the Confederate flag holds a lot of cultural significance for many people in this country, but this image of the Confederacy heroically fighting to protect states’ rights from an oppressive, power-hungry federal government in the North is simply a false narrative.
The Confederate uprising had one main purpose: to maintain the extremely profitable institution of slavery.