The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States | Study Guide

Government of South Carolina

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The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States | Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Secession of Southern States

The election of Abraham Lincoln (1809–65) as 16th president of the United States was the catalyst that led slaveholding states throughout the South to secede from the Union, thus precipitating the Civil War (1861–65). Within weeks of Lincoln's election, South Carolina held a statewide convention. On December 20, 1860, its delegates passed an ordinance of secession. (An ordinance is a legislative decree or declaration.) The delegates—all of whom were landowning white men—also penned the accompanying "Declaration of Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union." This document articulates a legal and moral rationale for South Carolina's decision to secede. In addition, it echoes the U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776) by listing a series of grievances against the federal government and Northern states over the issue of slavery.

The South Carolina attorney general couriered copies of the document to the other slave states that were also debating secession. Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas had generated similar secession ordinances by early 1861. Following South Carolina's example, these documents detailed grievances against the federal government and Northern states over the issue of slavery and provided rhetorical fodder for proponents of secession in other states. Ultimately, 11 states would secede from the Union, and the resulting Civil War led to the eradication of slavery in the United States.

The four earliest secession documents, referred to collectively as the "Declaration of Causes," provide the formal Southern perspective on the issues that led to the Civil War. They make clear that the preservation of slavery was the South's primary rationale for secession, and they offer the 21st-century reader a glimpse into the 19th-century Southern mindset regarding race, slavery, and the nature of the U.S. Constitution.

Northern Abolitionists and the Presidential Election of 1860

Each of the four state delegations make clear that the ascendancy of the newly formed and antislavery Republican Party culminating in the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln as president was the event that led them to break from the Union. The Texas document articulates the fear of slave owners: the prospect of any additional free—that is, non-slave—states joining the Union from among the western territories. Such an outcome meant that a permanent antislavery majority in the federal government would have been inevitable. For instance, with the recent addition of Minnesota (1858) and Oregon (1859) to the Union, the United States had 38 senators representing free states and 30 representing slave states. The Republican Party, based in the more populous North, had already secured the majority of the House of Representatives, which bases its allotment of seats on population.

The 1860 election highlighted the stark regional division created by the slavery debate. Lincoln received less than 1 percent of the popular vote from the Southern states. Both Georgia and Texas declarations cite the sectional, or regional, nature of the election results as a reason to refuse to abide by its outcome.

Although Lincoln had yet to be inaugurated as president and, therefore, had yet to take any concrete actions regarding slavery, the South Carolina delegation cited Lincoln's previous statements—such as "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free"—as predictive of his future actions as president. In other words, the Southern states tried to break from the Union based on their anticipation of what Lincoln and the Republican-led Congress might do once in office, as opposed to any specific presidential decree or new law. This fact is especially notable considering that while Lincoln did oppose the expansion of slavery into the western territories, he also argued that a president did not have the right to interfere where it currently existed.

The Centrality of Slavery

These documents also make it clear that the preservation of slavery and the Northern states' disapproval of slavery was the primary reason for the Southern states' decision to secede from the Union. The delegations leading the way on secession believed that the election of Lincoln coupled with the Republican majority in the House of Representatives was slavery's death knell. The Mississippi document declare that the state was "thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery." Issues relevant to slavery—such as the ability to expand slavery into western territories and the fate of escaped enslaved people in Northern states—dominate the four secession documents. While it is true that the documents also discuss the concept of states' rights, these discussions served to establish a legal basis for secession, as opposed to their being the cause of secession.

Enslaved People as Property

The Southern delegates argued that the Northern states were engaged in a systematic attack on the economic and cultural foundations of the South's way of life, which was built on the labor of enslaved people. Mississippi claimed that ending slavery would "destroy" the South's social fabric. Each document takes pains to categorize enslaved African Americans not as humans with inalienable rights and inherent personal dignity, but as property to be owned, traded, and sold. Based on that logic, the Southern delegates argued that the abolition of slavery would force the South to incur billions of dollars in property losses.

Furthermore, the delegates argued that the prohibition of slavery in the western territories actually deprived Southern slave owners of their rights to travel freely with their "property." Article 4 of the Constitution guarantees the citizens of each state the same rights and privileges as the citizens in the nation as a whole. The delegates cited Article 4 to argue that federal prohibitions against slavery in the western territories were unconstitutional because such prohibitions deprived a slaveholder of the same ability to live and travel in these territories as enjoyed by those who did not travel with enslaved people. In essence, the Southern argument was that territorial and Northern state governments were constitutionally bound to honor the laws of Southern states, thus enabling an individual to own and enslave people.

Interpretation of the Constitution

As the South Carolina delegation notes, the issue of slavery threatened to divide the fledgling United States at each step of its early development. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, several steps were taken in order to assuage the concerns of the slaveholding states and to ensure ratification of the Constitution. Both the Georgia and South Carolina declarations argue that without those specific compromises regarding slavery, the Constitution would have failed to gain support in the South.

Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution states that for purposes of taxation and representation, enslaved people were to be counted as three-fifths of a person. The South Carolina declaration argues that this language in the U.S. Constitution amounts to an endorsement of slavery and that efforts by Northern abolitionists or the federal government to restrict slavery are, therefore, unconstitutional.

Furthermore, the South Carolina delegates allude to their interpretation of the 10th Amendment, which says that powers that the Constitution does not specifically delegate to the federal government are reserved for the states and the people. To the delegates, the 10th Amendment "removes all doubt" that the seceding states have a solid legal case for secession.

Status of Fugitives from Slavery

Article 4 of the Constitution also states that "No person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due." Here, as elsewhere, the delegates noted that this clause represented a compromise essential to the union of free and slave states at the time of the Constitution's ratification. Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, abolishing slavery and effectively annulling Article 4 as well as the so-called Three-Fifths Compromise.

The status of people escaping slavery had been a constant irritant in relations between the North and South throughout the nineteenth century. Responding to Southern agitation, Congress had passed fugitive slavery laws in 1793 and 1850. The laws were designed to mandate the return of people escaping slavery, but they had the unintended consequence of fueling Northern antislavery sentiment. Each of the secession documents charges the federal government with failing to live up to its obligations, under Article 4, to ensure the return of enslaved fugitives, and they accuse Northern states with repeated and systematic efforts to undermine these fugitive slavery laws. The Texas delegation singles out the Northern states that had passed state legislation that, Texas argued, violated the enslaved fugitives clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The Declaration of Causes goes beyond charges against the federal or respective state governments. Reading the documents from today's perspective, one may be struck by the almost personal terms in which the Southern delegations talk about their fellow citizens from the North. The documents paint a picture of two peoples, estranged from each other. The delegations take aim at the various abolitionist societies and accuse them of stirring up antislavery fervor in the North and of sowing insurrection in the South. The delegations complain that abolitionist societies had become increasingly effective in luring enslaved people north.

The Georgia document, with some alarm, refers to an 1854 incident in Boston in which an armed, angry mob of both black and white abolitionists stormed the local courthouse in an effort to free a fugitive from slavery, Anthony Burns. One deputy was killed and several people were injured in the melee. President Franklin Pierce dispatched U.S. Marines to Boston. Thousands of Bostonians watched as the marines escorted the shackled Burns through the city to a waiting ship and back to enslavement. As the Georgia Declaration illustrates, this incident, just one of many such events, stirred passions in both the North and the South.

In the eyes of Southern delegations, these actions by their Northern counterparts coupled with the Northern decision to vote for Lincoln and the Republican Party had made reconciliation impossible. The Southern delegations portray themselves as aggrieved people left with no other choice but to secede from the Union.

Expansion of Slavery to Western Territories

The Three-Fifths Compromise gave Southern states a weighted proportion of representatives in Congress and the Electoral College for most of the early 19th century. This fact, combined with the relative equality of slave and free states in the Senate, meant that the South was able to fend off most Northern attempts to curtail slavery. However, population growth in the North consistently outpaced the South, and the balance of power in the House of Representatives began to tilt to the North. The status of potential states formed from the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and the Mexican-American War (1846–48) became, therefore, critical to slavery's future in the United States. As the Texas Declaration notes, slave states were on the verge of becoming a permanent minority in the U.S. Congress.

The seceding delegations took umbrage at Northern attempts, going back as far as the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, to prohibit slavery in new territories and, thus, to prevent the addition of new slave states. The Mississippi Declaration gives these ordinances as evidence of Northern hostility toward the institution of slavery. Likewise, it criticizes the Missouri Compromise, passed in 1820, for allowing the admission into the Union of Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state, thereby maintaining the Senate's equilibrium between slave and free states. The Missouri Compromise also banned slavery in all western territories above a line drawn west from Missouri's southern border—an area that includes present-day Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. As the Georgia declaration notes, none other than Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) had written that the geographical dividing line separating slave and free territory was both unconstitutional and an "act of suicide" by the government.

The delegates stated that Northern efforts to prohibit the expansion of slavery were actually part of a strategy to constrain slavery and put it on a path toward its ultimate extinction. They were not wrong. Lincoln admitted as much during his celebrated debates with Stephen Douglas while campaigning for the Illinois Senate in 1858. In fact, the prohibition of slavery in the western territories was arguably the primary grievance linking all the seceding states.

Bleeding Kansas

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 sought to leave the question of slavery in territories petitioning for statehood to the people of those territories—a practice called "popular sovereignty." From that point on, political tensions over the issue of slavery increasingly led to violence.

In Kansas, proslavery factions from Missouri began to pour over the border in an effort to tilt the population of Kansas toward slavery. Not to be outdone, Northern abolitionists also sponsored and encouraged migration of like-minded settlers into Kansas. Violence soon broke out between the pro- and antislavery factions. In 1856 proslavery forces sacked the free-state bastion of Lawrence, Kansas. In retaliation, John Brown, a firebrand abolitionist, led a raiding party that brutally slaughtered five proslavery settlers in Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas. The bloodshed and killings escalated in what became known as "Bleeding Kansas." While not acknowledging violence on the proslavery side, the Texas declaration in particular describes the activities in Kansas as yet another example of the federal government permitting Northern agitators to terrorize proslavery Southerners.

Brown escaped prosecution and, in 1859, launched an even more deadly raid on the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (present-day West Virginia). Brown's raid and his subsequent trial became a national media sensation; after his execution, Brown became, for some Northerners, a martyr for the abolitionist cause. In the South, Brown's raid and his mission to spark a widespread insurrection of enslaved people appeared nothing short of a Northern invasion. The Declaration of Causes views Brown's immense popularity in the North as a most dangerous and grievous insult to the South. The Georgia declaration in particular paints the events in Kansas, Boston, and Harpers Ferry as constituting a civil war in all but name.

Fear of Racial Equality and an Assertion of White Supremacy

The Declaration of Causes evince deep-seated racial prejudice and animosity toward African Americans, as well as demonstrating belief in white supremacy—the idea that those of white European descent are superior. These belief systems provided supporters of slavery with the ability to rationalize the contradiction of living in a country founded on the idea that "all men are created equal" while simultaneously seeking to preserve a system in which more than 3 million people of African descent were not only denied basic rights, such as the right to vote and freedom of movement, but were even classified as property rather than as human beings.

South Carolina's Declaration finds fault with the decision of several Northern states to grant the vote to African Americans, charging that to do so was unconstitutional and counter to the Supreme Court's controversial 1857 Dred Scott decision, which ruled that African Americans could not be treated as citizens under the law. The Georgia declaration argues that the inferiority of the "African race" was an agreed-upon fact at the time of the Constitution's ratification. The Mississippi document rails against Northern abolitionists' efforts to grant African Americans equality both "socially and politically," which the Texas document also decries as "debasing" and against natural and "Divine Law." Appeals based on the Bible were common in proslavery argumentation. Often cited was Ephesians 6:5: "Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ." Appeals to religion would, in part, have been used to convince those white people without the wealth to be slave owners to support the institution anyway, despite slavery's inability improve their fortunes.

The Texas Declaration offers the most explicit illustration of the racism prevalent throughout the antebellum South. It argues not only that African Americans are "inferior," but also that they are "dependent" on their white overseers. The Texas description of slavery as a "patriarchal" and benevolent institution reflects a commonly held view among slavery's defenders.

Finally, the Texas document attempts to strip African Americans of their historical role in the founding and developing the United States. Such a view fails to acknowledge that African Americans colonized Jamestown, fought in the American Revolution, and invested untold hours of unpaid labor into the construction and development of the nation, thereby enabling the creation of tremendous wealth, prosperity, and security. Ignoring these contributions, the Texas Declaration argues that the United States was created by and for the white race.

Sovereignty of States versus the Federal Government

As the first of the states to attempt to secede from the Union, the South Carolina delegation took it upon itself to lay out a detailed legal framework for secession. For South Carolina and the other seceding states, the key to their legal rationale was that the United States is a collection of sovereign states, as opposed to a unified country in which sovereignty resides with a centralized government.

The South Carolina Declaration begins by pointing out that the Declaration of Independence asserted that the 13 colonies were "free and independent states" and possessed the powers of sovereign nations. The delegation also notes that the treaty with the United Kingdom that officially ended the Revolutionary War acknowledged that the 13 colonies were "free sovereign and independent states." In each case, the delegation emphasizes the use of the plural: "states."

Delegates also paint the United States as a voluntary compact between the states that allowed individual states to end their participation if the federal government fails to hold up its obligations. The South Carolina document looks to the legal authority of the Articles of Confederation, an early version of the Constitution, which classified the states as sovereign entities. The articles, however, also state that the Union was to be permanent. Most importantly, the Constitution supersedes the Articles of Confederation as the "supreme law of the land."

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