3

While the US Civil War was fought over slavery, it doesn't appear that an interpretation of law from the 19th century supports the notion that Congress or the President could have eliminated slavery without a constitutional amendment. This would have required the consent of at least some of the slave states. (See https://law.stackexchange.com/questions/38003/could-congress-have-ended-slavery-without-the-13th-amendment/38004 where we discussed this exact legal question.) Instead, it seems that Congress could have chipped away at slavery over time with a thousand cuts until it became uneconomical.

Given that, were there specific slavery-hostile actions that the southern states were afraid that the northern-dominated federal government would take that directly provoked the Civil War? It seems unlikely that the South seceded from the union purely over the political climate and without a direct threat.

I've reviewed answers to questions such as Why did Lincoln's election prompt the Southern states to secede? and Why did the southern states secede from the U.S.? but these questions seem to gloss over the fact that nothing seemed to immediately threaten Southern slavery. Admission of additional non-slave states had a long-term potential impact of making the 13th Amendment possible to ratify without the support of any southern state. But, why not wait until the tipping point -- the fight over the admission of the last state that would tip the balance? Or why not wait until the ratification fight over the 13th Amendment itself?

  • 2
    You might find the South Carolina Secession Declaration Debate of interest. – sempaiscuba Mar 11 at 13:06
  • 1
    Also, please keep all pertinent information in the question, rather than in comments. – sempaiscuba Mar 11 at 13:09
  • 1
    The South had been arguing this point since 1770's; they seceeded because they no longer believed that an acceptable compromise was possible. Anyone who has ever been involved in an interminable existential argument will recognize that escalation and exit are driven more by emotional grounds than rational triggers. – Mark C. Wallace Mar 11 at 13:48
  • Slavery was mostly a pretext rather than a real motive. As some of the answers speak about, it is mainly economic reasons and somehow political issues that started the war. Moreover, the South was convinced it could get Great Britain and/or France to join with them through economic pressures. – xrorox Mar 11 at 17:52
  • 1
    @xrorox slavery was the most important economic reason, as well as most important political, social, cultural – Alexander Barhavin Mar 14 at 2:52
6

We often assume by default that people make rational decisions based on complete information. That's debatable in the case of southern secession, but let's accept that as a premise, and ask whether it allows any explanation of why the Confederacy seceded in 1861 rather than waiting until later. I'll argue that there were three rational reasons that could explain this decision not to wait.

Political realignment

The new Republican Party had just won its first presidential election, with a massive electoral vote majority of 180 out of 303. It's true that Lincoln won in only 53% of the states, which is far short of the 3/4 majority that would have been required to pass a constitutional amendment outlawing slavery. However, the slaveholding states were looking at a situation where the parties had defined themselves according to ideological lines with respect to slavery, and with this new line-up, they were likely to be locked out of the White House forever. The Republican Party had a majority in the House, and had shifted the balance of votes in the Senate to the point where the Democrats no longer controlled a majority. Slaveholders were looking at the prospect of political oblivion, forever. The West was rapidly growing (as symbolized by the election of Lincoln, from Illinois), so there was a demographic time bomb in place if the Union kept admitting free states.

The Republican Party was completely inimical to slaveholders' interests. Their slogan was "free labor, free land, free men," and their platform called for no further expansion of slavery.

So the southern slaveholders had no rational reason to wait around before taking action, because there was no real hope of regaining political power. This was the reason for their insistence on states' rights and nullification.

As a modern analogy, I'm an American who was shocked and dismayed by Trump's hijacking of the Republican Party and election as president. If I believed that the Trumpists had a demographic lock on power that was likely to last for generations, I would be extremely embittered and radicalized.

Economics

In addition to the political time bomb, there was also an economic time bomb. The North was rapidly industrializing and growing in population, and they had a well developed rail network that proved to be a huge advantage during the war. It's not obvious to me that the Southern slaveholding regime clearly understood this, but the premise here is that we're going to try to explain their decision against delay under the assumption that they were rational actors with complete information. Under that assumption, rebellion later would clearly be doomed if the North chose to fight it, while immediate rebellion would have a better chance.

Security

No political equilibrium can hold without security of property and territory. The South had seen the Haitian Revolution, Turner's Rebellion, and, most recently, John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. The slaveholding elite that held political and economic power had a very real and justified fear of a slave revolt. Although the Republican Party formally expressed dispproval of Brown, he was hailed as a hero and a martyr by many in the North. Slaveholders saw their slaves as both property and a potential security threat, and it was becoming clear to them that they would not get a sympathetic ear for their complaints about the threat posed both by and to their property.

  • So what is rational about expecting more favorable treatment as a foreign country than as a part of the USA with some voice in government, even a dwindling one? And surely it was obvious that the easiest way to prevent slave uprisings was to abolish slavery, and that he slave owners who insisted on retaining slavery were risking the lives of the white people in the south for profit.. – MAGolding Mar 12 at 17:48
6

tl;dr

The 1860 election was the tipping point for the slave-owning states. It was then clear that those states could no longer command a majority in Congress, or in a Presidential election. A compromise between the northern states and the South that would be acceptable to them was simply no longer possible.


Your thesis seems to be based on a false premise. The southern states did not secede from the Union because they opposed some particular policy or 'manifesto pledge' that was to be carried out by the new President or Senate. For them, the 1860 election result was itself the tipping-point.

It was then clear that not only could the slave-owning states not form a majority in the House or Senate (many 'northern Democrats' also opposed slavery), but that (for the first time) a President could be elected without carrying even one slave state.


The 1860 Election

The 1860 Presidential election attracted the highest voter turnout in American history up to that time ( 81.2%). The results by state electoral college votes show the problem for the South:

1860 Election results

Lincoln was elected - by a large majority of electoral college votes - even though he had failed to carry even one slave-owning state!


The example of South Carolina

The South Carolina Secession Declaration Debate of 24 December 1860 helps explain the problem from the perspective of the representatives of that state.

While you rightly note that 'the primary precipitating factor' for the war was the issue of slavery, it was by no means the only one.


Slavery

A great deal of The Address of the People of South Carolina is certainly devoted to the subject of slavery. It was obviously clear to the ruling elites of South Carolina that a compromise on this subject that would be acceptable to them was no longer possible.

The Compromise of 1850 had temporarily defused a long-standing dispute about whether new states admitted to the Union should allow the institution of slavery. However, the underlying tension remained, and it was clear that the slave-owning states had largely lost the argument. The Address made the concerns of South Carolina clear in the following terms:

"If it is right to preclude or abolish slavery in a Territory, why should it be allowed to remain in the States? The one is not at all more unconstitutional than the other, according to the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States."


The Supreme Court

The question of the Supreme Court itself was a matter of concern to the slave states:

"... the Northern States will soon have the power to make that Court what they please ..."


Taxation

The Address also raised the question of taxes and duties on goods. These was also a bone of contention between the South and the North and were felt (by those in the South) to be designed to benefit the northern states at the expense of the South. The Address of the People of South Carolina observes:

"... The people of the South have been taxed by duties on imports, not for revenue, but for an object inconsistent with revenue - to promote, by prohibitions, Northern interests in the productions of their mines and manufactures."

and

"... The people of the Southern States are not only taxed for the benefit of the Northern States, but after the taxes are collected, three-fourths of them are expended at the North."

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.