This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this claim, though. Oddly enough, I grew up with it, despite living outside the South for a number of years while I was in school. It’s a pervasive myth, even outside the old Confederacy.
It turns out several of the states in the Confederacy were super-helpful on this point. They actually wrote down not just that they were leaving the Union, but why they were doing so.
They are called Declaration of Causes; there’s a website and everything. One evening recently, I took an hour or so and read them. Certainly, these documents form the basis of all those claims that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. Right? Let’s find out.
First up, Mississippi. They’re not gonna waste everyone’s time with a lengthy preamble about state’s rights:
A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.
In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery–the greatest material interest of the world.
Not to be outdone, Georgia mentions slavery in the second sentence:
The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. 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.
Can y’all up north take it easy on Texas; I think you hurt their feelings:
The States of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, by solemn legislative enactments, have deliberately, directly or indirectly violated the 3rd clause of the 2nd section of the 4th article [the fugitive slave clause] …
“Noble” Virginia didn’t want you to miss it. Not only is it in their opening paragraph, but they also helpfully capitalized it:
… the Federal Government, having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.
Apparently, in South Carolina “life, liberty and the pursuit of fugitive slaves” were considered inalienable rights:
We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof.
The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: “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.”
You have to dig a little for Alabama, but ultimately, they don’t disappoint. In a call for a convention with the other Confederate states, they list six ways the Civil War definitely wasn’t about slavery:
Our delegates selected shall be instructed to submit to the general convention the following basis of a settlement of the existing difficulties between the Northern and Southern States, to wit [I do love a good “to wit.”]:
- A faithful execution of the fugitive slave law …
- A more stringent and explicit provision for the surrender of criminals charged with offenses against laws of one State and escaping into another.
- A guaranty that slavery shall not be abolished in the District of Columbia …
- A guaranty that the interstate slave-trade shall not be interfered with.
- A protection to slavery in the Territories …
- The right of transit through free States with slave property.
Alexander Hamilton Stephens, a person of no consequence who also happened to be THE VICE-PRESIDENT OF THE CONFEDERACY, doesn’t want to be tedious about the truth when giving a speech about the shiny new Confederate Constitution:
But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization.
[Our government’s] foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.
At this point, Confederate apologists might say, “Well, it wasn’t only about slavery,” which is about as comforting as your girl saying, “Well, it’s not only about this other guy I’m seeing.”
It is true that not all 11 Confederate states outlined their reasons for leaving the Union. It is also true that of the documents I found, all of them mention slavery.
Every. Single. One.
I found not one official document outlining reasons for secession that did not mention slavery. Maybe they exist, but I’m not holding my breath.
Primary sources can be pesky little things.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotations found at CivilWar.org.
John Graeber is a writer in Chattanooga who has also contributed to Glide Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @jbgraeber. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.