Hoisted from the comments: Civil War causes edition

In response to Dan’s recent post about whether opposition to Pres. Obama is fueled by racism, commenter Captain Heise took offense at Dan’s mention that Rep. Joe Wilson is from South Carolina, the first state to secede. He seems to object to what he sees as Dan’s implication that the Civil War was about slavery:

… any intelligent person, with any decent American historical education has to question the argument… that the American Civil War was based on slavery. You have taken this to some strange new level where the reason for SC to secede was racism. Saying it was for slavery is an understandable confusion because you may have been taught that in elementary school and never looked any farther into it.

The war was about states rights my friend, and overwhelming federal government control.

Ok. As someone who, like Captain Heise, has deep roots in South Carolina, let me weigh in.

What did motivate South Carolina’s secession? Let’s go to the documentary record and take a look at South Carolina’s Secession Declaration (all emphases are mine):

We assert that fourteen of the states have deliberately refused for years past, to fulfil their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own statutes for the proof.

The constitution of the United States, in its 4th 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.”

This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made. The greater number of the contracting parties held slaves, and they had previously evinced their estimate of the value of such a stipulation by making it a condition in the ordinance for the government of the territory ceded by Virginia, which now composes the states north of the Ohio river.

The same article of the constitution stipulates also for rendition, by the several states, of fugitives from justice from the other states.

The general government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations of the states. For many years these laws were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding states to the institution of slavery has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the general government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these states the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the state government complied with the stipulation made in the constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia. Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding states, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.

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.For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common government. Observing the forms of the constitution, a sectional party has found within that article establishing the executive department the means of subverting the constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the states north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common government, because he has declared that that “government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

In other words, anti-slavery sentiment was growing outside the South and politicians in South Carolina could see the day coming soon when the rest of the country would be unwilling to allow slaveowners in the South to continue to buy, sell, and own people as if they were property. For that reason, they no longer wanted South Carolina to be part of the United States of America. They wanted to break away and form another country in which chattel slavery would continue to be legal. That was the states’ right they were primarily concerned about.

South Carolina’s secession was, in a very large part, about slavery. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.



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