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A non-fiction by Eugenia Dunlap Potts

Secession [The Causes Of Civil War]

Title:     Secession [The Causes Of Civil War]
Author: Eugenia Dunlap Potts [More Titles by Potts]

Read April 11, 2022

We seem not to have been a happy family during our first one hundred years as a Union of States. We quarrelled frequently among ourselves, and like the dissatisfied children of the household there was oft-threatened disruption. If you do not treat me fairly I will leave home, said the stubborn Northern child, no less than the warm-hearted Southern offspring. And they stood alike in the attitude of going out the door the moment the provocation became unbearable. The right of secession and the thought of secession was frequently in the mind all along the infant years of the Republic. But the word "Secession" did not become a familiar term until the early sixties. Then the greeting was "Hello! old Secesh!" or "Are you secesh?" One might have thought that this awful thing the South had done was heard of for the first time, and had birth alone in the brains of the fiery aristocrats who tore themselves away from their plebean cousins; whereas history shows, as I have said, that every State believed it had a right to secede from the general government by the wording of our constitution, so when the pressure grew too close the terms, "Southern Rights," and "Secession," became the slogan of battle and sounded the tocsin of war.

Let us begin at the beginning and get at the actual situation. The thirteen original colonies were as follows: Virginia settled by the English, called the cavaliers, in 1607, became a royal colony in 1624. Massachusetts, settled by the Puritans in 1620, became a royal colony in 1629; New York, called Amsterdam, settled by the Dutch in 1623, became a royal colony in 1688; the English were in New York in 1664. New Hampshire, settled by Puritans in 1729, became a royal colony in 1679; Maryland, settled by Catholics from England, in 1632, became a royal colony in 1691; Connecticut, settled by Dutch and English in 1633, became a royal colony in 1662; Rhode Island was settled in 1638, and never became a royal colony. She was excluded from the New England federation because she harbored all kinds of religions. She especially reserved to herself a State government alone, and a right to secede in any case. So this terrible crime of secession had birth in that pious, patriotic north that so bitterly condemned the states of Dixie Land for clamoring for a future right.

Delaware, settled by Swedes in 1638, became a separate colony, owned by William Penn, in 1703. North Carolina, settled by Virginians and Quakers in 1653, became a royal colony in 1729; New Jersey settled by the English in 1665, became a royal colony in 1702. Pennsylvania, settled by Germans, Dutch and Scotch-Irish in 1681, was given by King Charles II of England, to Wm. Penn in 1770. South Carolina, settled by French Huguenots and Germans in 1691, became a royal colony in 1729. Georgia, the last English colony, was settled by the English in 1732 and had her royal charter in 1762.

I have given the colonial dates in regular order of chronology. A more convenient division may be made thus: the New England colonies were Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island, all belonging to England except Rhode Island.

The middle colonies were New York, Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, two belonging to England, and two to Wm. Penn. The Southern colonies were Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, all belonging to England. Brought together by common cause were English, French, Germans, Dutch, Swedes, Quakers, Episcopalians, Catholics and all desired forms of religious worship. Wise legislation indeed was needed to harmonize these conflicting elements and dispositions merely on general principles. But when grave questions came then trouble began. What was to the commercial interest of one section seemed to militate against the prosperity of the other, and the glorious ending of the war for independence was soon clouded by the acts of Congress concerning the polity of the United States.

The African Slave Trade, begun by the North for purposes of profit, became a bone of contention till the year 1808, when the law was passed against the further importation of foreign slaves. Those already owned and employed must on no account be disturbed. They might increase and multiply adlibitum on their own plantations, but they were the legitimate property of their owners. Even when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Act, he said that he had not the right as President to do it, but that it must be done as a war measure. By depriving the southern soldier of his laborers, the homes must go to waste and the strife most cease.

Politically each of the original colonies was independent had its own assembly and its own governor. From the very first this idea of State sovereignty was inherent, and consequently it was granted. The royal colonies sent all legislative acts to England to be approved or vetoed by the king. It must have required patience to await the going and returning of the documents across the "vasty deep" in that day. These royal colonies so governed by the king, were New York, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Virginia and Georgia. In the proprietary colonies, or those granted by royalty to individuals, the owner appointed the governor, but the king exercised the right of veto in Pennsylvania and Delaware, but not in Maryland. The charter colonies were Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. These held charters from the king permitting a complete government by themselves. At this time black slaves were in all the states. Even after the New England States had grown rich by the selling of the negroes to the south, where the climate suited their natures, they kept up the traffic in white slaves who, too poor to pay their passage to the new land flowing with milk and honey, sold themselves, hoping to buy back their freedom in the, perhaps near future.

When the constitution of the United States was framed many compromises were made. The framers had to select words with extreme care lest some State might refuse to join the federation. A notable compromise, and the very first quarrel, was the one just quoted in reference to placing the limitation of the slave trade as far ahead as 1808. The next disagreement was about the war debt. This was called the Assumption. The general government had contracted a debt of $54,000,000 and the States, about $25,000,000. This was in 1790. Alexander Hamilton proposed that the government assume the whole debt. Hence the word "assumption." The south argued that each state should pay its own debt. That if the general government assumed the State debts it would be taking away the sovereign rights that had been guaranteed them, viz: the right to do as they pleased with what was their own, and that national legislation had nothing to do with the question. About this time they were looking about for a site upon which to build the national capital. Sectional spirit ran high. New England declared that _her states would secede_ if the South succeeded in defeating assumption and in getting the capital, too. So a compromise was effected. The Assumption bill passed, and the south got the capital, after the seat of government was established at Philadelphia during ten years. In this year, too, many petitions to abolish slavery were forced upon Congress. After a heated debate the fiat went forth that Congress could not take action till 1808.

Next came the adding of ten amendments to the constitution, all for the purpose of protecting State rights. Thomas Jefferson became the leader of the Republican party, afterwards known as Democrats, and not to be confounded with the Republican party of to-day. There was a most bitter wrangle over the wording of the Constitution, during which even President Washington received abuse. _Threats of breaking up the Union were heard on all sides_.

Then there was a quarrel over the National Bank question. The first one was established at Philadelphia in 1791, and the United States became a stockholder. The purpose was to furnish a safe currency, and one that would be uniform throughout the States.

In 1791 Vermont, a part of New York, was admitted, a free state. In 1792 Kentucky, cut off from Virginia, entered as a slave state, and in 1796 Tennessee, given up by North Carolina, came in as a slave State. Our government was involved in trouble with other countries in regard to territory, but this sketch has chiefly to do with our disputes as a family.

While John Adams was President, the successor of Washington, the Alien and Sedition Laws created a stir in the country. The Federalists gave the President power to send out of the country all foreigners whom he considered dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States. They feared that these foreign citizens, by their free speech and writings might involve us in a war with Great Britain. This was the Alien Law. The Democrats contended that they had a right to bring over all the foreigners they pleased and make them citizens. The Sedition Law condemned to fine or imprisonment any writer of false, scandalous, or malicious statement against the government, Congress, or the President. The Democrats urged that this law took away freedom of speech and liberty of the press. Virginia, by James Madison, and Kentucky, by Thomas Jefferson, passed resolutions which have become famous in political history. Each set of resolutions proclaimed the Union to be only a compact between the States. They declared the Alien and Sedition laws to be unconstitutional, null and void. Virginia actually strengthened her military forces, and made ready for secession as far back as this date, 1799. The laws were not passed.

In 1803 Ohio, the 17th State, was ceded by Virginia, and was admitted--the first state carved from the Northwest Territory, and employed free labor.

The purchase of Louisiana from Napoleon in 1803 caused much discussion and interest. It comprised a vast area equal to the whole United States. Exploring expeditions were sent out to find what the unknown territory was like. Whenever there was a question of an acquisition to the Union the slave question was also in agitation. We next hear of secession when the Embargo Act was passed. In 1807 congress, in order to avoid the war with Great Britain which was fated to come five years later, enacted that no American vessel should leave the country for foreign ports. New England, where commerce was still the chief industry, suffered most. She threatened to secede, and both Massachusetts and Connecticut proclaimed the right to nullify the law. Two years later the act was repealed and again the Union was saved. Truly Uncle Sam had restive children who could not be driven, but who might at times be coaxed into a good humor.

Now came the quarrel between the State Banks and the National Bank. The National Bank charter expired in 1811 and congress refusing to grant another, it had to go out of business. In 1812 Louisiana, a slave state, came in to make the eighteenth addition.

When war with England was declared in order to protect our commerce, again the _New England States wanted to secede_. Bells were tolled, business was suspended, flags were at half-mast, and the war was condemned in town meetings--from the press and the pulpit. They believed it would ruin rather than protect commerce. So they wanted to run away by themselves. When the administration called for militia these states refused to obey.

The Hartford Convention, just after our successful war with Great Britain, proposed some amendments to the Constitution, and justified secession as a remedy for an uncongenial union, but one that "should not be resorted to except when absolutely necessary." They confirmed the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions. The Democrats openly charged that the object of the convention was disunion. The Federalist party went to pieces. A new National Bank was established--in 1816--to continue twenty years. In 1817 Indiana, the second State from the Northwest Territory, became a member of the Union, with free labor. She was the 19th State, and asked permission to hold slaves, but Congress prohibited slavery north of the Ohio river. The North had ere this freed or sold her slaves, but the institution was legalized in the Southern States. There were now nineteen States and five territories, viz: Mississippi, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, and Alabama. Emigration poured into the West. Each section of the young republic watched its own prosperity with jealous interest. The Tariff question caused excited sectional feeling. A tax on foreign goods for the sake of revenue only had satisfied everybody; but a protective tariff was unpopular with the South. The North, having manufactories, was glad to protect her infant industries. The South had no manufactories--only agricultural products, and her representatives combatted the measure with zeal (Explain). This tariff bill has always caused opposition, and a glance at the daily doings at Washington shows that it is still a bone of contention.

Mississippi was admitted as a state in 1817 with slaves; Illinois in 1818, free; and Alabama, in 1819, slave, making twenty-two states, eleven free, and eleven slave states--an equal division. In 1819 Florida was bought from Spain.

The greatest quarrel came when Missouri was talked of as a State. The South wanted her left free to choose slave labor; the North feared that this would give the Southern legislators control of the Senate. There were numerous slaves in Missouri Territory, and she wanted to retain them as a State. So angry were the debaters, and so heated the feeling, that it was feared the country would go to pieces. This was as far back as 1819. Maine, cut off from Massachusetts, now wanted to come into the Union. As she would be a free labor State, the Southerners would not vote for her admission unless Missouri could have slaves; hence the Missouri Compromise Bill, of which we have all heard. Senator Jesse B. Thomas, of Illinois, proposed this compromise. The terms of it admitted Missouri with slaves, but prohibited slavery in any other portion of the Louisiana Purchase north of a certain specified latitude, which was the Southern boundary of Missouri. This quelled the matter for many years, but most of us have seen the celebrated steel engraving, where Henry Clay stands speaking on this question, and pouring oil on the troubled waters. His powerful oratory so often saved the country from dissension that he was termed the Great Pacificator. The gifted triumver, Henry Clay from Kentucky, Daniel Webster from Massachusetts, and John C. Calhoun from South Carolina, had labored through years to reconcile the national vexed questions. All three died in the early fifties, and remembering the results of their mighty genius, there were many to say, ten years after that if they had lived there would have been no war, save perhaps another war of words in Congress. But their patriotic heads were laid low, and there were none to take their places. The two sources of dissension, slavery and the tariff, were always on hand to make a stormy session, so that a detailed history of the wrangling among the North, South and West would be a tedious transcription. What suited one section was adverse to the best interests of the others. The South abided strictly by the wording of the Constitution. The North was ever ready to put a liberal construction on its meaning, and naturally they took issue.

In 1824 the Tariff question became so untenable that some of the Southern States rebelled outright, and protested through their legislatures against the measure as unconstitutional. Some favored secession; others advocated nullification, and this was what was done. They nullified the law and refused to stand by it. Clamor for State rights was heard on every side. But they did not take this step till they had waited two or three years for Congress to give relief by reducing the tariff. In 1832 the crisis came; nullification was pronounced by South Carolina, and she forbade the collection of tariff duties in her own State. She also declared that if the United States used force, she would withdraw from the Union and organize a separate government. Andrew Jackson, who was President, determined to enforce the tariff law in the State, and asked Congress for the power to use the army to sustain the law. Volunteers had offered in South Carolina, and the country stood aghast at the prospect of civil war. Here again Henry Clay's eloquence saved the day. He proposed the measure of gradually reducing the tariff through a period of ten years till it would provide only for the expenses of the government. This removed the cause of trouble, so South Carolina rescinded her act of nullification.

The South had continually yielded up portions of her immense territory to the Union, and thus far there had been an equal balance of power in the legislative voting of the two sections. The annexation of Texas raised a stormy conflict. The South hoped for a division of this large tract into five slave states. The North, as usual, wished to obtain the lion's share. In 1835 Arkansas was admitted a slave State. In 1836 Michigan came in with free labor. After the Mexican War the retrospect showed that since the Declaration of Independence the North had possessed herself of nearly three-fourths of all the territory added to the original states. She fought the annexation of Texas because it would be slave-holding. In 1845 Florida was admitted with slave labor. In the same year Texas came in as a slave State. In 1846 Iowa came in with free labor; in 1848 Wisconsin, also free. When California applied for admission in 1850 there was such bitter antagonism that it was universally feared the Southern States would secede from the Union. Should she be a free state there would then be no other State to offset it with slaves. It was finally decided to leave the choice to California herself. Henry Clay was again at hand to effect a satisfactory compromise. In a former paper I have referred to the Fugitive Slave Law, whereby runaway slaves should be captured and sent back to their owners. But about a decade before the war, a great Abolition wave had begun to flood the country. Thurlow Weed, William Lloyd Garrison, Parson Brownlow, John Brown and Mrs. Stowe, by the power of tongue and pen and printing press, endeavored to stir up the North to the pitch of fanatical desperation, and the slaves to revolt against their masters. It was not for the sake of the Union. Perish the Union, if only the slaves were freed. Drive out the Southern States if they refused to abolish them. Their acts and their words were the extreme of anarchy and tyranny.

Jealousy had long formed a vindictive element in their breasts. And how could the two sections be wholly fraternal? They had come from, not only different stocks of population, but from different creeds in religion and politics. There could be no congeniality between the Puritan exiles who settled upon the cold, rugged and cheerless soil of New England, and the Cavaliers who sought the brighter climate of the south, and who, in their baronial halls, felt nothing in common with roundheads and regicides.

In 1859 the tragic raid of John Brown at Harper's Ferry--his execution--and the startling effects of the open outbreak against slavery put the Southern States on guard. When the next presidential election came on it was apparent from Mr. Lincoln's debates with Mr. Douglas, what the future policy of the government would be. When he therefore, won the election, the south withdrew her representatives from Congress, and her states from the Union. Secession, so long threatened by both sections in turn, had come at last. Everything had been done on the floor of the House to harmonize the issues, but without avail.

On December 20, 2021 South Carolina passed the ordinance of secession. On January 9, 1861, Mississippi followed; Florida, January 10; Alabama, January 11; Georgia, January 19; Louisiana, January 26; Texas, February 1; Virginia, April 17; Arkansas, May 6; North Carolina, May 20; Tennessee, June 8.

To sum up the Causes for the secession of the South:

1. The State had always been supreme: each was a distinct sovereignty, not subject to the general government in matters of their own home rule.

2. The interests of the South were injured by the burden of tax for the benefit of the North.

3. The Republican party had determined that slavery should not be admitted in the territories--the Republicans were in power, and foreseeing further interference in their rights, the South thought the time had come to form an independent government.

4. The North refused to accept the compromise proposed by Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky, which might have averted the war. Nor would she consent to submit the matter to a vote of the people; hence there was no chance for harmony. The aggressive measures of the North were such as no self-respecting State in the South could endure.

It had come to be a habit in Congress, to insult the South because she held slaves.

Reason and right alike succumbed to prejudice and hatred, and the dissatisfied States, weary of wrong and oppression, sounded the note of separation; and from every throat burst the refrain;--

We are a band of brothers,
Native to the soil,
Fighting for the property,
We've gained by honest toil.

* * * * *

Hurrah! Hurrah! for Southern rights hurrah!
Hurrah! for the Bonnie Blue Flag
That bear a single star.

[The end]
Eugenia Dunlap Potts's Paper: Secession [The Causes Of Civil War]