Five myths about why the South seceded
By James W. Loewen
January 9, 2011
One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War began, we're still fighting it -- or at least fighting over its history. I've polled thousands of high school history teachers and spoken about the war to audiences across the country, and there is little agreement even on why the South seceded.
...Indeed, most white Southern families had no slaves. Less than half of white Mississippi households owned one or more slaves, for example, and that proportion was smaller still in whiter states such as Virginia and Tennessee. It is also true that, in areas with few slaves, most white Southerners did not support secession. West Virginia seceded from Virginia to stay with the Union, and Confederate troops had to occupy parts of eastern Tennessee and northern Alabama to hold them in line.
However, two ideological factors caused most Southern whites, including those who were not slave-owners, to defend slavery. First, Americans are wondrous optimists, looking to the upper class and expecting to join it someday. In 1860, many subsistence farmers aspired to become large slave-owners. So poor white Southerners supported slavery then, just as many low-income people support the extension of George W. Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy now.
Second and more important, belief in white supremacy provided a rationale for slavery. As the French political theorist Montesquieu observed wryly in 1748: "It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures [enslaved Africans] to be men; because allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christians." Given this belief, most white Southerners -- and many Northerners, too -- could not envision life in black-majority states such as South Carolina and Mississippi unless blacks were in chains. Georgia Supreme Court Justice Henry Benning, trying to persuade the Virginia Legislature to leave the Union, predicted race war if slavery was not protected. "The consequence will be that our men will be all exterminated or expelled to wander as vagabonds over a hostile earth, and as for our women, their fate will be too horrible to contemplate even in fancy." Thus, secession would maintain not only slavery but the prevailing ideology of white supremacy as well...
White Northerners' fear of freed slaves moving north then caused Republicans to lose the Midwest in the congressional elections of November 1862.
Gradually, as Union soldiers found help from black civilians in the South and black recruits impressed white units with their bravery, many soldiers -- and those they wrote home to -- became abolitionists. By 1864, when Maryland voted to end slavery, soldiers' and sailors' votes made the difference.
5. The South couldn't have made it long as a slave society.
Slavery was hardly on its last legs in 1860. That year, the South produced almost 75 percent of all U.S. exports. Slaves were worth more than all the manufacturing companies and railroads in the nation. No elite class in history has ever given up such an immense interest voluntarily. Moreover, Confederates eyed territorial expansion into Mexico and Cuba. Short of war, who would have stopped them - or forced them to abandon slavery?
To claim that slavery would have ended of its own accord by the mid-20th century is impossible to disprove but difficult to accept. In 1860, slavery was growing more entrenched in the South. Unpaid labor makes for big profits, and the Southern elite was growing ever richer. Freeing slaves was becoming more and more difficult for their owners, as was the position of free blacks in the United States, North as well as South. For the foreseeable future, slavery looked secure. Perhaps a civil war was required to end it...