Flower on the Precipice: An Examination of Southern Secession

Jarrod Mock

In 1776, the colonial Continental Congress published a historic document. The document, written by Thomas Jefferson, presented the idea that men possess certain inalienable rights, and that if a government should become destructive of those rights, the affected citizens would have the right to abolish that government. This document was the Declaration of Independence. With its conception, the thirteen British colonies in America asserted their independence from their mother country, and the American Revolution began. The American Revolution marked the first time in history that a set of colonies acted of its own accord to rebel against the country that founded them. The colonies (the first of which was founded in 1607) separated themselves from Britain because they felt that their freedoms had been violated by the oppressive laws passed by the legislature and were frustrated at not having representation in Parliament. After the colonies—with help—defeated the British forces in America, their newfound freedom was celebrated internationally and continues to be celebrated today in the United States as a heroic display of liberty (Degler 1983).


About eighty years later, eleven Southern states seceded from the Union because they felt that Congress was encroaching upon their interests and freedom. Through this dissolution of ties, the Southern states supposedly acted according to the concept of freedom that was established by the Declaration of Independence; the Southerners felt that the government had become destructive of their natural rights (Hall et al. 1861). Why, then, does the Southern secession carry the negative stigma of rebellion, rather than the positive connotation of the belief in liberty? The answer lies in the way they used their liberty. We consider the Southern states to have acted out of rebellion, rather than out of freedom, because of the way they used (or misused) their freedom. The secession act served to reject democratic decisions made by Congress and to violate a political contract with the United States, which they had earlier voluntarily ratified.

In the mid-19th century, the Southern region of the United States was known as the Cotton Kingdom. The title of Cotton Kingdom was fitting, as the Southern states cultivated 75% of the world’s cotton supply by 1860 (Bailey 1956). The Southern economy, as a result, revolved around large cotton plantations that were owned by wealthy plantation owners and worked by African-American slaves, or financially destitute white men: in either case, these men earned no wages for their labor. Most other members of this society were significantly less wealthy sustenance farmers or shopkeepers. The South’s particular economic structure also lent itself to a peculiar social structure: the social system of the South was almost feudal, with the plantation owners as the wealthy lords and ladies and the plantation workers as serfs (Degler 1983). No society could have been more different from the emerging modern social systems in the world—American or otherwise. The culture of the South was especially dissonant with that of the more urban and slowly industrializing North; this disparity no doubt helped to fuel both the Civil War and the tense national relations leading up to it.


The Northern and the Southern states had always been different in many ways. The geography of the Northern colonies required them to cultivate an industrial economy based on shipping and manufacturing. The Southern colonies, by contrast, enjoyed climate conditions that were conducive to agriculture (Bailey 1956). An exacerbating difference was the difference in opinion over slavery. Because the South depended on slave labor to run its cotton plantations, slavery was an indispensable element of the Southern economy. The South’s dependence on slavery is apparent Georgia’s declaration of secession, which stated for a reason of secession that “the prohibition of slavery […] is the cardinal principle of [Congress]” (Hall et al. 1861). This idea is further emphasized in Mississippi’s declaration of secession: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world” (Farrar et al. 1861).

The discussion of Southern freedom and slavery, however, predates the ratification of secession documents and the formation of the Confederate States of America. Serious debate over the rights of the Southern states began in Congress and in the political sphere (Bailey 1956). In particular, the subject of secession was first broached by John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina senator, as he spoke against numerous anti-slavery petitions that were sent to Congress: “By the necessary course of events, if left to themselves, we must become, finally, two people […] Abolition and the Union cannot co-exist” (Calhoun 1837). Although Calhoun delivered his address to Congress decades before the Civil War, he introduced the idea that slavery was an integral part of Southern culture, and that he and his supporters would consider forced abolition to be a violation of the South’s freedom.

One of the main points of contention in the debate over slavery was whether new states added to the union would support or condemn slavery. The position of new states was important because new states increased representation in Congress for pro-slavery or anti-slavery groups, depending on which side they supported (Bailey 1956). The issue of whether slavery would be permitted or outlawed in new territories manifested itself in the clash between the Republican and Democratic parties. Having equal representation in both the House and the Senate, the Republican and Democratic parties (which respectively condemned and support slavery) stood at a deadlock over legislation that addressed slavery. Such legislation included bills such as the Fugitive Slave Act, which was passed in 1850 and mandated that runaway slaves in the North be arrested and returned to their respective owners. Although the bill was passed, many Northerners chose to ignore it, further fueling bad sectional relations.

On a smaller scale, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which took place in Illinois in 1858, clearly represented the ideologies of both parties (Degler 1983). The Lincoln-Douglas debates were a series of meetings between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, two candidates for a seat in the Illinois house of state. Because they found traditional campaign methods to be ineffective at expressing their ideas, both men agreed to meet for a series of seven debates, which would help to disseminate their ideas amongst the voting demographic. Douglas, a Democrat known as the Little Giant, was opposed to the abolition of slavery and championed popular sovereignty (a system in which a new territory would vote upon whether to permit slavery or not). Lincoln, a Republican, was opposed to the spread of slavery in new territories and was also opposed to popular sovereignty: “Under the operation of [popular sovereignty], agitation has not only, not ceased, but has constantly augmented” (Lincoln 1858).


Although Lincoln was opposed to the spread of slavery, it is necessary to mention that he was not in favor of racial equality (Degler 1983). When challenged by Douglas that he supported equality between white men and black men, he firmly stated, “I am not […] in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races […] [I] am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race” (Lincoln 1858). If both of them were in agreement over the issue of race, then the underlying difference between the ideas of the two men lay in their opinions about the freedom of the individual states. Douglas was a firm believer that “Washington, Jefferson…and the great men of that day, made this government divided into free states and slave states, and left each state perfectly free to do as it pleased on the subject of slavery” (Douglas 1858). In contrast, Lincoln in his House Divided speech, given in 1858, asserted that “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half-slave and half-free” (Lincoln 1858). These opposing sentiments were not only representative of Douglas’ and Lincoln’s beliefs, but also representative of the ideologies of the Democratic and Republican parties respectively.

In fact, Lincoln’s motivations in his crusade against popular sovereignty may have been personal, as well as political (Degler 1983). Although Lincoln publically asserted that the white race was superior to the African-American race, he was still morally opposed to slavery. As Lincoln stated in an 1855 letter to a slave-owning friend in Kentucky, “you know I dislike slavery […] as a nation we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it as ‘all men are created equal, except negroes’” (Lincoln 1855). Despite his anti-slavery sentiments, Lincoln did not attempt to outright abolish slavery at first; he instead tried to halt its expansion into new territories. Later, during the heart of the Civil War, he formally acted upon his anti-slavery feelings, by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in the Confederate states. In this way, his initial racist platform may have existed for political reasons, so as not to paint himself as a radical abolitionist.

After Lincoln’s election in 1860 and the growing popularity of his anti-slavery platform, many of the Southern states seceded from the union. To justify this action, many states drew up a declaration of secession that mirrored the Declaration of Dndependence in several ways; these documents both included a preamble and a list of grievances (Bailey 1956). The line of the declaration of independence that most of the Southern states used to justify their secession was “that to secure [life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness] governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” (Jefferson et al. 1776). In particular, Virginia’s secession ordinance explicitly states that “the powers granted under the said Constitution were derived from the people […] the Federal Government having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern states” (Janney et al. 1861). Virginia was not alone in this sentiment. South Carolina’s declaration of secession argued that because the Constitution made no mention of the legality of slavery that the decision was “reserved to the states, respectively, or to the people” (Cauthen et al. 1861).

It is clear that the sentiments expressed by the Southern states at the time of secession bore close similarity to the sentiments expressed by the thirteen British colonies during the American Revolution. Both parties felt as if their freedom was being usurped and abused, and that they had the right to sever ties with the oppressing power. In some way, the bills passed by Congress even paralleled the oppressive acts passed by the British Parliament during the Revolutionary era. During the years of 1650, 1733 and 1764, Britain passed a series of trade restrictions on the colonies, known as the navigation acts (Bailey 1956). These acts prohibited extensive trade with other nations, and levied duties on foreign imports. The net effect was that the colonies were crippled economically. Likewise, as Congress was attempting to prohibit slavery, the removal of slavery would have crippled the Southern economy almost beyond repair, as the agricultural market was built upon the foundation of slave labor. The similarity between the two times of revolution naturally raises the question of whether the Southern states were justified in declaring secession.

This issue of secession, however, must be separated from the discussion of slavery. It is well-established that slavery, in any form, is inhumane. Slavery was wrong during the Civil War era, it is wrong today, and it will forever be wrong in the future. The discussion of the freedom of the Southern states is based on the principle of states’ rights, not slavery. Even though the main point of contention at the time was slavery, the Southern states seceded from the Union because they felt that their rights were no longer being protected, not just because of the impending abolition of slavery. While it may have been justified for the Southern states to secede because they felt as if their freedom was in jeopardy, the institution of slavery was not justified, and never will be justified.

It follows from the Southern states’ argument — if one interprets the Declaration of Independence strictly — that their secession was justified. The Southerners felt that the government had become destructive of the ends that it swore to protect and that they had the right to “throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.” To that end, they did what the colonies had done: they submitted a list of grievances to Congress and formally dissolved the social and political ties that bound them to the Union. Surely, one cannot fault them for doing so.

We must now examine the South’s definition of freedom as compared to other definitions of freedom. The type of freedom that the South championed during the Civil War era was a political freedom—a freedom to do as one pleases in the political sphere. The South had more of a radical perception of this freedom, as they believed, quite literally, that freedom was the right to do as one pleases, without regard to others. Hannah Arendt, in her essay, “What is Freedom”, presents a different view of freedom in the political realm. Arendt discusses an “interdependence of freedom and politics,” (Arendt 1961) and believes that freedom is a liberation from politics, and that in the political realm, freedom is the ability to do what one should do, rather than what wants to do, because “in politics not life but the world is at stake” (Arendt 1961). Arendt’s more pragmatic and moderate view of political freedom contrasts with the Southern view of freedom, and casts further doubt over whether their arguments for secession were sound.

Why does history oftentimes portray the secession of the Southern states as an evil? According to the Declaration of Independence — a timelessly venerated document — if a government should become destructive of the rights it has sworn to protect, then the oppressed people would have a right to dissolve any political ties with that power and to “institute new government […] [that] as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness” (Jefferson et al. 1776). According to this strict interpretation, the Southern states were, after all, exercising the human right of freedom outlined in the Declaration of Independence.  Yet, they were considered to be rebels, rather than champions of freedom, because it was immoral of them to exercise this freedom in that way; by ratifying the Constitution upon becoming a state, the states had to give up some degrees of freedom to the federal government so that the United States could function as a nation, rather than a loose confederation of separate nations (Degler 1983). By dissolving the political ties that bound them to the Union, the Southern states violated the political contract they had voluntarily ratified with the United States: a dishonorable action.

Because the Southern states so relied upon the Declaration of Independence to justify their actions, a closer examination is necessary. When one views it with a strict interpretation, as the Southerners did, the Declaration of Independence does support their arguments. When read from a looser and more comprehensive perspective, however, the document illustrates why the Southerners were not justified in secession. Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, drew heavily from the writings of Montesquieu for inspiration about the concept of freedom. The viewpoints on freedom he received were not arguments for the radical use of freedom, as the Southerners believed, but rather for the more discrete use of freedom, as Arendt would have believed. In particular, Jefferson agreed with Montesquieu that “Political liberty does not consist in an unlimited freedom […] liberty can consist only in the power of doing what we ought to will” (Montesquieu 1748). More clearly, Jefferson and Montesquieu believed in free will as a product of the authority and orderliness of the state, rather than an almost anarchistic view of freedom that relied upon the authority and independence of the individual. It is this clear distinction between freedom of the state, rather than the individual, that shows the fallacy in the Southerners’ logic. Jefferson drew inspiration from this more mature view of liberty and had this in mind upon writing the Declaration of Independence. Here, we see that the Southerners, by seceding, actually contradicted the document they so vehemently championed.


Although the states needed to give up certain rights in order to join the Union, at what point does federal law become “destructive of [freedom]”? (Jefferson et al. 1776). The Southerners felt that by advocating for the end of slavery that the Union had become destructive of the founding freedom that was so sacred to the United States. At first, this situation seems to parallel the terse relations between the thirteen colonies and Parliament. The main difference between these two cases, however, is that the Southern states were fairly represented in the legislature, while the colonies were not (Degler 1983). The decision to elect a president with an anti-slavery platform was a democratic decision, made by the nation as a whole. The Southern states, ironically, behaved less democratically than the Northern states, as Lincoln was even illegally excluded from the ballot in certain Southern states in the 1860 election. By referring to Lincoln’s election and the steadily growing anti-slavery movement as reasons for secession, the Southern states were going against the Constitution that they so relied upon to justify the schism. Although he had been elected in a time fraught violence and political turmoil, Lincoln became president in a fair election, and the growing anti-slavery sentiments in the North happened organically, without outside interference (Bailey 1956). By seceding because of the outcome of a democratic decision, the South’s application of freedom was not the freedom to abolish a government that was destructive of its rights, but rather, the freedom to dissolve a political contract for selfish reasons.

It is true that the South was exercising the universal freedom to do as one chooses. The Southern chose, however, not to use freedom in an honorable way. It is for this reason that the Southern secession is looked down upon as an act of rebellion. The Southern secession was selfish in many ways — the Southerners refused to accept the growing sentiment of anti-slavery, even if it was democratic in nature. Calhoun may have painted slavery in a positive light, but more than half of the nation believed it to be a destructive evil. In Europe, scholars looked upon the United States as a paradox: America was known as the pinnacle of freedom, yet it continued to perpetuate slavery.

The Southern secession was a great debate over freedom. It raised the question of how much authority the federal government could exert over the states while still allowing them to keep certain individual freedoms. The Southern perspective promoted states’ rights, and the ability to nullify federal customs within the state if they went against local interests. This perspective went against the concept of democracy: majority rules, even if a minority of people don’t agree. The Southern secession further reveals that the exercise of total freedom is not always necessarily justified — freedom (in the political sphere, at least) is a responsibility, and something that should be used with discretion, rather than wanton selfishness.


List of References

Arendt, Between Past and Future, New York: Penguin Group, 1954.

Bailey, Cohen, and Kennedy, The American Pageant, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.

Cauthen et al. South Carolina Ordinance of Secession, 1861.

Degler, Out of Our Past: The Forces that Shaped Modern America, Harper Collins, 1959.

Farrar et al. Mississippi Ordinance of Secession, 1861.

Hall et al. Georgia Ordinance of Secession, 1861.

Janney et al. Virginia Ordinance of Secession, 1861.

Jefferson et al. The Declaration of Independence, 1776.

Lincoln, A House Divided, 1858.

Lincoln, Letter to Joshua Speed, 1855.

Lincoln and Douglas, Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 1858.

Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, 1748.

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