Why did the Deep South secede from the United States and form the Confederacy in 1861?
Charles B. Dew answered this question in Apostles of Disunion. The Deep South states and later the Confederate government dispatched commissioners to the Upper South and Border South to make the case for secession from the Union.
The South had no choice but to secede from the United States: Southerners could secede from the Union, fight a war to secure Southern independence, or they could submit to the shameful prospect of seeing their posterity having to live under BRA.
White Southerners would launch a revolution before they would submit to being degraded to the level of African-Americans. The prospect of BRA in the South was the cause of the War Between the States:
“In 1860 and 1861 Preston, Curry, and the other commissioners had seen a horrific future facing their region within the confines of Abraham Lincoln’s Union. When they used words like “submission” and “degradation,” they were referring to “final subjugation” and “annihilation,” they were not talking about constitutional differences or political arguments. They were talking about the dawning of an abominable world in the South, a world created by the Republican destruction of slavery.
The secession commissioners knew what this new and hateful world would look like. Over and over again they called up three stark images that, taken together, constituted the white South’s worst nightmare.
The first threat was the looming specter of racial equality. The commissioners insisted almost to a man that Republican ascendancy in Washington placed white supremacy in the South in moral peril. Mississippi commissioner William L. Harris made this point clearly and unambiguously in his speech to the Georgia legislature in 1860. “Our fathers made this a government for the white man,” Harris told the Georgians, “rejecting the negro, as an ignorant, inferior, barbarian race, incapable of self-government, and not, therefore, entitled to be associated with the white man upon terms of civil, political, or social equality.” But the Republicans intended to overturn and strike down this great feature of our Union … and to substitute in its stead their new theory of the universal equality of the black and white races.”
Alabama’s commissioners to North Carolina, Isham W. Garrott and Robert H. Smith, predicted that the white children of their state would “be compelled to flee from the land of their birth, and from the slaves their parents have toiled to acquire as an inheritance for them, or submit to the degradation of being reduced to an equality with them, and all its attendant horrors.”
South Carolina’s John McQueen warned the Texas Convention that Lincoln and his Republicans were bent on “the abolition of slavery upon this continent and the elevation of our own slaves to an equality with ourselves and our children.” And so it went, as commissioner after commissioner – Leonidas Spratt of South Carolina, David Clopton and Arthur F. Hopkins, Henry L. Benning of Georgia – hammered home this same point.
The impending imposition of racial equality informed the speeches of other commissioners as well. Thomas J. Wharton, Mississippi’s attorney general and that state’s commissioner to Tennessee, said in Nashville on January 8, 1861, that the Republican Party would, “at no distant day, inaugurate the reign of equality of all races and colors, and the universality of the electoral franchise.”
Commissioner Samuel L. Hall of Georgia told the North Carolina legislature on February 13, 1861, that only a people “dead to all sense of virtue and dignity” would embrace the Republican doctrine of “the social and political equality of the white and black races.” Another Georgia commissioner, Luther J. Glenn of Atlanta, made the same point to the Missouri legislature on March 2, 1861. The Republican platform, press, and principal spokesmen had made their “purposes, objects, and motives” crystal clear, Glenn insisted: “hostility to the South, the extinctions of slavery, and the ultimate elevation of the negro to civil, political and social equality with the white man.” These reasons and these reasons alone had prompted his state, “to dissolve her connexion with the General Government,” Glenn insisted.
The second element in the commissioners prophecy was the prospect of a race war. Mississippi commissioner Alexander H. Handy raised this threat in his Baltimore speech in December 1860 – Republican agents infiltrating the South “to excite the slave to cut the throat of his master.” Alabamians Garrott and Smith told their Raleigh audience that Republican policies would force the South to either abandon slavery “or be doomed to a servile war.” William Cooper, Alabama’s commissioner to Missouri, delivered a similar message in Jefferson City. “Under the policy of the Republican Party, the time would arrive when the scenes of San Domingo and Hayti, with all their attendant horrors, would be enacted in the slaveholding States,” he told the Missourians. David Clopton wrote the governor of Delaware that Republican ascendancy “endangers instead of ensuring domestic tranquility by the possession of channels through which to circulate insurrectionary documents and disseminate insurrectionary sentiments among a hitherto contented servile population
Wharton of Mississippi told the Tennessee legislature that Southerners “will not, cannot surrender our institutions,” and that Republican attempts to subvert slavery “will drench the country in blood, and extirpate one or other of the races.” In their speeches to the Virginia Convention, Fulton Anderson, Henry L. Benning, and John S. Preston all forecast a Republican-inspired race war that would, as Benning put it, “break out everywhere like hidden fire from the earth.”
The third prospect in the commissioners’ doomsday vision was, in many ways, the most dire: racial amalgamation. Judge Harris of Mississippi sounded this note in Georgia in December 1860 when he spoke of Republican insistence on “equality in the rights of matrimony.” Other commissioners repeated this warning in the weeks that followed. In Virginia, Henry Benning insisted that under Republican-led abolition “our women” would suffer “horrors … we cannot contemplate in imagination.” There was not an adult present who could not imagine exactly what Benning was talking about.
Leroy Pope Walker, Alabama’s commissioner to Tennessee and subsequently the first Confederate Secretary of War, predicted that in the absence of secession all would be lost – first, “our property,” and “then our liberties,” and finally the South’s greatest treasure, “the sacred purity of our daughters.”
No commissioner articulated the racial fears of the secessionists better, or more graphically, than Alabama’s Stephen F. Hale. When he wrote of the South facing “amalgamation or extermination” when he referred to “all the horrors of a San Domingo slave insurrection,” when he described every white Southerner “degraded to a position of equality with free negroes,” when he foresaw the sons and daughters of the South “associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality,” when he spoke of the Lincoln administration consigning the citizens of the South “to assassinations and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans,” he was giving voice to the night terrors of the secessionist South.
State’s rights, historical political abuses, territorial questions, economic differences, constitutional arguments – all these and more paled into insignificance when placed alongside this vision of the South’s future under Republican domination.
The choice was absolutely clear. The slave states could secede and establish their independence, or they could submit to “Black Republican” rule with its inevitable consequences: Armageddon or amalgamation. Whites forced to endure racial equality, race war, a staining of the blood – who could tolerate such things?
The commissioners sent out to spread the secessionist gospel in late 1860 and early 1861 clearly believed that the racial fate of their region was hanging in the balance in the wake of Lincoln’s election. Only through disunion could the South be saved from the disastrous effects of Republican principles and Republican malevolence. Hesitation, submission – any course other than immediate secession – would place both slavery and white supremacy on the road to certain extinction. The commissioners were arguing that disunion, even if it meant risking war, was the only way to save the white race.
Note: The series of essays is a long overdue response to the uneducated clowns on the internet who keep promoting the absurd idea that the Confederacy was based on their liberal racial views.