Teaching Secession with Primary Documents

November 26, 2022

We begin class by going over the 1860 electoral college map, pointing out that Lincoln would have won the electoral college even if he had run against a single candidate instead of three. And as the race was largely Lincoln vs. Douglas in the north and Breckinridge vs. Bell in the South, the large number of candidates did not advantage Lincoln the way it might have in a true 4-way race. 
Map of the 1860 United States election results
Then I explain to students why what we're about to cover matters. 

Ever since the South lost the Civil War, Americans, but southerners in particular,  have reframed the conflict and argued that it wasn’t really about slavery. But in 1860 and 1861 when the southern slaveholding states seceded,  they all agreed that they were doing so to protect the institution of slavery.
As each state issued an Order of Secession or a Declaration of Causes explaining their decision, we're going to look at in their own words, why did the South secede?

I tell students that when we get to a word in yellow, I'm not going to say that word out loud. I need them to do that. They should also keep a running tally of how many times we come across a yellow word in the excerpts we go over. 

We start with South Carolina, the first state to secede.
Below is both a video of me doing this in one class and the slides I use. You can also find a link to download these slides at the bottom of the page. 
Excerpt from the South Carolin Order of Secession
South Carolina believed Lincoln’s election meant the end of slavery, so they seceded to protect it.
Next was Mississippi, which seceded on January 9, 1861. They argued
Mississippi Order of Secession
Mississippi believed Lincoln’s election meant the end of slavery, so they seceded to protect it.
As the book Apostles of Disunion details, the original seceding states sent delegates to other southern slave states  to try to convince them to secede & join the Confederacy. Mississippi Commissioner William Harris argued to the Georgia legislature that: 
Mississippi Secession Commissioner William Harris's address to the Georgia Legislature
The speech was so popular it was printed in pamphlet form and circulated to convince southerners to join the deep South in seceding from the United States.
Florida voted to secede one day after Mississippi. Their declaration of Secession argued: 
Florida Declaration of Secession
Florida believed Lincoln’s election meant the end of slavery, so they seceded to protect it.
Alabama seceded one day after FL; Their Ordinance of Secession argued:
Alabama Ordinance of Secession
Georgia seceded on Jan 19, 1961; Their Declaration of Secession argued:
Georgia Declaration of Secession
Georgia believed Lincoln’s election meant the end of slavery, so they seceded to protect it.
Louisiana seceded on Jan 26 and  was one of the few states that did not issue a formal Declaration of Causes. Instead Louisiana quickly turned to joining the Confederacy and convincing other slaveholding states to do so as well.
Louisiana sent a secession commissioner to Texas to convince Texas to secede from the United States and  join the Confederacy. Louisiana Commissioner George Williamson argued before the Texas Secession Convention:
Louisiana Commission George Williamson's speech to the Texas Legislature
Louisiana believed the Confederate States of America was established to protect slavery, and encouraged Texas to secede to protect slavery as well
Texas acquiesced to Louisiana and seceded on Feb 1, 1861.In their Declaration of Causes, Texas argued: 
Texas Declaration of Causes
Texas believed Lincoln’s election meant the end of slavery, so they seceded to protect it.
Some people argue the war was about states’ rights, but it came down to only one right: The right to hold human beings as slaves. States’ rights rhetoric emerged as an excuse after the war.
Southerners in 1860 were convinced that election of Lincoln gave them no hope. They believed he was out to destroy slavery, which their entire society was based on. This was true even for southerners who were too poor to own slaves themselves. This was true even as Lincoln continued to argue that he would not abolish slavery, but would only act to keep slavery from spreading to new western territories and to keep the Union together.
It is absolutely inconceivable that the U.S. would have gone to Civil War in 1861 without the conflict over slavery between free states & slave states.


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