State’s Rights or Slavery?

There is a story that has been circling around the news for the last month about the state of South Carolina being forced to take down a Confederate flag outside their capitol building.  The argument is that the South holds a deep history of pride in the flag and that the flag is an integral portion of the South’s national heritage.  The counter-argument is that the South was a slave holding nation for 4 years that actively fought to keep slavery.  Nobody really wants to defend the institution of slavery, so the refutation is that the South fought a war to protect state rights.  Then the discussion becomes “was the Civil War about state rights or about slavery?”

Every study of history needs to start with background before analysis can be made: In December of 1860, South Carolina seceded from the United States of America, some 20 days later, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana  followed them into the fledgling Confederate nation.  By February 1st, Texas joined the confederacy and the Civil War officially began.  Following one of the first engagements of the war, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee joined to form the 11 rebel states.  As for the causes: each state has left a declaration of their reasons for leaving the union, most of the declarations can be found online.  While these declarations may not encompass the entirety of the public reasoning for fighting the Civil War, the declarations are the true straw that broke the camel’s back and led to open war between two halves of the United States.  We begin with the herald of the war to come and their reasoning for leaving the nation:

South Carolina

South Carolina led the charge, releasing an official document declaring the “Causes of Secession” on December 20, 1860.  The document begins with explanation that since 1852, the state of South Carolina had been mulling over leaving the Union because grievances were left unaddressed and because rights were being infringed upon that the Constitution of the United States was meant to uphold.  The document explains that the state has a right to secede, as part of the American tradition.  Our Declaration of Independence makes it clear that when a people find their government to not be operating based on the consent of the public they have a right to declare independence.  (It worked in 1776, it should work in 1860, essentially)  Having established that they were guaranteed the rights to be a free and independent state when they broke free from King George’s yoke, South Carolina’s declaration explains that they feel it to be their sad necessity to do the same to the American Union. The official reasoning was that South Carolina only entered into the United States compact because of certain protections given to their people:

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of Slavery; they have permitted the open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign (steal or take) the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

The lion’s share of the reasoning for why the state left was built off the fact that Northern states were beginning to make laws that bypassed or actively broke the 4th article of the Constitution, specifically section 2 that dealt with fugitive slaves and transportation of slaves through non-slave states.  In the mid 1800s, Northern states were passing laws that officially made a slave free when they touched Northern soil, so taking a stroll into New York with your slave would lead to the accidental freeing of the slave.  The final few paragraphs of South Carolina’s declaration states:

A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the Common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that Slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

The official beginning of the Civil War, as far as South Carolina was concerned, was about slavery.  All this information is available at:


Perhaps even more clear than South Carolina, Mississippi began her Declaration of Secession in more direct terms:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product, which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth.

The document goes on to explain that “none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun”, and that removing slavery would be like taking a four billion dollar enterprise out of the state.  Mississippi lays out a list of grievances, nearly all about slavery, with the few that do not explicitly say slavery stating that the Union has failed to uphold compacts that ensured the state’s security.  There is however, an entire paragraph that explains part of their reason for leaving as the North lionizing John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry when he tried to start a slave revolt.  Mississippi’s declaration explains that as a failing of the guarantees of security that the American Constitution promised them.

Read it for yourself, make your own opinions:


Florida’s Declaration of Causes finds similar purchase for their reasons to leave the Union.  John Brown is first cited as a terrible man who should be criminalized rather than lauded.  Perhaps my personal favorite reason for leaving the Union, “A President has recently been elected, an obscure and illiterate man without experience in public affairs or any general reputation mainly if not exclusively on account of a settled and often proclaimed hostility to our institution and a fixed purpose to abolish them.”  Florida’s main beef was about the official decision to not allow more slave states to join America.  Their claim was that half the money and half the manpower that went into exploring and buying the new territory was Southern, so half the land gained should be pro-slavery.  The Floridians feared that the nation was trying to smother slavery over time.  Their final fear was that free Africans would be criminal and lazy.

What must be the condition of the slaves themselves when their number becomes so large that their labor will be of no value to their owners.  Their natural tendency every where shown where the race has existed to idleness vagrancy and crime increased by an inability to procure subsistence.  Can any thing be more impudently false than the pretense that this state of things is to be brought about from considerations of humanity to the slaves.
It is in so many words saying to you we will not burn you at the stake but we will torture you to a death by a slow fire that will not confiscate your property and consign you to a residence and equality with the african but that destiny certainly awaits your children – and you must quietly submit or we will force you to submission – men who can hesitate to resist such aggressions are slaves already and deserve their destiny

Find it here:


Georgia’s Declaration of Secession is likely the most comprehensive and explanatory of the documents.  It begins with similar grievances to the prior declarations, citing denial of constitutional rights, denial of new slave states, the election of Lincoln and his Republican party (later in the Declaration called the anti-slavery party), and Congress’ willful ignorance of Georgia’s calls to fix these issues.  What Georgia’s Declaration does that few others did is give a brief but nuanced argument about Constitutionality and economics.  According to the Georgian Declaration, Northern and Middle businesses were being given huge concessions and monetary subsidies that were not being given to the South (things like fishermen getting $500,000 annually from the US Treasury and some $7,000,000 being used to improve infrastructure on the argument that the businesses were infant and there was a scarcity of labor in the North).

Furthermore, Georgia cited the Dred Scott Supreme Court case as a reason why the Fugitive Slave laws were legal.  The Fugitive Slave laws stated that slaves who escaped over state borders would be given back to their owners, and that any person who willfully hindered or denied knowledge of the fugitive would be fined a hefty sum of money.  In the 1850s, Dred Scott was a slave who was brought into the state of Illinois, a free state.  He sued for his freedom and in a 7-2 ruling by the Supreme Court, was denied it.  Georgia cited the decision as a reason why the free states were wrong to break free from the Fugitive Slave laws.  Georgia makes the claim that they would never have joined the Union in the first place had the right to own slaves not been protected as it was, and by backing down on those protections, it was Georgia’s imperative to leave the Union.

Again, form your own opinions after reading the Declaration:


Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented to become one of the Confederated Union to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people. She was received into the confederacy with her own constitution, under the guarantee of the federal constitution and the compact of annexation, that she should enjoy these blessings. She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery – the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits – a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.

The third paragraph of Texas’ Declaration of Secession explains much of their issue with the American Union.  Slavery was not protected, and Texas joined up with slavery as a keystone to the deal.  They also cite the issues with Mexican Banditti and Indian war parties that made incursions into the state as a reason for leaving the Union; predominantly because the Federal government did not reimburse Texas for expenses in fighting off invaders, forcing the state to pay for protection with its own money.

They have, through the mails and hired emissaries, sent seditious pamphlets and papers among us to stir up servile insurrection and bring blood and carnage to our firesides.
They have sent hired emissaries among us to burn our towns and distribute arms and poison to our slaves for the same purpose.
They have impoverished the slave holding States by unequal and partial legislation, thereby enriching themselves by draining our substance.

They have refused to vote appropriations for protecting Texas against ruthless savages (1865th word in the post!), for the sole reason that she is a slave-holding state.

While a fair amount more about the protection and payment of Texas, the Declaration is still unabashedly focused on Slavery as the primary reason for leaving the Union.
Read it:


This is not something that should be up to debate.  The Civil War was about Slavery, officially, on the record books, in the STATE CONGRESSIONAL statements; slavery caused the war.  By no uncertain terms however, was it not about state rights.  By 1860s standards, slavery was a right that was guaranteed to many states, and many states approached slavery in the same way one would approach interstate commerce legislation.  When the Constitution was written, some states had a right to slavery and the right was slowly taken from them through policy and politics.  It is however, a historical failing to equate a war over slavery with a war over state rights.  Over time I will try to find the other 6 Declarations of Secession and see if all Southern states had similar reasoning, but in no uncertain terms, 5 states fought the “War of Northern Aggression” because they wanted to protect their right to own humans as chattel.