Volume 20: Secession

Lincoln's second inaugural address

A Little Rebellion, Now and Then

“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect, and defend it.

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” – Abraham Lincoln


Separatist movements seem to be gaining momentum everywhere. Scotland nearly left the United Kingdom. Quebec regularly has the wild thought to go on its own. Basques, Kurds and Tibetans, and others argue that they are oppressed minorities - with varying validity of grievances. Going back a few years, Sudan birthed a South, Timor lost its L’Este, and Czechoslovakia – the country, as well as its name – was cleaved in two. Yugoslavia split into many component parts, and then Montenegro left Serbia and Montenegro and then Kosovo left Serbia, which Serbia still disputes. And then there are the disputed regions, where the split may or may not represent the will of the people therein: Crimea and South Ossetia, for example.

While separatist movements in the United States today are the province of charlatans and cranks, this was not always the case. Despite what some people say, the Civil War was fought over slavery, not inability to compromise. But how our nation moved from a fundamental disagreement over this heinous practice, to a split that could easily have been fatal, is a more complex story with relevance to the current day.

  • How did the Civil War start?

  • Is secession legal?


How did the Civil War start?

Let’s be clear: we know why the Civil War started. It started because of slavery, and disagreements about if it should exist and whether it should spread. The questions of how the War started has greater complexity. How did a long-festering disagreement move from the halls of Congress to Shiloh, Antietam and Gettysburg? Why did secession happen in 1860, as opposed to decades earlier or later?

The story of the Civil War begins in Philadelphia, in the summer of 1787. At that time, the United States was little more than a confederation of sovereign states.[1] In order to survive in a world of nation-states – and to compete with those states’ quickly modernizing economies – a stronger form of government was necessary. A group of 55 delegates from 12 states met and wrote our Constitution.[2]

At the Convention, compromises were the order of the day, as the resulting document would have to be signed by all 13 states. The issue of slavery was in the background of the many compromises made in Philadelphia. Some states had slaveholders; some of those slaveholders were present at this Convention. A document immediately eliminating slavery was not feasible.[3] Slaves would count as three-fifths of a person with regards to taxation and representation, and the slave trade could not be prohibited until 1808.[4] Had the United States remained with the Original 13, this compromise would likely have been stable for a long period.

But we wanted to get bigger. First, the territory between the original states and the Mississippi River, already in our possession, would be turned into states. Then, via purchase, war, or negotiation, we would expand to the Rocky Mountains, the Rio Grande and finally the Pacific. Would slavery be allowed to expand into this vast, new area?

The period from 1789 until 1850 was one of compromises made between halves of a nation which were rapidly moving apart – on slavery, but also on other issues. The North was rapidly industrializing, using canals to link its grand lakes and rivers, turning its land into a web of railroad lines. The South’s economy remained almost exclusively agricultural. A trading empire in the North led to a merchant marine, bustling ports and growing cities. The cash crops of tobacco, rice, and cotton led the South to remain almost exclusively rural; in 1860, only one of the twenty largest American cities was in the South.[5] This reinforced its slave-based economy. The sectarian divide is not understood without this economic context.

Increasing population in the North during the early 19th translated to large majorities in the House of Representatives. However, as long as the Union maintained an equal number of slave and free states, the South would have a veto over legislation. The need to add new slave-state votes to the Senate was a concrete reason for the South for focus on slavery’s spread. The North, on the other hand, was concerned about “slave power” – the ability of the Southern minority to control the national agenda via this veto. Even those Northerners who were not morally opposed to slavery did not want it to gain political power by expansion.

Table 1 - Slave and Free States, By Year

Fortunately – at least as far as preservation of the Union was concerned – the period from 1820 to 1850 was one of Great Compromisers. In 1820, the slave-free balance was kept by admitting Missouri and Maine, respectively, to the Union. This Missouri Compromise also established a line, 36° 30’ of latitude, which would divide future slave and free states. This offered confidence to the growing number of Free Soilers, those who opposed the spread of slavery but not necessarily its existence.

This Missouri Compromise held until the Mexican War threw a monkey wrench into things. A transparent land grab, many (but not all) proponents of this War viewed the expansion of slavery – and the maintenance of that balance in the Senate – to be a key war aim. Long before victory was assured, opponents of slavery attempted to prohibit it in any lands that might fall into American hands. This posed a political problem for those who wished to extend slavery, but didn’t want to say that they were conducting a war for that express purpose.