How Prevalent Was Secession Fever?

Did secession come because of the work of a minority of hot heads or was it a near universal movement in the South?
Commentary by Bragdon Bowling

Originally published in the Washington Post May 23, 2011.

The word "secession" was originally coined in July, 1787, during the Constitutional Convention. From that time on, a large and influential body of opinion in every part of the country considered secession an inalienable right of any state. Nearly all politicians supported the concept.

On January 12, 1848, a young Congressman spoke the following words during a debate defending the Mexican War:

"Any people, anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government and form another one that suits them better….This is a most valuable, a moral sacred right- a right which we hope and believe will liberate the world."

The speaker that day was none other than Abraham Lincoln.

On December 20, 1860, South Carolina formally withdrew from the Union and was closely followed by Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas. Certainly an argument could be made that the fire eaters in those states did much to stir up secession sentiment. The “cotton states” seceded primarily for economic reasons and a fear that their economies would be disrupted by the ascension of Lincoln and the Republican Party to national governance. It should be noted that these states represented a tiny minority of the Southern population, had virtually no manufacturing, and were probably militarily incapable of defending their newly created sovereignty.

The firing on Ft. Sumter allowed Lincoln to inaugurate war when he called upon all the remaining states in the Union to furnish 75,000 troops to invade the lower South. At that time, only 7 of the 15 slave states had seceded. Those remaining slave states had opted against secession, preferring to remain in the Union and work out the problems which had divided North and South for over 50 years. States such as Kentucky, Missouri and Maryland, while not formally seceding, exhibited significant Southern sentiment and furnished numerous soldiers to the Southern cause. Lincoln’s call to arms changed everything by galvanizing martial opinion in both the North and South.

On April 17, Virginia’s secession convention reversed itself and voted for secession. Virginia, the traditional leader of Southern states, provided the example for North Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee to secede. Public referendums held in several states showed widespread support for secession. Their departure was not something stirred up by a small group of zealots. These states seceded with the knowledge that war was now inevitable. They would defend the South from a Northern invasion. Gone was the whimsical Gone With the Wind style attitude often seen in the cotton states. By joining the Confederacy, they would provide the military and industrial muscle that the original seceding states lacked, thus guaranteeing a longer and harder war. The Confederacy was now a very large nation with a potent military force.

Lincoln had made his choice to fight. There had been no casualties at Ft. Sumter. Things might still have been worked out peacefully. One must wonder if Lincoln had met with the peace negotiators and tried to negotiate the contentious issues dividing the country such as slavery and tariffs rather than by using coercion and military force, that the ensuing fratricidal war might have been avoided. It must be noted that Lincoln was still willing to legally permit slavery to exist even several years into the war.

The war rightfully should be laid at Lincoln’s feet. Lincoln’s premeditated bad choice set in motion a series of events which would lead to the death of 600,000 American citizens and the total devastation of the South for over 100 years. As Lincoln himself said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”.

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