Yesterday’s post began a couple comments on Paul Craig Robert’s claim that the South did not seceded over slavery—a view somewhat representative of many defenders of the Old South. Today we continue with his second major piece of information: a unique spin on South Carolina’s official declaration of secession in 1860.
One irony involved here is that this document is usually a piece of evidence for the opposing position: that the State did in fact secede over slavery. The document, like most of the other southern declarations of secession, simply says so explicitly. Roberts has to work hard to overcome this irony, so he, in part, resorts to name calling:
Surely there must be some hook somewhere that the dishonest court historians can use on which to hang an explanation that the war was about slavery. . . .
If we look carefully we can find a phony hook in the South Carolina Declaration of Causes of Secession (December 20, 1860) as long as we ignore the reasoning of the document. . . .
The secession document reads as a defense of the powers of states and not as a defense of slavery.
This particular spin is one of the most absurd interpretations of that document I have seen. Certainly no one in the scholarly field of literature I’ve seen would entertain such an idea that the secession document pinpointed state rights and not slavery as the cause of secession.
But just in case these scholars are all, every one, “dishonest court historians,” a recent contribution by Gary North will alert any reader that the “hook” ain’t so “phony.”
But hey, maybe Scary Gary is a “dishonest court historian” in disguise, too.
Gary directs us simply to read the document. Roberts does, too, but it appears to me he hopes the reader won’t bother to connect much of its own internal thought, let alone the historical context of which it speaks.
Yes, it speaks of American independence from Britain. Yes, it speaks of the “law of compact.” Yes, it speaks of the northern states having allegedly violated their obligations in that compact. Yes, it speaks of the right of voluntary secession. Yes, yes, yes. But why? On what grounds? On what law and on what fact?
It is on the law for recovery of fugitive slaves and on the fact that northern states were effectively nullifying their slave laws. Nothing else. In short, it was the South’s demand that the northern states be forced to participate in policing its slaves versus the North’s insistence on maintaining the underground railroad.
Just read the document:
But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia. Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation. . . .
Constitution, eh? Here was what they found sooooo important about the Constitution:
The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burdening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.
The parts dealing with their slavery. Nothing else. How had the northern states broken their Constitutional obligations? Read:
We affirm that these ends [the slavery-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 open establishment among them of [anti-slavery] societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to enloign 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.
For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. 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. . . .
By what means had the north “subverted” the Constitution, and “assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions”? It was merely the refusal to enforce the fugitive slave act of 1850 within their own northern states. Northerners refused to capture or convict slaves themselves on behalf of the southern slaveholders. Slavery was the issue.
It was not just fugitive slaves, but as we saw yesterday, it was the expansion of slavery also. Indeed, they thought Lincoln’s inauguration and the ascent of the Republican platform spelled the end of the expansion of slavery in the territories. The South had temporarily rested in Dred Scott’s settlement in their favor for the territories, but the Republican platform asserted a contrary agenda:
7. That the new dogma that the Constitution, of its own force, carries slavery into any or all of the territories of the United States, is a dangerous political heresy, at variance with the explicit provisions of that instrument itself, with contemporaneous exposition, and with legislative and judicial precedent; is revolutionary in its tendency, and subversive of the peace and harmony of the country.
8. That the normal condition of all the territory of the United States is that of freedom: That, as our Republican fathers, when they had abolished slavery in all our national territory [not “states”], ordained that “no persons should be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law,” it becomes our duty, by legislation, whenever such legislation is necessary, to maintain this provision of the Constitution against all attempts to violate it; and we deny the authority of Congress, of a territorial legislature, or of any individuals, to give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United States.
The SC Declaration of Secession spelled this out clearly also, with clear reference to the Republican Party platform:
On the 4th of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States. . . .
You call slavery a “phony hook” in this declaration? You call this not understanding the reasoning of the document? You’ve got it backwards. When one sees their appeal to the Constitutional settlement for the sole purpose of protecting the institution, you’ve got it right. When you understand SC seceding because that protection for that particular institution and that alone seemed in danger to them, you’ve got it right. Yes, they may have even appealed to those rights in more general terms, but it was always and only to protect that institution of slavery, and that institution alone.
Over other issues of federal intrusion, SC did not see a reason to secede. South Carolina specifically had nullified federal laws in the past, even declaring them specifically as unconstitutional, yet not seceding over them. It was willing in 1832–1833 to resist that highest affront of tariffs by nullification but not secession. Thus the state recognized and exercised the right to nullification. Yet when northern states, by SC’s own confession, nullified laws that pertained directly to her slave property, she reacted with this document and secession. She could cite the nature of the Constitutional compact all she wanted, but the central, primary, necessary and sufficient cause is clear: slavery. Not even for the vaunted issue of tariffs was she ever before willing to secede. For slaves, she was.
Meet Max and Larry
There are yet other “dishonest court historians” who say it was about slavery. My friends Max and Larry, for example, both interested historians, disagreed over the nature of that document. Max said it speaks a lot about slavery, but everyone knows it should really speak more about tariffs:
Not one word is said about the tariff. . . . The main stress is made upon the unimportant point of fugitive slaves, and the laws passed by various Northern States obstructing the recovery of fugitive slaves.
Larry says in response that tariffs were only a dividing issue in decades prior. Virtually every one of the SC Congressmen had voted in favor of the tariff that was in place at the time. That would make them look pretty silly seceding over the tariff, wouldn’t it? No, the issue at the time was slavery. The people were exercised about slavery and the North’s agitation of the question over fugitive slave laws and expansion.
Max, after just a brief persuasion, agreed, gave up his argument on behalf of tariffs, and added that the real immediate cause of the war was in fact the election of Abraham Lincoln.
I suppose that by Paul Craig Roberts’s standard, my two friends here are also “dishonest court historians.” But these two men are actually Maxcy Gregg and Lawrence Keitt, debating on the floor of the SC Secession Convention. They are the “dishonest court historians” who actually wrote the resulting document. They are the ones who agreed: this is not about tariffs, literally “we must not make a fight on the Tariff question,” but this is about slavery and what the election of Abraham Lincoln portended for the institution of slavery. You can read their debate below the document here.
Maxcy Gregg had been an outspoken proponent of secession over slavery for many years, he advocated reopening the slave trade with Africa, and had taken part in an earlier attempt at secession in 1852. At that time, the convention could say hardly anything but “slavery.” That attempt to secede was aborted because no other states would join them at that time, but the resulting resolution is instructive as to their purpose:
Resolved, That South Carolina, through her sovereign Convention, now pledges herself to her sister Southern States, to resist, in company with them, or alone if need be, by all the means which nature and God have given her, any and every attempt on the part of Congress to interfere with slavery in the States, or the slave trade between the States, or to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia without the consent of the owners, or to exclude slavery from the Southern territories of the United States, or the forts, navy yards, and other public places in the slave-holding States belonging to the Federal Government, or refuse the admission of a State into the Union on account of slavery, or refuse to enforce and carry out the existing constitutional provisions on the subject of rendition of fugitive slaves, or alter or change the Federal Constitution in any respect touching slavery.
Maxcy Gregg alone submitted a dissent to this report, not because he disagreed with it, but because he agreed so strongly he did not want a mere declaration of words without action. His views had not changed in 1860.
It takes the most unfortunate amount of spin today to read slavery out of the equation. Roberts himself cannot even do so, but reads himself right into the middle of the subject. He says,
South Carolina saw slavery as the issue being used by the North to violate the sovereignty of states and to further centralize power in Washington. The secession document makes the case that the North, which controlled the US government, had broken the compact on which the Union rested and, therefore, had made the Union null and void. For example, South Carolina pointed to Article 4 of the US Constitution, which reads: “No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.” . . .
It was hardly incidental that the fugitive slave clause was the focus. They did not choose it at random. They also did not choose any other. Put two and two together from this paragraph alone and you can see the issue. Add to it all the other discussion, the debate, the background, and the historical references, and it’s inescapable. You cannot escape the fact that secession was over slavery, period.
The real question is, why would you try? And why try so hard? I gather that the greatest evils of our time appear in the guise of statism, and we must make that a focus of our fight today. But how are Christians to “fight” a culture war?
It must begin with the House of God. We must first repent ourselves. Among other things, that means stop slandering the memory of those African and American blacks who suffered for two hundred fifty years because of it, and for a hundred years afterward because of it, and the legacies of it. It means stop whitewashing the abject evils of our “forefathers,” southern or not. Stop it. Instead, own up to it. Move on to something better: a future of liberty built on love of neighbor.
The answer to Roberts’s initial question, “How come the South is said to have fought for slavery?” is this: “Why would anyone say the South fought for anything else?” Slavery was so pervasive, so evil, so deep, so ingrained, so desperate, and so ready on everyone’s lips that the effort to suppress it as a cause leads one into the deepest, most circular and transparent of absurdities.
Appealing to “state rights” and constitutional rights while buying and selling humans, beating them, working them to death, raping them, dehumanizing and brutalizing them in a million ways was the height of hypocrisy. (And yes, all that happened a hundred times over and it is widely attested and easily provable.) Trying to defend the South as a bastion of Constitutionalism in light of American slavery is delusional and naïve, ignorant, flippant, careless, reckless, partisan, and unholy.
The South trying to defend itself by appealing to the Constitution is like a rapist fleeing into the safety of his own home expecting the castle doctrine to protect him from the law. You can cry “Constitution” all day long, but when you have the blood on your hands, it doesn’t work like that. Likewise, God is not mocked. What a man sows, that he will reap. You can’t sow kidnapping, theft, rape, and murder and reap Constitutional liberty. Maybe in a slave economy, but not in God’s.
And could it be that the very statism, leftism, and threats we endure today stem directly from our own failures, and denials, so frequently exhibited, in these very areas? I believe so. And I believe we could, and would, absolutely destroy the left if we quit thinking in terms of prejudice, fear, jealousy, self-righteousness, and selfishness ourselves. These fears may be cloaked fully in the guise of old school libertarianism, but they end up feeding the state just as much as leftism and neoconservatism. Better shed them. Find a neighbor you can love, and figure out what it means to love them. It’s the only way forward to freedom.
(Now, just to be clear, the point made in this article refer to the limited issue of slavery as a cause of secession for the South. There is of course much more to say. This is not a comprehensive treatise, though it is self-sustaining for the points it makes. More will be said, and proven, when the book gets out.)