To thwart states-rights secession, great emancipator emancipates, slightly

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 11, 2001

To summarize what has been determined so far — Lincoln’s Republican free soil doctrine threatened slavery, and virtually all southerners wished to defend slavery, and so, by 1860, the only alternative seemed to be secession, meaning the states’ right to secede.

This was, of course, a right which southerners asserted was consistent with the Constitution, but it was a right which Lincoln denied. War would settle the issue. Therefore, it is not improper to say, in an extremely narrow sense, that the war was fought over the issue of states rights. But we musn’t forget what lay beneath this issue. Concerning Jefferson Davis, Clement Eaton has pointed out, &uot;Although Davis advocated state rights as a constitutional principle in which he sincerely believed, actually the main motivation for its support in the South was as a mechanism for the protection of slavery&uot; (Eaton, Jefferson Davis, p.96).

But then, the pattern of linking the need for secession to threats to the system of bondage, went back before the fateful winter of 1860-61. During the first of the great secession furors, 1850-51, the Natchez Free Trader was claiming that &uot;state sovereignty,&uot; (meaning particularly the right to secede) offered &uot;the best protection of the institution of slavery against the onslaughts of the abolitionists&uot; (James, Antebellum Natchez, p. 287). As the decade wound to a close and Republicanism strengthened in the North, Mississippi’s US Senator, Albert Gallatin Brown declared that rather than see &uot;slaveryrendered insecure&uot; he would &uot;see the Union destroyed, aye, so deep into the sea of oblivion that no plummet could ever fathom its depths&uot; (Natchez Free Trader, June 24, 1859, as quoted in Rainwater, Storm Center of Secession, p. 94). Mississippi’s US Representative Reuben Davis was equally emphatic, and even more colorfully lugubrious. On the floor of the House in 1859, he spewed that in defiance of a Republican government, &uot;we will sacrifice our lives, burn our houses, and convert our sunny Southinto a wilderness waste. We will do it, sir, at the hazard of bringing upon the world bankruptcy and ruin, famine and pestilence, lamentation and mourning.&uot; He then invited the abolitionists to lead the attack on the South &uot;that we may encounter them in the death grasp, and catch the first wail of their damned spirits, as they enter the regions of woe.&uot; (Congressional Globe, 36th Congress, 1st Session, Part IV, Appendix, p. 53, as quoted in Rainwater, Storm Center of Secession, p. 94). If you tire of the posturing of the press and politicians, let’s check in with the Baptists. In November, 1860, the editor of The Mississippi Baptist said, &uot;We believe also that the opposition to slavery, especially political opposition, is not only the offspring of misguided judgment, but that it is in itself, the worst form of fanaticism.&uot; &uot;Firm resistance&uot; to this fanaticism was &uot;our duty to our selves, our country, and our God.&uot; What would this resistance involve? &uot;Let every Southern man insist upon his rights IN the Union, or let him seek them OUT of it.&uot; The Baptist position is clear: the South should secede from the Union in order to defend its system of enslaving blacks (as quoted by Rainwater, Storm Center of Secession, P. 174-75).

Email newsletter signup

Today we can split all the moral and ideological hairs we wish as to whether or not, or exactly when Lincoln warranted the label of &uot;true abolitionist.&uot; What matters here is that southerners had no doubts. He was. And as such, Old Abe was very nearly the devil himself, a true son of the &uot;regions of woe.&uot; And as of November, 1860 — that devilish rail splitter had become president-elect of the United States of America. Southerners could see the handwriting on the &uot;free soil&uot; wall closing in around the sunny, but soon-to-be woebegone South. To defend their honor, to maintain their power of self-determination, consistent with their doctrine of states rights, but most importantly, to defend their system of racial slavery, secession followed forthwith.

One last conundrum remains — how could the war have been &uot;about slavery&uot; if Lincoln said, as he did in 1861, that the war was not a war to end slavery? Because, the war itself (begun over issues involving slavery), revolutionized the situation, northern public opinion, and the opinions of Lincoln himself. (For further reading on the subject, I refer you again to David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln; and also to James McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize winning Battle Cry of Freedom, Oxford, 1989 — often considered the best single volume account of the war.) To begin at the beginning — on assuming office, Lincoln did assert that, consistent with his anti-slavery-but-non-abolitionist stance, he did not intend &uot;his&uot; war to disturb the system of bondage in the states where it already existed. As always with Lincoln, the preservation of the Union was uppermost in his mind. He emphatically believed that what was at stake was not only the survival of the United States as a unity, but the survival of any democracy — whether &uot;government of the people, by the people, for the people&uot; would perish. But as the war progressed, and casualties mounted, and it became increasingly clear that southern resistance would take years, not months, to crush, Lincoln and many others in the North became convinced that to save the Union, it would be necessary to attack not only the South’s armies, but also the infrastructure and institutions on which those armies’ efforts were based. Needless to say, slavery would have to be one of those targeted institutions. Therefore, primarily as a war measure undertaken to hasten the defeat of the South’s armies (and save the Union), Lincoln made the decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation (Sept, 1862; to go into effect Jan, 1863). The roundabout nature of this process helps to explain the Proclamation’s much-misunderstood half-heartedness. It did not in fact decree the end of slavery, but only the end of slavery in those areas still under Confederate control. Explicitly excluded from its force were those areas under Union control in which slavery was still perfectly legal — the border slave states that had not seceded, Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, as well as those areas of the seceding states which northern armies had already occupied by the turn of 1863, such as New Orleans, and most of Tennessee.

In other words, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declared the freedom of those in bondage in all those areas where he had no de facto authority to enforce such a decree, and specifically did not declare liberation for those in areas where he did have the authority. One might well wonder why he bothered. As a legal fiat, it seemed pointless. As a work of angelically pure, high-toned morality, it seemed less than pure, less than high-toned, and definitely less than angelic. But as a shrewd bit of political compromise, it amply displays the sphinx-like Lincoln’s supreme skills in &uot;the art of the possible.&uot; In the letter of the law, he had not freed a single slave, but as a practical matter, with this Proclamation, he greatly accelerated the process, already in motion, of the slaves freeing themselves. He had just sent the first clear, unequivocal message to the bondsmen of the South that a Union victory would be their victory too, and so, encouraged them to shirk the labors assigned to them by their southern masters, to act as a &uot;fifth column&uot; of pro-Union saboteurs behind Confederate lines, or even to run away to join the Union army, since the Proclamation had also authorized the wholesale formation of black regiments (this had been done to a small degree previously). Before the war was over, a full 10% of the Union army would be black. Natchez under Federal occupation was largely garrisoned with black troops by 1864, with most of them having been recruited locally (Ronald L. F. Davis, The Black Experience in Natchez, 1720-1880, Natchez National Historical Park, 1994, pp. 147-48).

Yet, while thus further crippling the South’s economy and its war effort, Lincoln’s tap dance around abolition avoided excessively antagonizing the populace of the slave-holding, but pro-Union border states. But even this tentative step toward actual emancipation, even when couched as necessary to military success, still stirred controversy. Most in the North (and so, most Union soldiers), it must be remembered, were not abolitionists, and were racists. As the war seemed to be becoming a war to end slavery after all, the vilification of Lincoln in the South reached a fever pitch, as would be expected, but mighty protests (and even riots) erupted in certain sectors of the North as well. Nevertheless, the die was cast. Lincoln would soon enough take the next logical step and avow outright abolitionism. His reasoning, though, still proceeded from his passion for the Union. If its preservation was the supreme good, then secession must be eradicated, not only in this instance but for all time, and so, it would be necessary to identify the chief cause of secession, and eradicate it. Therefore, he concluded, a trimming of the secessionist weed would not be sufficient, he must get at its root. And that root, as he had in fact believed all along, was slavery. Lincoln had said in 1861 that he did not intend to disturb slavery in the South, but merely to crush secession — though, recall that southerners had always distrusted his hands-off promise. By the latter years of the war, however, southerners distrust had proven to be well-founded. In order to save the Union, Lincoln now pledged not just to &uot;disturb&uot; slavery in the South, but to annihilate it. Northern public opinion followed his lead.

Thus was fulfilled the worst fears of the great planters of the pre-war South, so many of whom had not been particularly enthusiastic about secession, some of whom never supported the Confederacy (Stephen Duncan of Natchez being a prime example). Some have tried to argue that their lack of a fire in the belly for disunion somehow demonstrates that secession had nothing to do with a defense of slavery. Not so. &uot;The groupwhich opposed the secession of the state did so for the reason that it regarded secession as a doubtful remedy and as a hazard to the social order if it should lead to violent revolution. Slavery, they thought, was safer in the Union under the protection of the Constitution than it would be out of the Union. Both [southern secessionists and southern Unionists] regarded the benefits of the Union as secondary to the preservation of slavery, which was the support of the state’s social and economic system&uot; (Rainwater, Storm Center of Secession, p. 219). Which is simply to say that the wealthiest elements in any society, having the most to lose in a disruption of the status quo, are by definition conservative in the general sense of wanting to preserve that status quo, which in 1860 was the Union within which men like Duncan had prospered.

Convinced that secession would lead to war, and that that war would surely lead to devastation of the southern slave economy (and only maybe to independence), during the secession winter of 1860-61, Josiah Winchester of Natchez had compared a break with the Union to &uot;committing suicide for fear we shall die a natural death&uot; (James, Antebellum Natchez, p. 291). It had been a lingering, agonizing suicide — a slow-acting poison rather than a samurai blade — but the conflagration that secession had wrought had done its work by the end of 1864. With Lincoln now a &uot;born again&uot; abolitionist, and just reelected to a second term, the institution of racial bondage was as truly doomed as were the Confederate armies then scattering before Sherman’s pyromaniacal March to the Sea. The war had begun over a secession sprung from disagreements about whether or not to, and how to &uot;regulate&uot; slavery, but even before the flames reached Savannah, it had definitively become a war to end slavery.

Tomorrow,I’ll furl my flag, and sum up.

James Wiggins is a history instructor at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Natchez.