While the civil war started in 1861 the secession of the South had already begun immediately after the presidential election of 1860 when South Carolina declared its independence on December 20th, 1860.
But the conflict between the North and the South that would ignite the secession and the war was much older and was mainly centered around the question of slavery, especially in regards to the expansion into the new territories in the west.
The problems between slave- and free states had already erupted in violence following the Kansas-Nebraska act of 1854. But after the election of 1860 the presidency, the House of Representatives, and the Senate were held by the enemies of slavery. Fearing that the republicans would now act against slavery South Carolina seceded on December 20 1860 and the rest of the South followed soon.
So let`s find out more and look at the more than 40 years of history that would lead to the secession of the South and the Civil war.
Conflicts between Free states and slave states until 1820
Slavery was the Peculiar Institution of the South. Especially since the southern economy was largely dependent on cheap slave labor. Please check out my article here for more information on why Slavery was less prevalent in the North but centered in the South.
While the North did not like the concept of slavery it didn`t necessarily want to abolish slavery in the South, but it also did not want slave states to become the majority within the Union. The goal was to keep the balance between free- and slave states.
To find out the deeper problem we now have to look at the balance between slave states and free states and how different events disturbed that balance.
Since the year 1800 6 new states had joined the Union. Since 3 of these states (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama) were slave states (slavery and slave trade were legal) and 3 were free states (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois) the Union consisted of 11 slave states and 11 free states.
And that meant that there was a balance between the enemies and the supporters of slavery that kept one side from becoming dominating and overwriting the interests of the other side.
That balance was disturbed when Missouri, a slave state, wanted to join the Union.
The Missouri compromise of 1820 – keeping the balance
Until 1819 there was a balance between 11 slave states and 11 free states.
But in 1819 Missouri, a slave state requested approval to join the Union as its 23rd state. That would have destroyed the balance of 11 free states and 11 slave states and given a majority to the supporters of slavery! So the free states refused to allow Missouri to join.
After the northern representatives were able to stop the admission process of Missouri they wanted Missouri to include a clause guaranteeing the gradual emancipation of slaves into their constitution. The Senate blocked that offer.
So there was the situation that the House of Representatives blocked the admission of Missouri and Senate blocked the admission of Maine, which was a free state. Since both sides knew that that situation had to be resolved negotiations started soon. And that led to the Missouri Compromise.
The Missouri compromise of 1820 allowed Maine and Missouri to join the Union. Since one free state (Maine) and one slave state (Missouri) joined, the precious balance between slave states and free states in Congress was conserved.
But parts of the Missouri compromise would lead to major future problems.
The prospective problem within the Missouri compromise
With the Missouri compromise of 1820, the South also had to accept the condition that there would be no slavery in the rest of the Louisiana territory that had not been organized yet.
And that should prove extremely important and would lead to conflicts that would escalate in the Civil War.
Especially President Jackson, who was voted into office in 1828, and his idea of an empire of liberty resulted in an aggressive expansion into the west. It was actually during that expansion that the Indian Removal Act was created. But that is a story for another time.
Expanding into the rich lands in the west would resurface the question of slavery. Should slavery be allowed in the west? Who should decide if slavery was allowed? What happened if a slave from the south was brought into the west?
All these questions, the answers to them, and the concept of popular sovereignty will be presented in one of the following paragraphs and were major factors for the radicalization of the debate around slavery.
Texas attempts to join the Union
But for now, we will head to Texas!
The circumstances of Texas trying to join the Union
In 1836 a conflict between the Mexican government, at that point of time Texas was still a part of Mexico, and the Texan settlers emerged. The problem was that the Mexican government had designed a new constitution that outlawed slavery in all of Mexico. But Texas depended on Slavery.
So the Texans made their own constitution and declared their independence.
The US and Spain had originally organized their borders in the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819 in which the US had renounced its interest in Texas. And after the Spanish colony of Mexico got independent in 1821 Texas remained a part of the new state of Mexico.
While the US officially stayed neutral during the war between Mexico and Texas US-president Jackson still aided Texas with money, weapons, and volunteers.
After Texan troops were able to win the battle of San Jacinto in April of 1836 Texas became independent and announced its interest to join the US.
Why did Texas fail to join the Union in 1836?
When Texas wanted to join the Union in 1836 the North once more protested against a big slave state joining the US and destroying the balance between slave states and free states. It wasn`t until 1845 that Texas could join.
It was actually thanks to John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, who spread rumors of a slave power conspiracy that Texas was not allowed to join the US in 1836.
By the way. The slave power conspiracy was based on the idea that there was a big conspiracy of the slave states against the free states in the North. While the theory was absolutely unproven it inspired the southern states to create their own, even more, abstruse, conspiracy theories.
1845: Texas joins the Union
It wasn`t until 1845 that Texas could join the US. And shortly after that Mexico and the US went to war which resulted in a victory for the US.
But the US-victory over Mexico once again opened the question of if slavery should be allowed in the newly conquered territories!
As early as 1846 a proposal was made to ban slavery in the newly annexed territories. But the proposal failed because once again the Senate and the House of Representatives had opposing ideas.
It wasn`t until 1850 when California requested to join the US that the US politicians realized that they had to come up with a solution to prevent the US from breaking apart.
Because once again the problem was that California, a free state, would have broken the tie between 15 slave states and 15 free states. A solution, preferably a more permanent solution, had to be found.
And that solution was the Compromise of 1850.
The compromise of 1850: Not a solution but a postponement
The Compromise of 1850 allowed California to join the US as a free state, kept the Oregon territory free from slavery, ended the slave trade in DC, and gave the population of the potential future states of New Mexico and Utah popular sovereignty, the chance to decide on slavery. And the Fugitive Slave Act made it easier to return fugitive slaves to their masters.
All in all the Compromise of 1850 equally satisfied the different interests but did not solve the conflicts under the surface.
One of the big problems engrained within the Compromise of 1850 was the concept of popular sovereignty. And while that concept certainly sounded good it had one major weak point.
When Stephen A. Douglas and Lewis Cass had proposed popular sovereignty as a more democratic and state-based solution to the question of slavery they consciously dispended to establish how popular sovereignty should be implemented.
But before we deal with the problems that popular sovereignty caused I would like to first present the concept of popular sovereignty.
The concept of popular sovereignty
Especially the concept of popular sovereignty must be remembered.
The concept of popular sovereignty gave the inhabitants of the territory the chance to vote if their territory should join the US as a free state (Slavery and slave trade is outlawed) or as a slave state (slavery is allowed). The question of how to practically implement popular sovereignty had consciously been left open.
The concept of popular sovereignty was not invented by Douglas and Lewis. It actually dates back to John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
But in the context of the question of slavery, the concept of popular sovereignty would lead to massive problems. More on these problems later when we talk about the Kansas-Nebraska Act of May 1854.
In addition to the concept of popular sovereignty, the Fugitive slave act was also extremely important and should cause major problems in the shape of the case around the slave Dred Scott.
That case should become one of the main catalysts for the events leading up to secession.
The fugitive slave act of 1850
The Dred Scott Case happened in 1856/57 but since it is directly connected to the Fugitive Slaves Act I would like to shortly present that case here.
The Fugitive slave act stated that an escaped slave had to be returned to his master. The extension of 1850 threatened everybody who aided escaped slaves or impeded the return of an escaped slave with substantial punishment.
The case of the slave Dred Scott was directly affected by the Fugitive Slave act.
The Case of Dred Scott
The slave Dred Scott was taken by his owner on a trip to Illinois. Illinois was a free state, meaning that slavery and the slave trade were prohibited. Because of that Dred Scott was under the impression that being brought to a free state would give him his freedom.
But since his owner didn`t share that impression Dred Scott decided to sue his owner at the supreme court.
The decision of the supreme court in the case of the slave Dred Scott
But the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger B. Taney, delivered the majority vote in the case of Dred Scott vs Sandford stating that Scott as a POC was not a US-Citizen, did not have the rights of a citizen, and because of that was not able to sue anybody in front of the Supreme Court.
Apart from that Roger Taney also explained that the ownership over his slaves must not be taken from any US citizen regardless of where he is. According to him Congress also did not have the power to prohibit slavery on the territory of the US.
The head judge of the Supreme Court stating that Congress did not have the power to prohibit slavery obviously also gave the old debate around state rights a whole new dynamic.
The Consequence of the supreme courts’ decision: further tensions
Additionally, Taney’s verdict also forced citizens to choose a stance either in favor or in opposition to slavery which created further tensions.
In extension, Roger B. Taney had basically declared all political compromises that had been made since 1820 around the topic of slavery as unconstitutional.
That obviously led to a massive outrage among the opponents of slavery among which the US-justice system rapidly lost its reputation.
And that loss of reputation and the already heated political environment should further be fanned after the Kansas-Nebraska act of May 1854.
After 1850 it became increasingly difficult to keep the question of slavery out of domestic politics.
And when the first transcontinental railroad was planed in 1854 the question of if slavery should be allowed in the unorganized territory between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains resurfaced.
In theory, the Missouri compromise prohibited slavery in the unorganized territory between the Mississippi River and the rocky mountains.
But the political situation had changed and so the democrat Senator Stephen A. Douglas (from the North) proposed that two new territories, Nebraska and Kansas, should be created in which the population should be allowed to decide the question of slavery by popular vote.
That meant that the inhabitants of Kansas and Nebraska could vote if their state should become a free state or a slave state. But politicians in the North and the South quickly realized that the result of that vote could be influenced if enough settlers with the respective stance on slavery would move to these territories.
The Kansas-Nebraska act – the question of slavery becomes violent
In May of 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska act was signed. But once again the act didn`t solve the underlying problem and was pushed through against the will of the North who feared the unrestrained expansion of slave power.
The Kansas-Nebraska act of 1854 made it clear that the common ideals of the American people and the existing two-party system would not be enough to hold the different camps within country and state together.
That resulted in a new two-party system and the two political parties that until today dominate US politics.
The foundation of the republican party
In 1854 the republican party was founded. The name was consciously chosen to show the similarity with the old republicans of the Jefferson era.
The new Republican party was limited to the north and was strictly against slavery. Because of that the republican party massively distributed to the separation into political camps and the hardening of the line between these camps.
After 1854 the US-Americans had the opportunity to bring their political affiliation with a party in line with their stance on slavery. Because of that, the Democrats would soon become the melting pot for the proponents of slavery in the South while the republicans in the North took a clear anti-slavery stance.
And not only did the political situation change after the establishment of the republican party in 1854. There were also more and more signs of a growing willingness to use violence.
That willingness became apparent in Kansas.
Mass migration to Kansas – a result of popular sovereignty
After the Kansas Nebraska act of 1854 Kansas was flooded with settlers from both the North and the South.
Since it had been decided that the population of Nebraska and Kansas would get to vote on if they would want to allow slavery in their territories both the North and the South sent the kind of settlers to Kansas and Nebraska who would vote according to their beliefs in regards of slavery.
So the South sent settlers who were pro-slavery to Kansas and the North would send settlers who would vote against slavery.
And while the first vote brought a large majority for the proponents of slavery the vote was manipulated in the most obvious way possible.
As a result, the enemies of slavery held their own election, constituted their own parliament, and put their own government into place. That obviously met the resistance of the proponents of slavery and resulted in fights that could only be ended by the use of federal troops in 1856.
In the following years, the tensions between the proponents and enemies of slavery rose especially since president James Buchanan of the democrat party was not only taking the side of the proponents of slavery in Kansas but also maintained his strategy of acquiring new slave states in the Caribbean and Central America.
So it became pretty clear that the government represented the politics of the southern slave states. And that strengthened the position of the relatively new republican party. Especially since the republican party was able to also attract voters who didn`t care about slavery.
In the year 1858, the two-party system of Democrats and Republicans was finalized.
And in 1858 for the first time, the party system of the US showed the contrast between North and South since the Democrats were centered in the South and the Republicans were centered in the North! Suddenly the two-party system of the US was no longer a stabilizing but a separating element!
It was in that kind of heated environment that the Lincoln-Douglas debates were held. The 7 debates would almost exclusively center around the issue of slavery and Abraham Lincoln would paint the picture of the house divided.
Abraham Lincoln: „a house divided“
According to Lincoln, the US could not be half free states and half slave states. But that didn`t mean that Lincoln had the goal of abolishing slavery.
During the Lincoln Douglas debates of 1858, Lincoln made it clear that while he saw slavery as an ethical malignancy he did not want the social or political equality between Whites and POCs but wanted to stop slavery from further spreading. That was seen as a sign of moderation.
And although Lincoln lost the election to Douglas he gained notoriety and popularity. And that came in handy for the presidential election in the fall of 1860.
During the presidential election of 1860, Lincoln would once again face Douglas. But since the democratic party had not been able to agree on one candidate so both Stephan A. Douglas and senator John C. Breckinridge ran for office.
In the presidential election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln was able to get 40% of the votes and 180 of the presidential electors even though he was banned from running in 10 southern states.
Abraham Lincolns` success was purely based on the Northern and Western states!
Why did the South secede?
After the election of 1860, the political landscape within the US was very different in comparison to the years prior.
Not only Abraham Lincoln had won. During the simultaneous election, the Republicans were able to gain the majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. So after the elections of 1860, the enemies of slavery were in charge.
And not only did the enemies of slavery control both the house of representatives and the senate. Now the US also had a president who, contrary to his slavery-friendly predecessor, was known for his opposition to slavery and the division into free states and slave states.
And that was too much for the hardliners within the southern states.
Although Abraham Lincoln had promised to only stop the spread of slavery and not to try to abolish slavery as a whole the fear that Lincoln would act against slavery was still deeply engraved in the South.
For more information on why Slavery was so existential for the southern economy I would like to recommend you my article here.
December 20, 1860: The process of secession starts
Because of that fear, the process of secession started immediately after the election.
The first state to secede was South Carolina, a state were around 58% of the population were slaves. Please check out my article here for more information on the percentage of slave-owning families in the south and the general numbers of slaves.
On December 20th, 1860 South Carolina declared itself independent. And until the first of February 1861 the states of Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas followed. These seven states founded the Confederate States of America and gave themself a new constitution.
After the war had started 4 of the 8 indecisive border states decided to join the Confederacy while the other 4 joined the Union. But that is a story for another time.
The states that seceded were…
The seceding states (including date of secession)
- South Carolina: December 20th, 1860
- Mississippi: January 9th, 1861
- Florida: January 10th, 1861
- Alabama: January 11th, 1861
- Georgia: January 19th, 1861
- Louisiana: January, 26th 1861
- February 4th, 1861: The Confederate States of America are founded in Montgomery, Alabama
- Texas: March 2nd, 1861
- Virginia: April 17th, 1861, confirmed on May 23, 1861, by a referendum
- Arkansas: May 6th, 1861
- North Carolina: May 20th, 1861
- Tennessee: June 8th, 1861
- Both Missouri and Kentucky were also claimed by the Confederacy (because of that the Confederate flag had 13 stars) but regiments from these states fought on both sides and the political situation was never solved during the war
What followed was the American Civil War. A war that would be known as the first modern war and a war that would leave deep scars. But that is a story for another time.
More on the Civil War and why the North immediately tried to invade the South in my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
W. L. Barney (Hrsg.): A Companion to 19th-Century America, Malden, Mass./Oxford 2001.
W. P. Adams: Die USA vor 1900 (OGG,28), München 2009.