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Confronting Civil War Revisionism: Why The South Went To War
By David Barton
WallBuilders not only seeks to present an accurate view of American history but through our strong reliance on primary source documents also seeks to expose and rebut instances of revisionism. The dictionary defines revisionism as advocating “the revision of an accepted, usually long-standing view, theory, or doctrine; especially a revision of historical events and movements.” Many special interest groups over the past sixty years have urged upon the public a revisionist view of history in a manipulative attempt to justify their particular agenda.
For example, those who rely on activist courts to advance an agenda they are unable to pass through the normal political process frequently defend their misuse of the courts by asserting three historically unfounded doctrines: the judiciary is to protect the minority from the majority; the judiciary’s primary purpose is to review and correct the acts of Congress and the presidency; and the judiciary is best equipped to determine and meet the needs of an ever-changing society. These three errant doctrines are disproved by scores of original writings from the Founding Era, especially in The Federalist Papers. (See also our book, Restraining Judicial Activism.)
Similarly, those who aggressively pursue a secular public arena also invoke a revisionist view of history, frequently arguing that: the Founding Fathers were atheists, agnostics, and deists; and the Founders wrote into the Constitution a strict separation of church and state that requires the exclusion of religious influences and expressions from the public arena. These assertions are also easily rebuttable through hundreds of the Founders’ own writings and public acts and laws. (See also our book, Original Intent.)
Another prominent example of modern historical revisionism involves an inaccurate view of the Civil War, asserting that: the secession of the southern states at the start of the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery; and slavery was not a significant issue in the conflict. (Irrefutable Confederate documents disproving this assertion will be presented shortly.)
One example of this type of Civil War revisionism can be found in a plaque displayed in the Texas State Capitol, declaring:
“Because we desire to perpetuate, in love and honor, the heroic deeds of those who enlisted in the Confederate Army and upheld its flag through four years of war, we, the children of the South, have united together in an organization called “Children of the Confederacy,” in which our strength, enthusiasm, and love of justice can exert its influence. We therefore pledge ourselves to preserve pure ideals; to honor our veterans; to study and teach the truths of history (one of the most important of which is that the war between the states was not a rebellion nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery), and to always act in a manner that will reflect honor upon our noble and patriotic ancestors.”
Other sources make this same false claim, instead blaming the war on what they claim was the federal government’s incessant lust for power and what they consider its unconstitutional intrusiveness into what they believe to be solely states’ affairs. Regrettably, the acceptance of this revisionist view of the Civil War is actually gaining strength among many Americans.
To disprove their errant assertion, one need proceed no further than just three Confederate documentary sources: the secession documents of the southern states setting forth their reasons for leaving the Union and forming the Confederacy; the famous speech of Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens delivered just after the formal creation of the Confederacy, identifying its philosophical foundations; and the Confederacy’s own constitution. All three Confederate sources unequivocally prove that the South’s desire to sustain slavery was a significant reason for the formation of the Confederacy.
1. Southern Secession Documents
From December 1860 through August 1861, the southern states met in conventions to decide whether to secede from the Union; on December 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first state to do so. In its secession document, South Carolina boldly proclaimed to the world why it left the Union. Note its repeated emphasis on preserving slavery:
“[A]n increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding states to the institution of slavery has led to a disregard of their obligations. . . . [T]hey have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery. . . . They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes [through the Underground Railroad]; and those who remain have been incited by emissaries, books, and pictures to servile insurrection. . . . 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 [Abraham Lincoln] 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 “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. . . . The slaveholding states will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the federal government will have become their enemy . . .”
South Carolina’s stated reasons for secession irrefutably affirm that the preservation of slavery was a major cause.
On January 9, 1861, Mississippi became the second state to secede. In its secession document, it set forth the reasons it left the Union:
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. . . . [A] blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin. That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution [slavery], a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove. The hostility to this institution commenced before the adoption of the Constitution and was manifested in the well-known Ordinance of 1787. † . . . It has grown until it denies the right of property in slaves and refuses protection to that right on the high seas [i.e., banning the slave trade], in the territories, and wherever the government of the United States had jurisdiction. It refuses the admission of new slave states into the Union and seeks to extinguish it [slavery] by confining it within its present limits, denying the power of expansion. . . . It advocates Negro equality, socially and politically. . . . It has made combinations and formed associations to carry out its schemes of emancipation in the states and wherever else slavery exists. . . . We must either submit to degradation and to the loss of property [i.e., slaves] worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union framed by our fathers to secure this as well as every other species of property.”
Undeniably, the preservation of slavery was a primary factor in Mississippi’s decision to help break up the Union.
On January 10, 1861, Florida became the third state to secede. Two days earlier, it framed its preliminary resolutions setting forth its reasons for secession, in which it acknowledged:
“All hope of preserving the Union upon terms consistent with the safety and honor of the Slaveholding States has been finally dissipated by the recent indications of the strength of the anti-slavery sentiment in the Free States.”
Florida not only seceded because of the growth of “the antislavery sentiment” in the northern states but it even openly described itself as a member of “the slaveholding states.”
On January 11, 1861, Alabama became the fourth state to secede. Like South Carolina (the first to secede), Alabama’s secession document also blamed the 1860 Republican victory as a reason for its secession, condemning. . .
“. . . the election of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin to the offices of president and vice-president of the United States of America by a sectional party [the Republicans], avowedly hostile to the domestic institutions [slavery] and to the peace and security of the people of the State of Alabama . . .”
Since several of the secession documents directly blamed the Republican election victory of 1860 as a reason for secession, what caused that specific election to become such a focus?
It was in that 1860 election that Republicans (a party formed only six years earlier) had for the first time became the majority party, winning control of the presidency, the House, and the Senate. The Republican platforms leading up to that election had strongly articulated an unequivocal opposition to slavery, calling for its elimination. They had also specifically condemned the 1857 Dred Scott ruling 7 in which the Supreme Court had declared not only that blacks were property and not persons but also that Congress could not interfere with or prohibit slavery in any territory – a direct repudiation of the Northwest Ordinance. Republicans strenuously disagreed with that ruling, and in their platform took an opposite position, proclaiming:
“We deny the authority of Congress, of a territorial legislation, of any individual or association of individuals, to give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United States.”
Other planks throughout Republican platforms articulated both their firm opposition to slavery and their willingness to use congressional powers to combat its growth. This was seen as a direct threat by southern Democrats; and Democrat platforms (and every southern state at that time was a solidly Democrat state) announced their support for the Dred Scott decision and the continuation of slavery, and also condemned all antislavery and abolition efforts.
Therefore, when the antislavery Republicans gained control of the presidency and the Congress in 1860, the southern slave-holding Democrat states saw the proverbial “handwriting on the wall” and found the prospect to be completely unacceptable (For more information, see our book Setting the Record Straight).
Alabama, like the other southern states, viewed the 1860 election and the possibility of the end of slavery as sufficient grounds for secession. It therefore announced:
“It is the desire and purpose of the people of Alabama to meet the slaveholding states of the South, who may approve such purpose, in order to frame a provisional as well as permanent government [the Confederacy] . . .”
Alabama, like the three states before it that had already seceded, made clear that its desire to preserve slavery was a major factor in its secession.
On January 19, 1861, Georgia became the fifth state to secede, announcing:
“For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slaveholding confederate states with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have . . . persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property [i.e., slaves]. . . . A brief history of the rise, progress, and policy of antislavery and the political organization into whose hands the administration of the federal government [i.e., the Republican Party] has been committed will fully justify the pronounced verdict of the people of Georgia. The party of Lincoln, ¥ called the Republican Party under its present name and organization, is of recent origin. It is admitted to be an antislavery party. . . . – antislavery is its mission and its purpose. . . . That reason was her [the Republican Party’s] fixed purpose to limit, restrain, and finally abolish slavery in the states where it exists. The South, with great unanimity, declared her purpose to resist the principle of prohibition [abolition] to the last extremity. . . . The prohibition of slavery in the territories, hostility to it everywhere, the equality of the black and white races, disregard of all constitutional guarantees in its favor, were boldly proclaimed by its [Republican] leaders and applauded by its followers. . . . The prohibition of slavery in the territories is the cardinal principle of this organization [the Republican Party] . . . . For twenty years past, the abolitionists and their allies in the northern states have been engaged in constant efforts to subvert our institutions [i.e., slavery] and to excite insurrection and servile war among us.”
Unquestionably, Georgia seceded in order to sustain the institution of slavery.
On January 26, 1861, Louisiana became the sixth state to secede. Only days later, Texas was scheduled to hold its secession convention. In order to urge Texas to secede, Louisiana sent Commissioner George Williamson to speak to the Texas convention, where Williamson told the convention:
“Louisiana looks to the formation of a Southern Confederacy to preserve the blessings of African slavery. . . . As her [Texas’] neighbor and sister state, she [Louisiana] desires the hearty co-operation of Texas in the formation of a Southern Confederacy. . . . Louisiana and Texas have the same language, laws, and institutions. . . . and they are both so deeply interested in African slavery that it may be said to be absolutely necessary to their existence and is the keystone to the arch of their prosperity. . . . The people of Louisiana would consider it a most fatal blow to African slavery if Texas either did not secede or, having seceded, should not join her destinies to theirs in a Southern Confederacy. . . . As a separate republic, Louisiana remembers too well the whisperings of European diplomacy for the abolition of slavery in the times of annexation not to be apprehensive of bolder demonstrations from the same quarter and the North in this country. § The people of the slaveholding states are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery. The isolation of any one of them from the others would make her a theater for abolition emissaries from the North and from Europe. Her existence would be one of constant peril to herself and of imminent danger to other neighboring slave-holding communities. . . . and taking it as the basis of our new government we hope to form a slave-holding confederacy . . . .”
Clearly, Louisiana had seceded over the issue of slavery and urged Texas to do the same. This encouragement turned out to be unnecessary, however; for even before Commissioner Williamson had arrived from Louisiana, on February 1, 1861, Texas had become the seventh state to secede. In its secession document, Texas announced:
“[Texas] was received as a commonwealth, holding, maintaining, and protecting the institution known as Negro slavery – the servitude of the African to the white race within [Texas] – a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slaveholding states of the Confederacy. . . . The controlling majority [i.e., Republicans] of the federal government . . . has so administered the same . . . for the avowed purpose of acquiring sufficient power in the common government to use it as a means of destroying the institutions [i.e., slavery] of Texas and her sister slaveholding states. . . . In all the non-slave-holding states . . . the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party [i.e., the Republican Party] . . . based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these southern states and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men irrespective of race or color – a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of divine law. They demand the abolition of Negro slavery throughout the Confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and Negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us so long as a Negro slave remains in these states. . . . By the secession of six of the slave-holding states, and the certainty that others will speedily do likewise, Texas has no alternative but to remain in an isolated connection with the North or unite her destinies with the South.”
Texas therefore chose to “unite her destinies with the South,” following her sister “slave-holding states” in secession. With seven states having now seceded, on March 11, 1861 (only eight days after Lincoln was inaugurated President), a constitution was formed for the new confederacy of slave-holding states. The secession of southern states, however, was not yet finished.
On April 17, 1861, Virginia became the eighth state to secede. It, too, acknowledged that the oppression of the “southern slave-holding states” – among which it numbered itself – had motivated its decision, acknowledging:
“[T]he federal government, having perverted said powers not only to the injury of the people of Virginia but to the oppression of the southern slave-holding states, . . .”
Eventually, eleven states seceded; and secession documents undeniably affirm that slavery was a major reason for their secession. Furthermore, the fact that the Confederacy regularly described itself as a confederacy of “southern slave-holding states” further confirms that sustaining slavery was indeed a primary cause of the Civil War.
2. Declaration of Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens
On February 9, 1861, following the secession of the seventh southern state (Texas), Jefferson Davis (a Democrat U. S. Senator from Mississippi) was elected president of the new Confederate States of America, and Alexander Stephens (a Democrat U. S. Representative from Georgia) as their new vice-president. The southern Democrats in the U.S. Congress also resigned their seats to join the new Confederacy 18 (no Republican left the Union, for there were no Republican Members of Congress from the South).
Just weeks later on March 21, 1861 (and just three weeks before the outbreak of military hostilities with the South’s attack against Fort Sumter), the new Vice-president, Alexander Stephens, delivered a major policy speech for the new nation: “African Slavery: The Corner-Stone of the Southern Confederacy.” In that speech, Stephens first correctly acknowledged that the Founding Fathers – even those from the South – had never intended for slavery to remain in America:
“The prevailing ideas entertained by him [Thomas Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature – that it was wrong in principle – socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent [temporary] and pass away.”
So what did Vice-president Stephens and the new Confederate nation think about these antislavery ideas of the Founding Fathers?
“Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. . . . and the idea of a government built upon it. . . . Our new government [the Confederate States of America] is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid – its cornerstone rests – upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man. That slavery – subordination to the superior [white] race – is his natural and moral condition. This – our new [Confederate] government – is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Notice that by the title he assigned his own speech, Vice-president Stephens affirmed that slavery was not just a peripheral issue but that it was the cornerstone of the Confederacy; and the content of his speech only reaffirmed what he had initially declared in its title.
3. Confederate Constitution
On March 11, 1861, the constitution of the Confederate States of America was adopted. Given the strong support of the individual confederate states for slavery, it is not surprising that the Confederate constitution contained a number of clauses not only protecting but also making it illegal to end slavery. For example:
ARTICLE I, Section 6, No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in Negro slaves shall be passed.
ARTICLE IV, Section 2, The citizens of each state . . . shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any state of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired.
ARTICLE IV, Section 2, No slave or other person held to service or labor in any state or territory of the Confederate States under the laws thereof, escaping or lawfully carried into another, shall . . . be discharged from such service or labor but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such slave belongs.
If slavery was not an issue, then why was its preservation so aggressively safeguarded throughout the Confederate constitution?
As noted earlier, there are numerous official documents – official Confederate documents – affirming that slavery was a primary issue that drove the secession movement and was indeed central in the rebellion. Those who would assert otherwise are not only ignoring but even rewriting history. They either have not read the original documents of the Confederacy and the public policy positions of its elected leaders, or else they have chosen to ignore the significant body of authoritative evidence disproving their errant claim. Therefore it is blatant and unmitigated revisionism at its worst to assert – as do Confederate apologists – that “one of the most important” of the “truths of history” is “that the war between the states was not a rebellion nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.”