Confederate Declarations of Independence: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery”


This poster (called a “broadside”), based on an article in the Charleston Mercury newspaper, announces that South Carolina has “dissolved” its connection to the United States
Image Source: The Rail Splitter.com

In 1776, so-called “Patriots” (some might call them rebels) in thirteen British American colonies declared themselves politically independent from Great Britain. The colonies, which now called themselves independent states, believed that “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” Thus, on July 4, 1776, they issued the Declaration of Independence, which said that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive” of the “ends” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

The declaration, issued by what the colonists called the United States of America, has become iconic both here in the US and abroad, for its language and values, and for the example it set for so many other nations that sought separation from (what they claimed were) tyrannical and despotic governments.

After Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, seven slaveholding states — the so-called Deep South or Cotton Seven states — declared that they were “dissolving the Union.” They “seceded” from the USA to form the Confederate States of America (CSA). Eventually, circumstances led the USA and CSA to go to war, after which four other slave states joined the the fledgling Confederacy. That war between the USA and CSA would last more than four bloody years.

The seceding states, desiring to uphold the declarative tradition of the American colonists, issued their own declarations of independence, which many refer to today as secession declarations. These declarations offer valuable insight into why the breakaway states sought to form a separate nation.

A review of the secession declarations  from the original seceding states discovers a common theme: they dissolved the Union over concerns that the incoming Lincoln administration was a sectional party (that is, a party that was partial to people in the Northern free states) which threatened the institution of slavery, racial supremacy, and the very future of white civilization in the South.

The Mississippi secession declaration says outright that “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.” South Carolina says that the incoming Lincoln administration seeks to “(wage) war…against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.” Texas makes the serious claim that the free states “have refused to vote appropriations for protecting Texas against ruthless savages (Indians), for the sole reason that she is a slave-holding State.” Georgia says “The party of Lincoln, called the Republican party… is admitted to be an anti-slavery party… their avowed purpose is to subvert our society and subject us not only to the loss of our (slave) property but the destruction of ourselves, our wives, and our children, and the desolation of our homes, our altars, and our firesides.”

The Declaration of Independence says that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The state of Texas asserted an important clarification: “We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy (i.e., United States) itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable… in this free government *all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights* [emphasis in the original].”

Their statements, in today’s thinking, seem paradoxical: how could people at once say that they value freedom and independence, while simultaneously claiming the necessity of keeping other humans in bondage? Perhaps the following excerpts from the secession declarations can offer some answers. The full text of the declarations can be found here and here. I add more comments further below.

This is from the state of Mississippi: A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union. (Adopted around January 9, 1861) Continue reading

Why did South Carolina Secede from the Union? In Their Own Words: to Protect Their States Rights to Maintain Slavery.

One of the more controversial issues concerning the Civil War is, what was the “cause” of Confederate secession? Why did the slaveholding states feel the need to reject the election of president Abraham Lincoln, and form a separate Confederate nation?

Many say that the central issue of secession was slavery. Others say the central issue was the desire to protect their states rights.

Myself, I don’t think those are mutually exclusive statements. I believe that Confederate secession was about states rights – that is, the states’ rights to maintain slavery.

But don’t take my word for it. Let’s let the Southerners tell their own tale.

South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union. On December 24, 1860, the state issued its Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union. This document is South Carolina’s declaration of independence from the Union.

The following text is an excerpt from the document, and a very large excerpt at that. For emphasis, I have bolded the word slave, or other references to slavery, such as labor, which refers to slave labor; and persons. In some cases, I’ve added a parenthetical note, with the abbreviation Ed. (for Editor), to explain a comment which might not be immediately understood by the reader. I make some comments on the text further below.

I think it’s quite clear when you read this: South Carolina politicians believed that the institution of slavery was in peril, and they seceded as a way to protect that institution. Here, in their own words, is South Carolina’s reason for leaving the Union:
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Colored Troops enter Charleston, SC; “I’s waited for ye, and prayed for ye, long time… an ye has done come at last”

US Colored Troops enter Charleston
“Marching on!”–The Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Colored Regiment singing John Brown’s March in the streets of Charleston, February 21, 1865
Photo Source: Drawing from Harper’s Weekly, March 1865; image is at the Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-105560 (w film copy neg.) LC-USZ62-117999 (w film copy neg.)

The Record of the Service of the Fifty-fifth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry – a book about the history of this majority black regiment during the Civil War – tells of an event that was miraculous for the times. It is hard for us, today, to realize how sublime and surreal it was that on February 21, 1865, African American soldiers entered the city of Charleston, South Carolina, liberating the enslaved people there from bondage. It was an event that was unthinkable just several years earlier. But 1865 was the Year of the Unthinkable – and for the enslaved people of Charleston, the Year of Jubilee. And freedom came with the face of black men in blue suits.

For northerners, South Carolina was considered the Cradle of the Confederacy. It was, after all, the first state to secede from the Union; ten other states would follow her lead and combine to form the Confederate States of America. The shooting war between the Union and Confederacy started on April 12, 1861, when Fort Sumter – a United States military fort that protected the entrance to Charleston harbor – was attacked by Confederate forces. The fort surrendered to the Confederates after two days of artillery shelling. Four years of fighting followed; anywhere from 620,000 to 750,000 men died, and that doesn’t include those who were injured or  missing in action. The American Civil War was an American bloodbath.

But African Americans saw South Carolina in a different negative light. At the start of the war, South Carolina was the blackest state in the Union: 57% of its residents were slaves, and another 1.4% were free blacks. Working conditions throughout the state could be harsh, especially in the rice fields along the Atlantic coast. Although the coastal town of Charleston was something of an outlier in this overwhelmingly rural state: it was an urban enclave with a white majority (in 1860, Charleston had a population of 23,000 whites, 14,000 slaves, and 3,200 free blacks). As the state’s major trading center, it was bustling with economic activity, including slave trading businesses that engaged in the sale of property in human beings. This place of white wealth was the site of many black broken hearts.

And if it had been South Carolina’s choice, it would remain that way. In its 1860 secession declaration, the state asserted that “we affirm that these ends for which (the United States) 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 assume 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 societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign 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.” A new, Confederate nation would remove these threats to their system of bondage, but the war with the Union would have to be won first. A loss to the Union might make the state’s worst nightmares come true.

Over the course of the war, the Union made attempts to capture Charleston and the military forts around it. Most famously, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry regiment – a majority black regiment – was repulsed in its attack on Fort Wagner in July 1863. The unit suffered heavy casualties. Although defeated, their spirited attack and sacrifice was recognized and celebrated throughout the northern states. Many years later, in 1989, the  54th Massachusetts became the focus of a movie named Glory.

But the Union would finally have its day. In January 1865, Union forces led by General William Sherman entered South Carolina from Georgia, and the Confederates could not give them much opposition. In February 1865, Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard ordered that Charleston be evacuated, although many residents remained thereafter. On February 15, the mayor of Charleston surrendered the city to Union General Alexander Schimmelfennig. This was followed by a procession of nearby Union troops into the city, which was headed by regiments of black troops.

The 55th Massachusetts Infantry and 21st United States Colored Infantry regiments led the way. The 21st USCI, formerly known as the 3rd and 4th Regiments of the South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (African Descent), included former slaves from the South Caroline Low Country, not too far away. The significance and symbolism of their actions – that they were black men who were freeing black people from slavery – was neither lost on them, nor on the enslaved people they liberated. Jubilee was indeed at hand.

The Record of the Service of the Fifty-fifth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which charts the history of the regiment, recounted the arrival of black troops into Charleston. It was an event, they said, that would live in memory forever:

…after a short delay to await the return of foraging parties, the line of march was resumed for (the town of) Mount Pleasant, opposite Charleston… the Fifty-fifth was the first body of troops to enter the town after its evacuation. Words would fail to describe the scene which those who witnessed it will never forget, — the welcome given to a regiment of colored troops by their people redeemed from slavery, As shouts, prayers, and blessings resounded on every side, all felt that the hardships and dangers of the siege were fully repaid. The few white inhabitants left in the town were either alarmed or indignant, and generally remained in their houses; but the colored people turned out en masse. Assiduously had they been taught to regard the ” Yanks ” as their enemies ; carefully had every channel of information been closed against them : but all to no purpose.

“Bress de Lord,” said an old, gray-haired woman, with streaming eyes, and hands clasped and raised toward heaven, “bress de Lord, I’s waited for ye, and prayed for ye, long time, and I knowed you’d come, an ye has done come at last;” and she expressed the feelings of all…

Daylight was fading when the line was formed to march through the city to a camping ground on Charleston Neck. Before the march commenced, three rousing cheers were given by the men of the Fifty-fifth, and given with a will. They were then told that the only restriction placed on them in passing through the city, would be to keep in the ranks, and that they might shout and sing as they chose.

Few people were on the wharf when the troops landed, or in the street when the line was formed; but the streets, on the route through the city, were crowded with the colored population. Cheers, blessings, prayers, and songs were heard on every side. Men and women crowded to shake hands with men and officers, Many of them talked earnestly and understandingly of the past and present. The white population remained within their houses, but curiosity led even them to peep through the blinds at the ‘black Yankees.”

On through the streets of the rebel city passed the column, on through the chief seat of that slave power, tottering to its fall. Its walls rung to the chorus of manly voices singing “John Brown,” ” Babylon is falling,” and the “Battle-Cry of Freedom”; while, at intervals, the national airs, long unheard there, were played by the regimental band. The glory and the triumph of this hour may be imagined, but can never be described. It was one of those occasions which happen but once in a lifetime, to be lived over in memory for ever.

“If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong”: Confederate Howell Cobb on black enlistment

Howell_Cobb-crop
Howell Cobb, southern politician and brigadier general in the Confederate States of America army: “The day you make soldiers of (slaves) is the beginning of the end of the revolution.”
Source: Image by Matthew Brady; from the Library of Congress, reproduction numbers LC-USZ62-110081, LC-USZ62-28297

By January 1865, “gloom and despondency rule(d) the hour,” according to Howell Cobb, an army general of the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy was losing the American Civil War. Recent Union military successes and a shortage of manpower forced Confederates to seek ways to bolster their forces and stave off the destruction of their nation.

One potential source of soldiers was the enslaved population. At the start of the war, some 3,500,000 slaves resided in the Confederate States; they amounted to 38% of the Confederacy’s population. As a matter of law, regulation, and custom, slaves could not enlist in the Confederate army. Slave enlistment would mean legal, philosophical, and cultural change that was both profound and enormous. The idea became the subject of heated debate throughout the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee, the top general of the Confederate army, and arguably the most popular military or governmental figure in the Confederacy, endorsed using slaves as soldiers in January 1865.

One of the most stinging critiques of black enlistment came from Howell Cobb. Prior to the Civil War, Cobb served in the US Congress and was the Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1849 to 1851. He was also the 40th Governor of Georgia (1851–1853) and Secretary of Treasury under President James Buchanan (1857–1860). After Lincoln’s election, he championed the slave states’ secession from the Union. After the shooting war began in April 1861 at Fort Sumter, Cobb joined the Confederate army. He became a brigadier general in early 1862.

In January 1865, Cobb wrote a letter to Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon and offered his views on the use of slaves as soldiers. Cobb did not merely criticize the idea; he condemned it. Using slaves as soldiers was “the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began,” he claimed. And he lamented that Robert E. Lee – who was Cobb’s military commander – was being used to promote this policy.

As Alexander Stephens, a fellow Georgian and Vice President of the Confederacy put it in March 1861, the cornerstone of their new nation rested “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Black enlistment fundamentally challenged that belief, and by extension, challenged the reason for the Confederacy’s very existence. As Cobb saw it, “If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong… The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution.”

But slaves would not make good soldiers, he said; “as a class (slaves) are wanting in every qualification of a soldier.” He warned that “you can’t keep white and black troops together, and you can’t trust negroes by themselves.”

Howell was also fearful that slave enlistment would drive off the Confederacy’s white soldiers. And not just because whites would not fight alongside black troops; he was afraid that white troops would use the influx of black soldiers as an excuse to “retire” from the army and relieve themselves of the duties and dangers of wartime service.

Cobb went on to say that, if given a choice, he would rather take the extreme measure of freeing the slaves to get the support of England and France, than resort to black enlistment. (Many believed that anti-slavery sentiment in England and France prevented them from recognizing the Confederacy as an independent nation.) Although one wonders if that statement was merely a rhetorical flourish; it’s hard to imagine Cobb stomaching either black emancipation or black enlistment.

Cobb’s hope was to find other means to recruit white men into the army. Whatever those means were, they either weren’t implemented or weren’t enough: in March of 1865 the Confederate government passed a law enabling slave enlistment. But it was too little too late: General Robert E. Lee surrendered in Virginia in April 1865, and that began the end of the Confederacy. Continue reading

‘Our Slaves Were Led Into Temptation': Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ Lost Cause View of Black Emancipation and Enlistment

Jefferson_Davis_-_1875
Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis, after the Civil War: Slaves were “decoyed with the magic word of ‘freedom.’”
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Jefferson Davis was the first and only President of the Confederate States of America. In 1881, two decades after the Civil War began, his two volume book The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government was published. Ostensibly the book is a history of the Confederate States. But at its core, the book is a legal, political, and moral critique – perhaps condemnation is not too strong a word – of the various policies and actions taken by the Union in challenging secession, prosecuting the Civil War, and ending slavery.

Davis’ book doesn’t say much about the Civil War experiences of African Americans who resided in the Confederacy, even though they were almost 40% of the Confederate States’ population. Davis does have a lot to say about the Union’s emancipation and black enlistment policies, however. Among other things, Davis says that those acts were politically motivated by abolitionists; counter to international mores and constitutional law; and a clear attempt to destroy southern society by undermining its foundational institution, African slavery.

Within that context, Davis makes a number of comments about those held in bondage. His statements echo a key position of so-called Lost Cause advocates of the Confederacy: that enslaved African Americans’ “servile instincts rendered them contented with their lot… Their strong local and personal attachment secured faithful service to those to whom their service or labor was due.” In other words, black people loved being slaves.

But if these enslaved persons were so loyal and so happy with their lot, why did so many of them flee their masters, and why did so many become soldiers and sailors for the Union military? Davis blames it on the Union, which was a “tempter” “like the serpent in Eden” that “decoyed (slaves) with the magic word of ‘freedom.'”

Davis spells it out in Chapter XXVI of his book:

In his message to Congress … on December 8, 1863, President  (Abraham Lincoln) thus boasts of his proclamation:

“(In January 1863) the final proclamation came, including the announcement that colored men of suitable condition would be received into the war service. The policy of emancipation and of employing black soldiers gave to the future a new aspect, about which hope and fear and doubt contended in uncertain conflict.

“According to our political system, as a matter of civil administration, the General Government had no lawful power to effect emancipation in any State, and for a long time it had been hoped that the rebellion could be suppressed without resorting to it as a military measure. . . .

“Of those who were slaves at the beginning of the rebellion, full one hundred thousand are now in the United States military service, about one half of which number actually bear arms in the ranks, thus giving the double advantage of taking so much labor from the insurgent cause, and supplying the places which otherwise must be filled with so many white men. So far as tested, it is difficult to say they are not as good soldiers as any.”

Let the reader pause for a moment and look calmly at the facts presented in this statement. The forefathers of these negro soldiers were gathered from the torrid plains and malarial swamps of inhospitable Africa. Generally they were born the slaves of barbarian masters, untaught in all the useful arts and occupations, reared in heathen darkness, and, sold by heathen masters, they were transferred to shores enlightened by the rays of Christianity.

There, put to servitude, they were trained in the gentle arts of peace and order and civilization; they increased from a few unprofitable savages to millions of efficient Christian laborers. Their servile instincts rendered them contented with their lot, and their patient toil blessed the land of their abode with unmeasured riches. Their strong local and personal attachment secured faithful service to those to whom their service or labor was due. A strong mutual affection was the natural result of this life-long relation, a feeling best if not only understood by those who have grown from childhood under its influence.

Never was there happier dependence of labor and capital on each other. Continue reading

A different view of secession


Front of a Civil War era envelope, titled “Secession.” Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-11328

Ah, you can’t beat that old time humor. This is a Civil War era envelope that I saw in the Library of Congress (LOC) online archives. This is from the LOC description of the item:

Date Created/Published:[between 1861 and 1865]
Medium: 1 print : wood engraving on envelope ; image and text 5 x 4.5 cm, on envelope 8 x 14 cm.
Summary: Picture shows an African American boy and mother with a bundle running.
Notes: Title from item.
Gladstone’s inventory code and notes: Envelope 20; illustration of black mother and child; mother has animal-like head.

The characters in the image are, to say the least, unflatteringly depicted as stereotypical caricatures. Of course we of today find this outrageously offensive. But this is how they rolled back in the day. Note that, the face of the child in this picture is not shown; maybe it’s just as well.

But I suggest that observers not get too hung-up about the picture’s visual vulgarity. This image wasn’t so much about mocking African Americans. It was about satire and irony at the expense of slaveholders and the Confederacy, and secondarily, a statement concerning the desire of the enslaved to be free. Either way, it sends the message that the goal of southern independence had a whole ‘nother meaning for bondsmen and bondswomen. That it is a gendered and family depiction of the contrabands (a term used in the North to describe runaway slaves) adds to its poignancy.

There were tens of thousands of enslaved people who liberated themselves during the war, and their story is not well known or understood in American memory. But as this tiny bit of humor indicates, it was on the minds of wartime Americans. As we commemorate and consider this 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and Emancipation, it’s something that should be on our minds as well. But I’m not sure if people have focused on this much as we reach the halfway point of the Sesquicentennial.

Perhaps it’s because the process of emancipation was not always a pretty sight. But we can’t look away at truth and insight, simply because it’s ugly.

Confederate President and Vice-President: Secession was Due to Slavery


Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis and Vice-President Alexander Stephens: Founding Fathers for a nation that “rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.”

What are children being taught about the causes of the Civil War? I ask because in a recent Pew Research Center poll, 48% of respondents said that the war “was mainly about states’ rights,” while 38% said it “was mainly about slavery.”

I have issues with the way the question concerning the causes of the war was worded, but even so, it is perplexing that almost 50% of those polled thought that states’ rights was the cause of the war.

That runs counter to the thinking of modern historians. Consider the comments of historian Elizabeth Varon, author of the book Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859, in a lecture two years ago: “there’s emerged in recent years a strong consensus, which scholars call the fundamentalist school, that slavery was the root fundamental cause of the civil war and that the political antagonisms between the North and South flowed from the fact that the North was a free labor society while the South was a slave labor society which remained committed to slavery and indeed to extending its domain.”

That view – that slavery was the “root cause” of the war – is not shared by many folks today, and I wonder why there is a disconnect between what scholars understand and what non-scholars understand. It makes me wonder: what are children being taught about the war in school? And specifically, what are they being taught about the views of the Confederate Founding Fathers, such as Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Vice-President Alexander Stephens?

Just before Davis became President of the Confederate States, he was a United States senator for the state of Mississippi. When Mississippi seceded, it issued A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union. This document was basically Mississippi’s declaration of independence from the United States government. This is how the declaration begins:

In the momentous step which our State [Mississippi] has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and 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.

Following that declaration, Davis made a farewell speech to the Senate on January 21, 1861, to announce that he was leaving the Congress to join with his disunionist state, and to give some reasons for the state’s actions:

..if I had not believed there was justifiable cause; if I had thought that Mississippi was acting without sufficient provocation, or without an existing necessity, I should still… because of my allegiance to the State… have been bound by her action. I, however, may be permitted to say that I do think she has justifiable cause, and I approve of her act.

I conferred with her people before that act was taken, counseled them then that if the state of things which they apprehended should exist when the convention met, they should take the action which they have now adopted…

It has been a conviction of pressing necessity, it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us, which has brought Mississippi into her present decision. She has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions [i.e., slavery]; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races.

On March 21, 1861, Confederate States Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens, gave what is now called the “Cornerstone Speech” which, among other things, talked about the reasons for secession:

But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.
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