On Going Viral: Reflections on Why the South Really Seceded

tags: slavery, South, Civil War, Confederacy, secession, James W. Loewen

Originally published 2-7-11

James W. Loewen taught at Tougaloo College and the University of Vermont. After his critique of K-12 U.S. history textbooks, "Lies My Teacher Told Me," became a bestseller in 1996, he became an independent scholar based in Washington, DC. More recent books include "Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong," and "Sundown Towns." In August, 2010, the University Press of Mississippi published "The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader," with a co-editor.

1865 cartoon.

On Sunday, January 9 [2011], the Washington Post published my op-ed article, "5 Myths about Why the South Seceded."  Even before it appeared in print, I knew it had touched a nerve. At its website, the Post dates the article at the stroke of midnight Saturday, but by 7:00pm that evening I had received at least thirty emails about it, a portent of the torrent to come. 

By Monday, the piece had received more than half a million hits, more than any other Post story. During the next week, almost four thousand other sites, from Forbes to The Times of India, linked to it or discussed it. Still other sites simply reprinted the article, which now appears at, for example, the Black Pride Network and the South Carolina Agricultural Trade News

The reaction continues. It has remained the most viewed article at the Post for two more weeks, now with more than 1,500,000 hits. Economist Thomas DiLorenzo published "Another Court Historian's False Tariff History" at the right-wing LewRockwell.com website, attacking me. I continue to get emails, now more than 750, including more than 200 from viewpoints that could be characterized as neo-Confederate.

The thesis of my article was that the key reason that Confederate states gave as they left the union was slavery. Rather than seceding for states' rights -- the reason that most people supply today -- Southern states castigated Northern states for trying to exercise their states' rights, whenever those attempts threatened slavery. The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader, recently published by the University Press of Mississippi, contains the most complete collection of secession documents in print. Those documents declare slavery as the South's key interest, along with concern about the election of Abraham Lincoln. In turn, Lincoln's victory disturbed Southern leaders solely because of his anti-slavery position.

DiLorenzo attacked my dismissal of tariffs as an issue. I had mentioned the earlier tariff controversy of 1828-33, when South Carolina threatened to "nullify federal laws or secede." "No state joined the movement," I went on. "This is all false," DiLorenzo rejoined. "It is not true that 'no state joined the movement.'"  He went on to "prove" his point by noting that three other Southern states "publicly denounced" the tariff. Of course, I had not claimed that no state criticized the tariff. My article was about secession, and I was right:  no state joined South Carolina in passing laws providing for secession or nullification.

In 1860-61, when the seven Deep South states seceded, they did not give tariffs as a significant reason, partly because they had no quarrel with the tariff law then in force, which Southerners had written. DiLorenzo berated me further for failing to mention the Morrill Tariff, which Congress passed in March of 1861. Its rates indeed were higher, but none of the four states that seceded after it passed mentioned it either, when leaving the Union. Why then would I? 

DiLorenzo and many of my e-correspondents are part of a movement that has existed for more than a century. Around 1890, as the Nadir of race relations set in, apologists for secession emphasized states' rights as well as tariffs. This was part of a campaign claiming "anything but slavery" as the rationale for breaking up the nation. One writer even told me that Southern leaders were all lying when they claimed to be seceding for slavery, because the mass of white Southerners would not have gone to war about tariffs and taxes. Cavalry leader John Singleton Mosby, famed "Gray Ghost" of the Confederacy, who knew better, grew "disgusted" at this retreat from the truth. "The South went to war on account of Slavery," he wrote in 1907. "South Carolina went to war -- as she said in her Secession Proclamation -- because slavery wd. not be secure under Lincoln. South Carolina ought to know what was the cause for her seceding."

Especially after Brazil gave up slavery in 1888, opposition to tariffs provided a more attractive cause than expansion of slavery. So did states' rights. That romantic notion pits the David of any given state against the Goliath of the federal government. Anyone who has ever had a beef with the IRS can identify with that. Such mystification helps explain why, throughout the next four years, many more grey re-enactors will take the field than blue, unlike the first time 'round. 

Many of the defenders of secession who emailed me used DiLorenzo's technique of distorting what I wrote. Their most frequent dodge was to conflate individuals' reasons for fighting with states' reasons for seceding. "Not one owned a slave; but many fought for the Confederacy," wrote one man about his ancestors; he unfortunately concluded that therefore, the South had not seceded over slavery. My piece had tried to defuse this error by listing it as a myth:  "Most white Southerners didn't own slaves, so they wouldn't secede for slavery."  In fact, individuals fight for reasons that can be very different from why nations war. Nor do they always fight for their own class interests. Some defer to the upper class partly because it is upper. As Thorstein Veblen noted long ago, this tendency is particularly likely in societies like the U.S. "where class distinctions are somewhat vague."  Years ago, two students of mine demonstrated this deference by driving around Burlington, Vermont, in an old beat-up subcompact and a new shiny luxury sedan. Coming to a red light, they waited to proceed until honked by a car behind. In the subcompact, this reminder came at 5.7 seconds on average, while motorists let the luxury sedan luxuriate for 13.2 seconds before tooting.

Would that I had used that example!  Instead, in trying to make this point, I blundered. "Americans are wondrous optimists," I wrote, "and many subsistence farmers hoped to be large slaveowners one day."  Indeed, with their mansions and manners, plantation owners showed far more wealth than a mere Lexus. As a class, they had carried immense prestige since the founding of the republic -- vide Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. However, my editor suggested an additional sentence to drive home the point:  "Poor white Southerners supported slavery then, just as many low-income people support George W. Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy now."  I accepted it. 

The line went viral in its own right. Almost one-fifth of the emails I received attacked that sentence. "To compare a white Southerner's desire to own slaves to a low income voters support of Bush tax cuts is ABSURD," wrote one respondent. "The tax cuts, right or wrong, can be argued to stimulate investment and economic growth.... But there is a moral component of owning slaves.... As a result of such arguments you undermine the creditability of everything else you claim. I would ask where the editor was when you went to print but being that it is the WP I think I know the answer."  NewsBusters (slogan: "Exposing and Combating Liberal Media Bias") posted an article, WaPo Publishes Sociologist Who Compares 'Low-Income' Supporters of Bush Tax Cuts with Poor Southerners Who Backed Slavery. Of course, I had not meant the comparison that way, any more than I mean here to compare owning a Lexus to owning a slave. But a foe of the estate tax would never have included the line. I had embraced its glibness and now bore responsibility for it.

I responded to almost every message I received. To those complaining about the tax cut comparison, I wrote, "You have a point about the Bush line. I wish I'd used a different analogy."  Many writers were stunned to get any reply; several immediately softened their tone. More troublesome were the responses from Confederate sympathizers who hated everything about my piece. "You are a misinformed idiot," wrote one. "What drivel," another titled his message. "Just read your article and it really almost made me throw up!" exclaimed a third. 

Sometimes these responses were tinged with obvious racism. "You must be a nigger" was the entire message sent by one respondent. "If you are not black, there must be some in your blood," was the message sent by another. "I truly wish slavery did not happen," wrote a woman who went on to explain why:  "I truly wish they weren't brought here and were still in Africa with their tribes living in the jungles, running thru the Seringetty and enjoying the freedoms and luxury of Africa that their ancestors enjoyed."

Other respondents claimed I was the racist. "I read your anti-white article," wrote one. "All you did was tell us that all white Southerners were evil."  To these writers I suggested my book Sundown Towns, which points out that thousands of communities across the North -- and few in the traditional South -- expelled their entire black populations during the Nadir. Some remain all white on purpose today. 

These responses constitute a trove of Confederate apology material. A major issue proved to be the name of the war itself. "A civil war is a war between factions of a government for the control of that government," insisted several writers. In fact, Random House Webster's Unabridged -- and every other dictionary I've checked -- gives this definition:  "a war within a nation."  Some civil wars are motivated by religion, some by desire to secede, some by politics. Motivation is hardly intrinsic to the definition. I have never grasped why neo-Confederates try to change the war's name. Confederates called it "the Civil War."  Searching a selection of South Carolina newspapers from 1860 to 1865 revealed not one use of "War of Northern Aggression" or "War Between The States," the alternatives neo-Confederates proposed, but 87 uses of "Civil War."

Many messages demonized Lincoln. "Lincoln was a bully," wrote one respondent, who went on to blame him, almost single-handedly, for the war. In reality, even President Buchanan, who had supported the Southern candidate for president, called secession unconstitutional. He did so as a patriot who didn't want the nation sundered, but in addition, advisors warned him that to do otherwise would be suicidal for his party. How much more true would that have been for a Republican!  Lincoln hardly chose war by himself. The nation made the choice, so we must seek the explanation in the politics and ideology of the nation, not in one man's mind. 

Many writers took Lincoln to task for his racism. Indeed, Lincoln was racist, sometimes explicitly so. Sons of Confederate Veterans took delight in reminding me of Lincoln's statement "that I am not, nor have ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races."  They also pointed out that the Emancipation Proclamation didn't apply to states not in rebellion. They reasoned since the North was racist, therefore the war could not have been about slavery. Of course, as my original piece noted, Northern racism was one of two reasons why the Emancipation Proclamation was written exactly as it was. Nevertheless, secession was still all about slavery and war resulted from secession.

Many correspondents, even some of the most hostile, proved reachable. I sent the man who began his email, "You are a misinformed idiot," my standard reply to such blanket condemnations:  "Do get your library to get THE CONFEDERATE AND NEO-CONFEDERATE READER. Then read it. Your quarrel is not with me but with what Confederate states said as they were leaving the nation."  He answered, "Thank you, will do as suggested."  Another replied, "I'll do that, and I'll try to be more objective."  The person who had told me that my article "almost made me throw up" responded, "I will read your suggestions. I am first and foremost a "student" of history always seeking knowledge."  On the other hand, several replied angrily without reading the book and as if I had never mentioned my research. They simply continued to denounce my "liberal opinions." 

During the next four years of remembrance, those of us who care about getting history right will not be able to reach everyone. Still, we have to keep trying. Evidence will convince many -- including some who today celebrate the "Lost Cause" -- that it was a good thing when secession on behalf of slavery was crushed. Then we can get students and the public to discuss when and why our culture began to misunderstand these matters. At that point, they are ready to learn about the Nadir, the most important era in our past that most Americans never heard of.

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Phil Magness - 1/31/2011

I appreciate your recognition of the tariff issue's existence in these two states, and would never suggest its preeminence as an issue over slavery there or elsewhere. That much is beyond dispute, as per the rest of the South Carolina documents (and others, particularly Mississippi's virulently pro-slavery declaration).

My concern is, and has always been, with the greater issue of historical accuracy when dealing with the tariff. Blanket statements to the effect that "Tariffs were not an issue in 1860, and Southern states said nothing about them" spread an inaccurate version of history. In doing so they do the same disservice as a blanket declaration to the opposite effect that "tariffs were the real main cause of secession."

Even if not pre-eminent, the debate around the tariff at the South Carolina convention was extensive (and why shouldn't it be? Most of the SC secessionists were singularly obsessed with connecting their movement to Calhoun and the tariff nullifiers of 1832). Georgia followed suit, and while Stephens argued against the tariff grievance (and secession itself - he was even maintaining secret correspondence with no less a figure than Abraham Lincoln as the Georgia convention met), it was Toombs who won that vote.

Again, no intent is meant to displace the virulent causal appeals to slavery across the south, but there is significance to be taken from the tariff issue's inclusion in the South Carolina and Georgia conventions. They were among the first two states to convene for a secession vote, and accordingly framed much of the debate in the rest.

Neither was the tariff issue absent from the later secessionist proceedings. Charles B. Dew capably documented the pro-slavery speeches of the "secession commissioners," but his book is hardly an exhaustive account of the secession movement. After the Morrill bill passed, Sen. Thomas Clingman had one of his anti-tariff speeches printed as a pamphlet and distributed to states that had not yet seceded, including his own North Carolina. Robert M. T. Hunter did the same in Virginia.

James W Loewen - 1/31/2011

Kudos to Phil Magness for noting the two -- the only two -- mentions of tariffs in all the secession statements.
I did however slip in a qualifier, "significant." Robert Barnwell Rhett wrote that South Carolina "Address." As I wrote in THE CONFEDERATE AND NEO-CONFEDERATE READER, it does decry tariffs -- even the idea. But it is largely about slavery. As well, it "never drew as much attention as the 'Declaration of the Immediate Causes,'" South Carolina's premiere "why" statement. "Other states don't quote it, and emissaries from seceding states don't use its arguments when trying to persuade other slave holding states to follow them."
As for Georgia, yes, delegates do treat tariffs, but then they admit, it's not an issue now.

Phil Magness - 1/31/2011

"My point was and remains: no state says anything significant about tariffs as a cause of secession."

This claim is simply not an accurate reading of the secession convention literature.

The following is one such example from the "South Carolina Address," the official invitation they issued to the legislatures of the other slave states on December 25, 1860 urging them to join the secessionist cause:

"The Southern States now stand in the same relation toward the Northern States, in the vital matter of taxation, that our ancestors stood toward the people of Great Britain. They are in a minority in Congress. Their representation in Congress is useless to protect them against unjust taxation, and they are taxed by the people of the North for their benefit exactly as the people of Great Britain taxed our ancestors in the British Parliament for their benefit. For the last forty years the taxes laid by the Congress of the United States have been laid with a view of subserving the interests of the North. The people of the South have been taxed by duties on imports not for revenue, but for an object inconsistent with revenue - to promote, by prohibitions, Northern interests in the productions of their mines and manufactures."

It also came up in Georgia, where Robert Toombs made a lengthy speech against the "infamous Morrill bill," and in North Carolina after the tariff's adoption, where Thomas L. Clingman did the same.

It is beyond any question that slavery was the most prominent issue in these discussions. But the tariff issue was also indisputably there.

James W Loewen - 1/31/2011

My point was and remains: no state says anything significant about tariffs as a cause of secession. If the existing tariff WAS a cause of secession, why not say so? If the Morrill Tariff, passed before the last four states left, prompted their secession, why not say so? Is the foregoing invective? I don't think so! Best wishes!

James W Loewen - 1/31/2011

I agree: the historical record is slavery, slavery, slavery. However, among the flood of replies I got, some claim that the S really seceded for something else (usually tariffs) but thought that slavery would be a more powerful motivator, hence only argued THAT. I reply, inter alia, is there no evidence supporting this conspiracy? Even conspirators who somehow got each state to lie about its real reasons for seceding would have left SOME paper trail, no? a diary? a letter?
They do not supply any such evidence, however.

James W Loewen - 1/31/2011

Certainly Sumter played a role. Indeed, Confederates concluded they needed to shed blood IN ORDER TO bring VA (and NC, etc.) to secede. They were right. "Not secession nor state's rights nor union nor slavery would keep the armies fighting." Hard to know exactly what this means. Surely secession vs. union DID keep the armies fighting for the first two years.
"less to do with race _in_itself_ than it does with social _attitudes_ towards race and race relations." There is only one race "in itself" -- the HUMAN race. I think this post means to say that white supremacy played a key role in secession and in maintaining the Southern cause, and I think that's correct.

Phil Magness - 1/30/2011

You need to read more carefully.

>>>>To say that tariffs were a non-issue in 1860 is absurd. Tariff politics reached a fever pitch in the United States after the Panic of 1857, much like they had a generation before in the Nullification Crisis. The issue burst onto the national scene with the introduction of a new tariff bill in 1858, played a prominent regional role in the election of 1860, and added yet another dimension of sectional and economic discord on top of the already frenzied state of affairs surrounding slavery.<<<<

Documentation is at the prior link and here.


Jeremy Tschudin - 1/30/2011

Why didn't you refute his point(s)? Instead, you attacked him. More politics than history to me.

Phil Magness - 1/29/2011

Briefly looking past the venomous manner in which Prof. Loewen addresses his critics, it is possible to see glimpses of a larger point about the connection of the tariff argument to "Lost Cause" historiography. This point has long been acknowledged by professional historians though and need not be excessively dwelt upon - and certainly not with the high degree of personal invective that usually accompanies these types of discussions, the present example included.

My main grievance with Prof. Loewen's recent "tariff kick" though is that his conclusions on the issue are simplistic and historically uninformed. Though I realize he may not be a specialist in the subject, he is doing it a disservice by making blanket statements that ignore a large and existent body of scholarly literature on the history of tariffs in the 19th century, including the Morrill Tariff and the events immediately preceding it.

To say that tariffs were a non-issue in 1860 is absurd. Tariff politics reached a fever pitch in the United States after the Panic of 1857, much like they had a generation before in the Nullification Crisis. The issue burst onto the national scene with the introduction of a new tariff bill in 1858, played a prominent regional role in the election of 1860, and added yet another dimension of sectional and economic discord on top of the already frenzied state of affairs surrounding slavery.

If Prof. Loewen wishes to continue his contribution via a historiographical discussion of the "Lost Cause" I see no objection save to note the element of civility presently lacking in the discussion it has produced. But if he wishes to take up tariff history and offer himself as an authority on the subject, it is also incumbent that he familiarize himself with the historical literature on this subject.

As of now he plainly has not.


Dale Warren - 1/28/2011

I am always amazed at the creativity of the revisionists who work to put a glossy veneer over the cold, hard truth: Slavery was the single issue driving secessionism, and simple greed has always driven slavery.

State's Rights? That's laughable when we remember the blood that was spilled in the Kansas Territory to prevent the people from voting to be admitted as a free state.

That dog won't hunt, Bubba.

I know these people read history; they must believe that nobody else does.

John D. Beatty - 1/28/2011

..Until Fort Sumter. Not secession nor state's rights nor union nor slavery would keep the armies fighting. That desire came from a conflict deep in Anglo-American society that still has not been resolved, and has less to do with race _in_itself_ than it does with social _attitudes_ towards race and race relations.

Think about it.

Lewis Bernstein - 1/28/2011

Very good piece along with the Washington Post essay. Yes, slavery was the reason. If anyone has any doubts they should read the secession ordinances passed by the various southern states.

Patrick Tays - 1/27/2011

Hooray. I agree with your thrust (I am from Alabama :)
Do NOT forget those rascals in Charleston. Well written, keep it up.

james joseph butler - 1/26/2011

When I was 10 or twelve I used spend hours with my nose buried in an American Heritage Civil War book that featured recreations of famous battles. There I was at Bull Run or Gettysburg, layin' low or leadin', I was there. A while later I taught fifth grade history with 'My slave today'.

It's fascinating how people are attached to the past. It's a lot like sports. Identity and history share the past and the future. Shared hostility feels good.

Aldean Laverne Hough - 1/26/2011

I found the preceding article quite convincing and interesting. Of course, slavery was the primary cause of the war and the many attempts at trying solve it should be convincing. Racism was found both in the South and North and presently is a problem which we Americans have to work on. Emotions will not change the truth of your argrument. Al Hough