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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

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The Southern Confederacy

Secession.—As arranged, the convention of South Carolina assembled in December and without a dissenting voice passed the ordinance of secession withdrawing from the union. Bells were rung exultantly, the roar of cannon carried the news to outlying counties, fireworks lighted up the heavens, and champagne flowed. The crisis so long expected had come at last; even the conservatives who had prayed that they might escape the dreadful crash greeted it with a sigh of relief.

The United States in 1861
The border states (in purple) remained loyal.

South Carolina now sent forth an appeal to her sister states—states that had in Jackson’s day repudiated nullification as leading to “the dissolution of the union.” The answer that came this time was in a different vein. A month had hardly elapsed before five other states—Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana—had withdrawn from the union. In February, Texas followed. Virginia, hesitating until the bombardment of Fort Sumter forced a conclusion, seceded in April; but fifty-five of the one hundred and forty-three delegates dissented, foreshadowing the creation of the new state of West Virginia which Congress admitted to the union in 1863. In May, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee announced their independence.

Secession and the Theories of the Union.—In severing their relations with the union, the seceding states denied every point in the Northern theory of the Constitution. That theory, as every one knows, was carefully formulated by Webster and elaborated by Lincoln. According to it, the union was older than the states; it was created before the Declaration of Independence for the purpose of common defense. The Articles of Confederation did but strengthen this national bond and the Constitution sealed it forever. The federal government was not a creature of state governments. It was erected by the people and derived its powers directly from them. “It is,” said Webster, “the people’s Constitution, the people’s government; made for the people; made by the people; and answerable to the people. The people of the United States have declared that this Constitution shall be the supreme law.” When a state questions the lawfulness of any act of the federal government, it cannot nullify that act or withdraw from the union; it must abide by the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States. The union of these states is perpetual, ran Lincoln’s simple argument in the first inaugural; the federal Constitution has no provision for its own termination; it can be destroyed only by some action not provided for in the instrument itself; even if it is a compact among all the states the consent of all must be necessary to its dissolution; therefore no state can lawfully get out of the union and acts of violence against the United States are insurrectionary or revolutionary. This was the system which he believed himself bound to defend by his oath of office “registered in heaven.”

All this reasoning Southern statesmen utterly rejected. In their opinion the thirteen original states won their independence as separate and sovereign powers. The treaty of peace with Great Britain named them all and acknowledged them “to be free, sovereign, and independent states.” The Articles of Confederation very explicitly declared that “each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence.” The Constitution was a “league of nations” formed by an alliance of thirteen separate powers, each one of which ratified the instrument before it was put into effect. They voluntarily entered the union under the Constitution and voluntarily they could leave it. Such was the constitutional doctrine of Hayne, Calhoun, and Jefferson Davis. In seceding, the Southern states had only to follow legal methods, and the transaction would be correct in every particular. So conventions were summoned, elections were held, and “sovereign assemblies of the people” set aside the Constitution in the same manner as it had been ratified nearly four score years before. Thus, said the Southern people, the moral judgment was fulfilled and the letter of the law carried into effect.

Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis

The Formation of the Confederacy.—Acting on the call of Mississippi, a congress of delegates from the seceded states met at Montgomery, Alabama, and on February 8, 1861, adopted a temporary plan of union. It selected, as provisional president, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, a man well fitted by experience and moderation for leadership, a graduate of West Point, who had rendered distinguished service on the field of battle in the Mexican War, in public office, and as a member of Congress.

In March, a permanent constitution of the Confederate states was drafted. It was quickly ratified by the states; elections were held in November; and the government under it went into effect the next year. This new constitution, in form, was very much like the famous instrument drafted at Philadelphia in 1787. It provided for a President, a Senate, and a House of Representatives along almost identical lines. In the powers conferred upon them, however, there were striking differences. The right to appropriate money for internal improvements was expressly withheld; bounties were not to be granted from the treasury nor import duties so laid as to promote or foster any branch of industry. The dignity of the state, if any might be bold enough to question it, was safeguarded in the opening line by the declaration that each acted “in its sovereign and independent character” in forming the Southern union.

Financing the Confederacy.—No government ever set out upon its career with more perplexing tasks in front of it. The North had a monetary system; the South had to create one. The North had a scheme of taxation that produced large revenues from numerous sources; the South had to formulate and carry out a financial plan. Like the North, the Confederacy expected to secure a large revenue from customs duties, easily collected and little felt among the masses. To this expectation the blockade of Southern ports inaugurated by Lincoln in April, 1861, soon put an end. Following the precedent set by Congress under the Articles of Confederation, the Southern Congress resorted to a direct property tax apportioned among the states, only to meet the failure that might have been foretold.

The Confederacy also sold bonds, the first issue bringing into the treasury nearly all the specie available in the Southern banks. This specie by unhappy management was early sent abroad to pay for supplies, sapping the foundations of a sound currency system. Large amounts of bonds were sold overseas, commanding at first better terms than those of the North in the markets of London, Paris, and Amsterdam, many an English lord and statesman buying with enthusiasm and confidence to lament within a few years the proofs of his folly. The difficulties of bringing through the blockade any supplies purchased by foreign bond issues, however, nullified the effect of foreign credit and forced the Confederacy back upon the device of paper money. In all approximately one billion dollars streamed from the printing presses, to fall in value at an alarming rate, reaching in January, 1863, the astounding figure of fifty dollars in paper money for one in gold. Every known device was used to prevent its depreciation, without result. To the issues of the Confederate Congress were added untold millions poured out by the states and by private banks.

Human and Material Resources.—When we measure strength for strength in those signs of power—men, money, and supplies—it is difficult to see how the South was able to embark on secession and war with such confidence in the outcome. In the Confederacy at the final reckoning there were eleven states in all, to be pitted against twenty-two; a population of nine millions, nearly one-half servile, to be pitted against twenty-two millions; a land without great industries to produce war supplies and without vast capital to furnish war finances, joined in battle with a nation already industrial and fortified by property worth eleven billion dollars. Even after the Confederate Congress authorized conscription in 1862, Southern man power, measured in numbers, was wholly inadequate to uphold the independence which had been declared. How, therefore, could the Confederacy hope to sustain itself against such a combination of men, money, and materials as the North could marshal?

Southern Expectations.—The answer to this question is to be found in the ideas that prevailed among Southern leaders. First of all, they hoped, in vain, to carry the Confederacy up to the Ohio River; and, with the aid of Missouri, to gain possession of the Mississippi Valley, the granary of the nation. In the second place, they reckoned upon a large and continuous trade with Great Britain—the exchange of cotton for war materials. They likewise expected to receive recognition and open aid from European powers that looked with satisfaction upon the breakup of the great American republic. In the third place, they believed that their control over several staples so essential to Northern industry would enable them to bring on an industrial crisis in the manufacturing states. “I firmly believe,” wrote Senator Hammond, of South Carolina, in 1860, “that the slave-holding South is now the controlling power of the world; that no other power would face us in hostility. Cotton, rice, tobacco, and naval stores command the world; and we have the sense to know it and are sufficiently Teutonic to carry it out successfully. The North without us would be a motherless calf, bleating about, and die of mange and starvation.”

There were other grounds for confidence. Having seized all of the federal military and naval supplies in the South, and having left the national government weak in armed power during their possession of the presidency, Southern leaders looked to a swift war, if it came at all, to put the finishing stroke to independence. “The greasy mechanics of the North,” it was repeatedly said, “will not fight.” As to disparity in numbers they drew historic parallels. “Our fathers, a mere handful, overcame the enormous power of Great Britain,” a saying of ex-President Tyler, ran current to reassure the doubtful. Finally, and this point cannot be too strongly emphasized, the South expected to see a weakened and divided North. It knew that the abolitionists and the Southern sympathizers were ready to let the Confederate states go in peace; that Lincoln represented only a little more than one-third the voters of the country; and that the vote for Douglas, Bell, and Breckinridge meant a decided opposition to the Republicans and their policies.

Efforts at Compromise.—Republican leaders, on reviewing the same facts, were themselves uncertain as to the outcome of a civil war and made many efforts to avoid a crisis. Thurlow Weed, an Albany journalist and politician who had done much to carry New York for Lincoln, proposed a plan for extending the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific. Jefferson Davis, warning his followers that a war if it came would be terrible, was prepared to accept the offer; but Lincoln, remembering his campaign pledges, stood firm as a rock against it. His followers in Congress took the same position with regard to a similar settlement suggested by Senator Crittenden of Kentucky.

Though unwilling to surrender his solemn promises respecting slavery in the territories, Lincoln was prepared to give to Southern leaders a strong guarantee that his administration would not interfere directly or indirectly with slavery in the states. Anxious to reassure the South on this point, the Republicans in Congress proposed to write into the Constitution a declaration that no amendment should ever be made authorizing the abolition of or interference with slavery in any state. The resolution, duly passed, was sent forth on March 4, 1861, with the approval of Lincoln; it was actually ratified by three states before the storm of war destroyed it. By the irony of fate the thirteenth amendment was to abolish, not guarantee, slavery.

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