Why Did the White South Secede?


By Gary W. GallagherUniversity of Virginia

After the presidential election of 1860, the white South took little, if any, consolation from the fact that the Republicans gained control of neither house of Congress. They focused on the fact that a party with no support in the slave states now controlled the White House, and that the major plank of that party called for prohibition of slavery in the territories.

“Slaves waiting for sale, Richmond, VA”
The White South viewed the Republican Party as a serious threat to their social and economic system (Image: Eyre Crowe/Public domain)

Why Was the White South Dissatisfied?

Slaveholders emphasized that the Republican Party contained people who had voted for personal liberty laws, who belonged to abolitionist societies. They believed that the Republican Party was devoted to the destruction of the institution of slavery and, by extension, destruction of the southern social and economic system.

The white South was long used to controlling the presidency. Now they were very upset. If you control the presidency for long enough, you also control the Supreme Court because you will, by increments, get to name new candidates for those justiceships. 

What the white South really feared was that if those things happened, if the North, dominated by the Republicans, really took control of the government, then the Republicans would not only keep slavery out of the territories, but at some point down the line would also strike at slavery where it already existed, in the 15 southern states that held slaves in 1860.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

A Southern Answer to Northern Actions

Everyone understood that the month following the election might prove crucial in terms of the reactions by the slaveholding states. What they saw over that next month was the beginning of a movement toward secession. It began in South Carolina, which didn’t surprise anybody. 

South Carolina was the most extreme of the southern states. In the course of this crisis, one South Carolina Unionist would make the famous comment that highlighted how different South Carolina was. He said that South Carolina was too small to be a republic, but too large to be an insane asylum, even though it often seemed to act as if it were an insane asylum.

South Carolina Took the Lead

A convention called by the South Carolina legislature met in Charleston, and on December 20, 1860, voted unanimously to secede. Over the next six weeks, six other Lower South states left the Union. The whole tier of Lower South states left, going from west to east; Texas and Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida joined South Carolina in having left the Union.

In Texas, old Sam Houston, the great hero of the Texas Revolution, was a Unionist governor. He opposed secession, said it would be the greatest mistake Texas ever made, so the Texas legislature removed Sam Houston from the governorship, and moved on to secede.

Not a Unanimous Decision?

The pro-secession feeling in these states was not unanimous. There were some who preferred waiting.

They were called “Cooperationists”. They weren’t against secession, but they were against immediate action. They wanted all of the slave states to cooperate on whatever they decided to do. They said, “Let’s get together. Let’s work out a course of action, and let’s move as a group.” These seven states did not have enough cooperation or the sentiment to carry the day, and so they went out one at a time, each of the states of the Deep South. 

So, Why Did the Southerners Secede?

Map showing the status of slavery between January 1861 to February 4 1861 in the US
By February 1, 1861, seven slaveholder states from the White South seceded. (Image: Golbez/Public domain)

Most of these states declared that the Union was a compact among sovereign states—that the states had the right to pull out of it whenever they believed that the agreement had been broken. They went into this with good faith.

They pointed to a number of things as evidence of bad faith on the part of the North. Now, they pointed to the North’s refusal to return fugitive slaves. They pointed to encouragement of John Brown. They pointed to support for abolition societies that targeted slavery, wanted to destroy slavery.

Those kinds of elements of northern society, said secessionists meant the northern states had broken the compact, and it was the right of the southern states to withdraw.

What Did (or Did Not) the Constitution Say

It’s very important to keep in mind that the Constitution doesn’t give a clear answer to whether a state could withdraw this way or not. Good lawyers on both sides at the time argued it in different ways. The Civil War would decide that secession was unconstitutional. The Constitution itself does not make that clear. 

The Upper South and the border states, of which there were 15 slave states altogether, seven were gone by February 1, 1861, so eight had opted not to secede. Eight had decided that Lincoln’s election alone was not worth pushing them out of the Union.

Common Questions about the Secession of the White South

Q: Why were the Southerners unhappy with the results of the presidential election of 1860?

The white South thought that the Republican Party was devoted to the prohibition of slavery, which could ultimately destroy the Southern social and economic system.

Q: How did the Southerners respond when they felt that their influence in the government was in danger?

They formed a movement toward secession. This began in the most extreme of the southern states, South Carolina.

Q: Which states took part in the secession?

Those were seven states from the Upper South and the border states, of which there were 15 slave states altogether. They were gone by February 1, 1861.

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