The South was Wrong and I Can Prove It
Sorry. That’s all there is to it.
When setting out to create a new nation, there is a checklist of things that must be done, the most important of which is to win the war of independence that nearly always follows the establishment of a new state.
The founders of the Confederacy saw themselves as the true inheritors of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, etc... And they were. Absolutely. The misnamed Revolutionary War was as much a war of secession as the equally misnamed Civil War that erupted four-score and five years later. Southerners feared northern interference with slavery, which was the foundation of southern economic and cultural life. Although, in contrast to the colonies, they had a voice in the national legislature, the addition of new, free states seemed likely to nullify its effect.
By comparison, the Intolerable Acts were pretty small potatoes.
The founders of the United States understood that if they lost their war there would be hell to pay—”hang together or hang separately” remember? They were engaged in treason against the crown. The Constitution, on the other hand, does not mention secession. Therefore, if not forbidden, it must be allowed, right?
Legal or not, secession would have spelled the end of the American experiment. The notion of an intact Confederacy existing alongside an intact United States — enshrined in countless novels and short stories that posit alternate histories — is ridiculous. The Confederacy’s logic of states’ rights prevented it from functioning as a nation even while the conflict still raged, and would have led to its eventual disintegration as a single, identifiable entity. Furthermore, with the precedent of secession before them as a method for reconciling differences, the remaining United States has little reason to continue on as such. Why would Maine remain in a union with California? Or Oregon continues with Maryland?
Does the state even remain an irreducible unit under these circumstances?
Uncontested secession, in a country like the US, and during that period in our history, could only be a call to anarchy.
Yet the debate continues…
For several reasons.
One is the lack of symmetry in each side’s cause. I.e., unless the Confederacy’s founders were consummate liars, secession was motivated by slavery and only slavery. The other tensions between north and south cited by lost causers were hardly casus belli. The south fought to preserve slavery, but the north didn’t fight to end it. The North fought to preserve the union. Lincoln characterized the war as a crusade to end slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation to keep Europe at bay. He limited its scope to keep the border states from seceding. The next year, at Gettysburg, he rephrased it again as a cause to save democracy.
Many who served the Union were abolitionists. Complicating matters further, white supremacy finds a comfortable home in abolition. After all, it was slavery that brought the majority of Black people to the Americas.
Furthermore, it’s not true that in conflict the victor writes the history. As the great British military historian John Keegan, pointed out, the US Civil War was the first time large numbers of literate men fought one another. Quills hit paper before the last shot was fired. Thus was the ”Lost Cause” birthed. It became a noble, if flawed, experiment in states’ rights that was ultimately undone by Yankee imperialism and greed. Robert E. Lee was canonized; US Grant vilified. The latter cast as the soulless butcher who murdered his own troops at Cold Harbor, while Lee was never taken to task for Pickett’s Charge.
Schoolkids are taught about “Honest Abe,” who walked seven miles to return a nickel’s worth of change owed to a customer from his father’s store. The Great Emancipator grew up dreaming of the day when he would set the slaves free because that was just the kind of guy he was. Many students never move beyond that.
Nor is it just unionists that suffer gaps in their understanding of the war between the states. When presented with the incontrovertible evidence of Alexander Stephens’s infamous Cornerstone Speech, one Lost Cause devotee who had been furthering the not-slavery-but-northern-aggression line sputtered: “It was just one speech, and it was hyperbole!”
Let’s just leave that one be.