Was Southern Secession a Political Revolution?

From a lecture series presented by The Great Courses

At first, many white Southerners spoke of secession as the Revolution of 1861, comparing what they were doing to what the American colonists had done in 1776. But how true was this?

Jefferson Davis and his cabinet

The Legality of Secession

Secession doesn’t necessarily mean war. Southerners didn’t know that the outbreak of war would result from secession. They hoped that they would be allowed to leave the Union peacefully.

However, they still began to prepare for war. They seized federal forts and other installations. And throughout the Confederate states, state militias were strengthened. The provisional Confederate Congress authorized an army of 100,000 men (the Northern Army of the Union, at the time, had between 15,000 and 16,000 men).

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

In time, most Southerners came to argue that they had not precipitated a revolution, at least not in the accepted sense of the word that suggests armed revolt against a sitting government. They argued instead that they had acted under the Constitution; that, in fact, they were the true inheritors of the revolutionary tradition. The founders set up a slaveholding republic, and Southerners were trying to set up a slaveholding republic where their rights as protected under the Constitution would be made safe.

Confederate states
The southern states formed a new nation.

The original Union, they said, had been a compact of sovereign states that had come together to act as a nation. Those states as a group had authorized the federal government to act as their agent, but they hadn’t given up their sovereignty in 1787. The Southern states were merely reasserting that sovereignty when they left the Union and came together to form a new nation.

By contending that secession was legal rather than revolutionary, these Confederates hoped to place their nation on an equal footing with other nations in the Western world and thereby gain legitimacy.

A Conservative Revolution

Some Southerners, in fact, turned the argument around and accused Republicans of being the true revolutionaries. They argued that the Republicans were the ones trying to depart from the architectural plan of the founders by striking at slavery.

Learn more about the path toward emancipation

The important point is that if the Deep South was pursuing a revolution, it was clearly a conservative one (if such a thing is possible). Why? Because they were trying to protect what they already have. They weren’t trying to create something new, they were trying to protect what they already had under the old Constitution.

The Myth of the “Lost Cause”

Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis (1808-1889), president of the Confederate States of America. Photograph by Mathew Brady, subsequently hand-colored, ca. 1859

In the myth of the Lost Cause, many Southern writers said it wasn’t slavery they were concerned about but constitutional principle. They were trying to uphold the principles of the Constitution and the founding generation, and slavery was just one of many issues that were bound up in that.

Prominent among these writers were both Jefferson Davis and Alexander Hamilton Stephens, each of whom wrote a two-volume set of memoirs. Davis wrote, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Stephens wrote, A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States.

In these two big works, the top officeholders of the Confederacy argued the straight constitutional view of why the war had come. It had been about the Constitution not slavery. Slavery was almost incidental to what was going on at that time.

Learn more about the chaotic battles at Shiloh and Corinth

It was important for them to distance themselves from slavery after the war because they knew they were out of step with the Western world. It would cast them in a bad light if they were perceived as primarily interested in slavery.

The Central Role of Slavery

In 1861 the white South was not confused about how important slavery was.

Stephens said, “Our new government is founded 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 moral condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Slaves working in a gang on a cotton plantation
The labor of African slaves was indispensable to the South’s economic development.

As for Davis, in his message to the Confederate Congress in late April 1861, he said, “The labor of African slaves was and is indispensable to the South’s economic development. With interests of such overwhelming magnitude imperiled, the people of the Southern states were driven by the conduct of the North to the adoption of some course of action to avert the danger with which they were openly menaced.”

Learn more about the surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox

The Mississippi state convention put it even more bluntly: “A blow at slavery is a blow at civilization. We have no choice but submission to the mandates of abolition or dissolution of the Union.”

Davis and Stephens and the Mississippi state convention for secession, and most other Deep South whites, weren’t confused about how central slavery was to the process of secession. It absolutely was imbedded near the center.

From the lecture series The American Civil War, taught by Professor Gary Gallagher

Keep Reading
The Ideology of Revolution: Revolutionary Legacies of the 20th Century
The Boston Tea Party and the Beginning of the American Revolution
Napoleon and the French Revolution

Images courtesy of
by Jefferson Davis and his cabinet. [No Date Recorded on Shelflist Card] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress