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Civil War Trust

The Reasons for Secession

A Documentary Study
by John Pierce

Secession

The root cause of the American Civil War is perhaps the most controversial topic in American history. Even before the war was over, scholars in the North and South began to analyze and interpret the reasons behind the bloodshed.

The scholars immediately disagreed over the causes of the war and disagreement persists today. Many maintain that the primary cause of the war was the Southern states’ desire to preserve the institution of slavery. Others minimize slavery and point to other factors, such as taxation or the principle of States' Rights.

In 2011, at the outset of the sesquicentennial, a Pew Research Center poll found that Americans were significantly divided on the issue, with 48% saying the war was "mainly about states' rights," 38% saying the war was "mainly about slavery," with the remainder answering "both equally" or "neither/don't know." 

One method by which to analyze this historical conflict is to focus on primary sources.  Every state in the Confederacy issued an “Article of Secession” declaring their break from the Union. Four states went further. Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina all issued additional documents, usually referred to as the “Declarations of Causes," which explain their decision to leave the Union.  The documents can be found in their entirety here.

Two major themes emerge in these documents: slavery and states' rights.  All four states strongly defend slavery while making varying claims related to states' rights.  Other grievances, such as economic exploitation and the role of the military, receive limited attention in some of the documents.  This article will present, in detail, everything that was said in the Declarations of Causes pertaining to these topics.

Pie Charts

These charts show how many words were devoted to the issues raised in each state's Declaration as a percentage of the whole.  "Context" refers to procedural language and/or historical exposition that is not connected to a specific argument. 

Word Cloud

This word cloud shows the 50 words used the most in the Declarations of Causes.

Slavery

1) Each declaration makes the defense of slavery a clear objective. 

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2) Some states argue that slavery should be expanded.

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3) Abolitionism is attacked as a method of inciting violent uprisings.

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4) Mississippi and Georgia point out that slavery accounts for a huge portion of the Southern economy.

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States' Rights

1) The states argue that the Union is a compact, one that can be annulled if the states are not satisfied with what they receive in return from other states and/or from the federal government.

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2) The states argue that the North's reluctance to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (mandating that fugitive slaves be returned to the South) means that the compact is no longer satisfactory.

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Other Grievances

1) All of the states negatively mention Abraham Lincoln's election and his suspected abolitionist leanings.

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2) Georgia accuses Northern manufacturing interests of exploiting the South and dominating the federal government.

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3) Texas expresses dissatisfaction with federal military protection.

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Debates concerning the true causes of the Civil War are unlikely to cease.  Historians often cherry-pick evidence that supports preconceived notions while ignoring large quantities of contradictory material.  When that impulse is fueled by a fervent desire to find reconciliation and consensus, as was the case after the Civil War, the work of historians becomes especially murky.  Primary sources such as the Declarations of Causes are essential to a balanced study of history.

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