The Truth in the Story of Secession

by Loren Collins

I am a seventh-generation Georgian. The South, and Georgia in particular, is and always will be my home. As such, the legacy of the Confederacy has long been prominent in my life. My hometown, Stone Mountain, is the site of the world's largest Confederate memorial. My ancestors were rebel soldiers. I grew up believing that the Civil War was about states' rights and Southern pride, and that successive generations were responsible for perverting the image of the Confederacy. I was wrong. The truth is found in the words of the Confederate leaders themselves.

The clearest elicitation of the Confederate motivation was provided by CSA Vice-President Alexander Stephens in his "Corner-Stone Speech" of March 21, 1861. What caused the South to secede from the Union? "[O]ur peculiar institution - African slavery as it exists among us - the proper status of the negro in our civilization, - was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution." He further explained that the Confederacy's "foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon this great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."

Stephens was more succinct in an 1866 diary entry reflecting upon that same speech: "Slavery was without doubt the occasion of secession."

Confederate President Jefferson Davis confirmed this intent. His Congressional compromise proposal of December 1860, offered to avert secession, consisted entirely of a Constitutional Amendment to protect slavery forever. In his first message to the Confederate congress, shortly after Fort Sumter, he reflected upon the circumstances that led to secession, and cited only slavery as motivation.

On December 7, 1860, Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown delivered an open letter to the people of Georgia, endorsing secession solely because of the threat of abolition. He said that Georgians "can never again live in peace with the Northern abolitionists, unless we can have new constitutional guarantees, which will...effectually stop the discussion of slavery in Congress." Since slavery was widely seen as benefiting only the rich, half of the letter was devoted to persuading poor non-slaveholding whites to support secession. "May our kind Heavenly Father avert the evil, and deliver the poor from such a fate," he prayed, after warning of the various consequences if blacks were made their equals.

Not unlike the Declaration of Independence's enumeration of the King's offenses, four states issued declarations of causes, formally explaining their reasons for seceding. Each identified slavery as its motivation. Georgia's began "The people of Georgia [present] the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery." Mississippi was the most blunt: "[I]t is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course. Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery -- the greatest material interest of the world."

Page after page of Confederate speeches, letters, and documents repeatedly identified slavery as the impetus for secession. They ooze with racist rhetoric. This is but a sampling.

The Confederate legacy was not corrupted by later generations; it was corrupt from the start. Secessionists advanced numerous Constitutional arguments about the importance of states' rights, but the "right" to own black people wholly dominated the discourse, and was the only states' right that actually instigated secession. Slavery was the self-confessed "immediate cause" of the Confederacy, and black inferiority was its founding "corner-stone."

To criticize the Confederacy is not to demean Southern heritage, for there is far more to the South than the Confederacy. Southerners have produced copious amounts of great literature and art. Southerners pioneered jazz, bluegrass, gospel, and country music. And we have the best American cuisine by far. There is much to be proud of as a Georgian and as a Southerner. But there is only shame in the legacy of the Confederate States of America.

Originally printed in the Red & Black, April 30, 2003.

Selected Sources:

Alexander Stephens' "Cornerstone Speech" -
Stephens' Reflections on the Cornerstone Speech -
Message of Jefferson Davis to the Provisional Congress of the CSA -
Gov. Joseph Brown's Open Letter -
Declaration of Causes of Seceding States -