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Why did the South secede in 1860/61?

The seeds of secession had been sown early in American history; quite literally with the fundamental differences in agriculture and resultant adoption of slavery in the South. From early days, the thirteen states had grown up separately, and each had their own culture and beliefs, which were often incompatible with those held in other states. The geographical and cultural differences between north and south would manifest themselves at regular and alarming intervals throughout the hundred years following the drafting of the constitution. Tension reached a peak during the 1850s, over the right to hold slaves in new territories. The Wilmot Proviso of 1846, roused bitter hostilities, and vehement debate turned to physical violence during the period of Bleeding Kansas. The election of Lincoln, who the South perceived to be an abolitionist, in 1860 was the final straw, and the secession of seven Southern states followed soon after.

Geographically, North and South were very different places. The pastures of New England were similar to those found in England, suitable for a variety of uses. Hot Southern prairie lands were perfect for cotton growing, a lucrative business at this time. Following the invention of Eli Whitneys Cotton Gin, the South became increasingly dependent on this crop, and an entire society grew out of it. The society was one of wealthy planters, who led a life similar to the landed gentry of England, controlling politics and society of the day. In the fields laboured Negro slaves, usually only a handful per plantation, though larger farms were occasionally seen. In addition, there lived poor whites, tenant farmers or smallholders, who eked out a living from the land. This contrasted sharply with Northern society, where industrialisation flourished, creating wealthy entrepreneurs and employing cheap immigrant labour. Given the localised nature of media, and difficulties of transport two cultures grew up in the same nation, remarkably different and often suspicious of one another.

Crisis struck in 1820, when the North/South balance in the Senate was threatened by the application of Missouri to join the Union as a slave state. Southerners, aware of their numerical inferiority in the House of Representatives, were keen to maintain their political sway, in the Senate. The North feared that if Southerners were to take control of the Senate, political deadlock would ensue. Compromise was found in 1820 when Maine applied to join as a free state, maintaining the balance. It was agreed that slavery would not be allowed north of 3630, except in Missouri, and set the precedent of free and slave state admission in pairs.

Sectional conflict flared again during the era of Andrew Jackson, when South Carolina threatened to secede over the Nullification Controversy, and tensions heightened following the heated Webster-Hayne debates in 1830 over states rights. This proved to he an ongoing theme of the sectional crisis, and some historians have claimed that this was a fundamental reason for the breakdown of North/South relations and ultimately the Civil War itself. By 1833 the Nullification Controversy had petered out, with neither side yet prepared to use force. However, sectional differences were again been brought to the fore, and secession itself had been threatened for the first time.

The problems of the early 1800s were nothing compared with the turmoil America experienced during the 1850s and 60s. To begin with, the crisis revolved around land conquered from Mexico during the war. A little-known Congressman, Wilmot, proposed a resolution to outlaw slavery in the new territories. It was defeated in the Senate, but its significance lay in the proverbial hornets nest that it stirred up, with Southern Congressman outraged. A solution, however, was found with Henry Clays 1850 Compromise, which organised New Mexico and Utah as territories, without outlawing slavery, and strengthening the Fugitive Slave Law to satisfy Southerners, while admitting California as a free state and banning the slave trade in the district of Columbia to please Northerners. Stephen Douglas was instrumental in passing this legislation, by dividing it into smaller pieces, more easily swallowed by a notoriously divided Congress. Southern opinion at this stage was still largely in favour of preserving the Union if possible, but some states made it clear that if the terms of the Compromise were broken, secession would not be ruled out.

The years 1850-52 saw the deaths of three great figures in American political history: Clay, Calhoun, and Webster. Despite holding very different opinions, they were nonetheless ardent unionists, and respected elder statesmen. Clay, known as the Great Compromiser, did much to heal sectional wounds following the Missouri Crisis, Nullification Controversy, and Wilmot Proviso. The deaths of these experienced statesmen, coupled with a string of ineffectual and weak Presidents, brought to an end an era of compromise in Congress, and made a peaceful resolution to the sectional conflict seem far less likely.

The hitherto vocal conflict took a bloody turn for the worse in 1854, when the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise, and put Cass idea of popular sovereignty into practice. While appearing to be sound, popular sovereignty provoked a mini civil war in Kansas, with abolitionists and slaveholders vying for control of the state and thus the decision whether to permit slavery. At Pottawatomie in 1856, Missouri pro-slavery campaigners raided a free soil camp, burning property and attacking its inhabitants. Disagreement over slavery now turned into violent conflict, with atrocities committed by both sides. Through a Southern rigging of the ballot, a state constitution passed permitting slavery, despite free-soilers outnumbering proslavery citizens by three to one. The events of the late 1850s gave the territory the unsavoury title of Bleeding Kansas.

The implementation of the strengthened Fugitive Slave Law was vital to keep southern states content. However, following the costly and unpopular return of an escaped slave, Anthony Bums, from Massachusetts, many northern states were reluctant to comply with this law. The cost of Bums removal was estimated at anything between $14,000 and $100,000, and Amos Lawrence, a Boston textile magnate, said of the event, we went to bed conservative, unionist Whigs, and woke up stark mad abolitionists. This indicates the heightening tension and feelings of usually placid and moderate people, which typified public opinion at this time.

The volatile political situation of this period was not helped by the Southern, and vehemently pro-slavery, Chief Justice Taney. In the 1857 Dred Scott case he ruled not only that Negroes were not citizens and therefore had no right to bring a case to court, but that the Missouri Compromise had denied slaveholders their property, thus compromising the Fifth Amendment. This implicit declaration that an act of Congress was unconstitutional was rare and provoked bitter dissent in Northern quarters.

However, if northerners were angry over the Dred Scott case, southerners were livid following John Browns raid at Harpers Ferry. Not only had Brown attempted to incite a slave revolt, and capture the federal arsenal, but he was treated as a martyr by many northerners following his execution. Despite his crackpot scheme being a total failure, the sympathy Brown received from some northerners was too much for many southerners, whose anti-northern feeling was now beyond control.

The final straw for the South was the election of Abraham Lincoln who, despite his protestations to the contrary, could not convince the South that he was not a firebrand abolitionist. The prospect of a federal government controlled by the Black Republican Party was too much for some, and South Carolina was the first state to secede, followed quickly by six others. This did not necessarily have to mean Civil War, but few in the north were prepared to readily see the Union dismembered. Perhaps they remembered Madisons words at the drafting of the constitution; great as the evil (slavery) is, a dismemberment of the union would be worse. Lincolns election was the last in a string of events which had heightened sectional feeling to beyond the realms of reason or constraint. Emersons warning that Mexico will poison us seemed prophetically true, given the bitter struggle over bondage in the captured territories. When Clay, Calhoun and Webster died, realistic hopes of a peaceful solution to the sectional conflict died with them. Bloodshed in Kansas, weak Presidents, extraordinary goings on in Congress, a Chief Justice who was anything but impartial, extremists such as John Brown, and finally the United States first sectional party all served to highlight the fundamental differences between north and south. Lincolns election was the spark that ignited the tinder of secessionist feeling, blowing apart the Union. Furthermore, worse was yet to come…

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