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National Park Service

Confronting Slavery

The Civil War culminated 80 years of sectional tensions over economics, cultural values, the extent and reach of the federal government, but, most importantly, the role of slavery in American society.

The editors at the Charleston Mercury agreed. They had anticipated the threat that a Republican victory would pose when in early November they warned South Carolinians and the entire South that "[t]he issue before the country is the extinction of slavery." "No man of common sense, who has observed the progress of events, and is not prepared to surrender the institution," they charged, "can doubt that the time for action has come-now or never." The newspaper editors, like most southerners, saw Lincoln's election as lifting abolitionists to power, and like most southerners they understood, as they plainly stated, that "[t]he existence of slavery is at stake." They called for a convention to consider secession because they saw such action as the only way to protect slavery. When the South Carolina convention did meet little more than a month later, it dealt almost entirely with issues related directly to slavery. It did not complain about tariff rates, competing economic systems or mistreatment at the hands of northern industrialists. The South was not leaving the United States because of the power of northern economic elites who in reality, as historian Bruce Levine observed, "feared alienating the slave owners more than they disliked slavery." The secession of South Carolina, approved by the convention 169 votes to none, was about the preservation of slavery.

Alexander Hamilton Stephens of Georgia also understood what the South was fighting for. A decade before secession, in reaction to the debate over the Compromise of 1850, he wrote to his brother Linton citing "the great question of the permanence of slavery in the Southern States" as crucial for maintaining the union. "[T]he crisis of that question," he predicted, "is not far ahead." After the war he would become more equivocal, but in the heat of the secession debate in the spring of 1861 Stephens spoke as directly as he had in 1850. On March 21, 1861 in Savannah, Stephens, the then Vice President of the Confederacy, drew applause when he proclaimed that "our new government" was founded on slavery, "its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the [N]egro is not equal to the white man; that slavery - submission 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."

Mississippi's Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, was more cautious about declaring slavery as the pivotal issue. When he did address the issue, he generally did so within the context of constitutional guarantees of property rights. Yet, there was no doubt that the property rights he sought most to guarantee in 1861 protected slavery. He was sure that under Republican rule "property in slaves [would become] so insecure as to be comparatively worthless…" As a large slaveholder, Davis was concerned about the economics of abolition as well, but as an experienced politician he also worried that an overtly pro-slavery stand might alienate potential European allies and split the southern population. After all, by 1861 only about one-third of southern families in the 11 seceding states held slaves and the non-slaveholders always posed a potential problem for Confederate unity.

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