Historical revisionism can sometimes be a force for good, setting history straight and debunking false narratives about events and people that cloud proper judgement. This has been done in the face of recent events with the 2003 invasion of Iraq and US involvement in Afghanistan. Of course, revisionism is more often than not a force for the exact opposite, obscuring the true established history that has persisted for so long. This has most famously been done with the War between the States, sometimes innacurately called the Civil War.

Revisionists claim the war was over slavery but this is simply not true. They cite the ordinances of secession and select anectdotal accounts of Southern soldiers giving their reason for fighting as evidence for this being so, but this is disingenous and an insult to true historical analysis.

To set the revisionism straight we must first cover why the South was pushed to secede, not what a few soldiers fought for or what a few representatives wrote when they organized the secession. We also must make a clear distinction between the Upper South and the Deep South, the Deep South being the states that touch the Gulf of Mexico as well as Georgia and South Carolina. That will come in handy later.

During the nullification crisis of 1832-33 South Carolina refused to accept a tariff that would see the South disproportionately pay the sum of the tariff. South Carolina used states rights and “nullified” the tariff, basically saying they would not collect it and did not recognize it as law. The state even came very close to seceding, bringing up troops to defend itself. President Andrew Jackson was not having it and so he very nearly sent troops into South Carolina to put down the secessionists but the crisis was averted once the Federal government relented and repealed the tariff. The South saw the Federal reaction as blatantly unconstitutional since the right to secede was established law that virtually everyone supported everyone except a warhawk like Jackson.

When Lincoln won the election of 1860 South Carolina again panicked, immediately and very seriously considering secession. Their fear was not that Lincoln would abolish slavery as many historians lazily put it; their fear was that the North would rally around the Republican leadership to attack slavery, perhaps in the form of armed rebellion. Nat Turner’s rebellion had happened just a few years before the nullification crisis, killing about 60 people in his gang’s path. Just before the 1860 election, Bleeding Kansas raged on and now boiled over into the East with John Brown’s raid, a raid aimed at starting an armed slave rebellion which realistically could have manifested.

The South was paranoid and rightfully so. It viewed the federal government as already having overstepped its boundaries, especially when concerning trade. Northern antagonism had led the South to near hatred of the North with many seeing the North as an imperialistic, self-righteous overlord that would soon turn violent how right they were. Now with a Republican in office who favored the same high tariffs that started the nullification crisis and lent a sympathetic ear to the abolishionist movement, the time had come and South Carolina seceded. Other states followed suit and by the time Lincoln was in office seven states had seceded, all from the Deep South.

The debacle at Fort Sumter, a scandal orchestrated by Lincoln by way of antagonizing the South and refusing to compromise, set the gears in motion for the Upper South to secede. Combined with his call for 75,000 volunteers, the Upper South seceded, one by one, refusing to fight their Southern brothers over something they believed was constitutionally guaranteed, that is, the right to secede. Government by the consent of the govern was still a major theme in America politics, especially in the South where it was now being exercised. The Upper South had no interest in coercing its sister states and therefore violating the constitution and one of the most basic state right. For this reason the Upper South turned on the Union when it had not before, now voting to secede and follow its Southern brothers, for better or for worse.

At its core, slavery was the main galvanizing issue that drove secession fever during the winter and spring of 1860-61. However, leaving it at that is not proper analysis. As Jefferson and other founding fathers understood it, antagonizing the South over slavery was a recipe for disaster. The South had been pushed to lock down all discussion about the topic because it feared the radicalism abolitionism could produce. Add on top of that the fact that trade issues, kinship, and one of the most basic rights of the constitution was at stake, of course the South seceded, and who can blame us?


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