The documents make clear that the central reason for the South’s choice to secede from the Union was slavery and the fear over losing power. These documents make mentions of vague notions of federalism and federal power, but at the root of it all is the fear that the South would lose the right to own its slaves, bringing about a change in the social order that was not appropriate or reasonable in the eyes of these individuals. Certainly these individuals see the federal government as something that serves the interests of the North, the non-slave-holding states. These documents envision the federal government as the bringer of tyranny, trying to strip from the South the right that it might have otherwise had to dictate its own affairs.
In the document provided by the state of Georgia, much of the discussion centers on the history of the United States government on the question of slavery. The document describes the way in which the residents of the state have long languished under questions of just what would happen to the slaves, and just what direction the country would move in. While the document does have many discussions on the nature of federal power, the document also features significant discussions on slavery itself, and on the economic value of slavery. The writers of this document even note that if slavery is ruled illegal, the people of Georgia would lose out on millions of dollars worth of property. The writers make clear that they will not stand by as the federal government stripped them of this property interest in favor of the rights of the North. It is unequivocally clear that the central issue at the heart of the matter is slavery.
Mississippi makes its point even more clearly, and does not equivocate. In its writing, the state notes that its position is thoroughly tied in and identified with slavery. The state also notes that its slavery interest constitutes a massive financial interest, and perhaps, the largest such interest in the world. This suggests the same thing as Georgia, but truly, there is another point to be made. In these documents, economic justifications are real, but there is more at play than simple economic justifications. There are also cultural claims, with the states putting a significant amount of their cultural identity in their systems of racial subjugation. From the readings, it becomes clear that not only do the states feel that the federal government is trying to take something tangible away from them, but the government is also looking to take something intangible from them. By that, it is meant that the government is willing to do away with the systems of white supremacy that have long been the identifying factors of these various cultures. The speeches given and the documents outlined by the states show that they were concerned with what the future might look like in the scenario that slavery was abolished.
Through these documents, one can see an underlying theme with the Southern thought on the federal government. They see the federal government as overreaching, and there is certainly a “state’s rights” theme to it all. However, one must understand precisely what rights the state is losing out on. The state is losing out, it seems, on its right to own human beings and exploit them financially. The rights themselves are not abstract. Likewise, the southern state governments seem to believe that the federal government is acting in the interest of the larger northern states, and have long been acting in that same interest. This helps to churn out some of the Southern discontent for the federal government, as well.
- Rainwater, P. L. (1933). Mississippi-Storm Center of Secession (1856-61).Miss. LJ, 6, 255.
- Stephens, A. H. Cornerstone Address, March 21, 1861. The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events with Documents, Narratives, Illustrative Incidents, Poetry, etc, 1, 44-46.
- Wooster, R. A. (1958). An Analysis of the membership of Secession Conventions in the Lower South. The Journal of Southern History, 24(3), 360-368.