Sunday, March 21, 2010

The War of Southern Aggression

“The War of Northern Aggression” is a popular phrase among Confederate apologists, referring to the supposed outrageous aggression shown by the Union to bring the otherwise peaceful Confederate States back under its rule. But how true is it?

I have dealt at length in previous essays about the motivations of the Slave Power and with the constitutional issues of secession itself. Here, I will concentrate on what the states of the Deep South did in the decades leading up to the Civil War and their part in bringing war upon the United States.

The Nullification Crisis and John C. Calhoun

On November 24, 1832 a so-called Nullification Convention of South Carolina passed the Ordinance of Nullification, unilaterally declaring the federal tariffs of 1828 and 1832 unconstitutional and void within the boundaries of the state. Concurrently, Governor Robert Hayne began military preparations to resist federal enforcement, raising a volunteer minuteman army of 2,000 cavalry and 25,000 infantry. The famous Force Bill authorizing military action against South Carolina was passed by Congress in February 1833, but a compromise tariff acceptable to South Carolina was also passed at the same time, prompting the withdrawal of the Ordinance and defusing the military crisis. Although violence did not result, South Carolina's willingness to use force to resolve internal political disputes was well established.

One of Nullification's chief architects was John C. Calhoun, a leading South Carolina politician and Andrew Jackson's vice president. The split with Jackson over nullification prompted Calhoun's resignation and run for the Senate in 1832, but his long career of political blackmail against Northern interests and particularly abolitionists extended back even into his days as a loyal vice president. In 1826, when confronted with the prospect of recognition of the independence of Haiti (which had recently undergone a revolution against French colonialism led by free blacks and the island's slaves), Calhoun had dire warnings for his government. To Secretary of the Navy Samuel Southard, he wrote:

It is a delicate subject, and would in the present tone of feelings to the South lead to great mischief. It is not so much recognition simply as what must follow it. We must send and receive ministers, and what would be our social relations to a Black minister in Washington? Must he be received or excluded from our dinners, our dances and our parties, and must his daughters and sons participate in the society of our daughters and sons? … Small as these considerations appear to be they involve the peace and perhaps the union of our nation.

The implicit threat achieved the hoped-for result: The United States did not recognize Haiti until 1862, with the Civil War in full swing and its agitation of the Deep South long past relevant. Nor was this the last time Calhoun would use the tactic of predicting the destruction of the Union as a result of a proposed policy to thwart its implementation. On March 4, 1850, less than a month before his death, Calhoun prepared a speech for the Senate floor which was read by Senator James Mason of Alabama, due to Calhoun's failing health leaving him unable to speak. In it, he extensively laid the blame for Southern discontent directly at the feet of the North, speaking in broad terms of the sections as wholes and warning of disunion should the North not agree to Southern demands. In his conclusion, he stated:

The North has only to will [the preservation of the Union] to accomplish it—to do justice by conceding to the South an equal right in the acquired Territory [California], and to do her duty by causing the stipulations relative to fugitive slaves to be faithfully fulfilled—to cease the agitation of the slave question, and to provide for the insertion of a provision in the Constitution, by an amendment, which will restore to the South in substance the power which she possessed in protecting herself. ... But will the North agree to do this? It is for her to answer this question. But, I will say, she cannot refuse, if she has half the love of the Union which she professes to have... At all events, the responsibility of saving the Union rests on the North, and not the South.

The speech was a rhetorical masterpiece, methodically (and intentionally) laying the North and South at odds with each other, alleging a crisis, and then laying all responsibility for solving it upon the North. Calhoun sent a copy of the speech to Henry W. Conner, accompanied by this letter:

My speech, of which a copy will be enclosed to you by the mail, which takes this, was read today in the Senate. My friends think it among my most successful efforts, & that it made a profound impression. I, trust, that our friends in Charleston will give it a wide circulation. You will see, that I have made up the issue between North & South. If we flinch we are gone; but, if we stand fast on it, we shall triumph, either by compelling the North to yield to our terms or declaring our Indepen[den]ce of them. Truly, J.C.C.

By this, if by nothing else he wrote, it is clear that Calhoun was intentionally engaging in political brinksmanship, aggressively gambling with the Union itself to achieve his political goal of spreading what he saw as the positive good of slavery. The “equal right” in California he referred to in his speech was the right to hold slaves, which he conflated with the rights of the Southern section in general as a rhetorical device; the point of contention was whether or not California should be admitted to the Union as a free state without a counterpart slave state to keep representation in the Senate equal. Far from the typical picture of a reluctant South seceding as a last resort to escape Northern oppression, Calhoun was quite willing and even eager to destroy the Union for political gain.

Threats and Violence: California, Preston Brooks, and the House (Divided)

Such tactics and sentiments were hardly unique to Calhoun, and not all those who agreed with him were so subtle. On the issue of California, Congressman Albert Brown of Mississippi said on the House floor:

The southern States ... will devise means for vindicating their rights. I do not know what these means will be, but I know what they may be ... They may be to carry slaves into all of southern California, as the property of sovereign States, and there hold them, as we have a right to do; and if molested, defend them ... We ask you to give us our rights by non-intervention; if you refuse, I am for taking them by armed occupation.

In response to Calhoun's speech, James Hammond, a fellow South Carolinian planter and slaveholder, wrote to the Senator two days later, saying:

Our only safety is in equality of power. We must divide the territories so as forever to retain that equality in the Senate at least … I would infinitely prefer disunion to any thing the least short of this … If the North will not consent to this I think we should not have another word to say, but kick them out of the Capitol & set it on fire.

Of course, California was admitted and none of these things came to pass, but not for lack of concessions to the Slave Power. As part of the compromise for the admission of California (the aptly named Compromise of 1850) the remaining former Mexican territories (Utah and New Mexico) enacted slave codes, the infamous Fugitive Slave Act was strengthened (barring free states from requiring trials for alleged escaped slaves and requiring the assistance of their law enforcement in capturing fugitives, removing much of the nothern states' right to self-government), and California even sent one pro-slavery Senator to Washington to maintain “balance” in the Senate despite such views not representing the state's population.

These tactics of threatening disunion and war if this or that policy was not acceded to by the free states continued throughout the 1850s. During the presidential race of 1856, the candidacy of Republican John C. Frémont was vehemently opposed in the South for his party's anti-slavery views, leading Senator James Mason of Virginia to write to Jefferson Davis, who would later become the president of the Confederate States and was then the Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce:

I have a letter from [Virginia Governor Henry] WISE, of the 27th, full of spirit. He says the Governments of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Louisiana, have already agreed to rendezvous at Raleigh, and others will—this in your most private ear. He says, further, that he had officially requested you to exchange with Virginia, on fair terms of difference, percussion for flint muskets. I don't know the usage or power of the Department in such cases, but if it can be done, even by liberal construction, I hope you will accede. … Virginia probably has more arms than the other Southern States, and would divide in case of need. In a letter yesterday to a Committee in South Carolina. I gave it as my judgment, in the event of FREMONT's election, the South should not pause, but proceed at once to "immediate, absolute, and eternal separation."

Senator Mason directly requested the Secretary of War to arm the southern states for war against the United States, a full four years before any actual secession, based on the possibility of a Republican president. This did not come to pass, of course, because Frémont lost the election (in no small part due to the specter of the threat of war), but even the asking is telling.

But that's child's play compared to the election of the Speaker of the House in 1859. In that year, a Republican representative from Ohio by the name of John Sherman was a candidate for the Speaker's gavel. That he was a Republican was bad enough for the delegations of the slave states, but the real rub was that Sherman had endorsed Hinton Helper's controversial (in the South) book, The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It, in which Helper, a virulently racist North Carolinian, argued against slavery on the basis that it destroyed property values and otherwise retarded the economy of the South, to the detriment of non-slaveholding whites. Nevermind that Sherman had withdrawn his endorsement after learning the full extent of Helper's views, or that Helper was not a morally-motivated abolitionist; he was an abolitionist nonetheless, and no one who had ever endorsed his book would be Speaker if the Congressional delegation of South Carolina had anything to say about it.

As it happens, they had quite a bit to say, and every word scathingly treasonous, even by secessionist standards. Because they did not propose secession, peaceful or otherwise, should Sherman win the seat; rather they were prepared to initiate a bloody coup on the House floor. Representative William Porcher Miles of South Carolina was prepared to do anything to prevent Sherman's taking of the Speakership, and asked Governor William Gist of South Carolina whether the legislature there would support the Congressional delegation's plotting. In response, on December 20, 1859 (one year to the day before South Carolina's secession) Gist posted a letter to Miles. While he cautioned against rashly provoking the free states, advising that a bloodless revolution would be preferable, he placed the matter in Miles' judgment, saying:

While I advise against the ejection of Sherman if elected, I do not wish to be understood as not desiring the war to begin at Washington; but as I would prefer it should begin in sudden heat & with good provocation rather than a deliberate determination to perform an act of violence which might prejudice us in the eyes of the world. … If however, you upon consideration decide to make the issue of fire in Washington, write or telegraph me, & I will have a Regiment in or near Washington in the shortest possible time.

To be clear, this wasn't a matter of national slavery policy, or even of lasting legislation at all; the government of South Carolina was prepared to use military force to influence the internal political workings of the federal Congress over what amounted to personal dislike of the candidate for an action the candidate had since disavowed. Once again, this crisis was defused by the free state delegations acceding to Southern demands; Sherman was withdrawn from consideration as a candidate for Speaker.

Even when not threatening violence and rebellion, Calhoun's mode of threatening secession and disunion continued to be popular with slave state politicians throughout the 1850s. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, nullifying the Missouri Compromise by permitting the slavery question to be determined by popular sovereignty (and setting the stage for Bleeding Kansas, in which opposing sides attempting to gain a majority of the electorate simply by killing the other side's voters), was passed under such threats, and when popular sovereignty failed to deliver a slave state in Kansas, threats of secession were again made if the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution was not accepted as the governing document of a new state of Kansas. “If Kansas is driven out of the Union for being a slave state, can any slave state remain in it with honor?” asked Senator Hammond of South Carolina (who, readers will no doubt recall, advocated burning down the Capitol if California was not made a slave state). These threats prompted President Buchanan to urge acceptance of the Lecompton document, saying that if he did not, the slave states would “secede from the Union or take up arms against us.” In the end, the Lecompton document was rejected and sent back for a new referendum, which failed; Kansas would not become a state, slave or free, for quite some time yet, removing the immediate crisis.

But no account of 1850s slave state aggression would be complete without mentioning Preston Brooks, representative of South Carolina, and his armed assault against Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor on May 22, 1856. Senator Sumner had in the preceding days given a speech denouncing the slaughter in the Kansas territory over the slavery issue, and had scathing words for Senator Andrew Butler, a relative of Brooks. In response, Brooks, along with two companions, walked into the Senate chamber, briefly addressed Sumner, and then commenced beating him with a heavy cane, cudgeling the Senator until he broke his bolted down Senate desk from the floor, rendered Sumner unconscious, and continued beating the unfortunate Senator until he broke his cane.

The incident was instantly infamous. Brooks was roundly censured by the House, but nearly unanimously reelected by his constituents. He received new canes from all over the South, including one bearing the inscription “Use Knock-Down Arguments” and another saying “Hit Him Again.”

The Crisis Comes: 1860-61

By the close of the 1850s, the long string of Southern aggressions had long since begun to wear thin on the patience of the free states, and especially the Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln, by now a candidate for President, said in an address to the Cooper Institute in New York, intended to be read by Southerners:

But you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, "Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!"

Of course, Lincoln's candidacy was successful. This was the first time anyone since Andrew Jackson who had shown any backbone in standing up to their threats had taken high office. The Deep South's secessions were swift. South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas all seceded before Lincoln even took office. I have extensively covered their stated reasons for doing so elsewhere, but preemptive secession (and accompanying seizure of federal property, notably forts and armories) is not a passive act, to put it mildly. On January 11, 1861, the day of Alabama's secession, Lincoln wrote to a Republican congressman who proposed an emergency compromise to forestall and reverse the secessions:

We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices. In this they are either attempting to play upon us or they are in dead earnest. Either way, if we surrender, it is the end of us and of the government. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum. A year will not pass till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union.

Compromise at this stage was impossible. Lincoln saw, with more clarity than his predecessor, that the South would never cease holding threats over the heads of the free states until the question was solved. “The tug has to come, and better now than later,” he wrote in December, 1860. All that remained now was the tug itself.

That came at Fort Sumter. The fort was a federal installation, manned by federal troops, which the state of South Carolina had by statute voluntarily surrendered all claim to in 1836. In short, it was thoroughly the property of the United States, even if one is so generous as to presume the legitimacy of secession through the means used by South Carolina. As every high school student in the United States knows, South Carolinian forces fired on Fort Sumter from the batteries of Fort Johnson, Fort Moultrie, and Cummings Point starting at 4:30 am on April 12, 1861.

This was, of course, the ultimate aggression of the South: Southern partisans bombarded and captured a manned United States military fortification, touching off a war that killed more Americans than any other war in history, almost as many as all other American wars combined.


The American Civil War was thoroughly of Southern construction. Between the administrations of Jackson and Lincoln, the federal government and free states had bent over backwards at every threat of the slaveholding South to prevent disunion; every single threat of secession and war was met with compromise and backing down. The so-called War of Northern Aggression is a fictional construct by the defenders of the fictional country known as the Confederate States of America, a thorough distortion of well-documented historical fact.

Author's Note: This essay's title, “The War of Southern Aggression,” is shared by an essay by James M. McPherson, a fact I discovered while conducting research for this article. Dr. McPherson's work is extremely well-written, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in this subject. His book of essays containing his work by this title may be found on Google Books here, but I recommend purchasing the book, as I did after discovering it. No infringement is intended.


Anonymous said...

This is excellent work.

Renegade Paladin said...

Thanks. I put a lot of effort into it.

James Everett said...

The ‘assumption bill.’

The first great sectional divergence occurred on the assumption bill, whereby the representatives of the Northern States proposed that the general government should assume the various State debts. A large portion of the bonds of the several States had been bought for a song by the people of the Northern States, and should the United States government assume the obligation their value would be much increased and great would be the pecuniary profit of the inhabitants of the Northern States at the expense of the States in general. To secure this money gain the New England members were willing to disrupt the Union. Jefferson says: “The Eastern members threaten secession and dissolution,” and Alexander Hamilton expressed his fears that the Northern States would dissolve the Union if the assumption bill were not passed. So here at the beginning of the life of the Union the Eastern and Northern States were willing to destroy it, not because their rights were violated, but because their very questionable commercial speculation was objected to.
Disunion, plagued the Confederacy from its very beginnings, this is the reason for the national aspect added by the 1787/1789 U.S. Constitution, it was the silver bullet to destroy the States,to destroy the Confederacy that established the union, and to consolidate the States into a single State under a wholly national government system. It was indeed a war of Northern aggression, as clearly it was the North under Lincoln that invaded the Southern States. Was the war to abolish slavery in the U.S.? Actually NO; if that was the case, then the secession of the Southern States would have accomplished this goal; the U.S. would have been free of slavery. It was the economic hegemony of the Northern interests that led the Norths aggression, which also had led to the Nullification crisis in South Carolina. The same hegemony has kept the U.S. in a perpetual State of war since 1865. The excuse for these wars are "To protect America's interests" those interests are corporate economic interests.