By James W. Loewen

Ordinance of Secession signed by 293 delegates to the Georgia Secession Convention in January 1861.

Since the sesquicentennial of secession in 2010, I have asked about 5,000 teachers across the country, “Why did the South secede?” 75 percent get it wrong, partly because most U.S. history textbooks mystify the topic. Yet the primary sources could not be clearer. This article will set the record straight while providing a way to help students discover the answer themselves.

Start by asking: Since the creation of the United States, what is the most important thing ever to happen to it? The answer has to be secession and the resulting Civil War.

Once they agree that the Civil War is #1, then ask, “Why did the South secede?” A serious conversation results, with audiences young or old. Four alternatives usually emerge:

  • For slavery
  • For states’ rights
  • The election of Lincoln
  • Issues about tariffs and taxes

Then ask students to vote. In my experience, regardless of region, 60 percent usually choose states’ rights, 20 percent slavery, another 15 percent tariffs and taxes, and one or two Lincoln. If your students give one alternative a plurality, ask: “Is [that alternative] therefore the right answer? Is that how we do history? By majority vote?”

Students will chorus “No.” So you can follow up: “What do we need?” Hopefully they will reply “evidence” or “facts.” Ask them to pair up and come up with ideas as to good evidence. They will suggest newspapers, politicians’ diaries, and other primary sources. “Primary” refers to items from the time, contrasted with secondary sources like historical monographs and tertiary sources like textbooks. Set them free to unearth primary sources on the web. They will find that the early-seceding states did so by convention, which told why they were seceding. Always they stressed slavery.

For instance, the first “Declaration of Causes,” South Carolina’s, quoted Article IV Section 2 of the Constitution, the fugitive slave clause, and then charged:

But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding states to the institution of slavery has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government… The States of Maine, New Hampshire … Wisconsin, and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the acts of Congress, or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from the service or labor claimed …

Clearly, South Carolina opposed states’ rights whenever Northern states exercised them on behalf of African Americans. Students will find nothing about tariffs and taxes, either. States did castigate Lincoln, because he opposed slavery.

Why is this important?

First, we must get history right. Once we abandon the truth, we start down a slippery slope with no principles to guide us as to what to teach. Second, mis-teaching secession denies the important role African Americans played. Those who escaped bondage from border states so jeopardized slavery that enslaved people in Maryland were worth much less than in Mississippi, partly because they were less secure. As well, every escape gave the lie to the ideology of racism that whites used to rationalize the institution: That slavery was appropriate for blacks and they liked it. Finally, making the Confederacy about states’ rights valorizes the neo-Confederate cause today.

Mis-teaching secession is one reason why the performance gap by race in social studies is greater than in any other field. It feeds the general alienation that some African Americans feel about school. And it underlies the affection for the Confederacy felt by some white Americans — Dylann Roof is an extreme example.

James W. Loewen, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Vermont, is the author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and “The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader.” Each article in this series will come with a short annotated bibliography, often to items Loewen wrote, for educators seeking additional information. For more information and resources see: James W. Loewen’s official web page.


Essential Reading:

Loewen, James W.  “Five Myths About Why the South Seceded,” Washington Post, 1/9/2011 Offers more detail showing that the South opposed states’ rights; also notes that the North did not go to war to end slavery but to hold the nation together.


Articles in This Series: