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Secession in 1860 was a result of a cumulative series of events and of actions by

influential political figures. It may on the surface seem that many causes led to
the secession of some southern slave holding states, however when studied
closely it is evident that slavery was for the most part at the heart of each issue
especially the contentious points between the political parties. This essay will
closely and critically discuss each possible cause of secession; these include
slavery, the rights of individual states, the 1860 elections, the Republican Partys
anti-slavery agenda and sectionalism. It will also look at the different
interpretational theories of the causes of secession; namely they are: the
political theory, the economic expansion theory, the social theory of secession
and a psychological theory. In order to understand why certain states seceded, it
is vital to have an understanding of the context in which the secession occurred.
This essay will begin by laying out the general context by describing the political
climate of that time.
Before secession occurred in 1860, the varying and often conflicting interests of
Southerners and Northerners led to constant tension between the two regions.
The plantation economy of the South was almost completely opposite to the
more industrial economy of the Northern states. 1The president at the time from
1857 was Democrat James Buchanan. At the time when Buchanan assumed
office, the Democratic Party was powerful, however their power and influence
was concentrated mainly in the Southern states of the US. 2 This party had
adopted a number of policies and ideals from the Whig Party (existed during
Americas second party system). Furthermore, this party was pro-slavery;
however there were factions within the party who had opposing views on
slavery.3 The other party was the new Republican Party, when the Whig party
disintegrated due to the issue of slavery, many anti-slavery politicians joined the
Republicans. The Republicans had an overwhelming amount of support in the
Northern states; they almost had neither influence nor popularity in the South.
During the 1856 elections the Democrat Party was united and strong and hence
won the election, however the situation quickly changed leading to the rise to
power of the Republicans.
The Democratic Party split in two in 1860.4 The party could not agree on a single
candidate for the upcoming election. Ultimately, there were the Northern
Democrats led by Stephen Douglas, and the Southern Democrats led by John C.
1

Stampp, Kenneth And The War Came: The North And the Secession Crisis 1860-1861
pp58.
2
Semonche, John Secession From The Union, 1860-61: The Causes and Rationale. p2
3
4

Ibid pp 2-3.
Ibid, p3.

Breckinridge.5 The contentious issue which led to the split was slavery. The
Northern Democrats espoused a policy that favoured industrialisation and a
move away from a slave economy, its support as the name suggests was based
in the north of the US. The Republicans were led by eventual president of the
USA Abraham Lincoln. The 1860 election was contested mainly by these three
parties; interestingly the issue dividing these parties was slavery. 6
The Republican Party won the 1860 election even though they enjoyed almost no
support in the South. Lincolns Party was strong in the Northern states. After
Lincolns election, the pro-separatist forces in slave-holding states grew more
popular and began to out secession from the Union with more fervour. 7 Before
the conlusion of the elections a number of influential Southerners had vowed to
go forth with secession if Lincoln won. It must be noted that secession did not
become an issue only after the 1860 election, but even before dating back to
1776, when South Carolina threatened to separate from the colony. 8 And in
1860, December South Carolina became the first state to secede. 9 The fury that
Southerners had towards the idea of emancipating their slaves was high; it is
evident that the Southern Democratic Party was strongly against emancipation
and strong limitations of the institution. In a speech by their presidential
candidate Breckinridge, he is quoted as saying that It is the avowed purpose of
the Republican Party to overturn the Constitution itself...to put you in a position
where you were about, for peace sake, to emancipate your slaves 10 This strong
anti Republican sentiment grew deeper when the Republicans gained power.
Another issue which was contentious was that of states rights. Since
Southerners of course had the right to own slaves within their state, however
they believed that that right should be extended to when they may leave the
state. They wanted to have the right to own slaves and have them work for them
if and when they are in non-slave holding states, they did not wish for that right
to fall away when they are no longer in a slave-holding state. In contrast to this,
Northerners held the view that that right must fall away. This issue is one of
states rights and they may have applied to a number of different state rights,
nevertheless it is clear that at the very heart of this issue is slavery.
Nationalistic sentiments in the South were immense and common. 11 The notion
of an ideological separation between the North and the South had existed prior
to the contentious 1860 election, for years had many Southerners felt a sense of
otherness from the North and very little desire existed to conform or be more
alike their Northern counterparts. 12

Collins, Bruce The Origins of Americas Civil War, p140.


Ibid p 142.
7
Semonche, pp2-3.
8
Stampp, p60.
9
Collins, p140.
10
Collins p 144.
11
McCardell, John The Idea of a Southern Nation: Southern Nationalists and Southern
Nationalism, 1830-1860. p20.
12
Ibid, pp22-25.
6

The USA had widely expanded during and after Thomas Jeffersons tenure as
president. The westward expansion of the country, had led to plantations being
created in these states, therefore, slavery had increased and there were many
more wealthy Southerners being formed.13 These wealthy plantation owners were
politically influential. The people in the North feared that these rich slave-owners
were too powerful and had a huge advantage over them. Northerners wanted to
prevent the spread of slavery further westward.
Protectionism and tariffs were problems that were controversial too. In the
South, since the manual labour was cheap and efficient, they had no need or
desire to industrialize. The North was pro industrialization. 14 Northern states were
suffering because they could not compete with the highly-industrialized and
advanced industries of Europe and particularly Great Britain. What used to
happen was that Britain and other European markets would buy cotton for low
prices from the South, and then they would manufacture the cotton and sell the
manufactured goods back to the US for high prices. In reaction to this the North
wanted high tariffs on the goods in order to protect their economy and industry.
However, the Democrats who controlled the Congress had written the tariff laws
and kept the tariffs very low. This upset may Northerners who believed that this
was damaging to the countrys economy and industry. This issue of tariffs and
protectionism is also underlined by the presence of slaves in the South; it is
linked and cannot be separated from it.

Slavery was the root cause of secession in 1860. Due to the position that this
institution held in Southern society; it was at the very heart of the Souths
economy and way of life. The threat against slavery was a threat against the
livelihood and safeguarding of the South. Yes, there did exist other causes of
secession but these were all either underlined or influenced by slavery. Without
slavery the South would suffer and holding on to it was of paramount importance
even if it meant disbanding from the Union and risking international isolation.
The South was almost self sustaining and was economically flourishing due to
the cheap manual labour, meanwhile the North was struggling and under threat
by this institution. There was no reconciliation or compromise between the antislavery views of the Northerners and the pro-slavery views dominant in the
South.

13
14

Stampp, p120.
Olsen, Christopher The American Civil War: A Hands On History. P115.