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    “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place.... Something more will arise for later, something better.”
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The War of Southern Aggression: Who Started the Civil War?

Discussion in 'Articles' started by Rogue 9, Dec 14, 2010.

  1. Rogue 9 SD Pathogen

    “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:

    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 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:

    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:

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

    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:

    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:

    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:

    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:

    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.
  2. Rogue 9 SD Pathogen

    Posted by request from Medora.

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