Why Did Southerners Vote For Secession?

Here (in my humble opinion at least) is the list of reasons (in descending order of importance/influence) that led the vast majority of the electorate of the South (something on the order of more than 2 to 1) to vote in favor of the drastic and long threatened action of secession. (Some did so in a direct referendum and others by electing secessionist representatives to their State Conventions)

1.Mortal fear of a Haitian or Nat Turner style slave insurrection in which even innocent children (slave owner’s or not) would be butchered. This certainly was not an unreasonable fear either. Many prominent northerners (even clergymen) had morally and materially supported the John Brown terrorists and everyone in the South knew it. At least in the “mind of the South” they saw no reason to remain in a political union that was soon to be under the total control of those who advocated the wholesale slaughter of themselves and their families. And at least in the minds of Southerners those radicals included the entire Republican Party. Of course many in that party (including abe) were not rabid abolitionists and supporters of terrorism and this may or may not have been a reasonable assumption. I am speaking here though of the perceptions of Southern voters and why they voted for secession. Even for those who realized that many republicans probably were not in favor of radical abolitionist terrorism is there any reason they should have waited around to find out for sure? It would have been much too late to make a difference if your family had already been slaughtered wouldn’t it?

2. Widespread understanding that the north wanted a tariff that would be unfair and punitive toward the South. Again their fears were well founded. As soon as the republicans got the chance they DOUBLED the tariff. Is there any reason Southern voters should not have voted for secession when they were about to be taxed to death for the benefit of northern corporations and interests and they knew it?

3. The desire on the part of wealthy Southerners to keep the wealth they had tied up in slaves. All slave owners including those who weren’t really wealthy could not have amounted to more than 25% of the electorate of the South (including those who owned slaves directly and those who stood to inherit slaves) As in most societies (certainly ours of this day) of course the wealthy wielded more political power than the other economic classes (more than their numbers warranted). HOW MUCH political power that 25% wielded in a freely elected representative government is open to question but I doubt very seriously that it was enough to force the other 75% (or even 26% in order to have a majority) to vote for a drastic measure like secession. Southerners could not have known for sure that secession would mean a devastating war (and most assumed it wouldn’t) but they HAD to know that such a war was within the realm of possibility if they seceded.

Lincoln himself estimated the worth of all the slaves in the US was something on the order of 2 billion dollars. I think this is low by about half but let’s take abe’s estimate as accurate for a minute. Even at this estimate, the value in today’s dollars was something on the order of $52 BILLION. There were 385,000 slave owners and this number is way over stated as far as influence of the vote to secede because it includes women, black and Indian slave owners who could not vote and all the slave owners in the Border States that did not secede. Nevertheless, do you know of any group of 385,000 people that would voluntarily give up $52 BILLION today simply because someone else from another culture altogether told them it was the right thing to do? (If you do please send me a list of their names and addresses I would like to send them a letter and tell them it would be the right thing to do to send me all their money ASAP!)

I might add here too that the only thing that the vast majority of northern abolitionists were more adamantly opposed to than slavery was the idea of compensated emancipation (as had been accomplished by the British Empire) The abolitionists looked on that idea as rewarding evil Southerners for their evil Southern ways. They were gung h o for freeing someone else’s slaves as long as it didn’t cost THEM anything.

4. The political and economic philosophy of most Southerners and most Yankees was antagonistic and in many ways mutually exclusive of each other. Northerners were mainly adherents to “Hamiltonianism”. This political philosophy called “the American System” was simply an American version of the old British mercantile system in which government became the partner and patron to business and industry. In this system the government taxes (or regulates which is in effect the same as a tax in many cases) the people at large for the benefit of large corporations (especially railroads and shipping interests in that day). The taxes in their day consisted mainly of a high tariff on imports. In order to fully implement this system they knew they had to create a strong centralized government that they would control (because they had the majority of the vote)

Southerners were mainly “Jeffersonians” that believed in Jefferson’s ideas of limited government and low tariffs.

Yes both sides were simply considering their own economic interests but it was SOUTHERN wealth that was mostly paying the bills and about to pay much more. (Because the northern “Hamiltoians” were about to have almost total control of the central government)

5. The culture (including religion) of the north and the South were entirely different and not just different but mutually antagonistic. There was simply a natural animosity between the cultures and this at least partially fueled and exasperated the conflicts mentioned above. This was not just because of slavery either.

In a manner of speaking it was the Roundheads vs the Cavaliers, Cromwell vs the Irish, Bonnie Prince Charlie vs Cumberland , Welsh and Irish against the English, William Wallace vs “Longshanks”, Anglo Saxon vs Celts even Caesar vs Vercingetorix all over again. You might as well ask why the Irish wanted to separate from the British Empire. In the immortal words of the sage of Orrville “It just bees dat way sumtimes”.

Yankee culture was dominated and led by descendants of the Puritans from East Anglica (real honest to God Anglo Saxons). Their culture was all about their Calvinist Puritan religion and economic gain through work and commerce PERIOD and they hated anyone that did not agree with them. They felt they had not only the divine right but the duty to coerce every living creature on the face of the earth to live and believe as they did too. I realize that many of those Puritans morphed into Unitarian/Universalists but this did nothing to change their believe that they were God’s chosen put on earth to reform everyone else.

“Tide water” Southern culture was dominated and led by the “Cavaliers” from the “west country” of Great Britain (Devon, Somerset, Wales ,Cornwall) they tended to be Anglican in religion and “Celtic” in their folk ways. In their culture leisure, sport and the other sensual pleasures were just as important (if not more so) as their religion or making money. The culture of the upland South was dominated and led by the Scots-Irish (along with Scots, Irish and “border English”) Though also Calvinist (Presbyterian and Hard shell Baptist in many cases) in their religion (if they had one) they had not lost their Celtic folk ways that included a love of the sensual pleasures and leisure.

That love of leisure and pleasure was an abomination to the Puritans/Unitarians and one of the main reasons they hated Southerners so. One other reason for that hatred was the fact that the Southerners were getting filthy rich and enjoying the hell out of life at the same time. Jealousy and envy are powerful motivations, especially for a people that firmly believe that they are God’s chosen and therefore should get all the goodies and be able to dictate to others how to live.

Southerners saw Yankees as meddling, holier than thou, money grubbing religious fanatics and priggish self serving “do gooders” that needed a good old fashioned as s whipping as a lesson in manners.

Yankees saw Southerners as hedonistic, irreligious, violent, lazy and lawless and bound straight for hell and worthy only of hell.

These two basic cultures had been at each other’s throats for generations if not 1000’s of years. Southerners didn’t need a reason to hate Yankees and they didn’t need a reason to separate themselves from Yankees. Yankees didn’t need a reason to hate Southerners either. Yankees would have hated Southerners and tried to make them over in their image and “reform” them (while making a tidy profit of course) had there never been a slave on the North American continent. The people of the two cultures were practically hereditary enemies.

The wonder is not that the South tried to secede but that those two divergent and antagonistic cultures could tolerate and cooperate with each other long enough to secede from the British Empire!

Note : These are the causes of SECESSION and certainly NOT the causes of the war. Secession DID NOT lead inexorably to war. It is patent fact that the war commenced because abe Lincoln very carefully and very deliberately provoked war.

So... what do you think? Please leave me a comment.


  • macreverie: By the way that first **** is H O the (as in Gung H O) the second **** is A S S (as in A S S whipping)
  • dsulliva: I read every word of your article and found it very interesting...So many ideas are still thrown around by people about why the south seceded and how it was the south that started the war...My own opinion is that the north started it by being in the south and in their face...Fort Sumpter was probably being maintained by southern tax money so they can’t even say they were paying for it...Also, South Carolina had already seceded which I think they had a right to do...So even the land no longer belonged to the north....Seems the north provoked it...I’m open for corrections if I’m wrong about my thoughts...Dianne Sullivan...
  • Karen_J: How many black Southerners got to vote?
  • macreverie: Just as many that got to vote on the Secession of the 13 colonies from the British Empire. God save the Queen.
  • macreverie: Thanks Dianne!
  • Taylor: Mac, I read your blog with great interest and your points are spot on. Well thought out and well written.
  • macreverie: Thanks Taylor
  • A.M.T. 4,96: Very detailed, and very good. Thank you. Your answer was very informing and helpful.
  • Sgtredleg: Excellent commentary Mac. I believe that your points are valid and presented well. It is rather uncommon to have a detailed, Southern perspective of secession. Instead, we often hear the "well versed" Northern account of "treason" or "slavery" as being the inciter to the bloodiest war for Americans ever.
    Thanks for the thought provoking information.
  • macreverie: Thanks Red
  • Petronius: A very good summary. A couple of ideas –
    These would be the reasons for secession in the Lower South. In the Upper South secession was driven chiefly by Lincoln’s call for an invasion of the CSA.
    Second, I would move your 4th and 5th points higher up the ladder, say, to 2d and 3d place. It’s my belief that — for reasons developed from your 4th and 5th points — sooner or later the North would have attempted to overthrow the South even if slavery had never existed in North America.
    The North has been waging a non-stop cold war — and sometimes a hot war — against the South since colonial days up to the present. During this span of about 400 years, the North has more-or-less consistently acted toward the South with hostility, resentment, and rapacity. Yet during all this time, slavery was a predominantly Southern institution only during the first half of the 19th century. (The North has done a good job of burying its role in slavery before the 1840s.)
    Thanks for your fine statement.
  • Taylor: I’m glad this blog has been resurrected as it’s one of the best summaries on Southern secession that I’ve read in a long time - well thought out and a compelling read.

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