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The Civil War, The South Secedes

compact theory, President Buchanan, Fort Moultrie, South Carolina militia, right of secession

White Southerners fully realized what had happened: National politics now pitted the North against the South, and the North had a solid and growing majority. The South would never again control the federal government or see it controlled by friendly Northerners. Many saw no alternative to seceding from the Union.

Southerners justified secession with what was called the compact theory. This theory held that the Constitution had created not a perpetual union but a compact between independent states that retained their sovereignty. The compact could be broken in the same way that it had been created: with state conventions called for that purpose. By this means South Carolina seceded from the Union in late December 1860. By February 1 (before Lincoln’s inauguration) six more states from the Deep South had left the Union.

Northerners—including President Buchanan, Stephen Douglas, and other Democrats—denied the right of secession. The more lawyerly among them reminded the South that the Constitution was written “to form a more perfect Union” than the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution had stated that “the union shall be perpetual.” Thus secession was a legal impossibility. And in practical terms, Northerners argued, secession would be a fatal disaster to the American republic. Republics had a history of splitting into smaller parts and descending into anarchy. Secession, Lincoln argued, was revolution. Many Southerners agreed and claimed that they were exercising their sacred right to revolt against oppressive government.

Congress tried to come up with compromise measures in early 1861, but there was no way of compromising in the argument over secession. The seven states of the lower South (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) formed themselves into the Confederate States of America. Their Constitution was nearly identical to the Constitution of the United States, although it affirmed state sovereignty, guaranteed slavery, and limited the president to a single six–year term.

In his inaugural address, Lincoln was conciliatory without compromising on secession. He also hinted that the national government would use force to protect military garrisons in the Confederate states—in particular, Fort Moultrie in Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. When he tried to resupply the garrison (which had moved to the stronger Fort Sumter), the South Carolina militia fired thousands of artillery rounds into the fort, forcing its surrender. With that, the Civil War began.

With the beginning of the war, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas seceded and joined the Confederacy. Unionist legislative majorities kept the remaining slave states of Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware, and Missouri from joining the rebel states. Meanwhile the western counties of Virginia seceded from that state when Virginia seceded from the Union and became the new state of West Virginia. Thousands of men from these border states, however, traveled south and joined the Confederate Army.

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