A few days ago Kevin Levin asked about ways to teach secession beyond the Charles Dew formula. At least that’s what I thought he was getting at. I considered it quite a bit and prepared some comments, but went back and read Kevin’s post more closely and found that he appeared to be baiting his neo-Confederate stalkers. Not wanting to engage in that conversation, I set it aside. But I’ll put some revised thoughts here.
Kevin’s prompt still got me thinking about teaching secession with now-ubiquitous Charles Dew formula: read the convention delegates’ correspondence and discover that slavery is the sine qua non of the Confederacy. This is pretty easy and pretty solid historical exposition. At proving a point, it is perfect. I’ve done it in my classes. But I think historically and pedagogically it leaves something to be desired.
I tell my students to never, ever, explain complex historical events and processes with one simple word. (I also tell them we don’t do history to prove points.) Single word answers—even if true—obscure complex historical processes and even more, foreclose upon the initiative to explore further. We want to get past simple answers and understand and explain things.
“Slavery”—as the answer to the question of why the south seceded—is true, but altogether unsatisfying as a way of understanding and explaining why southerners seceded (or supported secession.) It doesn’t explain why a broad collection of geographic, economic, social, and cultural constituencies united around the institution as a cause for secession. And that’s the initiative that I want to implant in my students: to not just say “answer,” but to understand and explain that answer. The answer is slavery, but from there we should jump to understand and explain why slavery was the immediate cause. (Maybe that’s done in previous lectures or class units, but I’m assuming we only get a small amount of time on this topic.)
Charles Dew did all of us a great service by conclusively proving slavery as the reasons for secession with his focus on the conventions. It is a convenient package for students. In an effort to encourage the habits of inquiry, understanding, and explanation in our students, can we not now pull back from Dew’s focus and examine a wider evidentiary base? Doing so will certainly “complexify” the easy narrative, but that’s a good thing, isn’t it?
For instance, I might offer the students an excerpt from the diary of David Golightly Harris, a pro-secession upcountry South Carolina farmer, who noted on December 6, 1860
All the candidates say secede, and, of course it will be done. And I hope it will be done quickly. Then will come the tug of war, but let it come. It can be no worse than the oppression of the North.
Harris, to our eternal frustration, never tells us what he meant by “oppressions of the North.” It might be explained with North Carolina Congressman Zeb Vance’s comments to his constituents in February, 1861, as his state deliberated secession. [Quote from here.]
What restraint is there upon the furious and bloodthirsty fanaticism which led John Brown, bristling with arms, into a sleeping southern city? What mother within a hundred miles of that long and defenceless border could kiss her infant to sleep without the horrid thought that before the morning’s sun her home might become the funeral pile [sic] of her self and child!
I might offer the thoughts of a Warren County, North Carolina, committee of citizens who met to consider the situation, and prefaced their resolutions with this WHEREAS,
WHEREAS, The course that has been pursued by the Black Republican party, both before and since their triumph in the election of Abraham Lincoln, gives no assurance of a returning sense of justice or a willingness to concede to the slaveholding States, their rights and equality in the Union, and, whereas, we believe, that all hope for an adjustment of our difficulties with the North, on terms which alone ought to be satisfactory and acceptable to the slaveholding States, has departed: And, whereas, it appears to be the settled policy of Lincoln and his party not to recognize the secession of any State or States, but to coerce said State or States to remain in the Union, thus producing civil war.
They resolved to secede immediately. It mimics the language of some of the state convention documents, but I would still include it for the students to read.
To understand the layers of meaning that decades of proslavery thought had created—and thus the larger social milieu white southerners considered to be at stake upon Lincoln’s election—I would offer the comments of the Presbyterian (PCCSA) General Assembly, who remained
deeply convinced that this struggle is not alone for civil rights, and property, and home, but also for religion, for the Church, for the Gospel, and for existence itself
The excerpts, about funeral pyres, slave insurrections, religion, and “existence itself,” fairly plainly illustrate, in ways that the convention documents do not, the visceral fear that white southerners felt at the ascension of a Republican government and suggest (more compellingly than Stephens’ academic rejection of modern liberalism) a satisfactory motivation for secession.
Perhaps it depends on your intent in the classroom. Were I lecturing and wanted to make the point, I’d go with the Dew formula. Were I guiding my students toward being good historians, I’d want to do more.
[p.s. I don’t have the document, but if you want to find a southerner who advocated secession because of frustration with tariffs, you’ll find him in Henry Fries of Salem, North Carolina. His letters and papers are at the Moravian Archives in Old Salem.]