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Deep South Culture during Secession

Eighty-five years. That is how much time passed between the unity of a people, fighting together for an independent nation, and the breakdown of that unity. Yet much transpired in the eighty-five years that bridged 1776 and 1861. Massive population increases, economic growth and hardships, and an ever-growing landscape are just a few. It is no secret that leading into the American Civil War there stood two geographical areas that were in stark contrast to one another on some inflammatory issues and the question of slavery was not the least among them. But what motives had the South given as the truest for inciting secession and civil war? The answer is not simple, for although the issue of slavery is easy to target, the majority of Unionists did not have a strong conviction to abolish slavery. Nor is it satisfactory to claim that the Confederates were unwilling to develop past their archaic, bondage ways especially when one considers how few Southerners actually kept slaves.

In investigating the reasons why Southern states were unable to compromise their government and culture under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln’s Republican party, it is necessary to understand that culture, as well as the realities of life in the Deep South and the events leading to 1861. To people today, it might seem that Southerners had more to risk by fighting the Union and adhering to slavery than they did by submitting to the changes occurring, but this viewpoint is too elementary. True the fight cost the Confederate states much, but surely this cost was deemed worthy the risk. The leaders and people of the South felt that secession was necessary because not only had their institution of slavery been threatened, but what they believed to be their honor, their economies, and their very lives were also at risk by the election of Abraham Lincoln.

The antebellum South was a much different landscape than what exists today. Having been occupied by the Indians until the 1820s, many areas of the Deep South resembled a frontier, vastly undeveloped compared to northern parts of the country, and most settlers that arrived in the first thirty years of the nineteenth century lived in poverty.[1] The lack of development meant that life was often what one thinks of when they consider the “wild west”, meaning that there were many dangers for the settlers. Wild animals, illness, Indians, and even other dangerous settlers were to be feared, and this wilderness contributed to an obsession of physical strength, courage and the ability to protect oneself and family. Southern men were raised not to turn away from a threat. Survival was based on these values. Furthermore, although neighbors were sparse in many instances, community was relied upon for survival and relationships.[2] This reliance meant that public behaviour and reputation had to be guarded and valued. Christopher Olsen, author of Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi: Masculinity, Honor, and the Antiparty Tradition, 1830-1860, sums it up saying, “Mississippians [and others in the Deep South] of all classes agreed that a man’s foremost duty was the defense of personal honor, home, and family reputation. Another shared element was the valuation of physical form, even comeliness. A man’s stature, bearing, even his nose and his genitalia, reflected his inner manliness,”.[3] Olsen explains the dilemma of the Deep Southerner who often valued and therefore wished to defend their reputation and honor more than they wished to preserve the Union.[4] This is not to say how little the Union was important to them, but instead to underscore how massively they prioritized their honor and reputation, based out of their culture.

As the Deep South became more settled and developed, these values streamed into politics. Rather than focusing on a collective party functioning around a few core issues such as was common in northern states, politics in the Deep South revolved around individuals.[5] This meant that reputations and relationships were imperative to being elected. High importance of honor and loyalty fueled elections. In Mississippi, democracy had long been a value, at least for white men. The state lacked some of the typically seen guidelines for voting that other American states had such as financial requirements, military qualifications, or length of residency status.[6] Furthermore, most state offices were elected rather than appointed, which meant that reputations were that much more necessary to uphold. This democratic culture helped assert whiteness, masculinity, and honor as some of the most valuable assets in Mississippi culture.

Southern culture manifested in a mindset of intense protection of one’s physical self, and masculine honor. As aforementioned, it also caused a slight isolationist way of living due to the sparse population, while simultaneously, encouraging a deep reliance on one’s community. The ideas of honor, and protection were deeply encouraged by the practice of violence. [7] Furthermore, the identity of becoming an honorable, strong, and protective white male was so key to the upbringing of Southern children that in this context, slavery was a tool to instill the mentality, providing an easy benchmark on which to build off of. White men, no matter how poor or dishonest or lazy would always be toward the top simply because they were white and male. These thoughts fueled the white supremacy legacy.

Yet when it comes to slave ownership, it was a small percentage of the population in the Southern states that owned large plantations, and therefore slaves. Despite this small population the crop which was primary in the South by the 1860’s, cotton, was a staple that many depended on throughout the world. “King Cotton” as it became referred to, grown in the South by the labour of black slaves, drove the nation’s textile industry and so the economy was much at risk if emancipation occurred.[8] Furthermore, plantation owners realized that they faced economic challenges because of rising costs of slaves due to the outlawing of the African slave trade, as well as land. Environmental impacts that they had induced with their fields such as soil depletion were also a concern. For cotton plantations to continue to bear fruit they had to expand, and as the North attempted to block the entrance of slave territories in the West, the Southerners became more restricted in their options. Slavery supporters believed that being allowed to create new slave states and territories could help spread the slave population to reduce the risk of insurrection, an added bonus.[9] At the political level, they claimed that this would also improve conditions for the slaves, but this argument was to no avail as evidenced by the Compromise of 1850 which revolved around the admission of new territories as “free or slave” and was in the end further restrictive on slavery.[10] Feeling their hands were bound and seeing secession as the last alternative, the elite plantation owners intended to unify the South and get all Southerners regardless of financial situation to believe that slavery was imperative to their southern ways and to economic success.[11] Slavery was the backbone of Southern economy. In order to understand the deep attachment to slavery that came to exist in the Deep South, one must also understand elements that helped slavery become relied upon in the first place.

As cited by Lacy Ford in “Reconfiguring the Old South: ‘Solving’ the Problem of Slavery, 1787-1838,” a prominent Savannah merchant, Joseph Clay, has been quoted as saying, “the Negro business is a great object with us, both with a View to our Interest individually, and the general prosperity of this State and its commerce, it is to the trade of this Country, as Soul to the Body,”.[12] This quote symbolizes the widely popular viewpoint of the 1700’s in Southern states that without the ability to import slaves from Africa, there was no possibility of economic success. During the early 1800’s as Louisiana territory was added, and Mississippi became more developed, cotton expansion “boomed” drawing more plantation owners to the Deep South. At the same time, the upper South was beginning to realize that basing their industries off of slavery carried risk. Also, the foreign slave trade was on its way out and people like Thomas Jefferson were beginning to advocate, albeit with hesitance, colonization of the slaves, and even emancipation. Ford explains that these factors combined caused many slave owners in the upper South to start selling their slaves to people of the lower South during the cotton boom.[13]

Violent reinforcement of slavery was often encouraged, valued even. Whites, slaveowners or not, were caught up in a culture where they had enforced, with violence, the enslavement of blacks. By relinquishing this institution their culture would be disrupted regardless of how few white families actually owned slaves. The social position of all white men would be challenged. Southern white boys were taught the importance of loyalty to their own race in case of threats to or rebellion against white dominance.[14] The institution of slavery fueled this culture while also causing it to have a significant reason to be enforced because of the perceived threat of black rebellions. During any slave-rebellion scares, white men of the South were put into positions to prove their commitment to slavery and white supremacy in order to maintain their lifestyles, and to protect their community. In Mississippi, the slaves were the majority of the population, so revolts were perceived as realistic and life threatening to whites, who relied on one another for protection, even if it meant slave massacre. The case of freedman Denmark Vesey, a slave insurrection leader in 1822, South Carolina, is just one example. Vesey, a longtime friend to the slaves of South Carolina and religious leader, met with many blacks (slave and free) to incite a revolt which he hoped to implement on July 14, 1822.[15] Plans supposedly included killing slave masters and fleeing to Haiti for refuge. When a couple slaves revealed the plan to their slave owners in the beginning of June, within two weeks Vesey and at least six other rebels were executed. Over forty more blacks suspected of being involved were killed, and dozens of others sold as slaves outside the country.[16] The swift and harsh reaction by the whites of Charleston prove how effective the Southern culture of white violence and loyalty was in controlling the slave population.

By 1860 however, the newly formed Republican Party threatened the culture and traditions of the South. The fear that Republicans would attempt to make equal the races, and even encourage marriage between them was very real and so offensive that it pushed many to buckle down on their secession advocacy.[17] In fact, in their article of secession, Mississippi cites this perceived call for “negro equality” as a reason for secession.[18] The Republican Party uprising, the Free Soiler’s movement, the Wilmot Proviso (albeit unsuccessful), California’s Free Soil statehood, and the neglect by the North of the Fugitive Slave Act were abhorred by Southern leaders.[19] Not only were these political hits because the occurrences threatened their understanding of the constitution and their enjoyment of white supremacy, but the Southerners took these as grave offense to their honor, reputations, and lifestyles. The call for secession was about the Federal governments lack of protection, but also about a sense of deep, unforgivable insult to a people who still believed that a pistol’s duel was a widely accepted way of resolving disputes.

Southerners were perturbed by the Northerner’s insinuations, and sometimes even outright saying, that the Southern way of life was immoral and inferior because of their reliance on the institution of slavery.[20] These claims were not only insulting and confirmation of the belief that the North discriminated against the South, but they appeared downright hypocritical considering the North’s own dependence on Southern cotton. This was too much for some who believed that to accept such an assault from the North on their honor was to admit weakness and evil-doing, an accusation that Southerners were willing to fight to defend themselves from. The institution of slavery was so ingrained in their communities and culture that they were unable to separate the distaste of the institution, from distaste of their own reputations. In fact, many Southerners believed that the Republican party had been born out of anti-slavery sentiment and as an attack on Southern morality. These beliefs enforced the idea that Southern men had to defend their honor, their families, and their communities from attacks from the Republicans. To quote Olsen, “Southern men were struggling to vindicate their own, as well as their society’s reputation and character,”.[21] To the Southerners, maintaining their honor and integrity was more important than compromising to preserve the Union, indeed, this may have been more important to them even than combatting the Compromise of 1850, as despite the South’s threats of secession during the Compromise, it wasn’t until the election of a Republican president, whose party stood accusatory of Southern culture, that secession was actually executed.

Although each Southern state’s article to secede is varying in style and description, the messages are all the same: we refuse to give up slavery, and we refuse to be ruled by a government that would continue to berate us on the matter. However, an aspect of secession worth noting here is addressed by Hudson Meadwell, and Lawrence M. Anderson, authors of “Sequence and Strategy in the Secession of the American South,”. Meadwell and Anderson present the idea that without the leadership and motivation of South Carolina, secession would likely not have happened, nor the Confederacy.[22] South Carolina politics were unique within the South because of their history of nullification. During the 1830s in response to a federal tariff policy, being the only state that objected to the point of voiding the federal tariff, Meadwell and Anderson argue nullification is what set South Carolina apart.[23] This caused a breeding ground for secessionist ideology. During the nullification crisis, South Carolina, although having had intention to secede, opted not to because they did not have the support of their southern neighbors.[24] It was the election of Lincoln and the harassment of abolitionists that caused South Carolina leaders to finally mobilize. There was a significant aristocratic population in South Carolina who had heavy ties in cotton planting thus, South Carolina’s economy had much at risk by losing their slaves.

But other states clearly had much as risk also. Due to the previously mentioned personable politics of the Deep South, during the Confederate convention in Montgomery of 1861, leaders called on their delegates to be unified, and put aside any differences for the sake of successful secession.[25] South Carolina secession supporters knew that to secure support, they had to get others to believe that all of their interests were one in the same. They professed that slavery was a key benefit to all white men regardless of ownership, and that if they didn’t help defend the institution that all of their lives would be impacted in a negative way.[26] The governors of Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida all wrote South Carolina officials to tell them that would the former lead the way to secession, the latter would likely follow.[27] Radical secessionists in South Carolina are the ones that strategized, and lead the secessionist movement. The vote to secede was substantial and swift after the election of Abraham Lincoln, and with the leadership of South Carolina, all of the Deep South states seceded.

In their Declaration of Secession, the people of South Carolina seemed to maintain that state government should be free from, independent of, and sovereign to federal government. They professed that the Northern states disobeyed the constitution, and therefore initiated secession. It is worth mentioning here that, as teachers and authors Nancy Ogden, Catherine Perkins, and David M. Donahue assert in their article, “Not a Peculiar Institution: Challenging Students’ Assumptions about Slavery in U.S. History,” that the government had historically acknowledged the nation as a “slave holding republic” protected under the constitution. [28] Therefore it was not shocking that South Carolinians would have felt that a threat to slavery was a threat to their constitutional rights. Ultimately, they cited the election of an anti-slavery man as their reasons for secession, saying that the government “[has] denounced as sinful the institution of slavery,”.[29] South Carolinians were anxious about the development of the Republican party,

A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction…

The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.[30]

For Georgia, reasons to secede were also found in the context of slavery. Georgians saw the disallowance of slavery in some of the new territories as a direct threat to their rights.[31] Furthermore, Georgia points out the hypocrisy of the North delivering fugitive criminals back to their home states, but not doing the same in regards to the Fugitive Slave Act, a valid frustration as slavery had not yet been abolished in entirety. The Georgians claim the government failed to perform their job: to protect the South from the hostility and idiocy of the North. They too seem perturbed by the election of Lincoln, calling it an anti-slavery party. They claim that it is unjust and illogical to allow themselves to be ruled by such a party so adverse to slavery, the backbone of Southern economy.

Because by their declared principles and policy they have outlawed $3,000,000,000 of our property in the common territories of the Union; put it under the ban of the Republic in the States where it exists and out of the protection of Federal law everywhere; because they give sanctuary to thieves and incendiaries who assail it to the whole extent of their power, in spite of their most solemn obligations and covenants; because their avowed purpose is to subvert our society and subject us not only to the loss of our property but the destruction of ourselves, our wives, and our children, and the desolation of our homes, our altars, and our firesides. To avoid these evils we resume the powers which our fathers delegated to the Government of the United States, and henceforth will seek new safeguards for our liberty, equality, security, and tranquility.[32]

Mississippi agreed, claiming that their purpose was entirely about the “institution of slavery”, and the idea that abolishment would be traumatic to their economy, the world’s economy, and wreak havoc on civilization itself.[33] A reminder here is that Northern economy was also dependent on Southern cotton, or more bluntly, slave labour. The cotton from the South was sold as a raw material to the North and to other countries such as England, hence it is not unfathomable to think that Mississippians truly believed that the abolishment of slavery would be detrimental to world economy. The clever Mississippian’s claim that the North had been accusing them of immorality by holding onto slavery, yet there had been no presentation of a solution to the problems that abolishment would create; no alternative provided.

In conclusion, these secession articles prove that it is obvious that the thought of abolishing slavery to the Southerners was not just insulting or damaging, it was in their minds impossible because of the long-held dependence on it. Not only did they face economic turmoil, but many Southerners, especially in the Deep South, believed that freed blacks would cause physical harm on them if given the opportunity. The risk of suffering through potential death, injury, famine, and devastation by war against the Union, was less terrifying than facing a South without slavery. Many Southerners believed that the rapid belief in abolishment and threats to Southern institutions were unconstitutional and given the historical facts it is hard to argue this belief. The shame is that as the enlightenment that slavery was immoral, disgraceful, and depressing gained traction, the people of the Deep South were caught up in a world that could not exist without it. Olsen compares slavery to a cancer, one that spread “its malignant effects to warp southern gender norms, class relations, evangelical religion, and virtually every other cultural trait,”.[34] Slavery was an institution that had been so long relied upon and instilled in Southern culture that although an unfortunate choice to build their economies on, it seemed impossible to eradicate, even if the Southerners wanted to.




Confederate States of America – Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union Secession, Yale Law School, Lillian Goldman Law Library (2008). https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_scarsec.asp

Confederate States of America – Mississippi Secession, 2008. Yale Law School, Lillian Goldman Law Library. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_missec.asp

“Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of Georgia from the Feder.” 2017. Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce & Justify the Secession of Georgia from the Federal Union, August, 1. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=khh&AN=21212260&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Egerton, Douglas R., Robert L. Paquette, Stanley Harrold, and Randall M. Miller. 2017. The Denmark Vesey Affair: A Documentary History. Southern Dissent. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1435037&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Ford, Lacy. 2008. “Reconfiguring the Old South: ‘Solving’ the Problem of Slavery, 1787-1838.” Journal of American History 95 (1): 95–122. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=khh&AN=32796485&site=eds-live&scope=site.

McPherson, James M. and James K Hogue, 2010. Ordeal by Fire; The Civil Ware and Reconstruction, Boston, MA: McGraw Hill Higher Education.

Meadwell, Hudson and Lawrence M. Anderson. 2008. “Sequence and Strategy in the Secession of the American South.” Theory and Society 37 (3): 199. doi:10.1007/s11186-007-9047-8.

Ogden, Nancy, Catherine Perkins, and David M. Donahue. 2008. “Not a Peculiar Institution: Challenging Students’ Assumptions about Slavery in U.S. History.” History Teacher 41 (4): 469–88. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=asn&AN=34235050&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Olsen, Christopher J. 2000. Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi: Masculinity, Honor, and the Antiparty Tradition, 1830-1860. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=92697&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Remini, Robert V. 2010. “Clay’s Compromise.” American Heritage 60 (2): 23. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=51508582&site=eds-live&scope=site.


[1] Christopher J. Olsen, Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi: Masculinity, Honor, and the Antiparty Tradition, 1830-1860. Oxford University Press. (2000): 17. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=92697&site=eds-live&scope=site.

[2] Olsen, Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi: Masculinity, Honor, and the Antiparty Tradition, 1830-1860, 21.

[3] Olsen, 23.

[4] Olsen, 9.

[5] Olsen, 6.

[6] Olsen, 30.

 [7] Olsen, 22.

[8] Nancy Ogden, Catherine Perkins, and David M. Donahue, “Not a Peculiar Institution: Challenging Students’ Assumptions about Slavery in U.S. History,” History Teacher 41, 4 (2008): 474. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=asn&AN=34235050&site=eds-live&scope=site.

[9] Lacy Ford, “Reconfiguring the Old South: ‘Solving’ the Problem of Slavery, 1787-1838,” Journal of American History 95, 1 (2008): 106. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=khh&AN=32796485&site=eds-live&scope=site.

[10] Robert V. Remini, “Clay’s Compromise,” American Heritage 60, 2 (2010): 23. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=51508582&site=eds-live&scope=site.

[11] Olsen, 7.

[12] Ford, “Reconfiguring the Old South: ‘Solving’ the Problem of Slavery, 1787-1838,” 96.

[13] Ford, 105.

[14] Olsen, 22.

[15] Douglas R. Egerton, Robert L. Paquette, Stanley Harrold, and Randall M. Miller, The Denmark Vesey Affair: A Documentary History, University Press of Florida, (2017): 75. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1435037&site=eds-live&scope=site.

[16] Egerton, et al., The Denmark Vesey Affair: A Documentary History, xxi.

[17] James M. McPherson and James K Hogue, Ordeal by Fire; The Civil Ware and Reconstruction, McGraw Hill Higher Education, (2010): 142.

[18] Confederate States of America – Mississippi Secession, Yale Law School, Lillian Goldman Law Library (2008). https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_missec.asp

[19] McPherson and Hogue, Ordeal by Fire; The Civil Ware and Reconstruction, 144.

[20] Olsen, 8.

[21] Olsen, 9.

[22] Hudson Meadwell, and Lawrence M. Anderson, “Sequence and Strategy in the Secession of the American South.” Theory and Society 37, 3 (2008): 200. doi:10.1007/s11186-007-9047-8.

[23] Meadwell and Anderson, “Sequence and Strategy in the Secession of the American South.” 211.

[24] Meadwell and Anderson, 213.

[25] Olsen, 40.

[26] Meadwell and Anderson, 209

[27] Meadwell and Anderson, 217.

[28] Ogden et al., “Not a Peculiar Institution: Challenging Students’ Assumptions about Slavery in U.S. History.” 470.

[29] Confederate States of America – Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union Secession, Yale Law School, Lillian Goldman Law Library (2008). https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_scarsec.asp

[30] Confederate States of America – Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union Secession.

[31] Confederate States of America – Georgia Secession, Yale Law School, Lillian Goldman Law Library (2008). https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_geosec.asp

[32] Confederate States of America – Georgia Secession.

[33] Confederate States of America – Mississippi Secession.

[34] Olsen, 9.

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