For fun I was recently poking around Yale University’s Avalon Project, which if you haven’t heard of, collects tons of primary source documents from throughout history. I landed on a folder of Confederate States of America documents and decided to take a look. I’ve seen many of these documents before, but this particular time the Declaration of Independence was fresh in my mind since I just taught it in class. Because of that, I was interested by the references Confederate leaders and documents made to the Declaration while defending secession. So I started thinking – do the ideas in the Declaration of Independence actually support the cause of secession? I was curious, and decided to compare what the Confederates were saying about the Declaration vs. what is actually in the Declaration.
Disclaimer from the start: This post isn’t about outlining the causes of the Civil War. Slavery was the undeniable root cause of secession and the war. What interests me is whether or not invoking the Declaration to justify secession in this case was warranted, given what the Declaration itself says about revolution. So let’s look at the evidence and see!
How the Confederates used the Declaration of Independence
Several Confederate documents directly or indirectly reference the Declaration. The South Carolina Declaration of Secession, the first state to secede, quotes the Declaration, stating: “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of the ends for which it was established, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government.” Jefferson Davis also quoted that section in his inaugural address as president of the Confederate provisional government. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, in his famous Cornerstone Speech, said that the new Confederate constitution deprives no citizens of “life liberty and property,” an obvious reference to the Enlightenment ideas behind the Declaration.
Clearly then, Confederate leaders saw something in the Declaration of Independence that justified their actions – or at least this is what they said publicly. And certainly a group of people carrying out a rebellion could find some justification in a document that says the people have a right to abolish a government that becomes destructive of its own ends. Initially it seems wrong for them to use a document about freedom and independence to justify enslaving people; but then again, the people who wrote and approved the Declaration in the first place were also slave owners, so that’s not necessarily an impasse. But do the actual ideas presented in the Declaration that the Confederates quoted from justify their cause?
What the Declaration of Independence says about revolution
Let’s go back to the source. What does the Declaration of Independence actually say about revolutions? This section comes from the second paragraph of the document, where Thomas Jefferson lays out an Enlightenment conception of natural rights and consent of the governed. And as Jefferson wrote: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” So yes, according to this wording, Jefferson & co. did say that there was a right of revolution if governments failed to protect the people’s natural rights. This is the section that the Confederates often quoted.
The document is more careful in its wording, however, and doesn’t suggest revolutions should happen willy nilly. As it continues:
“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
So the conditions under which the people should resort to a revolution were not for small offenses. There have to be, as Jefferson says, “a long train of abuses and usurpations” that are leading to “absolute despotism” before a revolution would be in order. He then listed the long train of abuses that the American colonies experienced under British rule, which could indeed lead one to conclude that Britain was putting the Americans on the road to despotism. When put in context – Parliament dissolving colonial governments, militarily occupying sections of the colonies, refusing to prosecute British soldiers who committed crimes against Americans, killing Americans in the numerous scuffles that broke out in the 1760s and 70s – fears of despotism don’t seem so farfetched.
But were the Southern states similarly suffering a “long train of abuses” under the federal government?
The Long Train of Abuses
Slave owners consistently complained that northern states and the US government were unconstitutionally violating their property rights by taking actions against slavery. This is what they considered the “long train of abuses” that justified their secession.
The South Carolina secession document specifically quotes Article 4 of the Constitution, what we call the Fugitive Slave clause. As it states, “No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”
So constitutionally, slave owners could reclaim an escaped slave. As South Carolina continues: “This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made.” Indeed as time went on, northern states stopped enforcing the Fugitive Slave clause, and also in some cases actively resisted the much stricter Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Technically then, northern states were violating the Constitution.
Is this despotism though? Declaring that states refusing to recapture and return escaping slaves puts slave owners on a path to tyranny and despotism is a pretty big stretch. Losses from escaping slaves were not especially high. It’s estimated that between 1800 and 1860, 100,000 slaves escaped at one point or another. That seems like a high number, but remember that by 1860 there were 4 million slaves in the country. Furthermore, many of these slaves were indeed recaptured and brought back to their masters. Between 1850 and 1860, when the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was in effect, 343 suspected fugitive slaves appeared before federal commissions; 332 of them were returned to slavery. So losses from slaves escaping were not nearly as dire as slave owners presented.
If this is the only example the Confederates had of northern states violating the Constitution, the case is pretty thin.
It’s a tempting argument that the Declaration of Independence does indeed support the secessionist cause because of its declared right of revolution. Upon review of the documents, however, I have to conclude that no, the spirit of the Declaration does not support the cause. As the Declaration makes clear, the right of revolution only exists if there are extremely serious threats to liberty over a period of time – a “long train of abuses.”
Southern slave owners couldn’t present that long train of abuses. Sure, northern states were violating numerous Fugitive Slave laws, but arguing that these violations amounted to tyranny is an unfounded argument. Slave owners couldn’t realistically expect that the government would seize their human property in the near future. At most, some form of compensated emancipation would have occurred, whereby the government would compensate slave owners for ending slavery. There were numerous compensation plans being discussed before the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln compensated slave owners in 1862 when he ended slavery in Washington D.C. Being compensated for lost property hardly seems like tyranny.
In conclusion then, from what I see, the ideas in the Declaration of Independence do not support the cause of Confederate Secession.
So this was a fun little exercise for me. I hope you enjoyed reading!