Does Secession Constitute Rebellion?

Title: Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War
Author: Jeffrey Rogers Hummel
Publisher: Open Court
Publication Date: 1996
Pages: 13 pages for contents & preface plus 421 pages including 23 for endnotes and 33 for index

When Abraham Lincoln took office as president in 1861, seven states had seceded from the Union: South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Florida. Americans held their breath wondering, what was he going to do about it?

We know that he chose not to accept secession. He affronted the Confederacy by refusing to withdraw U.S. troops from federal property in seceded states. This provoked the attack on Fort Sumter. Lincoln responded by announcing he would raise an army to restore the Union, whereupon four more states--North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas--seceded. The Civil War was on. The Union army invaded the South, waging Total War.

We know how it turned out. Six hundred and fifty thousand deaths on the two sides. The South was left in ruins, impoverished and in economic depression for eighty years while the North was virtually undamaged economically. Four million slaves were freed into a world of chaos and lawlessness. Confederate state whites, who had lost their wealth and dignity in the war and reconstruction, blamed their humiliation on the freedmen and Yankee politicians. A century of bitterness, hatred and recrimination resulted. Politically, southern white rage over reconstruction and the changes to the social order forced on them by the victorious North led to disenfanchisement of blacks and one-party rule in the South from 1876 to the 1960's.

It is fascinating to contemplate a counterfactual history in which Lincoln chooses to let the seven states go, saying good riddance, as some abolitionists advocated. After all, secession wasn't forbidden by the Constitution and it didn't threaten the government in Washington. In fact, there was no military threat to the northern states whatsoever. Indeed, the United States itself came into existence through secession from Great Britain.

If there had been no Civil War, would slavery have eventually ended peacefully, as it did in every other western hemisphere country except Haiti?


Jeffrey Rogers Hummel's Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men examines the causes and effects of the Civil War from a perspective that is different from mainstream historians, who typically posit that (1) secession constitutes rebellion and must be put down by a central government and (2) the benefit of emancipation in 1865 outweighed the cost of wartime and postwar death, destruction and chaos. The book examines the results of the Civil War, and Lincoln's decision to fight it, in terms of its effect on overall human liberty in the American nation. It might be considered a libertarian interpretation of the Civil War, a war that fundamentally changed the nature of the relationship between American citizens and their government.

Hummel takes issue with the Ken Burns's eleven-hour PBS documentary The Civil War, which he finds deficient in its presentation of the war's origins and the war's social and political context. He finds that Burns focuses exclusively on the major campaigns of the war while ignoring issues of logistics and guerrillas. He accuses Burns of subscribing "unreflectively to the cult of Lincoln idolatry." Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men might be considered an effort to correct these deficiencies.

The book has fifteen chapters, including a prologue and epilogue. Five chapters cover American history from the time of the early republic up to secession. Six chapters deal with the war itself and two chapters cover the war's aftermath. An original and highly illuminating feature of the book is the inclusion of a bibliographical essay following each chapter. In these essays, which are almost as long as the chapters, the author surveys the works of dozens of other historians and economists and compares their interpretations to his own. I found these essays to be the most fascinating part of the book.

In the bibliographical essay following the prologue, Hummel surveys the comprehensive, single-volume historical studies of the Civil War and classifies the most significant perspectives as shown below.

PerspectiveDescription Exponents
  • slavery caused southern states to secede
  • national government had no other option but to suppress the South
James Ford Rhodes
  • slavery did not cause South to secede (slavery was dying of its own accord)
  • war was caused by "blundering generation"
  • letting the South go was unthinkable
Bruce Catton
James G. Randall
Avery O. Craven
David Donald
  • capitalist North subdued an agrarian South
Charles & Mary Beard
Charles C. Bright
  • slavery was one of a constellation of factors making the North and South divergent societies
Arthur Charles Coles
Bertram Wyatt-Brown
  • Secession was legitimate
Frank Owsley
Ludwell H. Johnson
  • slavery caused Southern states to secede
  • national government's attack on the South justified for moral reasons
Allen Nevins
James McPherson
Eric Foner
Kenneth Stampp
Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

About the classifications Hummel states:

All six...approach the war's causes as a single issue; none differentiates sufficiently between the two distinct questions in the text: why did the South wish to leave the Union and why did the North decline to let it go? These questions are muddled together usually because American historians approach the Civil War with an implicit and unchallenged prejudice in favor of national unity....

He points out that the "unfashionable" neo-Confederate school is the only one that entertains the legitimacy of secession. However, it does so by downplaying slavery as a cause of the conflict, which makes it vulnerable to recent research from the neo-abolitionist school. He sets out his own position.

Even if slavery explains why the southern states left the Union, it does not necessarily either explain or justify the national government's refusal to recognize their independence....Not only does slavery fail to explain why the northern states resorted to coercion, but letting the lower South go in peace was a viable, untried antislavery option.

Hummel begins his narrative with a survey of slavery and states rights related political developments in the early years of the American republic: the slavery issue at the time of the Constitution, the ending of the African slave trade in 1808, the Missouri Compromise of 1820, South Carolina's nullification of the tariff in 1833, the polarizing rise of abolitionist sentiment. Next, he moves to a topic rarely mentioned in the high school or PBS version of U.S. history: the economics of slavery and the institutional support necessary for its existence. He discusses slavery's profitability, its difficult-to-measure social costs and its enforcement costs. Of particular interest are the costs of getting maximum work output from unmotivated workers, of runaway slaves and of overcoming slave resistance.

In the 1840's tensions between the North and South increased as slave states aggressively sought to expand slave ownership into the territories and newly formed western states. In 1850 the Fugitive Slave Law infuriated whites of the North and abolitionist agitation infuriated southerners. The South attempted unsuccessfully to expand slavery into Mexico, Central America and Cuba by military conquest and subversion of colonial governments.

In the Jackson era the Whig party, led by Henry Clay, advocated a program called the American System, wherein the central government would promote economic growth through protective tariffs, a national bank and aid for "internal improvements," such as railroads. It took no stand on the slavery issue. As the Whig party disintegrated in the 1850's, its "American System" policies were taken up by the newly formed Republican Party. Unlike the Whigs, however, the Republicans opposed any expansion of slavery. The Republicans' first successful presidential candidate was Abraham Lincoln, a wealthy lawyer for the railroads.

Shortly after the beginning of the war the fragility of slavery became evident. Lincoln's blockade of southern ports made slavery unprofitable, since slave-produced cotton, sugar and rice could not be exported. The demands for soldiers in the Confederate armies left slaves largely unsupervised and unproductive. Finally, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in some areas of the Confederate states (but not in the northern states), offered an incentive to slaves to abandon their plantations and join up with the Union army.

By 1865 the South lay devastated by the Total War waged by the North. By the end of the turbulent reconstruction in 1876, there had been little economic improvement in the lives of blacks or whites, but whites had regained political power in the state governments. The South remained mired in poverty and backwardness for decades. Hummel puts the blame for the persistent poverty largely on the National Banking System, which provided credit to industrial enterprises but not to agriculture, the predominant economic activity in the South.

Hummel notes that after the war the national government, "dwarfed in power and size the minimal Jacksonian State that had commenced the war....A distant administration that had little contact with its citizens had been transformed into an overbearing bureaucracy that intruded into daily life with taxes, drafts, surveillance, subsidies and regulations." As one example he points out that the U.S. Army became "an enforcer of domestic laws to an extent previously undreamed of." It was used to subdue the Indians and herd them into reservations, restore order after western range wars, stamp out open polygamy in Utah and intervene in numerous labor disputes.

The author sees the most significant change brought about by the Civil War was the commencement of the "halting but inexorable march toward the welfare-warfare State of today."

Hummel believes that slavery would have ended peacefully if Lincoln had allowed Gulf Coast Confederacy to secede. The Republican congress would have worked out emancipation in the border states, where slavery was already in decline, and would have repealed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. This would have led to a flood of runaway slaves escaping to freedom in the North. Slavery's enforcement costs would have become prohibitive. To support his conjecture, Hummel cites the example of Brazil, where slavery was outlawed in some states, but not others. Free states became a sanctuary for slaves still in bondage and the cost of keeping slaves from running away rose so high that the institution was abandoned throughout the country, without armed conflict, in 1888.