Declarations of Independence: Slavery, Secession, and the Confederate Scapegoat.

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Aug 17, 2011
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Vanderford, C. (2011). Declarations of Independence: Slavery, Secession, and the Confederate Scapegoat. Tennessee Historical Quarterly, 70(2), 92-107. Retrieved from Free to download

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The issue of secession conceived of either as the reserved right of a state, or as the natural right of a group of people, has no innate connection with slavery. In the history of the United States, however, slavery has intertwined with secession in a way that makes it very difficult to extricate them. That difficulty exists not only for the Civil War but for the American Revolution as well. Historians should suspect the motives of anyone who tries to downplay the role that slavery has played in the history of the United States. They should therefore be very careful that they do not portray the Confederacy in such a way that they might encourage the general public to conceive of it as a scapegoat for slavery in North America. A comparison of the ways in which slavery influenced both the Declaration of Independence and the South Carolina Declaration of the Causes of Secession can help avoid that trap. This essay considers both documents in the context of natural rights philosophy, a philosophy that makes adequate provisions for slavery, secession, and the rights of states.1 In confronting these issues, one should begin with the opinions of the many. Opinions about the most important things hold societies together.​
A college professor can inform opinion, but he or she must first know where the audience stands on a particular issue. Sometimes professors find things that surprise them. For instance, at a 1998 speaking engagement in North Carolina, the prominent sociologist and popular historian James Loewen quizzed an overflow crowd. "Why," he asked, "did South Carolina, followed by ten other southern states, secede?" He gave them four possible answers: "slavery, states' rights, tariffs and taxes, and the election of Lincoln." It surprised Loewen that about one-half of the audience chose "states' rights" as their answer. Only twenty-five percent answered "slavery," the answer he wanted them to choose. Loewen tried to write off the results. "That was North Carolina," he thought afterwards. "The audience was overwhelmingly white. Most were over 50 years old. Many had taken U.S. history before or during the Civil Rights movement, when public education in the South was deliberately used as a tool of white supremacy." A visit to a college campus near Minneapolis, however, con- firmed Loewen's worst fears. The students there answered in the exact same ratio.2​


Loewen's quiz inspired me to try one of my own. I teach at a small public university in Texas. Many of the students at this university have graduated from local high schools, one of which is named for Robert E. Lee. The quiz occurred on the first day of a U.S. history survey class, and most of the students had just begun college. Fifty-five students took the quiz. One question read as follows: "The southern states declared their independence from the United States in response to Abraham Lincoln's emancipation proclamation." Seventy-eight percent of the students identified that statement as true. As a simple matter of fact, however, that statement is false. South Carolina left the Union in December of 1860. The Emancipation Proclamation not go into effect until January of 1863. Emancipation occurred as a northern reaction against secession; secession not occur as a southern reaction against emancipation.​
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