The U.S. Constitution and Secession
A Documentary Anthology of Slavery and White Supremacy
Edited by Dwight T. Pitcaithley
Five months after the election of Abraham Lincoln, which had revealed the fracturing state of the nation, Confederates fired on Fort Sumter and the fight for the Union began in earnest. This documentary reader offers a firsthand look at the constitutional debates that consumed the country in those fraught five months. Day by day, week by week, these documents chart the political path, and the insurmountable differences, that led directly—but not inevitably—to the American Civil War.
At issue in these debates is the nature of the U.S. Constitution with regard to slavery. Editor Dwight Pitcaithley provides expert guidance through the speeches and discussions that took place over Secession Winter (1860–1861)—in Congress, eleven state conventions, legislatures in Tennessee and Kentucky, and the Washington Peace Conference of February, 1861. The anthology brings to light dozens of solutions to the secession crisis proposed in the form of constitutional amendments—90 percent of them carefully designed to protect the institution of slavery in different ways throughout the country. And yet, the book suggests, secession solved neither of the South’s primary concerns: the expansion of slavery into the western territories and the return of fugitive slaves.
“A valuable trove of material for anyone trying to understand the constitutional issues and what some Southerners thought underlay them.”
—Journal of American History
“Offers valuable insights to an array of audiences. The sources compiled offer students and scholars alike the chance to consider the sectional crisis in a new light. The fraught efforts at compromise compiled in the volume refocus the political spectrum of the late antebellum era and reveal the fundamental nature of the conflict over slavery.”
—H-Net ReviewsSee all reviews...
“The documents clearly show the intractability of proslavery secessionists as well as the desperation of Unionists’ ill-fated efforts to avoid war. Pitcaithley’s introduction is a masterful exposition of how slavery and white supremacy suffused the Southern movement for secession and war. Students of the Civil War era will find this collection eminently useful. Highly recommended.”
“Pitcaithley has produced an important work on one of the most significant events in the history of the United States—the movement by the slaveholding states to secede from the Union. His careful examination of the constitutional sources provides arresting insights into the handful of months between Lincoln’s election and the outbreak of war. Brilliantly organized and contextualized by the author, these documents from America’s greatest crisis provide a definitive answer to the question of why the South seceded.”
—Timothy S. Huebner, author of Liberty and Union: The Civil War Era and American Constitutionalism
“Anyone trying to understand the debate swirling around the constitutional right of secession in the months leading up to the Civil War will need to consult this volume. The selection of documents reflects Dwight Pitcaithley’s mastery of this material, as does his superb extended introduction. One word summarizes this book’s place in the massive literature on the Great Secession Winter of 1860–1861: indispensable.”
—Charles B. Dew, author of Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War
“It is hard to imagine a more timely collection of documents. As Americans debate the place of Confederate monuments in our culture, Pitcaithley’s book provides hard evidence—from the pens and mouths of Confederate leaders—that Southerners created the Confederacy and made war on their own country for the sole purpose of preserving and perpetuating slavery forever. The documents show that the Confederacy was conceived in slavery and dedicated to the proposition that all men were not created equal.”
—Paul Finkelman, Fulbright Chair in Human Rights and Social Justice, University of Ottawa, and John E. Murray Visiting Professor of Law, University of Pittsburgh School of Law
“Dwight Pitcaithley has gathered together a remarkable set of primary source material from the winter of 1860–1861 that completely destroys revisionist claims of state’s rights as the primary cause of disunion and the Civil War. It is clear from congressional speeches, declarations of secession, and the many proposals to amend the US constitution that one issue drove this crisis—slavery. The collection stands out for highlighting the failed efforts at compromise, and Pitcaithley’s outstanding introduction traces the constitutional conflict surrounding human bondage from the original sin of the Philadelphia Convention through the firing on Fort Sumter. The U.S. Constitution and Secession should be read by all students and scholars of American constitutionalism, Southern politics, and American history.”
—Paul E. Herron, author of Framing the Solid South: The State Constitutional Conventions of Secession, Reconstruction, and Redemption, 1860–1902See fewer reviews...
What emerges clearly from these documents, and from Pitcaithley’s incisive analysis, is the centrality of white supremacy and slavery—specifically the fear of abolition—to the South’s decision to secede. Also evident in the words of these politicians and statesmen is how thoroughly passion and fear, rather than reason and reflection, drove the decision making process.