The U.S. Constitution and Secession

A Documentary Anthology of Slavery and White Supremacy

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.

“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

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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.

About the Author

Dwight T. Pitcaithley is a college professor of history at New Mexico State University. He is a former Chief Historian of the National Park Service.