Vermont Professor James Loewen, author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me”, gives an interesting look at common myths regarding why the South seceded:
He says the South did not fight for states’ rights; they were opposed to them:
The South’s opposition to states’ rights is not surprising. Until the Civil War, Southern presidents and lawmakers had dominated the federal government. The people in power in Washington always oppose states’ rights. Doing so preserves their own.
He also says the South was not opposed to taxes:
Tariffs were not an issue in 1860, and Southern states said nothing about them. Why would they? Southerners had written the tariff of 1857, under which the nation was functioning. Its rates were lower than at any point since 1816.
He points out even whites who did not own slaves still supported slavery:
…belief in white supremacy provided a rationale for slavery. As the French political theorist Montesquieu observed wryly in 1748: “It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures [enslaved Africans] to be men; because allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christians.” Given this belief, most white Southerners — and many Northerners, too — could not envision life in black-majority states such as South Carolina and Mississippi unless blacks were in chains.
He quotes Lincoln to show that the President went to war to save the Union, not to end slavery:
On Aug. 22, 1862, President Lincoln wrote a letter to the New York Tribune that included the following passage: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”
In conclusion, he says it is unlikely the US would have ended slavery if it had not been for the war:
To claim that slavery would have ended of its own accord by the mid-20th century is impossible to disprove but difficult to accept. In 1860, slavery was growing more entrenched in the South. Unpaid labor makes for big profits, and the Southern elite was growing ever richer.
In other words, it is fair to describe the South as pro-federalist and pro-tax as well as pro-slavery.
The reason for secession was slavery alone, as presented by the Southern states at the time. Take, for example, South Carolina’s Declaration of Causes of Secession, December 24, 1860:
Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.
For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government.
In other words, anyone who did not support a definition of people as property was characterized by the South as an unacceptable threat to slavery practices. Everything from the failure to arrest and return escaped slaves to the “books and pictures” that did not support slavery were cited as forms of incitement to revolution and agitation. The Editor of the New York Evening Post wrote (Cincinnati Gazette, May 24, 1856; New York Evening Post, May 23, 1856, quoted. in “Battle cry of freedom: the Civil War era” by James McPherson, pg 150):
[The South] cannot tolerate free speech anywhere, and would stifle it in Washington with the bludgeon and the bowie-knife, as they are now trying to stifle it in Kansas by massacre, rapine, and murder.
Has it come to this, that we must speak with bated breath in the presence of our Southern masters? … Are we to be chastised as they chastise their slaves? Are we too, slaves, slaves for life, a target for their brutal blows, when we do not comport ourselves to please them?
The South declared themselves victims to justify armed dissent against their own country; they believed disintegration of the Union was their righteous path to maintain slavery. What they did not calculate was the new President’s resolve to keep the country in a Union. Had they not seceded they probably would have continued slavery in America, and continued Southern influence over federal rule, for many more years.