As part of Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Effete Liberal Book Club", I'm reading Chandra Manning's What This Cruel War Was Over, a social history of the Civil War which mostly focuses on the motivations of soldiers as they served in the Union and Confederate armies. A large portion of the first chapter is devoted to events leading up to the war, and Manning does a nice job of illustrating the extent to which the slaveholding South was utterly power-hungry:
Threats to slavery meant secession and war for many reasons. For one thing, they made the privileged place that southern states held within the Union insecure, and without a dominant role for the South, the Union seemed less valuable. Louisianan Rufus Cater agreed with his cousin Fannie that “the United States government was once a glorious and prosperous one,” under which white Southerners profited.
For most of the nation’s existence, the South had masterfully used the Constitution and political structure of the United States to dominate the federal government, despite the region’s smaller size and slower-growing white population. The “three-fifths clause” of the U.S. Constitution, which provided for the counting of three-fifths of the slave population when determining Congressional apportionment despite slaves’ obvious exclusion from the body politic, gave white Southerners disproportionate voting clout. In addition, Southerners controlled key Congressional committees and dominated powerful positions like the speakership of the U.S. House of Representatives, the chief justice’s seat, and the presidency (with a small number of exceptions) throughout the first eight decades of the United States’ national existence.
The election of a president who did not share the South’s concern for the safety of slavery, along with growing northern hostility to slavery’s expansion, threatened the favoring of southern interests to which white Southerners felt entitled, and in so doing, dissolved any federal claim on southern allegiance. [Emphasis mine]
To go back to my earlier column on the origins of the Civil War, this puts direct lie to the (depressingly common) view that we can thank "states' rights" for Southern secession. Simply put, Southern slaveholders were more than happy to empower the federal government -- often with themselves at the helm -- provided it used that power to protect and expand slavery.
Their cries of "states' rights" notwithstanding, slaveholders were less interested in democracy qua democracy -- hence their violent reaction to the election of Abraham Lincoln -- and more interested in Southern hegemony over national affairs. As soon as slaveholders lost their position as the dominant electoral group in American politics, they reneged on democracy, produced a society dedicated to pure despotism.
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