The War of Southern Aggression

John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union: A Biography

by John Niven
Louisiana State University Press, 367 pp., $24.95

Secret and Sacred: The Diaries of James Henry Hammond, a Southern Slaveholder

edited by Carol Bleser
Oxford University Press, 342 pp., $22.95

Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry, 1800–1860

by Lacy K. Ford Jr.
Oxford University Press, 414 pp., $39.95

John C. Calhoun
John C. Calhoun; drawing by David Levine

“South Carolina,” wrote one of the state’s few opponents of secession in 1860, “is too small for a republic, but too large for an insane asylum.”1 In earlier years most southerners outside the Palmetto State would have agreed. In 1832 no other state joined South Carolina in its “nullification” of a national tariff law that Carolina planters viewed as discriminatory against plantation agriculture. On that occasion the Carolina planters and their allies backed down rather than face the wrath of President Andrew Jackson, who vowed to send in the army and hang the ringleaders of nullification. Again in 1851 they had to contain their zeal for a separate slaveholding republic when other southern states refused to secede in protest against the Compromise of 1850, which had admitted California as a free state. But on their third try, in 1860, South Carolina’s Southern Rights radicals pulled ten other slave states into secession.

The catalyst that turned what some called the Palmetto insane asylum into the Confederate States of America was the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. This “Black Republican” had pronounced slavery “a moral wrong and injustice,” and had called upon Americans to restrict its further expansion as a first step toward its “ultimate extinction” sometime in the twentieth century. To escape this fate, the South declared its independence and fired on American soldiers at Fort Sumter in the Charleston harbor, thereby provoking a war that cost more American lives, soldier and civilian, than all of the country’s other wars combined.

To a good many southerners the events of 1861–1865 have been known as “The War of Northern Aggression.” Never mind that the South took the initiative by seceding in defiance of an election of a president by a constitutional majority. Never mind that the Confederacy started the war by firing on the American flag. These were seen as preemptive acts of defense against northern aggression. The election of Lincoln by northern votes was “a deliberate, cold-blooded insult and outrage” to southern honor, a New Orleans newspaper declared, while a committee of the Virginia legislature declared that “the very existence of such a party [Republican] is an offense to the whole South.”2 As for the firing on Sumter, it was merely a response to provocation by the Lincoln administration, which kept Union troops there after the Confederacy had warned them to leave. “The aggressor in a war,” explained Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens, “is not he who strikes the first blow…but the first who renders force necessary.”3

Secession and the firing on Sumter were, in southern eyes, the culmination of decades of aggression by a growing northern majority that was becoming increasingly antislavery. But southern leaders knew that the best defense was a good offense. When Yankee citizens harbored fugitive slaves, southerners in Congress passed a fugitive slave law that gave the national government greater powers…

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