1861: “States Are Sovereign”

Gazette665 Blog Series 1861: In Their WordsJanuary 21, 1861 – U.S. Senate Chamber

…Secession belongs to a different class of remedies. It is to be justified upon the basis that the States are sovereign. There was a time when none denied it. I hope the time may come again, when a better comprehension of the theory of our Government, and the inalienable rights of the people of the States, will prevent any one from denying that each State is sovereign, and thus may reclaim the grants which it has made to any agent whomsoever…

…I find in myself, perhaps, a type of the general feeling of my constituents toward yours. I am sure I feel no hostility to you, Senators from the North. I am sure there is not one of you, whatever, sharp discussion there may have been between us, to who I cannot now say, in the presence of my God, I wish you well; and such, I am sure, is the feeling of the people whom I represent towards those whom you represent. I therefore feel that I but express their desire when I say I hope, and they hope, for peaceful relations with you, though we must part. They may be mutually beneficial to us in the future, as they have been in the past, if you so will it. The reverse may bring disaster on every portion of the country; and if you will have it thus, we will invoke the God of our fathers, who delivered them from the power of the lion, to protect us from the ravages of the bear; and thus, putting our trust in God and in our own firm hearts and strong arms, we will vindicate the right as best we may…

…Mr. President, and Senators, having made the announcement which the occasion seemed to me to require, it only remains to me to bid you a final adieu.

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis

~Senator Jefferson Davis from Mississippi to the U.S. Senate

(Full Text of the speech is available HERE)

The 19th Century American Theory States Rights

As stated in the farewell address, most Southerners believed that the states were sovereign and had joined together to form a nation under the U.S. Constitution. They felt that a state could withdraw from the Union and join another political entity, if the people of the state desired. Relying heavily on their interpretation of America’s founding documents, arguments and debates by the founding fathers, and principles by John C. Calhoun, Southern politicians felt that their states had a Constitutional right to secede (withdraw) from the Union.

Significantly, it wasn’t just Southerners who recognized the right of secession. During the War of 1812, New England states – unhappy with the war’s destruction of their seafaring economy – threatened to secede. Secession was not a new idea in the 1860’s, but that decade was the first (and only) time it was actually carried out on the state level.

Why did Southerners lean toward secession and the exercise of their belief in states rights? There were many, many reasons. Dictations from the Federal government regarding import/export tariffs, regional interests, and the multi-faceted issue of slavery were certainly hot topics in the decades-long debate leading to actual secession. Later, in the “second wave” of secession, resistance to invasion by a military force was often cited as the reason for leaving the Union. (See next section for details.)

This is a topic that has consumed pages and pages in books, and there are numerous arguments for and against it. (You will get to Lincoln’s 1861 argument for perpetual union in a couple of weeks). While we may not agree with the political idea or the causes leading to secession, it is important to acknowledge what people thought back then and seek to understand it in its historical context.

Florida's Ordinance of Secession

Florida’s Ordinance of Secession


On December 20, 1860, South Carolina was the first state to secede. Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama followed on January 9, 10, 11, respectively in 1861. Georgia (January 19), Louisiana (January 26) and Texas (February 1) also seceded and joined with the other separated states to form the Confederate States of America. These seven original secession states were the “first wave.”

The “second wave” of secession actually came after the firing on Fort Sumter and after Lincoln’s call for troops to put down the “rebellion” in the Southern states. Virginia (April 17), Arkansas (May 6), North Carolina (May 20), and Tennessee (June 8) eventually seceded and joined the Confederacy, feeling threatened by a Federal government who did not recognize the perceived right of secession and unwilling to send troops to put down the “rebellion.”

As the states formally seceded, their congressmen resigned and returned to their homes. As a senator from Mississippi and a leader of the Southern congressmen, Jefferson Davis made his farewell speech to the Senate after his homestate seceded and recalled him from his national post.

Historical Musings

Jeff Davis passionately explains his and his constituents views and walks out of the chamber without receiving a verbal reply, though certainly many don’t agree with him. In 1861, two viewpoints are clashing. Human emotions of “I’m right, you’re wrong” also factor into the situation. And – for some people in 1861 – the moral question of slavery was looming in the mind…all mixed up and intertwined with states rights.

America has thrived on differences of opinions. It is one of the few nations in the world were speech is free and citizens can have different ideas. That freedom of ideas would be tested in the Civil War. As to the actual outcome after the crucible…well, since there are still about 100 different ideas on the Civil War…it looks like freedom of thought and speech survived.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. What are some of the ironies you see regarding freedom of speech during 1861?

1861: In Their Words

8 thoughts on “1861: “States Are Sovereign”

  1. I wonder how confident the first seven states were that the other Southern states would joint after hostilities (Fort Sumter) began? Obviously, the Southern states were overmatched even when the other four had joined. It seems almost reckless to open hostilities prior, unless the opening of hostilities was some kind of pre-requisite or catalyst for the other states to join the Confederacy.

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