Professor Emeritus at the United States Naval Academy

The primary impetus to secession came from a dedicated and single-minded political minority. It may or may not be appropriate to call them “hot heads” or “fire-eaters” (the term then in use), but without doubt they were self-conscious revolutionaries who believed the time had long since come to escape the Union and establish southern independence. They saw Abraham Lincoln’s election as an opportunity, and eagerly seized it.

Ten years earlier, during the crisis over the Mexican Cession and the Wilmot Proviso, there had been talk of southern secession, but the dominant idea then was “cooperation”--that if secession proved necessary, all the slave States should go out together. Coordinating such a feat proved impossible and the Compromise of 1850 ended the crisis. In 1860, therefore, the advocates of secession in South Carolina opted for unilateral action in the hope that it would trigger secession by other States, which it did: six other States followed.

It is nearly impossible to determine the extent to which this was a genuinely popular movement; certainly it was not “a near universal movement.” Political decision-making in the antebellum South fell far short of what modern-day Americans would consider genuine democracy. A small minority of wealthy and influential men made virtually all the political decisions--about this and most other issues--and residents of the southern States were accustomed, and generally satisfied, with such a system. Consequently, it is hard to say that any action in the antebellum years was the result of “a near universal movement.”

That said, the movement became a popular one (though never “universal”) due to the impetus of events. Once the movement began, it created a momentum of its own, and the trappings of political movements--parades, flags, boutonnières, and speeches--led those who had been opposed to secession to go along or at least remain quiet.

Lincoln himself believed that secession in all of the States (except perhaps South Carolina) was the result of a vocal minority, and that in time the latent Unionism of most southerners would reassert itself. In this, the president underestimated both the habit of deference in the South, and the power of momentum.

The first wave of secession (from December 20, 1860 to February 1, 1861) involved only seven of the fifteen slave States--not quite half. Lincoln hoped that a policy of firmness but restraint would keep the rest in the Union as he struggled to define a policy toward the seven States that had declared themselves out of the Union.

The States of the “upper South” generally held that Lincoln’s election was not a sufficient justification for secession. Though Virginia did call a convention to discuss secession, on April 4, 1861, the delegates voted 80-45 not to secede. Then two weeks later, after Fort Sumter, that same convention approved an Ordinance of Secession. Virginians interpreted Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers as tantamount to a declaration of war. Once that happened, a majority of Virginians (though again, not all) opted for secession.