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Fact Check: Was The Confederacy Formed Over Slavery? Yes

Posted at 9:15 PM, Jul 28, 2015

Some have argued that the Confederacy was formed and the Civil War was fought over the question of states' rights, not slavery.

Tennessee Gov. Isham Harris delivered his call for secession to a joint session of the General Assembly in January 1861. In that speech, Harris made it clear that the issue was over the South's right to continue holding other human beings as "property."

"The attempt of the Northern people ... to confine this species of property within the limits of the present Southern States, to impair its value by constant agitation and refusal to deliver up the fugitive ... is justly regarded by the people of the Southern States as a gross and palpable violation of the spirit and obvious meaning of the compact of Union," Harris declared.

Among the outrages he listed was the proposed "prohibition of the slave trade between the States, thereby crowding the slaves together and preventing their exit South, until they become unprofitable to an extent that will force the owner finally to abandon them in self defence."

Harris also noted that the North had "run off slave property by means of the 'underground railroad,' amounting in value to millions of dollars, and thus made the tenure by which slaves are held in the boarder States so precarious as to materially impair their value."

And "it has, in the person of the President elect, asserted the equality of the black with the white race," he declared.

"To evade the issue thus forced upon us at this time, without the fullest security for our rights, is, in my opinion, fatal to the institution of slavery forever," Harris insisted. "The time has arrived when the people of the South must prepare either to abandon or to fortify and maintain it. Abandon it, we cannot, interwoven as it is with our wealth, prosperity and domestic happiness.

"We owe it to the mechanic whose shop is closed, to the multiplied thousands of laborers thrown out of employment, to the trader made bankrupt by this agitation.

"We owe it to ourselves, our children, our self-respect and equality in Government, to have this question settled permanently and forever upon terms consistent with justice and honor, and which will give us peace and perfect security for the present and future."

View the entire speech from the files of the Tennessee State Library and Archives here.

Tennesseans originally rejected Harris' call for secession.

But South Carolina had first seceded from the Union, citing Northern beliefs that viewed "as sinful the institution of slavery" and "the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery." (Read the declaration here.)

Other secession documents contained similar language, and the Constitution of the Confederate States of America guaranteed that "no bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed." (Read the constitution here.)

In April 1861, the Confederacy fired the first shots of the Civil War in the attack on the Union garrison at Fort Sumter.

That same month, Gov. Harris again called for secession, declaring that Tennessee must take sides in the "war between the people of the slave and non-slave holding States." (Read the second speech here.)

This time, Tennesseans approved secession and joining the Confederacy.

Testifying before Congress in 1871, Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest summarized the basis for the Civil War: "I looked upon it as a war upon slavery when it broke out; I so considered it." (Read his testimony here.)

More on the controversy:

Disagree? Put your comments below, citing original sources from that time period.