Since most modern historians agree that the South seceded to protect slavery they often conclude that the Civil War was “all about” slavery. The inference, however, overlooks the possibility that the Southern states could have been allowed to depart in peace. Within the lifetimes of most readers, for example, the Soviet Union peacefully disintegrated into its constituent countries as did Czechoslovakia.
Even though it was partly motivated to defend slavery, one secession example from American history demonstrates that secession need not have led to war. Moreover, it questions the underlying assumption that the immorality of slavery alone was sufficiently repellant to Northerners to prompt them into fighting secessionists for trying to maintain slavery.
In 1846 about one third of the District of Columbia seceded. Originally the District was a ten-mile-by-ten-mile square. About a third of the one hundred square miles were southwest of the Potomac River in what was originally—and presently—Virginia. Most of the sector’s residents wanted to secede from the District for two reasons. First, they were not treated fairly from an economic perspective. Public buildings, for example, could only be erected on the “Maryland” side of the Potomac. Second, they correctly anticipated that the District might someday outlaw slavery.
In February 1846 the Virginia legislature agreed to absorb the District’s southwest sector if Congress approved. Five months later Congress authorized that the region could be returned to Virginia if its voters agreed by referendum. The referendum vote was affirmative and the land returned to Virginia in September 1846.
The principal reason that the Virginia retrocession gained congressional approval and did not result in war is that the economic consequences to the Northern states were immaterial. Such was not the case fifteen years later after the first seven Gulf states seceded to form the Confederacy. The main reason that Lincoln and other Northerners wanted to “save the Union” lies in economics, not abolitionism.
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