Memory  /  Syllabus

The Decision to Secede and Establish the Confederacy

A selection of primary sources compiled by the American Historical Association.

The American Historical Association encourages continued public debate about monuments to Confederate leaders and about the public spaces and buildings named after those individuals, as well as the role of Confederate flags in public culture. Historians’ recent experiences in media interviews have suggested that too few participants in these conversations have read the essential primary sources that clearly articulate the reasons for secession and the establishment of a new nation.

This page links to a limited set of documents with a singular focus: why did state governments decide to secede and form a new nation? This is not the same as querying the causes of the Civil War or even the reasons most Confederate soldiers participated in the war; we are distinguishing causes of an event from the motivations of identifiable historical actors, and taking those actors at their word. Four states stated in their documents of secession why this extreme step was necessary. Among the leaders of the Confederacy, Vice President Alexander Stephens offered the clearest and most direct statement of the reason for the creation of that new nation. We also offer the Constitution of the Confederate States of America, which closely resembles the Constitution of the United States, in structure, tone, and content, with a notable exception: the explicit protection of the institution of slavery and for individuals, “the right of property in negro slaves.”

We present these documents largely as a service to teachers, and as a starting point for further exploration. There are thousands of relevant primary sources available on the internet, and we hope readers will venture beyond this collection.