Were they merely exercising their innate right as formerly independent states to become independent again? No; first, that is a means to an end and not an end in itself, and second, the new confederacy which they then entered into specifically forbade states from seceding.
Were they arguing that every state should have the right to decide for itself on important issues such as slavery? No, the new constitution which they set up barred any state from ever banning the South's 'peculiar institution'.
So what were they up to? Well, let's let them speak for themselves.
South Carolina, you were leaders in the whole affair, what have you to say on the subject?
For twenty-five years [abolitionist] agitation has been steadily increasing ... [unconstitutional black voters have been used to inaugurate] a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety. ... It has announced that ... a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States. ... We, therefore, the People of South Carolina ... have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved.Ah. So, for South Carolina, the issue was a violent refusal to accept the potential future results of the democratic process vis-a-vis slavery.
Perhaps another state will be more helpful. Mississippi, why did you leave the Union?
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery - the greatest material interest of the world. ... a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin. ... We must either submit to degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union framed by our fathers, to secure this as well as every other species of property.Wow, four billion dollars worth of slaves? That was a lot of money back then--heck, that's still a lot of money now. Who wouldn't start a bloody war for that amount of property, and never mind that it consisted of human beings?
But this is painting quite an unflattering, mercenary picture of the motivations of the CSA. Surely there was some higher principle at stake. Texas, you consider yourselves tough and independent, what reason could you have had for leaving the Union?
In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon the unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color--a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and the negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.But surely not! Please tell me it isn't so, tell me you didn't really found a new nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are not created equal and then kill half a million soldiers trying to prove it! Alexander Stephens, you were the Vice-President of the CSA, so you would know. Tell me it's not true!
The prevailing ideas entertained by [Thomas Jeffeson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. ... Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”Huh.
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
The war in which more Americans died than in all our other wars put together was started for the express purpose of perpetuating the horrors of negro slavery. Everything Frederick Douglass wrote about, everything Harriet Tubman described, babies ripped away from their mothers on the auction block, white men raping their slaves and then selling their own sons and daughters for a profit, the beatings, the killings, the torture, the degradation, all of that--they started the bloodiest war in our history just to keep it going.
These were desperately evil men.
So I say to you, every Daughter of the Confederacy, every good ol' boy with the flag on his truck, every teabagger making noise about secession, every governor of Virginia declaring a month to honor these people: this is what you stand for. Unless and until you stop standing for it, then I and every other decent human being in this world will hold you in the utmost contempt.