Principles of 1776

About the author

Dr. John R. Brumgardt
Dr. John R. Brumgardt

John R. Brumgardt received his Ph.D. in History from the University of California, Riverside, in 1974 and was previously Director of The Charleston Museum, in Charleston, South Carolina (the nation’s first museum, founded in 1773).  His professional publications, related to museum administration and to California and Civil War History, include Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes (University of Tennessee Press, 1980).

Editor’s note
This is an essay written by Dr. John R. Brumgardt, historian, professor, and former director of the Charleston Museum. It explores the concept of the “principles of 1776” defined in the Declaration of Independence and how these would come to influence the American Civil War.

The American Civil War climaxed more than seven decades of disagreement concerning the proper nature of the federal Union and the intentions of the Founding Fathers in creating it. By 1861, debate over these issues, the bounds of national authority, state prerogatives, and conflicting attitudes regarding the variously understood “principles of 1776” reached an impasse which resolved itself in armed conflict. Antagonisms over slavery, economic differences, and political difficulties all contributed to sectional hostility. However, analysis of the conflict must take into account not only contemporary causes, but, equally important, the historical intellectual foundations of disagreement which were basic to them. The dialogue which created war reached a crescendo in 1861, but the concepts and circumstances from which it ultimately derived dated from the colonial, constitutional, and early national periods and witnessed the dynamic tensions integral to the process of American growth. The war, rather than being a deviation from national development, was a logical product of it. Both North and South believed that American freedoms and traditions were threatened by the other, and each referred to early history, the ideals of the Revolution, the Constitution, and the Founding Fathers in defending its respective cause. The Northern perspective prevailed and, over the course of the past century, has been adjudged by most as the more viable and valid view. However, it took four years of fierce struggle to subdue the Confederacy, and it seems valuable to examine the provenance of convictions which generated the dedication and sacrifice of Southern rebellion.

English settlement in America occurred within an intellectual framework which denoted the area as special, untainted by the corruption of civilization, better somehow in a moral sense than Europe. Here, individuals, society, and religion could have a providential second chance for growth; and, among immigrants and their descendants, a sense of stewardship, of mission to preserve this situation, whether in a secular or spiritual sense, developed. The American condition, free from the institution-ridden, overly-structured, and constrictive atmosphere of the mother country, was variously viewed as a God-given Trust or a fortunately favorable circumstance. Regardless of their perspective, though, settlers almost from the outset saw their new possibilities for self-determination as something to be jealously guarded.

These notions were strengthened by charter guarantees of constitutional liberty and British “salutary neglect,” which produced traditions of local autonomy which went largely unchallenged until 1763. Attempts by Parliament during the 1760s and 1770s to exercise authority in the colonies threatened time-sanctioned customs, provoked fears of tyranny, and created apprehensions that Britain was attempting to “enslave” America. Accordingly, resistance developed which produced separation from England. Liberty and self-government – the “principles of 1776,” enunciated in the Declaration of Independence – were the goals of the Revolution; and, following 1783,they were lauded as the guiding doctrines of the new nation. Americans prized the freedoms their victory had secured, and, being heavily influenced by the notion that power would inevitably corrupt those who held it, initially thought the decentralized government provided by the Articles of Confederation adequate. By 1787, however, a sizable number saw this as dangerous to the nation’s future, and composed a new constitution. Those opposing the new document decried the dangers of a consolidated nation and, referring to recent experience with Parliament, expounded upon the potential harm to liberty from a strong central government. Ratification occurred despite their feelings. But, as the United States took shape and moved into the nineteenth century, continual tension between advocates of state and federal authority demonstrated that anti-federalist tendencies were still a primary force in American thought.

By 1860, militant proponency of state sovereignty and the compact theory of the Union was voiced principally in the areas where slavery existed. Intellectual acceptance of these ideas existed throughout the country, but willingness to act on them was confined mainly to the South. In the fall of that election year, a president was chosen who represented a distinctly sectional party, the doctrines of which were unfriendly to slavery and assumed for Congress an authority greater than that which many in the Southern states considered constitutional. Hearkening to the example of their Revolutionary forebearers, and believing a Republican administration to be potentially repressive, seven slave states – soon to be joined by four more – chose to leave the Union rather than accept what they feared would be a deviation from the course of government as the Founding Fathers had conceived it. Meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, their representatives deliberated to form a new federal government, based upon the “principles of 1776.” The result of their labors was the Confederate States of America.

To those who supported it, the purpose of the Confederacy was to assure state rights, constitutional liberty, self-government, and the federal union as intended in 1787. Like church reformers of the sixteenth century, who sought to restore Christianity to apostolic innocence, their intent was to preserve the Constitution and American traditions, not to destroy them. Repeatedly, Confederate leaders and private citizens referred to the Revolution and the Document of 1787 in justifying their action. It was no mistake, for example, that Jefferson Davis chose February 22, 1862 – George Washington’s birthday – as the inaugural date for the permanent government. “On this the birthday of the man most identified with the establishment of American Independence,” he said, “. . we hope to perpetuate the principles of our Revolutionary fathers. The day, the memory and the purpose seem fitly associated.” Invoking the revolutionary heritage, he declared that “The experiment instituted by our Revolutionary fathers, of a voluntary union of sovereign States for purposes specified in a compact,” was that which the South was acting to defend.1 In conceptual terms, the Confederacy was thus assuming the mantle of steward for the original national mission – a mission which its adherents believed had been “perverted” by Northern consolidationists.

Political statements, public announcements, and private belief compared the Southern effort to the revolutionary struggle against England. Letterhead stationary bore patriotic slogans, such as:

Rebels before,
Our fathers of yore;
Rebel’s the righteous name
Washington bore;
Why then, be our’s the same,
The name he saved from shame,
Making it first in fame,
Foremost in war.

One, relating Confederate purposes to God’s, and also to early conceptions of American mission, admonished citizens to:

Swear upon your country’s altar,
Never to submit or falter
Till the spoilers are defeated —
Till the Lord’s work is completed.
And another urged Southern soldiers to “march to the sound of fife and drum,” thus conjuring up images of 1776. Confederates, then, perceived themselves as defending political liberties and preserving the God-bestowed Trust of freedom which the Founding Fathers had enshrined in the Constitution. The “principles of 1776” were at stake, the Constitution was in jeopardy, and the South, as they saw it, was in the same relation to the North as the colonies had been to Great Britain.

It is common for propaganda and the declarations of public leaders to associate a given movement with noble sentiments. Private citizens, however, repeatedly noted in letters, diaries, and even epitaphs their concurrence with these notions. Josephine C. Habersham, of Georgia, recorded in her daily journal the impression that liberty and freedom were the chief Southern goals, and Susan Cornwall, of Savannah, believed that “our sacred rights” were endangered by the North.2 Many who lost dear ones to Yankee shells saw their sacrifice as worthwhile – after all, principles were at stake. The family of Sergeant P. P. Ransom, of South Carolina, who died in July 1863 of wounds received at Gettysburg, noted on his gravestone:

How Costly are thy Requirements
My Noble Boy
Thou Died in Freedoms Cause
Trusting a Savior’s Love.
Similar sentiments were recorded on the headstone of Llwellyn G. Doughty, of Georgia, who was killed near Petersburg at age twenty- four:

On the field of blood and strife
For a freeman’s rights he fell,
And a moment ended the life,
We loved and cherished so well.
So the ideas of private citizens reflected in large measure the public statements of Confederate leaders. These were not merely repetitious notions, but personal, independently-formed convictions, which, from the number apparent in extant letters and diaries were held by a great number of citizens.

Following the war, Southerners accepted defeat in practical terms, but often maintained that the cause for which they had struggled was conceptually correct. Alexander H. Stephens, former rebel vice president, appeared before a congressional investigating committee in 1866 and stated that his countrymen now recognized the impracticality of secession, though many still considered it ideally valid.3 Defense of the “cause” now took intellectual or emotional form, and manifested itself in nostalgic reminiscence of the Old South, glorification of the Confederate effort, and historical justification for the rebellion. The two primary Southern apologists, appropriately, were Stephens and Jefferson Davis, whose Constitutional View Of the Late War Between the States (2 vols., 1868-1870) and Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (2 vols., 1881) enunciated most cogently the Southern perspective on early national development and the war period. Their arguments were well-grounded in a comprehensive command of factual data. And, to a great extent, they were persuasive. Yet, at the same time, their views – hereafter noted for convenience as the Southern view – demonstrated several oversights as well as a striking disregard for the evolution of political, social, and economic oneness which had been in process prior to the war, drawing the nation more tightly together, and eroding the validity of the compact theory upon which the Southern effort was based.

Stephens and Davis commenced by pointing out that the colonies had been established individually, at different times, with different purposes, peoples, and religious structures. From the outset, they maintained, there was no single American people. Instead, early development consisted of separate colonial growth, each entity looking primarily after its own interests and cooperating with others only for its respective security. Intercolonial tensions arose over such issues as land claims and commercial rivalries, and expressed themselves in verbal and legal conflict. Commingled with this localistic tendency was jealousy of local governmental control, and an aversion to attempts by Great Britain to assert authority in American affairs. Primary power, colonists generally believed, should rest in the colonial assemblies, and they resented the idea of being ruled by a Parliament – or central government – thousands of miles away. Such notions were strengthened in practice by the distance from Britain and European entanglements which prevented the Mother Country from directing much attention to the American situation until the 1760s. A Virginian, then, felt first loyalty to his colony, or “country,” and had little affection for, say, Massachusetts, let alone Parliament. Aversion to British control was parallelled by rejection of recommendations that some form of central government be established among the colonies. Hence the Albany Plan of Union failed in 1754. Indeed, lack of common purpose among the colonies was so notable in the mid-eighteenth century that foreign travelers often commented on it. And James Otis, in 1765, declared that “were these colonies left to themselves tomorrow, America would be a mere shambles of blood and confusion.” From the beginnings, then, said the Southern ideologues, each colony developed as a distinct entity. Local control, self-government, and suspicion of central authority were traditional in the American experience.

Abraham Lincoln, declaring that the Union preceded American independence and the formal conversion of colonies into states, believed that the nonintercourse association of 1774 was the beginning of national unity. Southerners, on the other hand, contended that the conversion to states occurred when independence was declared, and that statehood predated and was fundamental to the creation of formal union. The states, after all, created both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, not vice-versa. And, went the Southern argument, there was no union prior to these documents. The Stamp Act, of 1765, referred to “the British colonies and plantations in America,” members of the Stamp Act Congress referred to their constituent bodies as “these colonies,” and even the Declaration of Independence was properly entitled “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America.”4 The Articles of Confederation referred to the “union” as a “firm league of friendship” established for the “common defence.” And the Treaty of Paris, in recognizing American independence, took care to name each state individually. The Constitution, ratification of which resulted in the Union from which the Confederates had tried to escape, was created by the states for their mutual security, and was not intended to create a consolidated nation. No single people had been created, for the states acted as states, approving the Constitution singly, voluntarily, and at different times.

Since the Union was created by the states to protect their interests, and since all power held by the national government was delegated by the member bodies, it seemed to Southerners that any state might leave the compact if it considered this necessary. After all, the states ratified the Constitution, not the Union, and the latter was simply a general convenience, not an imperative. Maintenance of the Constitution and the agreements established under it was necessary for maintenance of the Union. But in 1861, feeling their rights endangered, the Southern states had seceded to form a new union – this, in accordance with the same logic which had moved the colonists to leave the British empire and establish independence. If the states had entered individually, why could they not leave in the same manner?

The Confederate argument made strong use of antifederalist arguments against the Constitution in defending the fundamental American dislike for strong central control. And they viewed as scriptural those passages in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, written by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, concerning the predominance of state prerogatives in the federal-state relationship. What better evidence for the validity of the compact theory than the change in Madison’s position from Federalist to Jeffersonian Republican? Who would be in a better position to know the intentions of the constitutional convention concerning the Union – James Madison, or Abraham Lincoln? To the Southern mind, the answer was clear. And Article I of the Kentucky Resolutions had even declared that each state, when confronted with concern for observance of constitutional limitations within the compact, had “an equal right to judge for itself, as well of infractions as of the mode and measure of redress”5 Thus, the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Father of the Constitution documented their belief in the federal union as a compact of sovereign states. Could there be any doubt that the South had acted rightly in trying to preserve this system?

Secession, declared Davis and Stephens, was a conservative, not radical, remedy for the difficulties faced in 1860. After all, the states had not surrendered their sovereignty when delegating powers to the central government; and, besides, talk of secession had begun, early in the nation’s career, in the North, not the South.6 Jefferson’s election in 1800 had provoked talk in Federalist New England of secession, as had the Louisiana Purchase. Fisher Ames, of Massachusetts, declared in 1803 that “Our country is too big for union,” while Roger Griswold, of Connecticut, warned that the acquisition of Louisiana promised to destroy the sectional balance of power and threatened “at no very distant day, the subversion of our Union.”7 Talk of disunion continued in 1804, led by Federalists such as Timothy Pickering and Harrison Gray Otis, of Massachusetts, and James Hillhouse, Uriah Tracy, and Griswold, of Connecticut. Jefferson’s embargo stimulated much disunion sentiment, causing John Quincy Adams to write that the policy must go or New England might rise against the national government. Otis told Josiah Quincy on December 15, 1808, that resistance to the federal government might become a duty, and the Massachusetts legislature warned Congress that the troubles caused by the embargo could endanger the Union.8 Repeal of the embargo quelled tensions for the moment, but talk of disunion, and of a possible northern confederacy, continued in subdued tones and came forth again in 1811 when the question arose of admitting Louisiana to the Union. New England opposed the move, and Quincy declared to Congress on January 14, 1811, that the admission of Louisiana would free the Northern states from their obligation to the Union. Little wonder, considering such talk, that John Adams could write Jefferson on February 3, 1812, that “The Union is still to me an Object of as much Anxiety as ever Independence was.”9

The War of 1812 prompted statements from Federalist New England which must have caused Adams further worry. “Mr. Madison’s War” was deprecated by many Northerners as induced by Southern and Western “War Hawks” to expand their territorial holdings and influence in the national assembly. Major Benjamin Russell’s Columbian Centinel (Boston) declared on January 13, 1813, that Madison was leading a Jeffersonian-Republican plot to carve new states out of Canada and outvote New England. “The sentiment,” he said, “is hourly extending, and in these Northern States will soon be universal, that we are in a condition no better in relation to the South than that of a conquered people… We must no longer be deafened by senseless clamors about a separation of the states.”10 Harrison Gray Otis spoke of disunion; and the Hartford Convention, where New England dissent reached its climax, heard talk of seizing customs houses, impounding federal revenues, declaring neutrality, and a new union of the original thirteen states. Governor Caleb Strong, of Massachusetts, sent a secret envoy to discuss a separate peace with the British commander at Halifax – an action thwarted only by the end of the conflict. The Boston Gazette, of December 17, 1814, declared that if James Madison was not out of office by July 4, 1815, “a new form of government will be in operation in the eastern section of the Union.” And the Columbian Centinel called for a severance of the Union.11 These plans, of course, were negated by the treaty of peace. However, New England had demonstrated recalcitrance for more than fourteen years.

The Union, as rebel leaders maintained, appears indeed to have been widely regarded as a temporary expedient into the 1820s. Initially viewed by many as a hopeful experiment, the tensions of the early period naturally generated speculation concerning its duration and continued advisability. National expansion and consciousness following the War of 1812 dimmed talk of secession, but even during this period of increased national feeling such persons as John Quincy Adams could contemplate a separation of the states.12 And William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionist leaders recommended disunion rather than continued association with the slave states. Secession, then, seems to have been seen from the outset as a logical remedy for solving difficulties. Moreover, said Davis and Stephens, the South by 1861 had numerous reasons for feeling that its interests would be better served by leaving the Union.

Reviewing the course of the early nineteenth century, Southerners saw repeated indications that the Union had gradually become an unfriendly alliance. The growth of abolitionist sentiment, Jackson’s actions in the Nullification Crisis, personal liberty laws, the Wilmot Proviso, agitation over the slavery issue, and the growth and victory of the Republican Party all demonstrated to the Confederate mind an apparent tendency to ignore Southern rights, suppress constitutional guarantees for state sovereignty, and erode Southern equality in the Union. Howell Cobb summed up this feeling when noting that the confederation of 1788 was one of “equality, justice, and fraternity,” while that of 1861 was one of “sectionalism and hatred.”13 So, employing the same arguments as the New England states in the early part of the century, the South decided to exercise state sovereignty and depart a now disadvantageous Union.

The act of secession, as Southerners averred, appeared to be logical with reference to political notions and widely held ideas concerning the Union prior to 1861. And, if consideration stopped at this point, it would be difficult to find fault with Confederate thinking. But to do this would indicate satisfaction with a one dimensional view. For there is much more to ponder – facts and ideas which show how vulnerable the Southern position really was. Analysis of the entire American situation suggests – as the war would demonstrate – that the compact theory was by that time in fact a functional anachronism. The United States by mid- century had undergone, by gradual evolutionary process, a political, social, and economic symbiosis which had made the nation a basically single operative whole. It might be philosophically current to speak of a confederation of sovereign states, but the time when each could have acted separately, or even in conjunction with some, and not the entirety, was long past if, indeed, it had ever existed. The Union had preempted the states as the vehicle for national stability and growth. Of the thirty-three states in the Union at the time of secession, twenty had been created from United States territories, and but thirteen represented the original contingent. So the nation had expanded from within itself, and Southern arguments that such sections could leave the Union sound specious at best.

Besides being the factual strength of the American nation, the Union by mid-century had come to be viewed in conceptual terms as the legacy of the Founding Fathers, the way to maintain the principles for which the Revolution had been fought, the vehicle for American liberties and democratic government. As one historian has noted, loyalty to the national cause and American principles by the 1820’s was coming to be equated with loyalty to the Union, for “It embodied national salvation, carrying ancient virtues through the troubled present to the wondrous future.”14 Seen initially as an institutional procedure for preserving American values, it had by the Civil War become one with those values, a physical and moral imperative the dismemberment of which was to many unthinkable. In the Northern perspective, the Union had gained a moral equality with the “principles of 1776.” The South, by seceding, thus challenged the guardian and political personification of those very principles for which it claimed to be fighting. Union, Constitution, republican government, God’s cause, and preservation of the Trust which had been so great an object of concern since colonial times – all flowed into an indivisible conceptual whole to counter the static concept of the American structure defended by the South. The nation had grown organically, morally, and philosophically, and by 1861 was significantly different from the compact of 1788 to which the South consistently referred.

Reverence for the Union was not limited to the Northern states, and that many Southerners held such feelings was evidenced in part by the extensive disloyalty and reluctance to secede found throughout the new Confederacy. Alexander H. Stephens, for example, stood for Union until the last. He defended the Confederate States, but there were many, who shared his love for the Union, who retained this loyalty and undermined the rebel effort. Throughout the war, the South experienced manifestations of outright treason or lack of spirit. Hoarding, desertion, avoidance of conscription, trading with the enemy, and Union clubs were among those proofs that the Confederacy was not a united whole, and that the “mystic chords of memory,” to which Lincoln appealed in his inaugural address to “swell the chorus of the Union,” still existed in many a Southern heart.

Aside from the feelings of private citizens, the very political philosophy upon which the Confederacy was founded prevented its effective operation. The Southern experience demonstrated in itself the nonviability of a system based on active state sovereignty, especially when challenged by a power characterized by basically unified leadership. Emory Thomas, in The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience (1971), argues that the South was well on the way to becoming a monolithic structure, but evidence contradicts this view. Better to agree with Frank L. Owsley (State Rights in the Confederacy, 1925), whose thesis that the Confederacy was “dashed to death” by state rights seems to be largely supported by subsequent scholarship. Davis could command no efficient cooperation from his governors; his vice president, an active defender of state rights, opposed government policies which seemed to subdue them; and even so basic a matter as taxation to support the war was complicated by the state sovereignty issue. The philosophy upon which the South seceded damaged its internal capabilities and even generated talk during the war that some states might secede and hold independent negotiations with the North. Stephens, discussing this, thought it unlikely, but also declared that any state had a right to do so if it chose. According to such logic, the Confederacy might be dissolved by the very ideas which had brought it into being. This was hardly constructive. The Southern view, it seems, was disintegrative in its initial effect – secession – and damaging with reference to the internal condition of the Confederacy and its efforts for independence.

The fundamental force of American political experience and thought, therefore, rapidly developing prior to – and coming to full expression during – the Civil War, militated against the validity, in pragmatic and conceptual terms, of the Confederate perspective. In an age where consolidation was the dominant trend, in Europe and America, the South championed the views of a past era, and at the same time ignored the moral elements involved in the concept of American Purpose and Union from colonial times to 1860. These, involving ideas of divine and human values, and incorporating the moral rejection of slavery in a free society, reached a crescendo during the war and destroyed the peculiar institution and the infant nation which defended its perpetuation. By 1863, in the North, the identification of Union and fundamental American mission was conjoined in the general view not only with dedication of the Federal cause to restoring the Union, but also a reaffirmation of American principles of liberty and freedom and elimination of the slave system which contradicted them. The “principles of 1776” thus received expression not only as political values, but as social and moral imperatives for which the nation must stand. While the South fought for a static, restricted concept of the revolutionary heritage, and confined its comprehension to wishful yearning for an archaic political mechanism, the North fought for the principles of freedom as manifested and continually expanding in a developing nation where human slavery could not be endured as a contradiction to the American Purpose. The war became, for many, a necessary atonement for the religious or secular sin of slavery, and the foundation of a national rebirth with reference to cherished values.

So the conflict went beyond a fight over freedom or slavery, union or disunion. It incorporated in its very essence a struggle on behalf of the United States for the survival and realization of the nation and principles which the colonial period and Revolution had produced and made eventually possible. Thus the North fought for the Trust of the Founding Fathers in its expanded meaning, with reference to the organic political, social, and moral developments the seminal potential for which the Revolutionary and Constitutional leaders had prepared a seedbed, but for the realization of which the expansion of national consciousness and negation of limiting factors were necessary. Meanwhile, the South battled for a sterile, non-progressive, inflexible concept of government, and a constricted notion of American principles, which in the end proved to be unworkable and unacceptable to American society as a whole. The Southern perspective was logical in many respects, but was proven to be anachronistic, narrow, and impracticable from the perspective of the tendencies of the period, outcome of the conflict, judgment of subsequent history, and the “principles of 1776” themselves.


  1. Henry Steel Commager, ed. Documents of American History (7th ed., New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1963), pp.407-408.
  2. Josephine C. Habersham Diary, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Ibid., Susan Cornwall Diary, entry of January 31, 1861.
  3. Hans L. Trefousse, ed., Background for Radical Reconstruction (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970), p.65.
  4. See Jefferson Davis, Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (2 vols.; New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1881), I,86-87.
  5. Commager, Documents, pp. 178-179.
  6. See Davis, Rise and Fall, I, 70-76.
  7. Samuel Eliot Morison, Harrison Gray Otis, 1765-1848: The Urbane Federalist (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1969), p. 271;Thomas A. Bailey, The American Spirit (2 vols.; Lexington, Massachusetts: D. C. Heath and Company, 1968), I,182.
  8. Morison, Harrison Gray Otis, pp.305-306.
  9. Kendric C. Babcock, The Rise ofAmerican Nationality, 1811-1819 (New York and Evanston: J. J. Harper Editions, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1906), p.16; Lester J. Cappon, The Adams-Jefferson Letters (2 vols.; Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959), I, 295.
  10. Bailey, American Spirit, I, 203.
  11. Morison, Harrison Gray Otis, p.366.
  12. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams (12 vols.; Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1874-1877), IV, 531, V, 12.
  13. Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln (2 vols.; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), II, 332.
  14. Paul C. Nagel, This SacredTrust: American Nationality, 1798-1898 (New York: Oxford University Press 1971), p.56.

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