A Christmas Eve Reading: Why South Carolina Seceded in 1860

Of Course the Civil War was About Slavery’ is the painful title of a fine piece by Emily Badger, a Miller-McCune staff writer. Why painful? Because, once again, we have a national dispute over this historical fact, but also because this apparently new fight is a perilous renewal of a struggle older than the country itself.

Badger notes that on December 20, a Sons of Confederate Veterans gala celebrated the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s secession from the Union. A New York Times online story title captured the evening, ‘Dancing Around History’. Badger elegantly presents the history and exposes the danse macabre being done around it.

And, it is a danse macabre. The denial of the centrality of this evil to our history – to our lives in being – condemns us to a civil war without end. Plague took many forms in the centuries of the Little Ice Age. They shared the power to kill without respect for social status or organization. Each eruption left deserted villages and haunted cultures.

So, too, our unending civil war over slavery. It erupts under the guises of education (public v. charter or ‘Christian’), health care, transportation, the environment….

As Badger points out, in 1860 the South Carolinians were explicit why they were seceding. On Christmas Eve, December 24, they adopted a “Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” ‘” …[It’s] a wonderful document,” saidJames Loewen, a sociologist and co-editor of The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader.’

I did a double take when I read that quotation, but Loewen spoke precisely: it is a wonder-full document. It should be read and re-read. For it resolves any question about what South Carolina thought secession was about: slavery.

In terse but elegant language, the Declaration summarizes the Constitutional protections of slaveholding. It states its grievances about the North’s failures to enforce the fugitive slave provisions of Federal statutes, such as the Northwest Ordinance.

I hadn’t planned to quote the Declaration at length. However, the more I’ve looked at it, the more important are its words, the more inadequate is a summary of them. Here are the paragraphs preceding the final one declaring independence:

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

…. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.

The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.

Sectional interest and animosity will deepen the irritation, and all hope of remedy is rendered vain, by the fact that public opinion at the North has invested a great political error with the sanction of more erroneous religious belief. [Note: Spelling as on Avalon Project site from which this was taken. Links omitted.]

After reading the South Carolina Declaration, there can be no question about the cause of secession and therefore of the Civil War or about the justness of the North’s victory.

But the South Carolina Declaration is not merely an historic document from an important war. In the words used to argue for state nullification of health care mandates, listen for its echoes. In the lists of programs the US can no longer afford, attend to the geographical and social effects the Declaration cites. Most importantly, hear the last quoted paragraph.


H/T: To Miller-McCune which in print and online produces marvelous (and I mean it literally) articles, such as this one, which contain links to their reliable sources. Subscribe!

 H/T: To the Avalon Project of the Yale Law School Lillian Goldman Law Library which put the Declaration and thousands of other legal, diplomatic and historical documents on line, but with the cavil that the Project needs better proofreading.