Monday, December 20, 2010

December 20, 1860 & The Reasons For South Carolina's Secession

South Carolina Ordinance of Secession
Passed December 20, 1860
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This date marks an important one in commemorating and reflecting upon the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. 150 years ago today, South Carolina declared it was no longer a part of the United States, a declaration made just six weeks after the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln as the nation's Sixteenth President. Sitting President James Buchanan believed secession was illegal and unconstitutional, but also believed that same Constitution prohibited him from taking any action to bring the state back under the fold of the Union. Six more states followed South Carolina's lead even before Lincoln took the Oath of Office, on March 4, 1861. No president had thus inherited a more difficult task.

The secession of South Carolina was the culmination of decades' long sectional strife and tension, at the root of which was slavery. I have no patience for those who deny slavery as the principal cause of secession, since one need only examine all the national debates and tensions in the years leading up to South Carolina's departure from the Union. From the debate in the Philadelphia's Carpenter's Hall in the Summer of 1787 over the three-fifth clause, to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War & Wilmot Proviso, the admission of California into statehood in 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Bleeding Kansas, the Ostend Manifesto, Dred Scott, John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry, and finally the presidential election of 1860, it is clear the nation faced serious challenges in its first eighty years. And those challenges and all the national crises listed above had one thing in common. . .at the root of them all was the issue of slavery and its expansion. Neither do I have patience for those who claim slavery was a dying instituion; quite the contrary: in the 1840, there was just over two million enslaved persons in the United States; twenty years later, there was four million.

Considering all that transpired before the secession of South Carolina and claiming it had nothing to do with slavery is just plain wrong and essentially ignores the first eighty years of America's history.
Now, this is not to be confused over why a particular soldier--whether North or South--fought. Motivations behind an individual's enlistment should not be lumped into a discussion of why a state decided to leave the United States.

While the secession of South Carolina was the culmination of decades' long tensions over the issue of slavery and its expansion into new lands and territories, it was also the spark that lit the powder keg of the Civil War, a devastating war and one of the most tragic episodes in American history. For this reason, today we should by no means celebrate the secession of South Carolina. We should simply reflect upon what it meant to a nation and its peoples.

As the old saying goes, don't take my word for it. . .Four days after South Carolina adopted its Ordinance of Secession, it then explained why in its Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union, which read in part:

The ends for which the Constitution was framed are declared by itself to be "to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."
These ends it endeavored to accomplish by a Federal Government, in which each State was recognized as an equal, and had separate control over its own institutions.
[Slavery] The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.
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 assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions
[Slavery]; and have denied the rights of property [Slaves] 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 [Slaves] 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.
For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party
[Lincoln's Republican Party] has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. 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.
We, therefore, the People of South Carolina, by our delegates in Convention assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved, and that the State of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, as a separate and independent State; with full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do.
December 24, 1860

The bold-print and thoughts in brackets in the above are mine, but it cannot be stated any more clearly. The leaders of the South Carolina secession movement made it known the reasons for secession and it had everything to do with slavery.

And for this reason as well, this is not a day to celebrate.


Lyle said...

Secession definitely was about slavery. States' Rights was about slavery. What was slavery about though? Wealth, prestige, class, and the hope of prosperity.

I mean this is why Thomas Jefferson didn't free all of his slaves through his will... they were too valuable financially and culturally, i.e., his family would lose his accumulated wealth, prestige of the plantation, prestige of the planter class, and the hope of prosperity in agrarian Virginia.

So South Carolina seceded from the Union because of slavery, but slavery wasn't just the ownership of human beings... but it was more importantly about the wealth, prosperity, prestige, and class of the slave owner at that time. Even some free blacks (very, very few of them) in the South wanted to own slaves, and did... because they wanted wealth, prestige, class, and the hope for prosperity as free peoples part of slave based economy.

For me at least, this makes understanding secession better. Of course the system was wrong, but if you were a part of it, i.e. you benefited from it or hoped to one day... you wouldn't want it to go away over night or even in time. You wouldn't want to go from millionaire to carpet bagging out West, or lose the ability to sell your couple of slaves off to see off the debt collectors.

... and this was all acceptable as well because, because well the white South and North thought blacks were inferior, not even human beings, lesser beings than the reviled Indians (Thomas Jefferson's own view).

All wrong and tragic, but that is what our people were. So perhaps not to be celebrated, but perhaps not to be reviled either (not that you implied that).

John David Hoptak said...

Some good thoughts, Lyle; thank you for your comments.

Lyle said...

Thanks. By the way, you have very nice blog John. Hope you can keep it going for awhile.

John David Hoptak said...

The blog hit the four year mark back in November, and I hope to keep it going for many more to come.

Lloyd Monroe said...

Very well said and documented. I enjoy your blog and hope you keep the good stuff coming!

John David Hoptak said...

Thanks, Lloyd.

colleen said...

I don't know if you are still doing your blog but I just came upon it and wanted to comment. I agree 100% about the reasons for secession. What I find most disconcerting is that there are so many people who still refuse to admit that slavery was the root cause for the war. I enjoyed reading your blog and hope that there is more from you to read. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Those who are saying that slavery was a dying institution are referring to before the creation of the cotton gin. Before the invention came along, cotton slavery was not very profitable and was slowing dying out. After the gin, slavery was profitable and increased.