Memo To South Carolina: Your Secession Is Nothing To Celebrate
150 years ago today a group of men gathered in Charleston, South Carolina and made one of the gravest mistakes in American history. They should not be honored for it.
It was 150 years ago today that the State of South Carolina formally seceded from the United States, setting in motion the course of events that would lead to the bloodiest war in American history. Today, the Palmetto State’s largest newspaper reports on the controversy surrounding how some are choosing the mark the occasion:
Members of South Carolina’s NAACP will march in protest of a “secession ball” in Charleston later this month which will commemorate the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s secession from the Union.
State NAACP leaders held two press conferences Friday, spreading the word they will protest the ball and any other sesquicentennial events that they deem disrespectful.
“We are not opposed to observances,” said Lonnie Randolph, state president of the NAACP. “We are opposed to disrespect.”
NAACP members and supporters plan to hold a peaceful march in downtown Charleston the day of the ball, on Dec. 20, followed by a meeting and question-and-answer session focusing on slavery. Participants will watch segments of “Birth of a Nation,” a 1915 silent film that portrayed Ku Klux Klan members as heroes.
Nearby at Charleston’s Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, ball attendees, who will pay $100 a ticket, will don formal, period dress, eat and dance the Virginia Reel as a band plays “Dixie.” The evening’s highlight will be a play reenacting the signing of South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession 150 years ago, which severed the state’s ties with the Union and paved the way for the Civil War.
“This is nothing more than a celebration of slavery,” Randolph said of the event.
The truth of that statement can be found in the Declaration of Immediate Causes released by the leaders of South Carolina a few days later, in which they set forth the reasons for secession:
We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof.…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.
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 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.
We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof.
And then there are the words of Alexander Stephens, who went on to become the Vice-President of the Confederacy:
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. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.
There were many factors that led to the Secession Crisis of 1860, but at the root of it all was the institution of slavery, and it’s protection and expansion.
After a bitterly contested four-way race between Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, John Bell, and John Breckinridge. Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. He got almost no support in the Southern United States and won no states south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The Southern vote, in the meantime, was split between Breckinridge and Bell, with Douglas winning only Missouri. Ironically, those three candidates won a higher percentage of the popular vote (60%) even though Lincoln won the Electoral College.
It was immediately after the election results were certified, and even before Lincoln took the oath of office, that South Carolina seceded. In fact, the entire Deep South had seceded by February 1861.
The South opposed Lincoln not because he vowed to lead a charge to eliminate slavery. In fact, he had repeatedly said that he would not do that What Lincoln did oppose, though, was the expansion of slavery into the western territories and that was enough for slavocracy in the South, many of whom realized that their way of life would eventually die out if it was limited geographically to the South United States.
But what, you might ask, about that concept of “state’s rights”? This was the final argument used by the seceding states, and the one most often cited by Confederate apologists today.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the states did retain some degree of sovereignty under the Federal Constitution. The question is whether there was a sufficient threat to that sovereignty in the wake of the 1860 election to justify rebellion. For the reasons addressed above, the answer is no. Lincoln had said nothing, and certainly in the months prior to his Inauguration, had done nothing, to indicate that such a threat existed. Moreover, if the South had stayed in the Union and sent its Congressmen and Senators to Washington in 1861, they would have represented a voting bloc large enough that they would have been able to block any legislation they didn’t like, especially in the Senate.
They choose instead to rebel against their nation. And it was the men who gathered in Charleston who set the nation down that path 150 years ago today. There’s nothing to celebrate today. Instead, we should be mourning the horrible mistake they made and the 600,000 men who died because of it.