The First To Secede

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At 7 p.m. on Thursday, December 20, 1860, some 170 men marched through the streets of Charleston, South Carolina, walking from St. Andrews Hall to a new meetinghouse amid the cheers of onlookers. Half of them were more than 50 years old, most well-known. More than 60 percent were planters who owned at least 20 slaves. Five had been state governors, four U.S. senators.

Meeting in secret earlier that day, this august group had approved a basic ordinance of secession that “dissolved” the “union now subsisting between South Carolina and other states.” Now they were to sign the document in a public ceremony. When they reached Institute Hall, soon to be renamed Secession Hall, they found its galleries crowded and the atmosphere jubilant. First, the state seal was affixed to the document. Then, as each delegate signed it, the crowd broke out in wild applause. The ceremony lasted two hours.

For a decade, the question in South Carolina had been when—not whether—the state would secede. Since the nullification crisis of the early 1830s, South Carolina’s favorite son John C. Calhoun had asserted this as the state’s unassailable right. In 1850, the same year Calhoun died, planter Edward B. Bryan took up the torch, arguing for secession by writing “Give us slavery or give us death.” Several state leaders tried to put together a Southern convention at Nashville with the intention of breaking up the Union, but most of this gathering pinned their hopes on the Compromise of 1850, a series of five bills put together by Henry Clay and Stephen A. Douglas that temporarily defused the conflict between slave and free states in the wake of the U.S.-Mexican War. Not even the Palmetto State was willing to go it alone at that juncture.

As the 1850s wore on, however, proslavery extremists wrung concession after concession out of Washington, only to voice new demands. The Compromise of 1850 had given the South a draconian national fugitive slave law. In 1854 Northern Democrats led by Douglas repealed the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which had closed the territories to slavery above the northern edge of Arkansas. Now any territory could embrace slavery if it so chose. Three years later, the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford  that the federal government did not have the power to prohibit slavery in all territories, regardless of their residents’ wishes.

South Carolina’s passion for slavery and dread of slave revolt pushed it ever further toward secession. In 1856 its governor demanded the reopening of the international slave trade. In 1858 the legislature passed laws to discourage Northerners from even traveling through the state. Meanwhile, most 

Northern Democrats could not stomach the idea that territories must accept slavery, regardless of the wishes of their inhabitants. When they voted down a proposed proslavery plank in the party platform at the 1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston, the Deep South’s delegation walked out—a split that ensured a Republican victory in November.

Lincoln’s election galvanized the extremists. The South Carolina legislature immediately called a convention to consider secession; it met in Columbia, the capital, on December 17, and resolved to leave the Union. Rumors of a smallpox outbreak drove the delegates to Charleston to draft and adopt documents implementing their intent.

Not only was South Carolina distinctively anti-Union; it stood out in other ways. In 1787 its delegates to the Constitutional Convention had insisted that the U.S. Constitution not prohibit slavery. Almost 60 percent of its people were enslaved, the highest proportion in the nation. Intolerant of dissent, South Carolina had been a one-party state for years. It did not even let its citizens vote directly for president; the legislature took care of that formality. (By 1836 all states except South Carolina chose their electors by statewide popular vote.) At the 1860 convention, not one delegate dared vote against secession, although at least two probably did not vote at all.

On Christmas Eve the delegates passed an explanatory resolution, “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” which listed their grievances against the North: “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.” While “constitutional obligations” sounds vague, the convention immediately proceeded to quote the only part of the Constitution that concerned South Carolina in 1860: “No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”

This was, of course, the fugitive slave clause of Article 4, Section 3. The federal government “passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations of the States,” continued the declaration. “But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations.”