soldier with rifle american civil war THE
SESQUICENTENNIAL
EDITION

 


Why Did South Carolina Secede?

I

INTRODUCTION

According to the Washington Post's opinion, the people of South Carolina authorized their state to secede from the Union, because of the "increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery" and, therefore, "Slavery, not states' rights, birthed the Civil War." (Washington Post, February 26, 2011.) According to the web site—Libertarianism.org—it was "not the tariff, not the erosion of state authority in the face of a federal juggernaut, not the safety of Jeffersonian republicanism against Lincolnian Leviathan which prompted South Carolinian secession.  Clearly and undoubtedly, South Carolina identified the failure of northern states to abide by the national Fugitive Slave Act as the primary motivating factor for secession, especially given the recent (1860) rise to power of a political party committed to keeping the national territories free of slavery." According to the website—Quartz—"South Carolina seceded because the federal government would not overturn abolitionist policies in Northern states. South Carolina seceded because the federal government would not violate a state's right to abstain from slavery and its concomitant policies." Good luck to the average high school or college student sifting out of the abstractions these quotations contain, the objective truth of American History.

According to repetitive opinion polls, it appears that the public's view of the matter is spilt between the abstraction of "States Rights" explaining South Carolina's decision to secede and the abstraction of "Slavery," per se, explaining it. In 2011, for example, at the outset of the sesquicentennial, a Pew Research Center poll found that 48% of Americans polled thought South Carolina's secession was "about states' rights," while 38% thought it was "about slavery." A recent poll CNN claims it has taken, reports that 54% of Americans polled think South Carolina seceded because her citizens "wanted slavery to remain legal in their state." The terms these polls use to define the motive that drove the white people of South Carolina to adopt her Ordinance of Secession are, it is easy to see, too ambiguous, too vacuous, too obscure, to mean anything.

It is the position of this web site that what explains the motivation of the 1860 population of 700,000 South Carolinians, of whom 400,000 were Africans held as slaves by 5% of the 300,000 white people residing in the State, to secede from the Union, was the fear that 20,000,000 people residing in the Northern states—through the Republican Party's control of the Federal Government—intended to make the Africans free in South Carolina. The pontifications of the historians, writing their books and articles and making their lectures, are irrelevant to the intellectual process by which this answer is derived. What the objective answer depends upon, is what the political representatives of the American people, as well as the white people of South Carolina, thought at the time; and this can be best defined by what the politicians said in the Second Session of the Thirty-Sixth Congress of the United States and what the white Carolinians wrote.

Andrew JohnsonOn December 18, 1860, a few days after South Carolina published its Ordinance of Secession, Tennessee Senator Andrew Johnson rose in the United States Senate and, holding the floor for two days, he offered his fellow senators a comprehensive lecture on the political history of the Union, which he interpreted to support his position that "no State had the constitutional right (whatever exactly that means) to secede from the Union without the consent of the other States which ratified the compact." (December 12, 1860: Congressional Globe, Thirty-Sixth Congress, Second Session.)

Johnson was fifty-three years old in 1860; born in North Carolina, he was indentured as a trailor's apprentice at the age of ten, for a term of six years, his father having died in a drowning accident. Thereafter he made his living as a tailor in Tennesssee, until he entered public life as, first, an alterman of his town, then, as a representative to Congress, followed by a term of the State's governor, and, finally, in 1857, he was elected Senator. During his entire public career, he was identified with the interests of the working class, the center piece of his platform being his effort to get a Homestead bill through congress; an effort that resulted in the passage of an Act which President Buchanan vetoed.

To support his contention that no State had the constitutional right to secede from the Union without the unaminous consent of her sister States, Johnson walked his audience through the historical record, from Madison, the Constitution's drafter, to the political positions taken by Washington, Hamilton, and Jefferson regarding its political nature, to the history of the 1798 Kentucy and Virginia Resolutions, and then to the Nullification Crisis of 1833. Though Johnson spent two days covering this ground, the essence of his case is the language he quotes from a letter Madison wrote in 1832, some fifty years after he drafted the Constitution that the States ratified in 1789. "The essential difference between a free Government and a Government not free, Madison wrote, is, that the former is founded in compact, the parties to which are mutually and equally bound by it. Neither of them, therefore, can have a greater right to break off from the bargain than the others have to hold him to it; and certainly there is nothing in the Virginia Resolutions of 1798 adverse to this principle." From this language of Madison's Johnson leaped happily to the conclusion that the "idea" that "a State can separately and alone determine the question [of secession], and have the right to secede from the Union" is "excluded." (Johnson citing Madison's letter addressed to Nicholas P. Trist, dated December 23, 1832.)

In objectively assessing the credibility of Johnson's interpretation, the serious student must keep in mind the fact that Johnson is speaking about an abstraction, which, given the context in which he presents it, must be evaluated in light of rules found in the law of contracts which are used to find the intent of the parties to a written agreement. These rules include, first, the requirement that if the language of a contract is "clear and explicit" in its meaning, that meaning must be applied; second, that if ambiguity in the meaning of the written agreement is found to exist—an "ambiguity" being that two distinctly different meanings can reasonably be attached to the language—the ambiguity must be resolved against the drafter; that is, the meaning which is contrary to that which the drafter wishes the fact-finder to adopt, is the meaning that must be chosen. Third, that, in resolving ambiguity, extrinsic evidence surrounding the formation of the contract may be used to determine the answer to the ultimate issue: What was the intent of the parties in entering the contract, in question.

Given the nature of the "contract" that Senator Johnson is interpreting, these judicial rules of construction do not easily fit; because the "contract"—the "compact"—extends, by its nature, beyond the life time of the original parties to it; that is, the white people of the "States" that ratified it, in 1789. It is true that the ordinary contract at issue in a court of law may remain in force beyond the life time of the parties to it, but it operates against the parties as they were at the time they entered in to it. With a "constitution," however, the situation is distinctly different: though the "State" may not change in its form, it certainly "changes" in its substance as the generations of living beings that comprise its body politic change. And, as the generations change, so, too, can the meaning of the words written into the Constitution, change. One generation giving a certain shade of meaning to a word or phrase; the next a different shade. A comparison of the constitutional text writers of the early generations—St. George Tucker, John Taylor, William Rawles and Joseph Story—tell us this. (See, e.g., St. George Tucker, View of the Constitution of the United States (1803); John Taylor, New Views of the Constitution of the United States (1823); William Rawles, A View of the Constitution of the United States (1825); Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (1833).)

Compounding the potential for confusion in the meaning of the Constitution's words, James Madison, as the drafter, intentionally left certain fundamental concepts, such as the nature of American citizenship, ambiguous; and, like a mirror flickering light from the sun, he infused key words—such as "States"—with meaning which changes the text of the constitution, depending upon what particular political issue is at stake.

For example, the Virginia Resolution of 1798, which Johnson's lecture focused on, was this:

"That in case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers not granted by the said compact, the states who are parties thereto, have the right, and are in duty bound to interpose for arresting the progress of the evil, and for maintaining within their respective limits, the authorities, rights and liberties appertaining to them." (Italics added.)

James MadisonMadison explained in the Virginia Report accompanying the 1798 resolutions, what he—the drafter—meant by the use of the word, "States" in the constitution:  "It is indeed true that the term "states" is sometimes used in a vague sense, and sometimes in different senses, according to the subject to which it is applied. Thus it sometimes means the separate sections of territory occupied by the political societies within each; sometimes the particular governments established by those societies; sometimes those societies as organized into those particular governments; and lastly, it means the people composing those political societies, in their highest sovereign capacity. Although it might be wished that the perfection of language admitted less diversity in the signification of the same words, yet little inconvenience is produced by it, where the true sense can be collected with certainty from the different applications. In the present instance, whatever different construction of the term "states," in the resolution, may have been entertained, all will at least concur in that last mentioned; because in that sense the Constitution was submitted to the "states;" in that sense the "states" ratified it; and in that sense of the term "states," they [the people of the State] are consequently parties to the compact from which the powers of the federal government result." (Italics added.)

Johnson's contention, then, that no "state" has the right (in the abstract) to secede from the Union as it was originally formulated by Madison's language in the Constitution, ignores the fact that it was, in the political theory written into the document, the people of South Carolina that ratified it and, consequently, were a party to it. Now, in terms of applying the judicial rules of contract interpretation explained above, the question for ultimate decision becomes, What were the objectively reasonable expectations of the white people of South Carolina, regarding her "right" to secede from the Union in the event they found the Federal Government was engaged in the dangerous exercise of powers they had not granted to it? In his brilliant exposition of the argument against South Carolina's constitutional right to secede, under this circumstance, Johnson ignored the obvious answer which Madison had articulated at the time the white people of South Carolina were deciding whether to ratify the proposed compact between the States.

In his essay, No. 39, of The Federalist Papers, written in 1787, Madison explained the concept of the Union as formulated by the Constitution: "In order to ascertain the real character of the government, it may be considered in relation to the foundation on which it is to be established. . . it appears, on one hand, that the constitution is to be founded on the assent and ratification of the people of America, given by deputies appointed for the special purpose; but, on the other, that this assent and ratification is to be given by the people, not as individuals composing the entire nation, but as composing the distinct and independent States to which they respectively belong. It is to be the assent and ratification of the several States, derived from the supreme authority in each State—the authority of the people themselves. The act, therefore, establishing the constitution, will not be a national, but a federal act." (at pp. 259-260; italics added.)

Madison went on to explain what this meant in terms of the relation of the States to each other in the Federal Union, as distinct from their relation to the Federal Union's managing agent, the Federal Government, to be created by the "States" in their constitution.

"[I]t will be a federal and not a national act, as those terms are understood [;] the act of the people, as forming so many independent States, not as forming one aggregate nation, is obvious from this single consideration, that it is to result neither from the decision of a majority of the people of the Union, nor from that of a majority of the States. It must result from the unanimous assent of the several States that are parties to it, differing no otherwise from their ordinary assent than in its being expressed, not by the legislative authority, but by that of the people themselves. Were the people regarded in this transaction (the forming of the compact between the States) as forming one nation, the will of the majority of the whole [white] people of the United States would bind the minority, in the same manner as the majority of each State must bind the minority. . . Neither of these rules have been adopted. Each State, in ratifying the Constitution is considered as a sovereign body, independent of all others, and only to be bound by its own voluntary act. In this relation, then, the new Constitution will, if established, be a federal, and not a national government." (at p. 260; italics added.)

Having explained his view of the meaning of what he had drafted, Madison next recognized the principle upon which the compact between the States, formed by the Constitution, might be dissolved.

"Two questions of a very delicate nature present themselves on this occasion: 1. On what principle, the Confederation (under the "Perpetual" Articles of 1781), which stands in the solemn form of a compact among the States (just as will the Consitution), can be superseded without the unanimous consent of the parties to it? 2. What relation is to subsist between the nine or more States ratifyiing the Constitution, and the remaining few (Virginia, New York, Rhode Island and North Carolina) who do not become parties to it?

The first question is answered at once by recurring to the absolute necessity of the case; to the great principle of self-preservation; to the transcendent law of nature, which declares that the safety and happiness of society are the objects at which all poltical institutions aim, and to which all such institutions must be sacrificed. . . . .

The second question is no less delicate; it is one of those cases which must be left to provide for itself. In general, although no political relation can subsist between the assenting and dissenting States, yet the moral relations will remain uncancelled. The claims of justice, both on one side and the other, will be in force, and must be fulfilled; the rights of humanity must in all cases be mutually respected; while considerations of a common interest [and] a speedy triumph over the obstacles to reunion will, it is hoped, [result in] moderation on one side, and pruden ce on the other." (The Federalist Papers, No. 43 at pp. 303-304; edited for brevity, italic added.)

Given Madison's explanation of the meaning of "States," in the sense he used the word in formulating the political relation of the States among themselves, in 1789, which superseded the relation which they had previously agreed, in 1781, was to be "perpetual," we can reasonably conclude that the white people of South Carolina—themselves alone—were the "legal" or "constitutional" source of authority, which caused the "state," as a political institution, to become a "party" to the Constitution.

From this conclusion necessarily springs the corollary idea that, having agreed to be bound by the terms of the Constitution in their sovereign capacity—that is, as a distinct people possessing the natural right of self-preservation—the white people of South Carolina did not relinquish their "inalienable" right—their "natural right" to repeat—to throw off the Federal Government, as they threw off the government of the "perpetual" Articles, whenever, in their judgment, they found it had become dangerous to their lives, liberty and property. Put another way, that is, in the ordinary context of the law of contracts, it is an established doctrine, as Madison acknowledges in the context of treaties, that a material breach of a promise by one party to an agreement, is a breach of the whole agreement; "and that [such] a breach committed by either of the parties, absolves the others, and authorizes them, if they please, to pronounce the compact violated and void." (The Federalist Papers, No. 43 at p. 303; see also Restatement of Contracts, 2d, section § 237: reporter's note, § 242 cmt. a (stating that material breach merely allows injured party to suspend performance). The approach of the Second Restatement allows the breaching party to cure the breach until enough time has passed that cancellation is warranted. Accord: Farnsworth on Contracts §§ 8.15, 8.18, at 435, 447 (2d ed. 1990), discussing the law)

II

SOUTH CAROLINA'S ORDINANCE OF SECESSION

On November 11, 1860, several days after Lincoln's election was pronounced, South Carolina's senators and representatives resigned their places in Congress and went home. In the thirty days which followed, delegates were elected from the counties of the State and met in conventon at Charleston to decide whether to authorize the State government to secede from the Union. Half of the delegates were white men who owned as many as fifty to one hundred slaves; the other half were white men who were farmers, merchants, and lawyers. On the fourth day of the convention, December 20, 1860, the delegates unanimously voted that their State secede and an ordinance to that effect was published.

South Carolina ordinance of secession

The delegates then spent four more days debating the language to be included in the text of an "Address to the People of the Slaveholding States of the United States," setting forth South Carolina's reasons for seceding from the Union. The following language constitutes the essence of the Address which the delegates agreed to and published on December 24, 1860.

"In the year 1765, that portion of the British Empire embracing Great Britain, undertook to make laws for the government of that portion composed of the thirteen American colonies. A struggle for the right of self-government ensued, which resulted, on the 4th July 1776, in a Declaration of the Colonies, `that they are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states. . .'

They further solemnly declared that whenever any `form of government becomes destructive of the ends for which it was established, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government.' Deeming the Government of Great Britain to have become destructive of these ends, they declared that the Colonies 'are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.'

[Assuming the status of "States"], the Colonies entered into a league, in 1778, known as the Articles of Confederation whereby they agreed to entrust the administration of their external relations to a common agent, known as the Congress of the United States, expressly declaring that each "State retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence,and every power. . . not expressly delegated to the Congress.

diagram of Articles government

[I]n 1783, a Treaty was signed by Great Britain, in which she acknowledged the independence of the Colonies in the following terms: 'His Britannic Majesty acknowledges the said United States; i.e., [a list of the Colonies follows] to be free, sovereign and independent states [and] relinquishes all claims to the government, propriety and territorial rights of the same and very part thereof.' (Italics added.)

Thus, were established the two great principles asserted by the Colonies, namely: the right of a State to govern itself; and the right of a people to abolish a Government when it becomes destructive of the ends for which it was instituted.

Note: The first "great principle" is obvious from the nature of a "State." The second "great principle" depends squarely upon the willingess of the controlling "Government" to "relinquish" its control, a process ordinarily dependent upon its willingness to wage war to retain its control. Hong Kong, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Catalonia are examples of the exercise of these principles in the world of today. Contrast these examples with the example of the disintegration of "The United Soviet Socialists Republics." It's General Government allowed disunion to occur, because the economy of the parts could not support the whole.

In 1787, deputies to a convention recommended, for the adoption of the States, the Articles of Union, known as the Constitution of the United States.

Note: Here is inserted in the record Madison's multi-shaded word—"States"—and the South Carolina delegates' characterization of the "Constitution of the United States" as "Articles of Union;" their emphasis being on "Union" and Madison's constitution on "Government."

The parties to whom the Constitution was submitted, were the several sovereign States; they were to agree or disagree, and when nine of them agreed, the compact was to take effect, among those concurring; and the General Government, as the common agent, was then to be invested with their authority. (Italics added.)

Note: The statement correctly states the political facts: What is important to recognize, here, is that the Articles of Confederation expressly declare, repeatedly, that the "Union" between the "States" is deemed "perpetual," and that the terms of the perpetual Union can not be changed without the unanimous consent of all the States. Yet, only seven years later, a majority of the States announce their willingness to leave the perpetual union and enter a new and different union, without the consent of the minority.

The difference between peace and war in this process of political change turns on whether, as Madison says, the majority will act "with moderation" and the minority "with prudence;" or vice versa; for example, had Virginia and New York objected—the two great States of the "perpetual" Union and in the minority—to the majority leaving the perpetual union without their consent, the result might have been war.

The only political basis the majority has available to it, to support its abandonment of one form of government for another, is the principle expressed by Jefferson's Declaration of Independence that, whenever the people decide their government has become destructive of their lives, liberty or property, they may exercise their "inalienable" right to rescind their allegiance to it and adopt a new government. The principle has been used by Americans three times: in 1776, 1789, and 1860.

By this Constitution, certain duties were imposed upon the several States, and the exercise of their powers were restrained, which necessarily implied their continued existence as sovereign States. But, to remove all doubt, an amendment was added, which declared that the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution. . .are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people. On May 23, 1788, South Carolina, by a Convention of her people, passed an Ordinance assenting to this Constitution. . .

Thus was established by compact between the States, a Government with defined objects and powers, limited to the express words of the grant. This limitation left the whole remaining mass of power subject to the clause reserving it to the States or to the people. . .

Note: the language of the Ordinance of Secession, so far, correctly states the political reality created by the people of South Carolina in ratifiying the Constitution as Madison wrote it, and it correctly describes what the delegates to the Constitutional Convention intended the words they agreed to, to mean. It is not objectively reasonable to argue that any of them—Washington included—seriously expected that the "States," in assenting to enter the Union of the Constitution, would irevocably relinquish the "inalienable" right of their people to rescind their allegiance to the new government overarching the union, if, in their judgment, it became dangerous to their lives, liberty or property. The idea that the founding generation can bind for all time succeeding generations to a government they framed, is objectively absurd.

We maintain that in every compact between two or more parties, the obligation is mutual; that the failure of one of the contracting parties to perform a material part of the agreement entirely releases the obligation of the other, and that where no arbiter is provided, each party is remitted to his own judgment to determine the fact of failure, with all its consequences.

Note: This language mirrors exactly Madison's statements in the Federialist Papers of 1787, in the Virginia Report regarding the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, and in his letter of 1832. But there is an "arbiter" called war.

In the present case the fact is established with certainty, we assert, that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused for years past to fulfill their constitutional obligation [to enforce the Fugitive Slave Clause]. This stipulation was so material to the compact that, without it, the compact would not have been made. . . . Thus the constitutional compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the nonslaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.

Note: The statement is objectively correct. Most of the "Free" States passed "personal liberty" laws which prevented the Fugitive Slave Clause to work as the framers intended, though the "Free" States correctly claimed that exactly how the framers intended the Clause to work, in the procedural details, Madison's language leaves unclear. What is important, however, is the question whether, as a practical matter to the people of South Carolina, in deciding to leave the Union, the "Free" States' refusal to honor the substance of the Clause ought to be deemed a "material" breach of the political agreement. The answer seems that it was not, as few Africans held as slaves in South Carolina had the means to escape through North Carolina and Virginia and get beyond the Potomac.

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 nonslaveholding States. These States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rigths of property established in fifteen States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of Slavery; they have permitted the open establishment of [abolition societies]. They have assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain have been incited by emisaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

Note: These statements of fact are objectively true; though the behavior was not actually that of the "States" as it was of a small political group of citizens within the "States" acting out their emotional view of slavery per se; and even with most members of this political group there was a willingness to leave the Africans alone where they were; the objective of their political agitation being to keep the Africans out of their States and out of the Territories of the Union which they wanted for the exclusive use of white people.

[Now] all the States north [of Mason's Dixon's Line] have united in the election of a man to the office of President 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.

On the 4th 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.

Note: The statement is objectively true. Lincoln's position was empathic: his adminstration would not allow Africans to be brought into the Territories of the Union; and with absolute control over the patronage, his administration would plainly be expected to replace retiring judges of the Southern Federal courts with persons holding Republican Party radical views. The composition of the Supreme Court would be expected to change in a similar manner, with justices appointed who would interpret the Constitution to allow the Federal Government to block the movement of slaves between Slave States, and to keep the Fugitive Slave Clause inoperative. And who knows what the justices might find lurking inside the phrase—"to promote the general welfare, or the phrase, to ensure domestic tranquility."

We, therefore, the people of South Carolina, by our delegates, in Convention assembled, . . . have solemnly declared that the Union 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 State may of right do. (Italics added.)

III

THE CAUSE

"It is the cause. It is the cause, my soul. Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars, it is the cause." (Shakespeare's Othello, Act 5, Scene 2.)

South Carolina was formed in 1663, when the English Crown granted land to eight proprietors who arrived at what is now Charleston in 1670. The majority of the proprietors came from the English colony of Barbados and brought with them Africans held as slaves. Pushing back the native Americans who had inhabited the land for centuries, the proprietors plunged into the process of clearing the land for the cultivation of sugar, rice, and cotton. In 1719, the proprietors forced out, the now cultivated land was made a British Crown colony. In 1700, thirty-one years after the proprietors' settlement, South Carolina's population was about 5,700, including 2,500 Africans.

From the beginning, the Africans were the majority in the population of South Carolina and constituted close to half of the personal wealth of the white people as recorded in probate inventories. On the eve of the American Revolution, the per capita wealth of South Carolina's white people exceeded that of any other region of America. Rising slave prices through the preceding years accounts for this. The probate records show, from 1774, average per capita wealth was 416£, more than eight times the level of the middle colonies, and over ten times as great as in New England. But a hundred years later, at the time of South Carolina's secession from the Union of the Constitution, the economies were not so rosy. There were 700,000 people living in the State; 400,000 were Africans, 10,000 of whom were free. Though the white people's average per capita wealth continued to exceed that of the northern States—the difference pegged to the the value of slave ownership—it had shrunk considerably from the levels recorded during the 18th century, the consequence of its depleted soil, the increasing difficulties of up-country cotton production and shifting world markets for low country rice, and the dramatic rise of industrialization in the North, fueled by the infusion of millions of Germans and Irish immigrants. The change in economic fortune is reflected in the fact that, by 1860, while South Carolina exported through Charleston 21 million worth of agricultural products, importing 1 million worth of merchandise, New York, alone, exported goods worth 145 million and imported 248 million. Of South Carolina's 21 million worth of exports, in 1860, most of it was rice which went to Europe.

google image

How, in 1860, the white people of South Carolina expected their "State," in resuming her place among the nations of the world, to continue to establish alliances with foreign powers is any one's guess. Their leaders certainly must have known that the success of the American Revolution was due entirely to the fact that France and Great Britain—the two great world powers of the time—were at war with themselves in a global struggle for territory in Europe and colonies abroad; and that it was France's alliance with the rebel colonies that kept Washington's pathetic little army in the field for seven years and caused Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown, which broke the will of Parliament to continue the stuggle for control of America. But, with both Great Britain and France now engaged together, dealing with the tensions between Russia, Prussia, and Austria, the white people of South Carolina could hardly expect to cement an alliance with a foreign power willing to commit its naval force to keep open the 3,000 mile corridor of sea between Charleston Harbor and Liverpool or Le Havre. Though the white Carolinians' leaders might insist the United States Navy was not large enough to enforce a blockade of Southern ports, any one who could count would have recognized the fact that it could. Necessarily, then, the conclusion must follow that the white people of South Carolina must have thought themselves in a desperate strait to take the political action that they did.

So why did they throw themselves out in the cold, alone in December 1860, to fend for themselves in the world? What was at the bottom of the thing which their Address to the Slaveholding States left unsaid? The answer is found in the public statements made by the delegates to the secession convention, during their debate over the text of the Address, and is mirrored in the statements made by Southern senators in the Senate during the second session of the Thirty-Sixth Congress of the United States. The speech of William Simpson, a member of the South Carolina Senate, who moved the adoption of the Address in the convention, makes the thing plain:

William Simpson"The people of the North have not left us in doubt as to their designs and policy. United as a section, they have elected as the exponent of their policy, one who has openly declared that all the States must be made free States or slave States. If African slavery be the evil their political combination affirms it to be, the requisitions of an inexorable logic must lead them to emancipation. If it is right to preclude or abolish slavery in a Territory, why should it be allowed to remain in the States? When it is considered that the Northern States will soon have the power to make the Supreme Court what they please, what check can there be to emancipation? There can be but one end by the submission of the South to the rule of a sectional anti-slavery government at Washington; and that end, directly or indirectly, must be—the emancipation of the slaves of the South.

A county judge from Abbeville, D.L. Wardlaw, speaking after Simpson, got directly to the point.

"My objection to the Address is that it does not deal as it should upon the immediate cause of our action. It deals too much with the Fugitive Slave Clause and upon Personal Liberty Bills. It is too much like special pleading. the subjects in the Address do not set forth our defenseless condition. It does not set out, as I think it should, that the election of Lincoln is virtual emancipation. The Address does not set forth the necessary effect of emancipation; that it would be destruction of the black, the degradation of the white; that there must be a continuance of slavery, or the degradation of both races, or extermination of the black; that humanity for the slave States alone requires that this condition be continued, and that those who choose to interfere with our social structure have no justice." (Edited for brevity: transcript of debate taken from The South Carolina Courier, Dec. 25, 1860.)

During the sessions of the Senate in which Andrew Johnson's speech on secession was debated, North Carolina Senator Thomas Clingman took the floor to make a speech in response. Clingman was an 1832 graduate of the University of North Carolina, a lawyer, and previously the leader of the Democratic Party in the House. He was expelled from the Senate in the summer of 1861, having resigned his seat in the spring to assume command of a North Carolina infantry regiment that was to see action at Gaines Mill during McClellan's Peninsular Campaign. Clingman stated the cause of the impending war precisely.

Thomas Clingman"I will endeavor to state, in as few, plain sentences as I can command, what I deem it to be that is now operating on the mind of the southern States, and driving them into resistance. Look, Mr. President, over the southern country, and ask yourself what would be the greatest injury that could be done to it? The greatest possible injury would be to liberate the Africans, and leave them as free in those communities.

It is said that they are worth $4,000,000,000 in money. This, I suppose, is true; but that is only a portion of the pecuniary loss, if we were deprived of them. So great would be the loss that financial ruin would be inevitable. And yet, this is not the greatest evil. It is that social destruction of our society by infusing into it a large free African population that is most dreaded. Northern gentlemen may realize the evil: suppose there would be transferred to their States a free African population, equal to half their own, or, as they have eighteen million people, turn lose among them a population of nine million free Africans; would not the people of their States at once rise in rebellion against such a measure?

I say, therefore, to Senator Crittenden from Kentucky [referring to his compromise proposition], in all sincerity, that, in my judgment, the issue which his State and mine have to determine is, whether there shall be a manly resistance now, or whether our States shall become free African communities. It is my deliberate judgment that, if this issue had met with no resistance, the latter alternative would have been the result.

True, gentlemen say they are not for coercion, that they are for enforcing the laws and collecting the revenue. I will not enter into an argument to prove to any Senator that this is coercion. If I were met on the highway by a man with a pistol in his hand, and he should say that he had no right to rob me, but that he meant to take my money, and would use force to accomplish his purpose, I should not enter into an argument with that man to convince him that this was robbery. So, when honorable Senators tell me that they are for enforcing the laws, I will not argue that this is coercion. All that Great Britain ever demanded in the Revoluton was, that the colonies should obey the acts of Parliament, and pay such taxes as she imposed; and there was no day, during that long struggle, when, if George Washington had agreed to pay the taxes and obey the acts of Parliament, that the British armies would not have been withdrawn." (Congressional Globe, Feburary 4, 1861: second Session of the Thirty-Sixth Congress. Edited for brevity; italics added.)

Missouri Senator, James S. Green, echoed Senator's Clingman's view when he followed him on the floor. Senator Green was born in Virginia, grew up in Alabama and then came to Missouri where he practiced law until appointed to his Senate seat. Green was the Chairman of the Committe on Territories in the Thirty-Sixth Congress.

James S. Green"I ask the question of the northern Senators: why do you wish to circumscribe slavery? Why does it affect you to prevent the expansion and spreading of it in new Territories? The answer is, by hemming it in, the Africans will gradually become so numerous where they are contained, slavery will become so dangerous that the master, perforce, will emancipate—thus seeking to accomplish by indirect means the very thing they swear they do not desire to do by direct means. That is the purpose of every member of this Senate on the Republican side. If it is not, I would like for some one to rise and answer me. They have avowed it. No one has denied it. I have charged it upon them. Some of them are honest enough to confess it. Others choose to sit mute under the charge, thereby giving it a confession. Therefore, to say, 'We do not intend to make a direct attack upon your State, but we will bear a train of circumstances that will break down slavery in your State,' is just as base and infamous as if you raised an army to attack us in the State.

Yes, sir, as the Senator from New York [Seward] said; the 'irrepressible conflict' will go on. What did he mean by that doctrine? I do not suppose he meant a bloody war, for he is not a man of war; he is a man of words. What kind of conflict did he mean? Why, a continual agitation of the question, until they get us in such trepidation and fear that, out of regard for personal safety, we would sell our Africans, or emancipate them, run them off, and gradually it would work down: Missouri first, Maryland next, Virginia next, until you crowd them down to the last extremity (South Carolina). That is the 'irrepressible conflict.'" (February 12, 1861, Congressional Globe; edited for brevity, italics added)

Then, Texas Senator Louis Wigfall took the floor and added his voice to the chorus. Born and educated in South Carolina, Wigfall moved to Texas in the 1840s, served in the Texas House of Representatives and in the Senate, before being appointed to his U.S. Senate seat in 1859.

Louis Wigfall"When the day comes that four and a half million Africans are turned loose, free in our country, the slaveholders will have the means and the ability and the inclination to leave the country—and leave it they will.

Who will be left to contest the palm with these emancipated slaves of the African race? Who but the non-slaveholders? The man who has a small farm, with a wife and children to support on it; who has lived nowhere else; who has never been beyond the limits of his own county, of limited education. Fixed to his place, he has to stay; and he has to contest the question of equality with the African. These men cannot be led by the nose of domagagism. They feel and they know that they are citizens of their own State.

Call things by their right names. Say you are going to coerce, if you intend to do it; say you are going to establish another government, and do it in the only way you can—by force of arms." (February 7, 1861, Congressional Globe; edited for brevity, italics added.)

Bernard Powers"In considering the secession crisis," Dr. Bernard Powers, of the College of Charleston, has written, "we have yet to explore the secessionist's drive to maintain white racial hegemony as a powerful force in South Carolina's march to war." (See, "The Worst of All Barbarism:" Racial Anxiety and the Approach of Secession in the Palmetto State, The South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 112, No. 3/4, pp. 139-156 (2011).) Dr. Powers has some credibility to offer on the matter, having worked in higher education for forty years, most of which time he has spent as a professor of history at the College of Charleston teaching courses in African diasporic history. In 2018, Dr. Powers became the College's founding director for the center for the study of slavery in Charleston. The "racial anxiety" Dr. Powers' piece explains, is the fear the white people of South Carolina lived with in their minds every day in the antibellum time of Lincoln's election in November 1860.

The experience between the blacks and whites that happened in Santo Domingo in the 1790s, and in the 1830s, in Jamacia and Hayti, and the thwarted plots of Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vessy at Charleston, gave the white Carolinians good reasons to fear emancipation and the vagabond population of Africans that they imagined would result. "Through apprehensions fated with time," Dr. Powers writes, neither the memories nor the lore of the Haitian Revolution were forgotten by [1860]; they remained an important part of Charleston's collective memory. . . ." For example, among many others, r. Powers points out, was James D. B. DeBow, the editor of DeBow's Review, who grew up in Charleston prior to the Civil War. He recalled in his magazine the stories he had heard as a child: "The horrors of the island became a narrative which frightened our childhood [and] still curdles the blood to read." Perhaps the fear Debow was talking about is best described in the famous diary of Mary Boykin Chestnut when she writes of learning, in September 1861, that her cousin Betsy Witherspoon had been murdered by her slaves:

Mary Chestnut"Hitherto I have never thought of being afraid of Africans. I had never injured any of them. Why should they want to hurt me? Two-thirds of my religion consists in trying to be good to Africans because they are so in my power, and it would be easy to be the other thing. Somehow today I feel that the ground is cut away from under my feet. Why should they treat me any better than they have done cousin Betsy?

Kate and I sat up late and talked it over. Mrs. Witherspoon was a saint on this earth and this is her reward.

Kate's maid came in—a strong built mulatto woman. She was dragging in a mattress. 'Missis, I have brought my bed to sleep in your room while Mars Davis is at Society Hill. You ought not to stay in a room by yourself these times.' And then she went off for more bed gear.

'For the life of me,' said Kate gravely. 'I cannot make up my mind. Does she mean to take care of me—or murder me? I do not think she heard, but when she came back she said, 'Missis, as I have a soul to be saved, I will keep you safe. I will guard you.'

We know the maid well. Has she soul enough to swear by? She is a great stout, jolly, irresponsible, unreliable, pleasant-tempered, bad-behaved woman with ever so many good points. Among others, she is so clever she can do anything. And she never loses her temper—but she has no moral sense whatever.

That night Kate came into my room. She could not sleep. Those black hands strangling and smothering Mrs. Witherspoon's gray head under the counter-pane haunted her. So we sat up and talked the long night through." (A Diary From Dixie, p. 199, Yale University Press (1981) as edited by C. Vann Woodward [Italics original.].)

In the New York, D. Appleton & Co. (1906) edition of the diary, as edited by Isabell D. Martin and Myrta Lockett Avery, the diary entry of September 21 that Woodward quotes is not printed. The index refers only to Mrs. Witherspoon as "found dead;" and the diary entry of September 19th is the sole published reference to the event: "A painful piece of news came to us yesterday—our cousin, Mrs. Witherspoon, of Society Hill, was found dead in her bed. She was quite well the night before. Killed, people say, by family sorrows. She was a proud and high-strung woman. Nothing shabby in word, thought, or deed ever came nigh ther. She was of a warm and tender heart, too; truth and uprightness itself. Few persons have ever been more loved and looked up to. She was a very handsome old lady, of fine presence, dignified and commanding."

In the same September 19, 1861 entry, Mrs. Chestnut continues with this.

"It is a crowning misdemeanor for us to hold still in slavery those Africans whom they brought here from Africa, or sold to us when they found it did not pay to own them themselves. Gradually, they slid or sold them off down here; or freed them prospectively, giving themselves years in which to get rid of them in a remunerative way. We want to spread them over other lands, too—West and South, or Northwest, where the climatge would free them or kill them, or improve them out of the world, as our friends up North do the Indians. If they had been forced to keep the Africans in New England, I dare say the Africans might have shared the Indians' fate, for they are wise in their generation, these Yankee children of light. Those pernicious Africans!"

The editors of the 1906 edition add a footnote to the entry which reads: "By reason of illness, preoccupation in other affairs, and various deterrent causes besides, Mrs. Chestnut allowed a considerable period to elapse before making another entry in her diary. (at p. 130.) But the record shows the contrary is true. Mrs. Chestnut did, in fact, write an original diary covering the period of 1861 at the time of the events recorded, but, much later in her life, long after the war was over, she rewrote the journal, expanding it, with literary technique, into book form. Vann Woodward describes what happened: "The Journal account of the murder of Mrs. Witherspoon by her own slaves is followed in essentials in the new version, but here whole new dimensions are added. For this time we view the horror that the murder strikes in the heart of the community not only through Mary Chestnut's eyes but through those of others as well, including slaves. Mistress looks on maid, and slave on master, with new eyes. The foundations of society tremble under their feet by day and their beds at night." (Woodward, at p. xxv.)

Note: Woodward left out Chestnut's opening paragraph: "Threatened with a whipping for using her silver at a slave party, William, a man of hers, and several others, people she had pampered and spoiled, killed her while she slept."

Mrs. Chestnut's view of what was at the core of South Carolina's Ordinance of Secession is reflected in Dr. Powers' recitation of the circumstances confronting up country as well as low country Carolinians in 1860. The abolitionists' constant barrage of propaganda, coupled with John Brown's occupation of Harper's Ferry, left them with no doubt about their fate in a society in which the Africans were free. They anticipated "the madness which a sudden freedom from restraint begets—the overpowering lust for blood [which] sweeps the old and young, innocent and guilty, in one undistinquished mass before it." (Manley, Publisher, The South Vindicated from the Treason and Fanaticism of the Northern Abolitionists (1836).) It ought not surprise, therefore, that, in deciding for secession, as Dr. Powers observes, "it was not the product of mere theoretical conflicts or clashing abstract principles," but the fear of the war between the races that would follow on the heels of Emancipation—the fear of the white people of South Carolina that they could never be safe with the Africans in their midst, free.

 

Joe Ryan