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The First To Secede

June 2024
7min read

South Carolina severed ties with the Union not out of concern for states' rights but because of slavery

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 In 1854 Northern Democrats led by Douglas repealed the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which had closed the territories to slavery above the northern edge of Arkansas.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.”

Northern states had further ceased to permit “slavery transit”—transient bondage, such as bringing one’s cook along to New York City when one vacationed there. New York held that because it was a free state, slaves brought into it became free. In New England, African Americans could vote. Defining suffrage was a state’s right until the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, adopted two eras later, during Reconstruction. Nevertheless, South Carolina was outraged at black voting and also complained that Northern states “have permitted open establishment among them of [abolitionist] societies.” Presumably Northern states should not have had the right to let their citizens assemble and speak freely—at least against slavery.

In short, South Carolina’s delegates were happy with federal authority when deployed on behalf of human bondage but upset by Northern attempts to exercise states’ rights.


For the last 13 years, I have informally canvassed general audiences, undergraduates, staffs at historic sites, and K–12 history and social studies teachers across the nation about why the Southern states seceded. The results have been startling: most Americans today believe that the Southern states seceded for states’ rights and against usurpations by the federal government, not because of slavery.

Audiences weigh in similarly, whether they are teachers, students, or historic site staff. Nor does region matter. From central Florida to North Dakota, states’ rights draws 55 to 75 percent of the votes when I pose the question. Slavery usually weighs in at about 20 percent. Between 2 to 5 percent believe that South Carolina seceded on account of the election of Lincoln. Between 10 and 20 percent of the respondents pinpoint tariffs and taxes, but that depends largely on how many votes go to states’ rights. In short, 75 to 80 percent of those canvassed come up with the wrong answer—dramatically wrong.

Certainly, slavery is not the only correct answer. The election of Lincoln also troubled South Carolina, its delegates lamenting “the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States whose opinions and purposes are hostile to Slavery.” As that clause noted, however, it all comes back to slavery in the end. About “tariffs and taxes” the Declaration of Immediate Causes resolution said nothing. 1860 was not 1831. In 1857 South Carolina had helped write the tariff under which the United States was functioning. As to states’ rights, as we have seen, South Carolina selectively opposed them, while claiming the right to secede.

Sometime after 1860, Americans’ ideas as to why the Confederacy seceded 

got turned upside down. Somehow we mislaid this crucial document. South Carolina’s “Declaration” was indeed important: several other states made use of it when they left the Union; Mississippi even recycled its title, calling its document “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of Mississippi from the Federal Union.”

Other states similarly emphasized slavery. Virginia noted that “African slavery is a vital part of the social system of the States wherein it exists.” Arkansas complained, “People of the northern states have organized a political party . . . the central and controlling idea of which is, hostility to the institution of African slavery.” Mississippi began its explanation of secession with these words: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery, the greatest material interest of the world. . . . [A] blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. . . . There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union.”

As of March 1865, Americans knew that the South had seceded to protect slavery. In his second inaugural speech the president said, “All indeed knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.” Lincoln did not utter this sentence to convert anyone to his view. All knew that slavery had prompted secession, which had led to war. Lincoln’s sentence signaled his audience that he was now going to talk about slavery. During the war, antislavery sentiment had grown steadily in the North, making his audience responsive to the searing words that followed.

As soon as the war ended and the 13th Amendment had made slavery a lost 

cause, ex-Confederates started distancing themselves from slavery. Meanwhile, they tried to impose racially oppressive conditions in the form of “black codes,” which prohibited African Americans from owning land and subjected them to jail if they could not prove employment, whereupon they could be rented out as laborers to “any person” who would cover their vagrancy fines. In 1868 Edward A. Pollard, who coined the phrase “the Lost Cause,” claimed that the real issue had been “the supremacy of the White race.” Losing slavery was “insignificant,” so long as the white South could keep “the Negro . . . in a condition where his political influence is as indifferent as when he was a slave.”

Alexander Stephens, former vice president of the Confederacy, now claimed that slavery “was of infinitely less importance to the Seceding States, than the recognition of this great principle,” the right to secede. Five years earlier, in his first important address after taking office, the Cornerstone Speech, Stephens had spoken quite differently about the grounds for founding a new nation: “Our new Government[’s] . . . foundations are laid, its cornerstone 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 moral condition.” Now Stephens held that Southern states had seceded for the right to secede—a tautological claim no state had made at the time 

of secession.

After 1890 such obfuscations came to rule the day. Some old Confederates were appalled. In 1907 John Singleton Mosby, a Virginia cavalry leader known as “the Gray Ghost” of the Confederacy, wrote in “disgust” about these attempts: “The South went to war on account of Slavery. South Carolina went to war—as she said in her Secession Proclamation—because slavery would not be secure under Lincoln. South Carolina ought to know what was the cause for her seceding.” He pointed out that the future Confederate president hardly favored states’ rights when “in February, 1860, Jeff Davis offered a bill in the Senate which passed making all the territories slave territory,” regardless of the sentiment of their inhabitants.

But this reasonable voice went unheeded. During the nadir of race relations, that terrible era from 1890 to about 1940 when racism surged to its highest level in white America, Northern historians offered little opposition as neo-Confederates rewrote the past. Now the Civil War became the “War between the States,” a term no one had used during the conflict, and secession was for—rather than against—states’ rights. In the wake of this disinformation campaign, the Confederacy appeared gallant in defeat. Anyone who had ever had a dispute with the Internal Revenue Service could identify with such a David against the federal Goliath.

So it is that today reenactments boast two to four times as many men in gray as in blue. So it is that candidates run for—and even win—office who argue that secession is an American tradition worth reviving. And so it is that just one of the 100 questions on the U.S. history exam required today of persons seeking citizenship has two “correct” answers—“slavery” and “states’ rights”—even though the latter is counterfactual, as South Carolina so clearly demonstrated 150 years ago.


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