December 20, 1860, the day in Charleston on which delegates at the South Carolina state convention voted unanimously to secede from the Union, is arguably the decisive moment in the state’s history. On that day the representatives of the people of South Carolina committed themselves to leading other slave states out of the federal Union. It was not the first time South Carolinians had contemplated secession.
To understand those momentous events of December 1860, as well as the people and their ideals, requires a foray into the state’s past, into developments surrounding the making of that perilous dissent from the Union. South Carolinians, from the first decades of settlement, had displayed a willingness to rebel against outside forces they viewed as dangerous to their way of life. In the “Revolution of 1719,” the colonists mounted the only successful colonial rebellion when they overthrew the regime of the Lords Proprietors. When Carolinians rebelled in the 1770s, they hearkened back to the events of 1719. Similarly, when South Carolina’s leaders promoted secession in 1860, they considered themselves the political heirs of the men of 1776.
Although South Carolinians played a major role in the creation of the new federal Constitution, there were those in the state who feared the power of a strong central government. These men, including Aedanus Burke, Wade Hampton I, and Rawlins Lowndes, questioned whether slave-state interests could possibly gain support from the more populous northern free states who would control the new government.
By the 1820s South Carolina had become, through the use of slave labor, the largest and wealthiest cotton-producing and-exporting state. But the desire of northern states for tariff protection for its manufacturers threatened South Carolina’s and other slave states’ dependence on a free market for the exportation of cotton. Vice President John C. Calhoun took the covert, and later overt, lead in the antitariff struggle. His 1832 nullification doctrine of state interposition of the federal tariff delivered the state’s first threat of secession from the Union.
During the nullification crisis of 1832–1833, South Carolina failed to persuade other slave states of the graveness of the situation, and its leaders were divided over how to defend the state’s interests without support from the rest of the South. The crisis subsided shortly thereafter, but tensions over the need to protect slavery did not end. During the 1840s state leaders such as Governor James Henry Hammond and Robert Barnwell Rhett, with his organ the radical Charleston Mercury, once again advocated the secession of South Carolina. Rhett’s secessionist so-called Bluffton Movement of 1844 failed to convince either South Carolinians or other southern states of the dangers to their way of life.
During the 1848–1852 sectional crisis over creating new slave and free states, another secessionist movement began in South Carolina. Once again Calhoun eloquently called for southern unity and threatened secession to ward off the threat posed by northern states to slave society. Calhoun’s famous March 4, 1850, speech in Congress has been regarded as a major defense of the right of secession to protect the interests of a political minority. With Calhoun’s death later that year, the mantle of sectionalist leadership passed to Rhett and Hammond. They attempted to arouse other slave states to the northern threat to their way of life. Once again they failed, as moderate Unionists in the state and in the South, such as James L. Orr and Benjamin F. Perry, succeeded in quelling the secession fervor. Hammond, tempering his rhetoric, attended a southern convention in 1850 held in Nashville, Tennessee. There he asked the other slave states to unite with South Carolina to resist what he called northern aggression against their “peculiar institution.” But the Nashville convention failed to unite either other slave states or all South Carolinians.
South Carolina’s secession movement appeared dormant in the late 1850s, although some state leaders continued to talk to allies in other slave states about the necessity of secession. The fledgling Republican Party, founded in 1854, was anathema to virtually all white Carolinians. Early in 1860 the moderate South Carolinian Christopher G. Memminger traveled to Virginia to persuade its legislature of the Republican danger to the interests of all of the slave states. Though Memminger seemingly failed in his task, his speech before the Virginia legislature stands alongside Calhoun’s as an eloquent statement of the right of secession. Printed in pamphlet form and circulated throughout South Carolina and the other slave states, Memminger’s justification of secession called for the unity of all slave states. When the national Democratic convention, held in Charleston in April 1860, failed to nominate a presidential candidate, Memminger and others held out hope for a southern Democratic candidate who would unite the slave states. It was not to be. With the Democrats hopelessly divided, it appeared almost certain that the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, would be elected president in November.
In September a group calling itself the “1860 Association” came into being. It represented South Carolinians of all political persuasions, but the bulk of its membership came from longtime cooperationists—men who believed in secession if the other southern states would follow suit. The 1860 Association, foreseeing Lincoln’s election, determined that secession was the only way for white Carolinians to preserve their way of life. The group was also determined that they, and not radicals such as Rhett, would lead the state out of the Union and into a new nation.
While not totally of one mind, South Carolina was the least divided of all slave states. Years of fear propaganda preached from pulpit and political platform, published in newspapers and journals, and presented in fiction and poetry left little room for dialogue over how the state should defend itself. In addition, the state’s wealth resided in the slave economy and related enterprises. The dependence of the economy on slave labor and of the political system on slavery united slaveholder and yeoman farmer alike in defense of their interests. All felt that the federal government threatened the rights of those who believed in the authority of local government in a republic. When material interests and political and cultural values united with fear of slave insurrection, few leaders and citizens questioned the need for South Carolina to leave the Union.
When the General Assembly met in November to vote for presidential electors, it remained in Columbia until the results of the election were known. Upon receiving the news of Lincoln’s victory, the legislators voted to hold an election for delegates to a special state convention. At about the same time the state’s congressional delegation resigned. In addition, Governor William Gist and his successor Francis W. Pickens had been in touch with governors of Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Georgia, all of whom had promised that their legislatures would call for conventions to consider a response to Lincoln’s election. On December 6 the state’s citizens voted for representatives to the South Carolina convention. The delegates, made up largely of planters committed to secession, met in Columbia on December 17, 1860. An outbreak of smallpox caused the convention to relocate to Charleston, and on December 20, 1860, the 169 delegates present voted unanimously to secede from the federal Union. The city erupted in a wild celebration with bonfires, parades, and the pealing of church bells.
Just as their forebears had justified their rebellions in 1719 and 1776, so too the men of 1860 left a rationale for their actions. The Secession Convention delegates named Rhett and Memminger to write up the reasons for secession. Rhett wrote “The Address to the Slave-Holding States,” and his central argument was based on the right to self-government. He wrote of the history of the North’s desire to control the South and thus focused on the struggles for a free government. His political argument was also laced with a discussion of how the North and the South had become two peoples. Memminger, in his “Declaration of the Causes of Secession,” took a more direct approach to the defense of slavery. He listed the northern states’ violation of the fugitive slave law, their personal liberty laws claiming that slavery was unjust, and the election of an antislavery Republican president as the reasons why South Carolina seceded, and he stated that the rest of the slave states should follow suit.
Values, ideals, needs, and fear all came together in South Carolinians’ defense of their way of life. There was no choice, said a united white South Carolina, but to leave the Union they had once embraced and helped to create. See plate 22.
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Ford, Lacy K, Jr. Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry, 1800–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Freehling, William W. Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816–1836. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.
Hamer, Philip M. The Secession Movement in South Carolina, 1847–1852. 1918. Reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1971.
Schultz, Harold S. Nationalism and Sectionalism in South Carolina, 1852–1860: A Study of the Movement for Southern Independence. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1950.
Sinha, Manisha. The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Wakelyn, Jon L., ed. Southern Pamphlets on Secession, November 1860–April 1861. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.