Unionists were anti-secessionists and supporters of the federal Union during the pre–Civil War decades, particularly during the nullification controversy of the early 1830s and the secession crises of the early 1850s and 1860.
A pro-Union political organization, the Union and State Rights Party, developed in 1830 in response to calls for nullification of the federal tariff in South Carolina. Fearing that nullification would spawn secession, Unionists opposed the doctrine by running candidates for city offices in Charleston and for legislative seats throughout the state in 1830. Initially strong in Charleston, where leaders included James L. Petigru and Joel R. Poinsett, the party lost influence there in the face of a relentless nullifier political organization. More reliably Unionist areas included heavily yeoman districts such as Greenville, Horry, Pickens, and Spartanburg.
Unionists continued to frustrate nullifiers after failing to prevent the adoption of the Ordinance of Nullification in November 1832. In December the party created a statewide network of militia units, called Union societies, headed by Poinsett, who was in contact with President Andrew Jackson. Upcountry Unionists responded to the call to arms with particular enthusiasm. Greenville’s Paris Mountain Union Society expressed its members’ resolve: “in defence of the Federal Union, we have drawn our swords and flung away the scabbards . . . we have but two words by way of reply to the Nullifiers, which are these: ‘Come on.’” In Charleston, Poinsett reported enrolling more than eleven hundred Unionist militiamen. In part because of this determined Unionist resistance, nullifier leaders sought compromise rather than armed confrontation with federal authorities.
The rise of abolitionism and fears of its influence in the federal government weakened Unionists in South Carolina after the mid-1830s. Although a few hardy Unionists, such as Petigru and Greenville’s Benjamin Perry, persistently opposed calls for secession, they were ultimately unsuccessful in their efforts.
Freehling, William W. Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816–1836. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.
Pease, Jane H., and William H. Pease. “The Economics and Politics of Charleston’s Nullification Crisis.” Journal of Southern History 47 (August 1981): 335–62.
Tinkler, Robert. “Against the Grain: Unionists and Whigs in Calhoun’s South Carolina.” Senior thesis, Princeton University, 1984.