Four paragraphs, five years of war
Today in 1860, 169 delegates convened in Columbia, South Carolina, to discuss the fate of their state. The decision was unanimous: South Carolina would secede from the Union.
Declared in a terse four paragraphs, the Declaration of Secession set out that the question of slavery would not be decided in Congress, but in combat.
We, the People of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled do declare and ordain . . . that the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of “The United States of America,” is hereby dissolved.
Days later, on Christmas Eve, this same convention would reveal its causes. The “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union” laid out a simple argument: South Carolina, as an independent country, had adopted the Constitution as an agreement between itself and other independent countries. South Carolina felt other states had violated portions of this compact—particularly Article IV, section 2, which dealt with the return of fugitive slaves—and that because they had violated the agreement, South Carolina was no longer bound by it.
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.
The decision to secede was spurred by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which ended the Missouri Compromise and allowed the expansion of slavery westward, polarizing both slave and abolitionist camps. The end of this compromise aggravated the north and gave rise to the Republican Party, and with it the 1860 President-elect, Abraham Lincoln, a man who hadn’t even appeared on most southern ballots, South Carolina included.
Lincoln had earlier declared that a “government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that he hoped to “place [slavery] where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction.” While Lincoln was opposed to the institution of slavery, he believed the institution should be contained and tolerated in the states in which it already existed. Lincoln concluded that slavery would end naturally, over a longer period, not through force.
Despite Lincoln’s attempts to assuage the fears of slaveholding states, the writing was on the wall. Pulitzer–prize winning historian James McPherson writes that the 1860 election was “the first time in more than a generation that the South had lost effective control of the national government. . . . A growing majority of of the American population lived in free states. Proslavery forces had little prospect of winning any future national elections. The prospects for long-term survival of slavery appeared dim.”
South Carolina saw the rise of Lincoln and the Republicans as a direct threat to their practice of slavery. With the Republican election in 1860, the die was cast. There would be a Civil War.
On the 4th day 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.
The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.