Today in History: South Carolina Secedes from the Union in 1860

December 20th, 2013

With Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the 1860 presidential election ensured, South Carolina was spurred into action. On December 20, 1860, after a 15-day convention, delegates voted 169-0 to leave the Union, approving the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession. The ordinance was soon followed by the publication of the Declaration of Causes of Secession, written by Christopher G. Memminger and explaining the reasons behind South Carolina’s decision. 

South Carolina had experienced calls for secession prior to 1860. The U.S. government attempted to diplomatically solve the crisis. Senator James Henry Crittenden proposed to extend the traditional 36°30’ line all the way to the Pacific, though this was not supported in Congress. Lincoln also sought to reassure the southern states that the federal government would not interfere with the institution of slavery in the slave states. But these political measures were not successful. By the time Lincoln took office in March 1861, six states, including Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had followed South Carolina’s lead and left the Union. In February 1861, they met in Montgomery, Alabama and formed the Confederate States of America. Two months later, on April 12, 1861, Confederate forces attacked the Union garrison at Fort Sumter in South Carolina’s Charleston Bay, and the Civil War officially began.

Read the Declaration of Causes of Secession and consider the following questions. What are the grievances of South Carolina, and what is her argument for secession? On what principles does that argument rest? Carefully compare this declaration with the original Declaration of Independence: how closely do the arguments and principles correspond? How good are the arguments that the government was not fulfilling its constitutional obligations with regard to the defense of property? How good is the argument that each state, under the Constitution, retains its right to leave the Union? Why, according to this declaration, was South Carolina willing to go to war?  

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