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Making America: A History of the United States, Brief Second Edition
Carol Berkin, Christopher L. Miller, Robert W. Cherny, James L. Gormly, W. Thomas Mainwaring
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Introduction | Questions to Consider | Source

South Carolina Defines the Causes of Secession

After Lincoln's election, some Southern states determined that compromise was no longer possible. Foremost among them was South Carolina, the state with the largest slave population. For many South Carolinians, Lincoln's election promised a full assault on their institutions, way of life, and constitutional rights. As a result, South Carolina prepared to sever its relationship with the Union but not before it had framed its rationale.

Questions to Consider
  1. List the reasons for South Carolina's secession.

  2. What was the principal constitutional foundation for South Carolina's proposed abandonment of the Union?

  3. To what extent was South Carolina's reasoning consistent with historical precedent and constitutional principles? Explain.

  4. How did South Carolina deal with the North's moral arguments against slavery?

  5. One well-known general interpretation of U.S. history, called the consensus theory, asserts that America's past has been characterized primarily by agreement or consensus and that real conflict between classes, sections, and interest groups has been minimal. What implication does the controversy surrounding South Carolina's secession have for the consensus theory? Is the evidence sufficient to sustain or refute the theory? Why or why not?

. . . 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. The Constitution of the United States, in its 4th Article, provides as follows: "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 stipulation was so material to the compact that without it that compact would not have been made. The greater number of the contracting parties held slaves, and they had previously evinced their estimate of the value of such a stipulation by making it a condition in the ordinance for the government of the territory ceded by Virginia, which obligations, and the laws of the general government, have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. The states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa have enacted laws which either nullify the acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these states the fugitive is discharged from the service of labor claimed, and in none of them has the state government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. . . .

Those states have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the states and recognized by the Constitution. They have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted the open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace of and eloign the property of the citizens of other states. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and, those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books, and pictures to servile insurrection. . . .

On the 4th of March next this party [the Republican party] will take possession of the government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunal shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.

The guarantees 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.

Sectional interest and animosity will deepen the irritation; and all hope of remedy is rendered vain by the fact that the public opinion at the North has invested a great political error with the sanctions of a more erroneous religious belief.

We, therefore, the people of South Carolina, by our delegates in convention assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this state and the other states of North America is dissolved; and that the state of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, as [a] separate and independent state, with full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do.