James W. Loewen: Civil War Chronicles: The First to Secede

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Loewen taught at Tougaloo College and the University of Vermont. After his critique of K-12 U.S. history textbooks, LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME, became a bestseller in 1996, he became an independent scholar based in Washington, DC. More recent books include LIES ACROSS AMERICA: WHAT OUR HISTORIC SITES GET WRONG, and SUNDOWN TOWNS. In August, 2010, the University Press of Mississippi published THE CONFEDERATE AND NEO-CONFEDERATE READER, with a co-editor.

Loewen is still trying to identify every sundown town in the U.S. at his website.] At 7 p.m. on Thursday, December 20, 1860, some 170 men marched through the streets of Charleston, South Carolina, walking from St. Andrews Hall to a new meetinghouse amid the cheers of onlookers. Half of them were more than 50 years old, most well-known. More than 60 percent were planters who owned at least 20 slaves. Five had been state governors, four U.S. senators. Meeting in secret earlier that day, this august group had approved a basic ordinance of secession that “dissolved” the “union now subsisting between South Carolina and other states.” Now they were to sign the document in a public ceremony. When they reached Institute Hall, soon to be renamed Secession Hall, they found its galleries crowded and the atmosphere jubilant. First, the state seal was affixed to the document. Then, as each delegate signed it, the crowd broke out in wild applause. The ceremony lasted two hours. For a decade, the question in South Carolina had been when—not whether—the state would secede. Since the nullification crisis of the early 1830s, South Carolina’s favorite son John C. Calhoun had asserted this as the state’s unassailable right. In 1850, the same year Calhoun died, planter Edward B. Bryan took up the torch, arguing for secession by writing “Give us slavery or give us death.” Several state leaders tried to put together a Southern convention at Nashville with the intention of breaking up the Union, but most of this gathering pinned their hopes on the Compromise of 1850, a series of five bills put together by Henry Clay and Stephen A. Douglas that temporarily defused the conflict between slave and free states in the wake of the U.S.-Mexican War. Not even the Palmetto State was willing to go it alone at that juncture. As the 1850s wore on, however, proslavery extremists wrung concession after concession out of Washington, only to voice new demands. The Compromise of 1850 had given the South a draconian national fugitive slave law. In 1854 Northern Democrats led by Douglas repealed the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which had closed the territories to slavery above the northern edge of Arkansas. Now any territory could embrace slavery if it so chose. Three years later, the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford that the federal government did not have the power to prohibit slavery in all territories, regardless of their residents’ wishes....

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