Monday, February 7, 2011

Putting the "SC" in Secession

That South Carolina was the cradle of the Confederacy was no accident. Its heat and humidity have always been enough to make people restive and cantankerous. Its largest city, Charleston, was described by a 19th-century visitor from New England as having "the worst climate for unacclimated whites of any town in the United States"--i.e. nice place to visit, wouldn't want to work there. So the hard work of planting rice and cotton fell to Negro slaves, who seemed to tolerate the malaria-infested coastal swamps a bit better. South Carolina's was the blackest population in the mid-century South.

In the forty years leading up to the Civil War, more people moved out than moved in. From 1820 to 1860, South Carolina's white population increased by less than 23%, or barely half a percent annually. Maine's population, by contrast, more than doubled during the same period; the entire country's more than tripled. As historian William W. Freehling has pointed out, only 3.4% of all South Carolinians in 1860 had been born elsewhere, and half of all white South Carolinians born since 1800 had migrated west. Left behind was an insular, hidebound society, stratified and stagnant.

Those of the ruling gentry were defensive and defiant. We have already seen how in 1856 one of South Carolina's congressmen, inflamed by a slur against a colleague, tapped some serious Morse Code upside Charles Sumner's head with a walking stick. When the sluree, Senator Andrew Butler, died a year later, the South Carolina legislature elected one James Henry Hammond to finish Butler's term. Upon arriving on Capitol Hill, Hammond learned that the inmates were not using sticks anymore. "The only persons who do not have a revolver and a knife," he reported, "are those who have two revolvers."

Hammond had served once before in the U.S. Congress, albeit briefly. His first year in the House of Representatives, 1835, had seen a flood of citizens' petitions to Congress demanding that slavery be abolished throughout the nation. A slaveholder himself, Hammond had gained instant notoriety by moving on February 1, 1836, that the House ignore all such petitions. Slavery, he had proclaimed, was "the greatest of all the great blessings which a kind Providence has bestowed upon our glorious region," weeks before resigning from his seat for some R & R in Europe.

Now, in 1857, after twenty years in the political wilderness, Hammond was back in Washington, this time as U.S. Senator. The "gag rules" which he had helped introduce--and which had stifled congressional debate about slavery until 1844--were no longer in effect. Speeches for and against slavery were now
de rigueur. The hot-button issue of the day was whether slavery would be allowed in any of the nation's new territories. In March the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford that only states, and not the federal government, had the power to ban slavery. By this reasoning, slavery was permissible in any territory, and the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was judged to be unconstitutional for seeking to ban slavery anywhere west of the Mississippi River and north of 36°30' , Missouri excepted.

Hammond and other Southerners welcomed that decision. One year later, however, the U.S. House of Representatives refused to endorse a pro-slavery constitution for Kansas. The handwriting was on the wall: no new slave states would likely ever again be admitted to the Union. Even more ominous for slavery's apologists was the rhetoric from Republican candidates in the 1858 elections. Slavery would be not only contained, but also, if radical Republicans had their way, abolished where it had always existed. Hammond parried with rhetoric of his own. In a Senate speech, he stated smugly that Northern extremists "dare not make war on cotton. No power on earth dares to make war on it. Cotton is king."

Maybe abolitionists were not (yet) ready for war, but how about a little more smack talk? On April 5, 1860, Illinois Congressman Owen Lovejoy stood up on the House floor to take on the Slave Power. Lovejoy, who had lost his brother, a newspaper editor, to a lynch mob 23 years earlier, excoriated Southerners for suppressing anti-slavery literature with "violence, outrage, tar and feathers, burning, imprisonment, and the gallows." The extension of slavery would, as a plague, deter settlers. If any new territory were to be inhabited by depraved slaveholders, "leperous, dripping...with disease, no one will go there." Crossing the aisle, Lovejoy defiantly shook his fists at slave-state representatives.

As congressmen glared face to face, South Carolina's Hammond got a charge out of the proceedings. The infamous Sumner beatdown had taken place before his arrival in D.C. That one he had missed. Now he would have a ringside seat for Round 2. This particular confrontation stopped short of blows, but fanned expectations for future fisticuffs on the Hill. Hammond texted, in the fashion of that era, to one secessionist sympathizer to hurry into town to "see the fun." "A great slaughter," he wrote to another, "may occur any day." Oh, and pack a piece when you come.

Two weeks later the National Democratic Party convened in Charleston, of all places, to choose a nominee for President. Arriving during an early-season heat wave, first-time visitors were quickly educated that S.C. without A.C. is no place to B. Public accommodations were scarce, and innkeepers were charging a (Cotton) king's ransom. Hundreds of overnighting delegates had to make do with cots crammed into close quarters. Little more comfort was found in the convention hall itself, which had poor acoustics, making it hard to hear the speakers, and fixed seats on a flat floor, making it hard to see them as well. Debate on the party's platform dragged on for a week. When it was finally voted to reject language more protective of slavery in the territories, disappointed delegates from the Deep South, overheated in more ways than one, walked out. Spectators in the upper-floor gallery cheered when they did. Newly empty seats on the convention floor were decorated with flowers by Charleston's celebrating belles.

The exodus was led by Alabama's delegates. For once, South Carolina, represented by upcountry party stalwarts hopeful of compromise, was not first out the door. Once Mississippi and Louisiana bolted, however, South Carolina's delegates were shamed into following. All week, in the convention and around town, they had been branded by the locals as traitors for not walking the walk. Now the hothouse atmosphere of Charleston had become too much. Georgia alone among the Deep South states stuck around long enough to caucus cooly, but the next day most of her delegates announced their departure as well.

The convention then turned to the task of nominating a presidential candidate. Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas had been the odds-on favorite ever since the 1856 election, but he failed to get the required two-thirds majority in any of the 57 roll-call votes. After three days of fruitless polling and continual jeering from the peanut gallery, the Democrats decided to adjourn. Putting Charleston in the rear-view mirror was more important than nominating a ticket.

Reconvening in Baltimore in mid-June, the party's first task was to decide which delegates would be admitted. Many of those who had walked out of the Charleston convention were back for more, but in the meantime alternative slates of delegates had come forward in some of the Deep South states. After all were sorted and some were seated, Douglas had his nomination on the second ballot. Disqualified delegates from the Deep South, joined in sympathy by most of the other Southern delegates, marched across town to hold their own convention, from which Kentucky's John Breckinridge emerged as the presidential nominee. South Carolina Democrats, having purged the moderates among them, did not participate in either convention.

The split in the Democratic Party opened the door for the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, who would win the 1860 election despite getting less than 40% of the popular vote. He would get no votes in South Carolina, the last remaining state to eschew a popular vote for President. Instead, the state legislature assembled in Columbia, the capital, the day before the national election to assign all eight of South Carolina's electoral votes to Breckinridge. That piece of business taken care of, the legislature remained in session to await the results.

Lincoln's victory on November 6 set off alarms among Southern slaveholders. How far would he go to constrain their "peculiar institution?" They had to decide if they would wait for an "overt act" by the new Administration and, if not, whether they would develop a regional consensus before seceding. In South Carolina, a fringe element agitated for instant action. But Hammond, a rabid separatist during the state's Nullification Crisis nearly thirty years earlier, now counseled caution. He still believed that cotton was king and that the South could protect its own interests within the Union. A revolutionary avant-garde, on the other hand, could be easily crushed.

South Carolina's extremists were willing to take the chance. This was was a time not for a cumbersome pan-Southern convention, but for good old-fashioned patrician leadership. Waiting for popular sentiment to shape events was a fool's game. "Whoever waited for the common people," asked state representative Alfred Aldrich rhetorically, "when a great move was to be made? We must make the move and force them to follow." The day after Lincoln's election, the U.S. District Court in Charleston was effectively shut down when the presiding federal judge and the grand jury foreman resigned.

Hammond considered them "great asses" for doing so. But legislators in Columbia were now emboldened to call a secession convention. On November 9, the state senate voted 44-1 to set the convention date for January 15, a concession to "cooperationists" who wanted extra time to mobilize support in neighboring states. On that same day a delegation of shakers and movers from Savannah arrived in Charleston to help celebrate the opening of a new rail connection between the two cities. The occasion presented a timely opportunity for some after-dinner speeches promising moral support from Georgians should South Carolina decide to secede.

This was the kick that wavering separatists in Columbia needed. The next morning (November 10), Aldrich's House committee amended the Senate bill to move the convention date up four weeks earlier to December 17. The revised bill was reported out of committee and passed by the full House, 117-0, on a second reading. The bill went back to the Senate, where it passed by a lusty 42-0 margin. News of the action inspired one of Charleston's ultras, Robert Barnwell Rhett Jr., to proclaim, "the tea has been thrown overboard--the revolution of 1860 has been initiated."

Hammond's plea for delay had been ignored. Before the day was over, the state's other U.S. Senator, James Chesnut Jr., resigned his seat. Hammond felt pressured to do likewise, which he did the very next day. "It is an epidemic and very foolish," he admitted. "I resigned because Chesnut resigned...What Chesnut and the others resigned for I don't know." Hammond likened the joint abdication to hari-kari, a rather prescient observation.

What followed was less a thought process than a contagion. An election was scheduled in South Carolina for December 3 to choose delegates to the secession convention. Newspapers promoted the new dogma that secession was both inevitable and honorable. There was, in the pages of the Charleston Mercury, "no more doubt of South Carolina's going out of the Union than of the world's turning round. Every man that goes to the convention will be a pledged man--pledged for immediate separate State secession."

To ensure a stacked convention, extremists organized vigilance committees to intimidate candidates and voters alike. These self-styled "guardians of Southern rights," forerunners of the Ku Klux Klan, imposed extrajudicial discipline on politically incorrect whites (Unionists and Cooperationists) and suppressed all gatherings of blacks. It was Code Red in the Palmetto State. "My own countrymen here in South Carolina are distempered," complained James L. Petigru, "...[and] credulous to every whisper of suspicion about insurgents or incendiaries."

Petigru was one of the few remaining Unionists in South Carolina. It was his hope, as it was of other Southern moderates, that the crisis could be resolved without a break-up of the nation. President James Buchanan prayed every night in the White House for the same thing--or at the very least that the shooting would not start until he could get the hell out of Dodge. Alas, Lincoln's inauguration was still three months away.

On the same day that South Carolina was electing delegates to its secession convention, Buchanan delivered his annual message to Congress. Trying to mollify both sides, he pleased neither. He said that no state had a constitutional right to secede, a stance sure to make South Carolinians even more apoplectic than they already were. At the same time, he said that the federal government had no authority to compel recalcitrant states to stay. Disgusted Northerners viewed the vacillation as that of an imbecile.

It was no help whatsoever to Buchanan that certain members of his own Cabinet were undermining his attempts to stabilize the situation. His Secretary of War, a Virginian named John B. Floyd, authorized the sale of 10,000 rifles from the federal arsenal to South Carolina, surely an olive branch if there ever was one. Mindful that the decision might spark controversy, Floyd took care to launder the transaction through a New York banker, proving once again that some things never change. Floyd was soon replaced in a Cabinet shake-up that took out the Secretaries of State and Treasury as well.

December 17, 1860, was a busy day in Columbia. Francis W. Pickens was sworn in as the new governor, having campaigned on the promise "to appeal to the god of battles, if need be, to cover the state with ruin, conflagration and blood rather than submit" to federal authority, which did not quite fit on a bumper sticker, but was kind of catchy all the same. In the same spirit, the secession convention assembled. Completing the trifecta was a local outbreak of smallpox. Rumors quickly spread among the citizenry (confirming Petigru's diagnosis of collective paranoia) that the germs came from a box of contaminated rags shipped from New York. Maybe it was those bankers again.

After the first day, the convention adjourned to Charleston to escape the pox, if not the political miasma. On December 20 the delegates made it official, voting 169-0 to secede and demonstrating conclusively that mindless conformity was the order of the day. Mary Chesnut, the ex-Senator's wife, would write in her diary that South Carolina's radicals "had exasperated & heated themselves into a fever that only bloodletting could ever cure." An ashamed Petigru observed that "South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum."

Back in the U.S. Senate, Ohio's Benjamin Wade was similarly scornful, dismissing South Carolina as "a small state" that would not be missed. "If she were sunk by an earthquake today," scoffed Wade, "we would hardly ever find it out, except by the unwonted harmony that might prevail in this Chamber." The key for Unionists was to make sure that South Carolina's secession was a one-off, not to be replicated elsewhere in the South. Would it be possible to keep the state in quarantine?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Now I know. As a newly located South Carolinian, I have puzzled over the political one-mindedness in this state. It must originate
from the climate here. If views of
a different nature were to prevail,
I'm sure the players would pick up their ball and bat, retire to their front porches and lock the gate.