Monday, December 20, 2010

South Carolina seceded from the Union 150 years ago today

South Carolina Institute Hall

Thursday, December 20, 1860 was a momentous day. In Washington, D.C. President James Buchanan named prominent attorney and Northern Democratic leader Edwin M. Stanton as his new Attorney General to replace J.S. Black, who had been promoted to Secretary of State to replace Lewis Cass. Stanton was a brilliant attorney, perhaps the most talented lawyer of his day, and an absolutely rock-ribbed Union man. Stanton would be a powerful voice in Buchanan's cabinet against disunion and allowing the seceding states to go in peace.

Having taken care of that bit of business, Buchanan met with William H. Trescot--formerly Lewis Cass' Assistant Secretary of State. Trescot had resigned from the Buchanan administration just days before and was now here representing South Carolina's Governor Francis Pickens. Trescot, along with another South Carolinian, delivered the sealed letter which Pickens had written on December 17, 1860. Buchanan opened the letter and read it. Buchanan promised that he would reply to the letter in a day, and then dismissed the South Carolinians.

As his visitors were leaving, Buchanan called Trescot back and gave him the letter to read. Trescot, an experienced diplomat, saw the problem at once: the letter was high-handed and arrogant. Pickens had insulted Buchanan and had overreached by asking the president to turn over federal property to state troops instead of simply asking Buchanan not to garrison Fort Sumter. Trescot left Buchanan and went to telegraph Pickens to ask him to withdraw the letter, which Pickens later did.

In Charleston, South Carolina the delegates to South Carolina's secession convention met and voted 169 to 0 to approve an ordinance of secession, which was formally signed that evening in a ceremony at the South Carolina Institute, touching off a night of parades and wild celebrations. Ordinance itself was very brief and to the point and gave no reason for South Carolina's secession, it merely stated it as a fact:
AN ORDINANCE to dissolve the union between the State of South Carolina and other States united with her under the compact entitled "The Constitution of the United States of America."

We, the people of the State of South Carolina, in convention assembled, do declare and ordain, and it is hereby declared and ordained, That the ordinance adopted by us in convention on the twenty-third day of May, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, whereby the Constitution of the United States of America was ratified, and also all acts and parts of acts of the General Assembly of this State ratifying amendments of the said Constitution, are hereby repealed; and that the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of the "United States of America," is hereby dissolved.

Done at Charleston the twentieth day of December, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty.
While the ordinance of secession itself gave no reason for secession, a committee of the secession convention continued to work on a "Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina" which would be released days later.

Back in Washington D.C., President James Buchanan was attending an evening wedding reception when South Carolina Congressman Laurence Keitt burst in shouting the news. Keitt is recorded as crying out "Thank God! Oh, thank God!" Buchanan appeared stunned by the news and immediately left the reception.

That night, in Charleston Harbor, an armed steamer carrying South Carolina militia men patrolled the channel between Fort Moultrie and Fort Sumter to prevent the transfer of the federal garrison to Sumter. The patrollers were there on the orders of Governor Pickens, and they had orders to shoot if they spotted anyone trying to move from Moultrie to Sumter and they refused to stop. The United States of America was poised on the edge of a precipice.

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