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South Carolina Secession Debate, 1860

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On December 17, 1860, the South Carolina legislature called for a convention to discuss whether that state would make the monumental decision to secede from the United States, becoming the first state to take such action. The convention took place in Columbia, but concerns over a smallpox outbreak forced the relocation of the meeting to Charleston, where support for secession was strongest.

Lincoln was a Republican and had spoken about limiting the spread of slavery into the territories despite the results of the Dred Scott case, which upheld the rights of Americans to own slaves anywhere. Before Lincoln was even inaugurated, South Carolina and six other southern states seceded from the Union, protecting the institution of slavery and supporting their position regarding states’ rights.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who wrote this document?
  2. Who or what was the intended audience of the South Carolina Secession Declaration?
  3. Why was this document written? Why might the authors have felt the need to justify their actions?

South Carolina Secession Declaration Debate, December 24, 1860

Vocabulary Text
despotism(n): oppressive absolute power and authority exerted by government The one great evil, from which all other evils have flowed, is the overthrow of the Constitution of the United States. The Government of the United States is no longer the Government of Confederated Republics, but of a consolidated Democracy. It is no longer a free government, but a Despotism. It is, in fact, such a Government as Great Britain attempted to set over our fathers; and which was resisted and defeated by a seven years’ struggle for independence.. . .
The General Welfare(n): part of the rationale for transforming from the Articles of Confederation to the proposed United States Constitution located in the Preamble.

consolidated(adj): joined together into one whole
The Southern States now stand exactly in the same position towards the Northern States that the Colonies did towards Great Britain. The Northern States, having the majority in Congress, claim the same power of omnipotence in legislation as the British Parliament. “The General Welfare,” is the only limit to the legislation of either; and the majority in Congress, as in the British Parliament, are the sole judges of the expediency of the legislation this “General Welfare” requires. Thus, the Government of the United States has become a consolidated Government; and the people of the Southern States are compelled to meet the very despotism their fathers threw off in the Revolution of 1776. . . .
The people of the Southern States are not only taxed for the benefit of the Northern States, but after the taxes are collected, three-fourths of them are expended at the North. This cause, with others, connected with the operation of the General Government, has made the cities of the South provincial. Their growth is paralyzed; they are mere suburbs of Northern cities. . . .
assent(v): to agree to It cannot be believed, that our ancestors would have assented to any union whatever with the people of the North, if the feelings and opinions now existing amongst them, had existed when the Constitution was framed. There was then no Tariff – no fanaticism concerning negroes. It was the delegates from New England who proposed in the Convention which framed the Constitution, to the delegates from South Carolina and Georgia, that if they would agree to give Congress the power of regulating commerce by a majority that they would support the extension of the African Slave Trade for twenty years. African slavery existed in all the States but one.. . .
concession(n): something granted as a right, or accepted something as true, often as a result of a compromise “You have long lingered in hope over the shattered remains of a broken Constitution. Compromise after compromise, formed by your concessions, has been trampled under foot by your Northern confederates. All fraternity of feeling between the North and the South is lost, or has been converted into hate; . . .All we demand of other peoples is to be left alone, to work out our own high destinies. United together, and we must be the most independent, as we are among the most important, of the nations of the world. .. . United together, and we must be a great, free and prosperous people, whose renown must spread throughout the civilized world, and pass down, we trust, to the remotest ages.

Comprehension Questions

  1. According to the author of this text, what is the great evil that has occurred?
  2. According to the excerpt, why has consolidation destroyed the original understanding of the Framers of the Constitution?
  3. Why do the authors refer so frequently to the struggle against Great Britain?
  4. What is the author’s argument regarding taxes and how they are spent?
  5. According to the excerpt, what was the original understanding of the delegates of South Carolina regarding tariffs and the right to own slaves?
  6. What inconsistency did the authors try to bring up regarding the potential hypocrisy of northern states regarding slavery?
  7. According to the excerpt, why has “fraternity of feeling” broken down?
  8. What is the goal of South Carolina once it leaves the Union?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. How persuasive are the arguments that leaders from South Carolina articulated as justification for secession? Discuss their strengths and weaknesses.
  2. The U.S. Constitution contains procedures for admitting new states into the Union but does not have provisions for a state to leave. What governing principles might be interpreted to support a power to secede? What governing principles might be used to argue against a power to secede?
  3. The U.S. Declaration of Independence states: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.” When a majority in a state believes the national government has become “destructive” and wishes to withdraw its consent from that government, what constitutional processes are available to address breaches of constitutional authority?

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