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South Carolina becomes first state to secede

On this day (Dec. 20) in 1860, a “Convention of the People of South Carolina” voted unanimously (169-0) to secede from “the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of ‘The United States of America.’”

Thus South Carolina became the first of the 11 southern states to sever ties with the Union, a Union that had been so laboriously and gloriously established in 1789.

The event that triggered this secession movement was the election in November 1860 of Republican Abraham Lincoln as the 16th U.S. president. Many Southerners firmly believed that Lincoln’s election posed a major threat to the agrarian Southern way of life, and especially to the institution of slavery.

They also believed that because the states had joined the Union voluntarily back in the late 1780s, they had the right to secede and the national government could not deny them this right. Unionists (mostly northerners) vehemently disagreed. They asserted that the union of the states in 1789 was permanent and inviolable.

As Lincoln famously but somewhat inaccurately asserted: “The Union is older than any of the states, and in fact, it created the states.”

South Carolina seceded with the hope that most if not all of the other 14 states where slavery was legal would follow her. Between Lincoln’s Nov. 6, 1860, election and his March 4, 1861, inauguration, six southern states did indeed follow her lead in secession: Mississippi (Jan. 9), Florida (Jan. 10), Alabama (Jan. 11), Georgia Jan. 19), Louisiana (Jan. 26), and Texas (Feb. 1).

Of interest, during the “secession crisis” (December 1860 to May 1861) a minority of southerners fervently opposed secession. In Texas, for example, secessionists had to remove from office the unionist Gov. Sam Houston before getting a favorable vote for secession.

In late February, delegates from the seven Southern states that had seceded met in Montgomery, Ala., to establish the “Confederate States of America” (CSA) and elected Jefferson Davis of Mississippi president and Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia vice president.

Soon after the establishment of the CSA, four border slave states seceded: Virginia (April 17), Arkansas (May 6), Tennessee (May 7), and North Carolina (May 20). Interestingly, four upper south slave states, for a variety of reasons, remained in the Union: Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland.

Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, firmly rejected the constitutionality of secession: “The Union of these States is perpetual. ... No State upon its own motion can lawfully get out of the Union; ... resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void; and ... acts of violence, within any State, against the authority of the United States, are insurrectionary or revolutionary...”

Lincoln further stated: “I have no purpose directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. Physically speaking, we cannot separate; no state, upon its own mere action, can lawfully get out of the Union.”

He went on to say that there need be no violence, “unless it be forced upon the national authority.” However, most Southerners chose not to believe Lincoln. They forced “violence ... upon the national authority” by firing the opening shot of the Civil War on April 12, 1861, against Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of numerous articles and books on American political history.

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