Today in 1860, South Carolina seceded from the United States, becoming the first state to do so during Secession Winter of 1860-1861. A few days later, the state released a document explaining its reasoning, the Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.

South Carolina explained that the right of a state to secede from the union was a reserved power of the states that was implicit in the Constitution, and had been reaffirmed several times as an established legal fact. Indeed, during the ratification campaign, several Federalists prominent in the most contentious states, including Edmund Randolph and George Nicholas in Virginia and Alexander Hamilton and Robert Livingston in New York, made this point clear in their own conventions. Three states – Virginia, New York, and Rhode Island – even included resumption clauses that stated this fact explicitly in their ratification ordinances.

According to the state, the Constitution was a compact that created a set of obligations that bind all parties, whereupon all members of the compact may revoke their own membership within the agreement should any party fail to uphold its obligations. As the declaration put it, the states were “separate, sovereign States, independent of any of the provisions of the Constitution.” The state cited the fact that Rhode Island and North Carolina decided not to adopt the Constitution until after it had gone into operation, and during that time, “each exercised the functions of an independent nation.”

According to the declaration, the first reason South Carolina chose to depart from the union was that northern states had engaged in acts of nullification that had thwarted enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, producing “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.”

Indeed, Michigan passed an act that prohibited its state jails to be used for the confinement of fugitive slaves. New York prevented the right to transport slaves from one place to another. Vermont even passed a habeas corpus act that would criminalize citizens of the state that assisted in the return of runaway slaves. Because South Carolina believed these states refused to fulfill a constitutional obligation, it claimed the state was “released from her obligation.”

As South Carolina saw it, the Fugitive Slave Clause (Article IV, Section 2) of the United States Constitution obligated all states to assist in the return of runaway slaves. Furthermore, it accused the general government of being led by a “sectional party” that engaged in “subverting the Constitution itself” by forming opinions and purposes that were “hostile to slavery.” Even though Abraham Lincoln had consistently declared that the Constitution denied the general government the ability to interfere with slavery in the states, South Carolina feared the institution would be put on “the course of ultimate extinction.”

After the state had released its declaration, the convention reported a second document written by Robert Rhett, a prominent fire-eater who had advocated for secession. The address mentioned additional reasons for which South Carolina chose to withdraw from the union. Rhett explained that the general government had endeavored to form a consolidated government over the states, and rule it like Great Britain had over the American colonies. “The Southern States now stand in the same relation toward the Northern States, in the vital matter of taxation, that our ancestors stood toward the people of Great Britain,” he declared.

Throughout the last decades, Rhett wrote, the southern states had endured economic hostility at the hands of the North, whose interests imposed protective tariffs that forcibly altered the buying patterns of southerners. By levying crippling tariffs, the South was disproportionately affected because its citizens were forced to subsidize northern industry rather than cheaper, superior, or otherwise more attractive foreign goods. “Our foreign trade is almost annihilated,” the address said. The southern states had been taxed for “an object inconsistent with revenue — to promote, by prohibitions, Northern interests in the productions of their mines and manufactures.”

“No man can for a moment believe that our ancestors intended to establish over their posterity exactly the same sort of Government they had overthrown,” the document declared. According to the convention, the general government enacted gradual policies that antagonized the South by isolating the region and overstepping its constitutional authority to meddle in powers reserved to it. By “gradual and steady encroachments on the part of the North,” Rhett wrote, “the limitations in the Constitution have been swept away, and the Government of the United States has become consolidated, with a claim of limitless powers in its operations.”

South Carolina’s act of secession influenced the course of the next years. Over the next few months, much of the Deep South seceded and expressed similar reasons for their departure. While those states generally feared that the general government would attempt to meddle with slavery in the states, they wished to leave the union peacefully and without a confrontation.

Until April of 1861, it was not a foregone conclusion that that would be a war, and many northern voices erupted in celebration that their states no longer had to share a union with the slaveholding states. Winfield Scott, Lincoln’s top military commander, urged the president to let the union’s “wayward sisters” to “depart in peace.”

After that point, the union resupply of Fort Sumter within the harbor of the state’s biggest urban center became an incendiary act that gave South Carolina ample cause to defend itself – and at the same time – provided Lincoln the excuse he used to subvert the Constitution by unilaterally raising an army while Congress was not in session, and executing a war against states he considered to be within the purview of his own country.

Concordia res parvae crescunt

Small things grow great by concord...

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