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South Carolina Secession

Newspaper headline announcing the secession of South Carolina

South Carolina Historical Society

“The issue before the country is the extinction of slavery...The Southern States are now in the crisis of their fate; and, if we read aright the signs of the times, nothing is needed for our deliverance, but that the ball of revolution be set in motion.”

- Charleston Mercury on November 3, 1860


South Carolina became the first state to secede from the federal Union on December 20, 1860. The victory of Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election triggered cries for disunion across the slaveholding South. The secession of South Carolina precipitated the outbreak of the American Civil War in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861.

South Carolina had theatened secession before 1860. After the ratification of the US Constitution, fears grew in the South over time of a strong central government. Charles Pinckney, a vocal critic of the Articles of Confederation and contributor to the US Constitution, served in the House of Representatives from 1819-21. He warned that the economic interests of North and South were at odds. He further believed that slavery was the only question that could separate the Union. He stated that a consequence of the Missouri Compromise “may be the division of this union and a civil war.”

The congressional debate over federal taxes on imported manufactured goods showed the division between North and South. Designed to protect American manufacturing based in New England, southern planters felt the tariff posed an unfair tax burden on them as they imported many manufactured goods. Citing states rights doctrine, South Carolina voted to nullify the federal tariffs of 1828 and 1832. During the crisis, Vice President John C. Calhoun broke with President Andrew Jackson and resigned his office to organize southern resistance. The President sent troops to the federal forts in Charleston Harbor to enforce collection of the tariff. Calling for secession, the South Carolina legislature readied the state militia. The crisis was defused in 1833 by a compromise tariff, but the state had learned that cries of disunion could be an effective political weapon.

While white South Carolinians remained vigilant to threats to slavery and continued to advance a doctrine of state sovereignty under the leadership of Senator John C. Calhoun, there was little popular support for secession during the 1830s and 1840s. The escalating controversy over the expansion of slavery into the territory acquired from Mexico prompted South Carolina's secession crisis of 1850 - 51. The Compromise of 1850 and the lack of broad-based support for secession in the South ended this crisis, but secessionists awaited their next opportunity. The election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860 fulfilled their dreams of a republic for slaveholders.
The South Carolina General Assembly called for a convention to consider secession following news of Lincoln's victory. The 169 delegates convened at South Carolina Institute Hall in Charleston on December 20. The body included four former governors, three future governors, four former US senators, and five former US congressmen. One hundred and fifty-three of the 169 delegates held slaves in 1860. Approximately 60% of the convention, or 104 members, owned as many as 20 enslaved people or more. Seventy members held 50 slaves or more; and 27 delegates, or 16% of the convention, held 100 slaves or more. The 169 delegates were primarily wealthy, middle-aged, slaveholding, native-born planters and lawyers. They voted uanimously to secede from the federal Union. Charlestonians celebrated with bonfires, parades, and the ringing of church bells.

Just four days after secession, South Carolina issued their “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” The document offered a legal justification for secession and discussed how the federal government had failed to uphold its constitutional obligations to South Carolina. South Carolina’s declaration argued that the non-slaveholding states had “denounced as sinful the institution of slavery” and had “encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.”

The document then indirectly referenced the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency as a contributing factor: “A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” According to South Carolina’s declaration, secession occurred because of threats, both real and perceived, to the institution of slavery.

Fire Eaters from South Carolina traveled throughout the South, acting as secession commissioners, to encourage other states to secede as well. South Carolina played an active role in the secession of additional states and the creation of the Confederate States of America.

Last updated: March 30, 2021