150 Years Ago …

The Flag of the State of South Carolina
South Car­olina Flag

Over the next five years, we will be observ­ing the sesqui­cen­ten­nial of the Civil War. On Decem­ber 20, 1860, that is, 150 years ago, this week, for exam­ple, South Car­olina seceded from the Union, touch­ing off a wave of seces­sions that led to the War itself.

While the war is often described these days as being about “states rights,” of course, it was about states rights to con­tinue slav­ery, and the con­cerns in the slave states that the North would abol­ish slav­ery, destroy­ing the econ­omy that had been built upon the foun­da­tion of the “pecu­liar insti­tu­tion” of chat­tel slavery.

This argu­ment has not really ended, as the blog post at the New York Times notes (“Danc­ing Around His­tory,” New York Times web­site, 20 Decem­ber 2010). There are still those who would cast the Civil War, and the seces­sion of the South­ern states, as a strug­gle for states rights, and one that con­tin­ues. But of course, the Con­sti­tu­tion was never the Arti­cles of Con­fed­er­a­tion. The Arti­cles had indeed cre­ated a loose con­fed­er­a­tion of inde­pen­dent states, one so loose it was not work­able. The sin­gle over-riding point of the Con­sti­tu­tion is the rule of law, and how fair­ness and equal­ity would be the cor­ner­stone of the new gov­ern­ment. (The “three fifths of all other per­sons” clause out of the dis­cus­sion for the moment; the irony of that lack of equal­ity in the core of the doc­u­ment was not lost on the founders and does not inval­i­date the Con­sti­tu­tion, it was only itself invalid and con­tra­dic­tory to the point of the doc­u­ment.) Edward Ball, the author of Slaves in the Fam­ily, writes an espe­cially poignant op-ed piece in the New York Times about revi­sion­ist his­tory rel­a­tive to seces­sion, slav­ery, and the Civil War (“Gone with the Myths,” New York Times, 18 Decem­ber 2010).

If the gov­ern­ment was to be a fed­eral gov­ern­ment, and not a loose con­fed­er­a­tion of states, then the states would have some pow­ers, but not all. And the South­ern states, in join­ing the United States had ceded some power. That power included that the Con­gress could enact, the Pres­i­dent sign, and the President’s admin­is­tra­tion carry out laws. Addi­tion­ally, that the Con­sti­tu­tion could be amended.

Those who would say that seces­sion was about states’ rights should take a look at the South Car­olin­ian seces­sion dec­la­ra­tion (“Dec­la­ra­tion of the Imme­di­ate Causes Which Induce and Jus­tify the Seces­sion of South Car­olina from the Fed­eral Union”), which says in part:

We affirm that these ends for which this Gov­ern­ment was insti­tuted have been defeated, and the Gov­ern­ment itself has been made destruc­tive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of decid­ing upon the pro­pri­ety of our domes­tic insti­tu­tions [i.e., slav­ery]; and have denied the rights of prop­erty [i.e., slav­ery] estab­lished in fif­teen of the States [i.e., the slave-holding states] and rec­og­nized by the Con­sti­tu­tion [alas, all too true!]; they have denounced as sin­ful the insti­tu­tion of slav­ery; they have per­mit­ted open estab­lish­ment among them of soci­eties, whose avowed object is to dis­turb the peace and to eloign the prop­erty of the cit­i­zens of other States [in other words, they have allowed an abo­li­tion­ist move­ment to start and spread]. They have 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.

For twenty-five years this agi­ta­tion has been steadily increas­ing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the com­mon Gov­ern­ment. Observ­ing the forms [empha­sis in the orig­i­nal] of the Con­sti­tu­tion, a sec­tional party has found within that Arti­cle estab­lish­ing the Exec­u­tive Depart­ment, the means of sub­vert­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion itself. 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. He is to be entrusted with the admin­is­tra­tion of the com­mon Gov­ern­ment, because he has declared that that “Gov­ern­ment can­not endure per­ma­nently half slave, half free,” and that the pub­lic mind must rest in the belief that slav­ery is in the course of ulti­mate extinction.

While the inten­tions of the South Car­oli­nan “fire eaters” (sup­port­ers of South­ern seces­sion) are clear, this should not be seen as an indict­ment of every indi­vid­ual in the South, espe­cially not of South­ern sol­diers, most of whom were not direct ben­e­fi­cia­ries of plan­ta­tion slav­ery. As ever, sol­diers have fought for a num­ber of rea­sons, includ­ing soci­etal norms, the draft, a sense of duty, and on and on. Indi­vid­u­als were usu­ally doing their damn­d­est to do the right thing as they saw it, and not get killed in the process. We can honor their sac­ri­fice while not hon­or­ing their cause. How­ever, it is at our peril that we revise his­tory in a vain attempt to reha­bil­i­tate our ances­tors. As geneal­o­gists, it is our role to see our fam­ily his­tory, as I think of it, “his­tory at ground level,” with a clear, unbi­ased gaze.

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