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.