The people of South Carolina had been threatening to secede from the Union for over 30 years, and when Abraham Lincoln was elected president, South Carolinians vowed to finally make good on the threat. Outgoing Governor William H. Gist had called for a special session of the legislature, which unanimously approved forming a Convention of the People of South Carolina to consider secession. Delegates to the convention were elected on the 6th, and they gathered in the Baptist Church at the state capital of Columbia on the 17th.
Rumors of a smallpox epidemic prompted the legislature to transfer to Charleston, but the convention went ahead as planned. The 159 delegates included planters, clergy, merchants, and railroad men. Many delegates were former U.S. congressmen, state politicians, and former governors, including Gist. The convention opened with the election of temporary convention chairman David F. Jamison, a militia officer from Barnwell, as president. At 7 p.m., Jamison delivered a rousing speech in which he declared:
“It is no less than our fixed determination to throw off a Government to which we have been accustomed, and to provide new safeguards for our future security. If anything has been decided by the elections which sent us here, it is, that South Carolina must dissolve her connection with the (Federal) Confederacy as speedily as possible.”
Jamison listed grievances against the Federal government and then said:
“I trust that the door now is forever closed from any further connection with our Northern Confederacy. What guarantees can they offer us more binding, more solemn, and with a higher sanction, than the present written compact between us? Has that sacred instrument protected us from the jealousy and aggressions of the Northern people, which commenced forty years ago, and which ended in the Missouri Compromise? Has it protected us from the cupidity and avarice of the Northern people, who for thirty-five years have imposed the burden of sustaining this Government chiefly upon the South? Has it saved us from abolition petitions, intended to annoy and insult us, on the very floors of Congress? Has not that instrument been trodden under their very feet by every Northern State, by placing on their books statutes nullifying the laws for the recovery of fugitive slaves? I trust, gentlemen, we will put no faith in paper guarantees. They are worthless, unless written in the hearts of the people. As there is no common bond between us, all attempts to continue as united will not only prove futile, but fatal to the less numerous section.”
Former South Carolina Governor John H. Adams introduced men from Alabama and Mississippi, who announced that their governors had asked them to attend. The delegates then approved a resolution: “That it is the opinion of this Convention that the State of South Carolina should forthwith secede from the Federal Union, known as the United States of America.” Another resolution was approved to draft an ordinance of secession by a vote of 159 to 0. A committee of 21 delegates was assigned the task of drafting the ordinance.
A motion was introduced to adjourn for the evening and reconvene the next day in Charleston due to the smallpox threat; it was now being rumored that disease-laden rags had been brought in from New York. However, some feared that moving the venue might be perceived as weakness in their resolve. Ultimately, the move to Charleston was approved.
The delegates boarded a train the next morning and steamed to Charleston, where they were greeted by a 15-gun salute (one gun for each southern state). A New York Times reporter noted the militant atmosphere in this city and estimated that the South Carolina militia numbered as high as 33,000, or double the current size of the U.S. Army. The reporter wrote that the militiamen were being recruited solely to defy the Federal government.
At 4 p.m., the convention reassembled at Institute Hall, where some 700 spectators packed the galleries. Committees were formed to document the proceedings, work out relations with the other states, establish commerce with foreign nations, and deal with Federal property within the state. It was also decided to move to St. Andrew’s Hall, a more appropriate site for such a gathering.
Forming committees and offering various motions and resolutions took up most of the 18th and 19th. Caleb Cushing, a Massachusetts Democrat, arrived in South Carolina bearing a letter from President James Buchanan. The president wrote that “from common notoriety,” he heard that South Carolina was about to secede. In his effort “to exert all the means in my power to avert so dread a catastrophe,” he had Cushing ask Governor Francis W. Pickens to get the convention to either reject secession or at least delay a vote on it. Pickens refused, telling Cushing that there was no way to save the Union now. This was confirmed when delegate John A. Inglis came forward on the 20th to read the report from the Committee to Prepare an Ordinance of Secession. The report got straight to the point:
“We, the People of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled, do declare and ordain, and it is hereby declared and ordained, That the Ordinance adopted by us in Convention on the twenty-third day of May, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, whereby the Constitution of the United States of America was ratified, and also all Acts, and parts of Acts, of the General Assembly of this State, ratifying amendments of the said Constitution, are hereby repealed; and that the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of ‘The United States of America’ is hereby dissolved.”
At 1:07 p.m., the delegates voted 169 to 0 in favor of this resolution. The Palmetto Republic was born.
The formal signing took place that evening in Institute Hall, with the governor, legislature, and other state officials invited to witness the proceedings. For two hours, the 169 delegates took turns signing the official document, after which President Jamison announced, “I proclaim the State of South Carolina an Independent Commonwealth.” It took only three days for the delegates to take South Carolina out of the Union; without the smallpox threat it would have taken even less time.
Within 15 minutes of the announcement, printers began distributing placards bearing the news, and the Charleston Mercury released an “extra” edition of a broadside in large, bold type: “THE UNION IS DISSOLVED.” The “Palmetto Boys of the Palmetto State” mailed a copy of the Mercury to President-elect Abraham Lincoln, who kept it.
Massive celebrations erupted throughout Charleston, as many believed that South Carolina’s declaration of independence as glorious as the American declaration in 1776. Church bells rang, cannons boomed, fireworks colored the sky, and marching bands played patriotic tunes while residents joined the “Minute Men” militia in waving palmetto flags. The governor and other public officials joined in, and an observer said, “The whole heart of the people had spoken.”
The pandemonium drowned out the small minority who opposed secession and feared the hardships it might bring. Respected Unionist Judge James L. Petigru met a friend amid the noise and asked, “Where’s the fire?” The friend replied that it was just a celebration of secession, not a fire. Petigru answered, “I tell you there is a fire! They have this day set a blazing torch to the temple of constitutional liberty, and, please God, we shall have no more peace forever.”
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