Do You Suppose the House Is on Fire?

Washington on the night of the 20th was the scene of a wedding between Louisiana Congressman J.E. Bouligny and Mary Parker. President James Buchanan served as guest of honor, and being a bachelor, he was accompanied by Mrs. Sarah Pryor, wife of Virginia Congressman Roger Pryor. The president seemed to be happy that evening, telling Mrs. Pryor, “I have never enjoyed better health nor a more tranquil spirit… I have not lost an hour’s sleep nor a single meal.” This was about to change.

Sitting at a table in the drawing room, Buchanan suddenly heard loud shouting. He asked Mrs. Pryor, “Madam, do you suppose the house is on fire? I hear an unusual commotion in the hall.” Mrs. Pryor went to the door and saw South Carolina Congressman Lawrence Keitt leaping in the air and shouting, “Thank God! Oh, thank God—South Carolina has seceded! I feel like a boy let out of school!”

Mrs. Pryor returned to the table and whispered to Buchanan, “It appears, Mr. President, that South Carolina has seceded from the Union. Mr. Keitt has a telegram.” She later recalled: “He looked at me, stunned, for a moment. Falling back and grasping the arms of the chair, he whispered: ‘Madam, might I beg you to have my carriage called?’” The wedding party was over.

President-elect Abraham Lincoln took the news of South Carolina’s secession calmly from his home in Springfield, Illinois, as the news spread throughout the country on the 21st. The Richmond Daily Dispatch reported that South Carolinians were displaying a flag “of light ground, with a Palmetto tree in the centre of it, arched over by a galaxy of fifteen stars, indicating the Union of the Slave States, and a rattlesnake coiled around the trunk.” On Capitol Hill, the four South Carolina congressmen (including Keitt) submitted formal letters of resignation, but the House of Representatives tabled (i.e., refused to accept) them. Meetings were held to debate secession and union.

In South Carolina, the convention resumed on the 22nd as the delegates met to discuss next steps. They approved a resolution declaring that Forts Moultrie and Sumter, Castle Pinckney, and the Federal arsenal in Charleston Harbor should “be subject to the authority and control” of the state and “that the possession of said forts and arsenal should be restored to the State of South Carolina.” The delegates also approved the following:

“That three Commissioners, to be elected by ballot of the Convention, be directed forthwith to proceed to Washington, authorized and empowered to treat with the Government of the United States for the delivery of the forts, magazines, light-houses, and other real estate, with their appurtenances, within the limits of South Carolina; and also for an apportionment of the public debt and for a division of all other property held by the Government of the United States as agent of the confederated States, of which South Carolina was recently a member; and, generally, to negotiate as to all other measures and arrangements proper to be made and adopted in the existing relations of the parties, and for the continuance of peace and amity between this Commonwealth and the Government at Washington.”

Robert W. Barnwell, James H. Adams, and James L. Orr were the three commissioners elected to go to Washington and issue these demands.

On the 24th, delegates approved the “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” Written by Christopher G. Memminger, this argued that the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution had been destroyed by the North:

“Those States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of Slavery; they have permitted the 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.”

Memminger asserted that the nation’s founders had intended for the Union to be a voluntary association of independent states, but abolitionists in the North had violated the rights of South Carolina to manage her own affairs, and therefore South Carolina had the right to terminate the compact.

The “Declaration” also cited “encroachments on the reserved rights of the states” and “an increasing hostility of the non-slaveholding states to the institution of slavery,” and “the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery” as among the causes. For the first time, a party openly hostile to slavery would control the executive branch of the Federal government. Once Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated, “The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slave-holding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.”

Memminger, “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,” wrote that the convention delegates “have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved, and that the State of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, as a separate and independent State; with full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do.”

Memminger’s legal thesis was based on the arguments set forth by John C. Calhoun and supported by most South Carolinians for the past generation. South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens issued a proclamation calling his state sovereign, free, and independent from the U.S. in accordance with Memminger’s “Declaration.”

A week later, the delegates approved the address “to the People of the Slave-holding States of the United States,” written by Robert Barnwell Rhett, Sr. This began with a long history of the sectional issues that had driven the nation apart ever since the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Rhett wrote that “the whole Constitution, by the constructions of the Northern people, has been absorbed by its preamble.” It ended with a call: “We ask you to join us in forming a Confederacy of Slave-holding States.” Rhett proposed opening a convention in Montgomery, Alabama, on February 13. The states would then unite under a new national government and constitution.

Rhett offered another resolution for South Carolina to furnish delegates to send to the proposed Montgomery convention, as well as to other states contemplating secession to provide a network of communication throughout the South. This came to be known as the “South Carolina Program,” and its main goal was to form a new nation before Lincoln’s inauguration in March.

The vast majority of southerners celebrated the news of South Carolina’s secession. In New Orleans, there was “a general demonstration of joy” as crowds and parades filled the streets, and bands played “Marseillaise.” Similar celebrations took place in Memphis, Montgomery, Mobile, Pensacola, and Wilmington. However, reaction in the border states was more reserved. Kentucky, where the incoming legislature would be controlled by Unionists, offered no official congratulations to South Carolina. Maryland Governor Thomas Hicks, a Unionist, told a crowd in Baltimore that the southern secession was not meant to create a new nation:

“Secession is not intended to break up the present union but to perpetuate it. We do not propose to go out by way of breaking up or destroying the Union as our fathers gave it to us, but we go out for the purpose of getting further guarantees and security for our rights… Our plan is for the Southern states to withdraw from the Union, for the present, to allow amendments to the Constitution to be made, guaranteeing our just rights; and if the Northern States will not make those amendments, by which these rights shall be secured to us, then we must secure them the best way we can. This question of slavery must be settled now or never.”



  • Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.
  • Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), The Coming Fury. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1961.
  • Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (Patricia L. Faust ed.). New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • Thomas, Emory M., The Confederate Nation. HarperCollins e-books, Kindle Edition, 1976.
  • United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1 – Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1902.

Leave a Reply