Sunday, December 20, 2009

The South Carolina Secession Convention


One hundred forty nine ago today – on December 20, 1860 – the state of South Carolina seceded from the Union.

The secession convention opened in Columbia, South Carolina on December 17, 1860, but by then the game was already over. The election of delegates on December 6 had rejected those few candidates who dared to run as Cooperationists. William W. Freehling describes the victors:



[The delegates] were the cream of their world. Ninety percent of them owned at least one slave; over 60 percent owned at least twenty; over 40 percent owned fifty or more; and 16 percent owned a hundred or more. No other southern secession convention would approach this mass of wealth, unknowingly stepping toward class suicide.

The Convention remained in Columbia only one day. Early on the morning of December 18, the delegates entrained for Charleston in order to avoid a smallpox scare in Columbia. Before leaving, however, they unanimously passed a pledge to secede upon arrival in Charleston.

The “imminent suicides,” in Prof. Freehling's phrase, kept their pledge. As the Charleston Mercury recounted the next day,
On yesterday, the 20th of December, 1860, just before one o'clock, p.m., the Ordinance of secession was presented by the Committee on "the Ordinance," to the Convention of the people of South Carolina. Precisely at seven minutes after one o'clock, the vote was taken upon the Ordinance - each man's name being called in order. As name by name fell upon the ear of the silent assembly, the brief sound was echoed back, without one solitary exception in that whole grave body - Aye!

At 1:15 o'clock, p.m. - the last name was called, the Ordinance of Secession was announced to have been passed, and the last fetter had fallen from the limbs of a brave, but too long oppressed people.




The unanimous vote was taken behind closed doors at St. Andrew's Hall. Soon, however, the vote was publicly announced to “loud shouts of joy” and cannon fire. The convention voted to adjourn for a ceremonial signing that evening at Charleston's Institute Hall, where the Democratic Party had, fatefully, met and torn itself apart eight months earlier:



But before the Great Seal of the State was affixed to the Ordinance of Secession, and the names of the Delegates to the Convention were signed, it was proposed that this ceremony should be postponed until 7 o'clock that evening; when the Convention should reassemble and move in procession from the St. Andrew's Hall, where they then sat, to the great Secession Hall; and that there, before the assembled citizens of the State, the Great Seal of the State should be set, and each signature made. The proposition was favorably received.

Re-assembling at 6:30 p.m., the delegates “formed in procession and moved forward in silence to Secession [Institute] Hall,” which was filled to overflowing with some three thousand rapturous spectators. What it most striking about the Mercury account is the overt religious symbolism. The delegates are Old Testament patriarchs, the Secession Ordinance the Ten Tablets, the act of secession the deliverance of a long-suffering people into the Promised Land:



The Convention was called to order. The scene was one profoundly grand and impressive. There were a people assembled through their highest representatives – men most of them upon whose heads the snows of sixty winters had been shed – patriarchs in age – the the dignitaries of the land – the High Priests of the Church of Christ – reverend statesmen – and the wise judges of the law. In the midst of deep silence, an old man, with bowed form, and hair as white as snow, the Rev. Dr. [John] BACHMAN, advanced forward, with upraised hands, in prayer to Almighty God, for His blessing and favor in this great act of his people, about to be consummated. The whole assembly at once rose to its feet, and with hats off, listened to the touching and eloquent appeal to the All Wise Dispenser of events.



At the close of the prayer the President [of the Convention, David Flavel Jamison] advanced with the consecrated parchment upon which was inscribed the decision of the State, with the Great Seal attached. Slowly and solemnly it was read unto the last word – "dissolved" – when men could contain themselves no longer, and a shout that shook the very building, reverberating, long-continued, rose to Heaven, and ceased only with the loss of breath. In proud, grave silence, the Convention itself waited the end with beating hearts.

The sacred text that formed the center of the ritual was the Ordinance of Secession:



AN ORDINANCE to dissolve the union between the State of South Carolina and other States united with her under the compact entitled "The Constitution of the United States of America."

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.

Done at Charleston the twentieth day of December, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty.




That text was committed to physical form worthy of worship and was placed on its altar before the assembled multitude:
Jamison carried the Secession Ordinance. The historic document was engrossed on thick linen parchment, twenty-three by twenty-eight inches in size. Jamison spread the latest declaration of independence on a thick table with stubby legs, a weighty platform for a weighty document. The Great Seal of South Carolina, designed by Williams and Arthur Middleton and executed in silver by George Smithson in 1776, was stamped into the linen. Not since the seal shone on the Nullification Ordinance in 1832-33 had this silver invaded parchment.




The final act of the ritual began as the delegates approached the sacred text and publicly declared and confirmed their faith by affixing their signatures. Prof. Freehling implies that the audience cheered the entire time (“3000 voices cheering every step”), but the Mercury suggests that the crowd watched in silent reverence for some time. Only toward the end, when the chief apostle, Robert Barnwell Rhett, approached the object of his devotion – the Messiah he had been awaiting for thirty years – did the crowd erupt:
The President then requested the Delegates (by previous decision) to step forward as they were called in the alphabetical order of the Districts which they represented, and sign the Ordinance. Two hours were occupied in this solemn ceremony - the crowd waiting patiently the end. As the delegation from St. Phillip's and St. Michael's came forward, again, the hall was filled with applause. And as the Hon. R.B. RHETT advanced to the parchment, the shouts became deafening, long-continued, until he had seated himself, signed and retired. It was a proud and worthy tribute, gracefully paid, and appreciated. The same special compliment was paid to our Ex-Governor [William] GIST, who recommended in his message to the extra session, the immediate secession of South Carolina from the Union.




Rhett was overwhelmed in the presence of his Lord. At the table, he “sank to his knees and prayed to his Lord in thanks for thirty years of work triumphant.”

The author of the Mercury article painted the conclusion and implications of the convention in religious terms:
At the close of the signatures the President, advancing to the front of the platform, announced that the Seal of the State had been set, the signatures of the Convention put to the Ordinance, and he thereby proclaimed the State of South Carolina a separate, independent nationality.

To describe the enthusiasm with which this announcement was greeted, is beyond the power of the pen. The high, burning, bursting heart alone can realize it. A mighty voice of great thoughts and great emotions spoke from the mighty throat of one people as a unit.

The State of South Carolina has recorded herself before the universe. In reverence before God, fearless of man, unawed by power, unterrified by clamor, she has cut the Gordian knot of colonial dependence upon the North - cast her fortune upon her right, and her own right arm, and stands ready to uphold alike her independence and her dignity before the world.




Of course, others disagreed.



And the War came.

2 comments:

  1. Your photo here of Secession Hall. Wow. "So how'd that work out for y'all?"

    ReplyDelete

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