As a historian, my usual instinct is to welcome an event that draws attention to the past. Then I read this article in the New York Times about the South Carolina Secession Gala to be held in Charleston on the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s secession from the Union, complete with “a 45 minute theatrical play re-enacting the signing of the original Ordinance of Secession.” In the re-enactment, Republican state senator Glenn F. McConnell, President Pro-Tempore of the South Carolina senate, will take the role of Convention chair. The event is sponsored by the South Carolina division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
I’ve encountered the SCV before. Back in 2006, a one of its members, in a letter in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, stated flatly: "Slavery was not a major issue" in the Civil War. As I noted in reply, any reasonable reading of the secession documents clearly reveals that the protection of slavery was the motive behind secession. How do we know that? They said so.
While the Confederacy’s modern apologists shy away from the subject of slavery, the Confederates themselves did not. The South Carolina secession declaration plainly states the centrality of slavery. The statement of the causes of secession includes the complaint that
the non-slaveholding States … 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. 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.
Those things had been going on for years, so why secession in December 1860? They were clear about that, too. It was the election of Abraham Lincoln,
a man … 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.
Lincoln’s Republican Party, they said, was committed to the idea that “a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.” As a result, they said, “The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.” (It is worth noting that the adjective they used to describe themselves was “slaveholding.” It was that characteristic, and no other, that they believed distinguished them.)
This is not a close call. South Carolina seceded to protect slavery. The people who made that decision said so.
But SCV members, in their desperation to separate the Confederate cause from the infamy of slavery, insist that some other reason, like high tariffs rates, was the real reason for secession. (I have it on good authority that this nonsense is even peddled by some economics professors, but I know of no respectable historian today who holds that view.) One SCV member wrote back in 2006: "It was economics and tariffs that prompted Lincoln to force the South to remain in the Union."
As I noted in my reply, even if that were true (and it is not), it tells us nothing about why Southerners seceded. At the South Carolina secession convention, delegate Lawrence Keitt stated it as plainly as is possible: "The tariff is not the question which brought the people up to their present attitude…. Our people come upon this on the question of slavery…. It is the central point from which we are now proceeding." Not a single delegate contradicted him.
When all else fails, the SCV fall back on their ultimate trump card: the "valor" and "courage" of individual soldiers. I have no trouble with descendants of Confederate veterans honoring the memory of their ancestors. It is possible for an individual to fight with bravery and honor in a flawed cause.
What I find most interesting about this gala celebration, however, is that it gives the lie to the argument that the SCV is all about honoring the valor of Confederate veterans. This event commemorates not a military engagement, not personal martial bravery, but a political decision (and an utterly disastrous one at that, regardless of what one thinks of the cause). And that decision, as the historical record clearly shows, was to separate from the Union for the purpose of defending the institution of slavery.
There can be no pretense, no hiding behind military courage in this instance. This event proudly supports and celebrates the decision that precipitated the worst bloodshed in all of American history. It supports the act of people who forthrightly declared that they hoped to create a "Confederacy of Slaveholding States." One hundred and fifty years later, it is appalling that any American could fail to see how wrong that is. The secession of South Carolina is no cause for celebration.