South Carolina Declaration of Immediate Causes; Georgia Declaration of Causes of Secession Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The documents under examination in this chapter vehemently defend the decisions of South Carolina and Georgia to secede from the United States of America in, respectively, late 1860 and early 1861. South Carolina was the first of the eleven states to secede; Georgia was the fifth. There are immediate differences in the approaches used by both: South Carolina employing impassioned, heated words in explanation of their secession, including substantial citations from the Declaration of Independence and early American leaders; and Georgia employing a more sedate, economical approach. One noted difference is the direct reference to slavery early in Georgia’s document–stating that the right of slavery was implicit within the birth of the nation as a whole–while South Carolina’s conclusion (which makes no mention of the institution of slavery) was based primarily on their right, as dictated within the Declaration of Independence, to throw off a government which impeded their natural rights to govern their people independently.

Summary Overview

The documents under examination in this chapter vehemently defend the decisions of South Carolina and Georgia to secede from the United States of America in, respectively, late 1860 and early 1861. South Carolina was the first of the eleven states to secede; Georgia was the fifth. There are immediate differences in the approaches used by both: South Carolina employing impassioned, heated words in explanation of their secession, including substantial citations from the Declaration of Independence and early American leaders; and Georgia employing a more sedate, economical approach. One noted difference is the direct reference to slavery early in Georgia’s document–stating that the right of slavery was implicit within the birth of the nation as a whole–while South Carolina’s conclusion (which makes no mention of the institution of slavery) was based primarily on their right, as dictated within the Declaration of Independence, to throw off a government which impeded their natural rights to govern their people independently.

Defining Moment

It would be all too easy to equate the commencement of Southern secession with the first shots fired at Fort Sumter–for that would represent a misunderstanding of the Civil War timeframe. After all, South Carolina’s decision to secede occurred on December 20th, 1860, three and a half months before the events at Fort Sumter in April 1861. This resolution on secession led subsequently to similar resolutions in ten other states, a domino effect culminating in the four-year-long bloodbath that was the Civil War. As with any approach to history, though, it is vital to examine the surrounding context, for otherwise the overall picture will not be as clear.

With South Carolina’s secession, militias were being called up and volunteers were being sought in preparation for any hostile reaction. But no matter when the states chose to exercise their disunion from the nation, both South Carolina and Georgia statesmen did so for the good of their people–they saw their rights ignored in the same fashion as nearly a century before, and, cunningly, based their defence on that principle, namely, that they–the Confederate people–should shrug off the government that sought to strip away the states’ rights to govern themselves independently. The early leaders of the United States–the very men who risked their lives for the formation of an American government–were slaveholders themselves, including the highly venerated George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the latter the very author of the Declaration of Independence. The Confederate South saw its way of life–particularly, its economic stability–threatened, and the usage of the foundation documents of American history was very tactical indeed.

Author Biography

When examining pieces of legislation, trying to trace and identify the individual author or authors can be a difficult task for the researcher. The Declaration of Immediate Causes for the secession of South Carolina simply lists the state’s convention. The preceding Ordinance of Secession, however, lists the delegates of that convention, and names D. F. Jamison as both delegate and president of the convention, which met on December 17, 1860, just days before the agreement to leave the union. The Ordinance reads:

“We the People of the State of South Carolina 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 said Constitution, are hereby repealed; and that the union is now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of ‘The United States of America’, is hereby dissolved.”

This relatively short statement–leaving the longer, more complicated prose to the Declaration–nonetheless references topics such as the promises made within the original founding documents of the nation. Even today, the issue of states’ rights, as a central cause of the Civil War, continues to be raised; these nineteenth-century lawmakers, representing their constituents, felt cheated of the guarantees of the government’s principles.

Georgia also held state conventions to determine whether or not their state would follow suit. Like South Carolina’s, the Georgia ordinance, which passed on January 19th, 1861, also referred to the original ratification in the eighteenth century. It reads:

We the people of the State of Georgia in Convention assembled do declare and ordain and it is hereby declared and ordained that the ordinance adopted by the State of Georgia in convention on the 2nd day of Jany. in the year of our Lord seventeen hundred and eighty-eight, whereby the constitution of the United States of America was assented to, ratified and adopted, and also all acts and parts of acts of the general assembly of this State, ratifying and adopting amendments to said constitution, are hereby repealed, rescinded and abrogated.

We do further declare and ordain that the union now existing between the State of Georgia and other States under the name of the United States of America is hereby dissolved, and that the State of Georgia is in full possession and exercise of all those rights of sovereignty which belong and appertain to a free and independent State.”

For the legislatures of both states, it was emphatic that clear mentions of the U.S. Constitution–the conventions held for their approval–be written into these Ordinances. It displayed for all the seriousness of their motives and intentions, not merely for the benefit of the new citizens of the Confederacy, but for the benefit of those in the North as well.

Document Analysis

In a contemporary “compatriots” website called Wadehamptoncamp.org (see ‘Bibliography’ below), there are pictures and illustrations recalling the “heroic day” when South Carolina decided to secede from the United States–precipitated, the site claims, by the recent Presidential election of Abraham Lincoln. In another, more authoritative site, that of the New Georgia Encyclopedia (entry title: “Georgia Secession Convention of 1861”), Lincoln’s victory is likewise cited as prompting the statesmen to vote on secession. The entry (written by George Justice) claims that it was the anti-slavery policies of the Republican Party that culminated in “…a series of state conventions across the South.” At first reading, this may be understood as reasonable, except that Lincoln’s policies at the beginning of the war did not include anti-slavery legislation–this would find its way into his ethos much later in the Civil War; initially, Lincoln emphasized the preservation of the Union itself, and then moved toward equality for all men.

Negation of Constitutional Contract

Reading through both South Carolina’s Declaration of Immediate Causes and Georgia’s Declaration of Causes of Secession reveals very specific terms of the original founding of America and the documents that followed. South Carolina’s assertion opens with a reminder that the state had threatened to secede more than a decade before–that, “…in deference to the opinions and wishes of the other slaveholding States, she forbore at that time to exercise this right. Since that time, these encroachments have continued to increase, and further forbearance ceases to be a virtue.” The ensuing years between this first threat and the eventual vote for secession did see an increase in abolitionist activity; 1852, the year of the threat, was the same year that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first published. Further public anti-slavery activities, despite passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, heightened the South’s awareness of the infringement of their right to make use of the peculiar institution.

The increased restrictions on slavery–such as the free or slave designation of the new states coming into the Union during the nineteenth century–were viewed as an encroachment of the individual new states’ rights to decide for themselves. The fact that some non-slaveholding states were not upholding their legal obligation to return fugitive slaves proved that, “…the constitutional contract [had] been deliberately broken and disregarded…and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.” Georgia’s Declaration followed this lead, citing that the non-slaveholding states, “…have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquillity…”

The South’s economy, which relied heavily on the use of slaves to produce cotton, among other commodities, was assured by the United States Constitution–both South Carolina and Georgia reiterate that the men who guided America at its inception were slaveholders, and made their money–just the same as contemporary slave owners–from the work performed by their labor force. Why, then, were they being denied this right? To American Southerners, to do so was hypocritical and very much against the mandates drawn up and agreed upon at America’s founding. After all, as written in South Carolina’s Declaration,

The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.

The most vexing point, however, raised in both secession documents, concerns the Fugitive Slave Act.

Repudiation of the Fugitive Slave Act

The Fugitive Slave Act passed into federal law on September 18, 1850, prompted one North Carolina man (William A. Graham) to write his brother about how he thought, “…the settlement of the last session [of Congress] and the firm course of the Administration in the execution of the fugitive slave law have given a new lease to slavery…Property of that kind has not been so secure for the last twenty years” (McPherson. 77. 1988). Although the law’s passage assuaged the worries of the slaveholding populace–allowing a sense of relief that if their slaves escaped to Northern, non-slaveholding states, the authorities and citizens were legally obligated to turn them in–it nonetheless caused great consternation within the free states. For those living within the latter, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act put individuals (both civilians and law enforcement) into a binding situation; their moral and ethical concerns regarding bondage would do them no good if they came into contact with an escaped slave. The law stated, in the terms employed at the time, that escaped slaves were lost property and had to be returned to their proper owner. For the Southern states, the law must have be viewed as a step forward in preserving their economy, their way of life–it was validation of the promises of the Declaration of Independence that, as mandated by the Fugitive Slave Law:

the person or persons to whom such service or labormay be due…may pursue and reclaim such fugitive person… for the apprehension of such fugitive from service or labor, or by seizing and arresting such fugitive…

But as both the conventions of South Carolina and Georgia noted, this legal obligation was not always enforced–a mockery was being made of a federal law. Georgia’s Declaration of Immediate Causes of Secession pointed to the U.S. Constitution:

…that persons charged with crimes in one State and fleeing to another shall be delivered up on the demand of the executive authority of the State from which they may flee, to be tried in the jurisdiction where the crime was committed.

For the slaveholding states, the law was perfect in its simplicity–they would turn over fleeing criminals to the state from which they fled–so why did not their brethren do the same in the case of fleeing slaves? South Carolina’s Declaration cited that,

In many of these [non-slaveholding] states the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the state government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution.

Demonstrations against the Fugitive Slave Law were held by abolitionist societies, and runaway slaves were hidden and protected, with some making their way to freedom in Canada. These actions, while not officially sanctioned by the United States government, were seen as direct attacks against the South, a form of aiding and abetting criminal behavior. The writers of the South Carolina Convention record their sentiment that the slaves themselves did not necessarily wish to leave; rather, they were influenced and tempted by “…emissaries, books, and pictures to servile insurrection [i.e., escape].” The slaves, they said–when fed, clothed, and sheltered from the elements by their respective ‘families’–were tempted to leave as Eve tempted Adam with the apple; the free states, constrained by federal law to return runaways back to their condition of bondage, refused to comply with the laws of the land. The decision was clear.

Approximately ninety years before these events, men in the American colonies had banded together in common opposition to British oppression–they wished for the colonies to govern themselves, for the people to have a say in their own government. In 1860, therefore, in what was presented as recognition of these same feelings within the slaveholding American South, South Carolinian and Georgian lawmakers followed the same course of action–they would throw off a government that was not adhering to the principles originally stated and, thereby, form a new government.

Essential Themes

When examining historical events, and the catalysts that brought them about, it can be all too simple to lay things out in black and white. One could, for example, identify slavery as the sole cause of the Civil War. However, the incidents that led up to the war, and the many complex events taking place during the war–such as the Emancipation Proclamation and the enlistment of African Americans as soldiers and sailors–do not allow for so simple an identification. As a thorough reading of both of the declarations from South Carolina and Georgia attests, the reasoning behind these states’ secession was not merely to keep slavery alive; their decisions, rather, were based on the rights of the states to determine what was best for their people and their economy. Even in today’s South, it is common to hear the phrase “the War Between the States” (as well as “the War of Northern Aggression”) instead of the Civil War. This is significant. The writers of the convention conceded that the continuation of slavery was debated during the birth of the nation; however, its omission from the Constitution demonstrated that it was a matter for the states to decide.

For the eleven states that took the steps to withdraw from the United States in the months leading up to the Civil War, the decision to secede was, albeit clear, not without regret. It is possible to read in these documents a sense of nostalgia over the original thirteen colonies banding together to fight for independence from Great Britain, with the intent to forge a new path. However short-lived the Confederacy may have been, it was brought to birth by statesmen who sought to preserve what they saw as an original promise from the previous century.

Additional Reading
  • Carey, Anthony Gene. Parties, Slavery, and the Union in Antebellum Georgia. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1997. Print.
  • Freehling, William W. and Craig M. Simpson, eds. Secession Debated: Georgia’s Showdown in 1860. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. Print.
  • Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery, 1619–1877. New York: Penguin, 1995. Print.
  • Lesser, Charles H. Relic of the Lost Cause: The Story of South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2012. Print.
  • Saye, Albert Berry. A Constitutional History of Georgia, 1732–1968, rev. ed. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1970. Print.
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