Guest Essayist: Horace Cooper, legal commentator and a fellow with Constituting America as well as an adjunct fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research

On December 20, 1860 South Carolina became the first state to declare that it had seceded from the Federal union.  Many modern historical revisionists will try to explain away slavery’s role in the secessionist movement and the civil war, that followed.  For these individuals it is critical that the conflicts that led to the Civil War involve issues such as tariffs and other domestic policies over which reasonable men might disagree.

Curiously the South Carolina Declaration fails to mention these  issues.   The Declaration begins with its claim that beginning on April 26, 1852, the citizens of the State of South Carolina declared that “the frequent violations of the Constitution of the United States, by the Federal Government, and its encroachments upon the reserved rights of the States, fully justified this State in then withdrawing from the Federal Union,” but rather than do so they had waited another 8 years, “in deference to the opinions and wishes of the other slaveholding States.”

Note:  It was not the cotton producing states nor the construction producing states, or factory producing states or some other similarity that united their group.  Solidarity among slaveholding was their cause.

Striking the pose of the oppressed colony of a European superstate, South Carolina recounted the arguments that ultimately led to America’s revolution against Great Britain.   Claiming “that they are, and of right ought to be, free and independent; and that, as free and independent States, they have 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.”

And had they listed complaints unrelated to the horrific and inhumane policy of slavery (a policy which has yet to be eradicated from the planet) their claims may have been more persuasive.  South Carolina didn’t claim that all of her agricultural products were seized without compensation or that her legal disputes about corporate contracts involving mergers and acquisitions were not upheld in federal courts.  Instead, they argued that their claim to be able to hold one human against his will (and that of his children), a claim that violates natural law and that of the Almighty, was not being treated fairly in courts of the North and the Midwest.

It is this growing sense among people in Western Europe and in North and Midwest parts of America that the right to enslave was indeed a wrong that was the central basis of South Carolina’s claim for abolition of the American union.

This claim ran in the face of the direction the modern world was headed.

Indeed, by 1850 England, Germany, Poland, Mexico, Spain, The Netherlands, France and Greece and nearly every other modern nation had all abolished slavery and the slave trade.  Is it any wonder that in America –which had nearly 50 years earlier banned the importation of slaves — would see its nascent anti-slavery movement explode into a full blown national debate.   Starting with the abolitionist movement in New England in the 1700s, the American notion of every man being free and equal in the eyes of the law had by the 1850s led to a wholesale limitation on the ability of Southern states to rely upon their neighbors to the North and Midwest to aid and assist in keeping their policy of slavery intact.

What South Carolina declared to be a government “destructive of the ends for which it was established,” on the contrary exhibited the very qualities of support for individual liberty and freedom that just governments exist to ensure.

South Carolina was correct: Juries were refusing to convict those who helped slaves escape.  Judges were refusing to enforce obligations to return escaped slaves and some communities openly offered resettlement funds that encouraged slaves to leave the shackles of the South.

The freedom genie was being unleashed and South Carolina wanted the cap placed back on the bottle.

Ignoring the issue over which the secessionist movement was motivated by, South Carolina’s declaration makes a fairly powerful argument for the right for South Carolina to leave the Union. “We maintain that in every compact between two or more parties, the obligation is mutual; that the failure of one of the contracting parties to perform a material part of the agreement, entirely releases the obligation of the other; and that where no arbiter is provided, each party is remitted to his own judgment to determine the fact of failure, with all its consequences.”

But the very thing that South Carolina was asking the entire rest of the states to do was to reverse course and reject the lessons of history — to wit:  natural law claims that every human was free and it was the duty of government to protect that status, not reverse it.

If one were to rely totally upon the construct of the Declaration, you might come to the curious conclusion that the only or primary benefit that South Carolina got from being a part of the Union was the ability to get the rest of the states help it in its quest to capture escapees.  How exactly that problem would be aided by ending their association with the Union is unclear.

May 16, 2013 – Essay #63

Read the South Carolina Secession Declaration here:

Horace Cooper is a legal commentator and a fellow with Constituting America as well as an adjunct fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research





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