The Union is Dissolved!

Today we have another Civil War post from Luci Petlack, graduate student in the History department at U.C. Davis

Here is an image of South Carolina’s ordinance of secession from December 20, 1860 – the first action initiating the America Civil War (1861-1865). South Carolina was the first state to secede of those who eventually comprised the Confederate States of America. In early November 1860 Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election. Lincoln’s election was really the final straw for Southerners upset with the divergence in politics and economics between the North and South. The election of a Republican candidate opposed to the expansion of slavery whose name did not even appear on ballots in Southern states, scared white Americans of the South. Southerners wondered, “How much control did northerners have over the political stage of the country?” In their minds, the only way to check the power of the North was to secede.

The paragraph at the bottom of the document claims that the Constitution of the United States was effectively dissolved from this point forward in the eyes of South Carolina“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 Untied 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Acts and parts of Acts of the General Assembly of this State, ratifying amendments of the said Constitution, are hereby repealed; and that the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of ”The United States of America,” is hereby dissolved.”

This was a very bold statement. The ordinance bluntly put states’ rights above federal rule by removing the state and its inhabitants from this binding contract. In the next thirty-six days, five states (Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana) followed in South Carolina’s steps issuing their own ordinances of secession. The country began to split at the seams following the issuance of this document. It is amazing that a pronouncement of so few words would have such a lasting legacy on our country and indeed our world’s history.

This is a good document to use in teaching the Civil War, either on its own or in conjunction with other documents. The source sparks questions of why southern states seceded and if the words printed seem to illustrate that its authors understood the consequences of their actions. Would they have written such bold words had they known the four years of bloody warfare and eventual defeat to come? Also, in being so sparse in their wording, what were the authors not saying? The vague wording left the future of the South and the Confederate States of America wide open for interpretation.

Luci Petlack is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of California, Davis. Her research interests include black American history, race relations and the American Civil War. Her dissertation, “A Dilemma of Civil Liberties: Blacks under Union Military Control, 1861-1866,” looks at the effects of military occupation and martial law on black communities during the Civil War in Baltimore, Maryland; New Orleans, Louisiana and Cincinnati, Ohio.