By Jack Bass
Jack Bass is a South Carolina author, journalist and historian and one of the most respected chroniclers of our state. Perhaps best known for his work on the Orangeburg Massacre, Bass has also authored biographies of Strom Thurmond (Strom) and Judge Frank M. Johnson, as well as a history of the implementation of Brown v Board of Education across the South (Unlikely Heroes). His wife, Nathalie Dupree, ran a Charleston-based write-in campaign for U.S. Senate against Jim DeMint, Alvin Greene and Green Party nominee Tom Clements.
Now that the Sons of Confederate Veterans have held their Sesquicentennial Ball, which may remain as Charleston’s most widely reported commemorative event (The Washington Post’s story drew more than 400 reader comments), perhaps the time has come to remember how 116 South Carolina historians have assessed the causes of secession. They researched and issued their statement near the peak of our state’s great debate a decade ago over removal of the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse dome.
The chief author was Charles Joyner of Coastal Carolina University. He is among three signers elected as president of the Southern Historical Association. They and the 113 other signatories speak with authority about this central issue.
Here’s what the historians concluded a decade ago:
“The crux of the present controversy is not in the flag itself but in conflicting interpretations of the meaning of the Civil War. Some South Carolinians deny that the Civil War was fought over slavery, maintaining that it was fought over the rights of the states to control their own destinies. Slavery, they believe, was incidental.
“But when South Carolina delegates walked out of the 1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston as a prelude to secession, their spokesman William Preston minced no words in declaring that ‘Slavery is our King; slavery is our Truth; slavery is our Divine Right.’ And a few months later when the signers of the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession issued their Declaration of the Causes of Secession, they specifically referred to the ‘domestic institution’ of slavery. They objected that the free states have ‘denounced as sinful the institution of Slavery.’ They charged that the free states had ‘encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain have been incited by emissaries, books, and pictures, to hostile insurrection.’
“Moreover, in 1861, as President and Vice President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis and Alexander H. Stephens each candidly acknowledged that their new nation was created for the specific purpose of perpetuating slavery. In an address to the c in April of 1861, Davis declared that ‘a persistent and organized system of hostile measures against the rights of the owners of slaves in the Southern States’ had culminated in a political party dedicated to ‘annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars.’ Since ‘the labor of African slaves was and is indispensable’ to the South’s production of cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco, Davis said, ‘the people of the Southern States were driven by the conduct of the North to the adoption of some course of action to avert the danger with which they were openly menaced.’
“In a speech in Savannah, Stephens made it even clearer that the establishment of the Confederacy had ‘put to rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions — African slavery as it exists among us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.’ He added, that the Confederacy was ‘founded upon’ what he called ‘the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.’
“Running successfully for governor of South Carolina in the critical election of 1860, Francis W. Pickens left little doubt of his support for disunion and even war to perpetuate slavery. His sentiments were echoed by his old friend Edward Bryan, who declared in the campaign, ‘Give us slavery or give us death!’ Pickens committed his state — and ours — to a ruinous course. ‘I would be willing to appeal to the god of battles,’ he defiantly declared, ‘if need be, cover the state with ruin, conflagration and blood rather than submit.’ These are not interpretations by historians; they are statements made at the time by Confederate leaders explaining what they were doing and why.
“After the war had been lost, and the Lost Cause was in need of justification, Davis and Stephens backed away from their original statements, casting the cause of the war in the context of ‘states rights.’ Their revisionist interpretation, in which slavery became not the cause but merely the ‘question’ resolved on the field of battle, still misleads many South Carolinians. The historical record, however, clearly shows that the cause for which the South seceded and fought a devastating war was slavery.”
Jack Bass is co-author of “The Palmetto State: The Making of Modern South Carolina.”