December 2017

New Year’s Lessons from the History of Secession

No matter how divided the country is today, no matter the defeats of the past several years, there remains room to be both grateful and vigilant.

This piece was originally published one year ago on Delayed Mail under the title “New Year’s and the Superficiality of Secession” It has been updated to account for recent events.

At this time last December, many of us were eagerly awaiting January’s arrival so that we could finally say goodbye (and good riddance) to a year fraught with disappointment and disbelief. Yet as many journalists and commentators have since pointed out, there was little reason to hope that 2017 would be much better.

2017 witnessed the mainstreaming of white supremacy, the beginnings of a national reckoning with male privilege and sexual misconduct, and the political machinations of a truly exhausting presidential administration. Natural and human-made disasters—from floods and fires to opioids and poverty—ravaged communities across the country. 2017 tested our faith in one another. 

Yet despite the seeming pessimism of my above paragraphs, I wish to use this post to offer cautious optimism as a historian of the early United States. Given the novel alignment of political behavior and cultural consumption, the widening gulf between urban and rural voters, and especially the increased fear of state violence within indigenous and minority communities, it is easy to forget that this country once went to war against itself. The fact that the United States remains politically intact (ignoring the misguided chattering of some California secessionists) is no small thing; it has shattered before.

As we observe the end of 2017, I thought it might be worth taking a look at a few newspapers from 1860-61 to consider how different groups of Americans contemplated New Year’s during the midst of a serious secession crisis. I will suggest that no matter how divided the country is today, no matter the defeats of the past several years, there remains room to be both grateful and vigilant.

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On January 1, 1861, the editors of the New York Herald asked, “Are We to Have a Happy New Year?” The voting public had recently elected Republican presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, to the nation’s highest office with just under forty percent of the popular vote but a clear electoral majority. After decades of chief executives friendly to slavery and its expansion, many Southerners (and quite a few Northerners) were appalled that a man who professed a personal disdain for slavery and desire to see it confined to the states where it existed was to ascend to the presidency. This position threatened American capitalists—planters, bankers, and industrialists—whose empires depended on continued access to slave-grown commodities, and thus depended on the expansion of slavery into new territories. Slaveholders and their allies understood this threat, and South Carolina became the first state to secede on December 20, 1860.

The editors at The Herald had cause for concern. Just a few days earlier on Christmas Eve, The Lancaster Ledger, a regional paper from the border of the Carolinas, gleefully broke the news of the legislature’s secession act to their readers. The front page declared that secession had “doubtless conveyed an electric thrill throughout every nook and corner of the State and of all the States.” Residents of Lancaster reportedly responded with “palpable demonstrations of joy” to news of the independence of the “brave Palmetto State.”

One wonders at the various responses of the 400,000 slaves living in South Carolina at the time, which was fifty-seven percent black in 1860. A notice on the backside of the very same paper advertised the sale of “three choice negro fellows,” William, Wash, and Ben, for the first Monday in January. While every white man was “to remember that henceforth his allegiance is due only to the State of South Carolina,” William, Wash, and Ben could not forget that theirs was due to Master John H. Stewart, a child, at least until the new year.

One of several slave sale ads in this single issue of The Lancaster Ledger. Accessed via the Library of Congress.

While the fire-eaters of South Carolina were celebrating, there were plenty of men and women waiting to secede in other states who contemplated an uncertain future. South Carolina was the only state to leave the Union in 1860. In hindsight, we know that six others were to join her before Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861, and four more after the president ordered federal troops to put down the rebellion at Ft. Sumter the following month.

At the time, no one knew exactly how state and regional loyalties would coalesce. In late December, for instance, The Ledger reported a rumor of a plot to unite the border states on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line in “a great Middle Confederacy, to be called the Central United States, or Federal Republic of Washington.” A few columns down, the editors printed a letter from New York describing a municipal secession movement percolating among the city’s commercial elite, many of whom maintained business ties to the South. “The train is already laid,” exclaimed the anonymous author, “and the explosion only awaits the culmination of events elsewhere…” This was no fringe movement: early in the new year, the city’s mayor, Fernando Wood, recommended secession so that New York could carry on as a free port, openly profiting from slave labor.

Residents of Alexandria, Virginia also did not know which way its government would go. Alexandria was a port city, like New York, but it was located in a slave state with closer ties to the secession movement. In fact, Alexandria had seceded before. The city had not always been a part of Virginia; for nearly sixty years, it formed the southern tip of a diamond-shaped District of Columbia.

An 1835 map of D.C. including Alexandria. Accessed via Wikipedia.

As abolitionists became more vocal during the antebellum period, pro-slavery apologists grew concerned that activist politicians might attempt to cordon or even eliminate the institution in areas under direct federal control, which included the capital. Friends of slavery were particularly concerned about the fate of Alexandria, which was a center of the thriving domestic slave trade. With economic interests in mind, Southern congressmen successfully pressured Washington to retrocede, or return, the slave trading city to its southern neighbor in 1847. Their fears proved well founded; three years later, Congress abolished the slave trade within D.C. as part of the Compromise of 1850. Although slavery itself would endure within the seat of the federal government well into the Civil War, this was still years away.

“The New Year dawns on us to-day,” declared the Alexandria Gazette and Virginia Adviser, instructing its readers to remember their blessings “in the midst of the gloom which surrounds our national prospects.” The paper addressed fear of disloyalty in the “trans-Alleghany section” of the state (which came to fruition when West Virginia broke off and joined the Union in 1863), as well as concern that Northern states were marshaling “men and money for the aid of the General Government, in the present crisis.” The latter action suggested a clear and unforgivable attempt at “Northern coercion.”

The editors concluded their New Year’s remarks with a plea to the divine: “We know not what is before us—but we trust a Merciful Providence will yet bring good out of evil!” One cannot help but think of the similar sentiment that Lincoln offered a few years later in his Second Inaugural Address, given while the Civil War raged:

Yet, if God wills that [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

This was the state of the country when the New York Herald asked, “Are We to Have a Happy New Year?” South Carolina had already seceded and had little intention of pursuing reconciliation. Virginia, which had already siphoned off a valuable port city from the federal government some thirteen years earlier, was loudly insisting upon internal unity while decrying Northern militarization. Even many of The Herald‘s own readers, at least those with ties to the plantation industry, harbored Southern sympathies, if not grand dreams of an independent New York City.

The Herald answered its own question in a cautious affirmative: “It is to be hoped from all these efforts that by next New Year’s day our national troubles will have been peaceably solved, our people enabled to congratulate one another that the Union is stronger than ever, and that the United States are one.”

Just three months later, a Memphis newspaper published an obituary: “Died, on the 4th of March, 1861, Uncle Sam, in the 85th year of his age.”

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2017 is not 1861. The Civil War was not the result of a single election; it was the result of decades of fighting over slavery and its related industries, as well as the unsustainability of compromise in the face of moral injustice. 

So are we to have a happy New Year? As we welcome 2018, I urge everyone to look to the spirit of Reconstruction, not the Civil War, for their historical wisdom. 2018 is the time to rededicate ourselves to community building, to grassroots activism, and to political determination. It is the time for protest and the time for solidarity with those protesting causes that might not be our own. Rather than treating this past year as a repeat of 1861 and the dismantling of a nation, let us treat it like 1865 and get to the work of elevating our neighbors as we imagine a radically new future. 

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Cory James Young is a History PhD candidate and graduate-student worker at Georgetown University. He received his MA at Georgetown and BA at the State University of New York at Geneseo. Before moving to DC, Cory taught eighth grade Social Studies and English in Pittsford, NY, the Rochester suburb where he grew up. His dissertation, “For Life or Otherwise: Abolition and Slavery in South Central Pennsylvania,” examines how enslavers and their allies propagated a novel system of human bondage during the age of gradual abolition, focusing on the lives and responses of the men and women they enslaved. In addition to his time in the archive and in the classroom, Cory enjoys food, fitness, and justifying the amount he spends on concert tickets. He can be contacted here and followed on Twitter at @coryjamesyoung.

1 comment on “New Year’s Lessons from the History of Secession

  1. Thank you for articulating my similar optimism and vision of reconstruction in the midst of these complicated times. I appreciate the way you frame this perspective and intention.


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