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History

South Carolina: A History of Secession Attempts

  • Craig Miller
  • |
  • April 19, 2023
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  • 5 minute read
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South Carolina: A History of Secession Attempts
Key Takeaways
  • South Carolina has a history of secession attempts, with the most notable being the Nullification Crisis in 1832, which was sparked by protests against a high protective tariff and threats of nullification and armed resistance.
  • South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union at the start of the Civil War, citing their right to control their own institutions, including slavery.
  • Secession attempts are not limited to the past, as several states, including California and Texas, have advocated for independence in recent years over issues such as political differences and gun rights.
  • While the likelihood of successful secession is slim, these movements highlight the deep divides and regional differences within the United States and the importance of fostering dialogue and understanding to ensure the continued unity and stability of the nation.

 

The United States narrowly averted a civil war in 1832 during the Nullification Crisis. Congress had passed a high protective tariff in 1828, leading to protests across the South, especially in South Carolina.

Many South Carolinians, affected by a decade of economic decline and a series of slave panics, saw the tariff as a plot to impoverish the South and undermine slavery.

They advocated for nullification, the power of states to declare federal laws null and void.

Some even called for disunion and armed resistance.

In November 1832, a state convention in South Carolina issued the Ordinance of Nullification, declaring the tariff unconstitutional and threatening secession if the federal government enforced it.

In response, 25,000 men volunteered to defend their state against federal “tyranny.” However, not everyone in South Carolina supported nullification; 40 percent of voters, usually older men and those who owned fewer slaves, opposed it.

They believed the Union was the “last hope of liberty” and that nullification would show humanity’s incapability of self-government.

One notable Union supporter was William McWillie, a state legislator from Camden.

Born in 1795, McWillie served in the War of 1812 and was admitted to the bar in 1818.

He was elected to the General Assembly in 1829, where he spent several years arguing against nullification.

McWillie believed that the “hopes of mankind” rested on the survival of the Union, and his passionate oratory skills were evident during debates surrounding the tariff and nullification.

Despite the opposition, the Ordinance of Nullification passed, and about 9,000 South Carolinians joined paramilitary Union Societies, ready to fight even their friends and neighbors. 

The crisis was defused in March 1833 when Congress agreed to lower tariff rates over the next nine years, but tensions remained high.

President Andrew Jackson noted that “the tariff was only their pretext, and disunion and a Southern confederacy the real object. The next pretext will be the negro, or slavery, question.”

Secession and the Civil War

South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union at the start of the Civil War. Following President Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, the state voted for secession.

Five more states joined in January 1861, and another in February, forming the original Confederate States of America. Several other states joined after the war with the Union began.

Though the central conflict of the Civil War was about slavery, there are parallels between that time and today’s threat of secession over gun rights.

The Confederacy revolted against the threat to their “property”—their slaves—while South Carolina’s new bill is linked to potential violations of the Second Amendment and a threat against their property—their firearms.

In South Carolina’s secession declaration, adopted in December 1860, the state emphasized its right to “separate control over its own institutions,” including slavery.

It accused non-slaveholding states of interfering with the institutions and the “rights of property,” including supporting slave insurrection.

Many South Carolinians, affected by a decade of economic decline and a series of slave panics, saw the tariff as a plot to impoverish the South and undermine slavery.

Modern Secession Attempts

South Carolina isn’t the only state discussing secession in modern times. California has advocated for separation from the U.S. and is currently working toward a ballot proposition in 2020 allowing voters to decide whether to open a secession discussion.

If the proposition passes, people will decide whether to stay or leave in a separate vote.

Secession also occurs on a state level. Several years ago, rural, conservative parts of Colorado discussed separating from urban areas to form a new state due to political differences.

On the East Coast, the borough of Secession also occurs on a state level. Several years ago, rural, conservative parts of Colorado discussed separating from urban areas to form a new state due to political differences.

On the East Coast, the borough of Staten Island in New York City has also entertained the idea of seceding from the rest of the city.

Staten Island, a predominantly conservative area, has long felt underrepresented and neglected by the city’s progressive government.

In 1993, a non-binding referendum on Staten Island’s secession from New York City was held, with 65% of voters in favor of the separation.

However, the secession effort ultimately failed, as it required the approval of the state legislature, which never materialized.

In Texas, there is a persistent independence movement that has gained traction in recent years. The Texas Nationalist Movement argues that the state would fare better as an independent nation due to its strong economy, vast resources, and distinct cultural identity.

In 2021, Texas State Representative Kyle Biedermann introduced the Texas Independence Referendum Act, which aimed to give Texans a vote on whether to begin the process of reasserting Texas’ status as an independent nation.

The bill failed to gain enough support, but the movement continues to garner attention.

Conclusion

The history of secession attempts in the United States is long and varied, with causes ranging from slavery to gun rights, and from regional autonomy to political differences.

South Carolina’s new bill advocating for secession in response to potential federal gun control laws is the latest chapter in this ongoing narrative.

While the possibility of a successful secession is slim, these movements underscore the deep divides and regional differences within the United States.

Ultimately, these attempts to separate highlight the importance of fostering dialogue and understanding to ensure the continued unity and stability of the nation.

Craig Miller

Craig Miller

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