December 20, 1860


South Carolina’s Secession Convention was called to order in Columbia on the 17th.  For some delegates, this was a moment reached after a forty day sprint, and for others after a trek three decades in length, but all had come to proclaim their liberty and to sire a new nation, and the air was filled with promise and glory. “To dare! And again to dare! And without end to dare,” said the president of the convention, the scholar-planter D.F. Jamison, invoking the noble Danton’s defiance of the enemies of France. Inspired by his words, the convention then took as its first order of business the question of whether if it might dare move itself to Charleston. An outbreak of smallpox had erupted concurrently with the arrival of the delegates. Rumor had it that abolitionists had contaminated a box of rags with the disease in an effort to decapitate the rebellion, and many delegates thought it would be prudent to hightail the convention to Charleston on the four o’clock train. No, protested the longtime fire-eater William Porcher Miles, his voice acquiring the tone of a keyless bridegroom confronting a locked bed chamber on his wedding night. “We must not allow mockers to say that we were prepared to face a world in arms, but that we ran away from the smallpox.” The suitably chagrined delegates then voted unanimously to promise they would consider secession just as soon as they got to Charleston, but for now there was the matter of that train.

After being greeted in smallpoxless Charleston with applause, band music and a fifteen-gun salute, the delegates invested two days in procedures. Shortly after one o’clock on the 20th, however, the critical vote was cast, and by unanimous decision, South Carolina declared its independence. On the streets, delirium prevailed. As the bells of St. Michael’s Church pealed, the taverns disgorged their roisterers, who sang and marched and shot rockets into the air.

In the evening, a more solemn celebration was held.  At 6:30, the members of the convention marched in ceremonious procession to the venerable Institute Hall, Jamieson at their head. He carried the official Secession Ordinance, a 23 inch by 28 inch rectangle of thick linen parchment which had been inscribed with the statement of dissolution and stamped with the great silver Seal of the State of South Carolina. As the procession entered the hall, a crowd of 3000 shouted and whistled its approval. Reverend John Bachman then blessed the proceedings, and the delegates were summoned forward, alphabetically by election district, to sign the document. It took about to hours for all 169 delegates to affix their names.

Ninety percent of these men are slave owners.  Sixty percent of them own at least twenty slaves. Forty percent of them own at least fifty. Sixteen percent of them own a hundred slaves or more.

The final delegate to sign was the former governor, John Laurence Manning. Like Moses holding the tablets of Decalogue, Manning lifted the Ordinance above his head. Flanked by two palmetto trees, he was joined in this tableau by Jamieson, who proclaimed South Carolina to be an independent commonwealth. The members of the crowd cheered and cheered, and once the proceeding adjourned, pressed forward. Searching for souvenirs of the great moment, they began stripping the palmettos of their razor-sharp fronds, which they then waved about their heads like Napoleon’s mamelukes as they surged from the auditorium and waded into the pandemonium of the streets.

In Washington, a mood far more somber prevailed. The holiday season, normally an occasion for gaiety, has acquired a distinctly gloomy cast. Friends of decades’ standing now find themselves on opposite sides; men and women whose fathers stood with Washington on the battlefields of the revolution cannot bear to meet one another’s eye. Northerners visit only Northerners, and Southerners the same; and even at those occasions, the mood is heavy.

There was one party, however, that would not be postponed, that of the wedding of John Bouligny, the popular Congressman from Louisiana and one of the very few officials from the deep South who opposed secession, to Mary Parker, daughter of Washington’s wealthiest grocer.  The bride’s father had produced a magnificent spectacle, filling his large home with roses and lilies and illuminated fountains. The president came, joined by his niece Harriet Lane, and was the first to kiss the bride. It was a happy event in a beautiful setting, reminiscent of so many other happy events and beautiful settings the president had enjoyed in his younger days as a diplomat in Russia and Great Britain. But soon the mood was broken by a commotion instigated by the entrance of Lawrence Keitt, the brash, bombastic, recently resigned congressman of South Carolina. Jumping, bellowing, waving a piece of paper over his head,  he shouted “Thank God!” again and again. Finally he elaborated. “South Carolina has succeeded! Here’s the telegram! I feel like a boy let out of school.”

When eyes at last left the jubilant Keitt, they fell on Buchanan, his face ashen, who slumped in his chair as though he had been struck. “Madam,” he at last said, “might I beg you to have my carriage called?” And with that he returned to the White House, to resume his time on the rack.

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JAMIE MALANOWSKI was a member of the original staff of Spy, where he worked seven years. Jamie has also been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor. Currently he is the lead writer of the Disunion Blog, about the Civil War, for The New York Times; the series was presented with the 2010 Cliopatria Award for Best History Writing on the web. Jamie has also written for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The Washington Monthly, and many other publications. He is also the author of the novels Mr. Stupid Goes to Washington (Birch Lane, 1992) and The Coup (Doubleday, 2007). Jamie lives in Westchester County NY with his wife, Ginny, and daughters Molly and Cara.

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