December 22, 2010
Four days after South Carolina seceded on Dec. 20, 1860, the state adopted a second document titled “Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” Loewen considers the record, central to his new collection, one of the five most important documents in the history of the country, launching as it did a seminal chapter in America’s ongoing struggle to define itself.James Loewen interviewed, among others, by Emily Badger, on the reasons for Southern secession and the attempts to rewrite history in the Reconstruction period and after.
“So why does nobody ever read it?” he asked. “Everybody knew [secession was] about slavery. This document is all about slavery.”
In it, South Carolina laments the election of a new president “whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” State leaders indeed sound incensed about “states’ rights,” but not in the way most people think today.
“They are against states’ rights,” Loewen said. “And they name the states and they name the rights that really upset them.”
Specifically, South Carolina spells out grievances with 13 Northern states that had passed local laws that “render useless” the federal Fugitive Slave Act. South Carolina is miffed at New York for denying slaveholders the right to transport slaves through its territory, and at Ohio and Iowa for refusing to surrender escaped slaves charged with crimes in Virginia. It’s angry at several Northern states for giving freed blacks citizenship and even the right to vote (a decision that was then the responsibility of the states, not the federal government). These northern laws were essentially an attempt to hold federal slave policy at bay — using states’ rights.
In the post-Reconstruction era of national “reunion,” Yale historian David Blight says the country came back together around the idea of the common valor of soldiers on both sides of the war, around a common economy and around the imperial adventures of America as it began to grow into a world power.
“But primarily — and this is complex — but primarily the country reunified ultimately by the 1890s and the turn of the 20th century around white supremacy,” Blight said, “around the Jim Crow system, which took deep hold in the South but also in the North.”
Some historians call this era the most racist in American history — even more so than the age of slavery. This racism, and the new narrative of an unfortunate war between brothers, took hold in popular fiction, in presidential speeches, in monument building. The story of the emancipation of 4 million slaves — and of the 200,000 blacks who fought for the Union army — “all but vanished from the national story by 1900, 1910,” Blight says. For several decades to come, most children would not even read much about it in their textbooks.