South Carolina Secedes from the Union 

US #2343 was issued for South Carolina’s 200th anniversary.

On December 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union.

Well before the start of the American Civil War, South Carolina came into conflict with the federal government over states’ rights. South Carolina depended heavily on foreign trade and federal tariffs discouraged foreign trade.

In 1828, soon after an economic depression struck the US, Congress raised tariffs. This law became known as the “tariff of abominations.” Anti-federal sentiment spread throughout the state. Vice President John C. Calhoun, a South Carolinian, wrote the “South Carolina Exposition,” which claimed that no state could be bound by a law it deemed unconstitutional.

US #CSA14 – Confederate stamp picturing John C. Calhoun.

When tariffs were raised again in 1832, the state passed the Ordinance of Nullification. This ordinance declared the tariff acts of 1828 and 1832 void. This action prompted President Andrew Jackson to threaten sending troops to enforce federal law. In 1833, Congress passed a compromise tariff bill, and the Ordinance of Nullification was repealed.

By the 1860s, South Carolina had the largest percentage of slaves in the US – 57% of the state’s population was slaves with 46% of families owning at least one slave. The issue of slavery in America became a major point of contention in the mid-1800s. Violent clashes, such as those at Harpers Ferry, brought national attention to the debate. By the election of 1860, the nation was split on the issue.

According to one South Carolina politician, “If the Republican Party with its platform of principles, the main feature of which is the abolition of slavery and, therefore, the destruction of the South, carries the country at the next Presidential election, shall we remain in the Union, or form a separate Confederacy? This is the great, grave issue. It is not who shall be President, it is not which party shall rule – it is a question of political and social existence.”

US #77 – America’s first mourning stamp.

Abraham Lincoln faced Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas and two pro-slavery candidates in the 1860 presidential race. When the results were tallied, the pro-slavery vote had been divided among the three opposing candidates and Lincoln easily won the November 6 election. Any hope Southern Democrats had of preserving their way of life appeared to be dashed.

Days later, the South Carolina General Assembly passed the “Resolution to Call the Election of Abraham Lincoln as US President a Hostile Act” and announced the state intended to secede from the United States. The general assembly then called for a state convention to consider secession and selected delegates. The secession convention met on December 17 in Columbia and voted unanimously 169-0 to secede from the United States.

US #1640 – Click the image to learn about the symbolism on South Carolina’s flag.

The ordinance was officially adopted on December 20, 1860. That day South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. President James Buchanan proclaimed the secession illegal, but did nothing to stop it. Days later, on December 24, the committee drafted a Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina, which explained why they had seceded.   In part, this declaration claimed it was because of “increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the Institution of Slavery.”

US #798 was issued for the 150th anniversary of the Constitution.

The declaration also criticized the free states for refusing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Acts. They claimed it went against the 4th article of the Constitution: “No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.” The declaration went on to say that the non-slaveholding states had broken this agreement, releasing South Carolina from its obligation to be part of the Union. (Read the full text of the declaration here.)

US #1178 was issued for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

In the coming months, South Carolina prepared for an expected attack from the US military and also worked to convince other states to secede. They succeeded and between January and May 1861, ten more states joined them, creating the Confederate States of America that February. The first battle of the war would be fought in South Carolina that April.

Click here to see what else happened on This Day in History.

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  1. Excellent article. Makes clear the reason for secession was not some abstract devotion to states’ rights, but slavery.

  2. Very familiar with this history, being from North Carolina, and having been a “Civil War buff” for many years. This was a terrible tragedy for the United States, resulting in an estimated 600,000 dead (North and South combined). However, many people don’t know that the New England States (as they existed at that time) threatened secession in the very early years of our Republic. And, of course, there are those (in California and elsewhere) even today who, in light of our recent Presidential election, are again threatening secession. I seriously doubt anything would ever come from such an effort today; but, never forget the old adage “those who do not remember and learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. Let’s hope not. Thanks, Mystic, for these historical vignettes. They are most enjoyable.

    1. I grew up in South Carolina in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and as a youngster was concerned about the Yankees.
      I realize that the War Between the States was a terrific mistake. It took almost 100 years for the South to overcome the destruction and reprisals by the North. By the early 1960’s the South had begun to rise again. Atlanta is the example of the “New South.”

  3. South Carolina has been the number one pain in the neck state both inside and outside the union. From Nullification and Fort Sumter to Secession and Segregation to refusal to create health care exchanges and support for Donald Trump. And that is a very short list

    1. Add to that short list, the effort of South Carolina and other Republican dominated states to suppress and restrict voting by a number of clever means the net effect of which is to reduce voting by people who would probably vote Democratic. Referring to South Carolina being the first state to secede, one comment at the time was that South Carolina was too small to be a country and too big to be an insane asylum.

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