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Posted at 9:45 AM ET, 12/13/2010

Lonnie Bunch: What motivated South Carolina to secede so quickly?

By Lonnie Bunch

Founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.


South Carolina was always a state where slavery and issues of race dominated its political structure, cultural life and economy. Slavery was so embedded in everything in South Carolina that it made sense for them to lead the secession movement.

In the 1830s South Carolina lead a nullification crisis where they attempted to threaten the United States over a tariff which they thought would affect slavery. It is the state where John C. Calhoun was their most important political figure. Calhoun was a Senator who held fervent pro-slavery views. Leading up to the eve of the Civil War, South Carolina felt that it had the most to lose when Lincoln became President because slavery was so crucial to their lives and they felt it would be abolished. There was also the tremendous influence from the planter class who began to dominate the way many South Carolinians thought. The planter class had more political clout than people up in Columbia, the state capital, and in some ways, they got to model the kind of behavior that the rest of South Carolina followed. Along with the political leadership that came out of the planter class, there was sensitivity about what federal government interference would mean. All of this leads Edmund Ruffin, a member of the planter class and slaveholder, to fire the first shot of the Civil War at Fort Sumter.

It is also important to note that South Carolina had an extremely large black population. That black, mainly slave, population also contributed to a sense of unease. What would happen if all of those enslaved Africans suddenly became free? Would they strike out? Would there be a blood bath?

Even into the 19th century, when the population begins to shift, you still had black majorities in large areas along the rice plantations above Georgetown, adding to the fear among whites. Those fears were not entirely unfounded. One of the most important slave revolts, the Stono Rebellion of 1739, terrified South Carolina. That was followed in 1822 by the planned revolt of a slave named Denmark Vesey in Charleston. Although that plot was thwarted, there remained a jittery state containing a large black population and whites terrified that any government interference would lead to insurrections or the death of their way of life. That is why South Carolina was so aggressive about seceding from the Union

By Lonnie Bunch  | December 13, 2010; 9:45 AM ET
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