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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 01/18/2011

Brag Bowling: How did the Northern newspapers treat the news of South Carolina's secession?

By Brag Bowling

Director of the Stephen D. Lee Institute


On December 20, 1860, the State of South Carolina formally seceded from the Union. South Carolina was the first of a group of Southern states to leave. The world watched as this act took place and newspapers everywhere had much to say about it.

Editorials in both the North and South represented all shades of political, economic and religious opinion. They ran the gamut from outright condemnation and threats to general agreement that the South Carolina Secession Convention had done the legal and constitutionally permissible thing.

The press of New York City was divided in their opinions. For example, Horace Greeley and the New York Herald while lamenting the situation felt that South Carolina had the constitutional right to secede. He famously said “Godspeed” and “let them go”. The New York Daily News suggested that New York City secede with South Carolina and form an independent free trade commerce center to take advantage of the changing economy. The New York Tribune suggested that the incoming Lincoln Administration be “statesmanlike” and make whatever compromises which were necessary in order to keep the Union together. The New York Times put a unique spin on the issue by stating that Mexico could be annexed as a protectorate to make up for the loss of the Southern states.

Outside of New York, typical of many Northern newspapers was the newspaper in Lincoln’s hometown, The Springfield Illinois Daily State Journal which called for retribution on the South. Stating the Union to be indissoluble and that secession was treason, the paper criticized President Buchanan for doing nothing with the situation and stated that if need be, the seceding states should be brought back into the Union by force of arms. In Washington D.C., the Washington States and Union paper addressed secession by maintaining that a state cannot be coerced into remaining in the Union and that statehood was voluntary and South Carolina had a perfect right to secede.

From a uniquely Southern perspective, Edward A. Pollard, editor of the Richmond Examiner, noted that he felt that South Carolina’s withdrawal was generally treated with derision by northern newspapers. Cartoons mocked Southern chivalry, manners and valor. The press mocked secession, insolently feeling that the South lacked the military might to pull off the feat. When it became apparent that the South was more than just bluster, the tone of the editorials later changed to a desire for revenge and punishment.

Certainly South Carolina’s departure helped galvanize public opinion in both the North and South. Suppression of the free press became a Lincolnian mantra. Once the Lincoln Administration came into office, it became very obvious that dissent from the press would not be tolerated. The government removed anti –government and anti-war newspapers from the mail, confiscated newspapers and news print equipment, censored telegraphic messages and arrested editors and publishers. By the end of the war, over 300 papers had been closed and over 14,000 people were placed in jail without the writ of habeas corpus.

By Brag Bowling  | January 18, 2011; 10:30 AM ET
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