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Posted at 10:19 AM ET, 01/18/2011

Craig Symonds: How did the Northern newspapers treat the news of South Carolina's secession?

By Craig Symonds

Professor Emeritus at the United States Naval Academy


Because the slave-holding States had threatened secession for at least a decade in response to what they perceived as ill treatment at the hands of a growing northern majority, the secession of South Carolina in December of 1860 in response to Lincoln’s election as President caused neither surprise nor much alarm in the North. As the New York Times put it: “As this step was universally anticipated, it will create no special uneasiness.” One northern politician in Washington noted that in 1850 during the crisis over the status of slavery in the lands gained from Mexico, the South had threatened to secede, but instead southerners had gone out to have a stiff drink; this time, many believed, they would have two stiff drinks, but in the end, some solution would be found, and some new compromise would be ratified. The Times simply refused to take the action very seriously. In an editorial published on December 21, the day after the South Carolina ordinance passed unanimously, the editor of the Times, Henry J. Raymond opined that secession “does not change the relations of South Carolina to the Union in the slightest degree.”

Raymond did admit, however, that South Carolina’s action had the potential to become serious. It all depended, he wrote, on whether that State refused to pay import duties, which would provoke a confrontation between the State and national governments, and especially on whether other southern States followed her example. If both of those things happened, then South Carolina’s action could easily turn into a crisis.

Raymond and the Times continued to hope, however, that “In various parts of the South … conservative sentiments are beginning to assert themselves.” Rather fantastically in light of subsequent events, the Times suggested that “There is no longer that dread monotony of Disunionism which marked the earlier stages of the movement. Very able men in nearly all the [southern] States have made very able arguments against rash and injudicious action….”

In this, Raymond and much of the northern public and press misunderstood what was happening. This was no ploy to obtain a better bargaining position for another compromise. Raymond continued to hope that new conversations would begin that might lead to another compromise. “If the South were in a mood to discuss the subject with candor and fairness,” he wrote, “or willing even to have their palpable mistakes in matters of fact corrected, we should have little fear of the result.” But at some level Raymond grasped that a new milestone had been reached. “It is not so,” he acknowledged, “nor do we see any immediate prospect of their becoming so.”

By Craig Symonds  | January 18, 2011; 10:19 AM ET
Categories:  Views  | Tags:  Craig Symonds  
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Next: Lonnie Bunch: How did the Northern newspapers treat the news of South Carolina's secession?

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