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Posted at 10:38 AM ET, 01/18/2011

Dennis Frye: How did the Northern newspapers treat the news of South Carolina's secession?

By Dennis Frye

Chief Historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park



New York newspapers nourished the North with daily diatribes on disunion. Maryland residents, however, turned toward the sun — the Baltimore Morning Sun — for their daily dose of secession sentiments. “The people of the United States — for we cannot yet bring our mind, our tongue, or pen, to say the people of the United States and South Carolina,” the Morning Sun editor lamented, now were grasped by “the meddling and mischievous hand of desolation.”

The cross-town rival, the Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser, announced “any attempt to glance into the future startles every national sentiment with its gloom and uncertainty. ‘What next?’ is the exclamation on every lip.”

“A government tottering, vacillating, undetermined on any course of action,” created the dissolution morass, according to the Advertiser. “Instead of being on the brink of peaceable secession, the country is on the brink of civil war, with a government so fully capable of any species of folly that all confidence seems to be lost.”

People paid attention to Baltimore’s belchings. As the second largest port city in the South, Baltimore’s harbor and railroad junctions boasted one of the nation’s premiere intersections of commerce. Baltimore worried about the economics of secession. It trembled even more over the prospect of war.

“There is some fear of trouble at Harpers Ferry, growing out of the news from Charleston, and the fact that the government armories are there,” reported the Morning Sun. An unnamed writer had delivered a letter to the local congressman exposing “a plot for another inroad into Virginia [a.k.a. John Brown’s invasion], in which a force of 7,000 men are assembled.” Rumor rampaged.

Not all Northern papers called for suppression of the secessionists. The New York Journal of Commerce—a predecessor to today’s Wall Street Journal—declared that “every intelligent and sensible man, fully and clearly understands that the Union is already broken up, and that it is idle to appeal to the Southern States to continue their political connection with the free States.”

Regarding the Northern clamor that “treason must be met by force,” the Journal convulsed: “Shall we make war upon the South, and reduce them—if we can, which is more than doubtful—to slavery? We denounce African slavery. [S]hall we then make slaves of white men, our equals and our brothers? Shall we, by such policy, change our government from a voluntary one, in which the people are sovereigns, to a despotism where one part of the people are slaves?”

The Journal concluded: “Is it not better to let them go, go in peace and with our benediction—relying upon their good sense and our justice to reconstruct a Government which has failed[?]”

By Dennis Frye  | January 18, 2011; 10:38 AM ET
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