A Senator Secedes – Reluctantly

Charleston, S.C., Nov. 12, 1860

Almost everyone in Charleston, it seemed, had gone wild for secession. Flags with the state symbol, the palmetto tree, flew on every street, and even from ships in the harbor. Abraham Lincoln was burned in effigy. News agents throughout the city vowed never again to sell Harper’s Weekly – the most widely circulated magazine in America – when they saw that its post-election issue featured a large woodcut of the president-elect.

Mass meeting at Institute Hall, Nov. 12, 1860.

That night, several thousand people packed the floor and galleries of Institute Hall on Meeting Street; one witness wrote, “every part of the building was crowded to suffocation.” Many noted with satisfaction that members of the state’s social and financial elite – previously somewhat resistant to the swell of revolutionary fervor around them – were present tonight. Presiding over the assemblage was Judge Andrew Gordon Magrath, who, on the day after Lincoln’s election, had walked out of his courtroom to become a secessionist hero, the first of numerous federal officials in the state to resign his office in protest. “The Temple of Justice, raised under the Constitution of the United States, is now closed,” he had theatrically informed the jury before slipping off his robe and departing.

Now, in Institute Hall, spectators “rose to their feet, threw up their hats, and cheered until hoarse,” a newspaper reported. Their cheers grew even louder when Magrath announced that Senator James Henry Hammond – the very embodiment of South Carolina’s political establishment – had just cast his lot with the rebellion, resigning his seat to join the secessionists.

Senator Hammond was not present in the hall that night. In fact, he had little stomach for celebration. He had given up his office very reluctantly, ultimately doing so only from a politician’s instinctive fear of seeming out of touch with popular feeling and out of step with his colleagues. (The state’s other senator, James Chesnut, had resigned the day before.)

The imperious, aristocratic senator was no bleeding heart, to say the least. Master of more than 300 slaves, he did not hesitate to flog them when they transgressed, wielding the whip with his own hand. Nor did he hesitate to take sexual advantage of the women under his power, fathering several children with them. (In one instance, he did so with a household servant, and then with her teenage daughter.) In politics, he had popularized the phrase “cotton is king,” and gave a notorious speech in 1858 arguing that every society, even a republic, needed an inferior “mud-sill” class to “do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life.” Few men had been fiercer than Hammond in championing slavery and states’ rights.

Senator James Henry Hammond

Now, however, faced with the reality of the nation he knew – and perhaps even the society he knew – coming apart at the seams, the senator hesitated. “The scenes of the French Revolution are being enacted already,” he fretted as he watched the clamor in Charleston’s streets. The crisis might bring a new class of demagogues to power in the South; unless this was averted, “we shall soon have the guillotine at work upon good men.” In his private diary, Hammond went so far as to confess that if given a choice between saving the Union and saving slavery, he would choose the Union. But in any case, he did not think it needed to come to this. The South was wealthy and powerful enough to protect its interests without seceding. The election of Lincoln represented little more than a slight to its honor.

Yet in the end, Hammond chose to surrender to what seemed the tide of history rather than resist it. Trying to justify his decision in a letter to a close friend, the best he could come up with was this sardonic explanation: “You know the Japanese have an ancient custom, which therefore must have its uses, of ripping up their own bowels to revenge an insult.”

Hammond was far from the only eminent man to feel inward qualms – but almost no one else dared speak them openly. Among the few who did so was Magrath’s fellow judge, the elderly James L. Petigru, whose life coincided with the Union’s: he had been born just days after President Washington’s inauguration in 1789. “South Carolina is too small for a republic,” Judge Petigru said, “and too large for a lunatic-asylum.”

Sources: New York Herald, Nov. 13, 1860; Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 13, 1860; Baltimore Sun, Nov. 15, 1860; Charleston Courier, November 8, 1860; Charleston Mercury, November 8, 1860; Harper’s Weekly, January 19, 1861; William W. Freehling, “The Road to Disunion, Vol. 2: Secessionists Triumphant”; Robert N. Rosen, “Confederate Charleston: An Illustrated History of the City and the People During the Civil War”; Drew Gilpin Faust, “James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery”; Jon L. Wakelyn, “The Changing Loyalties of James Henry Hammond: A Reconsideration” (South Carolina Historical Magazine, Jan. 1974); Abner Doubleday, “Reminiscences of Forts Sumter and Moultrie.”

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.

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Full article and photos: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/11/a-senator-secedes-reluctantly/