Jeff Jacoby

Reliving — and denying — an ugly past

Guests in period costume arrive for the Secession Ball on the 150th Anniversary of South Carolina’s Secession from the Union. Guests in period costume arrive for the Secession Ball on the 150th Anniversary of South Carolina’s Secession from the Union. (Richard Ellis/ Getty Images)
By Jeff Jacoby
Globe Columnist / January 5, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

ON JAN. 16, 1861, delegates to a Georgia state convention gathered to consider whether to secede from the United States. Three days later, voting 208-89, the convention adopted an “Ordinance of Secession,’’ which “repealed, rescinded, and abrogated’’ Georgia’s ratification of the federal Constitution in 1788. The ordinance was publicly signed and Georgia joined the Confederate States of America, “to the accompaniment,’’ in the words of the New Georgia Encyclopedia, “of wild celebration, bonfires, and illuminations.’’

There is unlikely to be much wild celebration when the Georgia Historical Society commemorates the 150th anniversary of secession this month. Together with the Georgia Battlefields Association and the Georgia Department of Economic Development, the society on Jan. 19 will dedicate a historical marker near the site of the old statehouse in Milledgeville. “Secession began in response to Abraham Lincoln’s election as president the previous November,’’ the marker’s brief text will say, “and the belief that his Republican party was ‘anti-slavery in its mission and its purpose,’ according to Georgia’s secession ordinance.’’

It was actually Georgia’s “Declaration of Causes,’’ a 3,300-word justification of secession approved 10 days after the adoption of the ordinance, that damned Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party for its anti-slavery convictions. Secessionists in the Deep South made no bones about the fact that the threat posed to slavery by the incoming Lincoln administration was what fueled their decision to quit the Union. Yet in recent generations, innumerable Southerners have insisted that the preservation of slavery was not why the Confederacy was formed.

This revisionism, bizarre though it might appear to most Americans, has been influential in the South. So influential that the marker to be dedicated in Milledgeville this month, The New York Times reports, is “one of the first official recognitions in the state, at least in modern times, that slavery was the overarching reason for secession.’’

Don’t tell that to the nearly 400 South Carolinians who (literally) had a ball last month commemorating the 150th anniversary of their state’s departure from the Union at a “secession gala’’ in Charleston. The event, organized by the Confederate Heritage Trust, featured period dress and Confederate uniforms, drinks called “Rebel Yell,’’ and a band named Un-Reconstructed. But plenty of Charlestonians stayed away from what was billed as a “joyous night of music, dancing, food and drink.’’

Mayor Joe Riley, for one, described the ball as “unfortunate’’ and “the opposite of unifying.’’ At a ceremony earlier in the day, Riley told an audience that the “undeniable’’ cause of secession was a determination “to protect the inhumane and immoral institution of slavery.’’ Someone in the crowd yelled, “You’re a liar!’’

Even after 150 years, it is obvious that emotions still run high over slavery, secession, and the bloodiest war that Americans ever fought. But emotions do not change historical facts. It is a historical fact that most Southerners were not slave owners and that countless Confederate troops fought and died bravely to defend their homes and families. It is likewise a historical fact that the foremost reason for secession was to protect and perpetuate the enslavement of black Africans.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans insist righteously that their ancestors’ cause was “the preservation of freedom and liberty.’’ But the original secessionists were blunt about their motivations: Above all else, it was slavery that was central to their renunciation of the Union.

In March 1861, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens — a Southern moderate who was friends with Lincoln — declared in a famous speech that unlike those who believed that slavery was wrong, “our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea. Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.’’

Similarly, in its formal statement of reasons for seceding, the government of Mississippi proclaimed: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world . . . [A] blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.’’

There would have been no Civil War if not for secession, and no secession if not for slavery. The 150th anniversary of the South’s break with the Union is a milestone to be marked with sorrow and honesty, not with historical denial and fancy-dress balls.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at