Thursday, December 20, 1860
Inside St. Andrew’s Hall in the heart of Charleston, at 1:07pm, the South Carolina Secession Convention voted by roll call upon the ordinance to leave the Union.
One by one, the voices replied “yea” until all 169 delegates were unanimous.
The expected word immediately hit the streets where the throngs were already waiting. The church bells chimed, cannons saluted and men huzzah’d, waving Palmetto flags. It was pandemonium in the streets of Charleston.
Though it would happen, South Carolina’s secession wouldn’t be completely official until 6:30pm when the delegates would move from St. Andrew’s Hall back to Institution Hall (which provided more room). The delegates marched by twos, arm in arm, down the street to the larger hall.
Convention President David Jamison stood at the podium and began to read the ordinance:
We, the people of the State of South Carolina, in convention assembled, do declare and ordain, and it is hereby declared and ordained, That the ordinance adopted by us in convention on the twenty-third day of May, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, whereby the Constitution of the United States of America was ratified, and also all acts and parts of acts of the General Assembly of this State ratifying amendments of the said Constitution, are hereby repealed; and that the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of the “United States of America,” is hereby dissolved.
Done at Charleston the twentieth day of December, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty.
It took two hours for every delegate to put pen to paper. When it was finalized, Jamison declared, “I proclaim the State of South Carolina an Independent Commonwealth.”1
Earlier, in Washington, President Buchanan named Edwin Stanton, a Democrat from Ohio, Attorney General. Stanton replaced Lewis Cass, who had resigned six days ago, thinking the President too shy in the quest of sending troops to reinforce the forts in Charleston Harbor.
Though Stanton was no great supporter of Lincoln, he was very anti-secession. His addition to Buchanan’s cabinet tipped the general view from toleration to opposition. Prior to the appointment, Stanton was a well-known lawyer. His most famous client was Congressman Daniel Sickles.
A few years prior, Sickles shot and killed Philip Barton Key (son of Francis Scott Key) for having an affair with his wife. His defense, which Stanton was a leading part of, was the first to use “innocent by reason of temporary insanity.” The argument somehow convinced the jury and Sickles of acquitted of murder.
The news of South Carolina’s secession reached Washington before the delegates officially signed their fate. President Buchanan was enjoying the revelries of a different sort as he attended a friend’s wedding reception. Knowing the President to be in attendance, Lawrence Kearney, a fiery South Carolina congressman burst into the room, jumping wildly, shaking the telegram from Charleston in his hand while exclaiming, “Oh thank God! Oh thank God! I feel like a boy let out from school! South Carolina has left the Union!”
Buchanan was stunned. Everyone expected it, but the gravity of the situation hit him. He fell back, grasping at the arms of his chair. Steadying himself, he rose and quickly left the reception.2
Lincoln, almost a world away, in Springfield, learned of secession that evening. Though he had thought it would not come to this, he took the news calmly.