Fighting the modern-day fire-eaters: A look back to the origins of the Confederacy

by Ava L. Parker on March 29, 2012

As early as the 1840s, the term fire-eaters was applied to an outspoken group of Southern, pro-slavery extremists who often used distorted, and even completely untrue, language in their rhetoric.  Sound familiar?

While today’s polarized and outspoken groups aren’t exactly “pro-slavery extremists,” the behavior does ring a bell eerily close to home.  But easy online access to original historical documents can help us keep history from repeating itself.

It was 150 years ago that South Carolina’s leaders met to determine the fate of the Palmetto State and, it turns out, the nation.  At this gathering, South Carolina’s elite decided to withdraw their state from the Union.

South Carolina was the first Southern state to attempt to break free from the bonds of the U.S. Constitution, but others would soon follow.  Within months, 10 more Southern states followed suit.  The Union was cracked and pulled apart, the Confederacy was strapped together, and the stage was set for the bloodiest war in American history.

Why did South Carolina secede?  That debate has been brought back to life by the Confederate Heritage Trust and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who on Christmas Eve held a Secession Ball, a gala to commemorate South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession.

Unsurprisingly, reactions were mixed.

“It’s disgusting and unbelievable they would have a gala celebration to honor a day that ended up causing so much suffering,” Dot Scott, president of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP, told the Associated Press in a story in the Sun News of Myrtle Beach.

“It’s hard for us to judge the situation that existed then by today’s standards,” said Randy Burbage of the Confederate Heritage Trust, talking to the Associated Press about South Carolina in 1860.  “I think slavery is an abomination. But it’s a part of history, legal at the time.  I don’t agree with it, but it was.”

It is a part of history, but whose history, and what does that history tell us?  The cause of secession, and the Civil War it triggered, seems obvious to most Americans — it was about slavery.  But it is not so obvious to all.

“You’re a liar!” yelled one agitated person — perhaps a modern-day fire-eater — when Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, at another event, tried to explain that it was fear over the potential end of slavery that drove South Carolina to secede.

Fortunately, there are documents from 1860 that shed light and understanding on this question. First among them is South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession itself. A quick read of this fascinating artifact tells you that South Carolina’s fateful decision was, indeed, very much about slavery.

If you are ever in a conversation about the origins of the Civil War, and the discussion drifts into the swamp of “it was all about states’ rights,” throw down your knowledge of the Ordinance of Secession.  It is an argument killer.

The document can be found in some university libraries, but not all, and few run-of-the-mill public libraries (if you can catch them when they are not closed due to budget cuts) would keep a copy in their holdings.  But thanks to 21st century technology, it is easy to find online, as are thousands of other historic documents and analyses of those documents by historians and experts.  I found the Ordinance of Secession in the online holdings of the Avalon Project at Yale University’s Lillian Goldman Law Library.  Avalon posts digital copies of historic documents in the fields of law, history, politics, economics, diplomacy, and government.

Another great source of history of the period is the Disunion series of articles in the New York Times.  For over a year and a half, the Times has published, and put online, articles from historians and others that draw on original documents to show how we went from the United States at the beginning of 1860 to a nation divided at the close of the year.  Here is one about a fire-eater to beat them all, Robert Barnwell Rhett, and the South Carolina secession meeting.

The Disunion series is continuing, and for those just tuning in, here is an overview of what has been published so far, with links to the full articles.

The Avalon Project and the Disunion series of the New York Times are excellent examples of the power of Internet access as a tool for both education and public affairs.  If you can get on the Internet, you can run down original documents, at the Avalon Project, the Times, or elsewhere.  Original documents are powerful — there is no substitute for the real thing.

That’s why so many organizations are part of the One Economy campaign with the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council to expand broadband Internet access to every household.  Every family needs access to the wealth of information the Internet provides.  The documents available on the Web give a huge advantage when you have to engage arguments of the fire-eaters among us, just one of many benefits access to these documents can provide.

Once empowered by your research, you can speak out for a full and complete history of our lives as Americans, and not let apologists and others frame the argument in a narrow and selective way.

And get ready for a lot of framing.  We are about to live the four years of Civil War all over again.  The anniversary of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter comes up on April 12, and after that, well, all history breaks loose.

Make sure it is good history.  Use the Internet and your broadband connection to guard yourself against the twists and turns of reinvention of our past.

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