From the Editor
Nat Turner Rebellion Cotillion
By Carl R. Weinberg
On December 9, 2010, a rare event took place on American television. An actor on a top-rated comedy show read from a primary historical document. The reader was Larry Wilmore, “Senior Black Correspondent” for Comedy Central’s Daily Show. The document was the “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” The context was a “news” story about plans by the Confederate Heritage Trust (CHT) to hold a secession gala in Charleston on December 20 to commemorate the departure of South Carolina from the Union 150 years earlier.
The setup for Wilmore’s reading began with a question from “anchorman” Jon Stewart: Do these celebrations of secession bother you? “Who doesn’t love historical reenactment?” Wilmore replied. “Every year I get dressed up and attend the Nat Turner Rebellion Cotillion.” Viewers were then treated to a graphic of Wilmore standing by his truck, flying a large Nat Turner Rebellion flag. The flag featured a pair of bloody axes along with the slogan, “Kill Whitey.” Feigning shock, Stewart asked if Wilmore was seriously celebrating the 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia that killed fifty-five whites. “ We don’t focus on that aspect of it,” answered Wilmore. “It’s a celebration of that slave rebellion’s music, its food, period dress, and proudly flying our flag.” “It’s been 170 years,” he concluded. “It’s heritage, not hate.” Correspondent Wilmore’s jab at the familiar neo-Confederate refrain then led to an instructive discussion of the causes of secession. After a video clip from the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) claiming that Southerners “stood courageously for liberty,” Wilmore read passages aloud from the South Carolina declaration making it clear that defense of slavery was uppermost in the minds of the state’s secessionists in December 1860.
This Daily Show segment, the Charleston secession gala that followed eleven days later, and the protest it sparked by the South Carolina branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), can help us to appreciate the continuing relevance of what might seem to be a rather academic topic: the origins of the Civil War. On the evening of Monday December 20, 2010, some three hundred gathered at the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium in downtown Charleston for what the CHT billed as a “Theatrical Performance and Secession Ball.” Before dinner and dancing, a group of attendees reenacted the secession convention. Performers included South Carolina Senator Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, a prominent neo-Confederate, who portrayed D. F. Jamison, the president of the secession convention. The narration mentioned the word slavery, but emphasized tariffs and taxes. According to SCV commander and gala attendee Michael Givens, “We’re looking at the bravery and tenacity of the people who rose up.” David J. Rutledge, a descendent of South Carolina secession convention president D. F. Jamison, offered a rare dissenting voice and later joined the protest. “You’re going to be mad at me,” he said to a fellow attendee, “I believe it was about slavery.”
The one hundred people demonstrating outside the Gaillard Auditorium agreed. The multiracial crowd picketed the event, carrying signs saying, “Don’t Celebrate Slavery and Terrorism, Unity Yes, Secession No” and “It’s Not About Heritage.” They then marched a mile to the Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal church, where, as an educational exercise, they watched the silent film glorifying the Ku Klux Klan, Birth of a Nation (1915) and held a panel discussion. Among the protesters was Dot Scott. President of the Charleston branch of the NAACP, Scott said that “It’s disgusting and unbelievable they would have a celebration to honor a day that ended up causing so much suffering.” In an Op-Ed piece published a month later, responding to those who claimed that slavery was irrelevant to secession, Scott referred readers to the South Carolina declaration and its “eighteen references to slavery.” She also affi rmed that “ those of us who dare to challenge any myth about slavery and the Civil War will continue to stand up, object, and tell the truth, for the truth will set you free.”
As consulting editor Matthew Pinsker notes in his Foreword, the contributors to this issue do not share a unitary perspective on the true history of the Civil War’s origins, but each of the articles can help shed light on the contentious subject that has roiled Charleston and tickled the Daily Show writers. In his exploration of the political origins of the Civil War, Jonathan Earle notes how dominant slaveholders had been in the federal government before Lincoln’s election. For fifty of the sixty-two years from 1788 to 1850, the American president owned slaves, as did eighteen of thirty-one U.S. Supreme Court justices. Given this dominance, Paul Finkelman’s essay on slavery and the Constitution helps us to grasp how the SCV could possibly imagine that secession was about freedom. South Carolinians saw the period from 1787 to 1860 as a repeated series of acts by the Northern states — all aimed at slavery— to undermine the constitutional “compact” holding the republic together.
In her article on the Dred Scott case as a family story, legal historian Lea VanderVelde helps explain the virulent reaction of the NAACP’s Dot Scott (no relation) to the secession gala. The possibility that Dred and Harriet Scott’s children Eliza and Lizzie might be sold away from them — perhaps the single most painful and dehumanizing aspect of the slave system — was key to understanding the Scotts ’ decision to fi le their landmark lawsuits. In Elizabeth Varon’s “gendered” retelling of the origins of the Civil War, a key focus is the Grimké sisters, daughters of wealthy Charleston slaveholders who rebelled against both slavery and patriarchy. Their authoritative testimony, like the comments of David J. Rutledge this past December on secession and slavery, carried particular weight outside of the South. In emphasizing the economic origins of the Civil War, however, historian Marc Egnal downplays the idea that the North was motivated by high ideals. My piece on Confederate History Month in Virginia joins with Egnal on one key point: the importance of regional divisions within the South in explaining the course of secession.
James Loewen’s article on the South Carolina declaration, and similar documents, is well-timed given the events in Charleston. His January 9, 2011 Washington Post commentary on the same topic had drawn half a million “hits” by the following day. Timely too is Gerry Kohler’s piece on using living history in the classroom, as she “becomes” John Brown for her students. In Charleston, as on The Daily Show, it is difficult to say where “reality” ends and the playacting begins. In their articles, both Bruce Lesh and James Percoco address the contested nature of Civil War memorialization, quite evident in Charleston today. Indeed, the morning of the secession gala, Mayor Joseph P. Riley had presided over the unveiling of a new historical marker for Institute Hall, where delegates voted for South Carolina’s secession. As soon as Riley stated that secession was caused by “the expressed need to protect the inhumane and immoral institution of slavery,” a voice rang out from the crowd: “You’re a liar!” We invite you to join this ongoing discussion and we thank Matthew Pinsker and all of our authors for putting together an excellent issue, the first of five in our Civil War at 150 series.