Wednesday, 5 November 2014

“The tea has been thrown overboard”: The Scottish Independence Referendum and the American Civil War

Brian Langley

The Charleston Mercury was in no doubt about the significance of Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860. As South Carolina law officers resigned their federal posts, symbolically ending the rule of Washington in the state, the newspaper announced: “The tea has been thrown overboard. The Revolution of 1860 has been initiated”. In the weeks that followed, enthusiasts for secession set about the chain of events that would eventually lead eleven states to leave the Union and involve the South in a disastrous war.
BBC coverage of an 11th-hour independence rally.

As British politicians currently debate the nature of the vow made to Scottish voters in the final days of the referendum campaign, it is interesting to reflect on some of the unlikely parallels between the referendum and the secession of eleven southern states over one hundred and fifty years earlier. As the referendum campaign drew to a close over the summer months and polls narrowed, it was striking where the energy and excitement lay in the debate. Faced with a Yes Campaign promising an end to rule by London and a bright new future directed by the creative energy of the Scottish people, the No Campaign struggled to move beyond the cautious assertions of Better Together and grim warnings about uncertain currency arrangements, pensions and jobs. Whilst Alex Salmond skilfully promoted a better and more equitable, small state, version of civic nationalism, the displays of Scottish saltire flags and associated images of ethnic nationality were never far in the background. It all ensured that the Yes Campaign retained a vibrancy and emotional appeal.
Confederate Memorial Monument, Montgomery,
Alabama, photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Carl Degler, the American historian, commented in 1975 on how in the secession debate, defence of the Union always appeared as a defence of the old order. In contrast, secession appeared the more disruptive, daring and radical. As Confederate men marched off to war, cheered on by their womenfolk who also busied themselves sewing uniforms and flags, southerners remaining loyal to the Union—or at least unsympathetic or indifferent to the appeal of new Confederate States of America—had no such tea throwing moments of high excitement. Most had no opportunity to vote for or against secession but rather, in the historian Paul Quigley’s telling phrase , simply found that the ground had shifted beneath their feet as political elites led their states out of the union to make them reluctant citizens of a new republic. 

Southern Claims Commission records, including those from South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina, compiled after the end of the Civil War offer help us understand the experience of such southerners. What is remarkable is how prosaic and understated their expressions of union loyalty appear. Other than immigrants who might proudly proclaim their citizenship of their new nation or southerners tracing family links to the American War of Independence or the War of 1812—both fought, of course, against the British—there are few emotional expressions of attachment. Some told the Commission of their loyalty to the government of the United States which had served them well but many also framed that loyalty as a backward looking allegiance to the Old Government or to the Old Flag.  They wished that things had stayed the same.  They did not believe that there were any legitimate reasons to break up the union and many had real concerns that secession would be the ruin of the country and leave them and their families worse off than before. For a variety of reasons—cultural, economic and personal—they simply believed that they were better together.

Brian Langley is a history PhD student at Northumbria University, working with David Gleeson.  Brian’s thesis, "Dissent and Discontent in the Confederate South, 1861 –1865," examines the Southern Claims Commission records, newspaper reports, diaries and correspondence, investigating the range and nature of dissent and discontent in three Confederate States: North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

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