“The Union is Dissolved!”

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | December 20, 2015

December 20, 2015
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“The Union is Dissolved!” It only took four words in the Charleston Mercury to usher in the American Civil War – but four furious years, to wage. Beginning on April 12th, 1861, 2,100,000 men in the North, and 880,000 men in the South, fought that epic contest – and more of them, brother set against brother, died in it, than died in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq combined. It took nothing less than this devastating carnage to save what Lincoln hailed, during the War’s most desperate hours, as “the last, best hope of earth.” That is the story which begins here, with South Carolina, on December 20th, 1860, seceding from the Union…

The Charleston Mercury had already given warning. If  the “Black Republican” party succeeded in the upcoming presidential election, it declared in the summer of 1860,  “loyalty to the Union will be treason to the South.” With Lincoln’s election then, the Palmetto State lost no time in bolting. A convention was called  by the General Assembly on November 10, 1860, for “the People of South Carolina to draw up an Ordinance of Secession.”  By December 17th, the delegates had gathered and amid a carnival atmosphere, on the 20th, with a vote of 169 to none, proclaimed that “the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of ‘The United States of America,’ is hereby dissolved.” A quarter of an hour later this broadside announcement – set in type, no doubt, even as the Convention met – was being hawked on the streets of Charleston.

Illustration of Secession meeting in front of the Mills House, Meeting Street, Charleston, S.C.
Secession meeting in front of the Mills House, Meeting Street, Charleston, S.C. (cropped) ,1860. Library of Congress.

Passed unanimously at 1.15 o’clock, P.M., December
20th, 1860.

To dissolve the Union between the State of South Carolina and other States united with her under the compact entitled ”The Constitution of the United States of America.”

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.


In the South, news of South Carolina’s secession was greeted with rapturous approval and – among the lower southern states – lightning imitation. Convinced that slavery and their way of life were under threat, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas likewise left the Union in short order…

Lincoln Faces Down Secession: "No State Can, in Any Way Lawfully, Get Out of the Union, Without the Consent of the Others." Shapell Manuscript Collection.

But president-elect Lincoln, in Springfield, on hearing the first report of disunion, was singularly calm. Yet the headline, “The Union is Dissolved!”, was anathema to his core. This had, in 1860, not so much to do with slavery, which he abhorred, but democracy, which he loved…

In 1860, the American experiment in democracy was less than 90 years old: no other government in the world was headed by an elected figure. That this revolutionary form of government might come apart – that the “Union” might be dissolved from within – was a nightmare scenario for Lincoln. Just three days before, in fact, with the delegates gathered in the convention in Charleston itching to vote to secede, he had made his view on secession crystal clear, writing on December 17th that “No state can, in any way lawfully, get out of the Union, without the consent of the others; and that it is the duty of the President, and other government functionaries to run the machine as it is.”

Earlier that same year, in February, in his Cooper Union Address in New York, he had stressed the intent of the Founders;  it was because he saw in the specter of half the country breaking away, an attack on the very concept of self-governance, and looming ominously, the possibility of a catastrophic defeat to the cause of human liberty.

[CIVIL WAR]. Printed broadside, the Charleston Mercury Extra: “THE UNION IS DISSOLVED!” Charleston, 20 December 1860. 1 page, 11¼ x 23 inches. FIRST PRINTING OF THE FIRST SECESSION ORDINANCE.

Of Related Interest:

Lincoln Faces Down Secession: “No State Can, in Any Way Lawfully, Get Out of the Union, Without the Consent of the Others”

Autograph Letter Signed (“A. Lincoln”), as president-elect, marked “private and confidential”, 2 pages, recto and verso, octavo, Springfield, Illinois, December 17, 1860. To Thurlow Weed. [The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln and Roy P. Basler, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953. Volume IV, p. 154]