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  • Jake Wynn

A Christmas editorial from Philadelphia in the aftermath of South Carolina secession - 1860

During the Christmas season in 1860, South Carolina dropped a political bombshell. After weeks of threats and bombast, the Palmetto State announced that it had seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860.

Broadside from the Charleston Mercury, December 20, 1860 (Wikimedia Commons)

This followed the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln of Illinois as the 16th President of the United States. The South Carolina secession document made clear why the state had decided on such a course of action:

A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.

He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety...

In other words, South Carolina seceded from the Union because Abraham Lincoln opposed slavery and it believed (falsely) that his election was secured by Northern states giving the vote to African Americans. The South Carolinians made clear their views on white supremacy by pointing to Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney's decision in the Dred Scott case that Black people were not citizens, nor could they become citizens in the United States of America.

South Carolina's secession caused immediate chaos throughout the country. Other Southern states had already begun following suit with their own secession conventions. Border states began feeling the heat, their politicians and residents fearing their states could become a battlefield in any resulting conflict. And Northern states were left in turmoil, unsure what to think of the news from Charleston, where a convention announced the declaration of secession on the 20th.

Christmas came five days later. And in the offices of the Philadelphia Inquirer, editors made the decision to run a holiday-themed opinion piece discussing Christmas in the context of the news from South Carolina. It makes literary references, most interestingly a rare reference (from this era) to Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," and describes the mood of Philadelphia residents in the escalating crisis.

Merry Christmas.

Because South Carolina is jealously virtuous, shall there be no more cakes and ale for us?

Though Cotton be King, shall not Kriss Kringle rule for a day? And though the Palmetto bristle from root to crown with rattlesnakes, shall we not keep the holly of the old time green in our hearts?

Philadelphia, for one, answers yea, with a Merry Christmas; and, like Mark Tapley, finds for herself some merit in being jolly when the times are dismalest – when the budding promise of 1860 is nipped by the cold shade of Secession aristocracy, and all the clouds of political distraction that lower o’er our national house. Though a dozen stars go out from our spangled flag, we have the Star of Bethlehem yet; and the light of promise it gave, of peace and progress and honorable power, can not so easily go out from our hearts, nor the glow of its loving kindness, and all the tender bonds and obligations it stood for, from the hearts of our wives and children.

Therefore, we still worship at the alter of the home affections, our Lares and Penates are cherished yet, and our ingles cheerful; we have not ceased to make merry under the mistletoe, to hang up our stockings, to call our kindred together in the name of egg-nog, and turkey, and mince pie, believing in the good old Yankee custom, and the heart unions it has ever made, which fanatics or fire-eaters cannot dissolve.

So Philadelphia greets Charleston with a “Merry Christmas,” and if Charleston growls, and playing the Scrooge, would curse our Christmas carol, let us hope that the Marley’s Ghost of her old patriotism will soften her by-and-by…

We write cheerfully, for only cheerful aspect are about us. The panorama of Chestnut street affords no somber suggestions; never was it more animated, never merrier, never brighter with the lights of thriving shops, or more musical with prattle of happy children, and the pleasant greetings of neighborly folk.

To be sure, there are martial sights and sounds in the air, but they are the gleam of tin swords and “dummy” muskets, the shrill piping of penny trumpets, and the rattle of baby drums; and though South Carolina may not see what there is funny in the fact, we can assure her that we have done a lively business in star-spangled banners, from which we do not perceive that their lively little spark is omitted – whether from the ignorance or the good nature of the artists in those emblems of Union we are not prepared to say.

We are content that she should enjoy her peculiar virtue, so we may have our cakes and ale, and all the delicacies of the season of auld lang syne. Our purses may not be as long as they were this time last year, but certainly our faces are not longer; and though our wives go for once without the customary diamonds or laces, the loves of bonnets, or the shawls they have conceived a longing for, they have adorned themselves with the cordial compliments of the season, and take a willing part in the procession of a healthy, happy, hopeful people.

So let our chimes be jolly, and ring in better times…

The editorial appeared on December 25, 1861. Events on the following evening in Charleston deepened the crisis and created circumstances that led the divided country inexorably toward civil war. Captain Robert Anderson led his small garrison at Fort Moultrie across the channel of Charleston Harbor and into Fort Sumter under the cover darkness on December 26. There they were besieged by a growing number of South Carolina and later other Southern militia units until the crisis came to blows in April.

US Army soldiers moving into Fort Sumter on December 26, 1860 (Harper's Weekly)

The Inquirer's amusing and light editorial on South Carolina's secession and Christmas reveal the skepticism many Northerners felt toward the events in Charleston. It is likely, reading the words of this journalist and opinion-maker, that they felt that secession was a joke and not a serious threat. They did not yet realize the gravity of the situation. The events at Fort Sumter and the escalating secession crisis in January 1861 disavowed Northerners of any such notions.

A year later, Christmas editions of the Philadelphia Inquirer ran stories about fighting near Dranesville, Virginia on December 20, 1861 in which Pennsylvania soldiers fought bravely and successfully against Confederate forces on the outskirts of Washington.

Scenes at the Battle of Dranesville, December 20, 1861

The battle took place exactly a year after South Carolina announced its secession and set the whole crisis into motion.


Featured Image: Christmas Dinner in December 1860 (Harper's Weekly - Hathitrust)


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