Mon 13 Dec, 2010
Tags: Civil War sesquicentennial, New York City, Pine Street meeting, South Carolina, Wall Street
Exactly one hundred and fifty years ago, South Carolina was on the verge of seceding from the Union over the issue of slavery.1
At the same time, New Yorkers were preparing to make a dramatic statement in support of the southern cause and in favor of southern slavery, which had long been the backbone of the northern economy and society. At a meeting held near Wall Street on December 15, 1860, a crowd of more than 2,000, including many of the city’s most prominent citizens, would gather to voice their opposition to both civil war and abolition.
Why does the response of so many in New York, and throughout the North, to the threat of secession surprise many Americans today?
All these years later, on the eve of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, northerners are generally portrayed as anti-slavery and eager for abolition—or else as basically opposed to slavery, but grudgingly willing to compromise in order to preserve the Union. In fact, however, the North was largely not abolitionist, and most northerners still depended on southern slavery for their livelihoods. The Civil War broke out as a result of southern fears about northern interference in the institution of slavery, and northern insistence on keeping the Union intact. It was not even remotely the moral crusade to end slavery that is often hinted at today.
The Wall Street meeting was called on December 15, 1860 at the offices of a leading cotton merchant, Richard Lathers, at his offices at 33 Pine Street, one block from Wall Street itself. The fact that Lathers was a cotton merchant was hardly unusual; the cotton trade was a prominent business in the major northern seaports, and constituted the backbone of New York City’s trade and of northern trade and industry generally.
The organizers of the meeting initially expected to invite 200 individuals to discuss the secessionist threat and reassure the South that northern economic interests were firmly on their side. In the end, the gathering drew more than 2,000 bankers, shipping magnates, and businessmen representing coal, railroads, sugar, fur, real estate and just about every other economic interest. The crowd overflowed into nearby offices and onto the street outside.
In his opening remarks, Lathers addressed himself to secessionists in the South, declaring on behalf of those assembled that their “sympathies have always been with Southern rights and against Northern aggression.”
Other speakers echoed Lathers’ sentiment, distancing themselves and their fellow northerners from the radical abolitionist movement and the political forces tearing apart the nation. Daniel S. Dickinson, a New York politician and former U.S. senator, boldly declared that the problem was that demagogues in the North were spreading the pernicious belief that slavery is wrong. As his solution, therefore, he called for “a public sentiment” to be established in the North like a great symbol, “that every one who had been bitten by Abolitionism will look on it and be healed.”
John Dix, another organizer of the meeting and a former senator and later governor of New York, also addressed the South directly:
We will not review the dark history of the aggression and insult visited upon you by Abolitionists and their abettors during the last 35 years. Our detestation of these acts of hostility is not inferior to your own.
This is the context in which the secession of South Carolina occurred, and in which the War Between the States began.
- On December 24, in the “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” the Convention of the People of South Carolina declared a litany of reasons for seceding from the Union, every one of which involved slavery. The impending civil war was also framed, of course, in terms of broader issues, such as sectionalism and states’ rights. [↩]