Leave it to South Carolinians to make fools of themselves in the public forum. We did it again last Wednesday night when Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted "You lie!" at President Obama during his healthcare address before Congress.
Anger, fear, and violence are South Carolina's traditional ways of confronting critical issues. In 1856, Rep. Preston Brooks of the Edgefield district caned and nearly killed Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the Senate floor, following Sumner's criticism of this state's policies and leaders. In 1964, Sen. Strom Thurmond got into a "wrestling match" with Sen. Ralph Yarborough of Texas on the floor outside a Senate committee room, trying to stop Yarborough from entering the room to vote on a civil rights appointment.
Today, we see another momentous issue dividing Americans, and we see a certain group of them acting in predictable ways. A century and a half after the debate over slavery, a half century after the dispute over civil rights, Americans are now divided over healthcare — and the fault lines are following some of the same cultural and geographical lines as those of earlier conflicts.
This is a good time to pick up Stephen A. Channing's classic study, Crisis of Fear: Secession in South Carolina. Channing makes it clear that the force that tore the Union apart in 1860 was fear — white Southerners' fear of slaves, fear of abolition, fear of a world in which white people did not completely dominate the black race.
The proximate cause of secession in 1860 was the election of Abraham Lincoln as president. It meant nothing to white Southerners that Lincoln was not an abolitionist. He had opposed the expansion of slavery into the western territories, but as he made clear in his famous letter to Horace Greeley, "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that."
Lincoln was a pragmatic man who sought a worthy and attainable goal, but was met with fear, anger, and hysteria. Lincoln was a Republican and that's all white Southerners — especially South Carolinians — needed to know.
Wrote Channing: "Apprehension of abolition darkly colored the attitude of South Carolinians toward Northern society, and explained the frantic response of the state to the rise of the Republican Party. Secession cannot be understood apart from this intense foreboding."
The election of Lincoln was "no mere political or ethical conflict," wrote former S.C. Gov. James Hammond in 1860, "but a social conflict in which there is to be a war of races, to be waged at midnight with the torch, the knife, and poison."
Southern hatred of Northerners was as vicious as it was irrational. "Who are these Black Republicans?" wrote a prominent South Carolina woman to an acquaintance in Philadelphia. "A motley throng of Sans-culottes and Dames des Halles, infidels and freelovers, interspersed by Bloomer women, fugitive slaves, and," most shocking of all, "amalgamationists."
Channing wrote that "many Carolinians refused to admit that there was, or could be, any moral or idealistic quality in the anti-slavery pillar of the Republican Party ... There was an almost pathetic element in this refusal to admit, and inability to see, the sincerity of the moral quality of abolitionism."
You can hear the same scorn from the critics of healthcare reform today. They have no concern for the uninsured and the under-insured. To them, reformers are only corrupt and power-hungry politicians.
To make secession possible, it was necessary for the slave-holding oligarchy to mobilize the white yeoman class. That was the role of the white Protestant clergy and their rhetorical tool was cold, naked fear. In a "Letter to the Citizens of South Carolina" in November 1860, the influential Baptist minister James Furman described what would happen following emancipation: "Then every negro in South Carolina and every other Southern state will be his own master; nay, more than that, will be the equal of every one of you. If you are tame enough to submit, abolition preachers will be at hand to consummate the marriage of your daughters to black husbands."
There is an echo of that ancient hysteria in the modern talk of "death panels" and federally funded abortions.
"The Republican Party was the incarnation of all the strange and frightening social and philosophical doctrines that were flourishing in free Northern society," Channing wrote. Today that role is taken by the Democratic Party, and its diabolic scheme against the South is healthcare reform. Even worse, the leader of that party and that scheme is none other than Barack Obama — a black man!
For white South Carolinians, this is just the latest battle in an endless war.