For Jeff Antley, South Carolina's decision to leave the Union is nuanced.
While it's true that preserving slavery was a prime motivator for those who signed the ordinance — just read the Declaration of Immediate Causes for Secession drafted mere days later — the peculiar institution impacted the South in many ways. "African servitude is not as simple as a moral issue," Antley says. "It's a financial issue. It was a social issue. It was a political issue because [slaves] were counted in the census."
Antley also challenges those who say that secession caused the Civil War. The slave-holding states were legally able to break the contract that kept them part of the Union. "It wasn't until the Lincoln administration called for 75,000 troops to invade the South and bring them forcibly back into that contract — that's what started the war. The act of secession did not start the war. These men did not do this with the idea that war was going to be fought over it," he says.
Antley himself wrote the text that once appeared on the S.C. Secession Gala website, noting that the play and ball were designed to "commemorate and celebrate the state of South Carolina for the second time becoming an independent nation," and he stands by his words. "I'm having a celebration of a historical event," he says, later adding, "If I thought it was inappropriate, I wouldn't be doing it."
As for those who take issue with the fact that the Confederate Heritage Trust and the Sons of Confederate Veterans are hosting a celebration of this historical event, Antley says, "We're not going to a wake. We're not planning an event where you charge people to come to and then everybody stands around and listens to violins. That's not the purpose. The plan of this was to create an evening that begins the sesquicentennial of all the events that follow."
As mentioned above, the gala is divided into two components, a play and a ball. Antley says the play is based on the actual minutes of the convention, which culminated in the signing of the Ordinance of Secession. The theatrical presentation is designed to teach attendees about the signers' reasons for breaking away from the United States. He says, "Let's say we don't do the play. Let's say we just throw a party. That to me is a different context."
Antley acknowledges that he didn't reach out to the black community or the NAACP when planning the gala, although he's sure that slavery comes up in the play. "I don't know how you create it historically and not do that," Antley says, noting that at the time of the interview, he had not yet read the script.
When it comes to reaching out to the NAACP or the black community at large, as those in the Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Historical Trust have, Antley does not believe that doing so would have prevented the present uproar over the gala. He say that "anything having to do with that time is automatically taken at odds" by the civil rights organization and the African-American community. He doesn't believe that anything could have been done to get the black population to sign on to the Secession Gala.
"The idea that I or whomever plans events in the South — you can say commemorating, you can say celebrating, you can say honoring, you can say all of those terms to describe an activity that's being planned — that somehow you're going to have to address all of the concerns of every possible person and make sure that you don't offend anybody before you can act. That's just total political correctness. I don't know how you can do any of that."