You are here
HIST 119: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
- The Election of 1860 and the Secession Crisis
This lecture picks off where the previous one left off, with a discussion of the legacies of John Brown. The most important thing about John Brown’s raid, Professor Blight argues, was not the event itself, but the way Americans engaged with it after the fact. Next, Professor Blight discusses the election of 1860, a four-way battle won by the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln. In the wake of Lincoln’s election, the seven states of the deep South, led by South Carolina, seceded. The lecture closes with an analysis of some of the rationales underlying southern secession.
|Low Bandwidth Video
|High Bandwidth Video
The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
HIST 119 - Lecture 10 - The Election of 1860 and the Secession Crisis
Chapter 1. Introduction [00:00:00]
Professor David Blight: Faster than might seem appropriate, and faster than I wish, we’ve come to the secession crisis. I wish we had another week, two, three weeks, but we don’t. Martyrdom; what is a martyr? It’s a term we hear all over the place now. There are martyrs of this cause and martyrs of that cause. John Brown was a martyr. The most important thing about John Brown, as I tried to say the other day — and I want to conclude with several comments about that now — is in how he died and in the aftermath of his death. The United States was a Christian country. Europe was essentially a Christian civilization. John Brown would be filtered through a Christian imagination. Either way, whether people came to admire and sort of agonizingly love him, or agonizingly hate him. “John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry was all his own,” said Frederick Douglass. “His zeal in the cause of freedom was infinitely superior to mine. Mine was a taper light, his was the burning sun. Mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the silent shores of eternity. I could speak for the slave. John Brown could fight for the slave. I could live for the slave. John Brown could die for the slave.” There’s a clarity in that, among the many eulogistic statements about John Brown and the many that Frederick Douglass himself made. Douglass, you’ll remember, had great ambivalence about this man and chose not to join him on the raid at Harpers Ferry.
Chapter 2. John Brown’s Trial and Publicity [00:02:38]
Now, Brown was captured in the raid. The raid only lasted 48 hours. It was in some ways a military strategic blunder. He was taken to a jail four miles from Harpers Ferry, Charlestown, Virginia, now West Virginia, and he would reside there for about the next six weeks. In that period he would be put on trial, the most celebrated trial, to that point, in American history. There were three charges, all of which were punishable by death, at least in Virginia. Treason against the United States — it was considered treason to attack a federal arsenal — I suppose it still would be although we don’t try too many people for treason anymore. Two, inciting a slave insurrection; a pretty serious crime in Virginia. And third, for murder.
The trial began on the 27th of October. It lasted three and a half days. The State of Virginia famously tried to provide a lawyer for John Brown and Brown refused that State’s supplied lawyer. He laid on a cot, because of his injuries and his wounds, in the courtroom. This would be drawn and put in lithographs and pictures all over the country. He was eventually defended in court by three Northerners, lawyers, who came down to help. The closing arguments were the 31st of October. The jury deliberated for forty-five minutes, returned a verdict of guilty on all three counts, and it was announced he would be hung about a month later, on December 2nd, 1859. From November 2nd to December 2nd, that one month — November 2nd was the last day in court where they sentenced him — he had one month in jail. He apparently won over his jailer who found John Brown one of the most fascinating characters he had ever seen. People came from the North and were allowed to visit him, including his wife. From jail he wrote approximately 100 letters, all over the country, to newspapers, to editors, to magazines, to members of his family, particularly to his wife. He was writing his own epitaph, he was creating his own romantic legend, he was arguing his own case. He, of course, had pled innocent. There are many of those letters. I had the great privilege to read a whole batch of the originals once, housed at, of all places, the Pennsylvania Historical Society. He wrote this one to his wife, which may be indicative of Brown’s vision of his own acts and a vision that was now going to stick, in some ways, in poetry and in song. “I have been whipped,” he wrote to his wife, “as the saying goes, but am sure I can recover all the lost capital occasioned by that disaster by only hanging a few minutes by the neck, and I feel quite determined to make the utmost possible out of my defeat.” I love you dear, but I can’t wait to hang.
John Brown was a troubled man, he was a morbid man, he was an Old Testament man, but he probably was not crazy, as so many people said at the time, and people have said ever since. His altruism on behalf of black people was not utterly selfless, but he was an extraordinary example of an American, a white American, who put his money where his mouth was — he didn’t have any money — put his life where his mouth was, and took it into the South. Now, he was executed, hung out in a field, outside of Charlestown, Virginia, guarded by some 3,000 American troops. There were all kinds of fears of attempts to break him out and seize him by Northern Yankee bands. There were all kinds of threats. There were escape plans in the newspapers.
And by the way, one of the most startling things about the John Brown story, once it broke — there had never been a sensation quite like this in American newspapers. Here was the South’s oldest, greatest, worst fear. An abolitionist from the North with a band of men and a bunch of weapons invading the South and trying to incite slave insurrection — they’ve been kind of predicting this all along and lo and behold it happened. In a trunk of stuff back at the farm in Maryland that he had rented for several months, where his men had gathered, after his capture was found a whole stash of letters and maps. The old man had kept all kinds of maps of the South. He had maps of sections of Alabama, Georgia. He even had x’d certain towns on those maps. I don’t know, the old guy just liked maps. Maybe he just stayed up at night kind of playing with his maps, like some of us do with our Rand McNally maps when we want to wish ourselves out of where we are. But when these maps were found, and the press got hold of these, all over the South, these stories spread and local newspapers would print stories about the maps of their county or their section of a state. There was hysteria. Northern teachers, working in the South, were tarred and feathered. An itinerant piano tuner in Tennessee was lynched because he was from Massachusetts. Fear set in across the South that there were going to be other abolition emissaries — that was always the term used. And there were predictions and threats of all kinds, especially in South Carolina. John Brown when he — and he did read some of these newspapers — must have smiled.
Now he was hung, his body was delivered to his wife. It traveled all the way by train, all the way up to upstate New York to North Elba, New York where he was buried; a site in a very remote place, I must say, in upstate New York. They have a gathering there every year of something called The John Brown Society. It’s run by a bunch of people from New York City, and they have an annual speaker and an annual pilgrimage to Old John Brown’s grave. And I had the privilege one year of giving that lecture in the courthouse where his body had laid in state. It was interesting to meet the erstwhile folks of the John Brown Society, who are a strange and interesting lot, I can assure you. But it’s an isolated place. But pilgrimages already started happening, especially among African-Americans in the north, to that remote site, right in the wake of his burial.
Chapter 3. John Brown: Was His Violence Justifiable? [00:11:01]
The most important thing about John Brown’s raid and John Brown was the aftermath; it’s what people made of him. In the North, certain members of that Secret Six, so called, of white abolitionists who had served him and helped him and raised money for him and wrote letters with him, fled the country, some to Canada. Frederick Douglass himself — and there were letters discovered between Douglass and John Brown — himself will flee the country, out of Rochester, New York, across Lake Erie into Canada and out the St. Lawrence River to England, because of fear of his arrest. And there was a warrant put out for Frederick Douglass’s arrest and a Federal Marshall arrived in Rochester, New York only about a day after Douglass left town. Intellectuals and poets and writers in the press, Thoreau and Whittier and Emerson, all over the North, and in England, and in France, began to try their hand at the meaning of John Brown as Christian hero, as martyr of a cause, as a man who would do that which the rest of them would not have done.
And I want to suggest — I’m going to give you really four arguments, just try them on — of why John Brown matters, why he mattered then, and why he still matters in any discussion we have in American society about what constitutes terrorism now, what constitutes revolutionary violence. When is a cause so just that the means justify the end? When is violence in a moral cause justified? Is it ever justified? Go answer those questions in an ethics course, go answer those questions in a politics course, go answer those questions in a history course, and you have one of the hardest questions of all. Was John Brown a midnight terrorist or a revolutionary hero? John Brown’s a very troubling legacy. Nobody should prettify him and nobody should utterly dismiss him. I’d say he leaves us with four essential questions; and you can add to this if you want. First, he really makes us face this question of the meaning of martyrdom. What is a martyr? How do we define a martyr? What constitutes the values or elements of martyrdom? Two, how do we deal with revolutionary violence, in history or today? When can a cause be just — as I just said earlier — so just that violence in its name is somehow justified?
Three — and here I’m going to give you a list within the list — I think John Brown is our template in American history — there are others you could point to, the leaders of the Haymarket Riot. There are many other cases in our history of people who acted in a cause and used violence. But John Brown forces us to face the almost natural ambivalences about his acts. He is disturbing and inspiring. Note all these opposites. He in some ways worked for the highest ideals — human freedom and the idea of equality — but he also used the most ruthless deeds. There’s a certain majesty about his character, at least in the aftermath, but there’s also a lot of folly. He was a monster, to some. To others he’s a saint, he’s a warrior saint. He killed for justice. When does that work for you? He was a great example of what had been brewing all over the culture, by the 1850s. We’ve talked about this over and over, of this struggle between human law, law fashioned in Congress, law fashioned by people, and the so-called higher law. When do you abide by a higher law than the laws of your society? When is it just to break human law in the name of higher law? Who decides? And lastly, I think he’s one of those avengers of history who do the work other people won’t, can’t, or shouldn’t. “Men consented to his death,” said Frederick Douglass in one of those eulogy speeches much later, in 1880, “Men consented to his death and then went home and taught their children to honor his memory.”
And then fourth, that last question that’s always laying out there. John Brown was a white man who killed white people to free black people. And that’s actually one of his deepest legacies. In my first years of teaching in a big urban high school in Flint, Michigan, I taught lots of young black people who thought John Brown was black. They had been taught that he was black, sometimes in churches. There’s a church in Springfield, Massachusetts, that John Brown went to, attended — they say he was a member — it’s called the John Brown Church and there’s some people there you still have to convince that he was white. Does it matter? Why does it matter? Why has John Brown been such a romantic hero in black culture, in poetry, in painting, in song? Michael Harper, the great modern African-American poet, has a little line in one of his poems. The poem is called “History and Captain Brown.” And the line is, “Come to the crusade, not as negroes but as brothers, like Brother Brown.”
Well, you can try all those questions on and if you come up with some perfect answers do let me know. But before we leave John Brown I want to leave you with my favorite passage ever written about the meaning and memory of John Brown, and you can see if it fits or not. It’s in a speech by W.E.B. DuBois, the greatest black scholar, writer of the twentieth century. DuBois gave a speech about John Brown at Harpers Ferry in 1932. They were dedicating a plaque memorial — this had been done before — but they were dedicating yet another sort of John Brown marker at Harpers Ferry. And the ending of that speech, I think it’s the most poignant thing anybody ever said about John Brown, and it’s why he’s so troubling. This is DuBois’s ending. “Some people have the idea that crucifixion consists in the punishment of an innocent man. The essence of crucifixion is that men are killing a criminal, that men have got to kill him, and yet that the act of crucifying him is the salvation of the world. John Brown broke the law, he killed human beings. Those people who defended slavery had to execute John Brown, although they knew that in killing him they were committing the greater crime. It is out of that human paradox that there comes any crucifixion.”
Chapter 4. The Four-Way Election of 1860 [00:19:53]
Okay, good morning. Sermon is over. I’ve named my text. Now let’s do some history. The raid on Harpers Ferry and the execution of John Brown, of course, came — [technical adjustment] — on the eve of an extremely pivotal American election, to say the least. You all know the Republican Party had a good showing in 1856 and nearly won, its first time out. Now what will this Republican Party be by 1860? How will it threaten the South? Will it threaten the South? John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and his execution were a template, all into that next spring as the American political culture held its conventions and nominated candidates and prepared for an election that now people said might decide whether the Union would hold together or not.
The Democrats held their convention in late-April/early-May in the worst possible place they could hold it. They had scheduled it well ahead of time in Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston was a hotbed of Southern rights and Southern nationalism, if you want to call it that, and Southern secessionism — already it was. Now, the front running candidate of the Democratic Party by 1860 — and this man had been working for this for a decade and a half — was, of course, Stephen Douglas of Illinois; the same Stephen Douglas of Popular Sovereignty fame. But Stephen Douglas had made one slip-up. Well he’d made more than one but he’d made one, two really big slip-ups in terms of his fellow Southern Democrats — and he’s by far the most prestigious person in their party. But in one of his debates with Abraham Lincoln, one of those incredible debates with Lincoln, the one in Freeport, Illinois — and much ado was made about this, it was almost a throwaway line, although it wasn’t thrown away — Lincoln pushed Douglas and he said, “Do you mean, then, Judge Douglas,” as he always called him, he would never call him Senator, “Judge Douglas do you mean then that if the people who settle the Western Territory, your popular sovereignty business, that really means the folks can vote it out, right, in spite of what the Dred Scott decision says? The Dred Scott decision just said that because of the Fifth Amendment you cannot stop a person from taking his slaves anywhere he wants.” And Lincoln says, “But Judge, what’s that done to your popular sovereignty?” And Douglas said, “Well the people can still vote, and if the people vote slavery out then they vote it out.” And his fellow Southern Democrats immediately started writing to him and wiring him and saying, “Wait a minute Stephen, do we live in the land of the Dred Scott decision or not?” It became known to Southern Democrats as the so-called Freeport Doctrine. And Douglas kept trying to dance around it, avoid it.
In opposition to the so-called Freeport Doctrine and in opposition to Douglas at this Southern — at the Democratic Party convention — and by the way that Democratic party is — by anyone with his eyes open — the only truly national political party left in America. The hope of saving the Union, just in a political sense, by 1860 was with the Democrats. This Republican Party, as we’re soon to see, was a Northern party, almost exclusively. Countering Douglas, Southern Democrats — led by none other than Jefferson Davis, a Senator from Mississippi at that point, a long distinguished member of Congress, Secretary of War, commandant at West Point and so on — they came up with what they now called a Slave Code for the Territories — that’s what they called it. And that Slave Code for the Territories was now to be a protection in the Constitution, an explicit protection in the Constitution of slave ownership anywhere in the Western Territories of the United States. They wanted, in essence, not just the Dred Scott decision, Supreme Court case, they wanted a federal — they wanted not just the repeal of the Kansas-Nebraska Act geographical division, not just the Dred Scott case which said a person has a right to take slaves anywhere they wish, they wanted a explicit federal guarantee of the right to slave ownership, and they wanted it to be a Constitutional Amendment if necessary.
Now, this is why the Democratic Party tore itself apart at Charleston. They had a two-thirds rule. So even though Stephen Douglas did muster a small majority of support in the first balloting, he could not win the nomination. And when Douglas’s supporters managed to pass a platform without the so-called Slave Code for the Territories, southern delegates of eight states — they’d all prepared for this — stalked out of the convention. The convention ended, they nominated nobody, and they split into two parties, the Southern Democrats and the Northern Democrats. And everybody knows that when a party does this, it almost guarantees it will lose, and they did. The Southern Democrats agreed to reconvene in Baltimore on June 18th and — I’m sorry, the Northern Democrats reconvened, the so-called official Democratic Party reconvened at Baltimore on June 18. They nominated Stephen Douglas, no surprise. They called themselves the National Democrats. The Southern Democrats, of those eight southern states — it’s the Deep South — met in Richmond, Virginia shortly after that and nominated John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky — a slaveholder but a moderate, known to be kind of an old Henry Clay moderate, although he’d never been a Whig — to be their candidate for President. And by the end of June, 1860, the Democratic Party had two candidates: Breckenridge, the Southern Democrat; Douglas, the Northern Democrat.
Now, the Republican Party had its convention in Chicago. It was an extraordinary convention. There’d never been one quite like it in American history. It was raucous. There were just parades and waves of people, sometimes hired, sometimes induced in by lots of drink to come into the so-called wigwam, which was this big convention hall of a kind they had constructed in Chicago. It was sometimes called the Shouters Convention because these people were sort of hired to shout for one candidate or the other. What fun and nonsense it must have been. The leading candidate of the Republicans, of course, was William H. Seward. Seward of New York, long term time senator from New York, had strong anti-slavery credentials as a good, solid, free soiler, and, indeed, even had fairly strong abolitionist ties. And he’d been there at the creation of the Republican Party, and he had a kind of a machine, of a sort. But there was this strange insurgency out of Illinois behind a favorite son named Abraham Lincoln, who wasn’t all that well known, even though he had become fairly well known in his run against Stephen Douglas in 1858; but of course he’d lost that election, narrowly, to Douglas in ‘58. He’d had one term in the U.S. House back in the late 1840s during the Mexican War and then he lost on his attempt at re-election. Two years in the House of Representatives, a rather inexperienced, but — it turns out — brilliant politician.
The platform of that Republican Party, which was very important — in these years people were reading platforms, believe it or not. Today, platforms, schmatforms — right? Southerners were really reading the Republican Party platform. The platform of 1860 was a little broader and had somewhat more moderate appeals in it than their 1856 deeply free soil platform had had. They made big appeals in 1860 to create higher federal tariffs, to create free homestead law in the West — these were all appeals to the common man — and to the rights of immigrants, because the Republicans were now successful by the late 1850s at all but dissolving that Nativist Party, the Know-Nothings, or the American Party, and were drawing most nativists — not quite all — but most nativists into the Republican Party, and they’d managed this strange marriage or a kind of a pro-immigrant platform at the same time they’re attracting nativists who are as worried about slavery as they were about Catholics. They appealed to a certain anti-Southern feeling, there’s no question about that.
Now, Lincoln got the nomination largely because, well, one, the convention was held in his home state; two, William H. Seward had made a fair number of enemies around the Republican coalition. He was in the limelight too long, in a sense, you could argue politically, and a lot of Republicans were looking for a candidate who seemed more moderate than that abolitionist Seward. They wanted to run in this election in a way that the Upper South, maybe the border states would actually support them. And this Lincoln, after all he was born in Kentucky, he’s kind of a border state guy himself; Seward’s just a Yankee. So there’s a certain irony in that Lincoln got some support because he wasn’t seen as abolitionist. Now, that isn’t necessarily as true. Lincoln was on record all over the place as saying such things as he had in 1859. I quote him. “Republicans believe that slavery is wrong and they insist and will continue to insist upon a national policy which recognizes it and deals with it as a wrong. There can be no letting down on this.” It’s reasonably clear language. [technical adjustments] This is Matthew Brady’s famous photographs that he took on the day of Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union Speech in New York, the speech that introduced Lincoln to the East and according to Harold Holzer in a recent book made Lincoln president. Now that’s a bit overstated but it’s pre-beard, he didn’t grow the beard till the next year.
But the crisis was so serious now, with this Northern anti-slavery, free soil, Republican Party, two Democratic Parties, one Southern and one Northern, splitting themselves, that a group of American politicos got together practically overnight, late that summer, 1860, and decided to run yet a fourth candidate. His name was John Bell of Tennessee, and they called themselves the Constitutional Union Party. They drew together some old Whigs. The Whig Party doesn’t exist anymore, there’s still some old Whigs looking for a political home. They drew some Nativists and Know-Nothings, and they drew border state people who were just frightened of how this mess was possibly going to destroy the Union. Their platform was extremely simple. They pledged themselves simply to, quote, “defense of the Union and enforcement of the law.” Now, who could be against that? They were for the Union and law, both nice things. And, almost unbelievably, this party had quite a few followers, overnight.
Now, when the election came — and I’ll go back to the map if you’ll forgive me. It’s worth looking at some quick numbers, more than worth it. This is one of the great four-way races for the presidency in American history. We’ve only had really one or two other four-ways — 1912 was a four-way. And, of course, that guarantees almost you’re going to have a minority president; that is, the one who wins is not going to win a majority. And that’s exactly what happened in this case. Now Abraham Lincoln, the Republican, was not even on the ballot in ten Slave states. The Republicans weren’t even put on the ballot in all of the Deep South. Lincoln carried all of the Northern states, and all of their electoral votes except three in New Jersey. Breckenridge, the Southern Democrat, carried all the Slave states except parts of the Upper South — Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri. I don’t know how well you can see that on that map. John Bell, the Constitutional Union candidate — this overnight party that just said “please, save the Union, whatever it takes; we need a new national compromise” — Bell won Virginia, Kentucky,and Tennessee, Upper South. Stephen Douglas, who’d been kind of running for president in his heart for fifteen years, won only one state, Missouri. Lincoln received only 26,000 votes in the South, in all the Slave states. He received only about forty of the total raw vote. Sixty percent of Americans who voted in 1860 — and they voted in huge percentages, seventy-five, eight percent turnout — sixty percent of all those who voted, did not vote for Abraham Lincoln. But he was elected, and now, of course, the question was what would the South do, with all this rhetoric about Southern unity and the possibility of secession. [technical adjustments]
Chapter 5. The Palmetta Republic and the Southern Secession [00:36:41]
Well, the Secession Crisis is an unprecedented moment in American history and happily we haven’t quite had it since. There are always rumors of Texas wanting to secede and the upper peninsula of Michigan wanting to secede, but nobody quite does secession anymore. We got a lot of States Rights going on but we don’t necessarily do secession. Would the South really do it? Now, Lincoln made one thing clear within his party. He made almost no public appearances after the Election of 1860, into that winter. Inaugurations were not held in the nineteenth century until March, as you may know. The interregnum was a long time, four or five months. This was the secession winter of 1860/61. But he made one thing very clear within his party circles, and there’s quote after quote about this in private correspondence. He said whatever the South does, that he wanted the Republican Party to stand absolutely firm on one thing, and that was opposition at all costs to the expansion of slavery into the West. He said that was the reason to be, that was why they came into existence, that is what they had been arguing for six years, and they would not give up that line, as he put it.
On December 20th, 1860, South Carolina held a Secession Convention — December 20th — and voted unanimously to secede from the Union. They said in that act that they were, quote, “not in rebellion against the United States.” They said they were only exercising, quote, their “sovereign power as a state to withdraw.” They rooted their secession, as they always had rooted state sovereignty and State’s Rights positions in the old notion of a compact theory of government, that which a state chooses to join, and a central government it shall have the right and power to withdraw from. But the question now was, would anybody join them? And, by the way, they declared themselves the Palmetto Republic. But would anybody join South Carolina? And this is where your book, by Charles Dew, Apostles of Disunion, comes right into play here — that wonderfully short and I think quite brilliant treatment of the secession commissioners — as South Carolina was the first state to send out secession commissioners to other states in the Deep South and basically say, “Please join us, we’re hanging out on this limb, it’s scary out here, and here are the reasons you should join us.”
The next state to go though wasn’t until the Ninth of January of ‘61. It was Mississippi. Mississippi held a Secession Convention. And then several Deep South states fell like dominoes. The next day, January 10, Florida seceded; Alabama on January 11; Georgia — I’m going to come back to Georgia in just a second because it’s a very interesting case — Georgia on January 19 in a very divided vote; Louisiana on January 26 and Texas on February 1. By February 1, 1861, the seven states of the Deep South — South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas — had seceded from the Union. They declared themselves the Confederate States of America. They met at their first declared capital of Montgomery, Alabama and they, in effect, appointed — there was no general election at first — they appointed — the representatives of the states — appointed Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as their President. By the time Lincoln would take office in the first week of March and deliver his first inaugural, seven states of the Deep South had formed a new government.
Now, why did they do it? I’m going to have to leave you — we have about seven, eight minutes, which is great — and I want to focus briefly on Georgia to show you that secession was no simple process in many of these states, and there was great division, which we will see later, kind of, come out of its shell in the midst of the war, and to some extent, afterwards in Reconstruction. And then I want to at least leave you today with some explanations of why secession happened, interpretations we’ve developed over the years of why the South seceded. And I may have to leave you hanging as to just what happened to the rest of the South and so on. But the Upper South doesn’t budge, and there are many reasons for that — Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas and so on, Maryland — there are many reasons for that. There was a somewhat less strong attachment to slavery in many of these regions, especially in the mountain regions. There were much more closer economic ties to the North that now caused a whole variety of fears of what’s going to happen if there’s conflict, or two countries, or war. Fear that the war would actually happen, if there was war, on their soil — you didn’t have to be too bright to figure that out. And many people in the Upper South, some of whom have actually voted for Bell in the Constitutional Union Party, still had faith that somehow America would reach a compromise. That the party system would somehow work this through. This was a very difficult patch, but they’d work it through. And there was a spirit, especially in the Upper South, at first, and some of this in Georgia, too, to wait for ‘64. Wait four years, let this Lincoln Republican Party have its way for awhile, we’ll see. We, they would say, still have a majority on the Supreme Court.
Now explanations. Now Georgia, we can’t leave Georgia, because Georgia’s secession vote was fascinating, and that’s what this map in some ways shows you. I don’t know if you can see this very well but the darker greenish color up there — is that green to you or blue? And the rest is kind of a puke yellow. Those bluish, greenish regions are the regions that tended to be against secession. They’re the regions that had the least slavery. They’re the mountainous regions. They’re the upland regions. And we’ve now had detailed studies of secession done, and state by state — especially in Georgia, in North Carolina, Alabama, other places — that show us that by far the highest support for secession was in those counties or those regions with the largest numbers of slaves.
And this is where Charles Dew fits right in. Read him closely. What are those secession commissioners arguing when they go from Alabama up to Tennessee to try to convince the Tennessee Legislature? Or the South Carolina Secession Commissioner going to Virginia and sitting down in the Virginia State House, the Virginia Legislature and arguing with these people, “Come join us, come joins us.” What do they argue? And he’s got document after document. They’re arguing for the preservation of white security, of white supremacy. They’re arguing for the preservation of a slave economy. They’re arguing for the preservation of white political supremacy. They’re arguing for resistance against any semblance that those Republicans in the North may somehow represent about racial equality. They’re arguing for the preservation of a slave labor system. Put simply, they’re arguing for the preservation of a slave society. Was secession about slavery? Read Charles Dew.
Chapter 6. Reasons for Secession and Conclusion [00:45:37]
All right, in the three minutes I have, let me leave you with some arguments. Why did the South secede? One, is what we might simply call, what I’ve just argued, the preservation of a slave society, the preservation of a slave system, the preservation of a certain kind of racial control over a society that they now greatly feared would be threatened. And this is, in part, what happened in Georgia in their divided vote, because in Georgia the upper counties of Georgia, those more hilly, mountainous regions of north Georgia, voted against secession. The vote on secession in Georgia on January 19, 1861 was 166 to 130. 130 of those people who were elected to go to the Georgia Secession Convention as delegates voted against it. And here was the theory that was at stake. It was really an argument between waiting till ‘64, or the argument used by Southern slaveholders now — people from south Georgia, and all over the Deep South — it was the theory of a shrinking south. And I really do believe this is one of the most compelling arguments they had about secession and it’s why they were able to muster enough folks to go with them in their revolution. The theory of a shrinking south was the idea that if the Republicans gained control of the federal government — through patronage, through nominations to the Supreme Court, through the much high numbers they had in the House of Representatives, and even now with California and so on, maybe even in the U.S. Senate — that eventually — and if they close off the expansion of slavery in the West, what does that do? It cordons off and it contains and it begins to smother Southern society and the slave system. And the theory was that on the rim of the South, in Kentucky, in Missouri, in Maryland, the price of slaves would begin to dwindle. And then what do people do when the price of something goes down? They sell it off. Where are they going to sell those slaves? Can’t sell them west, can’t sell them to the Caribbean — international slave trade’s illegal. They’re going to sell them into the Deep South. What happens? The Deep South becomes more and more and more, rather quickly, a pressure cooker of increasingly large numbers of slaves and no place to expand to. Prices of slaves would continue to go down. The value of their most precious asset was at stake, as was their security, their safety.
The second reason — and I’m going to run out of time any minute, I know. Let me just lay these out. I’m going to name them, and then I’m going to leave you dangling here. The second is what I will call the fear thesis. The third is what I will call Southern nationalism. The fourth is what I will call agrarianism. And the fifth is what I will call the honor thesis. I will resume that argument when we resume next time.
But let me leave you with this. Lincoln does get inaugurated, of course, in the midst of this. He inherits a nation divided. And at the end of his first inaugural speech comes those famous words — Lincoln was, of course, capable of leaving passages for us to quote in almost everything he delivered and almost everything that he wrote — but he went to a little Shakespeare at the end of his first inaugural. By the way, that first inaugural was an olive branch — we will never touch slavery where it already exists, we only intend to stop its expansion. You are our brothers, you are our countrymen. Come back, do not leave us. Members of a country, he said, cannot divorce. He used a divorce metaphor. And then he ended with, “I am loathe to close. We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be by the better angels of our nature.” That was beautiful poetry and wishful thinking, because in the wake of his inauguration and eventually in the wake of Fort Sumter, four more Southern states are going to join the deep South and I’ll pick up that explanation why next time.
[end of transcript]Back to Top