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Look Away!: A History of the Confederate States of Americaby William C. Davis
Chapter 1: Guiding the Whirlwind
A wag might argue that the origins of the Confederacy dated to the philosophy of Aristotle, who proposed that differences arising from race and regional origin and birth created natural distinctions between peoples and their inherent abilities. Yet there is substance in the case beyond Aristotle's speculations on human variations. Writing twenty-two centuries before the breakup of the Union, the Greek philosopher penned in his Politics a discussion of what he called "one of the true forms of government," a limited monarchy. There were four varieties, he suggested. The first was that of the Spartans, wherein the king held office, but not absolute power, by birth or election. The second more closely resembled tyranny, yet it was legal and hereditary, established by ancient ancestry, and unchallenged by the people, indeed willingly accepted by them. A third was the dictatorship elected by the people, and thus willingly imposed upon themselves, an office held sometimes for life or else only for a stated term of years. The dictator's power might be despotic, even absolute, yet still he held it at the will of the people. The last form of limited monarch was the hereditary "heroic" king, who held office by virtue of his being able to provide for the people what they could not provide for themselves: organization, land perhaps, leadership in war, community, and more.
The only difference among them was in their degree of sovereignty. All fit in with most of the ideas of the new democracy that appeared in Greece 150 years earlier. No king wielded unlimited power, yet each ruled by some democratic acknowledgment of his superior skills or accomplishments. All were elected (or at least popularly accepted) and in three of Aristotle's scenarios the kingship was hereditary, suggesting that certain families were destined to rule by bloodline and natural gifts. All of the philosopher's leaders, in short, were elective dictators either for set terms or for life, yet under their rule the people had some rights, could speak out, even remove their king if they so chose, and by legal rather than revolutionary means. Authority was questionable, and kings needed to persuade or demonstrate to their subjects that they deserved to rule. Of the four, the last, the heroic monarchs, seemed clearly Aristotle's preference, for they were benefactors of the people in return for their high status. They took command in war, and presided over the sectarian ceremonies as their societies worshipped their own household gods. "They also decided causes," said Aristotle, and "their power extended continuously to all things whatsoever, in city and country." Yet with the passage of time, the ancient heroic kings had voluntarily relinquished some of their prerogatives, while their people gradually took away others, "until in some states nothing was left to them but the sacrifices."
Virtually every founding father of the Confederacy who was educated spent his formative years poring over Aristotle's Politics, and by 1861 would have recognized the philosopher's fourth monarch as the model of the oligarchs who wielded acknowledged social and political rule in the South, elected and given power in recognition of their superior blood and ability. Four years later their power would be gone, some of it willingly ceded to their new government in the interest of its survival, and some wrested from them by an electorate no longer willing to be led by an elite who had brought them to disaster. In the end, for those "heroic monarchs" of the Confederacy, as for Aristotle's elective dictator, "nothing was left to them but the sacrifices."
A cynic would look for premonitions of the Confederacy at a slightly less distant date in antiquity, when the Roman statesman Cicero decried the civil war that broke out in 48 B.C. He blamed the rivals Pompey and Caesar as men who "put personal power and private advantage before the safety and honour of their country." After his success Caesar paid due service to the forms of republicanism, but in fact chose to rule as an autocrat. Yet he so persuaded the citizens that he was a democrat that they all but begged him to take more power as their champion. He quite happily obliged. Caesar exemplified Aristotle's fourth king, but it is more to the point that Rome tested the philosopher's musings on human inequality. Virtually all Roman citizens were members of one of thirty-five extended families or tribes, each originally the equal of the other in political decisions. But before long the wealthy and landed tribes acquired greater influence and power than the others, and soon their "colleges," the divisions whereby they voted for their consuls, were redistributed into so-called classis, literally "classes." Quickly the wealthier classes aggrandized their power, so the top two classes, though less than 46 percent of the colleges, controlled a majority of the votes in an election. At the other end of the economic spectrum, those with no property at all constituted the bottom class, the proletarii, and when it came time for their votes to be counted, they no longer mattered as the upper classes had already decided who the consuls should be. In time the proletarii simply became accustomed to following the minority upper classes without their voices even being heard. As Cicero himself argued, "when both the best and worst are given equal honours, equality itself is most unequal," something that could not happen "in states which are governed by the best people." The will of the majority was dying, and the oligarchy was born.
The most bitter observer of the Confederacy might advance half a millennium to the fifth century A.D., when Rome realized that it could no longer administer its empire in the West in the face of barbarian advances, and pulled back, leaving the bulk of a once united Europe to be divided and ruled by local chieftains whose allegiances had traditionally been tribal rather than political, and to kings rather than senates. To them power came by heredity and natural right, not from a popular mandate, and the place in society of the king and the nobles he sustained was unquestioned. No one could hold them to account. Aristotle's monarchs were dead.
The true family tree of the Confederacy, however, fed from much shallower tendrils, and shared a common taproot with conservatism as a political movement and philosophical idea. In Western democracies, potent political parties and ideologies emerged only in the wake of the collapse of the absolute monarchies beginning in the seventeenth century, a collapse that restless, disfranchised populations helped to bring about. Of course the shift to constitutional monarchies, especially in England, did not suddenly give real power to any more than a small percentage of the people, chiefly white male landowners. But far more important, it did remove the protection afforded by an absolute crown to an aristocracy of birth, making it vulnerable for the first time to social inroads and economic competition from the now-franchised middle class, and to the erosion of its hereditary rights to position and power. The ballot box and the suppressed aspirations of commoners posed a greater threat to the security of the landed aristocracy than anything in its history, and the further the franchise spread among the population at large, the more it endangered the rights and privileges of the upper class.
Denied the protection once afforded by an all-powerful monarch, that elite had no choice but to fight back in the same political arena that threatened its position if not its extinction. Thus was born conservatism as an active political idea, though adherents actually referred to themselves as "conservatory" until the early nineteenth century. Conservative or conservatory, the only syllable that really mattered in both was the first, for their inevitable posture in the political whirl was oppositional. From the Glorious Revolution onward, the slow spread of rights and opportunity and the growing power of national legislatures posed an ever greater danger to the aristocrats' status quo. For the protection of their class and their fortunes, their natural position was to resist change. Thus, while forces of the center and left might increasingly use parliaments as forums for active programs to spread rights and wealth — though still only to the middle classes — conservative parties, whatever their names, had no real platforms and no need for them. Their role was simply to oppose legislation that endangered the privileged class they represented. In England "conservatory" was eventually abandoned, to remain in vestige as Tory. The Tories were never proponents of an ideology. They had no real political philosophers, no grand ideas. Instead they represented a tradition of continuity and stability, of sensible government by those who had the greatest interest in good government, the upper classes.
This struggle came to the new colonies in America. Distance from England and slow communications made them slower to react to forces of change, and in some places allowed longer-lasting footholds of aristocratic power. Even though the king appointed royal governors in most of the colonies, still a few like South Carolina under its Lord Proprietors commenced and for some years operated almost as feudal states run by a few powerful families. For all the rhetoric about rights and freedom, the American Revolution, when it came, was largely a conservative movement to protect upper- and middle-class property, including the right to break free of British containment east of the Appalachians in order to obtain cheap or free new land to the west, and for Southerners especially to spread plantation slavery to the wide arable expanses of the Deep South. Even Edmund Burke, in seeking to alleviate the gnawing issue of taxation that helped propel the colonists to revolution, argued that the solution lay in the wisdom gleaned from past experience rather than future innovation. Indeed, genuine ideologues of liberty like Thomas Paine found the results of the Revolution dismaying in their failure to be innovative enough. A disillusioned Paine complained that any kind of government that observed some of the forms of democracy could get away with calling itself republican; he saw that in the years following independence, rights for most Americans were expanded little beyond what they had achieved before the war, the chief difference being that capital and wealth and commercial interests no longer faced the threat of onerous taxation.
The Constitution, at least in the mind of one of its principal architects, James Madison, failed to dent the hold of the landed gentry on power in the states and in the Congress. It left the central government too weak to impose taxes or regulate commerce, unable apparently to overcome the retained sovereignty in such areas held by the states, which were themselves, in the South at least, firmly in the hands of a planter oligarchy. For all their preaching of republicanism during the Revolution, the Americans, Madison feared, had largely only succeeded in making their own aristocracy more secure, and now with the power in the states to stall the spread of real democracy. A substantial body of citizens, again in the slave states especially, had no vote because they had no significant property, and so long as the oligarchs controlled most of the land and slaves, they could contain the democratic threat. At the same time, the middle class, the lawyers and doctors and merchants, who did emerge as a political force, very quickly began to demonstrate how quickly "have-nots" can adopt the values of the "haves" when they begin to acquire a little wealth themselves.
Suddenly throughout the United States, legislatures began pandering to a host of groups promoting parochial interests. Madison complained in 1786 that state legislatures had enacted more laws in the three years since independence than had been passed in the previous hundred, a staggering number of them designed solely to serve special entrenched interests. Ideologically, he feared, the Revolution had been a failure. Republicanism in the Union, as Paine declared before abandoning America altogether, was a sham. Just as in a courtroom no man could act as a judge in his own case, argued Madison, so in politics there could be no equity when the men making the laws were the ones who benefited from them, yet in Virginia and South Carolina, as well as in the Northern states, such was precisely the case. When legislation was proposed dealing with the problem of widespread debt, the creditors who stood to gain composed one party, while the debtors belonged to the other, neither arguing for universal justice, but both pressing for personal benefit. Naively Madison had hoped that under the Constitution the new government would stand above partisan politics to act solely in the national interest. That could happen only if the Congress and president enjoyed ultimate power over the states, however, and that the Constitution failed to provide.
Indeed, had such power been on the table in Philadelphia during the framing convention, the Constitution surely never would have been ratified. By then the dominant figures in the several oligarchies who ruled the slave states especially had already adopted a certain cant of republicanism that allowed them to use the vernacular of freedom, independence, and liberty to denounce absolute authorities whether they be kings or central governments, seemingly allying themselves with the general population while they really acted only in the cause of protecting themselves. In short, they sought the best of both worlds. If they had no supreme authority like a king to protect them, neither could he infringe their own rights. If they had to live in a more democratic society, at least by preaching the religion of liberty they could attract and win the votes of the broader electorate and use them to limit the spread of real democracy, while keeping power to themselves. Instead of solving a problem, democracy, as it was being practiced, had itself become a part of the problem. No wonder that in 1808 William Jenks could see the difficulties arising in the new system, and at the same time discern through his parody the underlying desire of Southern men of property to return to a form of monarchy.
Meanwhile many people of the South, like the North, fed on the rhetoric of the Revolution and the euphoria of new independence, and embarked on the world of new possibilities presented by their ownership of a seemingly horizonless continent. The sons of the founders, growing up in an atmosphere of self-conscious independence and individualism, did not have to face the issue of severing old loyalties as had their fathers. Instead, they had before them new attachments to form, and of their own choosing. Not limited to what their old world had been, they could dream of what they might make of their new one. Though Paine and even Madison despaired, the Revolution had succeeded in unleashing an idea of a republic, an idea that would eventually overwhelm all conservatives who resisted its implications. Southern leadership stood apart by being the only oligarchs in history to hold power by means other than military might. Instead they had the strength of democracy working for them, but only so long as they could control the direction that democracy took. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, politics in almost every Southern state was dominated by a few families. In Virginia it was the Masons, the Randolphs, and other descendants of those they self-consciously referred to as the first families. In South Carolina it was the Rhetts, the Calhouns and their cousins, the Hugers and more. Louisiana divided its leadership between old Creole families like the Héberts and Anglo dynasties like the Livingstons and Claibornes. Even the more recently settled and organized states like Mississippi and Tennessee had their new aristocracies, often defined by their blood ties to family in the older original states.
As the new century progressed, and in the face of one challenge after another to the Southern oligarchy's control of Southern affairs, the danger even of limited democracy became more and more apparent. Looking as they did to England as a conservative model, Southerners were not unaware of the Tory member of Parliament William Mackworth Praed, once a radical, but a man who had become increasingly conservative as he saw a spreading franchise threaten entrenched interests. He bought his seat in Parliament by spending a thousand pounds to buy the "rotten borough" of St. Germans. In 1831 when Parliament considered legislation abolishing most of the rotten boroughs and putting their seats up for general election, Praed supported the spirit of the act, but then made the decidedly undemocratic protest that allowing too many people to vote risked giving the governed too much say in their own affairs. He predicted that a time might come when a vital question would arise in which "a minority of number, but a majority of property and intelligence" might be pitted against "a large majority, of number, but a minority, perhaps an insignificant minority, of property and intelligence." In short, men who did not own property were not intelligent enough to act in the best interests of the entire community. Oligarchies based on wealth and property and heredity, on the other hand, produced men worthy to make public decisions. Absolute democracy posed a positive danger to a republic. True democracy threatened the whole idea of "the great man," and the longer a society like the one that grew up in the South flourished, the more individualistic it became. And such a society positively encouraged men of ambition to confuse their own ends with those of the state, for what preserved the one served the other.
It all depended on conflating the old conservative economic and class systems with the trappings and forms of a very limited democracy. At first, almost all of the new American states did so. Limitation of the franchise to white males who owned property — sometimes even a required minimum net worth — was practically universal before, during, and immediately after the Revolution. Gradually the free states and newer states formed in the Old Northwest liberalized voting, but still by the middle of the nineteenth century most states, and all of them in the South, did not allow the voters themselves to elect senators to Congress. The legislatures kept that power to themselves. Being largely composed of an elite, they could thus choose their own men to the Senate to represent their own interests, if necessary, against delegates sent to the House of Representatives by the general electorate. Some states like South Carolina went farther, retaining the election of state cabinet officials and even of governors in the legislature as well. The control of power had become so cozy and clubbable that the leading men openly discussed trading the chief offices on a sort of rotation from attorney general to governor to senator, among the Calhouns and Pickens, the Rhetts and Elmores, the Hammonds and the Elliotts. Others used the property requirements to ensure that men sent to the House were likely to come from and represent the propertied classes. Virginia land west of the Appalachians was worth very little, being unsuitable for much more than subsistence farming, or for the slaves needed for large-scale planting, and thus became the domain chiefly of small farmers. The state's constitution demanded that a voter hold property valued to such an extent that a landowner in the western counties could have hundreds of acres and still not reach the qualifying benchmark. Yet a Tidewater or Piedmont planter east of the mountains, with even modest holdings of that much more valuable acreage, easily reached the threshold. Moreover, a man with little or no land at all could still vote if he owned just three or four slaves, for the market value of a single prime black could be greater than that of a hundred acres of flinty western soil. As a result, from the foundation of the Old Dominion right to the moment of secession in 1861, not a single Virginian from west of the mountains was ever elected governor or senator.
The longevity of such a system depended heavily on the preservation of a social order in which the opportunity to rise stopped at the middle class. Even the later slave states to come into the Union, those like Mississippi and Alabama and Tennessee, which had no long history of settlement and thus no old oligarchy bent on self-preservation, also followed the pattern as immigrant planters from the older states quickly took hold and brought the old system with them. Louisiana, of course, came into the Union with an old Creole oligarchy already well entrenched, and of all the slave states, only Arkansas and Texas west of the Mississippi were really free of rule by an elite of birth. It is not just coincidental that of all of the various collective and socialist utopian communities that tried their new order experiments in America in the half century before the Civil War, not one attempted to take root in the lower South. It was soil that grew cotton and tobacco and rice, but not egalitarian democracy or social reformation. To the Rhetts and others who stood solidly for minority rule of a compliant populace, the Enlightenment was just something that happened to other people.
This political order was supported by the other pillars of Southern society. Religion, especially the stern Presbyterianism and the even sterner Baptism, encouraged a conservative outlook, while the Catholic and Episcopal Churches mirrored in their hierarchy the sort of authoritarian minority rule that suited the oligarchs. Indeed, long before the final eruption of the sectional controversy, some Southern spokesmen proclaimed that the features of their society and culture were sufficiently distinct that they were in effect a separate people from the North — that they were, in fact, a Southern race that deserved their own nation state.
What they failed to learn from history was that race had never been a defining element in successful nation states. The true definitions always depended far more on distinctions in language, culture, and political institutions. Southerners spoke precisely the same language as Northerners, so there was no distinction there. As for their cultures, despite certain isolated pockets like the Creoles of Louisiana — and ignoring the distinct cultures of the aboriginal Americans and free and slave blacks, who were not a part of the body politic in any case — virtually no differences existed between the sections. They were all, by 1850, solidly in the mainstream of western Victorian culture. They read the same books, listened to the same songs, ate predominantly the same foods despite some regional variations, and buried and mourned their dead in precisely the same fashion. The only substantial difference between them, and the one that divided them politically almost since birth, was their systems of labor. Nevertheless, the idea of being inherently different proved attractive to Southerners. Ideas of nationhood were historically more appealing to agricultural peoples like Southerners, whose lack of mobility made them more personally involved with their place and tradition, but without a distinct language and culture, and without some special liberality in their political institutions to set them apart from the North, they were nothing more than citizens of a region. They might have been dogs with some different spots from their Northern brethren, but that did not make them a separate breed.
Besides, if Southerners had paid more attention to Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America and The Old Regime they certainly read, they would have seen that it was not in the oligarchs' interest for the South to be a separate nation. One of the lessons Tocqueville drew was that nation states inevitably tended to aggrandize themselves and centralize power. The South and Southern political and social traditions only flourished because power was not concentrated in Washington, though the tendency appeared to be in that direction. Becoming a nation state themselves only risked accelerating the process because the region to be involved would have been dramatically smaller, and history demonstrated to the French observer that geography was itself an inhibitor to centralization. In short, the South had a far better chance of preserving its institutions and quirks of culture by remaining a part of a larger nation.
Another Southern advantage, from the oligarchs' point of view, was its modest middle class, which extended little beyond members of the professions like physicians and lawyers. Even Tocqueville declared that lawyers were not democrats, and thus no threat to an elitist order. Only a larger and ambitious capitalist class or the overwhelming pressure of labor seeking more entitlement and a rise to power could really pose a threat to the oligarchy. Thanks to slavery, in the South capital and labor were combined in nearly four million sweating field hands picking cotton and planting rice. They were numerous enough to pose a serious threat to the elite, but they had no power whatever. Free white property owners had a right to the political power to offer such a challenge but not the numbers.
Not a few Southern statesmen representing the common people tried to highlight the way they were being used. "How long will you suffer politicians to flatter you as sovereigns and use you as victims, without awakening your resentment?" Benjamin H. Hill asked a Georgia audience. "How often shall they settle and unsettle the slavery question before you discover the only meaning they have, is to excite your prejudices and get your votes? For how many years shall changing demagogues shuffle you as the gambler shuffles his cards — to win a stake — and still find you willing to be shuffled again?" Taken altogether, Southern leaders enjoyed the best they could hope for in both the worlds they inhabited by the 1850s. At home their domination of statehouse and courthouse was unchallenged, while in Washington, even though the slave states were by now a minority, still as a bloc they were more than strong enough to stop any legislation that threatened themselves or their "institutions" — meaning slavery — in their own bailiwicks. Only two things could afford them better protection in the current circumstances, and Jenks had put his finger on both — a monarch at home and independent nationhood from the North. Their own generations-old protestations against kings and the republican rhetoric they preached precluded the former. As for the latter, the march of events made independence seem inevitable to many.
Robert Barnwell Rhett, in fact, had raised the shadow of a Southern nation as far back as the 1830s, and others, mostly extremists like himself, turned to it again and again during the sectional turmoil of the next two decades. In 1858, Alabama's leading "fire-eating" secessionist, William L. Yancey, was predicting "a Southern Confederacy," even suggesting that the giant state of Texas might be its leading element (though he said that to prominent Texan and fire-eater Senator Louis T. Wigfall, no doubt to flatter him into staying in line on secession). Martin Crawford of Georgia thought that the contest for the Speakership in the House of Representatives in the spring of 1860 might be the catalyst to send slave states out of the Union, but lamented that though the South had men willing to take the risk, none of them had the general confidence of the country. They had no coordination among themselves. Indeed, so focused were secessionists on the independence of their individual states that no one seemed to make the effort to get them working together. Too many remembered that only ten years before, when South Carolina's Rhett was discovered trying to conspire with Mississippi's Governor John A. Quitman to promote secession in both states, each resorted to lying in the resultant furor over someone from one state interfering in the internal affairs of another, and Quitman abandoned his efforts altogether. "We might possibly be supported by the public judgment," Crawford lamented now, "but as it is I fear the people would be disgusted and we should be disgraced."
Yancey hoped to solve that problem by uniting the slave states in one movement that could quickly be transformed into another. He did a lot of cajoling of men like Wigfall in the months leading up to the Democratic National Convention in Charleston in 1860. The best hope for precipitating secession was the election of a Republican president that year. With the Republicans still a minority party, however, the only way to ensure their victory was to split the Democrats. The candidate of the Northern wing of the Democratic Party, Stephen A. Douglas, had provided the issue with his doctrine of "popular sovereignty," declaring that the people in a newly formed territory could decide for themselves whether to embrace or exclude slavery prior to forming their constitution and applying for statehood. Southern pro-slave men argued that the question could only be settled at the actual time of achieving statehood. The difference was crucial. If settlers — or "squatters," as the condescending Southern elite called them — could prohibit slavery prior to statehood, then slaveowners could not move to the territory and bring their slaves with them, virtually guaranteeing that it would become a future free state. Only if the decision were made at achieving statehood would slave proponents have the opportunity to settle the territory and have their voice heard in deciding the issue, and perhaps bring another slave state into the Union. At stake was a balance of power in the Senate in Washington, the only place the South could hope to protect itself as Northern population rapidly outstripped that of the South, placing the House of Representatives increasingly in the hands of free state men. The issue was critical enough that it could divide the Democratic Party, the only truly national political organization left, and that is what Yancey and Rhett and other hopeful secessionists wanted. If Southern Democrats refused to support the almost certain candidacy of Douglas in 1860, then their bolting from the party would hand the election to the exclusively Northern Republicans, and the election of a president who represented strictly a sectional constituency could be enough to propel slave states into action.
There was nothing sophisticated in the scheme, nor was its operation a secret. It was a case of simple mathematics and, ironically, democracy. A generation earlier radicals like Rhett had decried political nominating conventions as being undemocratic, in that they gave undue influence to the larger states that naturally enough sent bigger delegations. Now, however, they could use that same system to their advantage, especially since a number of Northern Democrats also opposed "popular sovereignty," and would side with their more conservative Southern brethren. Assuming that the Republican candidate carried most or all of the Northern states, all the Democratic dissidents had to do was deny Douglas a handful of the smaller Southern states to hand the election to the Yankees. "I very much regret myself the divisions in the Democratic Party," complained Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia, whose own name was briefly bandied about as a possible candidate before he scotched the idea. A Unionist, he had no desire to become one of the pawns in the radicals' game. When the Charleston convention did, as predicted, break up in a Southern walkout, the delegates determined to convene again in June in Baltimore. But when state Democratic conventions were held to choose delegates to Baltimore, disruption was all but guaranteed. In Yancey's Alabama the president of the convention could not even get a delegation selected at first, and predicted that Southerners would pull out of the Baltimore meeting, too, and form their own sectional convention to put forward their own candidate. "The split is now inevitable," James Saunders lamented to his wife, and in the whole mess he saw a lot of personal ambition involved. "A disinterested man is very much admired," he declared, "and excites some wonder."
As the election fall approached, some attempted to reconstitute the old Democratic Party in states like Georgia, yet even they, men like Henry Cleveland in Augusta, feared it was to no point. Worse, he expected that in the wake of the election of the Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln, a clash between state militia and United States troops would be inevitable that winter as seceding states tried to reclaim property at Federal forts and arsenals within their borders.
The likelihood of such a clash became ever greater with the formation of local defense associations. In October a number of distinguished South Carolinians including former governor James Adams, Maxcy Gregg, Langdon Cheves, and others organized themselves "with a view to the defense of the rights of the South," as one put it. They drafted a constitution, and then started liaison with other similar committees in Georgia and elsewhere, mirroring their forefathers' committees of correspondence on the eve of the Revolution. Their goal was to "perhaps accomplish something towards putting the South in a state of preparation for the issue that is almost upon us." Soon thereafter similar organizations sprang up in all of the other slave states. Newspaperman Charles E.L. Stuart was a member of one of the Virginia "hives," as he called them. "These manufactured, as circumstances suggested with regard to time and topic, flaming dispatches, which were sent off and paraded at a convention, a public meeting or through the local journals." The communications were almost always unsigned, merely attributed to "high authority," and as Stuart himself, one of the authors, freely admitted, "were chiefly inflammatory fabrications, suited to the provocations wanted." Of course they were remedying the very problem that Crawford had decried earlier that year, but they were doing more. They were also making the first organized moves toward interstate cooperation in the crisis, moves that presaged a day when the slave states might consider some more formal organization for their "state of preparation." Moreover, the personal associations that brought their authors and promulgators together began an informal and unnamed "party," and saw the first signs of an even less organized opposition among those who either did not favor secession at all, or who wanted only to threaten to secede in order to get concessions from the North, or those "cooperationists" who would accept secession but only if several states "cooperated" by going out at the same time.
The issue hit them as they predicted — indeed, wanted — when Lincoln achieved less than 40 percent of the popular vote, but took enough states — all in the North — to capture an electoral college victory. The immediate furor in the slave states was as intense as it was predictable. In Virginia all guests at the home of politician James Seddon had to listen to him talk ceaselessly of secession and revolution. At once a Virginia journalist named Littleton B. Washington began writing anonymous secession editorials for the Richmond Examiner, and "syndicating" them to papers as far away as Charleston and Montgomery, Alabama. In Alabama itself Governor A. B. Moore told citizens there was no alternative now to secession, and called for the formation of a new "Southern Confederacy," while the press in the state capital declared that "the religious institution of slavery" deserved its own nation. Yancey exulted that "nothing can long keep the cotton States in this Union." Just a week after Lincoln's election, he declared that only one state seceding would "by all natural laws" lead others to follow, "until in process of no distant day, there will be a Confederacy of Southern Atlantic and Gulf States, doing justice to others and securing peace, justice and independence to its own members."
In Mississippi, Governor John J. Pettus summoned the state's congressional delegation to the capital for a special conference to discuss "the safety of Mississippi in the present emergency." Next door in Louisiana, Governor Thomas Moore seemed to apprehend more fully than most the consequences of what was about to happen. He still felt an abiding affection for the old Union despite all the provocations. Barely a week before the election, broadsides proclaiming "The Indications of the Coming Storm" appeared on Louisiana streets. "The slavery agitation will soon make the North and the South two separate nations, unless it can cease, of which we have little hope," they declared. "We can never submit to Lincoln's inauguration; the shades of Revolutionary sires will rise up to shame us if we shall do that," they proclaimed. "Let us drop all discussions and form a Union of the South." Certainly Moore decried the election of a purely sectional candidate like Lincoln who was a dedicated enemy of slavery. Nevertheless, "I so value the Union of these States, and would regard its dissolution as so great a calamity, that I cannot obtain the assent of my mind and heart to the adoption of a measure, or the execution of any project, which would cast us off," he declared, "without giving the Northern people one more opportunity."
He sent a message to his legislature suggesting a convention of all the slave states to settle on an ultimatum to the North that would set forth the conditions on which they would consent to remain thereafter in the Union. But it should be an ultimatum, he said, and not a basis for negotiation. "We have had enough, and too much, of compromises already," he warned. What they proposed to the North should be all or nothing. They must have a promise that Yankees would stop impeding the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law by harboring runaways who escaped to the North. They must have a guarantee of their right to move into the new territories with their slaves and thus have a say in the final makeup of future states. "I am not an advocate for the immediate secession or withdrawal of Louisiana from the Federal Union," he assured his assembly. "I maintain the right of secession and do not admit the right of the government at Washington City to obstruct the exercise [of] that right." Ironically, he wrote his message on paper carrying a watermark of the old Stars and Stripes, and the motto "Don't Tread on Me." As far north as New York City, Southern sympathizers spoke of organizing themselves into the "Metropolitan Minute Men" to be ready to offer themselves to the Southern states in the event of secession and a conflict.
All of this was before the first state seceded. Indeed, even before South Carolina, the first to move, could convene a state convention to act on secession, men were laying plans, and many counseled caution. In Washington representatives from the slave states had been meeting in groups large and small repeatedly for some time. At the same time a host of lesser lights — clerks, newspapermen, businessmen, and simple political dilettantes — caught up in a sort of comic opera romanticism over what they were doing, formed little clubs for which they adopted names like the Spartan, the Dixie, the Calhoun, and the Southern. Their goal was twofold: to get information out of Washington to feed the secession movement at home, while applying pressure on the slave state representatives in Congress to propel them toward definitive action. The outright secessionists like Robert Toombs of Georgia, Wigfall of Texas, and Thomas Clingman of North Carolina were their champions, though each stood well ahead of his state on the secession issue at the moment. These so-called Coral Reefers directed much of their attention toward moderates like Senators Jefferson Davis of Mississippi and Clement Clay of Alabama, men still professing attachment to the Union, even while admitting that the South enjoyed the right of secession, and that the time might be at hand. Of greatest concern to the Reefers were men like Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia, Toombs's best friend, who positively opposed secession, and James Mason of Virginia, who continued to counsel caution and moderation and conciliation.
Meanwhile, Howell Cobb and Toombs of Georgia met regularly with Davis and Jacob Thompson of Mississippi, Benjamin Fitzpatrick and Clay of Alabama, Wigfall and John Reagan of Texas, Mason and R.M.T. Hunter of Virginia, John Slidell of Louisiana, and other leading men from all of the slave states. The Reefers bombarded them with views, information, and pressure of none too subtle a nature, some of it coming from the society hostesses. "They struggled strenuously and unceasingly to edge the Congressional extremists on to the last stretch of violence," said the journalist Stuart, "and to promt, prop up and incite the moderates." Ultimately their goal was to persuade all of the slave state delegates to walk out of Congress, but most were unwilling to do so without being so instructed by their own state governors or legislatures. Significantly, the South Carolina delegates in Congress were not participating in the high-level meetings because for the moment these gatherings, despite the efforts of the Reefers, chiefly hoped to prevent the Palmetto State from moving precipitately. Only South Carolina had the unanimity within the state leadership to be able to pass a secession ordinance right away, and immediately after Lincoln's election the governor had summoned a special convention to debate that very act. It would meet in mid-December and no one doubted the outcome. But the other states were not as ready, facing as they did much more reluctance within their electorates. For that reason, these men thought it best that South Carolina postpone seceding until February 1, 1861. By that time, they felt, Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia would also be ready to move, and then the four states could secede in a bloc, to greater effect not only in the North but also with other slave states not yet galvanized for action.
Among the most insistent on this policy was Jefferson Davis, even though it won for him a growing suspicion and even distrust among some of the most ardent fire-eaters. Unfortunately, the presence of journalists among the Reefers also meant that the reluctance of these men to act quickly became fairly common knowledge. That created the earliest signs of rift in the secessionist ranks, for more dedicated radicals like Rhett suspected that this was a sign that Davis especially, the acknowledged leading statesman in the South, did not have his heart in the cause, and wanted delay in the hope of compromise. Worse, some feared that Davis was at heart a Unionist and was willing to submit to Yankee domination. Therein lay the seeds of the one dangerous divide in the Southern leadership. If a new slave state nation were to be formed after secession, some idealists hoped that it might be a government without parties and partisan politics, since in seceding they would be leaving behind them most, if not all, of the issues that had been contentious. Many like Rhett believed along with Madison and others that political parties were at root evil because they encouraged men to act for the benefit of the party rather than the people, promoted demagoguery, and inevitable compromises of rights and liberties for the sake of gaining or keeping power. Of course, just such actions had characterized Rhett's entire political life, but utterly blind to failings in himself, he was completely unaware of his hypocrisy as he called for reform in others. This fundamental matter of just who was sound on secession, and at what point, inserted a small wedge between the ultras, like Rhett and Toombs and Wigfall, and the more cautious, like Davis. If time produced more issues that widened the crack, then the emergence at least of factionalism in any new nation would be inevitable, with opposing parties quite possible as a consequence, and that did not bode well for a movement that would need all the unanimity it could get.
Despite their apparent desire to keep their meetings secret, the Southern leaders in the capital unwisely allowed sympathetic journalists like Stuart and Washington to be fully apprised of their discussions, perhaps hoping that their pens would advance the cause. "I was kept advised of all the moves on the board," Washington would boast, while Stuart later attested, "I know of their organizations and of their influences." Stuart recoiled from calling them conspirators and preferred to refer to the several such groups meeting in the capital as "combiners." They met in several places, usually the rented rooms of one or another, but most often they gathered at the convivial home of well-placed society widow Rose O'Neal Greenhow, not far from the White House. "It was there that their devisements received the finishing touch," he recalled. They sent working committees out most evenings after congressional business was done, to sound support, solicit advice, and send more "from the highest authority" information south to the state committees who were working on propaganda. They also began to note those Southerners in Washington who were reliable in the cause and those who seemed to waver. Society even had its influence within this nascent "combination," for Southern congressmen who were bachelors or whose families were not with them in the capital, and who thus had no distractions of keeping house, were able to spend more time at the work than men like Davis who lived with his wife and children in the city. Indeed, the number of men without wives present inevitably meant that a lot of their work was conducted on social occasions at the homes of fellow Coral Reefers whose wives could entertain them. "Not one of these faithful 'fair ones' was winning to look at," said an unchivalrous Stuart, "but, though not at all personally captivating, they were not deficient in the arts of capturing the men or the matters upon which the Coral Reefers set them." Greenhow, especially, proved successful in flattering and cajoling information out of members of President James Buchanan's cabinet and Northern senators.
The effort to reach a consensus also failed, for no one was going to be able to control the secessionist impulse in South Carolina, or in other states for that matter, and several of them were closer to action than their representatives in Washington realized. Florida was raising militia companies and commissioning officers by the middle of December even before its state convention convened, while Mississippi and South Carolina already had commissioners traveling as ambassadors to other slave states to promote secession even before they seceded themselves. William L. Harris of Mississippi appeared before Georgia's legislature on December 17 and declared that it was time to act. The election of Lincoln was a virtual declaration of political and social war on the South, he told them. In outrageous exaggeration and outright lies, Harris said that the North was demanding abolition, political suffrage, and social equality for slaves, and worse, that it wanted to destroy the white race by forcing Southern white women to marry black men. "To-day our government stands totally revolutionized, in its main features," he declared, "and our Constitution broken and overturned." Their ancestors had made the Union for the white man, "rejecting the negro, as an ignorant, inferior, barbarian race, incapable of self-government, and not, therefore, entitled to be associated with the white man upon terms of civil, political, or social equality." Mississippi, for its part, was "sick and tired of the North, and pants for some respite from eternal disturbance and disquiet." It would secede and press for a new confederation under the existing Constitution.
Even before Harris spoke, J.L.M. Curry of Alabama had warned his people that Lincoln intended to send an abolition army of half a million to subjugate the South, free their slaves, and force them to "amalgamate the poor man's daughter and the rich man's buck-nigger." They might not be able to inflame poor non-slaveholding whites to secession and possible war to protect the planter's investment in slaves, but an appeal to fears of racial amalgamation cut across class lines. Many of the yeomen could not vote, but they could fight if the aristocracy managed to persuade them that it was in their own interest to defend Southern democracy as it existed. Economic arguments afforded little incentive in that direction, but racial and social ones did. A poor man might count for very little, but he was still free and white, which at least made him better than a free black or a slave, and in a society deeply dominated by class and caste, that was something worth fighting for.
Even before the first secession convention met in Charleston on December 17, Howell Cobb of Georgia lent his voice to the call for unity of action. As soon as a few states had seceded, he said, they should send delegates to a convention. For several weeks now others called for a meeting of delegates from the slave states. Some wanted to do it before the secession ball rolled, but Cobb saw that as a waste of precious time. They should secede first. Afterward would be the time for meetings, but when they did confer, he said, it must be in order to take action. What he meant, of course, was that they must form a government.
South Carolina would be first, as it had always been at the forefront of the movement for a different democracy. The fever rose to such a pitch that merely being nominated to serve in the forthcoming secession convention was tantamount to election. The hotheads almost looked forward to a confrontation with the North that might follow. Rumors circulated that at a secession rally a few days before the election, Rhett had boasted that he would eat the bodies of everyone slain in any war resulting from secession, while Senator James Chesnut declared that he would join Rhett at the banquet by drinking all the blood shed. There were calmer appetites, to be sure, more cautious heads, but too few ears to listen, especially among the younger men reared on decades of rhetoric of confrontation and bluster. Years later one of them asked Christopher G. Memminger of Charleston, himself a secessionist, "why did not you older men take all of us young enthusiasts and hold us down?" Memminger's reply spoke not just for South Carolina but for the slave South itself during these months of upheaval. "Oh! it was a whirlwind," he said, looking back, "and all we could do was to try to guide it."
It took only a few hours after the South Carolina convention heard the first gavel for the delegates to decide unanimously for secession. Indeed, the debates were a mere formality. Three days later they solemnly signed the ordinance of secession before a cheering crowd. Rhett himself fell to his knees and lifted his hands heavenward in prayer and thanks when he approached the table to sign. The citizens at large reacted with enthusiasm. South Carolina "has acted nobly and history will accord to her the noble part she has played," wrote T. H. Spann of Woodlawn. "We have been grossly cheated by the North and I would rather that every soul of us would be exterminated than we should be allied to her again." Moreover, he knew that there were many truehearted men in the North who would sympathize with them and help protect them from Yankee malice. "When our Southern Confederacy is formed and in full operation, we will be the gainers and the North the losers." Should the Union attempt to coerce them back into its cold embrace, Southerners would fight to the death. "Let them commence the war," he declared, "and we will wage it with them until the last drop of blood is spent before we will submit."
The same day that the ordinance passed, December 20, Rhett reiterated a call made the day before to send an invitation to the other slave states to meet for the purpose of forming a new confederation, and a few days later added the suggestion that they all meet in February 1861 in Montgomery, the home of his spiritual protégé Yancey. On December 31 the convention agreed to the call for a meeting and elected commissioners to travel to sister slave states as apostles. They further proposed that every seceding state should send a number of delegates to the planned convention, equal to the size of the congressional delegation formerly sent to Washington. That guaranteed a degree of proportional representation in the debate, but then in a quick retreat to the oligarchy's fundamental distrust of simple majority rule, they also called for states to vote as units in the convention, one state one vote. Thus the smallest state, Florida, under this scheme entitled to only three delegates, would carry the same weight on a ballot as the largest, Georgia, with ten. Every state was certain to send a few less propertied men to such a convention, men whose personal interests might not impel them to stand behind the planter elite. If each delegate had an individual vote, the possibility for mischief would exist, whereas they would usually be secure in expecting that a majority within any state delegation would fall in line in determining that state's one vote. South Carolina wanted to be certain that no misguided egalitarianism led to an excess of democracy. After all, that was partially what they were seceding from.
Even before sending their missionaries out on January 3, 1861, determined to seek a Montgomery meeting on February 4, the convention went on with its own revolution, for at the moment South Carolina was an independent nation in its own eyes, and thus far the only one of the slave states to secede. This new nation, whether one state or many, intended to hold onto as much as possible of the fabric of the old Union. Judicial power immediately concerned them, and here they wanted no reform, for the old system had served their interests well. The delegates passed ordinances maintaining the existing courts, keeping admiralty and maritime jurisdiction in Charleston, adopting the United States statutes at large for the time being, and retaining all currently serving Federal employees in their positions for the convenience of the state. They passed an ordinance reverting all state power formerly ceded to Congress back to the legislature, with the notable exception of the authority to impose duties and customs, management of a postal service, and the power to make alliances with other states and treaties with foreign nations, and to declare war. That authority the convention kept to itself. In effect that meant there were two assemblies wielding power in South Carolina: the legislature, elected conventionally to run the day-to-day affairs of the state, and the convention, also popularly elected, but for the specific purpose of charting its course regardless of the legislature. Whereas the legislature represented the people at large and was therefore a more conservative body, the convention consisted of delegates all elected on the basis of their stand on secession alone, and their unanimity when they voted for the ordinance evidenced their like minds on other issues affecting the interests of the planters who had guided the movement from the start.
Further to cement its hold on the state's destiny, the convention went on to define citizenship in the new state. Everyone resident on the date of secession should be a citizen, as should every free white person born within its borders in the future, or the child of any male citizen born elsewhere. Furthermore, citizens of other states still a part of the United States could achieve citizenship if they moved to South Carolina within twelve months and took an oath of allegiance, and after that any resident for seven months or longer who took such an oath might become a citizen. Any man serving in the state's military or naval forces could also qualify, as could aliens who underwent the customary naturalization process. All must swear an oath abjuring fealty "to every prince, potentate, State or Sovereignty whatsoever," except to South Carolina. At the same time, the convention also defined treason to South Carolina as being the levying of war against the state or aiding its enemies, making the offense punishable by death "without benefit of clergy."
Outside the convention hall, other bodies were adjusting themselves to what was happening. The South Carolina synod of the "Old School" Presbyterian Church met to adopt a resolution declaring that resistance was their duty to God, who gave them their rights; to their ancestors, who had preserved those rights in the blood of the Revolution; to their own children, for whom those rights were an inheritance; and even to their slaves, "whom men that know them not, nor care for them as we do, would take from our protection."
On January 1, 1861, Governor Francis Pickens issued commissions to the state's emissaries to the other secession conventions meeting in the remaining slave states, and soon the men were on their way. Meanwhile he and others turned their eyes toward Charleston Harbor, in which sat an artificial island of rubble upon which the Union had constructed as-yet unfinished Fort Sumter. When secession passed, the United States garrison at nearby Fort Moultrie did not pack up and leave as had been hoped. Instead the Yankee soldiers shifted to Fort Sumter, where their very presence astride the main ship channel seemed an affront to the newly sovereign state's prickly sense of honor. Ardent secessionists as far away as Virginia regarded this act alone as one of "hostility and coercion," as Littleton Washington declared. The state convention sent commissioners to Washington, DC, to try to negotiate the turnover of the fort, but by December 31, Littleton Washington, his finger on a number of pulses in the Union capital, concluded that the Yankees would instead attempt to resupply and reinforce the fort. When the commissioners came to the same conclusion, they feared to use the telegraph to warn Pickens to prepare to resist such an attempt, and instead sent Washington to Richmond, from which he could safely send the word over a wire free from unsafe ears. In the days ahead Littleton Washington would be furnished more information to pass on, including warning that the ship Star of the West was being dispatched for a resupply. "What do the authorities in Washington mean?" puzzled an outraged Alabamian at the news. "Will they persist in the attempt to coerce sovereign states? If so we shall have war & to their hearts content." When she arrived off Charleston, a few shells sent her way from shore batteries discouraged any effort to succor the garrison in Fort Sumter. Instead, efforts at reaching some kind of negotiated settlement stumbled on. Meanwhile, Charleston soon teemed with Southern volunteers whom T. H. Spann described as "panting" for a shot at the foe. "When the time does come," he boasted, and regardless of the outcome of any politicians' talks, "we care not who fires the first gun."
Copyright © 2002 by William Davis
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