Sunday, January 07, 2007

Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi

Many books about the antebellum period and the period leading to secession go over the same timeline and events: the Mexican War connects to the Wilmot Proviso, which connects to the Compromise of 1850, which connects to the Kansas-Nebraska Act . . . you get the picture.

It's really nice to run into books that dig deeper, usually focusing on a particular state or region within a state. Christopher J. Olsen's fine book, Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi: Masculinity, Honor and the Antiparty Tradition, 1830-1860 (Oxford University Press 2000) is such a work. What I really like about it is that it puts you on the ground and helps explain, on a very practical level, how local institutions worked.

Rather than provide a generalized review, I thought I'd imitate Olsen's methodology by summarizing just a few pages, focusing on voting. At pages 125-31, Olsen provides a graphic description of the mechanics of voting in antebellum Mississippi that is a joy to read.

In rural areas, the polling station was often at a plantation. The board of police, a countywide elective body, appointed inspectors and other election officials, who were usually leading local men. For example, in the fourth precinct in Bolivar County in 1855, the poll was held at the house of the neighborhood's leading citizen, "Squire" William Vick. Squire Vick and two other planters served as election inspectors. Each voter walked through the gate of Squire Vick's "Nitta Yuma" plantation and approached the front veranda, where the inspectors greeted them and probably chatted with them. Squire Vick, as host, almost certainly treated voters to food and drink.

The voters then cast their votes under the watchful eyes of the inspectors and handed their ballots to the return officer, the nephew of another planter, for placement in the ballot box, and then gave their names to clerks. Because ballots of different candidates were usually different sizes and often different colors, voting was not secret. Functionally illiterate voters -- from 10 to 25 percent or more -- might ask for help filling out names of candidates for local offices, whose names were not on the ballots.

What wonderful images! You really get a feel for the process. The voters are free men who approach to exercise the quintessential right of free men. They are treated as free and equals by the leading citizens of the area, who may want their votes in the future. And yet the entire ritual subtlely but clearly emphasizes the wealth, importance and authority of the leading men. Professor Olson comments:

"All of these considerations betray the importance of the voting process as a public ritual, and underscore its many-layered meanings and implications. Especially in small rural neighborhoods, planter-inspectors potentially held vast power. Not everyone voted alike, but most did -- some out of genuine class bonding or a shared masculine perspective, but others because they felt pressured by Squire Vick and his friends. . . . Certainly the record implies numerous limitations on freedom of choice and demonstrates that deference and intimidation survived the movement to printed ballots and mass democracy. At the very least, scenes like those on Vick's veranda discredit notions of frontier democracy or the rampant egalitarianism that supposedly made elite hegemony or inherited hierarchy untenable in the Old Southwest."

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