Wednesday, March 14, 2007

William W. Freehling Talk: Part I

This evening I attended a talk given by William W. Freehling to the Civil War Roundtable of New York. As you may expect, Professor Freehling based his talk on his forthcoming book, The Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861 (Oxford University Press 2007). At the outset, it’s worth noting that the Professor seems to be a delightful person and a really nice guy. Before the talk, he circulated around the room, introducing himself to people. I heard some conversation that makes me think he’s an opera fan, although I didn’t get to ask who his favorite composer was.

It was also fun to see how genuinely excited he is about the Antebellum period and the Civil War. At several points, he got so wound up about his subject that he had to pause and take a drink of water to compose himself.

The Professor began by emphasizing “how difficult secession was.” “If there is one thing you should take away, it’s that secession was very hard.” First, white southerners loved the government. They had formed the Union and been in control of it since 1835 – witness the Gag Rule, the Fugitive Slave Act, Kansas-Nebraska and Dred Scott.

Second, Lincoln was no menace to slavery or the south. The Republicans did not have a majority in Congress or on the Supreme Court; they did not even control a majority of northern governorships. In his First Inaugural, Lincoln went out of his way to endorse the then-proposed Thirteenth Amendment, which would have created an unamendable Constitutional provision preventing the federal government from ever interfering with slavery in the States.

Third, southern Unionists had very cogent arguments. Among other things, they pointed out that secession would lead to civil war, and civil war posed a far greater threat to slavery than Lincoln did.

In short, in the south as a whole, a large majority said “WAIT.” If he had to guess, Professor Freehling thinks that 75% of white southerners wanted to wait and see what was going to happen. In this context, the Professor noted several times that the middle and upper south contained two-thirds of the white southern population. This did not mean that this majority was not prepared to secede if Lincoln took affirmative action against the south, but they did not want to secede merely because Lincoln was elected.

The idea of a southern convention had been the brainchild of secessionists, going back to John Calhoun. As recently as 1959, secessionists had sought a southern convention after John Brown’s raid. Ironically, however, the election of Lincoln caused a role reversal: southern Unionists urged a southern convention; secessionists sought to force a decision before a southern convention could be held. They needed a State to secede quickly – and the obvious candidate was South Carolina.

South Carolina was “scared to death” to secede by itself. It therefore started a “secret conspiracy” to try to get support. It secretly wrote to the governors of other southern states asking, “Will you help us” by agreeing to secede if South Carolina did. The southern governors uniformly responded that they would not. Georgia was particular adamant that it would not help.

South Carolina radicals, led by Robert Barnwell Rhett, were nonetheless desperate to secede. Professor Freehling believes that chance and coincidence play a large part in history – and here is a prime example. On November 9, 1860, the South Carolina Senate voted 44 –1 against convening a state secession convention. On November 10, 1860, the South Carolina legislature voted unanimously to convene the convention on December 17. The Professor said – and his body language confirmed – that his discovery of what had happened to cause this dramatic reversal was the most exciting event of his career.

It so happened that a railroad had just been completed between Charleston and Savannah. On November 3, a celebratory dinner was held in Savanna. At that dinner, Francis Bartow, Georgia’s foremost Unionist, gave a speech at which he urged that South Carolina not secede. Secession, Bartow said, was stupid – Lincoln was no menace, and secession put slavery at risk. But, Bartow said, if you do secede, we Georgians will have no choice but to follow you. It would be entirely unworkable for the South Carolina-Georgia border to be a border between two different countries. At the end of the evening, the South Carolinians invited the Georgians to a reciprocal celebratory dinner in Charleston – on the evening of November 9.

Meanwhile, the South Carolina Senate in Columbia voted 44–1 against a secession convention on November 9. That evening, Bartow gave the same speech at the dinner in Charleston. Telegrams immediately went out from Charleston to Columbia: “Georgia is with us!” Georgia’s leading Unionist had said that Georgia would secede if South Carolina did. A trainload of Charlestonians left for Columbia with the same message, arriving in the early afternoon on November 10.

At 4:30 p.m. on November 10, the South Carolina Senate voted unanimously to schedule a secssion convention. At 6:00 p.m., the South Carolina House did the same.

In analyzing why South Carolina seceded, Professor Freehing found that the overwhelming concern was that Republican patronage would give birth to a southern Republican party. That, in turn, would create agitation to abolish slavery. Slaves would hear that talk. That was intolerable – you can’t have discussion about slavery – because it created a risk that slaves would rise up and murder their masters in their beds.

Honor was also a factor. South Carolina had previously threatened to secede both in 1832-33 and in 1850. On both occasions, it had backed down. If South Carolinians backed down again, they would regard themselves as degraded.

Professor Freehling discounted other factors. “I looked hard for any mention of the tariff. There was none. I looked hard for any mention of States’ Rights. There was none.”

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