Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Secession of Georgia

The question why the deep south seceded in 1860-61 fascinates me. The decision to secede is one of the most significant events of our national history. At the same time, it is one of the most mysterious. Sure, tensions over slavery had been building for decades. But even so, why secede before Lincoln and his black Republican colleagues had even taken the oath of office? Why pursue a course so fraught with danger when there appeared to be no pressing need to do so?

National histories provide valuable background, context and analysis. I cannot begin to imagine that it is possible to understand secession without having read the works of historians such as David Potter, William Freehling and Michael Holt. Even so, I have become increasingly convinced that studies of individual states and even regions within states provide essential additional information. After all, it was not “the south” that seceded, but individual states. It may be that it has been so difficult to figure out why the south seceded precisely because the answer differs depending where one looks. Only by closely examining how each state seceded can one assemble a coherent and intelligible picture of what happened.

Starting with J. Mills Thorton’s Politics and Power in a Slave Society, we have been blessed over the last thirty years or so with a plethora of first-rate state and regional studies that have significantly advanced our ability to understand these issues. Books such as Lacy Ford’s Origins of Southern Radicalism, Stephanie McCurrie’s Masters of Small Worlds, William Barney’s The Secessionist Impulse, and Christopher Olsen’s Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi emphasize different themes and motives, but each is an essential piece to the overall puzzle.

My latest reading in the genre is actually one of the earliest entries: Michael P. Johnson’s Toward a Patriarchal Republic: The Secession of Georgia (Baton Rouge: Louisiana University State Press 1977). I discovered Professor Johnson’s book thanks to the recommendation of an anonymous commenter. It is, indeed, a worthy and thought-provoking addition that deserves a wider audience than I suspect it has received.

Professor Johnson (it appears he is now at Johns Hopkins) sets the stage by recounting an observation that ultimately led to the book. In a seminar, Professor David Potter noted that Georgia’s secession convention election contained at least two apparent anomalies: “Democratic counties which had voted for the States Rights candidate John C. Breckenridge in 1860 tended to oppose secession, while Whig counties which had voted for Unionist candidates John Bell and Stephen A. Douglas tended to favor immediate secession.” Intrigued by Potter’s suggestion that “the secession of Georgia might bear further investigation,” Johnson wrote his seminar paper on the subject, which, eleven years later, became the book.

Toward a Patriarchal Republic is short – 187 pages of text, plus a 36-page appendix – but dense. In one sense, the heart of the book is that appendix, which consists largely of statistical analyses of the January 2, 1861 vote for delegates to the Georgia constitutional convention that would vote on whether the state would secede. The analyses examine the statistical importance of a number of factors on the vote, including factors relating to (a) slavery and slaveholding, (b) long-term and short-term political affiliation, (c) town vs. rural, and (d) turnout.

Using these analyses, Professor Johnson draws some startling conclusions. Among other things, he documents a dramatic shift among voters in rural, poor, low-slavery, low staple-crop-producing, traditionally democratic counties, principally in the mountain north and pine barrens south of the state. Consistent with their traditional party allegiance, these counties had voted for Breckenridge in the 1860 presidential election. But in the election for delegates, thousands of these voters cast their ballots for cooperationist delegates.

The results in the delegate election were razor thin statewide, with secessionist candidates receiving perhaps 1,000 to 2,500 more votes than cooperationists out of 85,000 cast. Secessionists overcame the loss pro-Breckenridge voters in rural, low-slavery counties by, among other things, picking up thousands of votes in high-slavery, traditionally Whig, anti-Breckenridge counties. Most surprisingly, the shift toward secession was particularly pronounced in less rural “town counties,” where one might have expected business- and market-oriented Whigs to reject secession as harmful to commerce. “But why,” Professor Johnson asks, “did these conservatives embrace secession?”

A good deal of the book is devoted to documenting the proposed answer to this question. Professor Johnson argues that conservative, market-oriented men became persuaded that immediate secession would be less destabilizing than the continued uncertainty and political turmoil that would result from a decision to remain in the Union for the time being. By casting their lot with secession, these men would be able to influence and channel secession in a more conservative direction:
It appears that town conservatives chose to embrace secession . . . because secession presented an opportunity to achieve the political stability which the Union had formerly provided but which, under a Republican president, it threatened. Indeed, the actions of the state convention suggest that conservatives abandoned their commitment to the Union as it became clear that the social and economic status quo could be secured outside the Union in a way that was impossible within the Union – by changing the political status quo.

It was possible to “change[] the political status quo” because the convention’s second task, after voting on secession, was to draft a new state constitution. Conservative secessionists were able to use their influence to draw up a document that limited some of the perceived excesses of Jacksonian democracy. Professor Johnson summarizes some of the provisions by which conservative delegates were able to endow the state with the stabilizing virtues of “a patriarchal republic” “without changing the form of government or restricting the suffrage:”
They had reduced the size of the senate and increased the size of the senatorial districts, hoping thereby to filter into the senate men whose interests, outlook, and social standing inclined them to protect and maintain the status quo. They had denied the legislature the power to tamper with slavery or with other forms of property. They had entrusted the judiciary with the final word on the constitutionality of legislation and insulated the judges from shifting popular sentiments [by providing that judges, who were previously elected, would be appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the senate]. And they had provided that any future constitutional changes would be made not by ordinary legislators but by convention delegates like themselves – men who stood above the hurly-burly, demagogic world of politics.

My description of the forces that shaped the vote for delegates, however, grossly simplifies Professor Johnson’s work. If anything, his study demonstrates just how complex and unpredictable were the conflicting currents created by the various factors he investigated. In addition, other imponderables may well have affected the outcome. The turnout for the convention vote was substantially lower than that for the presidential election two months earlier (except in those rural, low-slavery, traditionally Democratic, pro-Breckinridge counties, where the turnout was 98% of that for the presidential election). The statistical evidence indicates that, except in “town” counties, those who stayed away tended to be anti-secessionists: the greater the turnout, the lower the percentage of votes in favor of secession. While some potential voters may simply not have felt strongly enough to bother to cast their ballots, it is likely that pressure and intimidation, cooperationist disorganization, and the fact that South Carolina had already seceded, all played significant roles.

At the same time, Professor Johnson does not allow all of these currents and eddies to obscure the source of the secessionist impulse. In his view, the fire eating proponents of immediate secession were driven by the desire to protect the institution of slavery – and the fear that, if Georgia did not leave the Union before Lincoln’s election, nonslaveholders would join the Republicans. It was this fear of “the latent disloyalty of some southerners toward slavery” that made the issue so urgent:
Secession had to be immediate because as soon as Lincoln was in office he could use his patronage to build a Republican party in Georgia. This was the most compelling argument the secessionists had. All their other charges about . . . northern outrages . . . amounted to little more than alerting Georgians to Republican threats and harassment. Even if such external actions spelled the ultimate death of slavery, which was extremely questionable, they did not necessitate immediate secession, for little was likely to change in a few months or even in Lincoln’s four-year term in office. . . . [T]here was time to wait. Immediate secession was not necessary. But to escape the extraconstitutional consequences of a constitutional process – the creation of a southern Republican party by the use of the newly elected president’s patronage – immediate secession was necessary.

Ironically, Professor Johnson argues, it was this same fear about the trustworthiness of the people that made pro-secessionist Democrats amenable to a more conservative constitutional structure. Thus, conservative Whigs who had converted to immediate secession and fire eating Democrats were able to come together to agree on the democracy-limiting features of the new state constitution described above.

You should not let the book’s inclusion of statistics deter you. Professor Johnson intentionally segregated the statistics in a separate appendix precisely so that readers to do not have to deal with them unless they want to. In the text, which is well-written, he discusses the voting tendencies that the statistics revealed in lay terms. Nonetheless, I’d encourage you to work your way through the appendix, even if you are, like me, a mathematical illiterate.

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