Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Immediate Secession: Were Southerners Afraid of Southerners?

Historians have puzzled over the reasons for immediate secession in the South in 1860-1861. Why did advocates believe that that it was imperative that their states secede even before Abraham Lincoln's inauguration? Why were they convinced that their States should not await specific evidence demonstrating Republican bad acts and bad faith – for example, refusal to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act?

A number of historians have posited that Southern fear of other Southerners was a substantial motivating factor among advocates of immediate secession. Immediate secessionists feared, so the argument goes, that the Republicans would use patronage and other devices to induce some southern whites to form the nucleus of a Republican party in their state. In other words, the South contained whites who formed a potentially disloyal fifth column that might later betray their States if secession were not promptly accomplished.

Historians making this argument usually contend that direct evidence of this motivation is hard to come by, because it was not the sort of thing advocates could state in so many words. Because they also maintained that all elements of southern society uniformly supported that society and southern institutions, they could not admit that differences among supposedly equal whites festered below the surface.

Editors William W. Freehling and Craig M. Simpson have produced a valuable new volume of excerpts of the speeches from the Virginia secession convention of 1861, Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union. As I began the book yesterday, I thought it would be a good opportunity to test the hypothesis described above (among others). As I read the arguments of advocates of immediate secession, could I find arguments that suggested that southerners were afraid of other southerners?

Remarkably, the very first speech in the volume seems to validate the hypothesis. Jeremiah Morton, a wealthy planter representing Orange and Greene Counties in the western Piedmont, was “the anomalous former Whig who was a prominent disunionist.” On February 28, 1861, Morton delivered a speech in favor of immediate secession. The speech includes a lengthy passage in which Morton argued that, without secession, “Black Republicans” would “spoils” and “public patronage” and “fat office” to lure southern whites into the Republican party:
They [the Black Republicans] will administer the Government for the strengthening of the party; they will make capital out of every appointment; and, Mr. President, with a Government, every Department of which shall be in the hands of the Black Republicans, administered upon the principles upon which William H. Seward and Abraham Lincoln will administer it, how long would our institutions be safe? . . . Whenever it comes to the administration of the spoils with the view to the advancement of party – and that for many years has been the general type of all administrations – what are the number that will be purchased up by the patronage of the Government? I do not mean to say, Mr. President, corruptly. But when there is a fat office which is tendered, and the aspirant for that office knows how important it may be that his opinions should be identical and should assimilate with the powers that be, how natural it is for a man under circumstances like these to satisfy himself that he once was a little wrong, and that the sober, second thought, is the best position. This is human nature. . . .

And I tell you, Mr. President, that Abraham Lincoln will seek to hold a power over all the Southern States. . . . If you stay . . . [in the Union] for the next twelve months there will be more beneficent showers of public patronage upon Virginia and Maryland and Tennessee – I think he would hardly go to North Carolina – but he will go to Kentucky and Missouri, sooner than to any other States.

And, Mr. President, when a man gets a rich office, how many friends circle around him to congratulate him. . . . The donee of a fat office – be it a Judgeship, be it a Collectorship, be it a Postmaster of this city – has much power, and each one will form a nucleus of sympathizing friends with the powers that be. . . . Let us acquiesce, and I tell you that in the next Presidential canvass – if not in the next, in the second; certainly in the third – you will find Black Republicans upon every stump, and organizing in every county; and that is the peace that we shall have from this “glorious Union.”

About the illustration at the top of the post, entitled Virginny:
An old woman is surprised by a skull coming out of a teapot. Cream envelope with blue ink. Image on left. Virginny, mother of "Old Dominion" presidents and other ([Henry A.] Wise) things, is asked by Mrs. [Varina] Davis to try a cup of secession tea – and finds death in the pot!

About the second illustration, entitled Secession Web:
[Jefferson] Davis as a spider catching the secession states in his web strung from the American flag. There is a skull and cross bones on his spider back and he is dripping blood and clutching Virginia. Cream envelope with red and blue ink. Image on left side. "Walk into my parlor," says the Spider to the Fly.


  1. I am warming to this theory more and more. COuld this be a reason why basically the SOuthern Democrats blew up the Democrat party in Charelston . THey saw the writing on the wall

  2. Fascinating take, I'd never even read about it.

  3. Christopher,

    Except for tying the specific quote to the idea, I take no credit for the concept.


    I'll get back to you, because I want to approach the walkout from a different perspective.


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