The election of Lincoln in 1860 served as the signal for the secession of the Cotton States, but in the Border States it was soon clear that to a goodly majority of the people, the election of a President by a sectional party furnished in itself not a sufficient cause for withdrawal from the Union. Nevertheless, the action of the Cotton States precipitated a crisis and made the action of every border state a matter for grave debate.
North Carolina was no exception to this rule. Even before the legislature of 1860‑1861 met, the people, through public meetings sought to turn popular sentiment for or against secession, and when the sessions of the legislature began, a struggle for supremacy between the two factions into which the state, irrespective of party, was now divided, commenced at once and lasted without intermission until definite action was finally taken. In the main, the whigs were Union men, and the bulk of secessionists were democrats, but further than this, party affiliations did not influence the struggle.
The battle commenced when the General Assembly met. All the members seemed conscious of the gravity of the situation and of the importance of the work ahead of them. The elements favorable to secession were well organized, and this fact later prevented some of the Union men from voting with them on the question of a convention. The body, as a whole, was able and conservative, but still there was a tendency on the part of some of the Union men to be factious, and some of the secessionists were illiberal.
p2 The governor, in his message, recommended the call of a convention, although he did not openly advocate secession. A joint committee of the two houses upon federal relations finally reported favorably a bill submitting the question to the people which after long and heated debate was finally passed in late January, receiving the support of many Union men who thought a convention would do much to relieve tension and who believed that Union men would control it.
In the meantime, provision was made for the reorganization of the militia, a considerable volunteer force was authorized, $300,000 were appropriated to buy arms, and commissioners were sent to represent the state near the Confederate government which was about to be formed. An able delegation was also later appointed to attend the sessions of the Peace Conference, called by the State of Virginia to meet in Washington in a final attempt at compromise. Among conservative men the Peace Conference appeared to offer the best hope of a pacific settlement of the vital national problem confronting the people of the United States, and its utter failure brought keenest disappointment as well as the gravest forebodings. The secession movement also received considerable impetus.
The contest which followed was heated. Secession sentiment was much more loudly expressed than Union feeling and at times seemed dominant. The majority of the state's senators and representatives in Congress favored a convention, and exerted much influence. Excitement was caused, too, by the existence within the borders of the state of four United States posts, Forts Johnston, Caswell, and Macon, and the arsenal at Fayetteville, which keenly stimulated a genuine fear of interference by the Federal government in what everyone regarded as exclusively a state matter. Just before the passage of the convention bill Forts Johnston and Caswell were seized by hotheads from Wilmington, but Governor Ellis forced their immediate evacuation.
On February 28th, the convention was defeated by the narrow margin of 651 votes. At the same time the delegates chosen showed a Union majority of twenty-eight. Clearly the state was in no mood for secession for any causes existent p3 at the time. And yet no one believed the question settled. It was only a delay, momentarily favorable to the Unionists, a triumph of the "Watch and Wait" policy advocated by W. W. Holden in the Standard. The secessionists, while disappointed, were not downcast and immediately commenced organization of their forces and the education of public sentiment by a new series of public meetings. A state conference was held in Goldsboro under the presidency and leadership of Weldon N. Edwards at which a party was duly organized and a call issued for a state convention at Charlotte on May 20th.
Weldon N. Edwards
Before that time came, however, the question of the state's position was definitely settled, not by secessionists but by the logic of events. Fort Sumter fell, Lincoln called for troops which Governor Ellis promptly refused to furnish, and all doubt disappeared as to the proper course to pursue. Governor Ellis at once called the legislature into extra session, ordered the seizure of the United States posts in the state, promised the Confederate government a regiment for immediate service, and called for thirty thousand volunteers. By these acts North Carolina was definitely identified with the seceded states and was included in President Lincoln's proclamation of April 27th, declaring the Southern ports blockaded. No one in North Carolina questioned this inclusion, so definitely were the people committed to the defense of the South. The Union leaders and press frankly admitted the necessity of withdrawal from the Union in preference to fighting the other Southern states and it was solely on that basis that North Carolina entered the war. The legislature met on May 1st, and within a few hours passed, with only three dissenting votes, a bill calling a convention of the people. This done, it turned its attention to active preparations for war. The election of delegates to the convention was held on May 17th and on May 20th, the convention assembled in Raleigh, in membership, easily the ablest and most distinguished public assembly in the history of the state, on account of the fact that party lines were ignored in the choice of delegates. It was for that very reason full of political leaders who could not forget politics even in the midst of a great crisis. At p4 the beginning of the session this was made apparent when the former Union element, who were inclined to doubt or even deny the constitutionality of secession, nominated for president of the convention William A. Graham in opposition to Weldon N. Edwards, the candidate of the original secessionists. The election was a test of strength of the two factions and resulted in the triumph of the secessionists who elected Edwards by a vote of sixty-five to forty-eight.
A second manifestation of the division of settlement as well as of the inclination of the delegates to play politics was the support by the Union element of Judge Badger's declaration of independence from the United States in opposition to the Craige ordinance which had been written by Judah P. Benjamin at Montgomery and sent to Governor Ellis. This p5 of course assumed the complete sovereignty of the state. Here again the secessionists triumphed and after the defeat of the Badger ordinance, seventy-two to forty, the Craige ordinance was adopted unanimously. It was as follows:
An ordinance dissolving the union between the State of North Carolina and the other states united with her under the compact of government entitled "The Constitution of the United States."
We, the people of the State of North Carolina, in convention assembled, do declare and ordain, and it is hereby declared and ordained, that the ordinance adopted by the State of North Carolina in the convention of 1789, whereby the Constitution of the United States was ratified and adopted, and also all acts and parts of acts of the General Assembly, ratifying and adopting amendments to the said Constitution, are hereby repealed, rescinded, and abrogated.
We do further declare and ordain that the union now subsisting between the State of North Carolina and the other States, under the title of "The United States of America," is hereby dissolved, and that the State of North Carolina is in full possession and exercise of all those rights of sovereignty which belong and appertain to a free and independent State.
The provisional constitution of the Confederate States were then ratified. Some difference of opinion manifested itself on the question of ratification of the permanent constitution but the forces in favor of such action were too strong to be overcome and on June 19th ratification was finally accomplished.
With the completion of these acts of separation, factional differences disappeared for a time and the convention, instead of adjourning, or, at least, confining its activities to constitutional revision or to the passage of ordinances of an organic nature, began to legislate. This was politics. As time passed criticism of the convention became widespread. It was controlled by a conservative group of elderly men who were mainly former whigs and unionists and for that reason out of sympathy with the legislature, with its secessionist majority, and apparently they were determined to keep themselves in power. They postponed the meeting of the legislature, debated seriously the question of dissolving it, and clearly regarded themselves as supreme, which doubtless, in law, if not in morals, they were. Finally the more extreme of the delegates proceeded with some secrecy to form a party which they later called conservative. Composed in the main of good men, it was nevertheless a serious obstacle to united p6 feeling and united action and helped mightily to bring about the seditious politics of the next three years. Its first partisan act was insistence upon a party electoral ticket at the presidential election of 1861 to oppose one already nominated. Since both were committed to Davis and Stephens, it could have no other motive than partisanship. The convention adjourned at the end of June, met again in November for a month, met for another month's session in January, 1862, and began the fourth and final session in April and finally adjourned on May 13th, subject to the call of the President. If not called by November 1st, the adjournment became sine die. By this time it was bitterly unpopular. Governor Vance, soon after his election, tried to persuade Edwards to summon it again, but Edwards, doubtful of the governor's intentions and still more doubtful of the convention, refused to consider it, and the adjournment became final. Its chief constructive work were two amendments to the constitution providing for ad valorem taxation of slaves, and allowing Jews to hold office.
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