Southern-rights men had not kept pace with their Northern adversaries in respect to the organization of a sectional political party. Their forces had been divided from the first in an effort to gain control of the Whig and Democratic parties. The Whig party had crumbled in the process, and its successor, the American party, had proved to be an abortive and short-lived organization. The result was that by 1860 there were many Southern-rights men without party affiliations. Some were ready to support the nominees of a united Democracy against the rising tide of Northern sectionalism;1 others, retaining their ancient prejudices against the Democracy, inclined to a new separate organization. Their ultimate action was profoundly influenced by events of the winter, 1859‑1860.
Within the ranks of the Democratic party, Southern-rights men were in control throughout the entire lower South by 1860. The Southern-rights associations in Alabama p23 had assumed the leadership in the movement to purge that party after 1847. Every convention which met in the state during the ensuing thirteen years repudiated the doctrine of territorial sovereignty and demanded protection for slavery in the territories by congressional action. Webster declared, on the eve of the ratification of the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, that the Mexican municipal laws against slavery would prevail in any territory we might acquire. Cass asserted the right of the people in acquired lands to legislate against slavery; and the abolitionists urged antagonistic legislation by Congress. The Democratic convention, which met at Montgomery in February, 1848, demanded that Congress should at once repeal the laws against slavery, either by the treaty provisions or by legislative enactment. They further declared that any one opposing this demand was a traitor to the party and to the "perpetuity of the Union."2
In 1856 the state convention passed resolutions consistent with the party's previous position. The platform of that year asserted, as one of the basic principles of the Democratic party, the "unqualified right of the people of the slaveholding states to protection of their property in the States, in the Territories and in the wilderness in which territorial governments are as yet unorganized." That resolution clearly implied the necessity of congressional action for protection since the power of the judiciary did not extend to the territories where governments were not yet organized. The resolutions of that year went further, and denied the right of Congress to interfere for the prohibition of slavery in the territories. Having stated this definition of noninterference, the resolutions endorsed p24 the principle as incorporated in the Kansas-Nebraska Act.3
The leader of the Democratic party in Alabama was William L. Yancey. He was a brilliant orator, prominent in state-rights conventions, and indefatigable in promoting the Southern cause. He had been trying for years to arouse the South to the need of coöperative action in defense of her institutions; but he looked beyond the regularly organized political machinery for an ultimate means to safety. On May 10, 1858, he welcomed the Southern commercial convention to Montgomery as the forerunner of a far more important body which should devise an independent sovereignty for the South in case of further aggression from the North. On June 15 he wrote his famous letter to Joseph S. Slaughter of Atlanta, in which he deprecated further attempts to preserve the rights of the South in the Union, and proposed an organization of Southern men as the nucleus of a later secession movement. One month later at Bethel Church, Montgomery County, Alabama, he organized the "League of United Southerners." The members of this organization were never to become a political party, were never to put candidates into the field. They were to retain their old party affiliations, consult within the organization as to the best p25 means of advancing the interests of the South, and then, in their respective parties, secure the nomination of the purest and best Southern-rights men. It was an attempt to purge the old national parties. More than that, it was an organization of missionaries in every community of the South and West to prepare the groundwork for secession when the moment for it should come. But the organization did not prosper. Not more than six chapters were ever organized, none outside the state of Alabama. Yancey, like Rhett of South Carolina, was regarded as a secessionist per se; and his plea for coöperative action produced no tangible results, because conservative men feared that any movement directed by him would lead to disunion. That same fear defeated the only effort ever made by Southern-rights men to effect coöperative state action for the preservation of Southern institutions within the Union and, curiously enough, made possible the organization of a Southern sectional party.
The failure of John Brown's raid into Virginia was ample evidence that the danger from such forays, so far as the slaves were concerned, was slight; but the reaction at the North to the arrest and execution of Brown was regarded by most Southerners as proof of an abiding hatred for the institution of slavery.4 There was an immediate revival of the agitation for commercial non-intercourse,5 and a noticeable crystallization of secession sentiment. Positive action for the formulation of a definite p26 program, however, centered in the activities of the legislatures of Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia.
The legislature of South Carolina proposed a convention of delegates from the states, to devise some policy for concurrent action in defense of their interests. The resolutions of December 22, 1859, were written by C. G. Memminger, later Secretary of the Treasury in the Cabinet of Davis. Memminger had been the leader of the conservative South Carolinians since the days of nullification, and had been a consistent opponent of secession as a relief from Northern aggression. The resolutions and the message of Governor Gist recommending them asserted the right of secession and urged immediate coöperative action by all of the slave states as the single alternative for separate state action in defense of Southern institutions. The resolutions provided for a special commissioner to urge the coöperation of Virginia, and Governor Gist assigned the commission to Memminger.
Memminger proceeded at once to Richmond and, by invitation, addressed the general assembly on the nineteenth of January. He described in detail the growth of antagonism between the North and the South over the questions of slavery and the admission of new states into the Union, the struggle over petitions, the circulation of incendiary publications, the separation of the churches, the admission of Texas, the Wilmot Proviso, and the Compromise of 1850. He alluded to the resolutions sent by Virginia to South Carolina in 1851, urging her to refrain from the folly of secession over the compromise measures, and cited the acts of injustice on the part of the North since that time, as evidence of the failure of the policy of submission. The United States, said he, had ceased to be p27 a "more perfect Union"; the Union had failed to "establish justice," had failed to protect the most valuable property of the South, and had failed to "insure the domestic tranquillity."6
Still more important is that part of his address which dealt with the purpose of the proposed convention. The Northern press and the opposition press of the South had vigorously denounced the proposed conference as another attempt on the part of South Carolina to precipitate secession.7 Memminger urged the conference as "the proper step in any contingency." The Union could not go on as it was. Either the South must have constitutional relief or the Union would be dissolved. Various projects had been proposed to relieve the crisis, among which were a dual presidency, a division of the Senate into two classes, equal division of their territories, and commercial independence. A conference would bring together the best minds of the South to discuss and propose measures which the Southern states could demand as the price of continuance in the Union. Only by uniting upon some plan of action, by adopting proposals acceptable to all, and then standing solidly behind them was there hope of getting the North to respond. "South Carolinians," said Memminger, "have no confidence in any paper guarantees, neither do we believe that any measures of restriction or retaliation within the present Union will avail. But with equal frankness we declare that when we propose a conference, we do so with the full understanding that we are but one of the States in that conference, entitled like all others to express our opinions, but willing to respect and abide by p28 the united judgment of the whole. If our pace be too fast for some, we are content to walk slower; our earnest wish is that all may keep together. We cannot consent to stand still, but would gladly make common cause with all. We are far from expecting or desiring to dictate or lead."8
The Virginia legislature took no action relative to the invitation of South Carolina, and after Memminger returned to Charleston he reported by letter to Governor Gist. He ascribed the hesitancy of Virginia to the feeling that Southern rights could be preserved within the Union and the fear that the proposed conference would lead to disunion. He took occasion to say again what he had expressed at Richmond, that if there were still "fraternal feeling enough existing at the North to stay the tide of fanaticism and to do justice to the South, then the apprehension of disunion from a conference becomes, in fact, the very best instrument to assist the supposed fraternal feeling of the North."9 Meanwhile, the Mississippi legislature adopted a series of resolutions which declared that the prospect of the election of a Republican President by a sectional vote was sufficient justification for a council of the Southern states, with their protection and safety by separation in view; accepted the invitation of South Carolina to such a council and suggested the first Monday in June, at Atlanta, as a desirable time and place; directed the governor to appoint delegates, not to exceed ten in number, to the convention; and provided for a commissioner to Virginia, who should urge her to join in the Atlanta conference.10
p29 Governor Pettus, in compliance with the resolutions, appointed Peter B. Starke, formerly a Whig and afterward a supporter of Bell and Everett, as a commissioner to Virginia. Starke proceeded at once to Richmond and addressed a communication to Governor Letcher. It set forth the view of the Southern-rights school that slavery was a domestic problem in which neither the free states nor the federal government had any concern, except for the protection of the institution by the federal government within the limits of its jurisdiction. It denounced the attitude of the North as having been provocative of the invasion of slave territory for the purpose of "destroying, without their consent, the relation of master and slave." It urged Virginia to send delegates to Atlanta, and declared in plain terms the purpose of that council to be, not the promotion of secession sentiment, but rather to "devise some remedy consistent with their interest and honor in the Union." It just as definitely said, however, that "if, in her sincere desire to be enabled to enjoy all the rights of perfect equality in the Union (as she hopes to do by means of this proposed conference), she shall be disappointed, then I have no hesitation in saying that she will prefer, and will resort to, independence out of it."11
Shortly after his arrival, a joint committee of the two houses of the legislature published a majority report drawn up by A. H. H. Stuart, state senator from Augusta County and former Secretary of the Interior in Fillmore's administration.12 The report implied the existence of a wholesale conspiracy in sixteen Northern states against the institutions and lives of the Southern people; a situation p30 which was doubly dangerous because the conservative people at the North had relapsed into a state of indifference. It recommended that the militia of the state be placed in readiness for service, proposed commercial independence, and recommended coöperative action by the Southern states in the general program.13 The legislature passed resolutions endorsing the three propositions, but delayed giving definite answer to the waiting commissioner from Mississippi. When it became evident that they were likely to adjourn without taking action, Starke addressed a sharp note to Governor Letcher concerning the delay, and urged that some action be taken by the legislature before adjournment. Citing the report of the joint committee, he said: "Can all these things be true, and yet the time be not actually, now, arrived when we are called upon imperatively, without delay, to confer together and to consult upon the highest duty, What shall we do to be saved?"14
In his letter to Governor Letcher, Starke reminded the legislature that the South would never be stronger, relative to the North, than at that time. Already in the minority, they held one of their grievances to be the declaration of the Republican party that there should be no further increase in slave power. "To submit now will be evidence to those who already contemn us that we will never resent or resist. This they will find indeed to be untrue; but tempted by this to increase and aggravate aggression, they will force us to resistance in by a bloody civil war, which will be irrepressible and implacable, and in which nothing can or will be saved but by fire and blood."
Starke labored faithfully to convince the legislature that the proposed convention was not a step toward secession, p31 but the only possible way by which dissolution and civil war could be averted. The legislature, however, refused to sanction that program, and resolved that direct legislation by the several states would be more effective than any action by a convention sitting in an advisory capacity.15 The other states having refused to participate in the conference, the Mississippi delegates wrote to Governor Pettus saying it would be fruitless for them to attend.16 The conference did not meet and the last hope of coöperative action by the Southern states was gone.
Fear that a conference of Southern states would lead to disunion was responsible in part only for its failure, and can not be construed as a denial of the right of secession. The Richmond Whig opposed it on the ground that it would lead to nothing but "increased excitement and a wider national breach." It added, however, that it would support a convention when necessity arose "not for the purpose of patching up a faulty constitution and propping a falling government, but for the purpose of annulling the one and destroying the other."17
Those who advocated the convention insisted that it was for the purpose of effecting Southern unity as a means to preserve Southern rights within the Union; and they supported their professions of faith with unanswerable logic. "The folly of rejecting a convention confines the question of disunion to the States, and there some act may, and in our candid opinion will, bring about that result," said the Richmond Enquirer.18 Governor Gist of South p32 Carolina expressed the same opinion, saying that if he desired a dissolution of the Union and wished to effect it, nothing would please him more than the refusal of the Southern states to meet in conference.19 The very fact that the Democratic legislature of Mississippi, which six months later was unanimous in its call for a secession convention, sent a man of opposite political faith and a devoted Unionist to Virginia, was evidence that it wished to preserve the Union, if possible. The same may be said with respect to South Carolina. Starke and Memminger received their appointments at the hands of Governors Pettus and Gist, respectively, and, as we shall see later, these two officials did more than any others to direct the secession movement at the end of the year. When the attempt at coöperation within the Union failed, they adopted the policy of Alabama, and turned to separate state action; and when, in their judgment, secession became imperative, they adopted separate state secession as the best possible means for success. They then did everything possible to avoid what the more conservative states wanted and had refused, what they had offered and now wanted to avoid, a conference of states for coöperative action.
The failure of the conference proposal was significant in another respect. Its disappointed advocates pointed out that its rejection would serve to paralyze the conservative element at the North, convey a false impression of Southern dissension, inspire anti-slavery men to further aggression, and insure a Republican victory in the presidential election, which Alabama was already pledged to resist by secession.20
p33 Alabama had assumed an advanced position in rejecting the South Carolina program. The legislature, February 24, 1860, had passed resolutions directing Governor Moore, in the event of a Republican victory in November, to issue immediately a proclamation for an election of delegates to a state convention. That convention was to have wide discretionary power to do whatever the exigencies of the time demanded for the best interests of the state. The legislature also endorsed the right of secession, refused to participate in a conference, and appropriated two hundred thousand dollars for military purposes.21
Meanwhile, Yancey had succeeded in carrying through the state convention a set of resolutions thereafter known as the Alabama platform. This platform (1) endorsed those parts of the Cincinnati platform relating to slavery; (2) reëndorsed the resolutions of 1856 demanding protection for slave property in the territories and in unorganized territory; (3) reaffirmed the ninth resolution of the state platform in 1848, which declared it to be the duty of Congress to open all territories to slave owners and to protect them thereafter in their property rights; (4) asserted the principle that the Constitution is a compact among the states; (5) declared the territories to be common property and as such open for immigration by the citizens of every state with all property recognized as such by the Constitution; (6) denied the right of the territorial legislature to prohibit the introduction of slavery; (7) denied the right of Congress to prohibit slavery in the territories; (8) supported the principles enunciated by Chief Justice Taney in his decision in the Dred Scott case; and (9) instructed its delegates to the Charleston convention to vote as a unit, to present the above principles p34 for the consideration of the convention, and to withdraw unless they were adopted prior to the selection of candidates.22
Nine months before the presidential election, therefore, South Carolina and Mississippi offered a program of coöperative action to the other Southern states. The offer was rejected by all but Alabama as a step toward dissolution of the Union. Alabama rejected it because she chose to rely upon separate state action in any emergency which might thereafter arise, and designated the election of a Republican President as such an emergency. The Democratic party in Alabama outlined a program which was likely to effect precisely what Yancey and Rhett had long counseled: a Southern sectional party. That situation assured that the test would be made as to whether the Union could survive "sectionalism in all parts of the Republic."
Not slavery alone nor the question of what party was to administer the government for the conservation of existing institutions were to constitute the nature of the test. A Southern political organization was in the making for a contest before the country against an existing Northern party organization. In a broad sense each was a revolutionary agent; each regarded the existing government as having failed to perform its functions. A victory for the one would be regarded by the successful contestant as a mandate from the people to institute far-reaching social reforms, by the other as an exigency requiring sweeping political reforms or a dissolution of the Union.
1 The following statements from two powerful New Orleans papers are typical of a widely expressed sentiment: "At the time of the meeting of the Charleston Convention, it was regarded as holding the destiny of the nation in its hands. To its nomination every citizen expected to give in his adhesion." The Daily Picayune, May 15, 1860. "Up to the time of the meeting of that body [Charleston convention], there was a general disposition on the part of Southern men of all parties to sustain its nominees, if they had given us national, conservative men." New Orleans Daily Crescent, May 12, 1860.
2 Journal of the Democratic State Convention held at Montgomery, Alabama, February 14, 1848, 10‑14.
3 Official Proceedings of the Democratic and Anti-Know‑Nothing State Convention of Alabama, held in the City of Montgomery, January 8th and 9th, 1856, 9. The American or opposition party of Alabama asserted the Southern-rights platform in even stronger terms. It declared that neither Congress nor a territorial legislature had any power to legislate upon the question of slavery except for its protection; that the power to exclude slavery from a territory could be exercised for the first time at the formation of a constitution; and that squatter was "violative of the spirit of the Constitution, and an insidious and dangerous infringement upon the rights of the slave-holding States." "Platform of the Alabama American Party, adopted in February, 1856," in Important Political Pamphlet for the Campaign of 1860, 14‑15.
4 Villard, John Brown, 1800‑1859, A Biography Fifty Years After, 558‑559, is an excellent account of the sentiment at the North. A notable exception to the general Southern attitude was the Vicksburg Daily Whig, January 28, 1860, which declared: "The attempt to make the whole North responsible for the acts of a few madmen is so manifestly unjust, as to only render contemptible those who so act."
5 See The Daily South Carolinian, Columbia, January 29, 1860; the Vicksburg Daily Whig, January 18, 1860; and the Daily Chronicle and Sentinel, Augusta, March 6, 1860.
6 Memminger, "Address to the General Assembly of Virginia, January 19, 1860," in De Bow's Review, XXIX, 751‑771.
7 Richmond Whig and Public Advertiser, February 2, 1860.
8 Memminger, "Address to the General Assembly of Virginia, January 19, 1860," in Capers, op. cit., 276.
9 Memminger to Gist, February 13, 1860, in ibid., 280‑281.
10 Proclamation of Pettus, February 15, 1860, in Official Correspondence of Governor John J. Pettus, 1859‑1860.
11 Starke to Letcher, February 20, 1860, Communication from the Hon. Peter B. Starke, as Commissioner to Virginia, to his Excellency, J. J. Pettus, with accompanying Documents, 8.
12 Starke to Pettus, July –––––, 1860, Official Correspondence of Governor John J. Pettus, 1859‑1860.
13 Starke to Letcher, February 20, 1860, Communication from the Hon. Peter B. Starke . . . with accompanying Documents, 10.
14 Starke to Letcher, March 1, 1860, ibid., 16.
15 Virginia Resolutions, March 8, 1860, in ibid., 20‑21.
16 Cassidy to Pettus, May 24, 1860; Harris, Gholson, Hill, and Clayton to Pettus, May 30, 1860, in Official Correspondence of Governor John J. Pettus, 1859‑1860.
17 Richmond Whig and Public Advertiser, January 31, 1860.
18 Richmond Semi-Weekly Examiner, February 3, 1860.
19 Gist to Hicks, February 3, 1860, in [McCabe], Fact versus Fancies, 30.
20 The Richmond Enquirer, January 31, 1860; The Charleston Mercury, March 10, 1860.
21 Shorter to Brown, January 3, 1861, Official Records . . . Armies, Series IV, Vol. I, 16‑17.
22 Proceedings of the Democratic State Convention held in the City of Montgomery, commencing Wednesday, January 11, 1860, 27‑34.
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