South Carolina, always the state most motivated to secede first, always trembled at the danger facing the initiator. Three decades of bad revolutionary memories, atop this oligarchy’s long-standing peculiarities, fed these paralyzing apprehensions.
– 1 –
The nullification events of 1832–33 had initiated the sour memories. A South Carolina state convention had declared the federal tariffs of 1828 and 1832 null and void inside the state. If the limited federal agency defied the unlimited sovereign convention, Nullifiers had warned, South Carolina would secede.
The president of the supposed mere federal agency, Andrew Jackson, smothered the threat. Jackson maneuvered so brilliantly that the whole South massed against the Nullifiers. South Carolinians could only stop tariff enforcement with precipitous aggressions, repelling fellow Southerners even more. So South Carolinians backed down from their threatened secession, succumbed to a tariff compromise, and forever folded their nullification tent.1
Again and again thereafter, South Carolinians threatened to secede, then remembered the horror of dangling alone, then shrank from their thrust. South Carolina’s especially reactionary mentality impelled both the advances and the retreats. Haughty gentlemen, frozen in Anglo-American assumptions a century past, longed to revolt against the new supposed mobocracy and its threat to slavery. At the same time, old-fashioned gentlemen longed to avert revolutionary disorder. Few other ardent revolutionaries have been so terrified of revolution, or so ashamed of their terror, or so aching to seize a destiny that they shuddered to grasp. No other southern squires had charged and retreated so often that they winced at their sputtering selves.2
No North American habitat compared with the fertile, fatal South Carolina coast in potential to nourish quaint reactionaries. On South Carolina’s edge of the Atlantic Ocean, the tides force dark, dank water some twenty miles into lush, rank wetlands. Colonial South Carolina titans forced large armies of slaves to build dams and sluices, to master nature’s pump. The resulting hydraulic achievement helped sustain luxuriously long grains of rice. Simultaneously, huge slave gangs coaxed a luxuriously long cotton fiber, akin to silk, from the fecund Sea Island soil off the coast.
Only coercive slavery could have wrenched tens of thousands of eighteenthcentury workers into malarial swamps to raise these unusual products. No other southern region, save for the more confined Georgia coastal swamps, encouraged these crops. No other southern squires owned such expensive acres with such sophisticated improvements or such enormous concentrations of slaves. In 1860, the tiny parishes strung along the South Carolina coast contained a population 80 percent enslaved (compared to an average of 47 percent in the Lower South). Coastal slaveholdings averaged over forty slaves per master (compared to under thirteen in the Lower South). Of southern slaveholders with over 500 slaves, half lived on this sliver of ocean-enriched terrain.
Beyond the state, most nineteenth-century southern titans found coastal South Carolinians’ eighteenth-century aristocratic republican viewpoint as odd as the swamp locale. Lowcountry grandees, perhaps the richest late eighteenth-century North Americans, inhaled their proslavery assumptions a half century before the Old South defended slavery. More often than somewhat less wealthy Virginia and Maryland planters, Revolutionary Era lowcountry squires traveled and studied in England. There they savored England’s landed elite’s noblesse oblige.
English country gentlemen bestowed direction on everyone who lived on their acres, including white tenants. English squires considered their racially unlimited paternalistic ideal to be as cultivated, as civilized, as beautiful as the flowers in their perfectly weeded gardens. By wielding benevolence from above, they sought smiling local communities, weeded of resentments, whether prickly or murderous.
Almost all U.S. Founding Fathers, North and South, admired that English republican ideal. Late eighteenth-century American rulers believed that the best men must govern and lesser men of all colors (and females) must defer. The rich and powerful favored property qualifications for white adult males, whether to vote or to hold office. Wealthy gentlemen sought extra representatives for wealthier districts. They deplored political parties and demagogic electioneering. The Founding Fathers’ aristocratic republicanism relied precisely on Fathers—well-born, well-educated, well-heeled patriarchs—to bring good order and good sense to a flock that extended far past their gates.
In contrast, most Civil War–era U.S. slaveholding establishments came to power two decades into the nineteenth century, after the nation’s dominant ideology, North and South, had swerved from aristocratic to egalitarian (white) republicanism. Instead of poorer (white) men voting and richer patriarchs deciding, all white males became equal decision makers. The new (white male) egalitarian ideal inspired universal white male suffrage, low if any property qualifications for office, few if any extra representatives for rich districts, two mass national parties, and demagogic appeals to commoners to dictate the nation’s policies.
Newcomers plastered this dominant nouveau mentality on all areas of the oldest South except coastal South Carolina. The colonial Upper South world of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina contained huge geographic areas that planters avoided. Nonslaveholders, including many migrants from the free labor North, relished these widespread slaveless or lightly enslaved Upper South domains. In the early and mid-nineteenth century, alien migrants forced more egalitarian state governments on the elderly aristocracy. But the crusty South Carolina gentry, with practically their whole state a potential plantation region, faced much lighter egalitarian demands; and the aristocracy dominated far larger slave gangs.
Despite their defiance of the new (as they saw it) political barbarism, South Carolina reactionaries made one timely concession to crass populism. In 1810, even before other southern states succumbed to mobocratic suffrage, South Carolinians allowed all white male adults, except paupers, to vote. They then barred all other elements of white male egalitarianism from their elitist republican government. In South Carolina alone, service in the state’s nineteenth-century House of Representatives required property worth at least ten slaves plus 500 acres. Tenure in the State Senate required a doubled fortune. Residence in the governor’s mansion required another five times more holdings.
In 1860, no other southern legislature remained so malapportioned against one white man, one vote. South Carolina’s coastal parishes, with under a tenth of the state’s whites, controlled over a third of the House’s seats and almost half of the Senate’s. The skewed legislature elected the governor (everywhere else elected by the people) as well as the state’s U.S. senators (as was true in all other states) and presidential electors (as was true in no other state).
The aristocratic legislature also usually made the policy decisions, without asking voters first (commonplace everywhere else). South Carolina’s upperclass republicans usually scuttled popular parties (dominant everywhere else). Lowcountry patriarchs almost always scorned presentation of issues to voters (standard everywhere else). When asked what his constituents thought about an issue, Representative Daniel Huger exclaimed, “Think! They will think nothing about it. They expect me to think for them here.” Or as James Hamilton, Jr., expressed South Carolina’s unique continuing paternalistic prerogative in white government, “The people expect that their leaders in whose … public spirit they have confidence will think for them—and that they will be prepared to act as their leaders think.”3
Such colorblind paternalistic attitudes violated color-exclusive paternalism elsewhere in the mid-nineteenth-century South. Beyond South Carolina, allegedly superior white males only defended the necessity of thinking for supposedly inferior blacks (and white females plus children). Any (white) Tom, Dick, or Harry, soared the wealthy Andrew Jackson, could equally govern. South Carolina elitists retorted that (white men’s) egalitarian republicanism erred in its fundamental premise: that all white men were equal. Some white men were more wealthy, more intelligent, more mature, more educated than others. White republics, together with lesser white nonslaveholders and still lesser white women and still lesser white children, continued to need patriarchal guidance, albeit a dominion short of the total paternalistic direction that still lesser black slaves required.
Short of slavery. South Carolina colorblind paternalism did not require George Fitzhugh’s politically suicidal path to colorblind slavery. Nor did colorblind paternalism require the Fitzhugh folly that dogs or horses or humans must be owned to elicit benevolent guidance. Instead, wise patriarchs should calibrate the degree of paternalism over inferior folks not owned to subjects’ degree of inferiority. This calibrated, colorblind, upper-class paternalism helped make South Carolina patriarchs’ rage against white men’s egalitarian Union peculiarly intense.4
To reemphasize that slavery was but the unlimited form of the more limited paternalism that all lessers (and all republics) needed, South Carolina elitist republicans denied that boundless paternalism should even be called slavery. William Gilmore Simms, South Carolina’s favorite novelist, urged “that our Institution was not slavery, at all, in the usual” sense “of the term, which implies some wrong done to the party.” The Charleston preacher James Warley Miles invented the squires’ favorite term for slavery without wrong: “socalled slavery.” Under so-called slavery, Simms wrote (and Miles agreed), a black is a “minor, under guardianship.” The ward has “forfeited no right.” A “representative master” must protect a slave’s “rights and privileges,” including blacks’ rights to keep families intact and to enjoy full access to Christ.5
In every aspect of life, lowcountry squires guarded eighteenth-century patriarchal ideals against nineteenth-century egalitarian realities. Paternalistic rulers aimed to squeeze the wrongs out of slavery, leach the demagoguery out of mobocracy, and purge the materialism out of capitalism. Instead of corrupting the making of money, they would perfect the art of living. Like those revered Englishmen a half century before, lowcountry paternalists would make relationships on their estates and in their neighborhoods as lovely as their houses, their furniture, their wines, their paintings, and the poets who celebrated their triumphs over brutalities.
Yet despite their claim to transcend all other Americans, including all other Southerners, in ousting brutishness from their realm, no other Southerners felt savagery to be so uncomfortably close. Few coastal titans could see a neighbor’s white face. Pools of water, inked pitch-black by towering cypress, plus forests of live oak, drooping with eerie Spanish moss, severed white specks of lowcountry folk from each other. Nor did anything white seem to dilute slaves’ blackness. No other area sustained so few mulattoes or so African a slave culture or so non-American a Gullah dialect. Nowhere else did malarial mosquitoes impel masters to flee their country estates from early spring to late fall.
After patriarchs’ flight, their neighborhoods became 90 percent black. On some plantations, the percentage reached 100. Rather than hire inexperienced white overseers, rich white escapees often preferred to allow experienced black slaves, with a lifetime of mastering the intricate dams and sluices, to master the slaves too. In this semiannual upper-class abdication, patriarchs became fugitives from slaves, and (white) runaways depended on supposedly racially inferior black managers to save their civilization from savagery.
After the killing frosts, when the fugitives, alias the planters, returned home to reclaim their paternalistic obligations, their preachers warned them, almost every Sunday, that slavery remained short of so-called slavery. Until they allowed dependents access to the Word and until they protected slave families from separation, they practiced not an unlimited form of colorblind paternalism but an unseemly example of unchristian exploitation. So too, some of their slaves told them, with surly looks and unsettling sabotages, that the lash must replace non-Cuffees’ nonexistent consent. Hostile slaves had obviously neither “voted” for “representative masters,” nor affirmed that “so-called slavery” had replaced slavery, nor demonstrated that whites had nothing to fear from blacks.
So too, masters’ account books told them that slaves in deadly swamps often succumbed to savage fevers (especially the black children). Far-off miasmatic fields (especially far off from absentee planters), and hundreds of slaves (too many sometimes even to know everyone’s name) also mocked their claim to personal direction. Above all else, gentlemen uncomfortably imagined how these supposedly impressionistic inferiors might ambush Big House folk if freed or if allowed to hear incendiary propaganda. Would-be paternalists’ swamps, source of their supposed power to salvage eighteenthcentury civilization, came not just shadowed by giant trees draped with spectral moss but also darkened by specters of nineteenth-century chaos, right around history’s corner.
– 2 –
Would-be English country gentlemen felt more comfortable in their favorite city. Their annual evacuation of swamp estates most often led to six-month encampments in barricaded Charleston mansions. Their telltale town fortresses revealingly contrasted with the unshielded houses in another planter town haven: Natchez, Mississippi.
Mississippi River sugar and cotton planters built Natchez’s grand houses during the age of the Southwest’s economic explosion, 1835–60. Nouveau riche Mississippi gentlemen lavished little extravagance on their mansions’ interiors. The mantels, moldings, and furniture looked massive, Victorian, and heavy-handed. Natchez’s lilting external façades, in contrast, delicately impressed. The white Greek-columned mansions, usually perfectly balanced and sometimes columned on all four sides, displayed the Old South’s most advanced aesthetic sensibility. Few towering stucco walls inhibited the view from the street. This aristocracy wished its Greek extravagance to be admired outside.
Natchez planters seldom lingered inside their newly built displays. They actively managed healthy nearby plantations. These nineteenth-century tycoons remained too enterprising, too prosperous, too optimistic to obsess on racial nightmares, or on secessionist fantasies, or on concealing themselves behind a veneer of eighteenth-century civilization.
Concealment epitomized decaying Charleston. Most of the city’s best houses had been built not on the eve of the Civil War but in the wake of the American Revolution. Charleston’s best creators, newly rich late eighteenthcentury squires, had cherished not ancient Greece but contemporary England. They had lavished cash not on columns that commoners could see from the street but on reception rooms a floor above the avenue, where only fellow aristocrats could be seen. They had filled their second-story drawing rooms with mantels patterned after Robert Adam designs, with plaster-cast moldings, carved interior doors, and papier-mâché ceilings that also graced a midlevel English country gentleman’s dwelling. They had imported their eighteenth-century Chippendale furniture from London or commissioned exact copies from craftsmen such as Thomas Elfe, their best (and a superb) carver of imported mahogany.
Out of doors, however, only a fraction of their houses’ façades aped Georgian England. This handful of their finest eighteenth-century dwellings, socalled double houses, displayed long brick front façades on the street side. The entrance hall separated two perfectly balanced rooms (hence “double” houses). The front door, centering the street façade, stood atop several stairs. Its rich carving displayed pomp on a public stage. No wall prevented commoners from gaping at this English Georgian extravagance. Instead, elaborate iron fences, with gaps between murderous-looking pikes, attracted strangers’ eyes while barring unwelcome feet.6
The most sublime Charleston double house, the Miles Brewton House, had been as much built to be seen as Natchez houses would be a half century later. Brewton’s double house originally came encased in the red-brick style fashionable in the English late eighteenth century, not in the white Greek style fashionable in mid-nineteenth-century Natchez. Brewton himself, however, anticipated nouveau Natchezites. His fortune came from financing the transportation of Africans to America. Natchezites’ fortunes came from exploiting the transfer of Upper South slaves to the Lower South. Both gentries’ houses, however different their architecture, displayed the wealth gleaned from wrenching blacks toward North America’s lushest tropical spots.7
In contrast, Charleston’s far more common “single” house hid most of itself from onlookers. A single house’s long front façade ran away from the thoroughfare. So did its long piazza (porch), also one room deep and attached to the retreating dwelling. Only the house’s side, a single room deep (hence “single” house) endured public scrutiny.8
A typical Charleston “single house” (top left), displaying only its side and its fake front door to street observers; the less typical “double house” (top right); and Charleston’s gem, the Miles Brewton House, with its spiked fence (below right), the signature of a fortified city. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (all three images).
The single house’s apparent front door appeared on its narrow street side. But that door customarily opened only onto the piazza or onto the garden, usually hidden behind high stucco walls that ran over to the adjourning single house. Entrance to the house usually came through the real front door, concealed either in the garden or in the piazza. The master often greeted his guests not down below but high above, where second-floor reception rooms looked down on urban tumult.
The street walls blockaded not only whites’ hidden entrance but also slaves’ concealed yard. This little backyard village contained slave dwellings, kitchen, laundry, and other centers of domestic service. The concealment, both of masters and of slaves, made single houses’ aesthetic neither English nor southwestern. Charleston’s long piazzas, begging for a wisp of breeze, recalled not coolish England but the boiling West Indies and the homes of haughty West Indian slaveholders, from whence the first lowcountry planters came. So too, those high walls, built ever higher, thicker, and more often between single houses as the Civil War approached, epitomized old-fashioned commanders in elevated drawing rooms, on guard against nineteenth-century improvements, alias barbarisms.
Behind the walls and beyond the street, gentlemen won highest esteem not by earning fortunes or by securing offices but by perfecting paternalism. The most admired connoisseurs planned the loveliest gardens and selected the most fragrant wines. The most beloved conversationalists crafted oneline bon mots, whether ridiculing nineteenth-century materialism (“The greatest absurdity in the world is a ‘Liverpool gentleman’”) or nineteenth-century mobocracy (“The politics of the immortal Jefferson! Pish!”)9 or even secessionist pretensions (“South Carolina is too small to be a Republic and too large to be an insane asylum”).10 The most esteemed wordsmiths celebrated Charleston’s elegance in fastidious essays and poems. William Grayson, “Billy” to the drawing room set, won highest honors for his extended couplets, contrasting exploitations of northern hirelings with protections of southern slaves:
Where hireling millions toil, in doubt and fear,
No … wants nor sorrows check the Negro’s joy …
Why peril then the Negro’s humble joys,
Why make him free if freedom but destroys?11
Devoted guardians of lessers won as much drawing room adulation as poetic celebrators of paternalism. By nursing the sick, William Porcher Miles earned a congressional seat. By shielding free blacks from lower-class whites, Christopher Memminger demonstrated caring refinement. By bringing the Word to the slaves and by saving a slave family from an auctioneer, James Warley Miles sought to make so-called slavery a lovely sight.
It was all so precious, so fleeting, so vulnerable to the avenues below and to the world beyond. At night, those towering walls could keep cooks, butlers, and maids isolated from contaminating ideas bruited on the streets. But during the day, Massa’s slaves paraded down the thoroughfares, until the 9:00 P.M. curfew bells of St. Michael’s warned them to retreat behind the walls. Through such porous barriers, antislavery ideas could seep.
Those ideas threatened far more than fortunes, even far more than lives. The world outside could kill the only existence worth saving. Incendiary propaganda could corrupt the masses of allegedly impressionable blacks, already suspect in those eerie swamps. The resulting uneasiness could abort so-called slavery. Meticulous drawing room dandies could become brutal lashers, omnipresent in really awful slavery. Genial charmers could become red-faced defenders; refined reactionaries could become raw revolutionaries; charming drawing rooms could become empty, hollow, while furious titans swarmed in the streets. So Charleston’s edgy reactionaries guarded the elegant veneers that camouflaged their unseemly dangers—veneers only slightly less vulnerable in the walled city than in the miasmatic swamps.
The preemptive strike remained endangered coastal gentlemen’s essential defensive strategy, from the days when John C. Calhoun sought to nullify President Andrew Jackson to the days when secessionists sought to escape President Lincoln. The lowcountry gentry continually confronted danger at the threshold, before the enemy could creep inside, indeed before most Southerners could spot a menace outside. In the late 1820s, lowcountry congressmen mystified other Southerners with threats of secession if Congress dared to finance free blacks’ transportation back to Africa. In the 1832–33 Nullification Crisis, when other Southerners thought South Carolinians fought only to attain state veto of protective tariffs, lowcountry warriors also fought to secure state power to veto still nonexistent federal antislavery acts.
In 1835, lowcountry Nullifiers, again seeking to preclude the first national glimmerings of antislavery, torched abolitionists’ mailings and demanded gag rules against congressional antislavery petitions. As Robert Barnwell Rhett defended the strategy of building barriers against entering wedges, before wedges had entered, “a people owning slaves are mad, or worse than mad, who do not hold their destinies in their own hands.”12 A successful preventative strike would erect high walls against all intrusive hands.
– 3 –
Lowcountry titans’ crusades for preventative walls required other white South Carolinians’ support. Even in heavily enslaved coastal parishes, nonslaveholders slightly outnumbered slaveholders. Still, slaveless whites throughout the South usually massed behind slaveholders in black belt areas, where racial solidarity and racial safety usually trumped class resentments. “The color of the white man,” wrote John Townsend, the most important lowcountry secessionist pamphleteer, is “a title of nobility.… Although Cuffy or Sambo may be immensely … superior in wealth” and may be “the owner of many slaves, as some of them are, yet the poorest white nonslaveholder, being a white man, is the superior in the eyes of the law.”13
Lowly whites as black belt political superiors had no qualms about elevating squires to the legislature or about ousting abolitionists from the neighborhood. In the paramilitary societies that patrolled the lowcountry in the fall of 1860, nonslaveholders paraded beside their richer neighbors, proudly keeping blacks ground under. The patriarchal obligation of all white men to guard their wives, gratifying to poor men’s chauvinistic egos, included the necessity to keep a 90 percent black majority from murdering white dependents.14
Beyond the swamps, white South Carolinians less massively favored preventative strikes against the Union. So-called upcountrymen, comprising the 90 percent of South Carolina whites who lived west of the lowcountry’s coastal swamps, sometimes restrained the swamp aristocracy’s secessionist escapades. But statewide, planter solidarity usually overwhelmed upcountry restrictions.
The upcountry-lowcountry solidarity emerged early in the nineteenth century, when migrants to the upcountry developed the first sprawling Cotton Kingdom. By 1830, slaves averaged 50 percent of the upcountry’s population (compared to the lowcountry’s 80 percent). Upcountry agrarians planted the more normal, more coarse, more soil-exhausting short-staple brand of the cotton weed (compared to the Sea Islands’ less soil-exhausting long-staple silky fibers).
But the upcountry’s more normal version of Lower South black belts early suffered from its own abnormality. As the first Cotton South planters, upcountry pioneers also became the first to wear out their soil. Because of their steep economic decline during the 1820s, the South Carolina upcountry became the only sprawling Lower South area to lose its population by the tens of thousands, as its white people moved themselves and/or their slaves from their depleted soil to the Southwest’s virgin terrain.
The upcountry’s economic depression and debilitating departures helped unify the first South Carolina defiance. In 1830–33, when less economically afflicted lowcountry squires sought to nullify high protective tariffs, especially to secure a constitutional wall against future abolitionist incursions, more economically afflicted upcountry gentlemen joined the crusade, especially to reduce tax burdens. While the linkage of somewhat different anxieties fueled a common rush toward a preventative strike, another singularity in the South Carolina habitat hampered unionist resistance. South Carolina’s scant mountains (really only foothills) and constricted pine barrens (seldom barren of plantations) fostered few clusters of white belts without slaves, the southern condition that elsewhere most encouraged defiance of black belt extremists. In 1860, slavery so saturated South Carolina that only one (of thirty) counties contained under 30 percent slaves (and that one was a hefty 23 percent black). Only five other South Carolina counties remained under 40 percent enslaved.15 In contrast, 30 percent of Georgia, Florida, and Alabama counties, as well as 53 percent of Texas counties, contained less than 25 percent of their populations enslaved.
Despite almost all South Carolina regions’ shared thick quantities of slaves, upcountry and lowcountry aristocracies developed slightly different worldviews. Upcountry squires possessed a somewhat lower percentage of slaves. They also developed their slightly whiter world largely during the more egalitarian (for whites) nineteenth century. These relatively new slaveholding grandees thus harbored some resentment of the antique lowcountry’s extra delegates in the legislature. Wealthy uplanders also sometimes participated in allegedly mobocratic national political parties, especially in the 1850s, when James L. Orr asked South Carolina eccentrics to act like normal Americans.
But in this abnormal little state, geographically the smallest Lower South state but ultimately the largest in political impact, rich squires from the oldest and youngest South Carolina sections came to know each other intimately. They mutually attended South Carolina College. They often chose mates from the other section. Every February during race week, upcountry horsemen savored Charleston drawing rooms. Every December during legislative sessions, lowcountry squires relished Columbia drawing rooms.
John C. Calhoun’s theory of nullification, like its upcountry author, illustrated the almost complete meeting of minds. Doubters of the nullification logic claimed that if any minority could veto any law, no acts would be passed. Calhoun retorted that if all minorities could nullify any tax, meager revenues would tempt few spoilsmen. With scarce public offices luring scant demagogues, selfless aristocrats would wield public power. Disinterested statecraft would produce compromise, preclude anarchy, and perpetuate chaste republicanism. No lowcountryman could have improved on the arch Nullifier’s upcountry logic.
In the wake of nullification, an English visitor marveled at his evening in a South Carolina patriarch’s dining room. My wealthy hosts, reported G. W. Featherstonhaugh, “consider themselves … the gentlemen of America.” They look “down upon the trading communities in the Northern States” with an “habitual sense of superiority,” with a contempt for “an inferior race of men,” and with “a distrust sometimes amounting to hatred. … A stranger dropped in amongst them from the clouds would hardly have supposed himself among Americans.” Particularly striking “was the total want of caution and reserve” in sneering at the “favorites of the Sovereign People” and in hissing “that there never can be a good government if it is not administered by gentlemen.” These reactionaries, predicted Featherstonhaugh, will provide “fine elements for future disunion.”16
Featherstonhaugh’s depiction reads like descriptions of Charleston soirées. Featherstonhaugh instead described an upcountry feast. With the lowcountry’s contempt for the Union’s mobocracy so rife, so far from the swamps, coastal extremists could rally less rabid uplanders against Yankee entering wedges.
– 4 –
Still, South Carolina’s barriers against intrusions proved to be as porous as Charleston’s walls. In 1833, nullification failed to be secured. In 1845, gag rules against congressional slavery debate failed to be renewed. Throughout the antebellum period, South Carolina’s censoring of U.S. mails failed to keep antislavery whispers off Charleston’s streets.
The lowcountry aristocracy’s power, wealth, and self-confidence waned at the very time that its multiplying walls failed to exclude. The seemingly perpetual fertility of the Sea Islands and the swamps became, after the first quarter of the nineteenth century, not a bit endless. Rice and long-staple cotton fields wore out slowly, not so precipitously as the short-staple cotton fields west of the swamps but, by the end of the antebellum period, more chokingly. Planters’ lavish spending and absentee management came to be less affordable. Lovely Charleston mansions came to be less immaculate. Copies of London extravagant furniture came to involve not expensive reproductions from the Thomas Elfes but cheap imitations from New York, grossly carved and hurriedly slapped together and illuminating the antipatriarchal consequences of the bargain basement. Younger sons, then older sons too, fled aging ancestral fields for the adolescent Southwest. Their late eighteenth-century forbearers had been the richest in cash of North American titans. Instead, mid-nineteenth-century lowcountry gentlemen became the richest in unsustainable pretensions.
As the swamp gentry’s debilitating decline progressed, the departure of their peoples matched, then exceeded the upcountry’s desertions. By 1860, half of white South Carolinians born since 1800 had departed for the West. In 1830, South Carolina had led Lower South states in both slave and total population. The state had also ranked second (behind only Georgia) in white population. By 1860, the ex–Lowér South leader had fallen to sixth (ahead of only Florida) in white population and fourth in both slave and total population. In 1830, the state had possessed nine U.S. congressmen. After 1850, it sported only six.17
By spreading across the Lower South, South Carolinians disseminated extremism. The 50,000 ex–South Carolinians in Georgia, 45,000 in Alabama, and 26,000 in Mississippi brought some South Carolina attitude to new frontiers.18 But Southwesterners diluted South Carolina extremism with egalitarian republican (for whites) compromises. As lowcountry South Carolinians watched their power and people drain toward the Southwest’s pale replica of aristocratic hauteur, they despaired, with Charlestonian Hugh Swinton Legaré, that “we are… the last of the race. … Why should such a state of things—a society so charming and so accomplished—be doomed to end so soon, and perhaps so terribly! …I see nothing before us but decay and downfall.”19
The lowcountry’s decay deepened in the 1850s. Few wealthy Americans have suffered through such a debilitating economic decade, immediately after two decades of such crippling declension. In the presecession decade, the bottom fell out of the long-eroding lowcountry rice economy. Sea Island cotton profits also became as frail as the fiber. To all its other radicalizing “onlys”—the only area with such massive quantities of slaves, the only massive nineteenth century southern fragment clinging to eighteenth-century aristocratic republicanism, the only southern subregion with a City on the Sea so walled against modernity—the lowcountry added its plight as the only southern area plunging toward economic debility during a decade of booming slaveholder profits everywhere else.
Just as Charleston had epitomized the lowcountry’s rise, so the walled city reflected its hinterlands’ fall. Charleston lost one-fourth of its slaves to the West in the 1850s. Lower-class whites moved in, to take over menial positions. The wrong (white) race’s omnipresence in the wrong (menial) roles mocked Billy Grayson’s couplets; now Charleston whites were the hirelings. The city’s overall population, sixth in the United States in 1830, drooped to twenty-second in 1860.
Economic downturn furthered political extremism. The lowcountry parishes had led the state and the South into the proslavery crusades of the 1830s. In October 1851, after the rest of the South rejected disunion, 61 percent of lowcountry rural voters wished to gamble on Separate State Secession anyway. But with planters back on their estates after the first frost, Charleston voters shrank from recklessness. The town bourgeoisie, merchants and lawyers et al., had vast commercial attachments, transcending the lowcountry. These relative sophisticates considered secession by South Carolina alone to be suicidally provincial. Seventy-one percent of voters in the City on the Sea rejected Separate State Secession, as did 60 percent of upcountry voters.
Amidst this electoral disaster for Separate State Secession, the whole state massed behind Cooperative State Secession—disunion as soon as some other state(s) agreed to cooperate. But would another state ever cooperate, unless South Carolina seceded first and forced some state’s concurrence? With that blackmail repudiated in their own state, Separate State Secessionists faced living death, so they feared, in the national sewer. Their reckless star, Robert Barnwell Rhett, after resigning from the U.S. Senate, suffered permanent rejection as the state’s leader.
No secessionist lowcountryman rose to take Rhett’s place. The most ascendant South Carolina politician after Rhett’s plunge became the upcountry’s James L. Orr. Orr wanted to lead the state into the stench of the National Democratic Party, its people into the muck of popular elections for presidents, and its majority toward reducing lowcountry parishes’ inflated power. Equally dismaying to lowcountry patriarchs, when the state sent Charleston’s Christopher Memminger to urge cooperation with Virginians after John Brown’s raid, the fellow elderly state sent Memminger home empty-handed. So too, when South Carolina called the South to the Richmond Convention after the Democratic Party’s bustup in Charleston, southern delegates instead sped to Baltimore, leaving Robert Barnwell Rhett cooling his heels.
John C. Calhoun had been a dominant Southerner before 1850. But only one South Carolinian counted for much in the national slavery politics of the 1850s. In 1856, that upcountryman, Preston Brooks, gave Charles Sumner the mauling that the New Englander allegedly deserved. In response to this solitary supposed South Carolina heroism of the 1850s, New Englanders brought their contempt for the state to a climax. Brooks, pronounced a Boston newspaper, emitted “but the hissings of a vile serpent …whose infectious disgorgings are … stench to the nostrils.” Let all Northerners “know what sort of being they are dwelling in the Union with.”20
Such insults increased coastal South Carolinians’ determination, as Charles W. Hutson, Jr., declared, to stride “out of reach of the miasma that arises from” that “sink of infamy,” the mobocratic Union and its repulsive Yankee majority.21 “I wish we could leave these swine to wallow in their mire,” added Hutson, an important lowcountry heir. In 1860–61, the English visitor Charles Russell heard many lowcountry echoes of Hutson’s contempt. It is impossible, marveled Russell, “to give an idea” of how vilely these “courtly, well educated men, who set great store on a nice observance of the usages of society,” cursed with “extreme bitterness and anger” at the “‘rabble of the North.’”22
Russell gave the impossible a try. “Deadly … hatred,” he reported, “has been swelling for years till it is the very lifeblood of the state.” Lowcountry patriarchs have long since decided “to break away from the Union at the very first opportunity,” lest they be forever “bound by burning chains” to “the incarnation of moral and political wickedness.” They crave divorce from “the birthplace of impurity of mind among men and of unchastity in women—the home of … rotten philosophy,” of “a corrupt, howling demagogy,” of “dishonest commerce,” of “Free Love, … of Infidelity, of Abolitionism.”
But in the late 1850s as in 1852, these incensed reactionaries could only scream haplessly for severance from modernity. The years of screeching for disunion—and the years of impotence to seize the prize—made South Carolinians seem ridiculous, not least to themselves. “Witness” our “blustering bravado” and our “eternally pouring a flood of abuse upon everything that squints of Yankeedom,” and our “unceasing ranting about … Southern Union.” Ours is but an “unremitting and unending cry of wolf, wolf,” earning only the laughter of the world.23
A people whose futility inspired hilarity, warned Congressman W. W. Boyce in 1859, will be paralyzed by “a hated sense of inferiority and degradation,” crushing to “the public spirit.” We “will be placed under the ban, provincialized, subordinated,” bound “to the stake.” We will “suppose that all was lost, because nothing was done.” As David Flavel Jamison, the future president of South Carolina’s secession convention, added in this year before Armageddon, “We are looking to some sudden turn of fortune, we know not what, to rescue us from the doom we have not the courage to avert.”24
– 5 –
Lincoln’s election elevated gentlemen’s courage. The special provocations of the president-elect’s supposed immediate menace dovetailed perfectly with the special dreads of these most provoked Southerners. This marriage fit for hell would have seemed less intolerable if lowcountrymen had considered the threat of higher protective tariffs and/or of territorial containment to be Lincoln’s supreme menace.
Higher taxes on imports had never been lowcountry Nullifiers’ cardinal obsession, not even back when they nullified the tariffs of 1828 and 1832. Federal tax policy slid further down the totem pole of grievances in 1860. True, William Porcher Miles on occasion called new taxes the worst Lincolnian menace. So too, Robert Barnwell Rhett demanded that high tariffs be brought front and center, when the South Carolina secession convention presented its rationale for disunion.
But most lowcountry arguments for secession barely mentioned tariffs. As an economic threat, potentially higher taxes were but a hangnail compared to the potential confiscation of tens of millions of dollars in slave property—comprising more dollars invested per white citizen in the lowcountry than anywhere else in the South. Since the gentry could not imagine rice cultivation without slaves, gentlemen thought emancipation would also lose them more tens of millions of dollars in improved land—again, a more costly investment than planters elsewhere held at risk. So from a narrowly pecuniary viewpoint, secessionists considered the slavery issue far more important than the tariff issue—and slavery involved far more than economics. Without slavery’s race control, trembled lowcountrymen, the blackest population in the South would annihilate white society (including its economy).
Lowcountry secessionists also exhibited relatively low interest in territorial expansion. On occasion, lowcountry seers did stress the need to stop Northern Republicans from containing southern expansion. “An all powerful Government,” warned William Henry Trescot, desired that “a circle… be drawn around the South,” so that the region “should stand, like one of its own oaks, rung for slow but certain destruction.”25 John Townsend, in the lowcountry’s most widely-read important secessionist pamphlet, popularized Charles Sumner’s uglier image. Slavery, said Sumner, would perish in the encircled slave states as “a poisoned rat dies, of rage in its hole.”26
Furious at this image, Robert Barnwell Rhett and Laurence Keitt did occasionally dream that secession would lead to a vast Caribbean empire, which did beat being holed up like a rat. But territorial bombast remained an exception even in Rhett’s and Keitt’s oratory. Almost all other important lowcountry secessionist polemicists, including John Townsend, scarcely mentioned territorial containment when emphasizing Lincoln’s menace.
During antebellum slavery crises, territorial imperialism had only fitfully been lowcountry folks’ passion. Only when slaveholder expansion seemed necessary to safeguard the borders of slave areas, especially amidst Texas and Kansas turmoils, or when Yankees insulted slaveholders as too noisome to grow, had South Carolinians displayed their best extremist style. Even then, the great territorial controversies proceeded with scant South Carolina leadership, a marked contrast with nullification, gag rule, and secession times.
In general, nonmigrating South Carolinians, having decided to stay inside South Carolina, had the slows about territorial expansion, sometimes, as we have seen, to the fury of southwestern imperialists. Ever since Robert Walker and Texas days, southwestern expansionists had demanded new territorial outlets, lest they someday be inundated with the Upper South’s blacks. Unlike Southwesterners, however, South Carolina already had their (cursed!) outlets for people to depart. All too many South Carolina folk, black and white, deserted Mother South Carolina for the crude, rude Southwest. Moreover, the declining South Carolina lowcountry imported scarcely a black from the slave-exporting Upper South. Instead, white mudsills drained toward Charleston, to replace departed black mudsills. Coastal reactionaries’ problem was to keep enough folk, black and white, home from Mammon, so that some power would remain to save the old ways from new contaminations.
The Slave South’s most committed disunionists and its most committed expansionists lived in different worlds. South Carolina, cradle of secession, never produced an important filibusterer, while Louisiana, nurturer of expansionists, almost failed to produce a secessionist majority. Where most Louisianans thought that the Union’s power could secure the Caribbean, most South Carolinians feared that expansionists’ triumphs would delay disunion. Moreover, should the South expand down to the Amazon, the newest South’s tropical enticements would quicken the depopulation of ailing South Carolina.
Fresh tropical terrain would also come pockmarked with the likes of Mexican or Cuban peasants, possessing no experience with democracy of any sort, much less a taste for upper-class republicanism. Thus John C. Calhoun had opposed annexing all of Mexico. Nor could dreams of empire propel the South Carolinians of 1860 peculiarly quickly to disunion. As F. F. Warley explained in one of the great secessionist orations, “The safety, yea the very existence! of this institution depends upon its concentration. Expand it—spread over it a vast territory, and we only hold out inducements to Northern emissaries to come amongst us and stir up sedition in our midst.”27
Nor could fear of territorial containment answer unionists’ best argument against secession. If some future congressional decree against slaveholders’ expansion alone imperiled the South, explained disunionists’ opponents, we can safely wait for the overt act, which might never come. But South Carolinians could not wait because they focused on a menace that would come: Lincoln’s use of presidential patronage to plant a Republican Party inside the South.
Lowcountry secessionists agreed that Republicans would immediately attempt no overt antislavery laws. Such an effort would scare Southerners out of the Union and out of Yankees’ clutches. In contrast, Republicans’ deployment of southern patronage would leave the region enfeebled. John Townsend spread a spooky metaphor for nonovert enfeeblement, as chilling as a caged rat: a spider’s web. Imagine, wrote Townsend, “some insect, strong in itself, but which has sillily entangled itself in the meshes of a spider. With moderate exertions at first, it could … free itself. … But it prefers to be quiescent for awhile. Fatal hesitation!” The “artful” spider “dashes forth from his hiding place and fastens a cord around the wing,” then retreats, pauses, rushes forth, retreats, pauses, assaults, until the prey can barely move.
Republicans will creep southward “stealthily, cautiously at first, lest we break through their meshes, and form a government for ourselves.” By appointing southern turncoats to federal stations in the South, including custom houses, post offices, and court houses, Lincoln would spread his meshes inside the South. After we become “unable to resist,” we will have to “submit to…the mercy of the spider.”28
Presidential patronage as creepy as a monster spider—and more spooky than the master image for territorial confinement, a rat in a poisoned cage?! Absolutely, for Republican office would supposedly be the poison inside the jailed South. The patronage bait would attract allegedly traitorous southern politicians to make agitation against slavery as democratically normal as arguments against tariffs and banks. It would be as if gag rules had been lifted not only inside Congress but also throughout the South, as if English abolitionists had been allowed to spread their ideology across the Texas Republic, as if Kansas free soilers had been permitted unrestricted access to western Missouri slaves and nonslaveholders, as if Border Northerners had been invited to perfect their Liberty Line inside the Border South—with all of this Jacobinical disruption now contaminating hidebound South Carolina.
The fear of a national party’s capacity to purchase southern demagogues, commonplace among all secessionists, especially consumed coastal South Carolinians, with their special contempt for mass democracy. The lowcountry gentry, in contrast to all other Lower South establishments, had long damned all who participated in national parties, Democrats or Whigs, as corrupted Southerners. Supposed party corruption had lately invaded South Carolina itself. Lowcountry reactionaries had fought to blast James L. Orr and his followers out of the National Democracy and its Charleston convention.
That exhausting effort had barely triumphed before Lincoln seemed poised to bribe southern traitors into the most frightful national party yet. Since patronage awaited southern converts to Black Republicanism, John Townsend urged, we must not “wait in the Union a single day” while Lincoln “is organizing his cabinet and distributing his offices,” while he is conferring custom house posts throughout the Lower South, while he is entrusting post offices “to Alabama and Mississippi,” and while he is using the federal treasury “to bribe traitors amongst us.”29
An “Abolition Party in the South, of Southern men,” warned the Charleston Mercury, will make “the contest for slavery … no longer … between the North and the South. It will be in the South, between the people of the South.” United States Marshal Daniel Heyward Hamilton feared that “when we find ourselves fairly embarked in a contest which will shake the world, you will find an element of great weakness in our nonslaveholding population.” Hamilton wondered whether “360,000 slaveholders will dictate terms for 3,000,000 of non-slaveholders at the South.—I fear not; I mistrust our own people more than I fear all of the efforts of the Abolitionists.”30
The “most immediate danger,” diagnosed the Charleston Mercury, “will be brought to slavery in all the Frontier [Border South] States.” First, slaves will be infected. “The underground railroad will become an over-ground railroad.” Throughout our vulnerable hinterlands, “the tenure of slave property will be felt to be weakened, and the slaves will be sent down to the Cotton States for sale.” Subsequently, “the Frontier States” will “enter on the policy of making themselves Free States.” Slavery will thus be rolled back into solely the seven Lower South states. The surviving remnant, blackened with ex–Upper South slaves and surrounded by free states, will suffer increasingly dangerous internal debates over their increasingly peculiar U.S. institution.31
To detail chapter and verse of this mobocratic process, John Townsend used a quarter of his climactic secessionist pamphlet to reprint the notorious “Python” series of articles in De Bow’s Review. “Python” (alias Virginia’s John Tyler, Jr.) described the future southern states as falling dominoes, tumbling one atop the other. Under the pressure of Southern Republican agitation, Upper South fugitive slaves would multiply, nonslaveholder resentments would rise, slaveholders would sell their people downriver, Kansas would fall upon Missouri, then Missouri upon Arkansas, then Arkansas upon Louisiana, while Kentucky crashed atop Tennessee and then Tennessee atop Mississippi, and while Maryland sank atop Virginia and then Virginia atop North Carolina. Then would South Carolina indeed be like a rat in a poisoned cage.32
– 6 –
Peril lay not only in Southern Republicans’ pressure on the northerly white belt South but also in Lincoln’s capacity to provoke agitation inside the southerly blackest belts. No lowcountryman, not even Daniel Heyward Hamilton, trembled that Southern Republicans could rally nonslaveholders instantly against slaveholders in slave-infested swamps. Patronage for the Hinton R. Helpers would arouse an immediate nonslaveholder party in the white belt Border South. But inside the lowcountry black belt, Southern Republicans’ most immediate menace would involve their antislavery agitation, arousing allegedly gullible blacks.
Forebodings about blacks’ violence, as usual, little involved expectations of a successful slave revolt or even an unsuccessful general uprising. Instead, lowcountrymen again worried that individual slaves might sabotage or kill. As early as 1822, Charlestonians had most feared that individual slaves would poison water wells. As late as 1859–60, the initial terror, that John Brown plotted mass insurrection, had swerved into prolonged apprehension that Southern Republicans would incite household assassins. The Texas fire scare had sharpened that focus. Without outside “interference,” wrote a wealthy slaveholder on the eve of secession, we have “no apprehension, but if a planter knew his slave were tampered with by incendiaries, the case would be altered.”33
In the especially densely enslaved lowcountry more than anywhere else, slaveholders’ stock images of blacks featured wild gyrations between confidence in genial Cuffees, horror about anti-Cuffees, and apprehension of dissimulating Cuffees. Whites’ prayer that Cuffees’ bootlicking postures revealed genuinely servile souls explains why gentlemen celebrated with such gusto their almost comic tales of incredible docility. Witness the tale of Frank, the little white boy who scoffed that Sharper (perfect name!), his little black playmate, “warn’t worth a hundred dollars.” “Me,” shot back Sharper (accurately!), “I am worth 500 dollars.” Then how much more am I worth, rejoined the imperious little planter-in-waiting? “Lord Marse Frank,” said Sharper disdainfully, “you’s white! You ain’t worth nothing.”34
Another comforting tale featured the slave who sailed “his little sloop” into Charleston harbor during the secession crisis, under the guns of Robert Anderson’s federal soldiers in Fort Sumter. “When asked if he was afraid,” the black sailor cast an incredulous look. “If Mass Anderson fire at me he know he would hear from Massa shure.”35
More common than such smiling tales of loving Cuffees were bewildering images of Cuffee fakery. Mixed up amidst my “good negroes,” lamented a South Carolina slaveholder at the moment of secession, are mysterious others. “I cannot tell whether they have any good feelings for” me. “Sometimes I think they have. Then I think” that they are “as deceitful and lying as any people can well be.”36
Although blacks “carry” the Cuffee pretense “too far,” added Mary Chesnut, we pretend that nothing might be amiss. So “people talk before them as if they were chairs and tables. And they make no sign. Are they stolidly stupid or wiser than we are, silent and strong, biding their time?”37
After Laurence Keitt’s brother’s murder, the congressman implored his “dear Susie,” alias his fiancée, Susan Sparks, to “be careful, I beg you, … be careful.”38 But how could young Miss Sparks be careful? How could she guard against household Cuffees while she lay fast asleep? To take especial care amongst supposedly trusted family friends would be to give blacks ideas about becoming untrustworthy. To shun unusual care was to lie at the mercy of perchance dissimulating enemies. To split the difference was to turn “be careful” into yet another omnipresent charade, as comic as the black sailor under Fort Sumter’s guns.
A memorable incident inside the Chesnut family home exemplified this charade. One “day at dinner,” Mary Chesnut reported, her mother-inlaw “rushed in” to urge “the family not to taste the soup, it was so bitter. Some thing was in it! She meant poison.” But “the family quietly” ate on, “to keep the negroes from supposing it possible they should suspect such a thing.”39
Just as news of Lincoln’s election swept through South Carolina, a large slaveholder tasted something foul in the coffee. “I felt sick a few seconds since,” complained the master in a secret diary, for “the second time—Can it be … an attempt to poison—somehow I can’t think so.” Yet “I have walked through the clearing twice today …and cannot think myself safe. … So friends,” concluded this slaveholder in this intended (and incredible) message from the grave, “if I am suddenly taken off after a meal—remember the coffee.”40
Laurence Keitt remembered more than the coffee. Since “dear Susie” had no way to be careful, masters must take care for their dependents. Patriarchs must prevent Southern Republican postal officials from controlling the mails’ contents. They also must preclude Southern Republican campaigners from spreading words that slaves must not hear. We must “cut loose” from the Union “through fire and blood if necessary,” declared Keitt, lest enemies “get access to our negroes to advise poison and the torch.”41
More even seemed at stake than Sue Sparks’s life, if Southern Republicans gained access to Cuffees. Secessionists aimed to secure not only slavery’s defense but also an institution worth defending. Here they resembled Dred Scott’s southern Supreme Court judges. The jurists had sought to end congressional slavery debates not just as reactionaries, perpetuating a system, but also as reformers, perhaps crafting preconditions for slavery’s improvement. So too, lowcountry secessionists were not only reactionaries, bent on preserving black bondage and white aristocratic republicanism, but also paternalists, hoping to perfect so-called slavery. The lowcountry spawned not only James Warley Miles but also the Harvard-educated Edward Pringle, whose elegant pamphlet, published in Cambridge, Massachusetts, spread cultivated hopes for a progressive slavocracy, if only outside agitators such as Harriet Beecher Stowe would hush.
Slavery under noisy siege from Southern Republicans posted inside, secessionists shuddered, would instead slide backward. John Townsend winced at the difference between the beneficent glory of so-called slavery without any outside interference, where “the kindliest feeling would grow up between the master and his slave,” and the nonbeneficent horror of slavery once “intruded upon by the impertinent self-righteousness” of Yankee would-be saints, “whose ignorance and presumption are only equaled by their vulgarity.” With incendiary Southern Republicans loose in the neighborhood, masters would become “moody and irascible” in the face of slaves’ “turbulence and disrespect.” Increased lashings of blacks and lynchings of whites would turn slavery into an “armed camp,” in a brutal Charleston Mercury phrase. Profoundly threatened would be not only life, in this most enslaved speck of the South, not only fortunes, in this most expensively developed southern habitat, but also the sacred honor of patriarchs, called by Christ to make socalled slavery into a Christian flower.42
More than planters in any other region, lowcountrymen conceived that their honor demanded disunion. They had so often promised to step atop revolutionary barricades. They had equally often failed to deliver on that promise. Now they believed that Lincoln’s southern appointees, with potentially unspeakable influence on slaves, made secession more necessary than ever. So what self-respect and honor would they retain if they again cowered?
“South Carolina must either secede,” answered Robert Burch, the British consul in Charleston, or expose “herself to the ridicule of the world.” From Washington, D.C., William Henry Trescot warned compatriots back home that, oh, “how they laughed at little South Carolina.” They said she was like “a child who sulks and won’t play.” Rather than demonstrate that we have sunk into such infamy, cried Congressman William Porcher Miles, “our pride is enlisted to prove” ourselves “not so poor, weak, and destitute” as to be unable to “hold” our “own in the great community of nations.”43
They had always fought to keep aristocratic paternalism uncorrupted inside a foul egalitarian nation. Now insufferable egalitarians, aiming to tear down caring paternalism in the name of merciless individualism, would clamber over walls that never seemed high enough to repel mobocratic taints. The invaders would swarm not John Brown’s impossible way but Hinton R. Helper’s insidious way. Presidential patronage would fuel the corruption of lesser folks, black and white, and thus corrupt paternalism itself. The title of John Townsend’s most influential pamphlet summed up why self-respecting patriarchs must this time escape the morass: The South Alone Should Govern the South.
As the Charleston Mercury pared a complex issue to its explosive essence: “The question now for the South to consider is this—under whose government will the slaves of the South be most quietly kept in subjection and order? … If we had a government of our own, the post office, all the avenues of intercourse, the police and the military would be under our exclusive control.” Or as the Mercury summed up the folly of waiting for an overt act, with Lincoln’s nonovert patronage the imminent gunman, “Although you see your enemy load his rifle with the direct purpose of taking your life, you are to wait …until he shoots you.”44
– 7 –
Upcountrymen found Lincoln almost as unsufferable. No coastal aristocrat surpassed the uplands’ John Manning’s contempt for Lincoln personally or Mrs. Laurence Keitt’s scorn for Republicans generally. Instead of nominating their most high-toned leader, cursed Manning, Republicans had selected a “wretched backwoodsman,” with “cleverness indeed but no cultivation.” Laurence Keitt’s new wife, that “dear Susie” who had no way of being careful about domestic ambush, added that “Black Republicans” comprised “a motley throng of Sans culottes and Dame des Halles, Infidels and freelovers, interspersed by Bloomer women, fugitive slaves, and [racial] amalgamationists.”45
Nor did any lowcountryman outdo either the Reverend J. H. Cornish in mocking Republicans’ do-goodism or Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, president of South Carolina College, in deploring do-gooders’ consequences. Lincoln’s election, intoned the Reverend Mr. Cornish, defied “the scripture rule—‘be not busybodies in other men’s matters.’” Yankee busybodies, added Longstreet, have alarmed “the tender ones” in “my household” and in “every family in the South, not for a week, or a year, but interminably!” After secession gets “us away from Republican influences,” cheered Longstreet, Massa and Cuffee “shall dwell together in peace on earth, and mingle hymns in heaven.”46
Nor did any lowcountry secessionists surpass Judge T. J. Withers in finding the image to scorn secession’s delay, or Mary Chesnut in finding the metaphor for blissfully severed sections. I would much prefer “playing with my Grandson,” wrote Judge Withers, to combating New England “fools and knaves,” who “resolved that the Earth belonged to the Saints, and that they were the Saints.” But Lincoln’s party’s “deliberate invasion of hearthstone, of good name, of property, of everything valuable” instills “a vehement desire to see this horrid quarrel … settled in my lifetime.” Or as Mary Chesnut summed up secession, we “divorced, North from South, because we hated each other so.”47
The upcountry’s most systematic argument for divorce, that of State Senator J. Foster Marshall of Abbeville, could just as easily have been a lowcountry gem (not least in barely mentioning that supposedly central concern, the expansion of slave territory). Unionists, scoffed Marshall, would have us wait for the “overt act.” They would delay even “talk about dissolving this Union” until “Congress passes a law abolishing slavery in the Territories, or in the District of Columbia, or in the Forts and Arsenals of the slave states.” For now, southern delayers would prefer to talk Yankees into “a returning sense of justice.”
“Ridiculous!” Hateful Yankees consider slaveholders among “the greatest monsters on earth.” They wish to possess “this Government …to accomplish their hellish work.” The foe knows that “direct legislation” would arouse the South “from her supineness and lethargy.” Cunning dissimulators will instead creep indirectly inside. They will ply “men in our midst who have ‘tender consciences’ upon the subject of slavery,” with “promises of office and position.” These Southerners “of their own stamp,” once placed “into our post-offices and post-roads,” will form “small parties” in “our every district and county.”
Those tiny cells “will increase under the auspices and patronage of the Black Republicans, until district after district, county after county falls into their power.” Once we are surrounded with “free states on our North and West” and “with the Atlantic on our East,” their agitations will make slavery “‘stink in our nostrils.’ To save ourselves, our wives, and our children” from the “insolent, and rebellious negro, we will be made to abolish slavery ourselves.” Emancipation will be “far preferable than the attempt to hold the negro in slavery, with such influences acting and inciting him to rapine and murder.”
Do you protest, roared this upcountry secessionist, that this “is an overwrought picture of the workings of the Government in the hands of the Black Republicans? Then for proof,” look at Frank Blair, Jr.’s victory in Missouri. “Look at the burnings” in Texas. Look at “the poisoning and murdering of her men, women, and children that was contemplated. … If the Abolitionists can thus destroy our property and excite our people by merely sending their agents and money in our midst, what can they not do when the Treasury” finances their saboteurs? Lincoln’s nonovert threat, answered J. Foster Marshall, “is one of life or death.48
While a shared sense of life and death impelled both South Carolina sections toward secession, disunion preferences had also been omnipresent in 1850–52. The problem then—South Carolina’s problem ever since nullification—had been disagreements over disunion tactics. J. Foster Marshall epitomized the continued strategic barrier. While his fire-eating argument left no room for delay, he saw “everything to encourage us in deferring yet to our Southern sisters” and “to exhaust every means to secure united action.”49 With such an ardent immediatist still uneasy about commencing alone, the old tactical debate between Separatists and Cooperationists reached new urgency.