The South Carolina legislature had no sooner moved up the date of the state’s secession convention than a second secession crisis erupted, this time inside Georgia’s legislative chambers. On this occasion, delay overcame daring. Then, during the third southern confrontation over disunion, sweeping over the Lower South after South Carolina’s December 20 secession, extremists overwhelmed moderates. Not just zealots’ superior maneuvering but also a failed compromise and a military crisis, both occurring within a week of South Carolina’s exodus, crippled Lower South delayers.

In the Upper South, however, where two-thirds of white Southerners lived, disunionists endured another stalemate. Only the mid-April guns of civil war could break the Upper South logjam. Subsequently, during the fourth secession crisis, transpiring in the Middle South from mid-April through May, and during the simultaneous fifth confrontation, consuming the Border South, the Upper South split apart.1 The Middle South tier of states largely went with their Lower South brothers. The Border South tier of states largely fought with their Yankee brethren. Thus did the South’s five secession crises eventually yield a brothers’ war, not just between all Northerners and most Southerners but also within the Land of Dixie.


Alexander Stephens’s Fleeting Moment

In the Lower South during the second week after Lincoln’s triumph, the spotlight swerved from South Carolina to Georgia. The Georgia spectacle featured nightly debates in the state’s legislative chambers after the legislature had adjourned. A featured speaker dominated each evening. No multiday southern antebellum forensic clash, and only the Lincoln-Douglas epic in the North, achieved the drama, brilliance, and significance of Georgia’s weeklong confrontation.

The dominant Georgia debater looked more like an undernourished boy than an important statesman. Strangers called the skeletal presence “Little Alec.” Intimates addressed the aloof sufferer as “Mr. Stephens.” In the Georgia debates, this supreme Cooperationist discounted Lincoln’s immediate menace to slavery. Alexander Stephens’s alternative resistance also threatened to steal the southern agenda from Separate State Secessionists.

– 1 –

In the perspective of the secession crisis of 1850–52, Separatists hardly wished Stephens to establish the 1860–61 southern agenda. With Stephens among the leaders, Georgians had initiated a triumphant unionist response to the Compromise of 1850. In the Georgia Platform of that year, a state convention rejected immediate secession but promised “resistance,” if a future Congress menaced slavery.1

While South Carolinians had captured the initiative in late 1860, Georgians’ geographic position still gave their so-called Empire State special leverage. The state separated the Lower South’s Atlantic Ocean and Mississippi River worlds. In late 1860, the prospective void in a southern republic had already dismayed Jefferson Davis and almost delayed South Carolina’s Separate State Secessionists.

Georgia’s own geographic divisions delayed its decision. Two sprawling Georgia areas contained scant planters and few slaves. Wiregrass/pine barrens in the southeast and mountainous regions in the north comprised Georgia’s especially large Lower South white belts. This most geographically divided Lower South state had staged the most divisive debate inside a Lower South state’s caucus during the 1860 Charleston National Democratic Convention. But that confrontation had occurred only in secret and only after other Lower South delegations had acted.

In November 1860, Georgia’s leaders hoped to hold a public debate before anyone else decided. Georgia’s own Francis Bartow and Henry Jackson helped foreclose that aspiration with their speeches in Charleston on November 9. Yet the South Carolina legislative verdict for a speedy state convention, finalized on the day the Georgia debates began, remained largely an unsubstantiated rumor, until Georgia’s verbal encounter mounted toward climax. Moreover, Georgia debaters formulated their speeches while South Carolina’s legislators still deliberated. Never again could Lower South leaders react to Lincoln’s election without also reacting to South Carolina’s response.

On Tuesday, November 13, exactly a week after Lincoln’s election, a committee of the Georgia House of Representatives invited twenty-four prominent Georgians to hasten to Milledgeville, the state’s capital, to give evening counsel to state legislators. The Separate State Secessionists’ Thomas R. R. Cobb (Howell’s brother) had initiated the evening debates prematurely, the night before the committee issued invitations. His Separatist ally, U.S. Senator Robert Toombs, would dominate the evening after the invitations. Henry Benning, former State Supreme Court justice and an avid Separatist, would climax the debate the following Monday. In between, Separatists’ prime Cooperationist opponents, Alexander Stephens and Benjamin Hill, would give formal orations.

The Georgia antagonists called themselves Separatists and Cooperationists, not secessionists and unionists.2 The revealing names would recur in the five other Lower South states, as they considered their reaction to South Carolina’s Separate State Secession. The parties’ names signified that not all Lower South Separatists were unconditional secessionists, nor were all Lower South Cooperationists unconditional unionists. Some Separatists wished their state to depart in order to secure a triumphant reunion. They hoped that temporary disunion would pressure Yankees toward making slavery safe in a reconstructed Union.

Meanwhile, almost all Lower South Cooperationists favored disunion if federal authorities coerced a seceded state. Some Cooperationists favored secession even if no coercion occurred, if the cooperative disunion of several states could be prearranged. Many more Lower South Cooperationists pledged disunion if a cooperative southern effort, hammered out in a southern convention, failed to squeeze concessions from the Black Republicans. In Milledgeville, Alexander Stephens brought this dominant form of Cooperationism to climax.

In the evening debates before the Georgia legislature, Stephens shared center stage with only one other Cooperationist (Benjamin Hill), while Separatists enjoyed three main speakers (Thomas R. R. Cobb, Robert Toombs, and Henry Benning). It was still no contest. Stephens’s tormented life had prepared him to dominate this moment—and to slide away from dominance a moment later.

– 2 –

Stephens demonstrated that childhood traumas often warp the adult, even if the child struggles past adversity. Stephens suffered a doubled warping, for he painfully lost one struggle and as painfully won another. On the one hand, he could not conquer the misery, both psychological and corporeal, from his savaged physique. On the other hand, he could only triumph over social slurs by occupying a counterproductively isolated perch, beyond wounding mortals.

Some liver disease, deforming from birth, probably caused the Georgian’s bodily torment. Stephens’s sallow skin drooped over his decently elongated frame, approaching six feet in height. His indecently emaciated body, however, under ninety-five pounds in weight, made his bones disconcertingly visible, protruding at weird angles. A glance at one side of his ashen face, blotched with deep brown caverns, became more unsettling after glimpsing the other side. The two facial angles suggested antithetical skeletons. So too, Stephens’s straggly hair tumbled over differently sloped shoulders. His effeminate voice, akin to a scratchy alto’s, seemed related to his lack of facial stubble. The beardless invalid usually wrapped himself in a pile of woolens, to combat perpetual shivering.

When Stephens struggled out from under his heap of warmth to give a public address, he would at first stagger light-headedly. Then he would catch his balance and launch into spellbinding speech. As he thundered (or more accurately squeaked) for his vision, he would thump his fist, stomp his foot, and wield his overly long, overly thin finger like a terrible swift sword. Then he would sink back into his chair, creep back under the warmth, and give off the eerie sense of having screamed from the grave.3

The perturbing specter of the outer man hinted at what Stephens called “the deep agony” inside. My “torture of body is severe”—toothaches, rheumatism, neuralgia, blinding headaches, nauseous dyspepsia, icy fevers. “But all of them combined are slight ailments” compared to “the pangs of an offended or wounded spirit.” His “lifelong pilgrimage through … bogs and morasses” had been “beset on all sides” “with brambles and thorns” and “with gnats, flies, mosquitoes, stinging insects and venomous reptiles.”4

Posterity might speculate that his mother’s death, when he was an infant, or his stepmother’s demise, a week after his father’s, caused some of his gloom. The child’s loss of female intimates might also partly explain the adult’s apparent disinterest in female companionship. No lady friend appears in Stephens’s voluminous surviving correspondence or in contemporaries’ recollections of the suffering Georgian.

Stephens, however, blamed his lonely isolation on his beloved father’s death, when he was thirteen. “That day above all others of my life,” Stephens remembered, “brought the severest pangs of grief and anguish to my heart.”5 The tragedy deprived the adolescent not only of his father but also of his only teacher in the preteen years. He additionally lost his ancestral house, sold away a moment after his paternal soulmate perished. The bereaved teenager and his half brother, Linton, then three years old, became apparently helpless orphans.

Help came, as it did for James H. Thornwell and Christopher Memminger, from wealthy patrons, impressed with an impoverished orphan’s intellect. Benefactors enabled Stephens to finish his schooling, ranked first in his class. But after college, the wealthy lads whom he had consigned to the educational dust left him in the social dust. The graduate was “doomed,” so he complained, to tutoring the squires’ urchins in “the dungeonry confinement of a school room.” Engulfed in “intolerable monotony,” he longed for “my situation in college and equality there with my wealthy associates.”6

He also longed for superiority over his patrons. Southern paternalistic society often generated risen orphans who became lofty judges of their patrons’ failings. Patronized poor boys, alias egalitarian Americans, relished patriarchs’ help but not the patronization. As Linton Stephens described the psychological ache, “Nothing broke my spirit like” that “sense of dependence and … being pitied.” I became so “humble in my own” eyes, so “subdued within myself and lonely in the world.”7

The Stephens brothers, Thornwell, Memminger—all these patronized orphans rose to judge their judges. Linton Stephens became a Georgia Supreme Court judge. Thornwell and Memminger became censors of erring slaveholders. Alexander Stephens positioned himself above fellow politicians, looking down “upon the Knaves and fools.”8

“The secret of my life,” Alexander Stephens explained to Linton, “has been revenge.” I wanted “no foe standing on my rear” and “none to say that I was indebted to him.” Instead of wishing “to crush or trample on the vile crew,” he meant “to get above them—to excel them,” to force them to “feel … my superior virtue.” My “revenge” could have “nothing low or mean” or “base” about it. “To be successfully sweet,” my vengeance must be “pure in principle and pure in execution.”9

But his unworldly aloofness, he conceded, remained vulnerable to the world’s judgments. “As slight a thing as a look,” he winced, goaded him toward “the fury of a lion and the ambition of a Caesar.” How he had “suffered from the tone of a remark”! Linton agreed that Alexander’s “imperiousness” and love for “show[ing] the vile herd how immeasurably they are your inferiors” proved he cared too much about what others thought. Linton suggested real indifference. But the supersensitive elder brother aspired only to transcend his tormentors’ alleged wasteland.10

Stephens ascended remarkably quickly. After the postcollege miserable months of tutoring, he studied law, flourished, practiced law, flourished, entered politics, and spectacularly flourished. The protégé strode inside the Georgia legislature at age twenty-four and the U.S. Congress at age thirtyone. He became an acclaimed molder of the Compromise of 1850 while still under forty. Meanwhile, he acquired thirty slaves, raised Linton like a prince, and (this was sweet revenge) reacquired the family home that had been sold out from under the brothers when their father died. He called the revered dwelling Liberty Hall.

After Congress adjourned in 1858, Stephens, still under fifty, quit politics cold turkey and came home to Liberty Hall. The oasis stood a merciful twenty miles removed from the convivial, stinging society of Washington, Georgia. Inside Liberty Hall, Stephens communed with his sole constant companion, his great big fluffy elderly blind deaf white dog, Rio. Linton, his only human confidant, occasionally dropped by to make the odd couple a threesome. For the rest, the herd had a standing invitation to take the pilgrimage to Liberty Hall. There, visitors were at liberty to come and go, so long as no guest disturbed Rio and his master during their long retreats to the attached study out back.

From his Liberty Hall isolated haven, Stephens penned contemptuous letters, celebrating his liberty from the fools. Despite the Union’s “ominous portents, which the wise and sagacious would do well never to overlook,” no other national statesman displayed “the same disinterested motives I had.” Had I not been surrounded by demagogues, “I never should have quit my post.” Or as Stephens explained more colorfully, “When I am on one of two trains coming in opposite directions on a single track, both engines at high speed, and both engineers drunk, I get off at the first station.”11

With Lincoln elected and the trains almost crashing, Georgia’s supposed demagogues called him back where he had politically begun: to the legislative halls in Milledgeville, to rescue them (as he saw it) from their folly. In Milledgeville, he would not be plunging back into the muck but delivering statesman-like utterances from on high, in the dark night, after daytime legislative antics had shed no light on the nation’s problems. So on the evening of Wednesday, November 14, with candles twinkling and tension mounting and Georgia’s finest gathered beneath the lectern, the deformed cripple, as usual wrapped up like a mummy, came out from under his cocoon of cloth, staggered once, stretched up to his surprising height, and soared to ascendancy in the greatest weeklong public debate that antebellum Southerners ever witnessed.

– 3 –

No such extravagance would be justified if Stephens had demonstrated only Lincoln’s lack of immediate menace. In the Milledgeville debate, Benjamin H. Hill would exceed Stephens in squeezing that argument against Separatists into a soundbite. “Mr. Lincoln cannot do us damage,” Hill would affirm, “cannot get even his salary—not a dime to pay for his breakfast—without the consent of Congress.”12


This 1858 picture of Alexander Stephens (left) shares the rare virtues of the camera’s portrait of John Townsend (p. 392): pristine condition, ingenious staging, and an image that burrows beneath its important subject’s skin. Stephens’s torment, physical and psychological, saturates the image, announcing the agonies that drove this potentially potent Cooperationist into impotent solitude at Liberty Hall (below). Note the attached study, isolated in the rear, where those two exorphans, Linton and Alexander, joined Rio in liberation from guests, alias intruders. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Roger F. Shultis (Stephens) and the Library of Congress (Liberty Hall).


Lincoln lacked even a dime’s worth of abolitionist menace, Stephens added, because the president of the United States “is no emperor, no dictator,—he is clothed with no absolute power.” Without congressional backing, “constitutional checks … render him powerless to do any great mischief.” Stephens counted a majority of “near thirty” against Republican mischief in the House of Representatives and four in the Senate. (The actual numbers were twenty-one in the House and eight in the Senate.) Stephens did not add, as many Cooperationists would, that Republicans controlled only two of nine U.S. Supreme Court judges. But almost alone among Cooperationists, the Georgian did emphasize that Lincoln could not appoint an officer “without the consent of the Senate.” So why “should we disrupt the ties of the Union when his hands are tied”?

The handcuffed president-elect, Stephens pointed out, had been “constitutionally chosen.” When and “if he violates the Constitution, then will come our time to act. Do not let us break” the Constitution because “he may. If he does,” Stephens repeated, then let us “strike.”13

From this conventional argument against immediate menace, Stephens progressed to an unconventional suggestion for immediate resistance. The Cooperationist advised the legislature to call a state convention. The convention should announce Georgia’s “condition” for “remaining in the Union.” Northern states must repeal their so-called Personal Liberty Laws. Otherwise, Georgia would secede. To strengthen the ultimatum, the Georgia convention should call a prompt “conference … of all the Southern States.” Stephens predicted that “if this course [should] be pursued,” the southern convention would endorse Georgia’s fugitive slave ultimatum, the North would repeal its pernicious laws, and the Union would be saved.14

Stephens’s ridiculed Separatists’ accusation that Cooperationists were submissionists—cowards who lacked the manhood to resist northern defamers. Back in 1850, the Georgia Platform had pledged “resistance,” and, “even as a last resort,” secession, if Congress violated southern rights. Now Stephens raised resistance to a more defiant level. He pledged the “last resort” of secession (forget about lesser “resistances”) not only if Congress, in the future, violated southern rights but also if northern states, right now (forget about the future), failed to repeal their Personal Liberty Laws.

Those northern laws, it will be remembered, had played a crucial role in the Margaret Garner confrontation between national and Ohio officials, after the runaway had slit her daughter’s throat. Various Personal Liberty Laws barred state officials from helping to capture fugitive slaves, banned the use of state jails to house alleged runaways, and offered writs of habeas corpus and trial by jury to supposed fugitives. These state laws crippled federal commissioners, charged with returning or releasing alleged runaways. Between 1854 and 1859, the Wisconsin Supreme Court, in defense of Personal Liberty Laws, thrice declared the federal Fugitive Slave Law unconstitutional. Thus did a northern state declare its right to nullify a federal edict, in the sprit of John C. Calhoun. In 1859, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Ableman v. Booth, struck down the Wisconsin nullification, in the spirit of Andrew Jackson. There matters stood when Alexander Stephens demanded that all Personal Liberty Laws must be repealed or Georgia must secede.

Stephens hoped that his demand would not only rip the delusive “submissionist” label from resisting Cooperationists but also shift the deluded nation’s focus from obsolete territorial issues to persistent fugitive concerns. Less artful Cooperationists hoped that a southern convention would pledge disunion unless Republicans surrendered Lincoln’s main platform: the containment of slavery. That means of avoiding disunion today guaranteed disunion tomorrow. Stephens correctly saw that Lincoln and the Republicans would never renounce their stand against slavery’s expansion into the U.S. territories.

But Stephens also saw that the uncompromisable territorial issue could be at least temporarily ignored. In November 1860, no territory inside the Union tempted slaveholders, and no Republican law against slavery’s expansion barred them. For the first time since Texas annexation, the United States possessed no territories worthy of dispute between the sections, at the very time that a civil war ostensibly over the territories loomed.

Stephens would replace that, so he thought, idiocy by implicitly pointing the nation’s idiots of the 1860s back to the Whigs’ wisdom of the 1840s. The Whig motto had proclaimed that to avoid nation-shattering strife over slavery in the territories, “No Territories” should be acquired. Now in November 1860, with no territories in dispute and fugitive slave disputes raging in the Ableman v. Booth vein, Stephens made no new demands about territories.

Stephens would revive the spirit of “No Territories” because a national compromise on present fugitive slaves, unlike a compromise on future territorial slavery, just might be achieved. Abraham Lincoln might well favor a fugitive slave compromise. Then enough Republicans might join with all Northern Democrats to form a northern majority for fugitive slave reform. A vast southern majority might also rally for Stephens’s fugitive slave ultimatum, including all Upper South states plus Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Only four Lower South states would then be odd men out of a massive national majority. Those states might contemplate their isolation, shudder, and pause.

Even if Stephens’s plan failed, secession would be delayed. Stephens wanted a year’s delay, to see if the ultimatum might work. In that time, the Lower South’s first fury at Lincoln’s election might subside. Even in South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida, a less fervent majority might find the stymied president not so menacing after all. For that reason, South Carolina secessionists had rejected even a thirty-day pause.

Stephens, in short, sought a changed agenda and schedule, altered for maximum opportunity. He would bypass unsolvable problems (ones that could for now be left unsolved) to solve more malleable problems (ones that for now pressed provocatively). He would replace an (impossible) ultimatum on the territories with a (possible) ultimatum on fugitive slaves. He would replace the fifteen years of post-Texas-annexation territorial strife with the Whigs’ pre-Texas-annexation policy of avoiding territorial disputes. He would expand the Georgia 1850 ultimatum about congressional laws with an 1860 ultimatum about state Personal Liberty Laws.

Only a statesman with great mental flexibility could skip nimbly through the decades, picking up past pieces to solve a present crisis. Stephen’s isolation, alone with Rio in that Liberty Hall study, lent him the detachment to see his way more quickly, more cleanly than any other Cooperationist. If, very swiftly, Georgia would put Stephens’s fugitive slave agenda into play, Separate State Secessionists’ rush just might be stalled. Then the scornful Georgian would have brought the fools right, not by plunging into their disgusting politics but by setting them straight in a speech from on high. What pure revenge that would be!

Separatists instantly acknowledged Stephens’s potential power. As soon as the invalid dropped back into his seat, Robert Toombs charged the rostrum. Waving his hat, Toombs demanded “three cheers for my honored friend—than whom there is not a brighter intellect or truer heart in Georgia.”15

Toombs, true to his mercurial self, offered explanations as soon as he descended from the stage. “I always try to behave myself at a funeral,” he muttered.16 But Stephens’s old friend had it right the first time. Unless Separatists buried Stephens’s reframing of the Cooperationist agenda, disunion might be the corpse, unless and until the president and/or his party deployed an overt act against slavery.

– 4 –

To combat Stephens’s Cooperationist logic, Separatists often scorned logic itself. Reason, a Georgia friend wrote Stephens, must give way to “outraged feelings.” Our “humiliated South” must renounce “abject” submission to “a vulgar and insulting enemy.” Having “waded half across the Rubicon, amidst the taunts and jeers of an insolent foe,” we must “cross” rather than “return … in disgrace.”17

Especially Robert Toombs crusaded against disgrace in the Milledgeville evening debates. “Show me the nation,” Toombs challenged Georgia’s legislators, “that hates, despises, vilifies or plunders” its foes as intolerably as “our abolition ‘brethren’” shame us. Toombs, demanding “vindication of our manhood,” denounced “base, unmanly” surrender to “degradation and death.”18

Three nights earlier, Thomas R. R. Cobb had initiated the Milledgeville evening debates with the shout that Southerners faced “the terrible issue of Disunion, or Dishonor.” Cobb pronounced “the good name a father bequeathed us … something more valuable than property, more dear than life.” When Yankee insulters called slavery “the greatest of all sins” and the “most horrible of all crimes, … every bleeding wound of Georgia’s mangled honor” compelled our “cry to Heaven for ‘Liberty or Death.’”

Yet Thomas R. R. Cobb conceded that “passion should not rule the hour.” Echoing Charleston’s Judge Andrew Magrath, Cobb warned that “zealous, warm spirits,” preferring “a traitor’s gallows” to a slave’s “shame,” would act illegally, if their state failed to act legally. To make Separate State Secession more viable than a mob’s irrational spree, Georgians must summon more than “the quick beating pulsation of hearts burning.” We must also invoke all “human wisdom” to decide whether now is the moment to “do or die.”19

At Milledgeville, Robert Toombs called on the brethren to do or die in part over protective tariffs. The Republican Party, Toombs told Georgia’s legislators, combined “thousands of [high-tariff] protectionists … who were not abolitionists” with “thousands of abolitionists who were” not protectionists. “The robber and the incendiary struck hands,” to “raid … the South.” In his Separatist speech that ended the Milledgeville debate, Henry Benning estimated Yankee plunder of the South to be four billion dollars over sixty years. “Separation from the North,” Benning claimed, would ensure that these “golden waters” would “be retained within” the South.20

Despite their golden dream of free trade, Benning and Toombs emphasized the territorial issue far more. The two Georgia Separatists thereby implicitly called South Carolinians’ (and Stephens’s) relative indifference to territorial expansion overdone. Toombs urged, in the conventional southwestern claustrophobic vein, that “we must expand or perish.” Southern blacks, Toombs pointed out, had increased from 800,000 in 1790 to 4,000,000 in 1860. At that “rate of increase, the Africans among us … will amount to eleven millions” by 1900. “What shall be done with them?” Toombs answered that we must eventually expand our territories or exterminate our slaves.

Yet Toombs called the possibility of containment “only one of the points of the case.” He knew that dwelling on territorial expansion made Separatists vulnerable, for if Republicans someday outlawed slavery in a territory, then the South could secede. Certain immediate danger, not potential distant menace, best answered Stephens’s Cooperationist case for delay.21

To illuminate instant menace, Georgia Separatists (like the South Carolinians) emphasized Lincoln’s power to exploit southern internal weaknesses, especially in the borderlands. “The fear that slaves will escape to the North by the under-ground railroad, and otherwise,” said Henry Benning, “is the chief cause” of “the alarming process by which the [Border South’s] slave population is draining off into” the Cotton South. The slave drain has put “some of the slave States … in the process of becoming free states.” Benning listed Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and Virginia as becoming “free States,” and “in no long time.”

Soon, warned Benning, “slavery will be compressed into the eight cotton States.” The ensuing combination of southern ex-slave states and northern free states will have the numbers “to amend the Constitution, … to emancipate your slaves, and to hang you if you resist.” After emancipation, “a war between the whites and the blacks will spontaneously break out.” A coalition between the emancipating North and the emancipated slaves “will exterminate … or expel” all southern white men. “As for the women, they will call upon the mountains to fall upon them.”

By declaring Northern Republicans’ aid to fugitive slaves the “chief cause” of a future slave drain to the Cotton South and of a subsequent racial horror, Benning would seem to have played into Alexander Stephens’s hands. To remove the “chief cause,” why not issue ultimatums on the Personal Liberty Laws? Because, Benning scoffed, repealing those “obnoxious laws” will not remove the “hostility of the people of the North to slavery.” The North’s majority “party hates slavery. … When a people is universally against a law, you can not execute it.” Against Yankee loathing and its consequences, Mr. Stephens’s remedy had as puny a value as “a cent does to a dollar.”22

Where Benning worried that Republicans would intensify the Border South’s fugitive slave problem, other Georgia Separatists warned that Republicans would eventually rouse poor whites against slaveholders. Republicans needed no overt act against slavery, declared T.R.R. Cobb, to “bind us hand and foot, and sell us into Slavery, and every Statesman in the country can explain to you the process.” As brother Howell explained the process, Lincoln would use federal patronage to organize a band of southern apologists, to wage “insidious warfare upon our family firesides.” Governor Joseph Brown added that Lincoln will either bribe “a portion of our citizens … into treachery to their own section, by the allurement of office; or a hungry swarm of Abolition emissaries must be imported among us as officeholders,” to “insult us” and “corrupt our slaves.”23

Once “Mr. Lincoln places among us his Judges, District Attorneys, Marshals, Post Masters, Custom House officers, etc., etc.,” Governor Brown continued, he will “destroy our moral powers, and prepare us to tolerate … a Republican ticket, in most of the States of the South, in 1864.” Even if this ticket “only secures five or ten thousand votes in each of the Southern States,” Republicans would hold “the balance of power” between other southern “political parties.” The leverage “would soon give” Southern Republicans “control of our elections.” Without resistance “now, we will never again have the strength to resist.” As Georgia’s J. Henley Smith privately warned, when “the poor men of the South … begin to calculate the value of slavery to them, … our government is too democratic” for slavery to endure.24

This Georgia diagnosis, like the South Carolina analysis, sensibly called any Lower South flood of nonslaveholders’ Republican votes a future problem. (A quicker flood in the Border South was another matter.)25 In Georgia as in South Carolina, Separatists emphasized that the more immediate Lower South peril would come from blacks, if Southern Republicans, as Governor Brown put it, flooded “the country with inflammatory Abolition doctrines.” In a remarkably candid appeal, T.R.R. Cobb urged Georgia legislators to “recur with me to the parting moment when you left your firesides, to attend upon your public duties at the Capitol. Remember the trembling hand of a loved wife, as she whispered her fears from the incendiary and the assassin. Recall the look of indefinable dread” from your “little daughter,” as she “inquired when your returning footsteps should be heard. … Notice the anxious look when the traveling peddler lingers too long in conversation at the door with the servant who turns the bolt.” Notice “the suspicion aroused by a Northern man conversing in private with the most faithful of your negroes.”

No white would suffer death, T.R.R. Cobb explained, in a slave revolt. “Mark me, my friends,” he emphasized, “I have no fear of servile insurrection.” In general, “our slaves are the most happy and contented” as well as “the most faithful and least feared” of laborers. But “a discontented few here and there, will become the incendiary or the poisoner, when instigated by the unscrupulous emissaries of Northern Abolitionists.” You “can not say” whether “your home or your family may be the first to greet your returning footsteps in ashes or in death.”26

Cobb here, once again like the South Carolinians, drew on the climactic southern concern after John Brown’s raid. Once the initial Brown hysteria passed, Southerners realized that Republicans intended no slave revolt. But the enemy did intend to spread Hinton R. Helper’s message inside the South, within household slaves’ hearing. Now, Lincoln did intend to give patronage to southern spreaders of Helper’s words. With their argument that Lincoln’s appointees must not arouse killers of our loved ones, Georgia’s Separatist debaters dulled Alexander Stephens’s impact.

Alexander Stephens had been least convincing on the patronage danger. To Stephens’s antidote that the Senate had to concur in Lincoln’s presidential appointments, T.R.R. Cobb retorted that senatorial refusal “to ratify his appointments” would yield no administration, no government. “What is this my friends but revolution and anarchy?” What would best combat individual slaves’ disruption: no law enforcers, Southern Republican law enforcers, or true-blue Southerners’ governance?27

Such questions drove even Stephens’s most important supporters to disown his proposal to give a fugitive slave ultimatum a year to work. Republicans must bow to Stephens’s ultimatum, they warned, before Lincoln’s March 4 inauguration.28 Otherwise, secession on Inauguration Day must preclude Southern Republicans from manning southern post offices. But while his supporters’ attitude shortened Stephens’s period of opportunity, his brilliant speech had made his ultimatum plausible for three and a half more months. Within half that time, Georgia’s voters would pick state convention delegates. After hearing the evening debates, the legislature scheduled the delegate election for January 2. Unlike the South Carolinians, Georgians would have to vote themselves a revolution—and to outvote Alexander Stephens.

– 5 –

To build a public triumph atop his legislative triumph, Stephens enjoyed one unexpected piece of good fortune. Abraham Lincoln wrote to the Georgian, after reading his old Whig ally’s speech before the Georgia legislature. Lincoln told Stephens that “the only substantial difference between us” is that “you think slavery is right and ought to be extended, while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted.” Reading between Lincoln’s lines, he might consider fugitive slaves, unlike territorial expansion, a negotiable difference. Furthermore, a remade Whig coalition of Lincoln and Stephens might make awesome negotiators.29

Lincoln’s surprise hint gave Stephens an opportunity, much as the Charleston and Savannah Railroad coincidence gave Robert Gourdin an opportunity. With Stephens as with Gourdin, and as with all humans handed potential good fortune, much now depended on deploying the skill and energy to seize advantage of an unexpected boon. Stephens had to become the Cooperationist equivalent of Gourdin. The Georgian had to move very quickly and shrewdly, in the manner of the 1860 Association, and particularly its party for Savannah celebrants of the railroad, to grasp a fleeting moment.

Stephens could not afford delay. The South Carolina legislature’s precipitancy bid fair to drive Lower South deliberations. An effective southern convention movement had to be on the ground and driving before the South Carolina secession convention, meeting on December 18, further seized the initiative. An early date for the southern conclave had to be set. Stephens had to use the mails to agitate for the convention immediately, in the style of Robert Gourdin’s massive southern correspondence.

Stephens also had to match the 1860 Association’s extraordinary pamphlet campaign. He furthermore had to be out on the Georgia campaign trail every day, supporting the right state convention delegates. His brilliant November 15 speech before the legislature, in short, had to be the prelude to a month and a half of hell—hell for himself, as he ached for the days alone with Rio and Linton at Liberty Hall, but hell even more for Georgia Separatists, who would have to win an election test between a negotiable ultimatum and a scary revolution.

Instead, upon finishing his speech in Milledgeville, the sufferer retreated to Liberty Hall, to Linton, and to that comfortably isolated study. Stephens made only one speech on the Georgia campaign trails. He wrote almost no letters to those outside the state. He did nothing to set a southern convention date. He did nothing to establish an equivalent of Gourdin’s campaigning association. If he grasped Lincoln’s hint that the two ex-Whigs could form quite the reborn Whig alliance, seeking a fugitive slave compromise that just might save the republic, he paid it no heed. He instead lectured the presidentelect about the folly of leading a partisan crowd of fanatics. Alexander Stephens again rose above the battle, looking down on the fools.

Before speaking in Milledgeville, Stephens had written brother Linton that “sometimes I think I will let them do as they please. I fear we are going to destruction anyhow.” After his Milledgeville statecraft, he wrote again, doubting that “there is patriotism in the country to save us from anarchy.” Linton answered that his brother must not “yet despair of the republic.” Get out, speak, write! “If your country is lost in spite of your efforts, … your position with posterity” will be “much more noble … than if it should perish without an effort on your part.” If you attempt no further forays, “your despair will be a cause of defeat, not an indication of … inevitable defeat.”30

But nothing could goad Alexander Stephens out from under his blankets, out of Liberty Hall, out on the hustings to fight and organize for his ultimatum. With the great man aloof, no lesser Cooperationist, in or out of Georgia, arose to take his place. The leaderless movement stalled, drifted, wandered. Instead of massing behind Stephens’s possibly attainable ultimatum on fugitive slaves, Cooperationists meandered toward unattainable ultimatums on the territorial issue or toward making a virtue of meandering itself, in hopes that delay would cool secessionists’ ardor.

For this missed opportunity, Stephens’s peculiar personality must shoulder part of the blame. The parallel with James Henry Hammond’s missed opportunity in South Carolina is intriguing. Where Hammond passively allowed his Cooperationist letter to Alfred Aldrich to be censured, rather than fighting for his remedy on the South Carolina hustings, Stephens passively retreated to Liberty Hall, rather than rallying Georgia and the Lower South behind his panacea. The two leaders’ retirements removed major obstacles to Separatists’ ability to vote themselves a revolution.

Both retirees resided in the Augusta, Georgia, hinterlands. Both rose from humble origins. Both never recovered from the trauma of the climb. Both lived in proud isolation. Both obsessed over physical ailments. Both sought revenge from insulters. Both benefited from their slaveholding world’s openness to the right outsiders. Both impoverished lads enjoyed opportunities to vault into the upper class after college, whether by marriage or lawyering. Both outsiders became insiders who retained the ability to think unconventionally, to find alternatives that escaped more conventional squires. In the secession crisis, both Stephens and Hammond formulated a route beyond Separatism that could have led to a sustained, focused debate during their state’s election campaign for secession convention delegates.

Yet during their culture’s peak crisis, both eccentrics retreated into their usual crabbed shells. Their neuroses deprived their fellow citizens of what most needed to be forcefully said, at the moment when the saying became most vital. The result: next to no public debate over secession convention delegates in South Carolina, no timely campaign or prompt date for a southern convention in the Lower South, and a far less focused debate before the Georgia public than legislators had enjoyed.

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