The case for emphasizing Hammond’s and Stephens’s eccentricities, like the case for dwelling on the Charleston and Savannah Railroad coincidence, transcends the possibility (or impossibility) that history could have come out differently without these interventions. Both the coincidence and the personalities make the history more vivid, the forces rushing toward revolution sharper, and the alternatives clearer. Might-have-been history, if not romanticized and if grounded in the evidence, thus adds depth to tales of what did happen.
James Hammond’s opportunity to divert historical currents probably exceeded Alexander Stephens’s, not least because it came first. Once South Carolina seceded without a dissenting voice, Lower South secessionism possessed a killing momentum. If, however, Hammond had led a vigorous Cooperationist election campaign for South Carolina secession convention delegates, many citizens, in and out of his state, might have rallied to his qualms about Separatism. That is exactly why Alfred Aldrich silenced the U.S. senator. As to whether a rare full-scale, late-1860 public debate in skittish South Carolina could have delayed Separatism—well, Separatists were not disposed to find out, and Hammond was not disposed to defy their censorship.
After Hammond succumbed and after South Carolina unanimously departed, Alexander Stephens would have fought against larger odds if he had waged political war for his fugitive ultimatum. Even if Stephens had been a force on the hustings, South Carolina would probably have faced federal military coercion within ten days of its December 20 secession, with provocative military ramifications throughout an appalled Lower South. So too, Lower South citizens might have clung to their conviction, fifteen years developing, that an ultimatum on the territories, not on fugitive slaves, must be the alternative to disunion.
Nor would a decisive Stephens public campaign for a fugitive slave ultimatum, even if it had swept the South, necessarily have moved the North. Yet even without such a massive southern push, the North had its interest in a fugitive compromise—and its doubts. Lincoln, perfectly catching the guarded possibility, wrote that, while on slavery’s expansion “I am inflexible,” on “fugitive slaves … I care but little,” if a compromise can “be comely and not altogether outrageous.” Lincoln’s proposed comely wording ran “that the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution ought to be enforced by a law of Congress, with efficient provisions for that object,” including “punishing all those who resist it,” but “with the usual safeguards to liberty, securing free men against being surrendered as slaves.”31
The advanced Personal Liberty Laws provided those usual safeguards: writs of habeas corpus and trials by jury. A compromise between this Lincolnian conception of liberty and Stephens’s conception of fugitive slaves’ suppression would have been elusive. But even without the pressure that Stephens might have generated, Northerners discussed fugitive compromises; Congress adopted some vague compromise wording; some promising attempts to split the difference between Northerners and Southerners on jury trials were floated; and the most advanced Personal Liberty Laws came under state scrutiny. This delicate problem, as Stephens hoped, was negotiable, albeit difficult to negotiate; and when negotiations start, as South Carolina Separatists worried, unexpected bargains occasionally develop.32
An embattled version of Stephens would have possessed one weapon. Most Northerners and most Southerners preferred a fugitive settlement to disunion. Indeed, in 1860, most Southerners might have agreed, after long and hard argument, that, since no territories were then in dispute, fugitive slaves posed a more clear and present danger, especially in the most northern South. Because of such potential attitudes of a silent southern majority, Lower South Separatists wanted no part of a southern convention. This ferocious southern minority would preclude the majoritarian possibility, unless a charismatic leader rallied his inchoate majority with equally fierce determination. Even then, the last-minute rescue might well have been too little, too late. Witness the fact that the conceivable saviors of a desperate situation had shrunk to such sports as Hammond and Stephens.
The two survivors of the shrinkage illustrated the Lower South slavocracy’s awesome safeguard against insiders’ deviations. The Hammonds and Stephenses could originate outside the establishment. The eccentrics could think outside the establishment’s vision. But they had to be trustworthy conformists when the chips were down. Separatists lined their narrow path to revolution with a spiked fence, precluding the broader paths that uninhibited statesmen might have opened.
Neither Stephens nor Hammond had the personality to defy the establishment’s closures. To understand James Henry Hammond is to comprehend why an insecure bully would inevitably stop cold when that jury of his peers, aristocrats in the state legislature, commanded a halt. To fathom Alexander Stephens is to appreciate why a wounded invalid would inevitably crave Liberty Hall’s cold comforts, compared to heated agitations against a pack of supposed fools. With these personality types the best hope to thwart a highly focused Separatist minority, the unfocused majority, particularly in dawdling Georgia, could be steamrolled, if Lower South Separatists west of Georgia found the tactics and the message to match South Carolina’s roaring haste.33