Southwestern Separatists’ Tactics and Messages

Southwestern Separatists’ tactics and messages differed somewhat from the South Carolina model. But the differences sustained the same objective. A Separatist detour around the southern majority must avoid a southern convention, emphasize immediate menace, lead to a few Lower South states’ speedy secession, and thus plaster a fait accompli on delaying states.

– 1 –

South Carolinians’ Separatist tactics, it will be recalled, began with Governor William Gist’s private letter of October 5 to other Lower South governors (except Texas’s Sam Houston). Where Gist urged Separate State Secession, other governors’ answers indicated an initial preference, like Sam Houston’s, for a southern convention. By encouraging that southern convention preference, Gist could have initiated a very different last mile to disunion (or, as he thought, perhaps encouraged no secession at all).

Instead, at this first and arguably most important strategic turning point during the secession crisis, Gist and other South Carolinians defied Cooperationists’ southern convention strategy. Utilizing secret correspondence, they sought to pull the Lower South toward Separatist tactics and to seek reassurances that if South Carolina dared to begin, other states would follow.

This undercover ploy temporarily failed. On November 9, the South Carolina legislature in effect voted that Robert Barnwell Rhett’s conspiratorial correspondence revealed too disunited a Lower South for South Carolina to secede first. That evening, in the secession crisis’s second strategic turning point, Savannah visitors to Charleston openly promised that Georgia would close ranks behind South Carolina. The next day, the South Carolina legislature dared to act.

Yet another major tactical turning point featured renewed clandestine tactics. On November 8, William Gist’s younger cousin, bearing the name (not the nickname!) State’s Rights Gist, secretly visited Mississippi Governor John Pettus. The visitor’s name could occur only in South Carolina. Nowhere else would a father name his son, born in nullification time, State’s Rights.

Governor William Gist urged State’s Rights Gist to pull the Mississippi governor away from any intention, communicated in answer to that October 5 letter, to seek a southern convention. State’s Rights Gist accordingly warned Governor Pettus that in a southern convention, Upper South compromisers would rout Lower South disunionists. “Do not ask for a Southern Council,” reasoned the clandestine visitor, “as the Border and non-acting States would outvote us & thereby defeat action. Let your State immediately assemble in Convention.”1

From that day forward, the governors of South Carolina and Mississippi, previously differing on separate state versus southern convention action, followed the same Separatist imperative. Within a few days, the governors of Alabama and Georgia, also southern conventionists in their initial reply to Gist, had also swung over to Gist’s imperative. Then Lower South Separatists’ landslide away from a southern convention became omnipresent.

The developing Separatist consensus dominated Mississippi only two weeks after the John Pettus–State’s Rights Gist secret conversation. On November 22, Pettus convened a caucus of Mississippi’s congressional delegation. The governor sought advice on what secessionist tactic to press on the imminent Mississippi legislature. Three of Mississippi’s men in Washington, including U.S. Senators Jefferson Davis and Albert Gallatin Brown, advised cooperative secession, to take place on March 4.

Pettus had inclined toward some version of that policy in late October. But at his November 22 conclave, three Mississippi congressmen favored separate state secession, to take place immediately. Pettus broke the tie in favor of Separatism and immediacy. The private Gist-Pettus meeting had straightened out the key Separatist tactic for the duration. By the beginning of December, the southern convention gambit, only six weeks earlier Lower South governors’ dominant suggestion to Governor Gist, had become wholly a Cooperationist strategy.2

– 2 –

While clandestine communication helped rally Lower South Separatists against the southern convention strategy, extremists solved a second interstate strategic problem without secret plotting. The answers to Gist’s October 5 letter revealed that other governors planned counterproductively haphazard and delayed dates for state conventions. In hopes of providing a more relentless revolutionary calendar, the South Carolina legislature, acting four days after Lincoln’s election, scheduled the state’s election for secession convention delegates a mere twenty-six days hence, with the conclave to convene eleven days later.

The tactics of speed proved contagious. Within two weeks of the South Carolina legislature’s unanimous decision, all Lower South states, except Texas, scheduled elections for convention delegates. Lower South state conventions would convene within five weeks of the day South Carolina seceded. Tardy Texas would join this hustling crowd within the month.

Lower South states adopted this lethal timetable spontaneously, without prearrangement, with the most secessionist states moving fastest. Where South Carolina allowed only twenty-six days of campaigning for secession convention delegates, Florida matched South Carolina’s brevity. Mississippi’s campaign was five days briefer still. Thus despite its head start, South Carolina beat Mississippi out of the Union by only twenty days (December 20 to January 9). Florida trailed only a day after Mississippi. These three states, all featuring less competitive Cooperationist factions, thus presented the four other Lower South states, all acting later and initially displaying powerful Cooperationist factions, with a fait accompli.

Modern citizens recognize the leverage of front-loaded schedules. Because such small states as Iowa and New Hampshire hold their presidential primaries earliest in an election season, they disproportionately sway the choice of presidential nominees. So too, in 1860–61, the front-loaded schedule of Lower South state conventions gave Separatists in South Carolina, Mississippi, and Florida clout way beyond the number and typicality of their citizens. These three states, containing the first, second, and fourth fewestwhites in the Lower South, claimed only 28 percent of the Lower South’s citizens and only 9 percent of all southern whites. Yet because these atypical states scheduled the first three decisions on secession, the Separatist minority could start a landslide that threatened to sweep up the South’s initial Cooperationist majority.

The most interesting state scheduling decision occurred in the only Lower South state that was long without a schedule. One unique man, Texas’s Governor Sam Houston, fashioned the anomaly. Governor Houston’s Lower South uniqueness lay not in his opposition to Separatism but in his virtually unconditional unionism. Houston could tolerate neither a Republican overt act against slavery nor federal coercion of a seceded state. But he had no other conditions for staying in the Union.3

A comparison with Louisiana’s Governor Thomas Moore illustrates the importance of Sam Houston’s uniqueness. Moore also harbored qualms about Separatism and preferences for a southern convention. But a virtually unconditional unionist he was not. Moore’s Cooperationism demanded that a united South meet quickly and achieve redress before Lincoln’s inauguration. So the Louisiana governor called his legislature only a week after Lower South governors called theirs. Moore confessed, without complaining, that his hand had been forced.4

Few folks forced Sam Houston’s hand. This grizzled veteran of every Texas defiance followed his own lonely star long before he exerted sway over the Lone Star Republic, then over the Lone Star State. Born on the Virginia frontier in 1793, Houston accompanied his family to the Tennessee frontier as a youth. Upon his father’s death, Houston ran away from home at an unusually early age, toward an unusual destination. The fugitive spent three years among Tennessee Cherokees. Upon returning to white society, the young adult fought beside his new idol, Andrew Jackson, against Creek Indians. After the War of 1812, with Jackson’s blessings, Houston ascended in Tennessee politics, becoming a congressman at age thirty and governor at thirty-four.5

After that conventional Jacksonian ascent in Jackson’s Tennessee, Houston suffered an unconventional plunge. Governor Houston’s new marriage almost instantly fell apart, apparently before being consummated, for reasons still obscure. The rumored cause: The bride shrank from Houston’s War of 1812 wounds. Whatever the truth behind the wounding secret, the governor fled his office and his fellows. Returning to the Cherokees, he this time married an Indian princess.

Upon his second reemergence in white society, the disgraced Tennessean pushed deeper into the frontier, to Mexico’s colony, Texas. The ex-outcast entered the right place at the right time to become the right insider. After the Texas Revolution, Houston, commanding the Texas Republic’s army, captured Mexican General Santa Anna during the Battle of San Jacinto. He thus entitled a city as well as won a fight. His admirers christened the locale of the battlefield Houston.

Houston City’s founding son doubled his fame by becoming the Texas Republic’s most important Founding Father. As president of the precarious republic, Houston pursued a successfully stealthful road to U.S. annexation. Once in the Union, grateful Texans made Houston a U.S. senator (until 1857) and in 1859 their governor.

The ex-exile shed some early eccentricities. He traded his childless marriage to an Indian princess for a white wife and their son, Sam Houston, Jr. But the white hero who had twice cultivated, then twice rejected an Indian destiny still paraded around Houston City in an Indian chief’s fullest regalia. It was like the ultra-sophisticated Benjamin Franklin prancing around European parlors in a frontiersman’s coonskin cap. After the Indian headdress outlived its usefulness, the wealthy Houston switched to the huge brimmed straw hat of a western plebian, this time with a rich man’s gold-headed cane as accessory.

Houston’s odd costumes exemplified his odd stances on slavery. Although no abolitionist (he owned twelve slaves at his death), Houston advocated slavery’s (and blacks’) possible removal, in the fullness of time. Alone among southern congressmen, he supported every provision of the Compromise of 1850, including the North’s favorite bills. Almost alone among Lower South leaders, the Hero of San Jacinto, with his famously blunt rectangular face and stubborn square chin, fought the Kansas-Nebraska Act and defied southern whites to call him disloyal.

So unconventional a southern statesman survived disloyalty smears not only because he had been Texans’ most beloved Founding Father but also because he celebrated the Southwest’s most beloved warrior president. Houston’s supposedly traitorous senatorial votes against proslavery adventurism served Andrew Jackson’s patriotic cry: “The Union, it must be Preserved.” Houston reserved his most towering hatreds for Andrew Jackson’s most hated foes: Calhoun, nullification, and disunion. Houston and Jackson had plotted Texas’s entrance into the Union. Jackson’s Texas partner would weep over his state’s exit from the nation. Governor Houston meant to repulse Calhoun’s successors just as he had jailed Santa Anna and just as Old Hickory had cornered the Nullifiers.

On the night after Lincoln’s election, Houston wrote his son that “the miserable Demagogues and Traitors,” alias “the Demons of anarchy, must be put down.”6 No other Cooperationist possessed such legal power to stymie disunionists. The Texas constitution’s explicit grants gave only the governor authority to convene a legislature and only the legislature authority to assemble a convention.

Recent Texas legislative resolutions also gave only Houston power to call elections for southern convention delegates. In early December 1860, the governor designated February 2, 1861, as Election Day for those delegates. Houston simultaneously announced that no special legislative session would be called (and, to repeat, the Texas constitution apparently gave only the legislature power to call a state convention). The governor thus defied the Texas multitudes to storm the gate out of the Union.

Padlocking the gate, not securing a southern convention, became Houston’s master passion. True, he wrote other southern governors on November 28, requesting a “consultative” Southwide conclave.7 But this gesture offered too little, too late. By early December, when Houston’s plea arrived in other Lower South governors’ mansions, the recipients had raced after South Carolina. If any chance survived to stop Separatism after South Carolina dared, the window of opportunity slammed shut very quickly. Like Alexander Stephens, Houston would have had to send around a blizzard of letters almost immediately after November 6. He would have had to write every powerful Lower South Cooperationist, not just a handful of Separatist governors. He would have had to insist on an early date for a southern convention. Instead, like Alexander Stephens, he sent forth a perhaps promising initiative and then, on the subject of a southern convention, pressed no more.

Like Stephens, Houston counted on delay to calm the overly excited. Unlike Stephens, who proposed a fugitive slave ultimatum, the Texas governor underestimated the Lower South desire for redress of grievances (perhaps because this western frontiersman remained culturally too superficially southern). Houston also overestimated how much his merely legal stall, refusing to call a legislature, could restrain an excited mob (perhaps because he revered Jackson’s legalistic taming of Calhoun’s Nullifiers).

But Old Hickory he was not; and 1860 more resembled 1776 than 1832. While only the governor could call a state legislature, only the people of a state could withdraw their consent to be governed. As crisp November turned into chilled December, the front-loaded schedule of Lower South decision fanned frustration among Texas voters, barred from deciding anything. The most heated Texas Separatists wanted Houston’s head, even if he was Houston, even if a lynching might be necessary.

The threats to have at Houston dismayed Texas Supreme Court Justice Oran Roberts. Like Charleston’s Judge Andrew Magrath, Roberts feared for public safety, if a disorderly mob took to the streets. Unless Governor Houston convened a legislature, Justice Roberts wrote around to fellow Texas leaders, the state’s establishment must give mass fury a republican outlet. On December 1, in a celebrated public debate in Austin, Roberts established his credentials to steer enraged citizens around the stubborn governor.

The Separatists’ Roberts debated James Bell, a fellow Texas Supreme Court justice but an ardent Cooperationist. The high-powered exchange provided the best single-day debate anywhere in the Lower South that fateful December. The debates particularly illuminated one pivotal question: Would Lincoln pose an immediate menace to slavery?

Separatists contended, James Bell pointed out in his December 1 Austin oration, that the president-elect’s worst menace centered on a possible Southern Republican Party, with its supposed disloyalty to slavery.8 That alleged peril, Justice Bell urged, had been exaggerated. Unreasonable fears about disloyalty to slavery had too often transformed southern disagreement into accusations of treason. Today, he would no doubt “be denounced as a freesoiler and an abolitionist, by those who think that the greatest political offense … is to differ from them.”

The judge pronounced his or any Texan’s disloyalty to slavery a “fictitious” concoction. The soft-on-slavery scare, long “manufactured” in Texas, had made the slavery issue “the most sensitive and the most easily inflamed.” His cheeks “burned with shame because of the intolerance and proscription.”

The shameful exaggeration of supposed treason originated, Bell argued, because Texas newcomers must “ward off all … suspicion.” They take “great pains to proclaim a most superlative admiration of the [slavery] institution.” The preposterous “rivalry, … in expressing the ardor of their attachment,” only relents when a rival, after proving his loyalty to slavery, “no longer feels it necessary to be continually proclaiming himself its friend.” Bell himself illustrated the necessity. He felt it necessary to proclaim himself slavery’s partisan.

Judge Bell begged that the destructive necessity cease. Texans must stop founding hysterical policy, much less an irrational revolution, on groundless suspicions of each other. We hear that Lincoln will corrupt “the public mind, … that abolition emissaries will be put into all our offices, and that abolition documents will be circulated, and all that. I believe these dangers are imaginary.” The U.S. Senate, with its majority against the Republicans, will police Lincoln’s appointments. Texans will also scrutinize Lincoln’s appointees; and who “will they contaminate? They will contaminate you and me. This argument, fellow-citizens, amounts simply to a declaration that we cannot trust ourselves.”

In his countervailing December 1 Austin oration, the Separatists’ Judge Roberts implicitly denied that Lincoln’s immediate menace involved distrusting you and me.9 Roberts instead distrusted Border South white belts. There, Southern Republicans already had a constituency.

But even there, Roberts noted, Republicans disclaim “a direct attack upon slavery in the States!” They instead threaten “a protracted siege.” By wielding “the executive arm of the government, with all its power, patronage, and influence,” the president can protect free press and free speech in the Border South. He can appoint antislavery men to border office. He can refuse to return border fugitive slaves. He can encourage emigrant aid societies to send excess Northerners to southern border states. With “all of these efforts,” he can drive “the borders of slavery from State to State, until it shall be hemmed into a small compass upon the Gulf and the Atlantic, where it will destroy itself.” Only after we are “shut in on all sides, worn down, dispirited, divided, and not able to resist” will the overt act come. Only then, Roberts implicitly answered James Bell’s loaded question, will Texans need to distrust each other.

Oran Roberts’s speech, immediately published in Texas newspapers, circulated still more widely as a pamphlet, with over 60,000 copies in print. Lower South 1860 presses produced more copies of only John Townsend’s two South Carolina pamphlets. With this December 1 triumph, the Texas Supreme Court justice acquired the majesty to circumvent even the fabled Governor Houston.

With the help of several prominent Texans, also seeking a route around Houston’s refusal to call a state legislature, Justice Roberts penned the socalled Austin Call of December 8, 1860.10 The document summoned the people to summon their own state convention. As befit a Supreme Court justice, Roberts’s Call quoted the Texas constitution to justify his summons. The people, declared the highest Texas text, possessed “at all times the inalienable right to alter, reform, or abolish their form of government.” Thus Texas citizens, argued Judge Roberts, could transcend the legislature’s merely legalistic right to call conventions (and the governor’s merely legalistic right to call legislatures).

To exercise Texans’ constitutionally sanctioned natural right to abolish their government, Roberts’s Austin Call urged Texans to go to the polls on January 8, to elect delegates to a January 28 Texas convention. To preserve the appearance of a convention called by the supreme judiciary, the Call anointed the chief justice of each county as administrator of the popular vote. To preserve the legitimacy of a people’s decision to withdraw their consent to be governed, the Austin Call required the convention to refer a decision for secession back to the citizens for their approval. No other Lower South state would require popular ratification of a convention disunion decree.

Roberts’s Call swelled still more in judicial force a week later. On December 15, the third and final Texas Supreme Court justice issued his opinion on Separatism.11 Unexpectedly (and thus the more imposingly), Chief Justice Royall T. Wheeler’s long public letter voted emphatically with Roberts and Separatism rather than with Bell and Cooperationism. By an implicit twoto-one majority, the Texas Supreme Court had indirectly affirmed the right of the governed to unlock any governor’s padlock.

Sam Houston saw when to relent. Two days after Chief Justice Wheeler wrote his Separatist letter, the governor called the Texas legislature to convene on January 21, a week before the Austin Call’s state convention would assemble. When the legislature met, Houston asked lawmakers to repudiate Roberts’s summons of a state convention. They should instead endorse the governor’s February 2 election of southern convention delegates. The legislature, however, repudiated Houston’s election of delegates to the nonexistent southern convention and endorsed the Austin Call’s state convention (which elected Oran Roberts its president). With this completion of Lower South convention scheduling, every Lower South state’s convention would separately meet in January, to decide whether to join South Carolina’s December 20 secession.

Ultimately, Houston’s delays, like all Cooperationist stalls, handed Separatists a boon. If the governor had hurried Texas into a state convention, before South Carolina, Mississippi, and Florida struck, the Lone Star State, initially a Cooperationist stronghold, just might have thrown the necessary cold water on the hotheads, at the necessary early date. But after other Lower South states had embraced South Carolina, Texas could only cooperate by joining the new slaveholders’ nation.

Houston had failed to appreciate the irony that ever bedeviled the delayers: There was no time for delay. Under the press of such a front-loaded schedule, and with the most Separatist states rushing out of the Union, the most Cooperationist states had to mount an equally rushed countervailing crusade. Otherwise, they would be run over. To delay after the South Carolina legislature’s November 10 unanimous decision was to be rendered irrelevant, and in only a few weeks.

Chief Justice Wheeler best articulated the lesson. Writing to a Cooperationist, Wheeler conceded that he would have applauded a swift anti-Separatist plan. But early on, too many Cooperationists “vainly supposed the public mind excited by disunionists and revolutionaries” and delusively believed that delay alone would suffice. Now, everything except Separatism “is plainly out of the question,” for “other states” have “taken their course & left us no alternative.”12 Thus did each Lower South state’s spontaneous scheduling of its separate state convention, without the slightest interstate planning, speed secession forward, with even Governor Houston ironically helping to clear the way for South Carolina.

– 3 –

While separate states’ unplanned spontaneity generated the ideal Separatist schedule of decisions, subsequent interstate planning ensured that the frontloaded schedule delivered relentless secession. This later communication occurred not in the conspiratorial style of Governor Gist’s October 5 letters and his early November dispatch of State’s Rights Gist to Mississippi but in the open style of Francis Bartow’s and Henry Jackson’s speeches in Charleston on November 9. Private conspiracy had everywhere given way to public planning, except, as we will see, for a brief, very important military plot at the beginning of 1861.

To pursue interstate cooperation the nonconspiratorial way, Separatists appointed official messengers from one state to another.13 Five Lower South states together appointed fifty-two of these so-called commissioners, only one of them a Cooperationist. The Separatists’ commissioners, many returning as hailed natives to their states of birth, spoke to governors, legislatures, conventions, and public meetings. They emphasized that Republicans’ menaces to slavery demanded a new nation, to keep blacks under control.

Thus Judge William Harris, Mississippi’s commissioner to Georgia and a native Georgian, told his mother state’s legislature that “our fathers made this a government for the white man, rejecting the negro, as an ignorant, inferior, barbarian race.” Lincoln’s “new administration,” Harris erroneously and demagogically claimed, pledges “the universal equality of the black and white races.” Well, Mississippi prefers that all white “men, women and children” be “immolated in one common funeral pile, than see them subjected to the degradation of civil, political and social equality with the negro race.”14

The commissioners not only emphasized racism but also sped the frontloaded schedule forward. Governor Albert B. Moore used his commissioner to South Carolina, John Elmore, to urge full speed ahead in the Palmetto State. Otherwise, Alabama might hesitate. “Tell the [South Carolina secession] Convention,” Moore telegraphed Elmore on the day the South Carolinians convened, “to listen to no compromise or delay.”15

So too, Commissioner Harris, that Mississippi envoy to Georgia, wrote back to Governor Pettus that Georgians wished Mississippians to rush out of the Union immediately after South Carolina, lest Georgia hesitate. Commissioner Harris told Pettus that, despite “differences among her distinguished sons,” Georgians assured me that “her secession” would be certain if “Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, shall have taken that step.” Since “Georgia will never separate herself from … the Gulf States, nothing but hesitation, indecision or delay, upon their part, will impede her onward march, with them.”16

The Mississippi secession convention published Commissioner Harris’s initially private communication.17 The publication showed how far Separatists had come from the secret mode of interstate planning that Governor Gist had initiated on October 5. Clandestine plots to coordinate disunion tactics had ended when State’s Rights Gist helped deter Mississippi’s Governor John Pettus from the southern convention strategy in their private November 8 conference. Separatists’ problem remained the same after conspiratorial solutions ended. Could one state count on the next to follow the leader?

As the broadcasting of Commissioner Harris’s private communication revealed, the solution remained the same, after Francis Bartow’s November 9 words in Institute Hall: We publicly pledge to follow, if you dare to lead. After the failure of Robert Barnwell Rhett’s clandestine letters and the public triumph of the Savannah leaders’ visit to Charleston, Separatists never forgot that in republican politics, face-to-face communication in the open air beats closet plotting. To those changed revolutionary tactics, southwestern revolutionaries added variations on South Carolina secessionists’ argument for disunion.

– 4 –

As in South Carolina and as in the mid-November Georgia evening debates, southwestern Separatists emphasized the peril of high tariffs a little and the menace of abolition vastly more. “Give me the right to own and … protect my property,” declared a Louisianan, “or give me death.” Give us assurance that free blacks will not run riot across the South, urged Alabama’s Stephen Hale, or “our wives and our loved ones will be driven from their homes by the light of our dwellings, the dark pall of barbarism must soon gather over our sunny land, and the scenes of West Indian emancipation, with its attendant horror and crimes,” will “be re-enacted … upon a more gigantic scale.” Or as a Texas commoner pornographically described emancipation’s supposed horror, white men will be forced to lie “supinely upon our backs” while our “fair daughters” are “reduced to a level with the flat-footed, thicklipped Negro.”18

Such nocuous images made disunion seem mandatory, if Lincoln immediately menaced slavery. Like their southeastern predecessors, southwestern Separatists sometimes finessed the immediacy part. They urged that Republicans’ containment of slavery’s expansion, plus Northerners’ surge onto new territories, would yield only new Yankee states. Eventually, a three-fourths northern majority of all states would approve an antislavery constitutional amendment.

Still, as in earlier Separatist arguments, southwestern zealots usually underplayed long-term peril. As before, long-term arguments played into Cooperationists’ hands. If possible future overt acts posed the only menace, why not wait until possibilities became realities?

Once again, Separatists parried the long-term query by thrusting at two short-term perils: immediate dishonor and immediate patronage. Lincoln’s assault on our honor, declared the Paulding (Mississippi) Eastern Clarion, includes the claim that slavery “is a disgrace to the country—that the slaveholder is a moral monster,” that we are “in league with the devil.” A humiliated people cannot accept such “indignity, insult, degradation, and wrong,” proclaimed the New Orleans Delta, without debilitating “self-abasement and an eternal invitation to continued wrong and insult.”19

Like the South Carolinians, southwestern Separatists added the peril of Lincoln’s patronage, immediately awarded, to the sting of dishonor, instantly imposed. In the beginning, warned Separatists, Republicans would fasten the noose without obvious aggression. “There will be no overt act until it is too late for the South to resist successfully,” predicted a Southwesterner. Only after we “stand divided” at home will “the overt act … come,” and at “first only gently.”20

To illustrate Republicans’ strategy of brutal gentleness, southwestern Separatists quoted a Chicago Journal editorial, written by a Lincoln partisan. Our “whole policy,” proclaimed the editorial, will be infused with “the spirit of liberty.” We will exert “the patronage and influence of the Government … on the side of freedom.” Enslaved states “will be surrounded by a cordon of free states.” Slaveholders’ “present limits” will be “speedily … circumscribed by Delaware and Missouri becoming free.” Inside the shrinking circle, Republicans “will no longer permit the sanctity of the mails to be invaded.” Nor “will Postmasters of the Southern States … be allowed to decide what newspapers the neighbors may read.” After Republicans enforce the liberty to disagree “throughout the land, emancipation societies will spring up in all the slave States.”21

Southern Republicans’ most “immediate danger,” warned the Vicksburg Weekly Sun, will infect “slavery in all the Border States. … The underground railroad will become an overground railroad.” Worried Upper South slaveholders will send their slaves “down to the gulf and cotton states for sale.” Then the ever-blacker Lower South will suffer “secret conspiracy and all its horror.” If we accept the “humiliating and abject inferiority” of “snug subjection,” cringed the Reverend James C. Wilson of Texas, Republicans will squeeze “slavery in on every hand, closing gradually upon it, like the sliding walls of the tyrants’ iron prison, which, inch by inch, and hour by hour, closed upon its victim,” until hapless folks lay “crushed into a pulpy mass.”22

A Southern Republican Party, emphasized C. M. Conrad of New Orleans, will become the poison in the contracting cage. “Divide and conquer” will be Republicans’ maxim. In the South, antislavery attitudes will become “the sole path to honor and promotion; and every southern traitor would be selected for reward.” However great was Conrad’s “confidence in the … Southern people,” he did “not wish to see this tremendous battery of corruption brought to bear upon them.” A borderland Republican Party already elevated Cassius Clay in Kentucky, Bates in Missouri, Henry Winter Davis in Maryland. While Lower South voters would for a time shun traitors’ demagoguery, “the torch of insurrection,” exciting midnight assassinations, would be immediately “brandished in your very faces.”23

As the New Orleans Delta summarized the central warning that had blown west from South Carolina via Georgia, the number of Lower South politicians and voters “who entertain Black Republican principles at this moment … must be small.” Yet “very many in every community” would succumb “to the allurement of office.” Corrupted Southerners, “in a short time after Lincoln’s election, … would wield all the influence of the Federal Government within the Southern States.”

After “this Black Republican party is formed in every Southern State,” continued the Delta, he who supposes that “it will be without followers … has read history to little purpose. … Even now, the very arguments of Helper’s infamous book have been reproduced in the South.” This endeavor “to stimulate the jealousy of one portion of our population against … the peculiar rights of a privileged class” will be spread “a thousand times more” after our “submission to Black Republican domination.” The South has been fighting the North, the Delta concluded, “and we have lost the battle.” Now “the struggle shall be transferred to our own soil,” and “the armies of our enemies will be recruited from our own forces.”24

While that view of patronage dangers simply repeated the South Carolina position, Southwesterners found territorial imprisonment more alarming. Back in the Palmetto State, few fears of being trapped with other states’ slaves existed. South Carolina was instead losing its slaves. Nor did South Carolinians usually applaud Caribbean expansion. New terrain might draw even more slaves from South Carolina. But in the Southwest, claustrophobic fear of being trapped with blacks, drained downriver from the Upper South, had been omnipresent since Texas times. Caribbean expansion had seemed a merciful safety value. Those southwestern attitudes resurfaced in the secession crisis, giving Lincoln’s antiexpansion policy a darker peril than in South Carolina and Caribbean dreams a brighter hope.

“No sane man,” declared the Vicksburg Sun, “believes that another slave State will ever be admitted in to the Union.” But dissolve the Union and the South would “extend her institutions over Mexico, Central America, Cuba, San Domingo, and other West India Islands, and California, and thereby become the most powerful Republic that ever the sun shone upon.” That expansive prospect contrasted with constricted images of being trapped with multiplying Upper South blacks. Even the “sad alternative” of “a bloody” civil war, warned Texas’s Congressman John Reagan, beats “unconditional submission to Black Republican principles, and ultimately to free negro equality, and a government of mongrels or war of races.”25

Still, the most important southwestern twist on South Carolina polemics was not the greater interest in Caribbean expansion, not the greater dread of racial claustrophobia, but the demagogic emphasis on a glory word in the western Lower South (and a curse word in lowcountry South Carolina): egalitarianism. South Carolina’s antiegalitarianism aristocrats, believing that the best men must dominate lesser whites as well as lowliest blacks, had secured their basic disunion decision in the elitist legislature. Those alleged nonequals, the voters, had but rubber-stamped the decree handed down from above, after an insistently arranged noncampaign for secession convention delegates. Alfred Aldrich caught the paternalistic nature of the triumph in his censorship of James Hammond and in his condescending words that no southwestern egalitarian would utter: The masses could never understand disunion, much less vote themselves a revolution.

Aldrich’s upper-class formula for revolution had no resonance west or north of the Palmetto State. In the newest South, white men’s egalitarian republicanism dictated that the white masses must vote themselves a revolution, after a sharply contested election campaign for convention delegates. To attain the mass approval that Aldrich called unattainable, southwestern demagogues insisted that Republicans shamed not just the aristoi but all southern white men, all equally humiliated as if they were “niggers.”

The modern world wishes that awful word expunged. But no other nineteenth-century word so fully conveyed the filth that southwestern egalitarians felt smeared their skin and their souls, after Republicans humiliated equal southern (white) brothers. The mortification lay in the slur that northern whites morally excelled southern whites, indeed that filthy southern institutions must be caged inside the unequal South.

Separatists called a humiliated egalitarian a “slave.” The terrible word, when used about whites, meant not that slaveholders enslaved laborers but that insult enslaved souls. Republican slurs, thundered an outraged Alabamian, would reduce equal white men to the “slavish obsequiousness” of a black slave. Yankees’ castigations would force the South “to crouch and cower Spaniel-like at the heels of the loathsome monster,” that “imperious and exacting master, the Abolition North.”26

Black slavery, soared the Austin (Texas) State Gazette, saves us from “the wretched livery of humiliation and servitude” by guaranteeing “the equality of white men among themselves, and their superiority over the black race.” Yet under Republicans’ verbal lash, exclaimed Mississippi’s Paulding Eastern Clarion, white equals “will be subject to orders as the slave is to the master, shut up as if in prison, and threatened with punishment for passing the threshold as the negro is, should he leave the plantation against orders; held under this degrading ban to await a preordained doom at an antislavery master’s decree.” Only “when the slaves become masters, and masters slaves” will once equal folk “occupy a more abject and meaner position.”27

Alabama’s Congressman David Clopton described his revulsion for verbal enslavement more bluntly: “I would be an equal or a corpse.” On the other side of freedom’s congressional chamber, Louisiana’s U.S. Senator Judas P. Benjamin bid farewell to the Union with an egalitarian’s exclamation: Yankees voices will never “degrade” equal whites “to the level of an inferior and servile race—Never! Never!”28

Indeed, never, ever, would southwestern egalitarians bow down before linguistic enslavers. They would not be disgraced. They would not be ashamed. They would not be humiliated. They would secede and secure their “emancipation” from Yankee verbiage and its trashing of allegedly unequal whites.

– 5 –

Yet despite southwestern demagogues’ cry about southern whites “enslaved,” they demanded that fellow southern whites be verbally (and sometimes not only verbally) enslaved. Those who thundered against shaming Republican enemies leapt to shame their supposedly equal southern opponents—especially at the moment that Separatists leapt free of Republicans’ humiliations. Separatists’ drives to make humiliated Cooperationists cower like slaves added the thrill of imposing vicious patriotism to the logic of Lincoln’s menace.

Separatists’ determination to repress any Southern Republican Party indicated how fully these self-appointed libertarians rejected liberty’s requirements. Free speech, a free press, freedom to question institutions—none of these liberties could belong to a southern party that doubted slavery. Nor did Cooperationists merit uninhibited right to persuade and to vote. True-blue Southerners must rally for disunion or suffer the enslaving consequences.29

A Mississippi Separatist, privately writing his brother, captured the foul mood that allegedly justified repression of supposedly equal whites. Lincoln’s perfectly constitutional nonovert acts, shuddered R. S. Holt of Yazoo City, will produce “panic … along the border” and then “slaves forced rapidly southward.” Here “in the heart of the planting states,” we already suffer “a foretaste of what northern brotherhood means. … Almost daily” we face “conflagrations,” and “the discovery” of “poison, knives and pistols … among slaves. … This army of assassins must number thousands,” commanding “strychnine and arsenic, in such quantities as show that special factories have been established.”

The secession issue, continued Holt, involves “every interest, right, and hope which I have in the world.” He must protect “the safety of my roof from the firebrand, and of my wife and children from the poison and the dagger.” He had to favor instant secession when he “heard and read of twenty-three of these wretches being hanged in the last three weeks.”30

Even during these convulsed weeks in the land that staggered to combine democracy and dictatorship, vigilantes usually shamed their supposed equals instead of hanging them. In New Orleans on November 10, a keeper of a horse pen thought he recognized an Arkansas horse thief running down St. Charles Street. Screaming, “Stop Thief,” he pursued the fleeing white. The New Orleans Bee reported that “the present excited state of the mind of the public” turned “Stop Thief” into “Stop Abolitionist.” Men poured into the avenue as their prey tore down Perdito Street, then halfway down Carondelet, where the mob caught him and almost tore him apart, until learning he was but an alleged horse thief.31

A day earlier, a mob on Royal Street heard that James Ryback sought to sell a Lincoln campaign button. Crying, “There’s the rascally Abolitionist! Let’s hang him,” the crowd charged after their alleged equal, determined to brutalize him as they would a fleeing slave. Through Exchange Alley fled the accused, down Conti Street to the corner of St. Charles Street, where the exhausted fugitive succumbed gratefully to policemen’s protective control.32

A month later in Friar’s Point, Mississippi, no policemen deterred the rape of white egalitarianism. After two cotton gins and a slave quarters went up in flames, a lynch mob suspected three white carpenters. Lynchers hanged all three, cut down the corpses, and burned them in a public bonfire. A week earlier, Friar’s Point vigilantes had captured an alleged abolitionist, hanged him, stuffed his remains into a barrel, and rolled his coffin into the river.33

In the electoral showdowns between Cooperationists and Separatists, no voters found themselves jammed into barrels or rolled toward the river. But Cooperationists often suffered ridicule of the sort heaped upon slaves. Secession has been accomplished, claimed one Texas Cooperationist, by the “reign of terror” of a “ferocious minority.” Thousands of Union men are “overawed by a standing army.” Rampant “revolutionary feeling,” concurred another Texas secessionist foe, “prevents the freedom of speech”: I only dared protest “as strongly as I thought prudent,” and “accordingly, I did not vote.”34

I alone in my district voted against the Separatists, remembered a Mississippi citizen, “amidst the frowns, murmurs, and threats of the judges and bystanders. … I knew of many … who were intimidated by threats.” The accompanying “odium” prevented many “from voting at all.” An Alabama Separatist, writing a well-loved brother, exemplified the overwrought mood that generated such shaming of supposed equals. “I am in hopes,” ran the hot scorn of this humiliator, that “you will vomit up this dirty dirt you have been eating and vote right yet.”35

In the southern section where black slavery dirtied white liberty, Lower South Separatists demanded liberation from Republicans’ “enslaving” scorn. Lower South Cooperationists demanded freedom from Separatists’ “enslaving” mobs and demeaning slurs. Meanwhile the only real slaves, those duplicitous Cuffees, remained psychologically free enough to murder on occasion and to flee on more occasions. White men’s liberty to speak or write critically could hardly flourish when such black dissimulators could hear or read of freedom. Those who would save a closed society from Southern Republican open agitation instead had to spread intimidation past the slaves, in a cardinal proof that democracy and dictatorship mixed like oil and water.

Southwestern Separatists’ passion to sink Cooperationists toward the psychological inequality of dirt-eating slaves, along with their fury to lift themselves from the shameful inequality of Republicans’ filthy slurs, threw the full range of egalitarian demagoguery atop South Carolina’s elitist case for revolution. In retrospect, the charred pieces of the enflamed rhetorical package can be artificially separated: the rage to save sacred honor, to rescue treasured property, to tighten racial control, to liberate themselves from Republicans’ “enslavement,” to subject Cooperationists to a slave’s humiliation. But at the time, separate travesties fused into a loathsome southwestern vision: of a treasured world’s foul imprisonment, of fellow whites as purchased betrayers, of black servants as deluded murderers, of Border South blacks draining toward a Lower South poisoned cage, of obscene repressions mocking liberty for whites.

The very foulness of this egalitarian/antiegalitarian agitation turned many high-minded republicans toward refined dreams of escape from meanspirited Yankees and the mean-spirited southern reaction. The tension of the Lower South secession campaign turned excruciating, and who wants to exist under such stress? “I am weary of this eternal dingdong on one subject,” despaired a delegate to the Texas secession convention. We “cannot live and remain forever” in such constant “strife on so delicate a subject.” Secession is our “last chance for that peace, which alone makes life tolerable.”36

Secession also provided the best chance to spew out hatred of the intolerable. You seem “to think me bitter, perhaps too bitter, toward the fanatical portion of the North,” the editor of the Montgomery Mail privately wrote his brother on Christmas night, a day after his Separatist troops had swept to victory at the polls. Well, “I am bitter toward them … I hate them instinctively. … I hate them more than I do anything in this world. … They pursue me and mine; if I could, I would visit them with fire, pestilence, famine, and the sword.”37

– 6 –

Lower South preachers’ plea for Separatism turned such unholy malevolence toward holy reform. Evangelicals had long issued soothing justifications of slavery’s rectitude, if calm masters lived up to Christ’s commands. Preachers had called slavery biblically justified, if slaves’ marriages and access to the Word could be guaranteed. They had called on southern Christians to separate themselves from national churches, lest northern abominations further corrupt the slavocracy. Now proslavery divines summoned their congregants to leave the foul Union and then to cleanse their world.38

Benjamin Morgan Palmer especially whipped up Christian folk to move beyond antichrist. Palmer, the most famous disciple of the greatest proslavery preacher, South Carolina’s James Henley Thornwell, had ministered to Presbyterian flocks in Savannah and Columbia before being called to New Orleans’s First Presbyterian Church. The preacher had helped Thornwell found the Southern Presbyterian Review. He had been Thornwell’s colleague at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He would be Thornwell’s biographer and the first moderator of the Confederate States Presbyterian Church. Palmer’s towering prestige and his oratorical power put his Thanksgiving Day sermon in New Orleans on November 29 first among preachers in disunionist impact. Among secular pamphlet writers, only South Carolina’s John Townsend and Texas’s Oran Roberts achieved larger print runs than the 60,000 copies of Palmer’s sermon.39

When discoursing on disunion’s secular appeal, Palmer’s oratorical elegance sometimes adorned absurdities. “Any other than a tropical race,” the divine claimed, “must faint and wither beneath a tropical sun.” The tropical South’s millions of nonslaveholding farmers must have frowned (or chuckled) whenever they heard that (amazingly common) proslavery whopper.40

When he turned from the secular to the sacred, Palmer served up a more systematic polemic. The gospel of disunion, Palmer claimed in the celebrated November 29 sermon, does not necessarily maintain that “domestic slavery as now existing … is precisely the best relation” between “employer” and servile, “although this proposition may perhaps be successfully sustained. Still less are we required, dogmatically, to affirm that it will subsist through all time.” We claim only “liberty to work out this problem … for ourselves,” without the “impertinence” of “interference from abroad.”41

Palmer demanded departure from the “undeniably atheistic” interference of Yankee ministers. Those infatuated divines insist “that every evil shall be corrected” instantly, even if “society becomes a wreck.” With a “single and false idea” riding abolitionists “like a nightmare,” the fiends are at “furious haste” to deny “that in the imperfect state of human society, it pleases God to allow evils which check others that are greater.” Under Republicans’ “reign of terror, … ‘liberty equality, fraternity’” will mean “bondage, confiscation, and massacre.”42

Palmer contrasted these worst “foes of the black race” with the best of slavery, which protects blacks as “a guardian and a father.” Palmer knew that outsiders derided this argument “as the hypocritical cover thrown over our own cupidity and selfishness; but every Southern master knows its truth and feels its power.”43

After masters save my black “brother and my friend” from a Republican “doom worse than death,” Palmer said, our “future generations” will slowly solve “this intricate social problem,” with providence providing “the lights.” We will move ahead with respect for complexity, for “checks and balances,” for the “delicate mechanism of Providence” and the “wheels within wheels, with pivots and balances and springs which the great designer alone can control.” Thus will we defend His complex domestic design from simplistic “fierce zealots,” who would “blasphemously … lay the universe in ruins at His feet.”44

Palmer’s secessionist prayer recalled the Dred Scotts’ judges’ unionist hope for a reformed slavocracy, after their decree had silenced counterproductive agitation about slavery. In both cases, posterity does not have to believe that insiders, once relived of outside agitation and the resulting internal fury, would have redeemed their world. We just have to understand why such fetching hopes seemed a pilgrim’s glory compared to the wicked strife, the lynch mobs, the domestic terror, and the choking hatreds of the southwestern secession crisis.

The Reverend J. E. Carnes echoed Palmer in urging that secession might lay a reformed South at His feet. The Galveston, Texas, preacher’s sermon of December 12 made disunion part of a universal march toward “judicious separations” in an “epoch of disintegration.” Carnes declared that separate cultures, jammed into the same nation, produced angry recriminations, not Christian progress. No nation “without an idea to work out has any excuse for its existence.”

North and South faced opposite assignments. “The North has to work out the problem of the hirer and the hired; the South the problem of the owner and the owned.” Northerners, instead of solving their own problem, now “join in demonstrations against the South.” Meanwhile, Southerners complain that “unjust and ignorant attacks” prevent us from “discharging” our “full duty to the slave.” Against northern laughter “at the South for attempting to make anything presentable out of such a system, … we are bound to demand” a nation and a government that can make “our social system … morally right.”45

The Reverend William T. Leacock, speaking on the same Thanksgiving Day as Benjamin M. Palmer, gave thanks to God for rousing southern Christians against awful meddling. “Our enemies,” declared the Presbyterian minister of New Orleans’s Christ Church, have “defamed” our characters, “lacerated” our feelings, “invaded” our rights, “stolen” our property, and let “murderers … loose upon us, stimulated by weak or designing or infidel preachers.” With “the deepest and blackest malice,” they have “proscribed” us “as unworthy members of the … society of men and accursed of God.” Unless we sink to “craven” begging that they “not disturb us, … nothing is now left us but secession.”46 That Christian release, atop the rational case for Lincoln’s instant menace, atop the dishonor of his election, atop the emotional case for “emancipating” white equals (and for “enslaving” white traitors) made southwestern Separatists’ campaign message a demagogic masterpiece, especially compared to Cooperationists’ milk-toast retort.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!