Snowball Rolling

Lower South secession resembled a snowball rolling downhill. From east to west, one state and then another and another and another and another and another added to the irresistible momentum. After forty days of serial secessions, the bottom of the old nation had been swept away.

– 1 –

The snowball effect took hold later than its apparent starting date: December 20, 1860. During that day of reckoning, South Carolina’s convention seceded and Mississippi’s voters elected secession convention delegates. But on December 20, neither Hereafter Acquired’s rejection nor Robert Anderson’s flight to Sumter nor the Star of the West nor the seizure of Lower South forts had yet compounded South Carolina’s disruptive departure.

Thus when Mississippians elected secession delegates, no rout occurred. Voters cast 29 percent of their ballots for unpledged candidates, 31 percent for candidates pledged to Cooperation, and only 40 percent for candidates pledged to Separatism. Still more inconclusively, since 40 percent of Mississippi’s November voters for president stayed home on December 20, candidates pledged to Separatism collected an anemic 25 percent of the state’s recent balloters.1 In contrast to South Carolina Separatists’ uncontested dominance, Mississippi Separatists retained no more than the contested edge that they had previously displayed, both in Governor John Pettus’s November 22 conference and in the early December Mississippi congressional contingent.

Then came the transforming aftermath of South Carolina’s precipitation. During the eighteen days between Mississippi delegates’ election and the state convention, Hereafter Acquired lost, conspiratorial seizures of Lower South forts commenced (with Governor Pettus a cardinal plotter), and the Star of the West sailed (with Mississippi’s Jacob Thompson, secretary of the interior, wiring that the ship would imminently invade Charleston harbor). After all that provocation, Separatists’ contested domination over the December popular election of delegates swelled into uncontested control of the January state convention.

In the Mississippi convention, as in all the post–South Carolina Lower South conventions, preliminary votes on Cooperationist options, not the final vote on a secession ordinance, best measured each party’s power. Preliminary votes tested such anti-Separatist propositions as calling a southern convention, trying an ultimatum to the North, delaying secession until three or four or five states concurred, and requiring a popular referendum after a state convention decree. When Cooperationists lost these preliminary tests, some joined with Separatists, thereby inflating the majority for a secession ordinance.

The Mississippi convention’s preliminary votes showed how much had changed since the delegates’ election. Where Separatists had secured 40 percent of the votes on the day of South Carolina’s secession, 75 percent of Mississippi’s delegates swarmed against Cooperationist options on the second day after the Star of the West approached Fort Sumter. After Mississippi’s convention rejected all Cooperationist options, 85 percent of the delegates voted for the secession ordinance.2

Mississippi Cooperationists discovered two easy retreats to Separatism. Some surrendering Cooperationists wished to go with their state, which they revealingly prized more than their Union. Others decided that temporary disunion might save state and Union too. These Cooperationists argued that several months outside the Union might bring salutary delay, the Cooperationist objective lost inside the Union. After a cooling-off period had restored Separatists’ equilibrium, all Mississippians might demand a full redress of grievances, as the seceded state’s ironclad conditions for a reconstructed Union.

Reconstructionists fantasized that Republicans would then concede every demanded protection for slavery. A remade nation, composed of uncompromising Southerners and capitulating Northerners, would anoint the old Cooperationist crowd as the newest heroic Founding Fathers. As the Mississippi Cooperationist leader James L. Alcorn celebrated this fantasy, “I and others agreeing with me determined to seize the wild and maddened steed by the mane and run with him for a time.”3

Alcorn’s attitude comprised a second coming of southern hopes for a reconstruction. Cooperationists’ 1861 prayers resembled Yancey’s followers’ initial aspirations after they seceded from the National Democratic Party’s Charleston convention. The Military Hall crowd had hoped for party reunification, as they waited for Institute Hall delegates to surrender. Such waiting had been the bane of Robert Barnwell Rhett, who had feared that the blessed exodus from the party would lead to a cursed reentrance. In 1861, South Carolinians meant to foil the newest reconstructionists, who supplied unwelcome evidence that South Carolina and Mississippi continued to be secession’s unidentical twins.

Still, Mississippians remained second only to South Carolinians in determination to fracture the Union. Both states contained the prime prerequisite for widespread secessionism: widespread black belts. In South Carolina and Mississippi, where black belts dominated almost every county, Cooperationists possessed too narrow a geographic base of support. In contrast, Alabama and Georgia contained wide swaths of white belt counties and thus more Cooperationist fervor. But after Mississippi joined South Carolina outside the Union on January 9, the two states with scarcely a white belt had closed the vise on states with more nonslaveholder areas.

On January 10, Florida’s convention tightened the squeeze on still unseceded Lower South states. Florida delegates slapped down Cooperationist test proposals by six-to-four margins, then voted to secede, 62–7.4 With Florida completing the initial secessionist force of Lower South states’ frontloaded schedule of secession conventions, and with news of the Star of the West and southern fort seizures dominating the telegraph wires, the snowball effect pressed on the four Lower South states still in the Union.

Here once again, secessionists’ fracture of the Union resembled Yanceyites’ cleavage of the National Democratic Party. In Charleston, Yancey had used Jefferson Davis’s compromise language to forge an Alabama-Mississippi alliance. That minority of the Lower South’s minority had then pressured reluctant Georgians and South Carolina’s Orr supporters to depart the convention. The ensuing almost universal Lower South departures had snowballed in Baltimore, to include Upper South delegates who had shunned secession from the party in Charleston. So too, in early January, the three most secessionist Lower South states pressured the four less secessionist tropical states to depart the Union; and an eventually solid Lower South pressured the Upper South’s reluctant potential rebels.

– 2 –

The first closely contested 1861 Lower South state convention, Alabama’s, raised the question of whether a close vote legitimated secession. American republican theory distinguishes between a change in sacrosanct constitutional law, customarily requiring more than a simple majority to approve, and a change in lowlier governmental laws, where a majority of one usually suffices. The Alabama constitution did not explicitly require a majority of more than one to affirm constitutional change. But that requirement, according to Alabama Cooperationists, remained sacrosanct American folk wisdom.

The conventional wisdom seemed wisest when a constitutional change lacked even a clear majority of one. In the Alabama popular election for convention delegates, held on December 24, 55 percent of the voters supported a Separatist candidate. But since 20 percent of the state’s November presidential voters shunned the December polls, only 45 percent of the state’s earlier voters approved disunion.5

The problem evaporated in Mississippi. Mississippi Separatists’ support in the January state convention leapt to 75, then to 85 percent. That huge majority legitimated the largest changes in the highest law.

No such leap legitimated Alabama Separatism. When that state’s convention met on January 7, Cooperationists claimed 48 of the 100 delegates. The minority urged that Separatists’ bare margin necessitated a postconvention popular referendum, to ratify constitutional change.

Anti-Separatists encountered instead a hidebound majority, determined to award itself a safer edge. At the beginning of the Alabama convention, Separatists voted to unseat two Cooperationists, on dubious technical grounds. They then seated two Separatists. That maneuver increased Separatists’ margin to 54–46.6

The heavy-handed gambit opened the oratorical floodgates. Some white belt delegates warned that northern Alabama might withdraw its consent to be governed by Alabama. The threat prefigured white belt Virginians’ action during the Civil War, when western Virginians would withdraw their consent to be governed by Virginia. Both the earlier northern Alabama threat and the later western Virginia deed exposed the most dubious part of secessionists’ state’s rights justification. Since all men possessed a natural right to withdraw their consent to be governed, a portion of a state’s population arguably had as much right to withdraw consent from a state government (and for that matter, slaves arguably had as much right to withdraw consent from masters’ governance) as the people of a state had to withdraw from the Union’s authority. State’s rights logicians arbitrarily constricted a universal right into a crabbed right, with only those crabby about the Union allowed to exercise all mankind’s sacred prerogative.

After northern Alabamians ridiculed this inconsistency in the secessionists’ justification, the most famous disunionist acted as if an abolitionist had flayed an inconsistency in his proslavery argument. William Lowndes Yancey exploded that delegates who “oppose the actions of Alabama will become traitors … and will be dealt with as such.”7 The volcanic Yancey had lately been more publicly discreet. He had triumphed in the 1860 National Democratic Convention (and had utterly mystified the indiscreet Robert Barnwell Rhett) by blithely supporting Jefferson Davis’s compromised territorial language. Yancey had thus leaned a little away from a fire-eating position, so that moderates would lean a little toward him.

Now the extremist blasted moderates out of the water, and they blasted him out of power. Separatists could not afford their loose cannons, not C.A.L. Lamar, not Rhett, now not Yancey. Calm gentlemen, displaying personas akin to Robert Gourdin’s Santa Claus air, had to orchestrate this revolution. Otherwise, wild agitators might repel a folk divided. In December, South Carolinians had repeatedly denied Rhett the offices that he thought the father of secession deserved. Now the Alabama convention denied Yancey a place on the state’s imminent delegation to the Confederate nation’s planning session, several weeks hence in Montgomery.

A month later in Montgomery, Yancey had to settle for a merely symbolic appearance, comparable to Rhett’s cameo role at the signing of the South Carolina Secession Ordinance. Where Rhett halted the Institute Hall proceedings by dropping to his knees in thankful prayer, before signing the historic document, Yancey would introduce Jefferson Davis to the multitudes, before Davis’s inauguration as Confederate president. Just as the deposed Rhett deserved the momentary spotlight, for he had kept disunion alive during the dark times, so the deposed Yancey deserved his emblematic linkage with the new president, for he had used Davis’s logic to fracture the National Democratic Party. But both South Carolina’s and Alabama’s supreme extremists suffered the (necessary) embarrassment of losing their power, before their causes could finally triumph.

– 3 –

Yancey’s embarrassment did not assuage northern Alabama Cooperationists. After attending a stormy meeting in Huntsville, a prominent northern Alabamian wrote his U.S. senator that “a tempest has been raised that is already beyond control.” I fear that “a successful attempt” will be “made to excite the people of N. Ala. to rebellion versus the State and that we will have civil war in our midst.”8

Separatists’ demeaning of such hand-wringers repeated another inconsistency in their case for revolution. Rebels urged that Yankees must not treat southern whites as degraded unequals. But disunionists treated Cooperationists as contemptible inferiors. Again, Separatists urged that national majority tyranny over the southern minority must be scotched. But the southern Alabama majority’s tyranny over the northern Alabama minority must be exercised.

As the Alabama convention majority relentlessly proceeded with its rebellion against, and exercise of, majority tyranny, Cooperationists denounced “a prejudging and unrelenting” tyrant. They deplored the news that Alabama troops had just seized Fort Morgan—a fantastic “usurpation,” said one, before the convention had made its decision. Troops, Cooperationists complained, also parade our streets. The drum, fife, and tramp of the minutemen disrupt our sleep. We hear that they must take Alabama “straight out” of the Union, “or there will be a hanging.” Cooperationists dare not even hint at “any willingness on our part to submit to … the black republican party.”9

Prior to the critical Alabama roll calls, five companies of Alabamians, 500 men in all, departed for Pensacola to help besiege Fort Pickens. Just before the delegates voted to secede, news flashed across the wires that Florida had joined Mississippi and South Carolina outside the Union. Alabama Separatists seized on this momentum. After turning down Cooperationists’ preliminary proposals 55–45, the convention voted to secede on January 11, 61–39. An anguished Cooperationist delegate now saw only two alternatives: “either to sway the people of the state, one against the other, in a desperate Civil War, or to surrender my scruples for the sake of union among ourselves.” His “every feeling of patriotism” and his “every sense of good judgment” dictated that “I must share the state’s destiny.”10

– 4 –

Georgia’s convention, charged with deciding the destiny of the most uncertain Lower South state, met five days after Alabama’s convention took the fourth state out of the Union. On January 2, Georgia’s voters for convention delegates had split almost evenly.11But by January 16, the combination of Hereafter Acquired’s defeat, four states’ departure, and rebels’ fort seizures weighed on harried Cooperationists. At the state convention, Robert Toombs demanded an endorsement of Governor Brown’s capture of Fort Pulaski, a denunciation of the Star of the West’s coercion, and a repudiation of cowardly submissionists who would not stand to the colors. Defying Toombs’s pressure, Cooperationists proposed a southern convention and an ultimatum to the North on the territories, as a substitute for immediate secession. The proposition lost, 164–133.12

The rather close vote hardly threatened the Separatists. Back in mid-November (that seemed like ancient history now), Alexander Stephens’s proposals for a more moderate ultimatum had looked like a possible threat to immediate secession. Stephens had only demanded repeal of Personal Liberty Laws. Lincoln favored concessions on that subject, and congressional debates hinted that an agreement, while hardly a certainty, possibly could have been reached. An early southern convention, say in mid-December, held to demand Stephens’s terms, might also have permitted time for northern responses and southern decisions by March 4.

By mid-January, however, two disruptive months of history had left Stephens’s pittance in the dust. Georgia Cooperationists, over Stephens’s objections, had to revive an ironclad ultimatum on the territories, not a demand for fugitive slave reform, before reconstructionists in four seceded states would even think about reunion. It was all reminiscent of John Crittenden’s late predicament, wishing to drop Hereafter Acquired but needing at least that much bait to hook Robert Toombs.

In hopes of pressuring Congress to reverse its Crittenden Compromise decision, Georgia Cooperationists proposed a southern convention, to meet on February 16 in Atlanta. A firm Cooperationist date for a southern convention here at last emerged. But what a tardy date. The proposed southern convention would assemble only sixteen days before the March 4 witching hour—an impossibly late time to begin impossibly difficult work. If the Georgia convention had approved this tardy southern convention, called to seek an already defeated territorial ultimatum, the North’s certain rejection would have turned trapped Cooperationists into zealous Separatists.

The debacle showed yet again that time had been of the essence immediately after Lincoln’s election. What just might have been possible, had Cooperationists hustled in mid-November for a mid-December southern convention, had become impossible by mid-January (much less mid-February). Having conceded that grievances must be redressed and that secession must be allowed, Cooperationists could not recover after Buchanan deployed the Star, Crittenden failed to redress territorial grievances, governors seized forts, and four states adopted secession. Georgia Cooperationists’ convention defeat comprised the death rattle of an idea. On January 19, the Georgia convention signed the death certificate. Delegates voted 208–89 to secede.13

– 5 –

After five states had departed the Union and soldiers marched toward forts, Louisiana’s once menacing Cooperationist faction almost disappeared. In the state’s popular election for secession delegates on January 7, Separatist candidates received a bare 52 percent majority.14 But in the state’s convention, commencing on January 23, 52 percent for Separatism ballooned to 82 percent against a Cooperationist attempt to secure guarantees inside the Union. On January 26, the convention voted to secede, 113–17.15 On February 1, the Texas convention followed suit, 166–8. Three weeks later, Texas voters ratified secession, 44,317–13,020.16

Texas Separatists’ 77 percent of their state’s popular referendum and Louisiana Separatists’ 82 percent of their state’s convention’s test votes again accelerated the Lower South snowball effect. These two Lower South states had possessed the least desire for secession after Lincoln’s election. Neither state’s governor had initially wished to call a legislature or a convention. Many of both states’ prominent newspapers had initially screamed WAIT.

But South Carolina had started a secessionist snowball rolling. The momentum multiplied as compromise failed and coercion descended and troops seized, before Lower South voters and delegates could even make decisions on secession’s expediency. By the time the expanding movement crashed against the Lower South’s western extremities, the only viable Separatist versus Cooperationist issue had become whether to cooperate with the still unionist Upper South or the now departed Lower South. That reformulated issue, in the two Lower South states tardiest to secede, brought a belated rush to join the most tropical South.

– 6 –

Separatists’ triumph in Lower South states illuminated both a minority’s manipulative leverage and a series of majorities’ electoral strength. Immediately after Lincoln’s election, no Southwide or probably even Lower Southwide majority desired instant secession. Separatists’ primary tactical imperative, to avert a southern convention, aimed at avoiding their likely loss if the southern majority decided on disunion. Separatists would have also lost most of the southern states, and perhaps most of the Lower South states, if all states’ voters had decided on secession’s expediency on the same early day. In all these important ways, disunion was an undemocratic decision, with the Southwide minority imposing its will on the majority.

Yet the minority’s revolution still had to win majorities at each seceding state’s polls and conventions. Even a conspiracy to seize forts, the essence of revolution in less democratic nations, here required endorsement after the fact, in democratically elected conventions. But a democratic mandate for secession, in each state, required only a majority in that state.

As in most majoritarian decisions, each Lower South state’s voters and conventions faced not a perfect choice of alternatives in an ideal world but impure alternatives at the moment when the decision transpired. Since Separatists scheduled each state’s decision on a different day, different decisions involved different impurities. In each Lower South state, Separatists won a mandate to deal with the shifting situation at that state’s moment of decision. In this sense, secession was a popular revolution that fueled a popular war against a hated foe.

Thus South Carolina’s decision reflected its peoples’ opinion that the state must charge, once it had reasonable assurances that some other state(s) would follow. Mississippi’s decision reflected its citizens’ opinion that after South Carolina had seceded, and after Buchanan had sent the Star, and after Republicans had rejected Crittenden, any initial preference for a southern convention had become passé. Florida’s decision reflected its voters’ judgment that with two states departed and military crises exploding, only Separatism remained viable. Alabama’s decision reflected its citizens’ (close) verdict that, with three states out and the state’s own troops marching to Fort Pickens, a delay for a popular referendum could not be tolerated. Georgia’s decision reflected its voters’ conclusion that, with four states gone, Buchanan’s coercion experienced, Crittenden’s compromise a loser, and Governor Brown’s troops triumphant at Fort Pulaski, Alexander Stephens had become irrelevant. And then the Louisiana and Texas conventions decreed that Cooperationists wanted no separation from already departed Lower South brethren. Texas citizens, in the Lower South’s only popular referendum, overwhelmingly endorsed that climactic verdict.

To secure this ongoing, increasingly lopsided achievement of popular consent, Separatists had wisely avoided both provocative illegalities and provoking leaders. The Rhetts, C.A.L. Lamars, and Yanceys had to be replaced, and they were. Mobs had to be deterred from seizing control, and they were. Above all else, South Carolinians had to dare and to persist, and they did. The initial rebels triumphed because they tolerated the risks and because Robert Anderson’s Sumter move, plus James Buchanan’s coercive Star of the West, plus the governors’ fort seizures, plus Crittenden’s failed compromise, played into their hands. For the many Lower South voters who had initially preferred to delay, the issue quickly became whom they loathed more, Separatists who departed prematurely or Yankees who responded coercively. After thirty years of escalating sectional hatreds, detestation of Yankees won hands down.

As South Carolina’s Congressman William Boyce had prophesied, after we declare independence, “our enemies … must let us alone” or “they must attempt to coerce us.” If “they attempt to coerce us,” Lower South states will be “compelled to make common cause with us.” South Carolinians would then “wake up some morning and find the flag of a Southern Confederacy floating over us.”17 As secession rolled ahead, separate Lower South majorities serially voted to raise a passionately embraced flag. Would the Upper South majority now lower the Union’s Stars and Stripes?

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