The Birth of Secessionism

Antebellum Atlanta, Georgia. Photographer Unknown.

Following the Compromise of 1850, southerners became concerned about the North securing additional concessions from the South. Aware of the South’s concerns, President Millard Fillmore tried to calm southern nerves by making the Compromise of 1850 “final and irrevocable.” Message to Congress, Dec. 2, 1850, in James D. Richardson (ed.), A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789-1902 (11 vols.; New York, 1907), V, 93. He recommended that Congress view the Compromise of 1850 as “a final settlement.” Id. In short, he sought to protect the Union and let the Compromise resolve the tension that had nearly boiled over just prior to its finalization.

President Millard Fillmore.

While the unionists in Congress, those who invariably wished the states to remain united despite their differences, hoped to create some sort of legislative manifestation of the so-called “final settlement,” a significant portion of southerners could only see disunion as a worthy cause. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 122. By the end of 1850, the South’s collective attitude toward secession had undergone a transformation in just a matter of years. In 1846, “southerners generally associated disunion with treason,” as there was a strong sense of patriotism that made the idea of secession unpalatable. See id. at 123. The most common discussions of secession in that time mentioned the idea as an absolute last resort. As a whole, the South was decidedly pro-Union but frustrated with the status quo of being subjugated to the interests of the North.

From 1846 to 1850, however, southerners underwent a transformation in their beliefs and discourse. Alexander Stephens, in December 1849, wrote to his brother:

Alexander Stephens. Library of Congress.

“I find the feeling among the Southern members for a dissolution of the Union—if the antislavery [measures] should be pressed to extremity—is becoming much more general than at first. Men are now beginning to talk of it seriously, who twelve months ago, hardly permitted themselves to think of it.” Stephens to Linton Stephens, Dec. 5, 1849, in Richard Malcolm Johnston and William Hand Browne, Life of Alexander H. Stephens (Philadelphia, 1883), p. 239.

Stephens’ anecdote was far from the only one in that vein. James Pettigrew of North Carolina wrote:

“I am amazed when I see the rapid strides that the spirit of disunion has made in all quarters in the course of a year. No one considers it at all startling to discuss the matter in a calm tone, whereas a few years ago it was necessary to be worked up into a furious passion before the word could be uttered.” Pettigrew, Jan. 8, 1850, in Pettigrew Papers, quoted in Sitterson, Secession Movement in North Carolina, p. 55.

With all of the discussion of secession came some action. Conventions met in Georgia and Tennessee that mostly attracted secessionists. These conventions were largely ineffective. The secessionists only recommended “southern abstention from the national party conventions and the scheduling of another southern convention.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 126. No further action was taken.

The secessionists’ lack of action was not due to the unionists, however. There was a split in the South between those who saw secession as a realistic option and those who sought to preserve the Union, but there was also a split amongst secessionists. There were “separate state actionists,” who were viewed as revolutionaries prepared to destroy the Union, and there were “cooperationists,” who became known for accepting the North’s subjugation of the South. See id. at 127. Before that split could be reconciled, the secessionist movement lost its momentum. This was evident when South Carolina and Mississippi scheduled conventions nearly a year after agreeing action was needed to push the South toward secession. See id. at 127-28. Within that year, the impetus for immediate secession dissipated.

Location of the Georgia Convention in Milledgeville, Georgia.

In December 1850, the Georgia convention produced the “Georgia Platform,” which would effectively capture the views of most southerners at that time. See id. at 128. The platform declared that Georgia did not approve of the Compromise of 1850, but that it would remain in the Union for the following reasons:

“The state of Georgia will and ought to resist even (as a last resort) to the disruption of every tie that binds her to the Union, any action of Congress upon the subject of slavery in the District of Columbia, or in places subject to the jurisdiction of Congress incompatible with the safety and domestic tranquility, the rights and honor of the slave-holding states, or any refusal to admit as a state any territory hereafter applying, because of the existence of slavery therein, or any act, prohibiting the introduction of slaves into the territories of Utah and New Mexico, or any act repealing or materially modifying the laws now in force for the recovery of fugitive slaves.

It is the deliberate opinion of this Convention that upon a faithful execution of the Fugitive Slave Law . . . depends the preservation of our much beloved Union.” Debates and Proceedings of the Georgia Convention, 1850, pp. 7-9.

The Georgia Platform reflected the balance that many southerners had struck in their views toward secession at that time. Most southerners valued the Union, realizing it benefited all of the states, but they viewed any further encroachments on their perceived rights as unacceptable. This pronouncement left those in the South who wished for immediate secession without support for their argument. Immediate secession, which had seemed to be the answer for many, was not a realistic option anymore.

In late 1851, “Georgians ratified the Georgia Platform by giving the Unionist candidate” for governor a majority of votes and victory over the Southern Rights candidate. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 129. In the next two years, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina came to agree with the ideals of the Georgia Platform, ensuring that the South would not imminently secede.

Nashville, Tennessee in 1850.

These developments in the South left northerners to wonder whether southerners ever intended to actually leave the Union or whether they had taken this course of conduct simply to extract concessions from the North. See id. at 130. Whether southerners realized it or not, their discussing secession and then taking no action had affected the psyche of the North. Later in the 1850s and certainly by the dawn of the Civil War in 1861, a sizable portion of northerners viewed the South’s demands as bluffing.

This created a dangerous dynamic between the North and the South as early as 1850, where southern calls for secession were met with northern disbelief. Nonetheless, many southerners hoped for secession, as they saw it as the only way to escape the tyranny of the North that seemed to be increasingly encroaching on southern rights. Other southerners, along with most northerners, remained keenly aware that apart, the North and the South could not be nearly as strong as if they were united, despite their differences.

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