The Precursor to the Winter of Secession

Washington in 1860. Photographer Unknown.

Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the Election of 1860 was disconcerting news for the South. It was the most recent event in a string of events that seemingly endangered the southern way of life and the future of the country. At a time when many northerners suspected southern threats of secession were but a bluff, there was evidence that the country had already split and the formalities were soon to follow.

Following an election, the defeated candidates and their supporters typically take stock of the loss. While this post-defeat recuperation normally leads to a formulation of new policies designed to win the next election, this was not the case at the end of 1860. After the Election of 1860, open talk of secession spread as the country appeared to be broken into two de facto countries divided between the North and South. The media was keenly aware of this divide. In Augusta, Georgia, the Daily Constitutionalist published an editorial which stated:

“The most inveterate and sanguine Unionist in Georgia, if he is an observant man, must read, in the signs of the times, the hopelessness of the Union cause, and the feebleness of the Union sentiment in this State. The differences between North and South have been growing more marked for years, and the mutual repulsion more radical, until not a single sympathy is left between the dominant influences in each section. Not even the banner of the stars and stripes excites the same thrill of patriotic emotion, alike in the heart of the northern Republican and the southern Secessionist. The former looks upon that flag as blurred by the stain of African slavery, for which he feels responsible as long as that flag waves over it, and that it is his duty to humanity and religion to obliterate the stigma. The latter looks upon it as the emblem of a gigantic power, soon to pass into the hands of that sworn enemy, and knows that African slavery, though panoplied by the Federal Constitution, is doomed to a war of extermination. All the powers of a Government which has so long sheltered it will be turned to its destruction. The only hope for its preservation, therefore, is out of the Union. A few more years of unquiet peace may be spared to it, because Black Republicans cannot yet get full possession of every department of the Government. But this affords to the South no reason for a moment’s delay in seeking new guards for its future safety.” Dwight Lowell Dumon (ed.), Southern Editorials on Secession (New York, 1931), 242.

To an extent, the editorial exaggerated the level of disunion throughout the country. Throughout the upper South (Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas), there was a measurable level of devotion to American nationalism and the Union. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 449. However, his characterization of the two witnesses to the American flag aptly identified the two principal factions in the country at that time.

Talk of secession was not new. There had already been talk of dissolving the Union depending on whose candidate won the Election of 1860. Robert Barnwell Rhett, a former southern Senator and Representative, gave an incendiary speech on July 4, 1859 saying:

Robert Barnwell Rhett.

“I turned at last to the salvation of my native land—the South—and in my latter years did all I could to dissolve her connection with the North, and to establish for her a Southern Confederacy. . . . The election of a Black Republican President [is] the signal for the dissolution of the Federal Union and the establishment of a Southern Confederacy.” H. Hardy Perritt, “Robert Barnwell Rhett, South Carolina Secession Spokesman” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Florida, 1954) in J. Jeffery Auer (ed.), Anti-Slavery and Disunion, 1858-1861: Studies in the Rhetoric of Compromise and Conflict (New York, 1963), 98-107.

Dissolving the Union was no small task, and there was no clear path for how it would proceed, if it did. Southerners had varying views on their loyalties: some believing that their only loyalty was to their state (such as Robert E. Lee and Alexander Stephens), and others believing that their loyalty was to the southern states as a collective. One member of the latter category was Edmund Ruffin of Virginia who was a longtime, fervent supporter of dissolving the Union. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 464. After Lincoln’s victory in the Election of 1860, he wrote:

“If Virginia remains in the Union under the domination of this infamous, low, vulgar tyranny of Black Republicanism, and there is one other state in the Union that has bravely thrown off the yoke, I will seek my domicile in that state and abandon Virginia forever.” Avery Craven, Edmund Ruffin, Southerner: A Study in Secession (New York, 1932), 107, 162, 198.

By the end of 1860, there were significant social differences between the North and South. There were approximately eight million whites enslaving four million blacks throughout the South, reinforced by a legal system that permitted and perpetuated the institution of slavery. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 452. There was a well-established fear of slave revolt by 1860, and any threat to the existence of slavery provoked a knee-jerk reaction for many southerners given that it was not simply a social institution but an economic engine (albeit an inefficient one). According to one historian, there were over 200 instances of revolts, both imaginary and real, which contributed to an atmosphere of fear. See id. at 453 citing Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts (New York, 1943).

A Plantation in 1860.

Widespread southern fear led to further subordination of blacks, as literacy and free movement were discouraged to prevent any experimentation in social change. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 456. Southerners sought to preserve the plantation lifestyle, preferring it to the “impersonal, dehumanized irresponsibility of ‘wage slavery,’ which treated labor as a commodity” in the North. See id. at 457. Supporters of slavery believed the slaves’ “sense of loyalty and attachment to the master” was more noble than the North’s system, which lacked the “plantation virtues” of “magnanimity, hospitality, personal courage, and loyalty.” See id.

Plantation in Georgia in 1860.

With the subordination of blacks, racism became intertwined with slavery. For southerners, it became easier to justify slavery when they could articulate how blacks were supposedly inferior to whites. See id. at 461. At a time when racism was prevalent throughout the North and South, if a southerner could identify deficiencies in blacks, that southerner had a better chance at resonating with his northern brethren and perpetuating slavery as an institution.

Southerners’ fear was not grounded in what northern men and their politicians would do in the short term as their chief concern was the ultimate abolition of slavery. In this sense, even the territorial controversy that had plagued the 1850s “had many of the aspects of a charade” as there was no debate as to abolishing slavery within any existing state. See id. at 454. However, the turmoil of the prior decade, such as the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott case, Bleeding Kansas, and the Election of 1860, illustrated to southerners that the North had placed slavery on the path toward its demise.

Boston in the Winter of 1860. By: John B. Heywood.

Social differences were just one component of the different societies of the North and South. There were cultural differences as well, which had the effect of deepening the divide. There was a collective feeling in the South that northerners had considerable disrespect and disregard for the southern way of life. See id. at 469. That feeling bred resentment amongst southerners. One Tennessean wrote: “The high-toned New England spirit has degenerated into a clannish feeling of profound Yankeeism. . . . The masses of the North are venal, corrupt, covetous, mean, and selfish.” J.G. Ramsey to L. W. Spratt, quoted in James Welch Patton, Unionism and Reconstruction in Tennessee (Chapel Hill, 1934), 3. The Tennessean continued, stating that “the proud Cavalier spirit of the South” had only intensified in response to this identified “Yankeeism.” See id. Some southerners viewed the North as “vile, rotten, infidelic, puritanic, and negro-worshipping.” Joseph Carlyle Sitterson, The Secession Movement in North Carolina (Chapel Hill, 1939), 238.

Southerners, despite encompassing a significant portion of the country, had a collective feeling of alienation as their influence in a presidential election had waned to the point that a northern Republican, widely viewed in the South as an “ultimate extinctionist” (one who sought to phase slavery out), won the election. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 454. As William L. Yancey said to an audience in New York during 1860:

“You have power in all the branches of the government to pass such laws as you like. If you are actuated by power, or prejudice, or by the desire of self-aggrandizement, it is within your power . . . to outnumber us and commit aggression upon us.” Emerson David Fite, The Presidential Campaign of 1860 (New York, 1911), 301-29.

Painting of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

Further, by the time that Lincoln won, there was already “incompatibility [between North and South] growing out of two systems of labor, crystallizing about them two forms of civilization.” Clarence Phillips Denman, The Secession Movement in Alabama (Montgomery, Ala., 1933), 89; Charles Edward Cauthen, South Carolina Goes to War (Chapel Hill, 1950), 40; see also Henry T. Shanks, The Secession Movement in Virginia, 1847-1861 (Richmond, 1934), 166. The emergence of the Republican Party also added pressure to the South’s already defensive mentality, as Republican rhetoric was more confrontational, even publicly opposing slavery. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 476. No other party had publicly attacked slavery until then. See id. By 1860, with the crescendo of abolitionism rising, southerners were also aware that slavery remained significant only “in Brazil, Cuba, and the southern United States.” Id. at 477.

Southerners were not ashamed of preserving slavery and were not going to apologize for their way of life or history. Reflecting a typical southerner’s mentality at this time, a Missourian said:

“I am a Southern man . . . born and raised beneath the sunny sky of the South. Not a drop of blood in my veins ever flowed north of Mason’s and Dixon’s line. My ancestors for 300 years sleep beneath the turf that shelters the bones of Washington, and I thank God that they rest in the graves of honest slaveholders.” N.C. Claiborne, June 22, 1860 in Murat Halstead, Caucuses of 1860 (Columbus, 1860) 239.

Southerners viewed their position as naturally stemming from the birth of America. This image of southern rebellion would feed into a narrative that they were beginning the Second American Revolution. When South Carolina seceded from the Union in December 1860, South Carolinians had an Address of the People of South Carolina stating:

“The Constitution of the United States . . . was an experiment. The experiment consisted, in uniting under one Government, peoples living in different climates, and having different pursuits and institutions. . . . [By 1860,] their institutions and industrial pursuits, have made them, totally different peoples. . . . All fraternity of feeling between the North and the South is lost, or has been converted into hate; and we, of the South, are at last, driven together, by the stern destiny which controls the existence of nations.” Edward McPherson (ed.), Political History of the United States During the Great Rebellion (Washington, 1876), 12-15.

Despite the divisions, the two sections of the country had shared patriotism, with equal devotion to “personal independence and social equalitarianism.” See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 473. More than that, there was economic interdependence: the North had a robust manufacturing industry and the South produced bountiful rice, sugar, and cotton. Id. citing Mary Emily Robertson Campbell, The Attitude of Tennesseans Toward the Union 1847-1861 (New York, 1961), 140. Realizing this harmony, one North Carolina newspaper stated:

“We possess all the elements of greatness and power. Peace smiles upon us from all quarters of the globe; a material prosperity, unparalleled in the annals of the world, surrounds us; our territory embraces almost the entire continent; we enjoy wide-spread intelligence and universal plenty; we are happy; WE ARE FREE.” Dwight Lowell Dumond (ed.), Southern Editorials on Secession (New York, 1931), 227.

Charleston, South Carolina in 1860.

The chords that tied the North and South together, such as complementary economics, were insufficient. Satisfied that secession was justified, southerners explored the legal framework for it. The basis for secession as a legal principle rested in the Constitution itself. The Founding Fathers purposely did not delineate the confines of state and federal sovereignty, knowing that those contours must only emerge through future experience and experimentation. The Founding Fathers also knew that a Constitution that clearly favored states or the federal government would not earn ratification. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 479. As such, there was a level of ambiguity as to where the line was between the federal government’s sovereignty and states’ sovereignty. Thus, one could interpret the Constitution as creating “coordinate governments” between the states and federal government, and the people were the common thread between those two governments. See id. at 481. Taking this logic further, one could conclude that the people of a state had a right to secession. This was particularly true with states like Virginia, where the ratification act reserved Virginians’ right to resume their power should the Constitution “be perverted to their injury or oppression.” See Charles C. Tansill (ed.), Documents Illustrative of the Formation of the Union of the American States (Washington, 1927), 1027.

With the legal groundwork laid for the South, and the North heaping on pressure, action was imminent. While there was harmony amongst Americans, there were two fundamentally visions of the country’s future. Lincoln’s elevation to the White House was only the latest development in a sequence of events that had left southern states sufficiently alienated from their own country to take action.


Leave a Reply