A Fire-Eating Slave Power Conspiracy

With their somewhat understandable fears in mind, where did the South have to go? What could be done about the Armistice? This post owes a great deal to David Potter’s The Impending Crisis and William W. Freehling’s The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854. 

George W. Towns, governor of Georgia

George W. Towns, governor of Georgia

Southern radicals had an answer. In speaking of the radical South, at least for the moment I want to clarify which radical South. For the purposes of this topic, by radical I mean all the anti-Compromise forces whatever their preferred remedy to the situation. Radicals rarely benefit from delay and these men knew their business. Millard Fillmore signed the last Compromise laws on September 20, 1850. On September 22, the Georgia’s governor called an election in November for a state convention that would meet in December and, George Washington Bonaparte  Towns expected, vote for secession.

Towns made the first official, public move of that secession fall, but the South’s radical disunionists-in-chief would not suffer others sunder the Union without them. South Carolina’s original plan for brinksmanship failed in the 1830s thanks to the expectation that when they called Andrew Jackson’s bluff, the South would unite behind one of its own against the government in Washington. The South demurred. Resolved not to repeat that experiment, the Palmetto State’s governor, Sea Island planter Whitemarsh Seabrook, quietly sought co-conspirators.

Whitemarsh B. Seabrook, governor of South Carolina

Whitemarsh B. Seabrook, governor of South Carolina

On September 15, before the portions of the Compromise rested on Millard Fillmore’s desk, Governor Seabrook encouraged his Texan counterpart to reject the cash offer, keep the disputed territory, and dare Washington to take it. If Millard Fillmore proved to have a little Zachary Taylor in him after all, South Carolina would give its blood and treasure in common cause with the Lone Star State. Other slave states would rush to their banner. Alexander Stephens had warned Taylor of just that when opposing No Territory.

No fool, Lone Star Governor Peter H. Bell, knew that great distance that separated South Carolina from Texas. Even more distance separated it from the land under contention. Ultimately, of course, Seabrook offered no more than a chance to win land and retain crippling state debts against the certainty of federal money in exchange for the land and retiring of the same debts. Bell might have gone to war against Zachary Taylor, but had nothing to fear from Millard Fillmore.

John A. Quitman, governor of Mississippi

John A. Quitman, governor of Mississippi

With hopes of Texas striking the spark to ignite the South thwarted, Seabrook turned to other, nearer governors. He promised to convene his legislature for secession as soon as he had assurance from two other states. Towns boarded the disunion train first, but Mississippi’s John A. Quitman wasted little time in joining him. (Mississippi, one ought to remember, shared the majority-slave club with South Carolina.) On September 29, the Magnolia State’s governor promised his state would quit the Union. He called his legislature to convene in special session to authorize a convention which he expected would vote for secession, just as Towns had.

In the course of seven days, from September 22 to September 29, three governors committed their states to secession. It would finally happen. The fire-eaters would have their way despite their loss at Nashville. Several slave states would go out together, invite the rest along, and a new republic of perpetual slavery would rise on the North American continent in the early months of 1851. Surely Millard Fillmore wouldn’t stop them.

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