Dousing the Fire-Eaters

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens

The fire-eaters had their way and the South left the Union in 1851, led by Georgia with South Carolina and Mississippi swiftly following. They dreamed it might happen, anyway. Georgia’s Governor Towns called his election in November for a secession convention in December, but that meant two months of delay. A lot could happen in that time. It did.

Two Whigs, Alexander Stephens and Robert Toombs, who Zachary Taylor once measured for nooses, and Democrat Howell Cobb, Speaker of the House after much strife, planned to save Georgia for the Union. The Whig pair hoped to create a new national party for Union. Cobb hoped to use Unionism to draw the disgruntled Southern Whigs, already smoldering over their Northern wing’s opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act and the Democratic attacks to which it exposed them, into the Democracy.

Against the Unionist trio’s considerable influence, rhetorical firepower, and not coincidentally an improving economy and the high cotton prices it brought, Georgia’s radicals turned tail and ran. They wanted not to break the Union, they said, but only to resist an unjust compromise to which the trio would have the South submit. They called themselves resisters now, not secessionists. Stephens, who claimed to travel more than three thousand miles up and down Georgia for the Union, and his fellows beat the radicals over the head with secession. It worked. Unionists won the election 46,000 to 24,000 and consequently dominated the convention when it met on November 25th.

Robert Toombs

Robert Toombs

The secession movement fell apart as swiftly as it had formed. On the 29th of November, Quitman wrote Seabrook that Mississippi would have its convention with or without Georgia, but not for a year. The revolution lost October and most of November to Georgia. Now it would sacrifice 1851 to Mississippi. For a full year ordinary white Southerners and their leaders alike would see how the sky did not fall. They would see how the slaves did not rise up. They would learn anew that their families and fortunes faced no greater threat than they had before the dreaded compromise.

South Carolina would have to act, then. Quitman wrote from Mississippi encouraging the Palmetto state. Perhaps even in delay and defeat Georgia and Mississippi paved the way enough to neutralize Carolina’s radical reputation. Strike the spark and Mississippi would turn, Georgia might reconsider, and soon slave state might still fall in line.

Howell Cobb

Howell Cobb

Carolina’s legislature made plans to follow Mississippi’s lead all the same and called for a general  Southern convention in January of 1852. By then Mississippi should, they hoped, be done with convention and United States alike. The South Carolina legislature authorized its own convention, date to be determined later, and appropriated money for the defense of its verdict by force. But even in the cradle of radical disunionism, passions cooled and Carolina’s moderates managed to ensure that the legislature set no date for its secession convention and delay still longer for an all-South convention that by then everyone knew would never meet. The secession conspiracy began with a bang and then fizzled out in the face of domestic Southern opposition.

The fire-eaters and northern onlookers alike learned lessons from the failure of Seabrook’s movement and both would act on them when Secession Winter finally came.

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