Burning the Fire-Eaters

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis, failed secessionist, or “resister,” candidate for governor

I mentioned yesterday that fire-eaters and Northern onlookers alike took lessons from the abortive secession movement of 1850-51. They had good reason to. Northerners might castigate the Southern radicals, but their neighbors made them pay more than just the lost chance at revolution.

Georgia replaced Towns with Howell Cobb. William W. Freehling describes Cobb’s platform:

Rebellion […] could never be lawful and could only be justifiable when natural rights were horribly violated.

The Georgia legislature sent Robert Toombs to the Senate. In more radical Mississippi, Jefferson Davis ran for governor as the radical and lost to Unionist Henry S. Foote. Even in South Carolina, where the political spectrum stretched from immediate secession even if it meant going alone to secession when they had other states to accompany them, Georgia’s early rebuke and Mississippi’s delays gave the cooperative state secessionists enough sway to ensure that the legislature set no date for its planned secession convention and commitment to the all-South convention they knew would never meet.

Henry S. Foote, originator of the Omnibus and victor over Davis for the governorship

Henry S. Foote, originator of the Omnibus and victor over Davis

After much storm and stress, the would-be secession winter that commenced in September lost its head of steam with Georgia’s electoral rebuke in November and then received a broad rejection by the voters in its key states. As late as 1851, after years of turmoil and many insults it insisted it would never bear, a majority of the South accepted the Armistice.

It would appear that as late as 1850, after four long years of shouting, threats, and duels, Southern Unionism had weathered its greatest stresses and come out the clear victor. It required suppression not from the foreign North, but Southerners themselves. They weighed the value of the Union, as the secessionists always threatened, but the South as a whole weighed it opposite of the way the fire-eaters hoped. Southerners remained Americans, despite a few malcontents.

Ten years later the Republicans remembered well that Southern radicals always threatened disunion and always backed down themselves or got put in their places by a Unionist majority. If South Carolina, always eager to make trouble, polished off with a new rhetorical flourish in 1860 then that meant only that they wanted to convince the nation this time they really meant it while crossing their fingers behind their backs.

It didn’t work out that way, but reading about this in detail has helped me understand why the Republicans had such firm convictions that it would during the secession winter that finally came. Of course the Republicans also lacked Southern party members who could warn them about the differences. If they had warnings from Democrats, the other party had waxed in the South as it waned in the North. Its Northern caucus could do little to resist the proslavery demands of the party’s larger, Southern contingent. Without the benefit of hindsight, how would anybody outside the party know for sure that those Northern Democrat warnings came in earnest instead of as the latest in their endless career as stooges for the Slave Power?

Freehling and Potter really deepened my appreciation of that dynamic. I only wish I read Potter first to give me the overview into which I could slot Freehling’s more detailed narrative of Southern politics. My blogfather deserves a special thanks too because I probably would not have read either in such detail and put it together quite as much without this empty screen to fill five days a week.

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