Samuel R. Walker on Southern Constitutionalism

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

This post draws from Samuel R. Walker’s filibustering advocacy in DeBow’s Review (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), but the passage says at least as much about constitutional thought in the late antebellum South as about filibustering. The simple, popular narrative has Southerners united by an intense localism and a set of shared propositions about the nature of the Union. These include the voluntary nature of the Union, the resting of ultimate sovereignty in state legislatures and conventions, the supremacy of local state law over federal enactments, and a constellation of other ideas variously summed up as nullification, states rights, and ultimately secession. 

Those ideas really did exist in the minds of period Southerners, but they did not live there alone. Nor did they, as one sometimes hears, equally dominate the minds of Northerners. Conflicts over the nature of the state and freedom dominate American history, not happy consensus. That remains true even if one restricts consideration of what Americans thought to what white male Americans thought, as virtually everyone then did. Some Southerners and some Northerners believed those things. Others believed other things.

To whatever degree the antebellum South’s leaders believed the ideology ascribed to them, they spent most of the period acting in almost completely the opposite way. Unless it came to preserving slavery in the face of national movements against it, Southerners searched in vain for a situation where they could happily prefer to let states do as they would. This only makes sense, as the South consistently dominated the federal government and so usually had a de facto veto power on federal policy. Any fair reading of the decade before the Civil War testifies to that. If anything, Southern power in Washington reached a remarkable apex in the 1850s. Had secession not intervened, the Southern-dominated Supreme Court probably would have handed down a second Dred Scott-style ruling which would have eliminated the power of Northern states to forbid slavery within their bounds within a few years.

They knew all of that. The doctrinaire states rights ideology probably did not command a majority of the Southern ruling class until after the war. Even during the Secession Winter, the decisions of many states came contingently and as near things indeed. The Upper South stayed out of the rebellion until Sumter, but even South Carolina’s decision came in part thanks to a railroad opening and running its maiden voyage full of Savannah businessmen into Charleston at just the right time. Those businessmen assured the South’s most doctrinaire radicals that if they bolted the Union, Georgia would surely follow. Complaints about the timidity of moderates enervating the counter-revolution fill the writings of fire-eaters and their more sober but still radical counterparts within the Southern mainstream.

Walker gives us something quite like that:

It was a prevailing feeling when our Colonies had, by their united efforts, achieved their independence, that they should lose their recollection of their former separate positions as individual States in the greatness of the result achieved by their Union. This idea was a natural one: we and our fathers have been educated in it, and we seem to view our federal as a centralized government, rather than a federation of independent States, linked together by a league, offensive and defensive, with a common purpose of free government; a common interest in commercial prosperity; a common protection in war, and advancement in peace. A more enlightened view is beginning to prevail and extend among the people, as its necessity increases, and the philosophy of our system is properly considered.

John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Secretary of State, Senator, and the generation's leading secession and slavery booster.

John C. Calhoun

Here we have the complete opposite of the popular narrative. Walker testifies to a nationalist mindset often overlooked in quick glances at the antebellum era. Reading between the lines just a little, he even tells us that nationalist thought generally prevailed and that ideas about states rights, nullification, and all the rest developed as a reaction against the North’s great population growth and increasingly vocal antislavery movement. Its necessity, to safeguard slavery, had increased in the minds of the slaveholding white South. But even in 1854, the ideology had not prevailed. Louisiana, fan of filibustering and home of DeBow’s Review, in particular had a nationalist bent despite its location in otherwise more radical Lower South.

Old Calhoun might have invented a Southern consensus and rooted it back in the foggy mists of the revolution as the official ideology of everyone, but each time he called on the South to join it he found no shortage of uninterested Southerners. Sometimes, as when it came to the Pacific railroad and the Missouri Compromise, he declined to even join himself.

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