Ep. 88: The Secession Conventions

The complicated time of secession was defined by politicians’ desire to grab power in any way that they could. 

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We dive into the secession winter of 1860-1861 when politicians sacrificed unity and stability for personal power. The story of secession cannot be defined as simply an abolitionist versus slaveholders story. There were many factions of people in between the two extremes who were anti-slavery, deportationists, and everywhere in between. It was not as cut and dry as many historians tend to argue.

Who were the “fire-eaters”? What were the differences between the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the Confederate States of America? Was the election of 1860 the reason that secession conventions were held?

Further Reading:

Freehling, William W. The Road to Disunion, Vol. I: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854. New York: Oxford University Press. 1990. The Road to Disunion, Vol. II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2007.

Channing, Steven. Crisis of Fear: Secession in South Carolina. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1970.

Thomas, Emory. The Confederate Nation: 1861-1865. New York: Harper & Row. 1979.

Related Content:

Why Did the Southern States Secede?, written by Anthony Comegna

Conflicts Among Peace Advocates during the Civil War, written by George H. Smith

Who Killed Jefferson(ianism)?, Liberty Chronicles Podcast



00:06 Anthony Comegna: You’ve probably heard the myth of the liberal old South before. The Southern states did not secede over slavery, slavery was a minor concern, at best, most Southerners didn’t own slaves, and didn’t even like the great planters. Most of them were Jeffersonians, they were relatively poor or middling small farmers, the good-hearted independent salt of the earth types. They certainly weren’t violent, task masters lording it over hundreds of Africans, they love democracy and all they wanted from their government was free trade. Yep, you’ve probably heard all that before, I expect, and hopefully by this point, in the show, it hits you as hollow, only partial truth, at best, and maybe you even suspect the purveyors of these myths have been trying to hoodwink you, hide something from you. The myth of the liberal old South is just that, a myth. And today, we drive the point home by taking a look into the secession winter of 1860 to ‘61, the conventions that ripped their states out of the union and the slave holding politicians who sacrifice their countries on the altar of personal power. Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.


01:32 Anthony Comegna: First we have to take a bit to look at the election of 1860. You’ll recall that in 1856, Democrat, James Buchanan pretty handily defeated his Know-Nothing and Republican rivals but John C. Fremont’s campaign showed that Republicans could win the White House without winning a single Southern vote. If only they could flip Pennsylvania and one other Northern state, they would have it. By 1860, events crushed the Know-Nothing movement and largely dispersed its members. More and more, people drew their respective lines in the sand, and the third-party system took firm root. Yet while the Republicans were on the ascendant, the democracy was in a mess, not fatal, but a mass nonetheless. Southerners would no longer accept so-called Northern men with Southern principles like they had Van Buren, Pearson, Buchanan. They now demanded security within the Union. National power deployed to protect their interests and the submission of Northern politics to Southern economics without exceptions. The Democratic party held its convention in Charleston, April of 1860, but Southern pro slavery extremist, called Fire-Eaters, abandoned the convention after the Party adopted popular sovereignty in the territories as part of the platform.

02:50 Anthony Comegna: Remember this was Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois program, to let settlers vote for whether their state would be free or slave. The Fire-Eaters would not have it. Douglas failed to reach the required threshold after a full 57 ballots and the convention adjourned, a failure. They followed up in June, at Baltimore where a Southern delegation again abandoned the proceedings, this time the rump was large enough to nominate Douglass after all, but Southern Democrats responded with their own convention, in Richmond, also in June. They chose Kentuckian Vice President, John C. Breckinridge.

03:27 Anthony Comegna: The Republicans meanwhile held their own convention at Chicago in May, after the Democratic disaster at Charleston, but before their rivals burst into sectional factions. The GOP was split between the more radical and dare I say, Locofoco candidates like Ohio Salmon Chase and moderates like Lincoln. Chase was a Liberty Party veteran, a pioneer in third-party pressure politics, and one of the most important architects of the Republican revolution. He was a former Democrat, moreover, he worked with the Locofocos and Barnburners for a full generation and his strong showing of support speaks to the early libertarian influence on the new party. Lincoln though, he was far more representative of the Republican Party as it actually shook out once it achieved major party status. That is, once the party was washed out with greater popularity, once it was watered down with politics and compromise, it was a far less revolutionary operation than its Free Soil or Liberty Party forbears.

04:32 Anthony Comegna: For one thing, most Republicans were now ex-Whigs, like Lincoln, just as devoted to protectionist, nationalist, corporatist and monopolist economics as they ever were. You might recall that Lincoln himself said he would not support Van Buren and Free Soil, in 1848, thanks to all the little magicians. Locofocoism. Most Republicans were prohibitionists and they use their party’s national success to drive forward state-level battles against demon rum. Most Republicans too, were not abolitionists, they were anti-slavery and the difference is intensely important. Abolitionists felt it their positive duty to destroy the institution of slavery, wherever it existed. Anti-slavery voters simply did not want to use the power of government to positively support slavery, or extend its influence over otherwise free institutions. Anti-slavery voters, were fine keeping slavery confined to the South so long as Southerners were not allowed to move black people into those “Lily White” territories. Abolitionists tended to be integrationists. Antislavery people tended to be segregationists or even outright deportationists, like Lincoln. In a move toward compromise, quite unlike their Democratic counterparts, the GOP selected a moderate for the top of the ticket and they put Locofoco former Democrat, and Free Soiler Hannibal Hamlin in the second slot.

06:12 Anthony Comegna: Now, add to it all another new party, the Constitutional Union ticket. This construction arose primarily in the border states, erected from the leftover bits of Know-Nothing organizations and individuals. Above all else, they wanted compromise to remain the great order of the era. They chose John Bell of Tennessee and stood little real chance of achieving anything. In a four-way race then, Lincoln held all the cards but even without the Democratic split, he would have won the Electoral College. Lincoln took those last few free states after all, sweeping everything north of the Ohio River as well as California and Oregon, Breckinridge took most of the South, Bell picked off Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia and Douglas could only master Missouri. Lincoln and Hamlin got nearly two million votes, almost 40% compared to Douglas’ 30%, Breckinridge’s 18 and Bell’s 12.

07:11 Anthony Comegna: Lincoln’s electoral vote was 180 to his opponents combined total of only 123. Finally, at long last, the anti-slavery faction had a president and even the abolitionists could be happy with the result. For example, this was a party explicitly committed to ignoring the pro-slavery Supreme Court. In the Dred Scott decision, Judge Taney declared that planters could uproot a plantation of 200 hands and open a slave labor textile factory in Waltham, Massachusetts, if they wanted. Northern states had no power to disregard the rights of citizens from other states in the Union. All states were positively bound to respect their neighbor’s property rights, and that included the human beings that southern laws rendered into property. The Republican Party positively rebuked the decision and refused to recognize Taney’s constitutional theory.

08:10 Anthony Comegna: When Lincoln won then, there was a new President-Elect, explicitly committed to ignoring an entire branch of the government. The GOP also controlled the balance of both houses in Congress. So really what hope was there left within the Union for the slave-holding interests? They absolutely depended upon federal power in all sorts of ways and without it, the entire institution was sure to shrivel, shrink, convulse, explode, supernova, something awful was sure to happen while Lincoln and his black Republicans controlled the postal service, while abolitionist fanatics flooded the mails with bloodthirsty propaganda, while Republican flunky appointees swamped southern ports and corrupted their cities.

09:02 Anthony Comegna: In no time at all, Republican parties would appear even in the South supported by an army of Hinton Helpers and abolition would not be far behind. In the minds of many, the game was finally up. Three days after the election, South Carolina led the way, as she so often did, when the General Assembly declared Lincoln’s victory an act hostile to the State and voiced their intentions to secede from the Union. The next day the General Assembly called for a convention with delegates elected on December 6th, 11 days later the convention met in Columbia and voted unanimously for secession. The convention then moved to Charleston and drafted its infamous Declaration of Immediate Causes which induce and justify the secession of South Carolina. On December 24th, by vote of the convention in accordance with the traditions of popular and state sovereignty dating back to the Revolution, through the same methods used to adopt new state constitutions with regularity, within their full rights under a Jeffersonian understanding of the Federal compact, South Carolina declared her independence. In a sense, at least they had every right to do it. But why do it? We go of course, straight to the source, picking up part way through the declaration after a typical compact theory rendition of early American history.

10:35 Speaker 2: “Thus was established, by compact between the States, a Government with definite objects and powers, limited to the express words of the grant. This limitation left the whole remaining mass of power subject to the clause reserving it to the States or to the people, and rendered unnecessary any specification of reserved rights.

10:55 Speaker 2: “We hold that the Government thus established is subject to the two great principles asserted in the Declaration of Independence; and we hold further, that the mode of its formation subjects it to a third fundamental principle, namely: The law of compact. We maintain that in every compact between two or more parties, the obligation is mutual; that the failure of one of the contracting parties to perform a material part of the agreement, entirely releases the obligation of the other; and that where no arbiter is provided, each party is remitted to his own judgment to determine the fact of failure with all its consequences.

11:32 Speaker 2: “In the present case, that fact is established with certainty. We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof.

11:46 Speaker 2: “The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: ‘No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.’

12:10 Speaker 2: “This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made. The greater number of the contracting parties held slaves, and they had previously evinced their estimate of the value of such a stipulation by making it a condition in the Ordinance for the government of the territory ceded by Virginia, which now composes the States north of the Ohio River.

12:32 Speaker 2: “The same article of the Constitution stipulates also for rendition by the several States of fugitives from justice from the other States.

12:41 Anthony Comegna: “The General Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.

13:05 Speaker 2: “The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullified the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia. Thus, the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.

14:21 Speaker 2: “The ends for which the Constitution was framed are declared by itself to be ‘to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.’

14:40 Speaker 2: “These ends it endeavored to accomplish by a Federal Government, in which each State was recognized as an equal, and had separate control over its own institutions. The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.

15:12 Speaker 2: “We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

16:00 Speaker 2: “For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government because he has declared that that ‘Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,’ and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

16:47 Speaker 2: “This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

17:08 Speaker 2: “On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.

17:27 Speaker 2: “The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.

17:43 Speaker 2: “Sectional interest and animosity will deepen the irritation, and all hope of remedy is rendered vain, by the fact that public opinion at the North has invested a great political error with the sanction of more erroneous religious belief.

18:00 Speaker 2: “We, therefore, the People of South Carolina, by our delegates in Convention assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved, and that the State of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, as a separate and independent State; with full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do.

18:37 Speaker 2: “Adopted December 24, 1860.”

18:41 Anthony Comegna: South Carolina certainly broke no quibbles about it. They were seceding to protect slavery. As they saw it, abolitionists were perverting the terms of the Federal compact whenever they could, and ignoring it where they could not pervert it. If the Union no longer served its purposes for member states, if some states chose to ignore things like the Fugitive Slave Clause with the flimsy excuse of States’ rights and if they were committed to outright ignoring the Supreme Court, then the compact was null and void. And now, all this stuff about dueling theories of the Union, it is important, but let’s remember what real material and personal interests were at the heart of these philosophical and policy debates. By the way, did you even hear a single word about tarrifs there? Mississippi, another state with a Black majority, followed suit on January 9th, 1861. That state’s Declaration managed to be even more straightforwardly pro-slavery and racist than South Carolina. Mississippi did at least vaguely mention the tariff, but only as part of the overall abolitionist plot to destroy slavery and subjugate the South to Northern interests.

19:58 Speaker 2: “A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.”

20:06 Speaker 2: “In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

20:19 Speaker 2: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery, the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

21:08 Speaker 2: “That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution, a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove.

21:15 Speaker 2: “The hostility to this institution commenced before the adoption of the Constitution, and was manifested in the well-known Ordinance of 1787, in regard to the Northwestern Territory.

21:26 Speaker 2: “The feeling increased, until, in 1819-20, it deprived the South of more than half the vast territory acquired from France.

21:35 Speaker 2: “The same hostility dismembered Texas and seized upon all the territory acquired from Mexico.

21:40 Speaker 2: “It has grown until it denies the right of property in slaves, and refuses protection to that right on the high seas, in the Territories, and wherever the government of the United States had jurisdiction.

21:52 Speaker 2: “It refuses the admission of new slave States into the Union, and seeks to extinguish it by confining it within its present limits, denying the power of expansion.

22:03 Speaker 2: “It tramples the original equality of the South under foot.

22:06 Speaker 2: “It has nullified the Fugitive Slave Law in almost every free State in the Union, and has utterly broken the compact which our fathers pledged their faith to maintain.

22:17 Speaker 2: “It advocates Negro equality, socially and politically, and promotes insurrection and incendiarism in our midst.

22:24 Speaker 2: “It has enlisted its press, its pulpit and its schools against us, until the whole popular mind of the North is excited and inflamed with prejudice.

22:34 Speaker 2: “It has made combinations and formed associations to carry out its schemes of emancipation in the States and wherever else slavery exists.

22:43 Speaker 2: “It seeks not to elevate or to support the slave, but to destroy his present condition without providing a better.

22:51 Speaker 2: “It has invaded a State, and invested with the honors of martyrdom the wretch whose purpose was to apply flames to our dwellings, and the weapons of destruction to our lives.

23:02 Speaker 2: “It has broken every compact into which it has entered for our security.

23:07 Speaker 2: “It has given indubitable evidence of its design to ruin our agriculture, to prostrate our industrial pursuits and to destroy our social system.

23:17 Speaker 2: “It knows no relenting or hesitation in its purposes; it stops not in its march of aggression, and leaves us no room to hope for cessation or for pause.

23:27 Speaker 2: “It has recently obtained control of the Government, by the prosecution of its unhallowed schemes, and destroyed the last expectation of living together in friendship and brotherhood.

23:38 Speaker 2: “Utter subjugation awaits us in the Union, if we should consent longer to remain in it. It is not a matter of choice, but of necessity. We must either submit to degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union framed by our fathers, to secure this as well as every other species of property. For far less cause than this, our fathers separated from the Crown of England.

24:05 Speaker 2: “Our decision is made. We follow their footsteps. We embrace the alternative of separation; and for the reasons here stated, we resolve to maintain our rights with the full consciousness of the justice of our course, and the undoubting belief of our ability to maintain it.”

24:24 Anthony Comegna: Florida seceded on January 10th, without making special note of their reasons. Why was it necessary after all that had already been said? Alabama followed on the 11th and took the moment to invite its slaveholding fellow states to assemble in Montgomery on February 4th to establish a new Confederacy. Georgia seceded on January 19th, Louisiana on the 26th, and Texas on February 1st. Georgia’s Declaration of Causes followed Mississippi’s, in making an issue of the tariff and even extended the discussion much further, but always and still, the trade issue was an adjunct to the slavery question. Northerners were using their disproportionate power in Congress to harass Southern wealth, social stability, and political influence with the ultimate goal of weakening them for abolition. Free trade was no cherished principle as such, but a means of assuring Southern political parity and the kind of economic power necessary to protect slavery.

25:28 Anthony Comegna: In fact, Georgia even recognized that over time, Southerners won the tariff battle. In 1846, the Walker Tariff was a hallmark of the Polk years and a serious victory over protectionism. So at that point, Georgia said abolitionists and political power-mongers pivoted to the territorial question to stir up debate, anger, rebellion, and revolution. And only in 1860, when the tariff was barely even an issue, did the South’s situation in the Union become truly untenable. Texas’s Declaration might also be useful reading in an episode like this, but as it’s even more steeped in 19th century scientific racism than any of the other documents, it doesn’t exactly make for tasteful material. Suffice it to say that yet again, economic matters make only the briefest of appearances, nestled in a bed of pro-slavery rhetoric, and concerns for social stability in the South, part of a Northern conspiracy to impoverish Southerners, and make them beg for an abolitionist buy-out, like the pathetic British West Indians.

26:38 Anthony Comegna: On February 4th, 1861, the deep South states met as planned in Montgomery. After four days, they had a constitution very near the one they had just discarded. The Confederate Constitution is almost word-for-word the same as the US version, but with key differences near universally designed to address problems abolitionists had caused over these last four score or so years. For example, the general welfare clauses in the Preamble and Article I were gone, and the text now explicitly recognized the sovereignty and independence of the States as such. No potential door wars here. The document gave the States new and interesting powers, like the ability to fire federal officials within that state. It gave the President a line-item veto, and for bad protective tariffs, and internal improvements unrelated to navigation. It also required one subject per bill, and for each subject to be clearly reflected in the bill’s title. Some of these provisions no doubt sound great to you, too, but it’s always worth remembering that even seemingly good policy can be spoiled by the intentions of its enforcers in the political class.

27:52 Anthony Comegna: There are a lot of other little differences between the two constitutions, too many to cover now, but peruse the list, consider the long history we’ve covered here on the generational clashes between liberty and power, abolition and slavery, and you’ll see that this was a slaveholder’s government, pure and simple. Designed specifically to protect slavery, to advance slaveholder interests, and to calcify their power by blocking any method of potential interference, not from foreign powers, nor the national government, nor the people of the States themselves. No, in the Confederate States of America, the States were sovereign as such, a Doorite or a Locofocos’ nightmare come to life. And so long as the great planters controlled their State politics, they remained absolute masters of their worlds.


28:54 Anthony Comegna: Thanks for listening. Liberty Chronicles is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoy Liberty Chronicles, please subscribe to us on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, find us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.