(second in a series)
In discussing secession, we might first want to look at some background considerations. One of them is the state of slavery in 1860. How did it fit economically and politically in the American polity?
Some people argue that slavery was on its way out in the United States. According to them, in time it would become unprofitable; changes in the global cotton economy would have led to its eventual demise. Thus, so goes the argument, Americans fought an unnecessary war in 1861-1865 to hasten by a few decades a process that was inevitable in any case.
The problems with that reasoning are serious. First, those changes in the global economy happened in part as a reaction to the war and emancipation. One can’t assume the same changes if the events that caused them did not occur. Second, one errs in thinking that slavery was wedded to plantation cotton alone. It was not. One could employ slave labor with profit in other ways. After all, the cotton economy in itself was a result of planters shifting away from other forms of plantation agriculture.
The argument also reflects poorly on the intelligence of southern whites. Why would they risk all in a bloody war if slavery was already doomed? Were they that stupid?
But the most critical flaw with this reasoning is that most people in 1860 did not believe this. They saw slavery as profitable and prosperous, with a bright future. White southerners wanted to expand it into places where they knew cotton agriculture would not be dominant (although one of the things I learned upon moving to Arizona is that one can indeed grow cotton in the Southwest). However, there were mining and construction opportunities, and many white southerners cast covetous eyes upon the Caribbean as a place where America’s manifest destiny would expand the slaveholders’ paradise.
Slavery had proven prosperous in the 1850s. The plantation economy had thrived while the rest of the nation suffered during the Panic of 1857. The peculiar institution had also received renewed political protection. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 gave the federal government new ways of enforcing the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution, while advocates of slavery’s expansion rejoiced when the Supreme Court removed restrictions to the expansion of slavery into the territories with the Dred Scott decision of 1857. Zachary Taylor’s three successors in the White House all acted to protect slavery, part of the way in which the federal government was dominated by proslavery interests.
Indeed, it was slavery’s prosperity that posed something of a challenge to white southerners in the 1850s. As the price of slaves increased (a reflection of the profitability of the peculiar institution), white southerners began to wonder whether those rising prices would close the doors of slave ownership to southern whites, who, being excluded from the ranks of slaveholders, might come to resent the power of the slaveholding oligarchy. This helps explain why Hinton Rowan Helper’s The Impending Crisis produced such controversy, because Helper offered a class analysis of slaveholding society based on haves versus have-nots among southern whites. If class and not race became the dividing line in southern society and politics, things would change.
These concerns were behind a movement in the Deep South to reopen the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 1850s. Increase the supply of slaves, its proponents argued, and prices would go down, opening up the prospect of broadening slave ownership. The ensuing debate demonstrated the different place of slavery in the economies and political order of the Deep South and upper South, for Virginians opposed the idea. They did so out of economic self interest. Virginians simply had too many slaves to make slavery as profitable as it once was (and this had been true in significant parts of the Old Dominion for some time: George Washington saw that Mount Vernon was becoming something of an albatross in this regard when he worked his ledger books). Rather than open up the slave trade, Virginians wanted a closed market where those white southerners looking to buy slaves would turn to Virginia to buy them. Indeed, exporting human beings for sale was an important part of Virginia’s economy during the 1850s, as white Virginians struggle with their state’s economic future. There were other reasons why people opposed the reopening of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, including concerns expressed about introducing new Africans into what slaveholders argued was a domesticated African-American population used to the joys of southern slavery. However, the initial proposal would have gotten no traction had southern whites seen slavery as unprofitable and doomed: the idea reflected confidence in slavery’s future and a desire to spread the the opportunity of slaveownership to maintain harmony among southern whites.
In short, slavery was doing quite well in 1860, and most white southerners believed it had a bright future. The only serious threat to slavery, it seemed, came from the outside: by 1860 John Brown’s raid took pride of place in that regard. One can trace the near-collapse of a vibrant two-party system in the Deep South to the fall of 1859, when in the aftermath of Brown’s raid (which, after all, happened in Virginia) raised anew concern about what might happen if the federal government did not continue to protect slavery. What would happen if an antislavery man became president? Would party politics as usual be enough to force more compromises to protect slavery?
The fire-eaters had a simple answer to that question: no. Best, they argued, for the South to secede, not in response to northern infringements and threats (although they listed them when they could), but to launch a preemptive first strike for southern independence. This marked a change from the notion of secessionist theorists that secession was an act of last resort against major violations of the Constitutional compact; it was a reflection of southern nationalism, a movement that had always entertained the notion that the South should be independent. Why wait when that might make it too late? And, if one could not convince enough southerners to move for independence in 1850, 1856, or 1859, why not hurry along the process a bit by fracturing the only bisectional political institution left … the Democratic party?
And so fire-eaters traveled to Charleston in April 1860. They were men on a mission. The mission: split the Democratic party.