I have always thought that the decision of white southerners to seek independence in the aftermath of the election of 1860 was a logical response to the election of Abraham Lincoln (just as I think there’s much sense to be found in the arguments advanced by their opponents in the secession debates). Indeed, one can see what happens during the winter of 1860-61 (and beyond in the case of the upper South) as a debate over the future of the South. Participants in that debate were quite serious in their contention that the fate of the region depended on the choice they made. Those debates also make clear the centrality of slavery to the debate over secession: both advocates and opponents of secession put slavery and its future at the center of their arguments. For many people the primary question was whether slavery was safer inside or outside the United States.
We spend a lot of time talking about secessionists. Perhaps it’s time to take a closer look at their opponents. They were not unified: many were, in fact, conditional unionists who held that there was a right of secession but who were not convinced that it was the right step to take to protect slavery. What was their vision of the South? How did they plan to promote and protect slavery?
I’ve argued here and elsewhere that the Confederacy was a counterproductive experience that helped to destroy much of what it was supposed to preserve and protect, and that much of this destruction came at the hands of white southerners. With that experience in mind, I wonder what sort of South would have evolved had secession not taken place. There was very little interest in ending slavery. Although someone may be outraged that I pointed out that secession advocate Elijah Chastain of Georgia called for the reopening of the international slave trade as a way to ensure that every white southerner could own a slave, no amount of denial by Confederate heritage apologists can erase that record. At least we know what Chastain’s South would have looked like. What would the South have looked like in the eyes of an opponent of immediate secession, and what would that person have done to achieve that vision?
Let’s not argue what they should have done (especially if that includes exploring the alternative left unexplored, that of ending slavery). Let’s put ourselves in their place, understand the world as they understood it, and then proceed to figure out what their vision was and how they planned to achieve it.