Secession, The Union View
THE fifth day of October, 1860, is the initial point of the American Rebellion. Its conception, animus, and probably its plans, lay much farther back. It had been seriously proposed once or twice before, but it was then that its for-real organization was begun. On that day Governor Gist, of South Carolina, wrote a confidential circular letter, which he dispatched by the hand of a special messenger, to the governors of what were commonly designated the Cotton States. In this letter he asked an interchange of opinions which he might be at liberty to submit to a consultation of leading men of South Carolina. He said South Carolina would unquestionably call a convention as soon as it was ascertained that a majority of Lincoln electors were chosen in the then pending presidential election. "If a single State secedes," he said, "she will follow her. If no other State takes the lead, South Carolina will secede (in my opinion) alone, if she has any assurance that she will be soon followed by another or other States; otherwise it is doubtful." He asked information, and advised concerted action.
North Carolina was first to respond. The people would, not, so wrote the governor under date of October 18th, consider Lincoln's election a sufficient cause for disunion, and the Legislature would probably not call a convention. The Governor of Alabama, under date of October 25th, thought Alabama would not secede alone, but would secede in cooperation with two or more States. The Governor of Mississippi, under date of October 26th, wrote: "If any State moves, I think Mississippi will go with her." On the same day the Governor of Louisiana answered: "I shall not advise the secession of my State, and I will add that I do not think the people of Louisiana will ultimately decide in favor of that course." The Governor of Georgia, under date of October 31st, advocated retaliatory legislation, and ventured his opinion that the people of Georgia would wait for some overt act. Florida alone responded with anything like enthusiasm, but only after the lapse of a month. Her governor said that Florida was "ready to wheel into line with the gallant Palmetto State, or any other Cotton State or States," and thought she would unquestionably call a convention.
The discouraging tone of these answers establishes, beyond controversy, that, excepting in South Carolina, the rebellion was not in any sense a popular revolution, but was a conspiracy among the prominent local office-holders and politicians, which the people neither expected nor desired, and which they were made eventually to justify and uphold by the usual arts and expedients of conspiracy.
Directly and indirectly, the South had practically controlled the government during its whole existence. Excited to ambition by this success, she sought to perpetuate that control. The extension of slavery and the creation of additional Slave States was a necessary step in the scheme, and became the well-defined single issue in the presidential election. But in this contest the South for the first time me, overwhelming defeat. The choice of Lincoln was a conclusive and final decision, in legal form and by constitutional majorities, that slavery should not be extended; and the popular vote of 1860 transferred the balance of power irrevocably to the Free States.
In the political discussions throughout this presidential campaign, as well as in preceding years, the South had made free and loud use of two leading arguments, always with telling effect: the first, to intimidate the North, was the threat of disunion; the second, to "fire the Southern heart," was the entirely unfounded alarm-cry that the North, if successful, would not merely exclude slavery from federal territories, but would also destroy slavery in the Slave States. The unthinking masses of the South accepted both these arguments in their literal sense; and Southern public opinion, excited and suspicious, became congenial soil in which the intended revolt easily took root.
The State of South Carolina, in addition, had been little else than a school of treason for thirty years. She was, moreover, peculiarly adapted to become the hotbed of conspiracy by the fact that of all the States she was least republican in both the character of her people and the form of her institutions. She was exclusive, aristocratic, reactionary; had a narrow distrust of popular participation in government, and longed for the distinctions of caste and privilege in society.
It would seem that, before the governors' replies were all received, the consultation or caucus for which they were solicited was held, and the programme of insurrection agreed upon.
Circumstances rendered a special session of the South Carolina Legislature necessary. The election was held during the month of October. Local fanaticism tolerated no opposition party in the State, and under the manipulation of the conspirators the prevailing question was, who was the most zealous "resistance" candidate. To a legislature elected from this kind of material, Governor Gist, on November 5th, sent a defiant, revolutionary message--the first official notice and proclamation of insurrection. He declared that "our institutions" were in danger from the hostility of the "fixed majorities" of the North; and recommended the calling of a State convention, and the purchase of arms and material of war.
A lingering doubt about the result of the presidential contest appears in the formal choice by the Legislature, of electors who would vote for Breckinridge and Lane. But that doubt was short-lived. The morning of November 7th brought the certain news of the election of Lincoln and Hamlin on the previous day, and the rejoicings which would have been uttered over their defeat became jubilations that their success offered the long-coveted pretext for disunion.
From this time forth everything was managed to swell the revolutionary furor. The Legislature immediately ordered a convention, made appropriations, passed military bills. The federal office-holders, with much public flourish of their patriotic sacrifice, resigned their offices. Military companies enrolled themselves in the city; organizations of minutemen sprang up in the rural neighborhoods. Drills, parades, meetings, bonfires, secession harangues, secession cockades, palmetto flags, purchase of fire-arms and powder, singing of the Marseillaise--there is not room to enumerate the follies to which the general populace, especially of Charleston, devoted their days and nights. There was universal satisfaction; to the conspirators, because their schemes were progressing; to the rabble, because it had a continuous holiday.
Amid unflagging excitement of this character, which received a daily stimulus from similar proceedings beginning and growing in other Cotton States, November and the first half of December passed away. Meanwhile a new governor, Francis W. Pickens, a revolutionist of a yet more radical type than his predecessor, was chosen by the Legislature and inaugurated, and the members of the Convention authorized by the Legislature were chosen at an election held on December 6th. The South Carolina Convention met at Columbia, the capital of the State, according to appointment, on December 17, 1860, but, on account of a local epidemic, at once adjourned to Charleston. That body was, like the Legislature, the immediate outgrowth of the current conspiracy, and doubtless counted many of the conspirators among its members. It therefore needed no time to make up its mind. On the fourth day of its term it passed unanimously what it called an Ordinance of Secession, in the following words:
"We, the people of the State of South Carolina, in convention assembled, do declare and ordain, and it is hereby declared and ordained, that the ordinance adopted by us in convention on the 23d day of May, in the year of our Lord 1788, whereby the Constitution of the United States of America was ratified, and also all Acts and parts of Acts of the General Assembly of this State ratifying amendments of the said Constitution, are hereby repealed; and that the Union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of the United States of America, is hereby dissolved."
Conscious that this document bore upon its face the plain contradiction of their pretended authority, and its own palpable nullity both in technical form and essential principle, the convention undertook to give it strength and plausibility by an elaborate Declaration of Causes, adopted a few days later (December 24th)--a sort of half-parody of Jefferson's masterpiece. It could, of course, quote no direct warrant from the Constitution for secession, but sought to deduce one, by implication, from the language of the Declaration of Independence and the Xth Amendment. It reasserts the absurd paradox of State supremacy--persistently miscalled "State Rights "--which reverses the natural order of governmental existence; considers a State superior to the Union; makes a part greater than the whole; turns the pyramid of authority on its apex; plants the tree of liberty with its branches in the ground and its roots in the air. The fallacy has been a hundred times analyzed, exposed, and refuted; but the cheap dogmatism of demagogues and the automatic machinery of faction perpetually conjures it up anew to astonish the sucklings and terrify the dotards of politics.
The notable point in the Declaration of Causes is, that its complaint over grievances past and present is against certain States, and for these remedy was of course logically barred by its own theory of State supremacy. On the other hand, all its allegations against the Union are concerning dangers to come, before which admission the moral justification of disunion falls to the ground. In rejecting the remedy of future elections for future wrongs, the conspiracy discarded the entire theory and principle of republican government.
One might suppose that this exhausted their counterfeit philosophy--but not yet. Greatly as they groaned at unfriendly State laws--seriously as they pretended to fear damage or spoliation under future federal statutes, the burden of their anger rose at the sentiment and belief of the North. "All hope of remedy," says the manifesto, "is rendered vain by the fact that the public opinion at the North has invested a great political error with the sanctions of more erroneous religious belief." This is language one might expect from the Pope of Rome; but, that an American convention should denounce the liberty of opinion, is not merely to recede from Jefferson to Louis XIV.; it is flying from the town-meeting to the Inquisition.
Nor can the final and persistent, but false assumption of the South, be admitted, that she was justified by prescriptive privilege; that, because slavery was tolerated at the formation of the government, it must needs be protected to perpetuity. The Constitution makes few features of our system perpetually obligatory. Almost everything is subject to amendment by three-fourths of the States. The New World Republic was established for reform--not for mere blind conservatism, certainly not for despotic reaction. The slavery question, especially, was ever since 1808 broadly under the control of the people. On the one hand, Congress had legal power to tolerate the African slave trade; on the other, three-fourths of the States might lawfully abolish slavery, as was done near the close of the Rebellion. To effect necessary and salutary political changes, in the fulness of time, by lawful and peaceful election through constitutional majorities, as a prudent alternative to the violence and horror of revolution, is one of the many signal blessings which republican representative government confers on an intelligent nation.
The Ordinance of Secession of South Carolina was passed in secret session, a little after mid-day, on December 20th. The fact was immediately made public by huge placards issued from the Charleston printing-offices; and by special direction of the convention, the event was further celebrated by firing guns, ringing bells, and other jubilations. To carry this studied theatrical effect to its fullest extent, a session of the convention was held that same night, to which the members marched in procession, where the formal signing of the Ordinance was sought to be magnified into a solemn public ceremony; after which the chairman proclaimed South Carolina an "independent commonwealth." With all their affectation of legality, formality, and present justification, some of the members were honest enough to acknowledge the true character of the event as the culmination of a chronic conspiracy, not a spontaneous revolution. "The secession of South Carolina," said one of the chief actors, "is not an event of a day. It is not anything produced by Mr. Lincoln's election, or by the non-execution of the Fugitive Slave Law. It is a matter which has been gathering head for thirty years." This, with many similar avowals, crowns and completes the otherwise abundant proof that the revolt was not only against right, but that it was without cause.
The original suggestion of Governor Gist in his circular letter, for a concerted insurrection, fell upon fruitful soil. The events which occurred in South Carolina were in substance duplicated in the neighboring States of Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. These States, however, had stronger and more formidable union minorities than South Carolina; or rather, if the truth could have been ascertained with safety, they had each of them decided majorities averse to secession, as was virtually acknowledged by their governors' replies to the Gist circular. But during the presidential campaign, the three Southern parties, for factional advantage, had vied with each other in their denunciations of the hated "Black Republicans" --they had berated each other as "submissionists" in secret league or sympathy with the Abolitionists. The partisans of Breckinridge--generally either active or latent disunionist--were ready, positive, and relentlessly aggressive; the adherents of Bell and of Douglas were demoralized and suspicious. When Lincoln's election was, so unexpectedly to many, rendered certain, they could not recover in time to evade the searching question which the conspirators immediately thrust at them. "whether they would submit to Black Republican rare." A false shame and the inexorable tyranny of Southern public opinion made many a voter belie the honest convictions of his heart, and answer No, when at the very least he would gladly have evaded the inquiry.
The prominent office-holders, governors, senators, congressmen, judges, formed in each State a central clique of conspiracy. The governors had official authority to issue proclamations, to convene legislatures, to call out and command such militia as existed. Had their authority been wielded in behalf of the Union, no general revolt would have been possible; but, exercised without scruple or rest to promote secession, insurrection began with an official prestige which swept the hesitating and the timid irresistibly into the vortex of treason. Even then it was only by persistent nursing, management, and in many cases sheer deceit that a semblance of majorities was obtained to justify and apparently indorse the conspirators' plots. Legislatures were convened, commissioners sent from State to State, conventions called, military bills passed, minute-men and volunteer companies organized. Deliberative bodies were harangued by the conspirators' emissaries, and showered with inflammatory telegrams. After the meeting of Congress the fire-eaters of Washington held almost nightly caucuses, and sent addresses, solicitations, and commands from the capital. Individual opinion was overawed; the government was not only silent, but constantly yielding; legislative deliberation became, in secret session, legislative intrigue; pretexts were invented to defer and omit all proper scrutiny of election returns. The "State" was the idol of the hour. "The State commands" was as despotic a formula as "The king commands"; and the voter's personal judgment, the very basis and life-giving principle of republics, was obliterated between the dread of proscription and the blighting mildew of the doctrine of supreme State allegiance.
Certain features of the struggle deserve special explanation. The "irrepressible conflict" between North and South, between freedom and slavery, was not confined to the two sides of Mason and Dixon's line; it found a certain expression even in the Cotton States themselves. Most of these States embrace territory of a radically different quality. Their southern and sea-coast front is a broad belt of sea-islands, marshes, river-swamps, and low alluvial lands, exceedingly unhealthy from malarial fevers in the hot season, but of unsurpassed fertility, and possessing the picturesque aspects of an exuberant half-tropical vegetation. This is the region of the great cotton, rice, and sugar plantations which have made the South rich and famous; here the St. Clairs and Legrees of real life counted their slaves by hundreds, and aspired to sybaritic lives in ample, hospitable mansions, surrounded by magnificent and venerable live-oak and magnolia groves, avenues of stately palms, princely gardens of native and exotic bloom, and illimitable hedge-lines of the Cherokee rose; a swarm of house-servants to minister to pampered indolence and dispense a lavish hospitality; a troop of field-hands to fill the cotton, rice, or sugar houses; a blending of Arcadian simplicity and feudal pretension; every plantation with its indulgent master, its exacting overseer, its submissive slaves. These were the lights of the picture; abler pens have painted the horrible background of bloody slave-whips, barbarous slave-codes, degrading slave-auctions, yellow fever, cypress-swamps, the bloodhound hunt, and the ever-present dread of servile insurrection. From such surroundings came the morbid dreams of an unholy league between perpetual bondage and free trade, which should rear a gigantic slave empire, before which the intellect, the power, the splendor, and the government of all preceding ages and nations should fade and wane.
The northern half of the Cotton States was very different; here were thin, sandy uplands of meagre productiveness; monotonous forests of pine and scrub-oak, running again into the more varied and romantic scenery of the subsiding spurs of the Alleghanies; blue crags, bright streams, shining waterfalls, and the changing, deciduous foliage of the North. Great slave-plantations could not flourish here; white population predominated; agriculture was varied; the husbandman had a sterner struggle with nature; and communities were burdened with all the economic and social detriments of the slave system, having none of its delights.
A dense slave population and ultra secessionism were, therefore, the rule in the southern, and white majorities and union feeling in the northern districts of the Cotton States. Therefore, also, political power lay in the slave region, which again was allied to the commercial interests clustering about southern seaports. All the leverage was in the hands of treason--offices, ostracism, advantage in representation, commercial ambition, party ascendancy. The wonder is, not that secession succeeded in the struggle, but that there was any serious contest at all. With all this, there is strong ground for belief that insurrection gained its ends at last only through chicane, deceit, and fraud. Not a single Cotton State but Texas dared to submit its Ordinance of Secession to a direct vote of the people.
The struggle assumed its most determined phase in Georgia. She was the Empire State of the South, and, therefore, indispensable to the conspiracy, in which distinguished citizens of hers--Governor Brown, Secretary Cobb, Senators Toombs and Iverson, and others--were conspicuous ringleaders. The more rabid fire-eaters desired that the Legislature should at once pass an act of secession; Stephens and other conservatives opposed this course. "The Legislature were not elected for such a purpose," said he. "They came here to do their duty as legislators. They have sworn to support the Constitution of the United States. They did not come here to disrupt this government. I am, therefore, for submitting all these questions to a convention of the people.'' In due time a convention was called by unanimous vote of the Legislature. Then followed a spirited campaign to elect delegates. It early became evident that, while the people of Georgia were irritated to the point of demanding new guarantees for slavery, they were decidedly against disunion. Thereupon the conspirators invented a bold trick. "The truth is," explains Alexander H. Stephens, "in my judgment the wavering scale in Georgia was turned by a sentiment the key-note to which was given in the words, 'We can make better terms out of the Union than in it.'
This one idea did more, in my opinion, in carrying the State out, than all the arguments and eloquence of all others combined. Two-thirds at least of those who voted for the Ordinance of Secession, did so, I have but little doubt, with a view to a more certain reformation of the Union." The heresy of supreme State allegiance was, however, the final and all-conquering engine of treason. Mr. Stephens himself, in his memorable speech in defence of the Union, is the striking illustration of Gulliver helpless in the cobwebs of Lilliput. To secede, he declared, was to break the Constitution. Good faith required the South to abide the election in peace. Lincoln could do her no harm against an adverse House and Senate. He adjured them not to rashly try the experiment of change; for liberty, once lost, might never be restored. These were words of sober wisdom, and, fearlessly adhered to by a few firm men, they might have paralyzed the revolt. Yet in the same speech he declared that, if Georgia seceded, he should bow to the will of her people--in other words, break the Constitution, break faith, and lose liberty. On this "easy descent" Georgia slid to her ruin. Under such examples the convention passed the secession ordinance, 208 to 89.
While thus in the States of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama; Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, the conspiracy made pretentious efforts to clothe rebellion in the robes of law, and hide it behind the shield of constitutional forms, it pursued an altogether bold and unblushing course of usurpation in the State of Texas. The famous and somewhat eccentric General Houston was governor. His own long struggle to bring Texas into the Union made him 10th to join in its destruction. He resisted the secession conspiracy; but his southern pro-slavery prejudices also imbued him with the prevalent antagonism to the Republican party. He therefore nursed a scheme to carry Texas back into independent sovereignty, and, with her territory and population as a basis, to undertake the conquest and annexation of Mexico.
But the conspirators, ignoring all restraint, without a shadow of legality, assembled a revolutionary State convention, and on February 1st passed an ordinance of secession, with a provision submitting it to a popular vote. Houston, pursuing his side intrigue, approved a joint resolution of the State Legislature (February 4th) to legalize the convention, but accompanied his approval with a protest that it should have no effect except to elicit public decision on the single question of adherence to the Union. When in due time an alleged vote (taken on February 23d) ratifying the ordinance was submitted to him, he refused to recognize further acts of the convention; whereupon the enraged convention (March 16th) declared his office vacant, and empowered the lieutenant-governor to seize the executive authority.
Meanwhile General Twiggs, commanding the Federal troops in Texas, by treasonable connivance, on February 18th surrendered the military posts and property to a hasty collection of about a regiment of rebels in arms, purporting to act by authority of the convention, and set the various scattered detachments of the army in motion to evacuate the State. Before this had taken place, the newly inaugurated Lincoln administration sent a messenger to Houston, who was still reputed by public rumor to be loyal, and offered to concentrate a strong body of the United States troops under the new commander, Colonel Waite, form an entrenched camp, and sustain his authority as governor. Houston, however (March 29th), refused the offer; and having neither the United States Government nor the people of Texas to lean upon, the conspirators relentlessly pushed him into an ignoble obscurity and transferred the State to the military domination of the Rebellion.
Thus, by easy stages and successive usurpations of authority, rebellion accomplished the first step of its operations unmolested and unopposed. South Carolina, as we have seen, seceded on December 20, 1860; Mississippi on January 9, 1861; Florida on January 10th; Alabama on January 11th; Georgia on January 19th; Louisiana on January 26th; and Texas on February 1st. The various ordinances are in substance that devised and adopted by South Carolina. All the States put on the airs of independent republics, though this pretence was of short duration, as was designed and arranged by the conspiracy. But the mere perversion of elections, the adoption of a secession ordinance, and the assumption of independent authority, was not enough for the Cotton Republics. Though they hoped to evade civil war by shrewd intrigue, they well understood they had no certain immunity from it. It was therefore essential to possess the arms and military posts within their borders. There were in the seceded States one quite extensive navy-yard, at Pensacola, Florida; twelve to fifteen harbor-forts along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, capable of mounting a thousand guns, and having cost over five millions; half a dozen arsenals, containing an aggregate of one hundred and fifteen thousand arms, transferred there from northern arsenals by Secretary Floyd about a year before, on pretence of danger from slave insurrections. In addition there were three mints, four important custom-houses, three revenue-cutters on duty at the several seaports, and a variety of other miscellaneous property. This estimate does not include the already mentioned public property surrendered by General Twiggs in Texas, which of itself formed an aggregate of eighteen military posts and stations, and arms and stores to a large amount and value.
This property had been purchased with the money of the Federal Government; the land on which the buildings stood, though perhaps in some instances donated, was vested in the United States, not only by the right of eminent domain, but also by formal legislative deeds of cession from the States themselves.
It was now assumed that the heresy of State supremacy, through which the States pretended to derive their authority to pass secession ordinances, also restored to them the right of eminent domain, or that they had always retained it; that therefore they might, under the law of nations, justifiably take possession, holding themselves responsible in money damages to be settled by negotiation. The hypothesis and its parent dogma were of course both palpably false and absurd. The Government of the United States, unlike other great nations, has steadily opposed the maintenance of a large military force in time of peace. The whole regular army amounted to only a little over seventeen thousand men. These, as usual, were mainly occupied in defence of the western frontier against hostile Indian tribes. Consequently, but three of these southern forts were garrisoned, and they by only about a company each. An equal force was stationed for the protection of the arsenals at Augusta, Ga., Mr. Vernon, Ala., and Baton Rouge, La.
As a necessary part of the conspiracy, the governors of the Cotton States now, by official order to their extemporized militia companies, took forcible possession of these forts, arsenals, navy-yard, custom-houses, and other property, in many cases even before their secession ordinances were passed. This was nothing less than levying actual war against the United States, though as yet attended by no violence or bloodshed. The ordinary process was, the sudden appearance of a superior armed force, a demand for surrender in the name of the State, and the compliance under protest by the officer in charge--salutes to the flag, peaceable evacuation, and unmolested transit home being graciously permitted as military courtesy. To this course of procedure three exceptions occurred: first, no attempt was made against Fort Taylor at Key West, Fort Jefferson on Tortugas Island, and Fort Pickens at Pensacola, on account of the distance and danger; second, part of the troops in Texas were eventually refused the promised transit and captured; and third, the forts in Charleston Harbor underwent peculiar vicissitudes.
Source: "Outbreak of the Rebellion" by John G. Nicolay, Private Secretary to President Lincoln
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