By the time South Carolina pulled out of the Union, the six other states of the Deep South had scheduled secession conventions of their own, all to take place in January 1861. That gave the newly ascendant Republicans in Congress about a month to contain the damage. "The secession of South Carolina, if it goes no farther, is simply ridiculous" and nothing but a nuisance, observed Maine senator William Fessenden, "but if all the Slave states are dragged into the vortex, the result will be separation."
There was a widespread perception above the Mason-Dixon Line that South Carolina was a special case, a rogue state with a mind of its own. "South Carolina has been surly, sore-headed, and mutinous for more than thirty years," editorialized the Albany Evening Journal. Perhaps the other Cotton states would be more cautious and deliberate in charting their future course. A speech by veteran congressman Alexander Stephens before the Georgia Legislature urging delay gave the nation hope for timely compromise. Indeed, compromise had been the name of the game ever since the Founding Fathers settled on a Constitution, wherein it was written that each slave would count as three-fifths of a person for apportionment purposes. How was that for give-and-take! Point-six for me, point-four for you.
A succession of legislative compromises ever since had desensitized Northerners to break-away threats by Southerners, who, it seemed, had always managed to get their way. This latest talk of secession struck Yankee cynics as just another play by slaveholders for political advantage. There were two reasons, though, why the South might be really serious this time. First, a Republican in the White House would have the prerogative to make appointments to federal offices in Dixie. This would be a way for anti-slavery radicals to infiltrate and agitate, not a pleasant prospect to slaveholders.
The other reason was more personal. The menfolk of the South were damned tired of being denounced by Northern preachers as monsters in the eyes of God. Yankee abolitionists, complained Judge Thomas Jefferson Withers of South Carolina, were insufferable moralizers, full of the belief "that the Earth belonged to the Saints, and that they were the Saints" and slaveholders were the Ain'ts.
The Reverend Theodore Parker of Boston [left] exemplified the puritanical taskmaster scorned by Withers. Parker was the guy who cried from the pulpit, "Humanity is the sin of God," which his congregation usually found to be something of a downer. And there was more where that came from. Parker never apologized for his sermons, valuing "truth over friendship, candor over decorum," and--ominously to Southern ears--"war over any peace that compromises liberty." Admit it, Theo, them's fightin' words. Putting his money where his mouth was, Parker conspired as one of New England's "Secret Six" to funnel cash to arch-abolitionist John Brown. Brown then took the money to the local Wal-Mart to buy guns, cutlery, and some matches and, well, you know the rest.
Parker, Sumner, Brown. Stevens, Wade, Giddings. These were the types, dogmatic and condescending, whom Southern gentlemen loved to hate. John Brown's attempt at violent insurrection at Harpers Ferry was actually not the worst of it. After all, Virginians made sure that J.B. got his. It was the way that Brown was canonized by Yankee literati afterward, even as slaveholders continued to be demonized, that many Southerners found intolerable. Could you blame separatists for their aversion to all things North? Once branded a sadistic, tyrannical, and depraved sexual predator and serial abuser, maybe you would be ready to leave the country, too.
In December 1860 a lame-duck Congress renewed efforts to soothe the South. On the 18th, a Senate Committee of Thirteen was appointed to search for a solution and soon focused on a plan presented by John J. Crittenden of Kentucky [right]. The 73-year-old Crittenden was particularly well suited to the task. He was nearing the end of a long and distinguished career in public service, during which he was twice U.S. Attorney General, once Kentucky's Governor, and off-and-on U.S. Senator ever since 1817. He hailed from a border state sensitive to both sides of the issue of slavery. Who better to save the Union than the political heir of the Great Compromiser himself, Henry Clay? It was Clay's old Senate seat that Crittenden now occupied.
Crittenden recommended adding some clarity to the U.S. Constitution, which neither prohibited nor protected slavery expressly. It was widely accepted that constitutional protections of property rights implicitly barred the federal government from messing with slavery. Crittenden proposed a series of amendments making the implicit explicit. Specifically, Congress could not interfere with slavery where it already existed. Slaveholders would be allowed to take their slaves from one state or territory to another and to cross state lines to recover fugitive slaves. Where recovery of fugitives was prevented by violence or intimidation, Congress would be bound to provide compensation to aggrieved slaveholders and to extract damages from interfering parties. Most importantly, the 36°30' latitude embedded in the original Missouri Compromise would be reinstated, prohibiting slavery in territories north of that line, but not south of it. The settlement would become permanent by exempting the slavery clauses from any future amendment.
The Crittenden Plan seemed to satisfy many Southern concerns. Republicans, however, balked at the solidification of 36°30'. They were ideologically opposed to the extension of slavery to any of the territories. It did not matter to them that, from a practical standpoint, slavery was unlikely to take root anywhere on the Great Plains or in the desert Southwest. It was effectively hemmed in by geography. Implementation of the Crittenden Plan would essentially preserve the status quo, with slavery slowly but inexorably draining southward. The expiration of slavery in America, if left alone, was simply a matter of time.
Despite his campaign rhetoric, President-elect Abraham Lincoln was amenable to letting slavery continue in the Southern states. He knew that abolitionists, preferring Freedom Now to freedom whenever, had not adequately addressed one major question. What was to be done with Negro slaves after instant emancipation? Few Americans, north or south, believed that a whole population of newly freed slaves could be quickly and easily integrated into white society. A couple of Southern states, Maryland and Virginia, had experimented with back-to-Africa resettlement programs in the 1830s. Henry Clay had also favored reverse colonization. Lincoln, a fellow Whig in Clay's time, could think of no better idea.
But compensating slaveholders and deporting blacks required money and willing participants. Both were in short supply. Maybe the existing cultural trend of gradual, voluntary manumission was still the best way. The unquestioned leader among Congressional Republicans, New York senator William Seward [left], appeared to have an open mind. Here was a human-rights crusader who ten years earlier had declared that the Constitution, if construed as protective of slavery, must yield to a "higher law." An 1858 stump speech of his, warning of an "irrepressible conflict" between regions, had further set Southern masters on edge.
Now, as 1860 came to a close, Seward sought to soften his rhetoric. He now referred to slave states as "capital states" and free states as "labor states." On December 22, two days after South Carolina seceded, he gave a speech urging "cool" and "calm" and suggesting that the bonds holding the Union together were as "enduring" as "the passions of men were...ephemeral." In private conversation he likened South Carolina's departure to a teenager's flight from home: impulsive, ill-considered, and likely temporary.
Seward showed the balanced judgment of someone who could have been, perhaps should have been, President. His four years as Governor of New York and twelve years as U.S. Senator far outshone the Railsplitter's thin dossier (a single term in Congress, no executive experience). Seward had been the early favorite to get the Republican presidential nomination at the Party's national convention in May, garnering the most votes (but not a majority) on each of the first two ballots. Intriguingly, he had been considered too radical by some delegates and not radical enough by others, a sign of his pragmatic bent. On the third ballot, Lincoln had become the consensus choice.
Now President-elect, Lincoln had the good sense to bring Seward into his Cabinet as the new Secretary of State. During the winter months between Lincoln's election and inauguration, Seward was actually the better situated of the two to lead the Party through the secession crisis. He was in Washington, serving on the Committee of Thirteen. Lincoln was back in Illinois writing letters. Seward was working his many contacts in the South, looking for ways to ease the tension and slow the pace of events. Lincoln was prodding Republicans by mail to stick with the party platform.
Seward had the ideal temperament to reach across the aisle. He possessed a nimble mind and a zest for companionship and conversation. He nurtured a warm personal relationship with Jefferson Davis [right], the irascible Mississippi senator and slaveholder (who displayed such paternal benevolence toward his own slaves that Yankees, had they known about it, would have stopped their agitating and asked instead where they could sign up). Working with Davis on the Committee of Thirteen, Seward hoped that a workable compromise would stall the secessionist momentum at the upcoming January conventions.
Though a firm believer in states' rights, Davis remained cautious about immediate secession. A new Southern nation, in his view, had to be anchored by Georgia, whose intentions were as yet unknown. Mississippians displayed uncertainty at the polls on December 20 (a pivotal day, as we see in retrospect) when choosing delegates for their January 7 convention. For one thing, the turnout was down 40% from November's presidential election. Of the ballots cast, only 40% were for candidates pledged to Separatism. The remaining votes were split almost evenly between unpledged candidates and Cooperationists (i.e. those insisting on a regional consensus before secession). There was no clear mandate, then, for following immediately in South Carolina's footsteps.
So far, Seward had reason to be optimistic about holding the Union together. But events unfolding in (where else?) Charleston Harbor would quickly complicate everything.
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A comment has been left [below] questioning my characterization of the way Jefferson Davis treated his slaves. Those interested in following up can go to this post by a Davis descendant; a useful list of links appears at the bottom.