Published quarterly by the
Louisiana Historical Association
In cooperation with
The Center for Louisiana Studies
The University of Southwestern Louisiana
(The following article is reprinted by the Young-Sanders Center with
permission granted by the Louisiana Historical Association and
The Center for Louisiana Studies)
Volume XIX, No. 4
Louisiana and Secession
By: Charles P. Roland
This exercise is not addressed to the substantive causes of secession: that is, the southern belief, whether right or wrong, that slavery was vital to the regions economic and social well-being; and the conviction, right or wrong, that Republican ascendancy posed a mortal threat to slavery. Instead, this essay is concerned with the unique course, and the paradox, of secession by Louisiana.
Louisiana in 1860-61 was perhaps the unlikeliest state of the Deep South to attempt a break from the Union. Ten years earlier the state legislature had refused as much as the gesture of sending delegates to the Nashville Convention, a gathering designed by John C. Calhoun to crystallize southern sectional awareness and political cohesiveness, and hoped by such fire-eaters as Robert Barnwell Rhett to pave the way for secession itself. An overwhelming majority of the leaders as well as the rank and file of both Whig and Democratic parties in Louisiana had endorsed the Compromise of 1850, a group of measures thought at the time to have settled the sectional issue. Among the state’s major political figures, only the volatile Senator Pierre Soule opposed the compromise, and even he in doing so felt obliged to make a statement affirming his allegiance to the Union.1 His supporters in rejecting the compromise were so few that the New Orleans Daily Picayune dismissed them as a handful of South Carolina emigrants who were still under the influence of the Calhoun press of their native state.2
1 William H. Adams, The Whig Party of Louisiana (Lafayette, LA., 1973), p. 206.
2 Avery O. Craven, The Growth of Southern Nationalism, 1848-1861 (Baton Rouge, 1953), p. 106.
In addition to the non-slaveholding farmers of the hill and piney-woods areas of Louisiana - the earlier stronghold of Jacksonian Democracy—the state contained various groups who by interest and tradition were strongly unionist in sentiment. Much of the population of the Deep South’s chief metropolis, New Orleans, fitted this description, including the merchants and bankers because of their economic ties with the North, and the European immigrants (who in 1860 comprised about 40 percent of the city’s white residents) because of their newly kindled American patriotism, their lingering class resentment, and their opposition to slavery. Also, a significant portion of the New Orleanians were of northern birth and upbringing. Even among the group of Louisiana citizens having the greatest immediate vested interest in slavery—that is, the slave owning minority itself—there was an important element with exceptionally firm ties to the Union. This was the sugar planters, who were the dominant economic, social, and political class of rural South Louisiana. Their welfare rested partly upon the federal tariff, a measure not expected to endure under the aegis of a politically independent Cotton Kingdom. Most of the sugar planters had formerly been Whigs, and had looked with alarm on any threat to national solidarity.
Moreover, the conduct of Louisiana voters in the critical presidential election of 1860 indicated convincingly that, in spite of the forces of disruption at work during the preceding decade, the majority of the state’s population still opposed disunion. John C. Breckinridge, the candidate of the Constitutional Democratic party (a code name for the southern wing of the Democratic party), received Louisiana’s electoral vote, but he won it with a decided minority of the popular vote. Together John Bell of the Constitutional Union party (a code name for the northern wing of the Democratic party) won more than 55 percent of the state’s popular vote. Bell alone drew almost as great a vote as Breckinridge. Nor did a vote for Breckinridge necessarily mean a vote for disunion, though doubtless most if not all the state’s disunionists voted for him. Ironically, his heaviest vote came from the hill and piney-woods areas, the very areas that would take the strongest stand against secession when it actually came. This was partly because of the influence of Senator John Slidell’s invincible Democratic machine, but it was also partly because these voters looked upon the
Breckinridge platform as the nearest of kin to Jacksonian Democracy.
How then explain the state’s sudden turnabout between the presidential election in November 1860 and the fateful decision to secede in January 1861? First, one must understand the conditional nature of Louisiana unionism. Insofar as can be determined, the bulk of the citizens of the state, whether unionist or states’ rightist in political outlook, believed in the right of secession as an ultimate measure of self-preservation. Perhaps Governor Joseph Walker, in his 1850 inaugural, expressed the prevailing mood in saying he would look upon the dissolution of the Union as the greatest calamity that could befall the people of the entire nation. Nevertheless, he continued, if the antislavery agitation of the North should upset the equality of the members of the Union, then he would advocate making common cause with the other slave states in breaking away from the parent body.3 Seen in this light, much of the Louisiana unionism was subject to change under the pressure of events.
This pressure became increasingly fierce as the Compromise of 1850 dissolved in the heat kindled by the events of the times. The leading voices of public and private expression in Louisiana, as in the rest of the South, vehemently condemned the personal liberty laws of the northern states, the contents of the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the antislavery activities in Kansas, the provocative announcements of Senator William H. Seward of New York, and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry—condemned them as wanton violations of either the letter or the spirit of the Compromise of 1850, and of sectional amity and national goodwill. The Harper’s Ferry incident and the subsequent apotheosis of John Brown by many leading northern writers and ministers were especially inflammatory. In the words of a modern historian: “Every flag lowered, every poem published, every speech intoned, and every bell rung in honor of the hoary-headed abolitionist confirmed the suspicion of many Southerners that the North wished to destroy the South.”4 Governor Robert Wickliffe of Louisiana pointed to Harper’s Ferry, and to what he called the northern sympathy for
3 Charles E. A. Gayarre, History of Louisiana, 4 vols. (New York, 1854-1866), IV, 673-74.
4 Donald E. Reynolds, Editors Make War: Southern Newspapers in the Secession Crisis (Nashville, 1970), p. 12.
treason and murder there, and solemnly warned of an approaching crisis in the affairs of the state.5
Clearly Louisiana unionism had eroded heavily since the state’s virtually unanimous endorsement of the Compromise of 1850. The conditions to the unionism which had been expressed on the eve of that compromise by Governor Walker seemed now about to be violated. The antislavery agitation of the North had indeed led to actual, if limited, aggression at Harper’s Ferry; and, in the judgment of many Louisiana citizens, the forthcoming presidential election threatened to upset the equality of the members of the Union.
This, then, is the perspective in which the state’s vote in the 1860 presidential election must be seen. The majority popular vote for Bell and Douglas, taken together, was indeed a unionist vote, but the vote of a qualified and shrinking unionism: a unionism ill prepared to survive a victory of the Republican candidate. Which, of course, is what actually occurred. Lincoln’s election, in Louisiana eyes, marked the culmination of political process long watched with rising apprehension. It placed in the executive position of the national government a man and party who represented only the interests of the rest of the country, and who were acknowledged enemies of the state’s most sacrosanct economic and social institution.
Louisiana fire-eaters considered the Republican victory itself sufficiently dangerous to justify immediate secession. “Why, the, should we desire to consort any longer with a people, so antagonistic to us in feeling, principles and interests?” asked a Pointe Coupee editor. “Why, with one effort, not heave off this incubus, which is oppressing out energies, strangling our commerce, and dwarfing the natural growth of our national proportions?” A prominent New Orleans journal of southern rights persuasion branded treasonous anyone opposed to immediate separation. More rational, but also more ominous in that they represented the views of a great body of the state’s unionists, were the words of two of the leading antisecessionists newspapers. Just before the election the Daily Picayune, which favored Bell, said: “[Lincoln and his party] will be the most moderate of national men in their professions, without abating a jot of the ultimate purpose of forcing the extinction of slavery…It
5 Gayarre, History of Louisiana, IV, 686-88.
is for these future, progressing, insidious, fatal results, more than from an ‘overt act’ of direct oppression, that the triumph of Black Republicanism…is to be profoundly deprecated by every Southern man of every shade of party opinion.” Immediately after the election the New Orleans Bee, which had favored Douglas, said: “The result [of the election] proved astounding. It showed the tremendous power and popularity of Black Republicanism…What could be alleged against such convincing and irrefragable proof of Northern unsoundness? With what shadow of reason could Southern men be advised to submit and await the possible events of the future when abolitionism had swept every Northern Commonwealth, and had even displayed unexpected and growing power in some of the slaveholding States themselves?”6
Probably in no event would, or could, Louisiana have assumed the lead in the secessionist movement. The South Carolina Hotspurs would not have tolerated such effrontery. But the outcome of the presidential election unquestionably prepared the Louisiana mind to reconsider the sectional issue once the process of secession was actually under way. That the newly elected governor, Thomas Overton Moore, and the majority in the legislature represented the dominant Slidell sector of the Democratic party—the very sector that earlier had helped stage a southern bolt from the national Democratic convention in Charleston and the subsequent formation of the Breckinridge party—that these circumstances prevailed in Louisiana made inevitable the calling of a state convention on the question of secession. Although the governor himself had previously opposed the idea of secession, he now reversed his position, presumably at Slidell’s instance, called a special session of the legislature, and recommended a state convention for the express purpose of seceding. On December 10, 1860, the legislature approved a convention and set January 7, 1861, for the election of delegates.
The present discourse has nothing important to add to Charles B. Dew’s findings and perceptive comments on the election itself. The essential facts are that the immediate secessionists polled 52.3 percent of the popular vote, but because of the distribution of these votes within the legislative districts, and because slaves were included in the count for representation, the immediate secessionists
6 Quoted in Reynolds, Editors Make War, pp. 141, 143, 156-57, 215.
gained a comfortable majority of the convention seats—80 of 130. But, curiously, the popular vote was almost 13,000 below that of the presidential election only two months earlier.7 Who the stay-at-homes were, why they stayed at home, or whether their votes would have changed the outcome cannot actually be determined, though some scholars, including Jefferson Davis Bragg and Roger W. Shugg, have speculated that these citizens were opposed to immediate secession, but remained passive because they were resigned to it, and that their votes would indeed have altered the result. Yet the proportion of absentees was about as great in secessionist parishes, presumably because of a lack of opposition, or because of the weakness of the opposition. Hence it may be argued that as many of the immediate secessionists as of their opponents failed to vote because they also believed the die was cast and therefore that their votes were not required for victory.
Without attempting to settle this question, I wish to suggest that the ultimate course of the state in withdrawing from the Union probably would not have been altered even if the immediate secessionists had not won the election. For, as all scholars agree, the great majority of those voters and delegates who opposed immediate secession were by no means opposed to secession itself. Rather, they were cooperationists: citizens who, according to the best informed analysis of the time, had despaired of obtaining satisfaction in the Union, and who differed from the immediate secessionists only in desiring a united southern movement instead of action by the state alone.8
Two forces, one external, the other internal, were at work in dissolving the final Louisiana opposition to immediate secession. The external force was the collapse of all efforts to achieve an acceptable sectional compromise. Again, it is in the steady progression to secessionism of many formerly unionist organs of expression that the effects of this breakdown are most clearly discernible. For that the effects of this breakdown are most clearly discernible. For example, shortly before the presidential election the New Orleans Bee had proclaimed its unionism under “every conceivable circumstance,” as it said; “whether the Presidential election terminates in
7 Charles B. Dew, “Who Won the secession Election in Louisiana?” Journal of Southern History, 36 (February, 1970), 22-32.
8 New Orleans Daily Picayune, January 1, 1861, as quoted in ibid., 21.
The choice of Bell, or Douglas, or Lincoln or Breckinridge; whether the next Congress is Black Republican or Conservative; whether Seward counsels irrepressible conflict, or Rhett strives to muster an armed force to prevent Lincoln’s inauguration; whether John Brown is canonized in New England, or solemn Sanhedrims of Secessionists devote the Union to the infernal Gods. The real Union men,” concluded this ringing editorial, “have not the slightest idea of breaking up the Confederacy,” by which archaic term, of course, it meant the Union.9
But the outcome of the presidential election caused the Bee to favor a state convention on secession; and on the 14th of December, immediately after the rejection by President-elect Lincoln of the Crittenden compromise proposals, the Bee wrote: “The North and South are heterogeneous and are better apart…We are doomed if we proclaim not our political independence.”10 This metamorphosis offers a vivid Louisiana illustration of the accuracy of Dwight L. Dumond’s observation that the inflexible Republican opposition to the various compromise measures “broke down the differences of opinion and united the two great parties [that is, the secessionists and antisecessionists] in the lower South.”11
But the internal force was as important as the external in breaking down these differences. This was the force of propaganda, indoctrination, and coercion at the command of the radical secessionists. From forum, press, pulpit, and fireside it bombarded the minds of the citizenry. Senator Judah P. Benjamin, a former Whig and conservative, now joined his senior colleague Slidell in advising the state to secede without delay. “We must be blind indeed,” warned Benjamin, “if we entertain the remotest hope that widespread ruin, degradation and dishonor will not inevitably result from tame submission to the rule which our enemies propose to inaugurate…”12 Fire-eater newspaper redoubled their efforts, stigmatizing all opponents of immediate secession with the label “submissionist.” The clergy strengthened the separatist chorus.
9 Quoted in Reynolds, Editors Make War, p. 153.
11 Dwight L. Dumond, ed., Southern Editorials on Secession (New York, London, 1931), p. xx.
12 Quoted in Willie M. Caskey, Secession and Restoration of Louisiana (Baton Rouge, 1938), p. 23.
The Presbyterian minister Benjamin Morgan Palmer’s famous (or infamous, if you please) Thanksgiving Day sermon proclaiming divine sanction for secession was printed and spread throughout the state. Emissaries from South Carolina and Alabama (both now out of the Union) made impassioned appeals to the Louisiana convention. Vigilance committees harassed citizens thought to be unionist in sympathy.
The decision of the Louisiana convention itself was anticlimactic inasmuch as the election of a large majority of delegates pledged to immediate secession had already settled the issue. Yet the deliberations of the convention (if its hasty motions and exchanges can be called “deliberations”) revealed the sharp turn that had taken place in the minds of Louisianians, not only since the presidential election, but since the election of convention delegates also.
The most significant recent development was the shift of many former cooperationists into a more radical attitude toward secession. This was indicated in the convention measures presented to delay the state’s withdrawal from the Union, and in the fate of these measures. First there was the motion by Joseph A. Rozier of New Orleans calling for a convention in Nashville, Tennessee, of slaveholding state representatives to propose amendments to the United States Constitution for protecting slavery, and empowering the Nashville meeting to carry out the secession of the slaveholding states if the amendments should not be promptly ratified by the rest of the nation. Rozier’s motion was defeated 106 to 24. This majority included the votes of all the immediate secessionist delegates plus more than half of those elected as cooperationists. The defecting cooperations thus demonstrated they were no longer willing to support overtures of compromise or wait for separation by united southern action. If their votes on the subsequent proposals for delay would show they were not fully converted to immediate secession by Louisiana, their votes on the Rozier measure demonstrated clearly they had ceased to be cooperationists.
The second delaying motion was that of James O. Fuqua of East Feliciana Parish. It too is usually considered a cooperationist measure because it received the support of most of the delegates who had been elected as cooperationists. Shugg, for example, in his essay on the cooperationist
movement in Louisiana says merely that Fuqua’s motion called for an Alabama convention of slaveholding states to cooperate in establishing a southern confederacy.13 Ralph A. Wooster in his work on the secession conventions says only that Fuqua motion called for Louisiana participation in an Alabama convention “for consideration of” a union of slaveholding states, and “would have delayed secession until after consultation with the other southern states.”14
Both of these statements are accurate insofar as they go, but both foreshorten and distort the Fuqua proposal. It was not a true cooperationist measure; it was a conditional secessionist measure. What is actually called for was a declaration repudiating the principles of the Republican party, and for a resolution absolving Louisiana from all allegiance to the Union if the federal government should undertake to coerce a seceded state, in which event Louisiana would make common cause with the seceded state and “resist such coercive measure with all the force at her command,” The motion provided meanwhile for the appointment of Louisiana representatives to the forthcoming Montgomery, Alabama, convention, with instructions to urge the immediate formation of an independent union of slaveholding states. The motion was defeated 74 to 47.
The final attempt to delay Louisiana secession was the motion of Charles Bienvenu of New Orleans that the decision of the convention be submitted to a statewide popular vote. It was defeated 84 to 45. On January 26 the convention adopted the secession ordinance 113 to 17. All but 7 of the delegates signed the instrument; this handful of dissenters may fairly be called the only unconditional unionists of the convention. “The deed has been done,” wrote the once unionist Daily Picayune. “We breathe deeper and freer’ for it.”15
The actions of the Louisiana convention indicate also that the delegates no longer looked upon secession as a feat necessarily to be achieved by explicitly sanctioned constitutional procedures, or to be sustained by peaceful means. In other words, by the time the
13 Roger W. Shugg, “A Suppressed Co-cooperationists Protest Against Secession,” Louisiana Historical Quarterly, 19 (January, 1936), 200.
14 Ralph A. Wooster, The Secession Conventions of the South (Princeton, 1962), p. 110.
15 Lane C. Kendall, “The Interregnum in Louisiana in 1861,” Louisiana Historical Quarterly, 16 (July, 1933), 391-95, 402-05; Wooster, The Secession Conventions of the South, pp. 101-02.
Secession ordinance was adopted, the delegates (and doubtless their constituents) were aware they were engaged in revolution, and that the undertaking was likely to end in war.
True, in the beginning there was talk about the constitutional right of secession and the lack of danger in such a course. But these sentiments quickly disappeared. The war danger was all along a major argument of the cooperationists and unionists. Their feelings were powerfully voiced by the convention’s most implacable opponent of secession, James G. Taliaferro of Catahoula Parish, who warned his colleagues of anarchy and war, and accused them of perpetrating revolution.
But there was no need for such unionist warnings. After the Republican victory in the presidential election, and especially after the collapse of the compromise efforts, the secessionists themselves increasingly admitted the revolutionary nature of their cause and the possibility, indeed the probability, of war in its behalf. As early as November 29, 1860, the New Orleans Daily Delta, a fire-eater newspaper, acknowledged the risks involved in secession, but concluded in words intended to be reassuring: “There is not a country of the civilized world which has not been compelled to pass through desolating wars and bloody revolutions.”16 Two weeks later the Daily Picayune, which by now was in transition from unionism to secessionism, described the rise of “what may truly be denominated a revolutionary sentiment in this State.”17 The messages of Governor Moore and Senator Benjamin to the convention, to say nothing of the governor’s action in seizing the federal military installations in the state, were unmistakably revolutionary, as was the convention’s decision not to submit the ordinance of secession to a popular vote. A secessionist delegate expressed the prevailing mood succinctly: “The time for argument has passed,” he told the convention. “We were sent here to act. We are in times of revolution, and questions of form must sink into insignificance.”18
By recognizing that the secession of Louisiana was indeed revolution, and that the convention delegates and most if not all the population were aware of this fact, we bring their actions into truer
16 Quoted in Reynolds, Editors Make War, p. 174.
17 Quoted in Jefferson Davis Bragg, Louisiana and the Confederacy (Baton Rouge, 1941), p. 21.
18 Quoted in Roger W. Shugg, Origins of Class Struggle in Louisiana: A Social History of White Farmers and Laborers during Slavery and After, 1840-1875 ( Baton Rouge, 1939), p. 167.
historical perspective, however unwise and tragic they proved to have been. We see in them not inexplicable aberrations from the social norm, but a pattern of behavior common to revolutions. For example, we better understand the role of the fire-eaters. They were what Crane Brinton calls the “eternal Figaros” in the anatomy of revolution: the essential agents of agitation and alarm.19 We ought not then be surprised over the harassment and intimidation of unionists, who, in the eyes of the secessionists, were the Tories of the day. (Everyone knows how Patriots treat Tories.) We can more fully comprehend the hast of the Louisiana convention delegates, their refusal to submit the ordinance to a popular vote, though, according to so unsympathetic a scholar as Shugg, and certainly in my own opinion, they had nothing to fear by doing so. Revolutionary bodies do not customarily tolerate delays or risk plebiscites. Instead, they act, trusting their actions will be ratified, in Thomas Jefferson’s immortal words, by the “Supreme Judge of the world.”
19 C. Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution (New York, 1938), pp. 82-83.