Nov. 9 -15, 1860
The day after Lincoln’s election, revolutionary fever breaks out in South Carolina. Nearly all of the state’s federal officials resign, and the state legislature speedily passes a bill authorizing a state convention to meet on Dec. 20 to consider, and if it desires, to authorize, secession.
“The greater number is generally composed of men of sluggish tempers, slow to act . . . and so disposed to peace that they are unwilling to take early and vigorous measures for their defense, and they are almost always caught unprepared. . . .A smaller number, more expedite, awakened, active, vigorous and courageous, make amends for what they want in weight by their superabundance of velocity.’” — Edmund Burke
In the deep south of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, where the idea of disunion is taken most seriously, three main groups of secessionists can be identified. There are those who are talking about talking; those who are talking about walking; and those who have already stopped talking and started walking.
The first group includes men like former congressman Alexander Stephens of Georgia. He wants to express the South’s grievances to the North, and give the new Lincoln government a chance to respond. In the second group are men like Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. He’s been sounding out his fellow southern senators about participating in a collective leave-taking some time after the new year. Davis seems to envision an almost ceremonious exodus from the union, a solemn departure embarked upon more in sorrow than in anger, the better to encourage among northerners a reaction itself more sad than belligerent.
South Carolina, however, is the home of the ultras, men like William Yancey and Robert Barnwell Rhett, and they all belong to the third group. For two decades Yancey and Rhett have shouted secession whenever so much as an ominous raincloud drifts down from the North. Lately, however, they have been joined by men of a different sort, prominent men of wealth and influence, grandees who heretofore have disdained agitation. This past week, these men succeeded in inflaming passions that might well have been safely jawed to death.
The first to act was Robert Gourdin, a wealthy 48-year-old cotton broker who resides with his brother, business partner and fellow bachelor Harry in one of Charleston’s more magnificent mansions. Gourdin is one of the leaders (chairman of the executive committee, officially) of the 1860 Association, a group of Charleston’s most prominent citizens who have taken it upon themselves to promote secession among their fellow gentlemen of the South.
On the morning after Lincoln’s election, Gourdin was in the U.S. District Court in Charleston, where he was undertaking the prosaic task of serving as the foreman of a grand jury. When Judge Andrew Magrath asked him for the grand jury’s presentments, Gourdin, who with his white hair and white beard is reminiscent of Clement Clarke Moore’s St. Nick, shockingly declined. Your honor, we cannot proceed, he said. The results of yesterday’s balloting has brought to an end federal jurisdiction in South Carolina.
Of course, it did no such thing, and Judge Magrath was not about to tolerate this usurpation. It is not appropriate for the citizens of a grand jury to shut down a federal court, Magrath sternly responded. Such a decision must come from legitimate authorities. The judge paused, then rose to his feet: Given the probable action of the state, we must prepare to act on its wishes. This Temple of Justice, raised under the Constitution of the United States, shall not be desecrated by a mob. Instead, it will be closed by a duly-authorized federal officer — me. Whereupon he declared the court closed, removed his robe, folded it over his chair, and announced that he had just administered the law of the United States for the final time.
A dramatic moment, shocking to be sure, but one perhaps better suited to an amateur theatrical than to the great stages of London or New York, let alone the pages of history. Andrew Magrath, after all, is not just a federal judge. He is also the legal adviser to the 1860 Association, and was as well a classmate of Robert Gourdin in South Carolina College’s thinly populated Class of 1831.
Still, an impressed Charleston Mercury gave the performance a rave review: “There were few dry eyes among the spectators and auditors as Judge Magrath divested himself of his judicial robe.” Within hours, and with less fanfare, the U.S. District Attorney, the U.S. Marshall and the U.S. Collector of Customs Duties also resigned. Throngs celebrated in the streets. “The tea has been thrown overboard,” pronounced The Mercury.
But even a revolution requires its formalities. To authorize secession, a state convention must be held, and to do that, the state legislature has to vote to call one to assemble. Rhett and Yancey and the other hotspurs pressed legislators to act quickly; as Rhett has been saying, “Successful revolutions leave no time for reaction on the part of the people.” They have been pressing the ultras in Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama to drive the slow-moving legislators in those states to also call conventions, but they have needed South Carolina to go first.
This posed a problem: in every controversy with the federal government since 1830, South Carolina always started by going first, and always ended having gone alone. Learning from their headstrong mistakes, South Carolina’s cautious legislators in the capital in Columbia demanded convincing reassurance that at least one other state would follow South Carolina’s lead. Until then, the bill calling for a state convention would be scheduled for the customary trio of readings. Already one could feel the fervor of rebellion cooling in the torpor of the legislative process.
Reenter Robert Gourdin. The prominent businessman has long been one of the prime proponents of the construction of just-completed railroad tie between Charleston and Savannah, and was one of several dozen pillars of Charleston who went to Savannah a couple of days before election day for the festive grand opening.
At the welcoming dinner, Georgians left and right encouraged South Carolina’s secessionist inclinations, although Savannah’s Francis Bartow, the dinner’s keynote speaker, was circumspect. Handsome, Yale-educated, a leading member of the bar, son-in-law of a U.S. Senator, captain of the Oglethorpe Light Infantry, Bartow was on record as opposing separate state secessions. Like any good lawyer, however, he left a loophole. If you think the time has come for disunion, we differ, he said. But if you choose to break up the union without consulting us, you have the power of precipitating us into any kind of revolution that you chose.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it looked to Gourdin like a blank check. As it happened, on Friday, two days after the resignation of Magrath et al, Bartow and his fellows from Savannah were arriving on a reciprocal visit to Charleston. Gourdin laid on a spread, treating 77 Georgians and 123 South Carolinians, august and important men every one, to a banquet consisting of turtle soup, turkey, mutton, capon, ham, tongue, lamb chops, duck, shrimp, oysters, turtle steak, pies, pastries, ice cream, figs, coffee, sherry, bourbon, scotch, wine, champagne, claret, port, brandy and Madeira.
After dinner, Bartow, full of delicacies and fervent fellow feeling, went further in his remarks than he had just days earlier in Savannah. I am a Union man, he said, eloquently enumerating the virtues of the republic. But I am tired of this endless controversy. But since the storm is to come, be its fury ever so great, I court it now, in my day of vigor and strength. Put it not off until tomorrow, for we shall not be stronger by waiting. With escalating fervor, Bartow’s neighbors rose and endorsed his sentiments.
“A wild storm seemed suddenly to sweep over the minds of men,” said The Mercury. “Every man recognized that he stood in the presence of the Genius of Revolution.” Guests stormed the telegraph office to send messages urging the legislature to act, and a deputation from the dinner saddled up and headed for Columbia with news of the Georgians’ staunch devotion. On Saturday evening, little more than 24 hours after Gourdin’s waiters started ladeling the turtle soup, and pretty near as swiftly as two houses of a legislature can move, a bill was passed that scheduled a convention on secession for Dec. 17, with delegates to be elected on Dec. 6.
In Charleston and Columbia, caution had been routed, and in a profound way, the dynamic of the situation has been altered. In all other the states throughout the South, the question is no longer whether we should leave. It is whether we should join.
To read more about this period, see “The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant,” by William W. Freehling, Oxford University Press, 2007; “Days of Defiance,” by Maury Klein, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
Jamie Malanowski has been an editor at Time, Esquire and Spy, and is the author of the novel “The Coup.”