Drama in Milledgeville

Nov. 16 – 22, 1860

With ardent secessionist activity in South Carolina having a week ago reached a heated peak, a pregnant pause has followed. Until the secession convention comes to order in December, the focus of the disunion crisis last week shifted elsewhere.

In Georgia, men of probity and wisdom tried to decide what to do about secession.

In Washington, men of probity and wisdom tried to decide what to do about secession.

And in Springfield, Ill., a man of probity and wisdom reached a firm decision. By all accounts, the beard is coming in nicely.

Lodged between the deep South’s slave-rich Atlantic coast states and the just-developing Mississippi Valley states, rich, large Georgia is key to most of the secessionists’ plans. But with two regions that are relatively slave-free — the pine barrens in the southeast and the mountains in the north near Tennessee — Georgia’s appetite for secession is not everywhere so keen.

Knowing that it can’t treat this issue like South Carolina has, Georgia’s state legislature decided that before it deliberates on the question of secession, it wanted to hear the views of its brightest minds, or at least the brightest minds that don’t happen to belong to state legislators. And so last week, two dozen men traveled to the state capital in Milledgeville to offer their views.

Almost immediately two main schools of thought emerged, the Separatist and the Cooperationist. The Separatists support the idea that Georgia can and should leave the union on its own, regardless of what any other state does. The Cooperationists have mixed views about secession, but are united in their opposition to unilateral action; whatever Georgia does, they say, Georgia should do in concert with the other Southern states.

Some cooperationists favor secession, while others support secession as a last resort, pending the outcome of negotiations with the North, and still others support secession if and only if the North offers a military response to the South’s demands or to a southern state’s departure. The Separatists, too, have internal divisions. Most are urging the departing states to combine into a new nation, but some support secession as a mere tactic. They believe the South should rejoin the union once the North offers concessions on slavery, as they are confident it will.

The presentations took place over five evenings, and the flickering candelabras heightened the feelings of drama in the chamber. Right at the outset, the separatists boldly seized the rhetorical heights of the debate and in truth, never relinquished them. Disunion or dishonor — that’s how their first speaker, the legal scholar Thomas R.R. Cobb, starkly defined the legislature’s choice.

Momentarily modulating his emotions, Cobb argued that wisdom, not passion, should guide the legislators’ decisions, but then called upon them to think — wisely, mind you, not passionately — of their families. Remember the parting moment when you left your firesides to come to the capital. Remember the trembling hand of your beloved wife as she whispered her fears from the incendiary and the assassin. Recall the look of indefinable dread from your little daughter. “My friends, I have no fear of servile insurrection . . . Our slaves are the most happy and contented of workers.” But the “unscrupulous emissaries of Northern Abolitionists’” may turn the disgruntled few. “You cannot say whether your home or your family may be the first to greet your returning footsteps in ashes or in death.”

Robert Toombs

This sanguineous theme connected the comments of other Separatist speakers. Senator Robert Toombs noted that the slave population has quintupled from 800,000 in 1790 to four million at present, a rate that would result in 11 million slaves by 1900. What would we do with them? he asked. If we can’t expand our borders, extermination will be required.

The lawyer Henry Benning also had population growth on his mind. He pointed to the North and to rates of immigration, and argued that free states would soon outnumber slave states and abolitionist forces would dominate Congress. And what will happen then? Soon there will be a constitutional amendment that would require southerners “to emancipate your slaves, and to hang you if you resist.” This will be followed by a war in which emancipated slaves will “exterminate or expel” all southern white men. “As for the women, they will call upon the mountains to fall upon them.”

Alexander Stephens

In opposition to these dire visions were a few voices of skeptical calm, most notably that of Alexander Stephens, the 48-year-old former Whig congressman, whose corpus consists of a mere 98 pounds of ashen flesh that rheumatoid arthritis, colitis, cervical disc disease, bladder stones, angina, migraines, pruritis and chronic melancholy disease had not wasted away.

Wrapped in scarves and shawls, the cadaverous, mummified Stephens accepted the thankless task of trying to staunch the hyperbole. Lincoln is no dictator, Stephens argued. Constitutional checks hobble him. Democrats have majorities in both the House and the Senate. Lincoln cannot appoint any federal officers without the consent of the Senate. There are but two Republicans on the Supreme Court. “The president has been constitutionally chosen. If he violates the Constitution, then will come our time to act. Do not let us break the Constitution because he may.”

Of course, Stephens agreed, slaveholders have genuine grievances, and the North has to acknowledge them. Yes, there is a federal fugitive slave law, but too many northern states have personal liberty laws that prohibit state officials from apprehending runaway slaves. A slave can just walk off the farm in Virginia or Maryland or Kentucky, and no sheriff or constable in Pennsylvania or Ohio will lift a finger to apprehend him. Stephens argued that as a condition for remaining in the Union, northern states had to repeal those laws.

It was a canny and reasonable argument, the basis of a compromise many northerners might well accept. But with separatists conjuring the image of that Black Republican Abraham Lincoln unleashing troops of militant Wide Awakes to invade the South and liberate hordes of slaves who will rampage throughout the cotton belt like Mongol barbarians, poor Stephens might as well have brought watering can to quench an inferno. As sturdy a rope as Stephens’s proposal may be, it stands little chance of restraining the headstrong Separatists; it may, however, be the line they will try to grasp to save themselves if later they realize they have plunged into disaster.

James Buchanan

In Washington, meanwhile, the lame-duck Buchanan administration is responding to the threat of crisis with a combination of weariness and irresolution. Never a particularly dynamic leader — with more insight than he perhaps intended, Buchanan once referred to himself as an “old public functionary” — the president has always preferred to make policy by reaching consensus with a cabinet he balanced so carefully by region that he seemed like teamster packing a mule.

But the Solons of his cabinet are failing him. Interior Secretary Jacob Thompson of Mississippi and Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb of Georgia (yes, brother of the wise, dispassionate Thomas cited above) believe secession is a fait accompli and are eyeing opportunities with the new government. Secretary of War John Floyd of Virginia is torn between his southern sympathies and pro-union convictions. Michigan’s Lewis Cass, the 78-year-old secretary of state, is showing signs of mental feebleness; Connecticut’s Isaac Toucey, the secretary of the Navy, has never demonstrated much mental capacity to enfeeble.

Buchanan proposed to respond to secessionists with an ingenious proposal: to call a convention of the states, as permitted under Article V of the Constitution, to discuss an amendment that would permit secession. It was a shrewd idea: the hotspurs in South Carolina have already dispensed with talking, but the serious men of the South would have looked unreasonable if they refused an open-handed invitation to discuss their problems. And yet a national convention might well provide a place where pro-unionists of every stripe could come together and exhibit their considerable strength.

The Cabinet offered Buchanan scant support. Thompson and Cobb, participating in a government they no longer believed in, inveighed against the idea as too little, too late. Floyd, as is his custom, was non-committal. The others, unable to plan ahead to coffee until they’ve had their pie, objected to the scheme because it might offer legitimacy to the possibility of secession.

Faced with these nattering advisers, a stronger leader might have sacked the lot and pressed on with his proposal. But Buchanan is spent. Exhausted and fearful, he settled for a watered-down version of a statement against secession written by Attorney General Jeremiah Black. Black had argued in Cabinet meetings in favor of the government’s duty to defend itself against disunionists — “meet,” “repel” and “subdue” were the words Black used — but the timorous Buchanan scrapped Black’s vigorous language and issued a mild condemnation of secession that declined to so much as wag a disapproving finger at the ultras of the South. In two weeks the president is scheduled to present his annual message to Congress; perhaps that will still be enough time for him to look in the White House attic to see if Andy Jackson left behind some backbone he could use.

With the outgoing president marking time, many are looking for the incoming chief executive to show some leadership. Apparently they will have to wait until Mr. Lincoln is actually on the federal payroll and starts collecting the $25,000 a year he earns for the job.

Lincoln has made no comment about slavery or disunion since before the election, maintaining that his positions are already crystal clear — he’s against expansion, and regardless of his personal opinion, he is Constitutionally incapable of affecting slavery where it already exists. Repeating these positions could only give fodder to those who would twist his views, and he’s powerless to do anything for another three months anyway. As the editor of The Chicago Tribune, Joseph Medill, put it, “He must keep his feet out of all such wolf traps,” and Lincoln surely agrees.

Still, insiders paid particular attention last week to the address delivered in Springfield by Senator Lyman Trumbull at the Great Republican Jubilee celebrating Lincoln’s election. Despite the fact that Trumbull snatched his senate seat from Lincoln’s grasp five years ago, an act that earned both Trumbull and his wife the eternal enmity of Mary Lincoln, the two men are great friends.

Indeed, they are such great friends that it sometimes seems that they speak with one voice. Thus, when Trumbull told the crowd that under Lincoln, all the states will be left in complete control of their own affairs, including the protection of property, those in the know believed they were hearing the words of the president-elect. And when Trumbull said that secession is not only impractical, it is a constitutional impossibility, it was like hearing from Lincoln himself. What good it will do is another matter. The New York Herald cheerfully predicted that “The speech will go a great ways in clearing the Southern sky of the clouds of disunion.” But whoever wrote that probably hadn’t heard any of the speeches in Milledgeville this week.

Meanwhile, the president-elect continues to prepare for his presidency. Springfield has proven to be a magnet for eager office-seekers, most of whom depart in disappointment. Perhaps the saddest of those who have departed Springfield is not an office-seeker but an artist, Jesse Atwood of Philadelphia, who painted Lincoln just before the election. The portrait, described as “perfect in feature and delineation,” was generously praised when exhibited in the capitol in Springfield.

Unfortunately for Atwood, Lincoln decided that he would look more presidential with a beard, and after a day or two, Atwood’s portrait was out of date. Atwood, who had left Springfield, raced back and filled in some whiskers, but he wasn’t working from life, and he surmised the wrong style, and now has a picture that resembles Lincoln neither then nor now. But apart from Atwood, most people like the beard.

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; “Lincoln: President-Elect,: by Harold Holzer, Simon & Schuster, 2008.

Jamie Malanowski has been an editor at Time, Esquire and Spy, and is the author of the novel “The Coup.”

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Full article and photos: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/drama-in-milledgeville