The American Civil War (1861-1865) left Mississippi in chaos with its social structures overturned and its economy in ruins. However, the war meant freedom for enslaved people who made up more than half the population of the state.
Historians continue to debate why Mississippi and her sister southern states chose to leave the Union. Issues such as state’s rights and high tariffs are frequently cited as causes of the war, but Mississippi's defense of the institution of slavery was the ultimate reason the state seceded from the Union. Indeed, a Declaration from its January 1861 state convention on whether to secede from the Union stated, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.”
Slavery grew rapidly in Mississippi during the decades before the Civil War. By 1860, its enslaved population was well over 430,000 while there were only 350,000 White people in the state. Yet, most White people were not slaveholders and even those who were — other than plantation owners — enslaved fewer than ten. The state's economy was primarily based on the production of cotton, which depended heavily on enslaved people to provide the necessary labor. Slavery was as much a social structure, however, as it was an economic system. Most White people believed in the inferiority of those who were enslaved and considered them to be no more than property.
As the “peculiar institution” further entrenched itself on the state’s economy and its people, more and more of its White citizens felt the need to defend it against increasing attacks from the growing abolitionist movement. Not only did White Mississippians defend slavery at home, they felt it was their right to carry enslaved people into new territories as well.
Most White Mississippians felt secure in their institution’s continued existence as long as a balance remained in Congress between free and slave states. The country maintained this balance through compromises. When a new free state entered the Union, another slave state was also accepted to maintain the balance. Mississippi’s greatest fear was that free states would outnumber slave states. State leaders believed if this happened it could lead to legislation limiting and eventually abolishing slavery. The balance was maintained until the late 1840s when territories gained by the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) threatened to upset this equilibrium.
The Mexican-American War
The Mexican-American War had barely begun in 1846 when the question of slavery in the territories became an issue. The introduction of the Wilmot Proviso, a bill that prohibited slavery in all lands acquired from Mexico, enraged many Mississippians. Although the bill was not passed, it was simply the first in a series of events that moved Mississippi closer to secession.
California’s desire for entry into the Union as a free state set off the next round. While Congress grappled for a solution that would satisfy both the North and South, Mississippi delegates met in October 1849 in Jackson. They demanded prompt action from their state leaders should the Wilmot Proviso or other legislation like it be passed. They also encouraged slaveholders to migrate to the Southwest. More importantly, the delegates called for a southern convention to be held in Nashville in June 1850.
Before that Nashville meeting, Democrat John A. Quitman was elected governor of Mississippi. Known as Mississippi’s “Father of Secession,” Quitman encouraged the state to leave the Union. He feared that California and other western lands would become free states and stressed Mississippi’s need to maintain state sovereignty. Quitman opposed the idea that the federal government could exclude slavery in the territories and could deny slaveholders the right to capture runaway slaves. Lawmakers in Mississippi followed Quitman’s lead by naming delegates to the Nashville Convention. They also set aside money to protect the state’s rights if Congress proceeded with any legislation similar to that of the Wilmot Proviso.
The Nashville Convention met in June 1850 with Judge William Sharkey of Mississippi presiding. After all the anticipation, the convention produced few results. Delegates favored extension of the 1820 Missouri Compromise line of 36º30’ to the Pacific. Delegates then adjourned to see how Congress would deal with California and other issues.
The Compromise of 1850
After months of intense debate, Congress passed the Omnibus Bill known today collectively as the Compromise of 1850. California was admitted as a free state, the longtime controversy over the boundary of Texas was decided, the territories of New Mexico and Utah were organized without restrictions on slavery, the slave trade was ended in the District of Columbia, and a stronger fugitive slave law was passed. Many in the nation cheered this solution and hoped that the secession crisis had passed.
Quitman and many other Mississippians disagreed; they were angered by the Compromise of 1850. Mississippians strongly supported the Mexican-American War in hopes of gaining new slave territory, and the compromise now excluded them from receiving benefits from their efforts. California’s entry as a free state, with New Mexico and Utah soon to follow, also threatened the critical balance between slave and free states. Governor Quitman convened the state legislature to call for a special convention hoping that a secessionist majority would withdraw the state from the Union. Quitman had opposition from Mississippi’s U. S. Senator Henry S. Foote, a Unionist who campaigned for passage of the Compromise of 1850.
Mississippi voters in 1851 had two chances to decide the fate of the state. In the September election for delegates to the special convention, Unionists won 57 percent of the vote. This ensured secession would be voted down. Secondly, Foote, nominated by the Union Party, challenged Quitman in his second run for governor as a state’s rights Democrat. Due to the Unionist victory, Quitman pulled out of the gubernatorial race. With only a few months before the election, Mississippi’s other U.S. senator, Jefferson Davis, became the Democratic Party’s nominee for governor. Davis fought a hard campaign, losing to Foote by less than 1,000 votes. Foote’s victory ended any thought of immediate secession.
1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act
Additional territorial issues continued to push Mississippi towards secession. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act presented “popular sovereignty” as a solution to the slavery question. Under “popular sovereignty,” the people of the territories, before applying for statehood, would decide whether or not to allow slavery. This solution failed as pro-slavery and abolitionist advocates invaded the area. Both sides intimidated voters and caused fraudulent elections, which led to widespread violence.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act angered many Mississippians since they continued to believe that Congress could not prevent slavery from being brought into the territories. Most of their anger was aimed at the bill’s author, U. S. Senator Stephen Douglas, a Democrat whom they had always considered to be an ally to their cause. The U. S. Supreme Court soon validated their wishes with the famous 1857 Dred Scott decision. The southern-dominated court ruled that Dred Scott, a Missouri slave, was not a citizen and not eligible to sue for his freedom. Moreover, the court ruled that Congress had no power to prevent slavery in the territories, thereby declaring the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional.
Another event that moved Mississippi toward secession was John Brown’s Raid in 1859. Brown, a violent abolitionist, raided the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, hoping to incite and arm a slave uprising in the South. The raid failed and Brown was eventually captured, tried, and hung for his crimes. Brown's raid heightened fears of slave revolts. The Mississippi Legislature passed a handful of resolutions urging other southern states to resist antislavery aggression. The legislators authorized the governor to send a commissioner to Virginia to pledge Mississippi’s support in case of assault upon the Old Dominion’s rights.
Unionist sentiment waned as 1860 approached. Mississippi elected secessionist senators and governors. Newspapers were filled with passionate articles on abolitionists and rumored slave revolts. After Mississippi narrowly avoided secession in the early 1850s, the chain of events from Kansas-Nebraska to John Brown moved Mississippi closer to the edge.
Black Republican Party
Abraham Lincoln’s election as president in November 1860 finally pushed secessionists over the edge. Lincoln’s Republican Party pledged to restrict slavery. This was a sure sign to Mississippians that abolishment of slavery was imminent. Governor John J. Pettus wasted no time in calling the Mississippi Legislature into session. The legislators called for a state convention on January 7, 1861, to determine Mississippi’s future.
This time, secessionists dominated the special session. The debate centered on whether to follow South Carolina and secede immediately, or to wait and go out in a group with other states. With fears that Lincoln and his “Black Republican Party” would move immediately against slavery, Mississippi delegates voted 84-15 to leave the Union.
In February, six other states joined the Magnolia State in Montgomery, Alabama, to form the Confederate States of America. Mississippi’s own Jefferson Davis, who had recently resigned from the U. S. Senate, was elected president. The Civil War began a few months later at Fort Sumter, South Carolina.
Mississippi’s secessionist journey resembled that of many other southern states. Secessionist sentiment ebbed and flowed until momentum united behind leaving the Union. Passion, pride, and ego outweighed logic and rationality as White Mississippians finally felt that secession was the only way to preserve slavery and their way of life.
Clay Williams is director of the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson, Mississippi.
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