Ethelbert Barksdale was the father of Mississippi secession and its most vocal proponent. He was a longtime newspaperman as well as politician, a vocational combination that was common under the journalistic standards of the nineteenth-century South.
Barksdale was a dominant character from a prominent family. Born in Rutherford County, Tennessee, Ethelbert Barksdale moved to Mississippi during his childhood. His younger but better-known brother, William, became a congressman and later a Confederate general before being killed at Gettysburg on 3 July 1863. At age twenty, Ethelbert began his newspaper career as editor of the Yazoo City Democrat. In 1850 he moved to Jackson and bought controlling interest in the Mississippian, which until the secession crisis was a mouthpiece for the Democratic Party. The combination of politics and journalism suited Barksdale, who served as a delegate to the 1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston.
The convention was already divided by the time the first gavel fell. The protection of slavery in US territories was the controversy embodied in conflicting interpretations of the Democratic Platform of 1856. Southern Democrats interpreted that platform as protecting territorial slavery, while northern Democrats believed it supported the right of the territory to determine for itself whether slavery would be allowed. The latter position became embodied by the buzzword “popular sovereignty,” which Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas helped popularize as offering the best chance of compromise between North and South. The southern delegations went to Charleston anxious to defend the proposition that slavery was legal in all territories and therefore that slaveholders could move freely among territories with their slaves.
Barksdale was head of the Mississippi convention delegation and was selected to present the viewpoints of all southern delegations. He was prominent at the convention from the beginning, and a fellow journalist observed, “He is full of fire and prone to fly off the handle . . . there is a dangerous glitter in his eye.” In his major address to the convention, Barksdale asked that Democrats take a stand that only the states could decide on the legality of slavery in a territory while it remained a territory.
When the convention failed to adopt the majority platform committee report, which Barksdale had articulated, choosing instead the minority popular sovereignty platform of the Douglasites, Mississippi and six other southern delegations walked out. The remaining delegates nominated Douglas for president, and the southern delegations met in Baltimore and nominated John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. Barksdale returned to Jackson determined to convince Mississippians to support Breckinridge and if necessary to secede, writing editorials to that effect. As early as 27 June Barksdale was writing about disunion and blaming the North for sectional disputes. But Breckinridge did not support disunion; he challenged his enemies to “point out an act, to disclose an utterance, to reveal a thought of mine hostile to the Constitution and the union of the States.” The election of Abraham Lincoln left no doubt in Barksdale’s mind as to what course Mississippi should take.
After serving in the Confederate Congress, Barksdale was elected to serve in the US House of Representatives in 1882 and 1884. He served on the platform committees for the Democratic Party in 1868, 1870, 1872, and 1880. But for all of Barksdale’s political successes, he recorded many failures as well. His 1877 and 1881 efforts to become Mississippi’s governor failed to earn him the nomination, and he was defeated in bids for the US House in 1890 and for the US Senate in 1892. Fellow newspaperman R. H. Henry, who owned and edited the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, wrote that Barksdale “made more editors and public men mad than any other politician in the state, and rarely was there a reconcilement.”
At his death in Yazoo City on 17 February 1893, the Clarion-Ledger reported neither the controversy surrounding his life nor the role he played in leading Mississippi into the Civil War. Instead, the state’s leading newspaper emphasized that Barksdale had served as its editor, concluding, “Love of Mississippi and Democracy . . . was his ruling motive—was the most deeply rooted sentiment in the heart that is now stilled.”
- University of MississippiJohn A. Barksdale, Barksdale Family History and Genealogy (1940)
- Reuben Davis, Recollections of Mississippi and Mississippians (1890)
- Frank C. Heck, Journal of Southern History (1955)
- R. H. Henry, Editors I Have Known since the Civil War (1922)
- Jackson Daily Clarion-Ledger (17 February 1893)
- Christopher J. Olsen, Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi: Masculinity, Honor, and the Antiparty Tradition, 1830–1860 (2000)
- Owen Peterson, Journal of Mississippi History 14 (1952)
- David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861 (1976)