The secessionist movement in Mississippi, as in the rest of the South, was rooted in sectional differences over the future of slavery. White Mississippians considered slavery the foundation of their social order and culture and believed that only its survival would preserve their civilization and ensure their prosperity and safety. In the end, the imperative of defending and even promoting the institution distorted whites’ religious theology, gender conventions, and nearly all social ethics. When Mississippians spoke of defending slavery, they understood the term broadly to include their slave-based way of life. Thus, the majority of white Mississippians ultimately supported secession to protect slavery and all that it represented in their lives.
Before the 1850s some Mississippians discussed secession as a potential last, desperate measure to protect slavery. As long as the direct threat to the institution remained slight, however, secession was too radical for the vast majority of the state’s voters. Support for disunion grew during the controversy surrounding California’s admission as a free state and the accompanying Compromise of 1850. Most southerners believed that “free soil” (the nonextension of slavery) posed a threat to the long-term viability and health of slavery, and as support for free soil grew among northern voters, white Mississippians became increasingly anxious and wary.
The most important development in the history of the secessionist movement was the formation and success of the free soil Republican Party. One reason Republicans advocated the nonextension of slavery was to limit planters’ political power in the national government, drawing on growing northern resentment of the “Slave Power.” Most Republicans were not abolitionists; probably just a minority had real moral misgivings about slavery itself, and many were racists who wanted to exclude all nonwhites from the territories. For a great variety of reasons, then, Republicans were united in their commitment to stop the spread of slavery beyond where it already existed. This program of sectional antagonism presented southerners with a double threat. First was the tangible danger that free soil presented to slavery. Unable to expand, most white southerners believed, slavery would become more and more unstable, ending finally in widespread rebellion as whites were slowly outnumbered by the growing slave population. Southerners would also lose power in the national government as they became an ever-shrinking minority within the country, perhaps ending with a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. Finally, without fresh land to exploit, the market value of slaves would decline, since they were only as valuable as what they produced. Thus, most white southerners believed free soil to be just as unacceptable as abolition.
Southern whites also resented the Republicans’ claim of northern superiority. This “insult” to their “honor” challenged southerners’ personal and collective reputations and questioned their equality as good Christians and Americans. As one group of Mississippi voters summarized, “To deny us the right and privilege [of slavery in the territories] would be to deny our equality in the Union, and would be a wrong and degradation to which a high spirited people should not submit.” In the words of another Mississippian, “The distinction sought to be made between the South and North cannot be tolerated by honorable men.”
Emphasizing these threats to slavery, the insult to southern honor, and the challenge to manhood, the secessionist movement gained strength rapidly after 1856, when Republicans carried a majority of northern states in the presidential contest. Mississippians joined other southerners in denouncing the sectional party, and Magnolia State voters presented a more and more unified front in state and national elections. By 1859 the opposition party received just one-third of the vote in the gubernatorial election. Leaders of the secessionist movement in Mississippi included John Quitman (though he died in 1858) and John Jones Pettus, who was elected governor in 1859. The state’s most famous politician, Jefferson Davis, waffled on the question of secession throughout 1859 and 1860.
The presidential campaign of 1860 energized secessionists and gave new urgency to the movement for disunion. The possibility of a Republican victory appalled Mississippians, and a strong majority of voters supported the Southern Democratic candidate, John C. Breckinridge, whose party pledged secession if Abraham Lincoln won. Early elections in several northern states virtually assured a Republican triumph, so Mississippi voters who supported Breckinridge sent a clear message in support of secession.
In the wake of the election, secessionists moved quickly to capitalize on public outrage over Lincoln’s victory. While the majority of Mississippi’s men expressed support for secession, leaders of the movement took few chances. Vigilance committees, “Minute Men” clubs, and other local organizations held rallies, calling on men to do “their duty as men” and defend the state’s honor. Many Unionists were intimidated, some drifted to the secessionist cause, and others just gave up when it became obvious that secession had widespread support. In December the state held an election for delegates to a special convention called by the legislature, and secessionists won a strong majority. The convention passed an ordinance of secession on 9 January 1861, and Mississippi officially withdrew from the Union.
The secessionist movement in Mississippi paralleled that in most Lower South states, although widespread ownership of slaves almost certainly contributed to the state’s enthusiastic support for disunion. The Mississippi Declaration of Secession stated, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principals had been subverted to work out our ruin.” Mississippi trailed only South Carolina in the percentage of its residents enslaved, and most estimates suggest that more than half of white households owned slaves. Furthermore, the wild profits made from cotton in the 1850s undoubtedly caused many Mississippians to feel particularly threatened by the Republicans’ free soil platform. Because of a combination of factors, then, Mississippi took a leading role in the southern secessionist movement.
- William L. Barney, The Secessionist Impulse: Alabama and Mississippi in 1860 (1974)
- Bradley Bond, Political Culture in the Nineteenth-Century South: Mississippi, 1830–1900 (1995)
- Christopher Morris, Becoming Southern: The Evolution of a Way of Life: Warren County and Vicksburg, 1770–1860 (1995)
- Christopher Olsen, Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi: Masculinity, Honor, and the Antiparty Tradition, 1830s–1860 (2000)
- Percy Lee Rainwater, Mississippi: Storm-Center of Secession, 1856–1861 (1938)