From the time that Mississippi became a state in 1817 to the mid-1850s, most Mississippi voters, despite a great deal of political posturing, were content within the Union. They lived in a young, frontier state where rich and poor alike wanted nothing catastrophic to alter their chances for prosperity. Local and state concerns usually took precedence over divisive political wranglings in Washington, D.C. Immediately following statehood, Mississippians worked to build up their state’s standing in the Union and linked their personal security and their hopes for the future to state and national success. While slavery increasingly became a subject for debate and Mississippians defended it with greater ferocity with each passing decade, the great majority of Mississippi voters saw withdrawal from the Union as an ill-conceived, reckless alternative.
Backed by public opinion, pragmatic politicians comfortably embraced Unionism as a political philosophy beginning in the Jacksonian era. When South Carolina threatened to disrupt the Union during the Nullification Crisis of the early 1830s, many Mississippians were sympathetic, but the state legislature passed resolutions condemning secession. In 1850 the state voted to accept the Compromise of 1850 as a solution to regional conflict, and a year later Henry Stuart Foote, Mississippi’s most prominent Unionist voice, defeated Jefferson Davis in the gubernatorial race. During the late 1850s, as the slavery debate reached a fever pitch in Congress, many Mississippians still believed that any differences between the slaveholding states and the federal government should be resolved within the confines of the Union.
Although they sought to distinguish themselves from their political opponents, the basic aims of Mississippi’s antebellum Unionists differed little from those of the secessionist fire-eaters of the 1850s. Both groups sought to maintain political and social control in a patriarchal, biracial society. Both groups strongly defended slavery and sought to form working coalitions in a political environment that was often unstable. Doing so required them to embrace or create a primary issue to call their own, one that could both bring together fragmented factions and be easily communicated to the masses. They also had to balance state and local interests with ever-encroaching national concerns. While virtually all white Mississippians were in agreement on the slavery issue, potent arguments could be made concerning slavery’s most volatile political by-product—the question of the limits of state and federal authority. Specifically, this question involved defining what course the state should take in the face of increasing federal transgressions. Mississippi Unionists argued for their own brand of states’ rights while attempting to paint their opponents as extremists dedicated to promoting shadowy agendas by disrupting the national government.
Like their rivals, Unionists used fear to advance their cause. Radical action, they claimed, would disrupt the state’s economy, lead to forced emancipation and bloodshed, and expose the state’s residents to various indignities at the point of a bayonet. Because Mississippi was a young state dedicated to its own growth for much of the antebellum period, this argument was effective. The vast majority of Mississippians preferred the status quo as they sought to maintain or better their station.
However, national events in the 1850s finally overwhelmed the Unionist cause. The decade of Dred Scott, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and John Brown provided secessionist politicians with enough rhetorical ammunition to convince a majority of Mississippi’s population that their security could be better assured outside rather than inside the Union. Still, some resistance to secession persisted even after Abraham Lincoln’s election as president lit the fuse that would ignite civil war.
Generally speaking, Unionist sentiment was strongest in extreme northeastern Mississippi and in the southwestern part the state along the Mississippi River around Natchez. The northeastern region had few slaves, and much of the population resented the political authority of the state’s slaveholding elite. In contrast, Natchez was home to remnants of the old Whig Party, natural political enemies of the Democrats who promoted secession. Natchez was also home to old-money cotton planters who had personal and economic relationships with northern interests that predated the slavery issue’s dominance of national affairs. At the Mississippi Secession Convention of 1861, however, a decidedly vocal prosecession majority quickly drowned out any Unionist sentiment, and on 9 January 1861 the convention voted overwhelmingly to take the state out of the Union.
- Richard Aubrey McLemore, ed., A History of Mississippi, 2 vols. (1973)
- John W. Wood, Union and Secession in Mississippi (1863)
- Ralph A. Wooster, Journal of Mississippi History(October 1954)