The Strength of Secession

New-York Daily Tribune, November 28, 1860

The secession strength in the South is overrated. Vociferous, ostentatious and intolerant, it appears greater at the hustings than the polls, much more imposing in the hurly-burly of street-corner harangues than in banking houses where bills of exchange are discounted, or the rural districts where the crops and the men are raised that must ultimately pay them.

What ever South Carolina may threaten, we opine that Rhett, Keitt and their fiery followers, will have hard work to persuade her to go out of the Union alone. They may utter incendiary philippics, and mount Palmetto buttons and blue cockades; she may hold Conventions and pass ordinances, and seem to hang on the very verge of secession; but when the hour comes for her to actually go out of the Confederacy and set up an independent Government, solitary and alone, she will pause. Then we shall look to see Virginia, or a general Convention of the South, tender its counsel; and after much cogitation, we fancy South Carolina will wait for the co-operation of her slaveholding sisters, or even for an overt act of the incoming Administration. We need not say that she will wait in vain for any such act, as an excuse or pretext for breaking up the Union. Will the other Southern States, or even a majority of them, join her in this mad scheme, either before or immediately upon the inauguration of Mr. Lincoln? What is the strength of the secession sentiment in the other slaveholding States?

The large vote for Bell, and the respectable support of Douglas in the South, must, with some exceptions, be counted against secession. Douglas carries Missouri; Bell, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. He and Douglas and Lincoln have a larger popular vote than Breckinridge in Delaware, Maryland, Georgia, and Louisiana; while they press him hard in North Carolina, Alabama, and some other States. Full returns are not yet received, but it may be safely assumed that a decided majority of the popular vote in the slaveholding States is against Breckinridge. Now, the larger share of this majority is hostile to secession in any form and under any pretext; for, every out and out Secessionist voted for Breckinridge. At the outset, then, one half the South has recorded its emphatic verdict against secession.

Nor can all the Southern supporters of Breckinridge be counted as Secessionists. Many of them are utterly opposed to that mode of redressing alleged grievances. They voted for him for no such reason as this. Others of his advocates, while they may admit the right of a State to secede, yet, ere taking the final step, they would require firmer ground on which to walk out of the Union than the mere election of a Republican President. They would stay for some positive act of Federal aggression to justify a severance of the ties which bind them to sister commonwealths. Others, still, would never consent to secede unless in conjunction with all, or nearly all, the Slaveholding States. They would not dream of leaving Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky and Tennessee behind them. This analysis, it will be perceived, reduces the number of Secessionists per se in the South to a comparatively small body.

And even those States which, upon a superficial view, seem eager to leave the Union at the earliest moment, are far from being unanimous in their choice of this insane remedy for imaginary wrongs. Owing to the oligarchic features of her Constitution, and to the death or ostracism of her conservative statesmen, the politics of South Carolina have fallen into the hands of hair-brained fillibusters like Keitt, Rhett and Chesnut; They are now having their day. When the secession movement reaches a point where, if another step be taken, retreat will be impossible, we shall hope to hear calm voices, as we did in the analogous convulsions of 1832, counseling caution and demanding delay. We believe she will not leap into the gulf of Disunion alone, but, when she reaches its brink, will wait for the countenance and cooperation of sister States. Will they join her, and go down with her?

Georgia, upon which South Carolina is chiefly relying for aid and comfort in this crisis, has cast a majority of her votes against Breckinridge. Cobb and Iverson are quarreling about a seat in the Senate. The defeated aspirant will be apt to take the side of this question opposed to that espoused by his successful rival. Alexander H. Stephens, one of the strongest men in the State, and in the South, and Herschel V. Johnson, who has staked his all upon this issue, are both opposed to this treasonable scheme. Other influential citizens act with them. A majority of the people have just repudiated Breckinridge and secession at the polls. Can it be that Georgia, when the culminating point in the exigency is reached, will not advise deliberation? Will she consent to start upon this perilous journey with no other companion than South Carolina?

How is it with the other Calhoun States? The popular sentiment in Alabama, as indicated by the recent election, is not widely different from that of Georgia. The vote for Breckinridge does not largely exceed that of Bell and Douglas combined. Yancey, who heads the Secessionists in that State, though regarded as a man of genius, is held by her considerate people as an erratic declaimer, wholly unfit to lead in a trying crisis; while, on the other hand, many of her most distinguished citizens are utterly averse to this rash plot. As to Mississippi, the Union sentiment of that State has always been strong since it overthrew Davis in the State election which followed the adoption of the compromise measures of 1850. However it may be with her demagogues, the majority of her people will be slow to join in a treasonable conspiracy for destroying the Republic. Only one other State belongs in this category—little Florida. Though she may stand ready to take a leap in the dark with any State that will consent to strike hands with her, we think the proud Palmetto Commonwealth will disdain to make the perilous plunge with so feeble a companion.

These are the five States which originated this Secession Conspiracy. Upon their hearty and prompt cooperation its success depends. In all of them, with the exception of South Carolina, probably a majority of the people are at heart opposed to withdrawing from the Union upon any such pretexts and for any such reasons as have yet been announced. But when madness rules the hour, calculations based upon the reasonableness of men are ofttimes very much at fault. The Secession leaders are bent upon precipitating their scheme ere "the sober second thought" of the rural population can make itself felt in restraining the headlong movement. Impelled to action by a foregone purpose, these leaders do not stop to calculate consequences. They have succeeded in turning the popular current in these five States toward disunion. It may sweep them to a point where retreat is impossible, and thus carry both the willing and the unwilling over the precipice into the chasm.