Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi: Masculinity, Honor, and the Antiparty Tradition, 1830-1860

Synopsis

Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi explores the connections between gender, honour, and electoral politics, and argues that secession resulted from the demands and implications of masculinity within the state's antiparty political culture. Using evidence from local election returns, rural newspapers, manuscripts, and numerous county records, the work sketches a new picture of the varied and colourful world of local politics. It also advances a model of political culture that draws from several disciplines, mixing social science and traditional political history with anthropology and gender and ritual studies. Mississippi's political culture evolved as a system that relied on face-to-face relationships and personal reputation, organized around neighbourhood networks of friends and extended kin. The intimate, public nature of this local setting allowed voters to assess each candidate's individual status and fitness for public leadership. Above all other masculine virtues, men valued independence and physical courage, but also reliability and loyalty to community. The political culture offered numerous chances to demonstrate all of these (sometimes contradictory) qualities, and like duelling and other male rituals, voting and running for office helped set the boundaries of class and power. It mediated between the conflicting values of nineteenth-century American egalitarianism and democracy and the South's exaggerated patriarchal hierarchy, which was sustained by honour and slavery. But the political system functioned effectively only as long as it remained a personal exercise between individuals, divorced from the bureaucratic anonymity of institutional parties. Therefore, the state's dominant political culture was its local, fiercely loyal antiparty tradition that conflated the distinction between men as individuals and as public leaders or representatives. This turned all political conflict into a personal exchange, and explains why Mississippians assessed rhetoric in any public context as a real or potential insult. The political culture, then, dictated men's visceral reaction to the Republicans' anti-Southern free soil programme. Although Republicanism violated their sense of home, the exaggeration and violence of their reaction sprang from their non-institutional political culture. The sectional controversy engaged men where they measured themselves, in public, with and against their peers, and linked their understanding of masculinity with formal politics, through which the voters actually brought about secession.