At the Precipice: Americans North and South during the Secession Crisis

By Shearer Davis Bowman | Go to book overview

2 Slaveholders and Slaves, State’s Rights and Revolution

As of 1860, the future Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, owned well over a hundred African American slaves in Warren County, Mississippi. One historian has described Mississippi as “the most southern of southern states—a prototype where is mixed all the peculiar forces and tensions that have made the American South unique in the nation.”1 During the 1850s, the state’s cotton production surpassed that of Alabama, transforming the Magnolia State into the statistical heartland of the Cotton Kingdom. By 1840, after the presidential administration of Andrew Jackson had effected the final dispossession and “removal” to western Indian Territory of the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes, Mississippi had joined South Carolina as one of two states where African American slaves constituted a majority of the population. Although Mississippi followed South Carolina’s December 1860 lead and became the second slave state to quit the Union, Mississippi’s state convention did not achieve the secessionist unanimity of South Carolina’s. The Magnolia State convention endorsed separate-state secession by a 88–15 vote that testified to the persistence of antisecessionist sentiment in some nonplantation areas outside the fertile Delta-Loess soil region abutting the Mississippi River. The Delta-Loess region had come to constitute what James Cobb calls “the most Southern place on earth.” It included the Yazoo Delta above Vicksburg, which had not been heavily settled until the development of a nascent levee system during the 1840s, and the Natchez District below Vicksburg, which had been home to settlers of British and African ancestry since the last third of the eighteenth century.2

While Davis’s slaves in Warren County lived and worked on his cotton plantation, Brierfield, downriver from Vicksburg, in 1860 their owner represented the Magnolia State in Washington as a Democratic U.S. senator. Immediately after Lincoln’s election, Davis appeared to be a halting cooperationist, as opposed to an ultra or fire-eater demanding immediate separate-state secession. Such cooperationists hoped that slave states considering disunion would first consult among themselves, present the Republican Party and northern Democrats with an ultimatum in the form of new constitutional guarantees for the security of the peculiar institution, and only then leave the Union en

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