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

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

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

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.

Excerpt

It was late October, 1855, in Handsboro, Mississippi. A typical afternoon barbecue turned tense and violent when Democrat Robert Saffold drew a loaded pistol, aimed, and threatened to shoot his opponent for the state senate, prominent attorney Roderick Seal (figure 1.1). The trouble began when, alongwith a crowd of several hundred others, Saffold and Seal listened to a speech by Know-Nothing Isaac Martin, a local Harrison County politician. In the course of his remarks, Martin claimed that President Thomas Jefferson had once directed his postmaster general to bar all foreigners from post office patronage. This order, he implied, demonstrated that the Democratic Party had discriminated against foreigners in the past, makingits current complaints about the Know Nothings' nativist platform hypocritical and dishonest. When Saffold demanded proof of Jefferson's actions, Martin admitted he did not have a copy of the order. Seal then rose to defend his colleague, Martin, and chastized Saffold for interrupting the speech. This was the critical moment. Seal made a quick, but subtle, transition from partisan rhetoric to personal insult: he “declared that Saffold had given Martin the lie twice.” This loaded phrase (also known as the “Lie Direct”) implied that Saffold had charged Martin with willful and personal dishonesty. It constituted an important step in the ritualized protocol leadingto a duel, the affair of honor that settled disputes among gentlemen. With his accusation, Seal conflated the partisan and the personal, interpreting Saffold's rather mundane partisan question as a dangerous slur against Martin's personal character.

Defending himself, Saffold “denied having given Martin the lie … [and avowed] he did not intend to question his veracity, that he had only asked for proof as he had a right to do, without intending offence.” Martin, apparently satisfied, continued his speech after “order was restored.” Only a few min-

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