The Mississippi Secession Convention: Delegates and Deliberations in Politics and War, 1861-1865

By Ruminski, Jarret | The Journal of Southern History, February 2016 | Go to article overview

The Mississippi Secession Convention: Delegates and Deliberations in Politics and War, 1861-1865


Ruminski, Jarret, The Journal of Southern History


The Mississippi Secession Convention: Delegates and Deliberations in Politics and War, 1861-1865. By Timothy B. Smith. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014. Pp. [xvi], 296. $60.00, ISBN 978-1-62846-097-1.)

In recent years, Timothy B. Smith has churned out a number of high-quality studies on the Civil War in Mississippi. These include the excellent Mississippi in the Civil War: The Home Front (Jackson, Miss., 2010) and a biography, James Z. George: Mississippi's Great Commoner (Jackson, Miss., 2012). With his most recent book, Smith fills a void left by historians who have viewed the Mississippi secession convention as little more than a nondeliberative "capstone" to the more important sectional agitation of 1860 (p. xii). By contrast, Smith argues that the convention "was a deliberative body" that "hammer[ed] out compromises" on multiple issues (p. xi, emphasis in original). More important, the convention was also "a microcosm of the people themselves" that signaled "the birth of another era of Mississippi politics" (pp. xi-xii, xi).

Smith places utmost importance on the convention's deliberation over "federalism versus centralism," an issue that "would actually shake the Confederacy to its core" and mold Mississippi's postwar politics (p. xii). Understanding the secession convention, however, requires understanding the men who ran it. Much to his credit, Smith takes what could easily be a tedious dirge through legislative squabbling and instead brings the proceedings to life by framing his study around a colorful rogues' gallery of key Magnolia State politicos. He follows the weekly convention proceedings' through the actions of raging fire-eaters like Governor John J. Pettus, as well as "cooperationists" like the unabashedly self-interested planter James L. Alcom and the bombastic John W. Wood, whose apocalyptic warnings about southern destruction in the event of secession proved prophetic (p. 8).

Even before the convention began, ideological battle lines hardened between those who favored immediate secession and those who advocated cooperation with the other slave states. Smith examines the secessionists' demographics and concludes that they were mostly young lawyers or farmers who owned a few slaves, jumped headfirst into politics, and sought membership in the South's elite class. …

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