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

By Semmes, Ryan P. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

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


Semmes, Ryan P., The Mississippi Quarterly


The Mississippi Secession Convention: Delegates and Deliberations in Politics and War, 1861-1865, by Timothy B. Smith. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014. 296 pp. $25.00.

THE MISSISSIPPI SECESSION CONVENTION, WHICH MET IN JACKSON IN January and March 1861, laid out the causes for which they had chosen to secede from the Union by stating, "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery--the greatest material interest in the world" (229). This statement made by these Mississippians leaves little doubt as to the cause of secession and, subsequently, the American Civil War. The institution of slavery, its economic viability, its expansion, its future, were all threatened by the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States. The waning influence of Southern politicians in the United States Congress allowed slave owners across the South to increase the rhetoric of secession as a viable option to the inevitable abolitionist attempts that would come from the North in the 1860s. As such, following the lead of politicians in South Carolina, Mississippians called a special convention, to begin in January 1861, in order to debate the idea of seceding from the Union and whether or not to join with other Southern states in a newly established confederacy.

In The Mississippi Secession Convention: Delegates and Deliberations in Politics and War, 1861-1865, historian Timothy B. Smith presents the most comprehensive examination of the deliberations held at the convention, filling a gap in the historical record and challenging the prevailing historiography of the convention. Smith provides a day-by-day assessment of the nearly month-long convention, arguing that the typical view of solidarity amongst the convention delegates is not shown in the historical record. Rather than being in lockstep on every issue, including secession, Smith notes, delegates voted on a number of resolutions due to ideological, political, and local forces important to each individual. By focusing on the debates and voting records of the delegates, Smith shows that the men of the convention dealt with the subject of secession and the creation of a new government as distinct issues.

Smith begins his work by providing brief introductions to the significant power players of the convention. These men are placed into two camps: the "Secessionists" and the "Cooperationists." Chief among the secessionists are L.Q.C. Lamar, then still a member of the United States House of Representatives, and James Z. George, a Mexican War veteran who would later become one of Mississippi's prominent political leaders. The cooperationists were led by James L. Alcorn, wealthy plantation owner and political rival to Lamar, who, Smith argues, "realizes that war means destruction and destruction means poverty" (8). These men would clash over the question of secession, yet, once the die was cast, would occasionally cooperate on one legislative matter or another. Smith conveys to the reader that the members, through their interactions during the convention, systematically managed both the greater ideological questions of secession and the minutiae of dealing with daily functions previously under the responsibility of the federal government. These men, Smith notes, were not the great political leaders of the state but "the vast majority of the delegates were mid-level statesmen, and not a few were lower-level county politicians at best" (145).

Though mid-level statesman, the men of the convention were tasked with enacting a monumental decision and dealing with the political and economic issues that followed. …

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