Let it be that I am a Traitor. The word has no terrors for me…I have been born of traitors, but, thank God, they have been Traitors in the great cause of liberty, fighting against tyranny and oppression. Such treason will ever be mine whilst true to my lineage. No, No, my friends! Smaller States before us struggled successfully, for their independence, and freedom against far greater odds; and if it must be, we can make one long, last, desperate struggle, for our rights and honor, ere the black pall of tyranny is stretched over the bier of our dead liberties. To meet death a little sooner or a little later, can be of consequence to very few of us.1
Rhett played a critical role in preserving a hard core of secessionist radicals. He published a newspaper, delivered speeches, and led early attempts to pull off secession around 1850. Had he succeeded, the South would have likely won its independence, as the relative strength of the two sections was more balanced at that early date. While Rhett would ultimately have little influence over the course of events in the secession crisis, his contribution cannot be ignored.
The second group of secessionists was the reformed radicals. The archetype of this group was William Yancey. Yancey has an interesting story as a son of prominent South Carolinians who moved to Alabama early in life. This was a common pattern of sons of South Carolina leading the secession movement in other Deep South states. However, like many sons of South Carolina, he had to adapt to the national party system to have any political influence in his adopted state. Thus he combined early the traits of South Carolina radicalism with a practical attitude towards the democratic politics that South Carolina aristocrats found so distasteful.
Yancey began his political career as a rhetorical radical , leaving (with one other delegate) in protest at the 1848 Democratic National Convention over its refusal to adopt a platform plank asserting that neither Congress nor the president had the authority to ban slavery in any territory. In 1858 he attempted to bypass the two-party system, stating, “No national party can save us,” and helping to organize a quasi-Third Party, the League of United Southerners. Sometime in the mid to late 1850’s, Yancey, ever mercurial, began to see his uncompromising extremism as a liability. Freehling describes his change:
When Yancey returned to the [Democratic Party] seven years later, he embraced [a] strategy for pushing Lower South Democrats in South Carolina’s direction. He would become Alabama Democrats’ partisan. He would press his extremist views no further than the outer edge of their moderate views. He would then cajole, flatter, and prod moderates toward demanding that Northern Democrats accept this watered-down extremism. His tempered ultimatums would test whether National Democrats would provide reasonable slaveholder security. Sooner or later, Northern Democrats would probably flunk the tests. Then enraged Lower South testers would follow Yancey out of [the party] and later out of the Union.
Two quotes from Yancey highlighted by Freehling on his change of tactics:
I now endeavor to be entirely conciliatory. While this detracts from the brilliancy and the spice . . . it gains the ears of the opposition and opens the way to their hearts.
Can we have any hope of doing justice to ourselves in the Union? I have no such hope, but I am determined to act with those who have such hope, as long, and only as long, as it may be reasonably indulged. Not so much with the expectation that the South will obtain justice in the Union, as with the hope that by thus acting within a reasonable time we will unify our people in going out of the Union.
Yancey was directly responsible for fracturing the Democratic Party in 1860, leading directly to Lincoln’s election and the secession crisis. A bit of background: for years, under the leadership of Stephen Douglas, Northern and Southern frontiersmen were united in the Democratic Party as the populist party of farmers and laborers (the Whigs representing the interests of elitists and industrialists), and they overcame their differences on slavery by endorsing the concept of popular sovereignty. After radicals in Missouri made a joke of Kansas’s preference to remain a free state — thousands of Missourians crossed the border to become “one day Kansans” to vote for a pro-slavery constitutional convention — tensions were very tight between the Northern and Southern wings of the party. Then the Dred Scott decision came down, which said that Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in any territory, and by extension neither did territorial legislatures acting under the authority of Congress; the decision declared that only a future sovereign state could ban slavery.
This jarring change in the political climate backed Douglas into a corner. In an 1858 debate with Abraham Lincoln, he wisely pointed out the contradiction between his popular sovereignty stance and the court ruling. Douglas responded with a clever but fatal improvisation that would forever be known as the “Freeport Doctrine.” Douglas made the point that slavery might technically be legal in a territory, but if the territorial legislature and government officials refused to enact or enforce any enabling law, slavery would be effectively nullified. While a slaveowner could bring slaves into any territory, Douglas’ policy would make it impractical if there were any significant pockets of the emergent state hostile to enforcing slaveholders’ property rights.
This modified, more radical stance by Douglas gave Yancey his opportunity. Now a unified Northern section against Southern slavery was no mere abstraction, but rather a real possibility, as it was expected by many that Douglas would be the 1860 Democratic nominee. Thus, radicals like Yancey no longer sounded crazy, but rather imminently practical. Yancey was careful to keep his cool, looking for the most moderate but fatal position he could stake out to set his trap for the party.
Jefferson Davis, one of the most respected and staunch Unionists in the South, a moderates’ moderate of sorts at the time, gave Yancey a gift. Davis was feeling political heat from Mississippi’s more radical junior senator, Albert Gallatin Brown, over his too-chummy relationship with the now Southern persona non grata Douglas. Davis desperately needed to distance himself from Douglas, but like a true moderate, wanted to only do the minimum to keep himself in the good graces of the national party. While radicals like Brown called for explicit congressional slave codes protecting against the possibility of a Freeport-type nullification in the territories as a condition of Southern support, Davis pointed out that no Freeport-type nullification was actually taking place anywhere. Davis’ proposed that Southerners merely demand that the Democratic Party have a platform plank that called for Congressional protection of slavery in territories only at some future date, and only if necessary, if Southern rights could not be protected through the generally Southern-dominated federal courts, particularly the Supreme Court.
In a brilliant leap of faith, Yancey saw his opportunity. He would take the doctrine of Jefferson Davis, refine it into the most extreme and unpalatable form he could while still staying true to its essential content, and rally Southerners to place demands on their Northern colleagues at the national convention in Charleston that year. Yancey correctly foresaw the arrogance of Douglas and his allies, who refused these southern demands for the platform, resulting in a three-way split of the party and the election of Abraham Lincoln. Thus, we see that Yancey performed the necessary and (in my opinion) the most indispensable role in the revolution of 1860.
In September of 1860, as Lincoln’s likely election became more and more obvious to informed observers, a small key group of South Carolinians formed a group called the 1860 Association. Most notably, these men did not have long pedigrees of secessionist agitating, but were rather successful aristocratic merchants in Charleston. Within a space of about sixty days, the association came together to produce a series of propaganda pamphlets written by a member of the Association, John Townsend. In all, they printed 200,000, mostly of his most important work “The South Alone Should Govern the South,” in addition to smaller quantities of the politically genius work by James D. B. DeBow, “The Interest in Slavery of the Southern Non-Slaveholder.” They distributed these throughout the Cotton States to gin up support for the principle of secession if Lincoln were elected. Given that the Cotton States had only 392,000 or so voters in the 1860 election, these 200,000 copies achieved a saturation level of distribution in an era when printed matter was often passed around from person to person as a form of peer-to-peer entertainment and news distribution. Freehling describes it colorfully:
This little miracle of lightning-fast editing, printing, and distribution showed that the best southern merchants could deploy the capitalist virtues as agilely as a Yankee.
Other revolutionary insiders included Governor Gist of South Carolina (who, I’m not kidding, named a son “States Right Gist”) and Chief Justice Oran Milo Roberts of Texas, who used a constitutional loophole to outmaneuver Unionist Governor Sam Houston while distributing 60,000 copies of his speech supporting secession to barely 50,000 1860 Texas voters. Many additional people played critical roles as the politics moved from the abstract strategy of Yancey to the tactical maneuvers leading up to secession.
One of the things that strikes me about these revolutionary insiders is that they were men of action. While they privately supported secessionist views, they were so imminently practical in their approach to life that they did not waste time before the time was ripe, but instead focused on their business, political, or law careers until history called them onto the stage. While these men were not as indispensable as Rhett or Yancey, their contribution cannot be ignored, and their talents were absolutely necessary for success. Rhett spent most of the secession crisis on the sidelines, nursing grievances that he was not properly acknowledged as a prophet.
The opportunists, the last group, were latecomers to the party who endorsed secession only when the other three groups had made it an accomplished fact. Jefferson Davis is the most prominent example of this, but also Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy. Stephens, Freehling points out, actually made a very practical and perhaps workable proposal to end the crisis to the Georgia legislature, and without Georgia’s participation, South Carolina would have been geographically isolated from the rest of the Lower South. However, Stephens’ personality was such that he retreated to his study and did not engage or campaign for his proposal. He was unwilling to do the work that the revolutionaries did to bring about secession. The psychology of the Unionists might explain their lack of energy. Whereas secessionists believed they were fighting for a cause they knew was right, the best motivation the southern Unionists had was that the plans of the secessionists were impractical. If we can use the language of positive morality to advance our cause, we will have the wind at our backs when fighting the moderates whose sole motivating spirit is that of calculating delay and obstructionism.
To make an analogy, the abolitionists provided the raw fuel to provoke Southern secession. The rhetorical radicals like Rhett labored endlessly to cure and dry the wood and provide kindling for the fire, though always intensely discouraged that their efforts never resulted in spontaneous combustion. The reformed radicals of Yancey’s stripe, mostly in Alabama and Mississippi, provided the spark. The revolutionary insiders fanned the flames, and the opportunists availed themselves of the warmth of the fire and pushed those who created it aside.
Often in our circles we have debates about what roles we should play to effect positive change on our society. We have our own rhetorical radicals and reformed radicals, and I consider myself one of the latter group. It’s important for us to remember that all of these groups have a role to play; and we need to avoid either/or thinking about how to advance our ideas. All types of contributions are needed, from screaming Jeremiahs to sly handlers to radicalized reticent moderates. Our goal is simple: to move the Overton window to a point where our ideas are considered mainstream. As a reformed radical, I happen to think the best leverage is achieved by pushing hard on the right edge of that window, but rhetorical radicals have a role to play as well in building a core constituency. The Left is known for not shooting each other, to the point that Obama can befriend former terrorists. The Right needs similar discipline.
We should also learn from this historical lesson not to be discouraged. From the point of view of Rhett in the late 1850’s, things looked bleak. There was Bleeding Kansas, and the John Brown raid and the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and yet many mainstream southern politicians remained compromisers to the bitter end when Lincoln’s election was an accomplished fact. However, silent but watching from the inside were the revolutionary insiders, who privately agreed with the rhetorical radicals’ rhetoric but kept their powder dry until the moment was ripe. Then everything changed in an instant. As conservative revolutionaries, we cannot let ourselves be discouraged by mere appearances, for the non-linear and chaotic nature of politics makes linear extrapolation of the present a folly. There are likely people now in government who sympathize with and read our literature. We must remain faithful promoting our message with faith that when the crisis comes, like the South, our people will rise to the occasion. This is also why the Left fears us so, trying to ruin anyone professionally and personally with utmost zeal lest the genie of truth be released from the bottle. They know the power of our message, that it undermines the very foundations of their worldview, even if we do not. So let’s banish pessimism and defeatism from our ranks. We can either be a part of the problem, depressing and demoralizing our fellow travelers, or part of the solution, working to fight the Left egalitarians. Let’s choose to be part of the solution.
One notable aside from the book is Freehlings’s notice of the rhetoric ultimately used by the secessionists to achieve their ends. While secessionists usually used rhetoric about the self-interest of the South and states’ rights, at the moment of revolution a change happened. Secessionists began using the rhetoric of 1776, that Southerners didn’t merely have a legal argument for secession, but rather held an absolute right to replace any government. When we observe the success of 1776 rhetoric in motivating the Tea Party, its very name a 1776 reference, we must recognize that this is a very powerful meme in American history that can be exploited by counter-revolutionaries. The Left has certainly exploited it. Look at how much damage has been done by transmogrifying the Declaration of Independence from political propaganda to foundational canon law! Again, this highlights the importance of a feeling of moral righteousness in advancing any revolution, and means we need to engage with our audience beyond simple appeals to self-interest and survival.
The Confederacy, we must acknowledge, was a radical ethnonationalist state, though much has been done to obscure that fact among neo-Confederates. As agitators for a future white ethnostate, we ignore their history and accomplishments to our own hurt; far too often American Rightists have idealized European nationalist movements when the one most likely to provide a useful template for rhetoric and tactics is that of our Southern forefathers. They accomplished what we seek: an explicitly ethnonationalist state on American soil, a conservative revolution against modernity that almost succeeded. They also put to rest the notion that a Christian civilization is inherently incapable of advancing its ethnic interests. The fiscal health of the federal government and the relative strength of the Heartland portions of the country make any future secession effort more likely to be successful.
- Robert Barnwell Rhett, Laura A. White, p.109. ↩