185o One Hundred And Fifty Years Ago

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On November 11, delegates from the Southern states assembled in Nashville, Tennessee, to discuss the recent congressional acts regarding slavery. Assorted speakers advocated responses that ranged from sullen acquiescence to a commercial boycott to outright secession. Resolutions bristled with Southern defiance against Northern encroachments on the region’s rights, institutions, and very way of life. Yet for all the delegates’ bluster, very few Southerners paid any attention to the convention, and those who did generally mocked it. The failure of the South to rally behind the Nashville rhetoric revealed how effective the Compromise of 1850 had been in defusing, or at least deferring, the nation’s sectional tensions.

Those tensions had already been mounting for two years when Mississippi’s legislature proposed a Southern convention in October 1849. By June 1850, when the convention first met in Nashville, disunion seemed a real and imminent possibility. Even so, only nine states sent delegates, and many of them were chosen by informal or irregular means.

The June session passed a number of resolutions, the most important of which proclaimed the right of Southerners to settle in any territory with their slaves. In what some delegates considered a betrayal of this sacred principle, however, the convention offered to accept an extension of the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific. This would have split California into two states, one slave and one free, and made New Mexico (including present-day Arizona) a slave territory. Expecting congressional action on this issue, the delegates agreed to meet again six weeks after Congress adjourned.

By the time they reconvened in November, things had changed dramatically. The death of President Zachary Taylor had removed the biggest roadblock to the compromise’s passage, and California was admitted as a free state, with a strengthened fugitive slave law thrown in to placate the South. Outside of hard-line South Carolina, where secession fever was strong, most Southerners reluctantly decided to accept the compromise, though with a firm determination to make no more concessions, and only if the North made genuine efforts to enforce the new law on fugitive slaves.

By fall, only extremists saw any need to reassemble the Nashville Convention. Just seven states showed up this time, including a single delegate from Virginia. Very few leading politicians chose to attend. Instead of attracting a cross section of parties and views, November’s Nashville meeting turned out to be a rump of a rump.

Supporters of the Nashville meeting compared it to the Continental Congress, with oppressed citizens bypassing the established government to safeguard their liberty. Critics found it more similar to the infamous Hartford Convention, at which New Englanders opposed to the War of 1812 had set forth their grievances to an uninterested nation. Still, despite the derision with which it was met, the Nashville Convention was not a complete failure.

One of its accomplishments was to give members of the emerging secessionist movement a chance to meet like-minded men from across the region. Even more important, though, Southern fire-eaters learned that any attempt to build consensus on a radical course was likely to end in failure. Ten years later, when the sectional crisis came to a head again with the election of Abraham Lincoln, South Carolina would not pause for consultation but would boldly take the lead and defy the other states to follow it.