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There Was Another South
Was the old South solidly for slavery and secession? An eminent historian disputes a long-cherished view of that region’s history
August 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 5
As a southern Unionist, Madison did not stand alone, either at the time of the nullification crisis or later. In Calhoun’s own state, in fact, the Unionists were a powerful and eloquent minority. Hugh S. Legare (pronounced Legree, curiously enough), Charleston aristocrat, intellectual, and one-time editor of the Southern Review, distinguished himself in defense of the Union, vigorously opposing Calhoun during the heated debates in Charleston in 1832. (Eleven years later, as United States Attorney General, Legare again differed with the majority of southerners when he offered the official opinion that free Negroes in the United States enjoyed the same civil rights as white men.)
James Petigru and Joel Poinsett (who, as minister to Mexico, gave his name to the Poinsettia) were two other prominent Charlestonians who would not accept the doctrine that a state could constitutionally withdraw from the Union. Unlike Legare and Poinsett, Petigru lived long enough to fight nullification and secession in South Carolina until that state left the Union. (When asked by a stranger in December, 1860, where the insane asylum was, he contemptuously pointed to the building where the secession convention was meeting.)
Andrew Jackson is often ignored by those who conceive of the South as a monolith of states’ rights and secession. A Carolinian by birth and a Tennessean by choice, Jackson acted as an outspoken advocate of the Union when he threatened South Carolina with overwhelming force in the crisis of 1832—33. Jackson’s fervently nationalistic proclamation to the people of the dissident state was at once a closely reasoned restatement of the Madisonian view that the United States was a “mixed government,” and a highly emotional panegyric to the Union. Though there can be no question of Jackson’s wholehearted acceptance of every patriotic syllable in that proclamation, it comes as no surprise to those acquainted with the limited literary abilities of Old Hickory that its composition was the work of an adviser. That adviser, it is worth noting, was a southerner, Secretary of State Edward Livingston of Louisiana.
There were few things on which Henry Clay of Kentucky and Andrew Jackson could agree, but the indissolubility of the Union was one of them. Clay never concurred with those southern leaders who accepted Calhoun’s position that a state could nullify national legislation or secede from the Union. As a matter of fact, Henry Clay’s Whig party was probably the most important stronghold of pro-Union sentiment in the ante-bellum South. Unlike the Democratic party, the Whigs never succumbed, in defending slavery, to the all-encompassing states’ rights doctrine. Instead, they identified themselves with the national bank, internal improvements, the tariff, and opposition to the “tyranny” of Andrew Jackson. Despite the “unsouthern” sound of these principles to modern ears, the Whig party was both powerful and popular, capable of winning elections in any southern state. In the heyday of the Whigs, a solidly Democratic South was still unimaginable.
In 1846, the attempt of antislavcry forces to prohibit slavery in the vast areas about to be acquired as a result of the Mexican War precipitated another bitter sectional struggle. But as much as they might support the “peculiar institution,” the southern Whigs stood firm against Calhoun’s efforts to commit the whole South to a states’ rights position that once more threatened the existence of the Union. When, in 1849, Calhoun invited southern Congressmen to join his Southern Rights movement in order to strengthen resistance against northern demands, forty of the eightyeight he approached refused to sign the call. Almost all of them were Whigs.
Throughout the Deep South in the state elections of 1851, Unionist Democrats and Whigs combined to stop the incipient secessionist movement in its tracks. In Georgia, Howell Cobb, the Unionist candidate lor governor, received 56,261 votes to 37,472 for his opponent, a prominent Southern Rights man; in the legislature the Unionists captured 101 of the 127 seats. After the same election the congressional delegation of Alabama consisted of two secessionists and five Union supporters. In the Calhoun stronghold of Mississippi, where Jefferson Davis was the best-known spokesman for the Southern Rights movement, Davis was defeated for the governorship, 28,738 to 27,729, by his Unionist opponent, Henry S. Foote. Even in fire-eating South Carolina itself, the anti-Calhoun forces won overwhelmingly, 25,045 to 17,710.