Fear in the South

by Brian Jaeger

History 151
Discussion 626

     The crisis had existed well before 1860. States had been entering the union since its formation, by chance and design, in pairs. This consisted of one free state and one slave state. Allowing Missouri to become a state would have upset this balance of eleven free and eleven slave states. The Missouri Compromise of 1819 temporarily solved the rising sectional tensions (Alan Brinkley: The Unfinished Nation p. 230-231). The nullification crisis did not really discourage states from threatening the union to get what was desired. The Wilmot Proviso of 1846 was created to halt the spread of slavery, but it did a better job of helping the spread of the North and South over the issue of slavery. Finally, the Compromise of 1850, which bordered on silly with such provisions as the abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia, was another short-sighted effort to resolve sectional friction . Regardless of such bad attempts, however, the union still stuck together.
     Renda told us a bit about the North's fear of the South, or the slave power conspiracy, where the southern slave owners controlled the democratic party and, pretty much, Washington. The republican party was a reaction to this theory of a conspiracy, which was helped along by the fact that the rich Southerners already owned slaves. This party fed on the fears of Northerners and was an exclusive party to the North. The republican party became popular because of what it opposed, not exactly what it supported. The republican gained support because of the popular sovereignty voting in Missouri, where ruffians from outside the state voted for slavery. They also won voters when Buchanan decided to acknowledge the McCompton Constitution. The unbalanced Supreme Court was another good issue to grab onto, with five justices being from the South and two more just pawns of the Southern plantation owners. When the South made some effort to reopen the slave trade the Republicans really benefitted. Essentially, the Republican party won support because of how corrupt the South appeared or was. Renda said that the incident in Harper's Ferry with John Brown did nothing to help the Republican party. He did not, however, tell us that it greatly affected the South, either.
     Steven Channing, in his book Crisis of Fear, uses the insurrection at Harper's Ferry as the main cause of why secession happened when it did. " The sympathy of Northerners for Brown must be perfectly evident to all Southerners; and it seemed equally clear to Ravenel that secession was ' the only means of safety to our institutions'" (Steven Channing, Crisis of Fear, p 29) . He talks of vigilance groups that were organized to detect Northern abolition emissaries (Channing 50). People were scared, so they armed themselves and made some vigilante arrests, in the process ruffing up suspects. People began to make irrational accusations. Essentially, people in South Carolina were scared stupid by a guy who had no slave support and was captured within a couple of days. Channing argues that John Brown was "demonstrating the 'true' nature of the Republican party... and forcing upon the whole Northern people a test of their innermost convictions" (Channing 89). The South felt as if the North had failed this test, which Northerners tried to prove otherwise during some Union meetings.
     Renda did not take this approach in regards to the importance of the John Brown raid. When Lincoln was elected, the South did not feel any economic pressures, a view shared with Channing.  Renda argues that Virginia was just as committed to slavery as, say South Carolina, even if the number of slaves had decreased in the Upper South during the last few decades. Lincoln and the Republican party was despised in the Old South just as much as in the Deep South. The same could probably be said for John Brown and anyone viewed as an abolitionist. The reason why the Upper South did not get so worried was because they had faith. Faith in the government to check the executive branch. Hell, they still ran Congress and the Supreme Court. The Upper South had had experience with the two party system because of party competition over issues that did not affect the Lower South. These issues included the Recession of 1854 and the Panic of 1857, both of which were not felt in the Deep South where cotton was King. The politicians in the Upper South could not take extremely radical views for fear of retribution in the polls. In the Lower South, however, politicians did not have this fear because an opposition party did not exist. The Lower South reacted quite a bit differently than the Upper South to the election of Abraham Lincoln. They actually felt that the Republican party represented a threat to liberty and equality, which is ironic when we consider slavery. Slavery was considered by the people of the Lower South, for submitting to the rule of the Republican majority would prove them to be inferior, thus slaves. The Upper South regarded Lincoln's victory as a four year fluke, whereas the Lower South felt as if the American political system had become unresponsive, since Lincoln did not receive any votes in the South. The slave owners were especially fearful because the Republicans represented an opposition party for the region that the poor whites might join.
     Secession was not caused by any one isolated event. John Brown may have caused some fear and hysteria on the outside, but the emergence of the Republican party, especially in the presidential election is what caused fear in the hearts of the Southerners in the Deep South.  Renda told us that events and grievances did not cause the alignment, politicians did. They would use any advantage imaginable to gain power, even sectional issues, and they would build on them.  John Brown and his followers were in no position to take away Southern liberty and equality like Lincoln would. The two greatest fears in the Lower South seemed to be an uprising of the slaves to become free and an uprising of the North to make the free men slaves. I feel that the Lower South was more fearful of losing their own liberty, and that fear is what caused the secession of the Southern states.