Cooperationists eventually emerged as the dominant political faction during South Carolina’s secession crisis of 1850–1851. They believed that slavery could ultimately be preserved only through disunion, but they differed with radical secessionists over the feasibility of South Carolina seceding alone. The specter of secession came to a head following the Wilmot Proviso, which sought to exclude slavery from territory acquired from the Mexican War, and the so-called Compromise of 1850, which most South Carolinians saw as a series of southern concessions to northerners.
In South Carolina the secession crisis of 1850–1851 saw the state divide into three political factions. A small coterie of Unionists opposed secession outright. Separate secessionists, however, wanted South Carolina to secede regardless of whether other states joined her, and this faction enjoyed an organizational advantage through the winter and spring of 1850–1851. Cooperationists matched and eventually surpassed the efforts of their radical opponents. By the second half of 1851, the cooperationists were gaining momentum across the state, particularly in Charleston, where in September they held a “Southern Co-operation and Anti-Secession” meeting and rally.
Cooperationists invoked the experience of nullification, when the state was without a single ally in an impending armed confrontation with the federal government. They warned that separate secession would produce abortive violence, dooming future action by a combination of slaveholding states. Cooperationists predicted that even in the absence of force, separate secession would produce economic ruin. It raised the possibility of tariffs in trade with states remaining in the Union and could subject the state to commercial boycotts or a naval blockade. Separate secession would also force South Carolina to incur the expenses of maintaining all the institutions and agencies necessary for a sovereign state. In those circumstances, cooperationists argued, slavery would be less rather than more secure.
Secessionists and cooperationists agreed to make the scheduled October 1851 election for delegates to the now chimerical Southern Congress a referendum on separate secession. The cooperationists triumphed, collecting 58.8 percent of the votes cast and carrying all but one of the state’s congressional districts. Their victory postponed South Carolina’s secession for almost a decade.
Barnwell, John. Love of Order: South Carolina’s First Secession Crisis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.
Ford, Lacy K., Jr. Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry, 1800–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.