In the late 1840s the escalating sectional controversy over the expansion of slavery into the territory acquired from Mexico set in motion South Carolina’s secession crisis of 1850–1851. In response to the Wilmot Proviso, a congressional proposal to ban slavery in the territory gained in the Mexican War, and the so-called Compromise of 1850, a series of measures maneuvered through Congress in an attempt to pacify both northern and southern interests, South Carolina secessionists brought their state to the brink of disunion. Palmetto secessionists, however, were disappointed by the growing acceptance of the Compromise of 1850 across the South. Procompromise Whigs and Democrats successfully played on party loyalty to wean southern states away from the notion of a southern party committed solely to the defense of slavery—a goal to which much of South Carolina was committed.
With the death of John C. Calhoun in March 1850, radical secessionists, including Robert Barnwell Rhett, Maxcy Gregg, James H. Adams, David F. Jamison, and Daniel Wallace, demanded that South Carolina secede, regardless of the course adopted by other slaveholding states. Cooperationists, meanwhile, professed their willingness to secede but argued that separate secession would leave South Carolina isolated and impotent.
Secessionists constituted a majority when the General Assembly met in December 1850. They elected the secessionist John H. Means governor, sent Rhett to the U.S. Senate, and levied new taxes to fund increased appropriations for a board of ordinance and other military measures. Competing secessionist and cooperationist plans for future action resulted in compromise. Cooperationists supported and won a measure calling for elections in October 1851 to choose two delegates to a proposed southern congress. Secessionists obtained a bill providing for elections in February 1851 to choose representatives to a state convention, but they could not get the cooperationists’ agreement on setting a date for these elections.
Secessionist candidates prevailed in the February elections, but voter turnout was low. To quicken support for their cause, secessionists employed local Southern Rights Associations and multiplied their number. Throughout the first five months of 1851, secessionists enjoyed an organizational advantage over cooperationists and propounded a clear and definitive message: secession would protect slavery permanently in South Carolina and lead to unparalleled prosperity for its producers of stable crops. The May 1851 statewide convention of Southern Rights Associations called for secession alone and against any odds.
Cooperationists countered that separate secession would bring economic disaster and ruin efforts at forming a united southern defense of slavery. In Charleston cooperationists launched their own newspaper, the Southern Standard, to counter the Mercury’s powerful voice for secession. Led by James L. Orr, John S. Preston, and James Chesnut in the midstate and the upcountry, and by Langdon Cheves, Robert W. Barnwell, Isaac Hayne, and Christopher G. Memminger in Charleston and the lowcountry, the cooperationists by October 1851 matched or exceeded the local organizations of their opponents, especially in the middle and upper districts of the state. The October 1851 elections for the now chimerical Southern Congress became a referendum on separate secession. In that election cooperationists were aided in the upcountry by a tacit alliance with the followers of Benjamin Perry’s conditional Unionists. Statewide, cooperationist candidates won 58.8 percent of the vote. Only in the Seventh Congressional District, where the slave majority of the population reached or exceeded 80 percent in lowcountry parishes, did the secessionists prevail. Secession was thwarted for the time being but would rise again following the election of Abraham Lincoln in the fall of 1860.
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.