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Civil War History 46.4 (2000) 281-299

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Southerners against Secession:
The Arguments of the Constitutional Unionists in 1850-51

James L. Huston


The United States obtained vast western territories through the peace treaty with Mexico in 1848, but that acquisition gave rise to controversy between Southern and Northern politicians. Southerners demanded the privilege of taking slavery into the new territories if the environment permitted profitable undertakings; Northerners wanted slavery absolutely and explicitly excluded from them. The issue had been broached in 1846 by David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, but it only achieved a settlement in September 1850 when the various parts of the Compromise of 1850 passed both houses of Congress. After the congressional settlement came electoral confirmation that this compromise was indeed acceptable. In the North, the 1850 congressional elections produced Democratic victories in favor of the compromise measures, which were later massively reaffirmed in the presidential election of 1852. The Southern response to the Compromise was different. Upper South states (Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, Delaware, and to some degree North Carolina) readily accepted the measures adopted by Congress, but in the lower South states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi the Compromise precipitated a major debate about secession. In state conventions in late 1850 and in the congressional and gubernatorial elections of 1851, the cooperationists of the South--those who accepted the Compromise of 1850--dramatically triumphed. At least for a few years, the sectional issue of slavery in the territories slumbered.

Historians have attributed the victory of Union forces to a number of factors: party ties continued to be strong, Southern nationalism was insufficiently developed to sustain secession, a soothing prosperity in the form of high cotton prices covered the land, and, finally, the Compromise settlement did not seem to injure Southern honor or interests. For most historians, the key issue, and therefore the focus of their attentions, was the debate over secession, not the [End Page 281] arguments for union, and the general conclusion has been that in 1850-51 the cotton South rejected secession as a cure for alleged Northern infringements on Southern constitutional rights. 1

Few credit the efforts of unionists in the South in helping stave off the crisis in 1850. The States Rights parties of the deep South, those arguing either for immediate or conditional secession, have received most of the analysis. The winners of the elections in the deep South states, the unionists or Constitutional Unionists, have not. It is not infrequently remarked, particularly by historians of the mid-nineteenth century, that not only do the victors win the spoils, they also win the historians--and history is then written from the viewpoint of the winning side. 2 But this aphorism is decidedly false in the case of 1850-51 where the losing side has captured the imagination of historians, while the victors have not. Only Arthur Charles Cole in his history of the Southern Whigs--written in 1913--really paid attention to the unionist argument, and even then only in a limited way. 3 This has been unfortunate because the unionists expressed [End Page 282] many interesting constitutional opinions in 1850-51 that were considerably at variance with those of secessionists. If one considers victory at the polls as somehow indicating victory of a party's principles (a highly debatable assumption), then one could argue that the principles of the unionist parties were momentarily ascendant in the deep South. And the interesting feature of that victory is that those principles were almost identical to the constitutional principles of Abraham Lincoln in 1861-62.

Secession became the focal point of southern politics because of the four-year-long congressional debate over the legitimacy of slavery's extension into the territories that arose during and after the Mexican War. In August 1846, David Wilmot offered his famous Proviso banning slavery from the Mexican cession. That action stirred controversy until February 1847 when John C. Calhoun, in a set of resolutions offered in the Senate, demanded the extension of slavery as a constitutional right. Nothing improved in 1848. The presidential election witnessed the birth of the Free...