Before I get to Florida’s Convention and Declaration, I want to share my framework for this discussion. For me, the War for Southern Independence (aka Civil War, War Between the States) was a seminal event for our ancestors. It was the second major test of our democratic skills as a nation (the first was the War of 1812 when the New England states rumbled about secession). Democratic Republics can be hard to manage and terribly messy. They require a well-informed populace who is engaged and politicians who are able to understand and solve the root cause of a problem. They require negotiation and compromise. While we may be one of the first modern representative democracies, we often exhibit our lack of skill set to manage without undue drama. Benjamin Franklin is attributed with the following comment at the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. When asked what they had developed in the convention he responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Decades Leading Up to the War
The decades from 1830 to 1860 were full of expansion and growth. The economic system of the north was built on factories and small family farmers, the mid-west and west on small family farmers and ranchers and the south on agricultural production of cash crops that required large land areas and enslaved persons to plant and harvest in large-scale production and a sizeable population of family farmers. Because the South’s economic system was built on the enslavement of humans, the growing sense among many in the North that it was immoral drove a wedge between the two sides. But we need to keep in mind that opposition to slavery did not always include an acceptance of Blacks as equals because it did not. Compounding the growing moral outrage was the desire to keep the rapid expansion into western areas for the yeoman family farmers. Many of these farmers did not wish to compete with slave-based plantations in marketing their cash crops.
Many Southerners understood several issues that often get clouded today in our overheated conversations about the War:
- Their livelihood and continued success at generating wealth were intimately tied with slavery. Much of their means of wealth was invested in enslaved persons and land. Both people who owned slaves and those that didn’t, including in the North, benefitted from the Southern slave-based economy.
- The 3/5 clause in the Constitution gave them an edge in the Federal Congress and they did not want to see that deteriorate with more states entering the Union as Free States.
- The crops they grew on plantations were especially hard on soils which led to movement South and West into new areas to keep the production going. They needed to be able to take their enslaved persons with them to these new areas to maintain their wealth and way of life.
- They needed markets for the selling of their “excess” enslaved persons. This generated income and expanded their economic system, thus ensuring political strength.
- A stronger Federal government might eventually threaten their “peculiar institution” in the South and not just in the western areas.
- The Federal government wasn’t doing enough to counteract the movement in the North to pass local laws that negated the national Fugitive Slave Law and that was impacting their wealth and creating a pull for enslaved persons who wanted to be free.
- The large and growing Black population of enslaved persons made them uneasy and fearful. It was like having a tiger by the tail to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson. Few of us would willingly give up our means of income and wealth for the greater good. I believe slave-owners knew these enslaved persons neither saw a benefit in having no personal freedom in a country that lauded it for white men nor to often being controlled with violence. Most Southerners knew in their hearts that it was just a matter of time. The North’s abolitionist sentiments were increasingly threatening to the imagined stability in the South.
- For most Southern plantation owners they knew that the Constitution protected their right to “property”, even human property.
- They also believed in that concept from the Revolution that governments not protecting their citizens and no longer seen as meeting the needs of the people could be withdrawn from to create a new system.
These festering problems with no obvious ability for meaningful dialogue grew as the 1850s progressed. Both sides name-called, demonized, and misrepresented the other side. Both sides attempted to make the other solely responsible and the “solutions” often divided the country further. If that sounds vaguely familiar in the current environment, it is. Give that some thought. Republics can not long endure with these behaviors. When reading or discussing the War, I often hear in my mind 1st Corinthians 13:11, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man (or woman), I set aside childish ways.” It might be time for us to set aside childish defenses and political spins and try to understand the War and its impact on our ancestors and on where we are as a nation today. It might be embarrassing, painful, uncomfortable, enlightening and myth-exploding for both sides but nothing important comes easily.
I can learn nothing about this seminal event in our history if I can not set aside my preconceived notions and things I want to believe about my ancestors and tease out the facts from records, regardless of my personal belief system today. Try to understand what they believed, not what I want them to have believed, and how that framed their decisions and behaviors. We need to understand and accept our history not paint over it, spin it or tear it down. It is a history full of diverse people and thought and all of those people and their descendants have a viewpoint of that rambunctious history. If our ancestors have any rights, it is to be treated and viewed as humans and individuals with their own beliefs, colored by the times and the communities they lived in. Let us hope our descendants give us the same courtesy even if we manage to make an unholy mess of our times.
The Florida Panhandle in 1860
In 1860, the Florida panhandle was both similar and different from other parts of the South. Florida was thinly populated and the majority of that population was spread across the upper part of Florida from Jacksonville to Pensacola. Overall, Florida’s investment in the slave economy was slightly lower than much of the rest of the deep South and the NW panhandle’s percentage of enslaved persons was even smaller than the overall percentage for the State. But though the slave economy was not deeply embedded in the panhandle, it was still there. In the far NW panhandle, enslaved persons were used in industrial work as much as in plantation work, especially in Santa Rosa and Escambia Counties. The structure of this work was different and sometimes allowed these persons more freedom than the gang labor on plantations but they were still enslaved human beings. So, from the outset, it would seem reasonable that the NW panhandle might have seen secession from a slightly different perspective than say South Carolina or Mississippi where the slave economy was much more ingrained.
The Trigger for Secession
The trigger, not the cause for secession, was the election of Abraham Lincoln. Many in the South were convinced that the Republican Party would end slavery in the western territories and eventually in the South so the election motivated the Southern states to begin secession conventions. Up first was South Carolina in December 1860. They had one of the longest declarations to come out of its convention and the wording was often replicated in the subsequent conventions. They were the leaders in this movement. There can be little doubt when reading these declarations that the cause for secession was the fear that the government under the new Republican party would end slavery and therefore destroy the agricultural plantation economy that generated wealth for Southern plantation owners. The second most common complaint in these declarations was the failure of Northern states to abide by the Fugitive Slave Law. Slavery was constitutionally protected and the Fugitive Slave Law was the law of the land and therefore the Federal government had to make the Northern states comply. Both of these are obviously intimately connected to slavery. Most other reasons for secession mentioned in today’s justifications aren’t mentioned in the declarations at all.
Next post we will delve into both Florida’s Convention and the various Declarations that initiated the lead up to War.
Until Next Time
- The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The Great “Truth” about the “Lost Cause”, edited by James W. Loewen and Edward H. Sebesta
- The Causes of the Civil War by Kenneth m. Stampp
- Southern History of the War: 2 volumes in 1 by E. A. Pollard
- The Impending Crisis, 1861-1865 by David M. Potter
- The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Vol 1, Vol 2 by Jefferson Davis
- A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States; Its Causes, Character, Conduct and Results, Vol 1, Vol 2 by Alexander Stephens
- Florida Constitution of 1861, website
- Journal of the Proceedings of the Convention of the People of Florida, Archive.org