As the nation entered 1861, South Carolina had adjourned its Convention and issued its Declaration (17 Dec 1860 – 20 Dec 1860, Declaration issued on 20 Dec 1860 and adopted on the 24th) and several more Southern states had determined to have a Convention to discuss secession (though the assumption in most cases was that they would secede) and determine the best course of action and the details of movement toward independence. South Carolina’s Declaration summarizes the reasons for their decision to secede. It is a presentation of the country’s history to that point, from the perspective of South Carolina. But it is also constructive because it does lay out the general thinking of many in the South on the failures of the federal government to protect the South’s “peculiar institution”. And it is slavery that permeates the fabric of this document laying out the causes for secession.
After South Carolina got the ball rolling in December 1860, the Deep South states followed soon thereafter. Mississippi seceded on 9 January 1861 and Florida seceded the following day on 10 January 1861. Alabama followed on 11 January 1861. Georgia left the Union on 19 January 1861. When you read the actual minutes of Florida’s Convention it is clear that some of the Delegates were concerned that Florida coordinate with their neighboring states. There was safety in numbers, especially for a State with a small population and a very long coastline. The two delegates from Escambia County were both cooperationists throughout the Convention but voted for secession in the end and signed the Ordinance of Secession. The delegates from Walton County voted against secession but signed the Ordinance. There was a fair amount of societal pressure to acquiesce to what seemed inevitable and to go along to give secession a chance.
It is also clear that delegates from these various conventions were communicating with each other, if not in real-time then as close as they could make it in 1861. In some cases, delegates from other states were present at the Florida Convention. We should remember that while Florida was a relatively new State with a thin population and a smaller percentage of enslaved persons than the surrounding states, it was intimately connected to South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. Many of the early settlers to the Florida Panhandle were from Georgia and South Carolina and many had a brief sojourn in Alabama, often leaving relatives there, before moving further South to the Panhandle. So, though they may have owned fewer enslaved persons, they were still very much a product of the Southern mindset that included race-based slavery as a necessary part of the Southern economy and an institution that maintained separation and control of the races.
Let’s join the Convention on 3 January 1861:
Immediately on opening the first session, John C. Pelot of Alachua County was called as Chair and addressed the Convention.
Gentlemen of the Convention:—We meet together under no ordinary circumstances. The rapid spread of Northern fanaticism has endangered our liberties and institutions, and the election of Abram Lincoln, a wily abolitionist, to the Presidency of the United States, destroys all hope for the future. We have, therefore, been sent by the people of our State to devise the best means for our security. Their dearest interests are placed in our hands—to us is committed a high trust—upon us rests a heavy responsibility, and we are expected to meet the grave questions before us with calmness and deliberation; precipitation and rashness may prove disastrous. But, gentlemen, while prudence and a proper discretion should characterize all our deliberations, we must not forget that the important crisis demands great firmness. I trust we are fully prepared to meet the grave issues before us as true Patriots.
Our Legislature, through purely patriotic motives, has placed us in a conspicuous position. The eyes of the world are upon us, and our action will affect, for weal or for woe, not only our own State, but perhaps our sister Southern States also. And now, gentlemen, permit a word of admonition. Although our interests are one, and we all desire to effect the same great end, yet there will of necessity arise a confliction of opinion as regards the best means to be used for its accomplishment. But I trust that strict courtesy will characterize your debates. We may honestly differ in minutae, but we are engaged in a common cause. We are brethren, and must stand shoulder to shoulder in the great work before us. And may the God of mercy and goodness direct us in our deliberations, that we may arrive at the best means to accomplish the desired end.
The Convention in its seven days of discussion covered a wide array of topics. One of the most important was mail service both between the slaveholding States and with the U.S., including the banning of all abolitionist materials from the mail. They discussed the Delegates to the “Convention of Slaveholding States” and the number to be sent from Florida. There was some discussion on raising money for the State once secession occurred. The Delegates from the Florida Panhandle were the following: Calhoun – Simmons J. BAKER and McQueen McINTOSH; Escambia – S. H. WRIGHT and A. William NICHOLSON; Franklin – Samuel W. SPENCER and Samuel B. STEPHENS; Holmes – Richard D. JORDAN and Robert R. GOLDEN; Jackson – S S. ALDERMAN, Joseph A. COLLIER, Adam McNEALY, James L. G. BAKER; Liberty – William T. GREGORY; Santa Rosa – Jackson MORTON and E. C. SIMPSON; Walton – John MORRISON and Alexander L. McCASKILL and Washington – Freeman B. IRWIN.
Most of the Southern States that seceded in early 1861 drafted resolutions and ordinances to give an explanation for their decisions to secede. Excerpts are instructive for understanding what was motivating the secession movements. Rather than present all of them here, the following are excerpts of the Deep South states’ resolutions that were the most closely tied to Florida, as well as Florida’s.
“Whereas, the only bond of union between the several States is the Constitution of the United States and Whereas, that Constitution has been violated, both by the Government of the United States, and by a majority of the Northern States, in their separate legislative action, denying to the people of the Southern States their Constitutional rights;
And whereas, a sectional party, known as the Black Republican Party, has, in the recent election, elected Abraham Lincoln to the office of President, and Hannibal Hamlin to the office of Vice President of these United States, upon the avowed principle that the Constitution of the United States does not recognise property in slaves, and that the Government should prevent its extension into the common Territories of the United States, and that the power of the Government should be so exercised that slavery in time, should be exterminated:…”
“…For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slaveholding … States, with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government, have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic….”
“…We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of Slavery; they have permitted the open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace of and eloign [take away] the property of the citizens of other States….”
Whereas, All hope of the preservation of the Federal Union, upon terms consistent with the safety and honor of the slave-holding States, has finally dissipated by the recent indications of the strength of the anti-slavery sentiments of the free States.
Therefore, Be it resolved by the People of the State of Florida in Convention assembled, That, as it is the undoubted right of the several States of the Federal Union, known as the United States of America, to withdraw from the said Union at such time and for such cause or causes as in the opinion of the people of each State, acting in their sovereign capacity, may be just and proper, in the opinion of this Convention, the existing causes are such to compel the State of Florida to proceed to exercise that right.
While it certainly may be possible that one or all of the delegates to these Conventions had other issues they felt compelled their States to secede, the one consistently mentioned by States in their Resolutions and Declarations was slavery and the various issues that flowed from that one abiding conflict between the States in the Union. In Part Three we will wrap up this discussion of the Florida Secession Convention, the root cause of secession and the resulting War.
Until Next Time
- Journal of the Convention of the People of South Carolina: Together with the Ordinances, Reports, Resolutions, etc.
- Ordinances of Secession of the 13 Confederate States of America
- Florida Ordinance of Secession, 1861; with signatures
- Library of Congress, Map of Distribution of Slave Population by County for the Southern States
- Encyclopedia Britannica, article and map of secession votes by county