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History Civil War Period (1850-1877)

Secession Debated

Georgia's Showdown in 1860

edited by William W. Freehling & Craig M. Simpson

Oxford University Press
Initial publish date
Apr 1999
Civil War Period (1850-1877)
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Apr 1999
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The critical northern antebellum debate matched the rhetorical skills of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in an historic argument over the future of slavery in a westward-expanding America. Two years later, an equally historic oratorical showdown between secessionists and Unionists in Georgia generated as much popular interest south of the Mason-Dixon line, and perhaps had an even more profound immediate effect on the future of the United States. With Abraham Lincoln's "Black Republican" triumph in the presidential election of 1860 came ardent secessionist sentiment in the South. But Unionists were equally zealous and while South Carolina--a bastion of Disunionism since 1832--seemed certain to secede; the other fourteen slave states were far from decided. In the deep South, the road to disunion depended much on the actions of Georgia, a veritable microcosm of the divided South and geographically in the middle of the Cotton South. If Georgia went for the Union, secessionist South Carolina could be isolated. So in November of 1860 all the eyes of Dixie turned to tiny Milledgeville, pre-war capital of Georgia, for a legislative confrontation that would help chart the course toward civil war. In Secession Debated, William W. Freehling and Craig M. Simpson have for the first time collected the seven surviving speeches and public letters of this greatest of southern debates over disunion, providing today's reader with a unique window into a moment of American crisis. Introducing the debate and debaters in compelling fashion, the editors help bring to life a sleepy Southern town suddenly alive with importance as a divided legislature met to decide the fate of Georgia, and by extension, that of the nation. We hear myriad voices, among them the energetic and self-righteous governor Joseph E. Brown who, while a slaveholder and secessionist, was somewhat suspect as a native North Georgian; Alexander H. Stephens, the eloquent Unionist whose "calm dispassionate approach" ultimately backfired; and fiery secessionist Robert Toombs who, impatient with Brown's indecisiveness and the caution of the Unionists, shouted to legislators: "Give me the sword! but if you do not place it in my hands, before God! I will take it." The secessionists' Henry Benning and Thomas R.R. Cobb as well as the Unionists Benjamin Hill and Herschel Johnson also speak to us across the years, most with eloquence, all with the patriotic, passionate conviction that defined an era. In the end, the legislature adopted a convention bill which decreed a popular vote on the issue in early January, 1861. The election results were close, mirroring the intense debate of two months before: 51% of Georgians favored immediate secession, a slim margin which the propaganda-conscious Brown later inflated to 58%. On January 19th the Georgia Convention sanctioned secession in a 166-130 vote, and the imminent Confederacy had its Southern hinge. Secession Debated is a colorful and gripping tale told in the words of the actual participants, one which sheds new light on one of the great and hitherto neglected verbal showdowns in American history. It is essential to a full understanding of the origins of the war between the states.

About the authors

Contributor Notes

William W. Freehling is Singletary Professor of the Humanities at the University of Kentucky. He is the author of Prelude to Civil War, which won a Bancroft Prize in 1967, and The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, the first in a projected two-volume study, which won the Owsley Prize in 1991. Craig M. Simpson is Professor of History at the University of Western Ontario and the author of A Good Southerner: The Life of Henry A. Wise of Virginia.

Editorial Reviews

"A very useful source for Georgia and southern history. Ably edited by these two fine scholars."--Ken Noe, West Georgia College

"Bring[s] together, for the first time, the speeches given in late 1860 in Milledgeville, Georgia....Preceding each essay is a short but thorough description of the politician and his importance in the secession debate."--Library Journal

"Excellent little book by two first-rate scholars."--F.N. ganey, University of Georgia

"A welcome volume. Thanks to the inspired researches of two celebrated scholars, teachers and students of American History, Journalism, and Communication will have ready access to the stylized deferences, classical allusions, impassioned rhythms, and highly gendered arguments that distinguished mid-nineteenth-century American oratory. As these well-chosen selections from the Milledgeville debates attest, Southern slaveholders were smarting under a stigma of moral, economic, and demographic inferiority that most came to believe could be washed away in the blood and glory of manly, fratricidal combat. This sourcebook is ideally suited for classroom debates on the causes of the Civil War."--Bertram Wyatt-Brown, University of Florida

"An excellent book for collateral reading and class discussion. The debate in Georgia is especially illustrative of differences among Southern leaders on secession. The editors could not have chosen a better state. I would make the book required reading and use it for a class discussion on secession."--Patrick W. Riddleberger, Southern Illinois State University at Edwardsville

"A valuable collection of primary documents, but narrow in scope. Also--Georgia's response to secession wasn't typical of most Southern states."--T. Braun, University of Detroit, Mercy

"An invaluable aid for students of secession to examine the actual debate in the crucial state of Georgia."--Don Eloer, University of Redlands

"Honest history of the period is rare--and welcome!"--J.O. Bledsoe, Confederate Society of Georgia

"Freehling and Simpson do an excellent job chronicling the level of discussion and dissention relative to secession in the South in 1860."--Thomas M. Croak, DePaul University

"Outstanding primer on the 1860 Constitutional views of secession from the points of view of the Old South, seen through the lens of Georgia's outstanding statesmen."--Professor Paul Stephen Hudson, Ogelthorpe University