slavery and southern unity -- 11/16/20

Today's selection -- from Langdon Cheves of South Carolina by Archie Vernon Huff, Jr. The American Civil War did not start until 1861, but Southern states understood as early as the 1830s that the greatest threat they faced was abolition, not tariffs. As a result, they began banding together on voluntary conventions of Southern states to coordinate their efforts on this issue, including the strength and protection afforded by Southern regional trade. The first was held in 1835 and others soon followed:

"'Do not deceive yourselves,' [prominent South Carolinian Langdon Cheves] warned, 'that the only struggle before you, or the greatest, is that of the Tariff. That of Abolition is at hand ... and of ten times the importance and danger.' Upon the institution of slavery, he reminded them, 'depends, not our prosperity alone, but every blessing under heaven, which we enjoy. Every thing Southern must necessarily perish with it.' With slavery gone, 'the beautiful prolific South will exhibit nothing but ... blackened ruins, with a remnant of the African race wandering amidst them in all the misery of desola­tion and hopelessness.' The only effective resistance against abolition -- as against the tariff -- was the united protest of all the Southern states.

"The expedient which Cheves had advocated for fifteen years was increasingly discussed as a means of Southern resistance. In 1835 an essay entitled 'The Crisis' appeared in the Mercury, ad­vocating a convention of the Southern states. That same year the first of a series of commercial conventions was held in Knoxville to promote Southern trade. Cheves was a delegate to the second of these meetings, which convened in Augusta in 1837. The commercial conventions did not include formal discussion of political issues, but they increased a sense of Southern unity. When the Wilmot Proviso -- which prohibited slavery in any terri­tory gained by the United States from Mexico -- was introduced in Congress in 1846, the fury of Southern advocates of states' rights was aroused. They denounced the proposal and called for resis­tance. Editors and newspaper correspondents called for a South­ern convention to discuss possible courses of action if the proviso should be adopted. In January 1849, after a House committee had begun to frame legislation excluding slavery from New Mexico and California and prohibiting the slave trade in the Dis­trict of Columbia, forty-eight Southern congressmen signed an address drafted by Calhoun, which urged their constituents to unite in opposing such abolitionist measures. Local meetings across the South urged concerted action. At Calhoun's suggestion, a statewide convention in Mississippi in October 1849, issued the call for a Southern convention to meet in Nashville, Tennessee on the first Monday in June 1850.

"In South Carolina, Governor Whitemarsh B. Seabrook hailed 'with satisfaction the proposition of Mississippi for a Convention,' but he did not hesitate to advance separate action as an alternative measure. He 'suggest[ed] the expediency of empowering, by statute, the Governor either to convoke the Legislature, if not in session, to issue writs of election for a Convention of the people, should the Wilmot Proviso, or any kindred measure ... receive the formal enactment of Congress.' On December 10, 1849, a caucus of the South Carolina legislature endorsed the Nashville meeting and recommended that citizens gather in parishes and districts in April 1850 to elect delegates. Three days later the caucus selected four men to represent the state at large. On the first ballot Langdon Cheves was elected, along with Franklin H. Elmore. Robert H. Barnwell and James H. Hammond were named on the second ballot. 'It is said on all sides,' the Mercury reported, 'that a better choice cannot have been made. Messrs. Elmore and Hammond are among the strong men identified with the stirring scenes of present politics.' The 'Venerable Judge Cheves, and the scarcely less revered ... Robert H. Barnwell are 'accounted men of great talents, of the highest tone, of an integ­rity and disinterestedness of which the public has four examples.' Even at seventy-six, Cheves did not refuse this opportunity to further the cause he had so long espoused. 'I shall attend the Nashville Convention,' he wrote his daughter Sophia, 'which I'm afraid shall be the last public act of my life.'

"The Southern convention assembled in Nashville on June 3, 1850. Nine states were represented by 177 delegates, including 100 from Tennessee. Of the original South Carolina delegation of eighteen, only Franklin H. Elmore -- who had been appointed to the Senate after Calhoun's death in March -- was absent. The del­egates from the Palmetto State were seated with those from Mis­sissippi in a place of honor on the front pews of McKendree Methodist Episcopal Church, South, where the convention met. But the South Carolina delegation was 'studious in yielding pre­cedence' to others and thereby succeeded in dispelling the suspi­cion of many of the delegates that its members were hotheaded 'disunionists.' According to an observer, even 'Judge Cheves' anxious to see Southern unity a reality -- 'was silent mostly.' While the convention was deliberating in Nashville, Congress was debat­ing a series of compromise proposals introduced by Henry Clay. A number of delegates in Nashville were anxious to avoid pre­cipitous action by which the convention might endanger the pro­posed compromise between North and South. Cheves, however, was convinced that 'the Convention would fail in its objects if it sustained Mr. Clay's Compromise Bill.' In the end, the conven­tion adopted a series of resolutions, demanding that the Missouri Compromise line be extended to the Pacific. An address to the South declared that the position of the Southern states in the Union was growing worse and condemned the proposed Com­promise of 1850. The delegates agreed to meet again after Con­gress adjourned to consider the results of its action on Clay's compromise. James H. Hammond reported to William Gilmore Simms that the convention did not amount to much: 'The great point is that the South has met, and acted with great harmony in a nine days' convention, and above all has agreed to meet again.'"


Archie Vernon Huff, Jr.


Langdon Cheves of South Carolina


University of South Carolina Press


Coyright 1977 by the University of South Carolina


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