Election rhetoric has consequences

Published 12:25 am Wednesday, November 14, 2018

In the presidential election of November 1860 — the most important in American history — the stakes could not have been higher. Would Abraham Lincoln — an advocate of stopping slavery’s expansion as a means to its eventual end — be elected? If yes, would the slaveholding states secede from the Union to preserve slavery? If yes, would there be war? If yes, who would win and at what cost? In sum, would the United States of America continue to exist?

As we all know, Lincoln was elected, and most of the Southern slaveholding elite did demand secession. But, as a minority of the South’s white population, they faced a problem. To win a vote on secession in defense of slavery, they needed the support of the non-slaveholding white majority whose economic and political interests were actually harmed by the institution. How to square this circle?

Winning elections is essentially arithmetic. Adding to one’s own vote total, but also, subtracting from that of the opposition.

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Accordingly, the secessionists set out to do both. Over the days and months of debate after Lincoln’s election, both peer pressure and vigilantism were employed to intimidate white men who might be inclined to vote against disunion.

In this climate of terror, many of the already demoralized anti-secessionists surrendered to fate. In Mississippi, for example, only a few weeks after the presidential election in which there had been an 80 percent turnout, less than 50 percent of the same electorate bothered to cast ballots for delegates to the secession convention in which the very fate of the nation would be determined. Too, pro-secession fraud was rampant — not in the form of unqualified voters casting ballots, but in the miscounting of ballots by corrupt election officials. 

And then, there was also the secessionists’ effort to rile their base. The slaveholding elite had long used racism to con non-slaveholders into support of racial slavery. Now, they did so in arguing for secession. As one of countless instances, Mississippi Sen. Albert Gallatin Brown warned in 1860 that with abolition, “millions of Negroes [will be] set at liberty to maraud, and plunder, and steal,” ending in “a war of the races.” The wealthy slaveholders, he assured his audience, had the resources to leave the South; the poor, though, would be left behind to face the anarchic violence alone. Therefore, he said, they had more reason to support slavery — and secession — than did the slaveholders themselves. Not all, but many were persuaded.

Maybe secession would have succeeded in a completely fair and honestly debated contest, but voter suppression and fear-mongering perverted the process. Regardless, secession succeeded. A slave-masters’ Republic was formed. In the ensuing, and disastrous, slave-masters’ war, the non-slaveholders would do most of the fighting, and most of the dying.

Notably, when abolition did come in 1865, freedmen and women wandered the South looking for children stolen from them in slavery, but they did not form caravans to “maraud, plunder and steal.” Of course, that dire warning hadn’t been based on actual evidence. Such racial fear-mongering never is. And still, it had worked. And works. Then and now, here and elsewhere.

Because, “Whether it’s a democracy or a fascist dictatorship, or a communist dictatorship … the people can always be brought to the bidding of their leaders. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to danger.” This is how you lure lemmings to their own destruction. So said Herman Goering, chief henchman of Adolf Hitler.

JIM WIGGINS is a retired Copiah-Lincoln Community College history instructor.