January 9, 2020, is the 160th anniversary of the secession of Mississippi
Named for war hero Andrew Jackson, Jackson, Mississippi, was founded in 1821 at the intersection of the Natchez Trace and the Pearl River. Jackson himself had come through the area twice, both times marching along the Trace while campaigning during the War of 1812. The city’s importance as a transportation hub only grew over time as the state’s railroad network converged there, turning Jackson into an ideal manufacturing center. The city’s relative geographic centrality made it an ideal location as the state capital.
As a result, a town named for a man who once declared “Our Union—It Must be Preserved” ironically became the site of Mississippi’s secession vote on January 9, 1861.
Mississippi became America’s twentieth state on December 10, 1817. By December of 1822, the new state capitol was ready, and the legislature convened there for the first time on the 23rd, just two days before Christmas.
By 1861, Mississippi had become the largest cotton-producing state in the country, and Jackson, at the intersection of the Southern Railroad of Mississippi and the New Orleans, Jackson, and Great Northern Railroad, became its hub. Cotton, said the state fathers, was “the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth.” The increasing demand for cotton produced an increasing demand for slave labor to harvest it. According to the 1860 census, of the state’s 791,305 people, 354,674 were free and 436,631 were enslaved—55 percent. Jackson, by that time, had grown to a population of just under 3,200 people.
There, on January 7, 1861, following the news of Lincoln’s election as president in November and the secession of South Carolina in December, the Mississippi state legislature met to debate the state’s future. On January 9, legislators ignored the call of the city’s namesake and decided that, no, “Our Union” didn’t need to be preserved after all.
They passed an Ordinance of Secession by a vote of 83-15, but the legalistic document, written by former Congressman Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar (II), didn’t capture the full intent of the assembly. To explain their “momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part,” the convention issued “A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.”
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world,” the document began.
Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.
Worried that people would think they “overstate[d] the dangers to our institution,” the document went on to reference “a few facts.” What followed was essentially a bulleted list that outlined the ways the Federal government denied “the right of property in slaves.”
“The hostility to this institution commenced before the adoption of the Constitution,” the document said. Among the other grievances it outlined, the document said the Federal government “refuses the admission of new slave States into the Union, and seeks to extinguish it by confining it within its present limits, denying the power of expansion.”
The delegates felt they had no alternative but to secede. “Utter subjugation awaits us in the Union, if we should consent longer to remain in it,” they concluded. “We must either submit to degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union.”
The hero of New Orleans might have rolled over in his grave.
Jackson’s famous toast to the Union came at an 1830 party celebrating Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. As the author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had also authored the infamous Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions suggesting a state could overrule any Federal law it didn’t like. By 1830, a similar spirit ran through the government, spurred on by southern states, called Nullification. States could nullify the laws of the Federal government.
Jackson, a westerner and a slave-holder, thought Nullification to be balderdash. Many of its proponents, including his own vice-president, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, attended the dinner, and observers expected fireworks over the matter. When it came time for Jackson to offer the night’s toast, he raised his glass for the preservation of the Union.
Calhoun’s turn came next. His rebuttal, while clever, had none of the force of Jackson’s pithy toast: “The Union: next to our Liberty the most dear: may we all remember that it can only be preserved by respecting the rights of the States, and distributing equally the benefit and burden of the Union!”
As a Civil War-era storyteller, Frazer Kirlan, would later explain it, “In that toast was presented the issue—liberty before Union—supreme State sovereignty—false complaints of inequality of benefits and burdens—our rights as we choose to define them, or disunion.”
And so read the “Declaration of Immediate Causes” drafted in Jackson and approved on December 9: “our rights” as Mississippi chose to define them, secured only through “disunion.”
The date of that 1830 birthday party, by the way? April 13. Thirty-one years later on that same date, Fort Sumter would surrender to South Carolinian forces in Charleston harbor, marking the start of the Civil War.
(For more on Mississippi’s secession, read Timothy B. Smith’s The Mississippi Secession Convention from the University of Mississippi Press.)