Upper south secession was a bit more complicated than the lower south’s secession. In reading about Arkansas, I think an essential book is James M. Woods’ Rebellion and Realignment: Arkansas’s Road to Secession, published in 1987 by the University of Arkansas Press. Woods discusses the internal political divisions in the state and follows the state from its territorial days to its secession in 1861. Some other sources include Mark K. Christ’s The Die is Cast: Arkansas Goes to War, 1861, Michael B. Dougan’s Confederate Arkansas: The People and Policies of a Frontier State in Wartime, and an article by Ralph Wooster, “The Arkansas Secession Convention,” in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Vol 13, Number 2, Summer 1954. As with our other considerations of why individual states seceded, I think it’s important to primarily view the issue from the words of the men involved. For that reason, the Journal of Both Sessions of the Convention of the State of Arkansas, Which was Begun and Held in the Capitol, in the City of Little Rock, is important.
As that title tells us, the Arkansas Secession Convention actually had two sessions. The first convened on March 4, 1861, the day Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated President of the United States. It adjourned on March 21, having decided to submit the question of secession to the voters in August. The firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops to put down the rebellion changed things, though. The convention’s president, David Walker, called the convention back into session, and it met again on May 6, eschewing the popular vote to decide the question and voting for secession on that same day. From that point the convention shifted to the goal of putting Arkansas on a war footing and settling some old political scores, particularly against Governor Henry M. Rector. The convention passed a new state constitution and it ended its session on June 3, 1861.
On March 7, James L. Totten of Arkansas County [not to be confused with the James Totten who had commanded the US arsenal in Little Rock which was taken over by secessionist forces in February], a secessionist delegate, introduced four resolutions. The first stated, “Resolved, That the inaugural of Mr. Lincoln, President of the United States, is, and should be, regarded as a menace involving the inhuman doctrine of coercion, against which Arkansas should pledge herself to resistance, by all she holds sacred on earth, as long as she has a dollar to spend or a son to defend her.” [Journal of Both Sessions, pp. 27-28] “Coercion” is a term we see many times in the upper south deliberations on secession. It’s important to understand what they mean by that term, and that’s something we’ll get to in due course as we make our way through the journal.
The second resolution read, “Resolved, That the assembling of an army at Washington, under the plea that there would be an attempt on the capital, was but a miserable pretext, poorly disguised–the true object being, first, to intimidate us into submission; and if that failed, then to carry out the policy indicated in his inaugural address, which is both humiliating to southern honor and destructive to southern interest.” [Ibid., p. 28] Remember, this is referring to Lincoln’s March 4 Inauguration, in which soldiers were sent to the capital to provide security. Totten is attempting to redefine what had happened for his own ends.
The third resolution said, “Resolved, That the vast preparations for war, manifested in assembling the navy from foreign stations–the building of new ships of war–the passage of the laws by Congress authorizing the raising of large bodies of troops, and the collection of military stores–the appropriation of large sums of money from the federal treasury–the declared purpose of the President in his inaugural, to recapture the forts, arsenals and public buildings in the seven States that have seceded from the Federal Union, are an unquestionable declaration of war against those States, and afford unmistakable evidence that it is the intention of the administration of the federal government to precipitate the people of those states into all the horrors incident to a civil war, and that the declared intention of the President also contained in his late inaugural, to collect the revenues and duties in those states, is a further manifestation of said purpose.” [Ibid.] Notice how he takes a typical government action to protect itself and turns it into an accusation of aggression on the part of the government.
The fourth resolution read, “Resolved, That in so trying an emergency there is but one path left for Arkansas to tread with honor, and that is found in the instant dissolution of those ties that bind her to her oppressor,a nd the assertion of her rights, by all the means which God has given her–making a common cause with those who are ready to live or die with her.” [Ibid.] This is the payoff for the other three resolutions, the goal Totten and his secessionist allies were after. Totten’s four resolutions were referred to the Committee on Federal Relations. That afternoon, William M. Fishback of Sebastian County, introduced another resolution which read, “Resolved, That any attempt on the part of the federal government, to coerce a seceding state, by armed force, will be resisted by Arkansas to the last extremity.” [Ibid., p. 30] This resolution was also referred to the Committee on Federal Relations.
The next day, March 8, delegate George W. Laughinghouse [I promise I’m not making these names up] of St. Francis County introduced this resolution: “Resolved, That in the opinion of this convention, any attempt on the part of the federal government to retake the forts, arsenals or public property, to collect the revenue, or to enforce the laws in any of the states which have seceded or withdrawn from the Federal Union, will amount to coercion on the part of the federal government, and will justify or warrant resistance by those states, and will meet with the unqualified disapprobation of this convention and the people of this state; justifying us fully in our own consciences, and as we believe, will be in the estimation of the civilized world in severing the ligaments which unite us to a government so unjust and unmindful of its obligations to those governed, and so disposed to usurp and assume the exercise of powers not delegated by the constitution under which it arrogates to act.” [Ibid., p. 33] This is how they will define coercion: the government enforcing the laws and retaking that which belonged to it from thieves who had stolen it. This resolution also was referred to the Committee on Federal Relations.
On March 9, George P. Smoote of Columbia County introduced these resolutions:
“1st. Resolved, That the platform of the party known as the black republican party, contains unconstitutional dogmas, dangerous in their tendency and highly derogatory to the rights of slave states, and among them the insulting, injurious and untruthful enunciation of the right of the African race in this country to social and political equality with the whites.
“2nd. Resolved, That it is the sense of this convention, from the past history of the party, known as the black republican party–from the past action of its leaders, and their course in the present crisis, and from the acts, utterances and conduct of its newly elected president, that said party intends to abide by and carry out, if possible, its insulting and unconstitutional platform.
“3rd. Resolved. That the seceded states have ample justification for having dissolved the ties which bound them to the old Federal Union, in the constant and unconstitutional political warfare made by the party, known as the black republican party, upon the institutions of the slave states, which warfare has culminated in the election of a president by that party, by a purely sectional vote–upon an unconstitutional platform, the principles of which, if carried out, would utterly ruin the South.
“4th. Resolved, That this convention cannot shut its eyes upon the fact that the government of the United States is now under the control of said black republican party, and that said party has power to use every arm of the same, except, perhaps, the judicial.
“5th. Resolved. That in the opinion of this convention it is a conclusion clearly resulting from the foregoing that every feeling of honor, interest and sympathy demand that the State of Arkansas should discontinue her present political relations with the United States of America, and unite herself with the Confederate States of America.” [Ibid., pp. 38-39] These were also referred to the Committee on Federal Relations.
That same day, Jilson Johnson of Desha County introduced this resolution: “Resolved, That any attempt to reinforce any of the forts now held by the government of Lincoln, in the southern states, will be considered as coercion, and will be resisted by all the power of the state government of Arkansas.” [Ibid. p. 40] This was also referred to the Committee on Federal Relations. As we can see here, they now wish to define as “coercion” any movement of troops or supplies into any fort belonging to the United States anywhere in any state of the United States that is in the south.
In a message to the convention dated March 2, 1861, Governor Henry M. Rector wrote, “Unfortunate it may prove in the future for the cause of civil liberty, that the American government, made up of confederated states–peopled from a common ancestry, and deriving the inestimable blessing of republican liberty from a common fountain, have from antagonistic, domestic and social institutions become alienated–distrustful and inimical to each other–until the ligaments of the Union, once like hooks of steel, have been severed so insensibly as almost to defy realization. … The question at issue before the people of Arkansas is, whether their honor, their future safety and happiness now and forever, impels them to separate from the Federal Union, and unite their fortunes with the seven seceding states, or, on the other hand, whether prudential motives shall admonish them to take refuge amidst the fragments of the old Union, hoping for a reconstruction of the government upon terms of honorable equality to the slaveholding states.” [Ibid., pp. 42-43] In reference to the deep south, Governor Rector wrote, “Have they in the light of heaven been sinned against, or are they sinning against others? Their offence, like our own, in the eyes of the northern people, is slavery [emphasis in original]. This institution, co-existent with the remotest periods of civilization, and sanctioned by divine authority, is declared by the president elect to ‘be in the course of ultimate extinction.’ He has declared, and that truly, that the United States government ‘cannot exist half slave and half free‘ [emphasis in original]. An irrepressible conflict, says he, is going on between freedom and slavery. That institution is now upon its trial before you, and if we mean to defend and transmit it to our children, let us terminate this northern crusade, by forming a separate government, in which no conflict can ensue. But if, upon the other hand, we are prepared to admit the argument, that slavery is a sin–that the melioration of the white and the black races requires us to abolish it, we shall keep in the true line of policy marked out by the incoming President, by remaining in the Union.” [Ibid., pp. 43-44]
Rector continued, “Great solace is indulged in by some, that it is the avowed purpose of black republican domination to permit slavery to remain unmolested in the states where it now exists; whilst it is distinctly announced upon the other hand, that the institution shall be denied all power of expansion over territory now possessed or hereafter acquired. … The area of slavery must be extended correlative with its antagonism [emphasis in original], or it will be put speedily in the ‘course of ultimate extinction.’ ” [Ibid., p. 44] Agreeing with Lincoln, Rector said, “The extension of slavery is the vital point [emphasis in original] of the whole controversy between the North and the South. [Ibid.]
According to Rector, “Fifteen southern states have failed in the past to protect slavery–how then can the remaining eight accomplish that object by remaining in the Union? Secondly, the doctrine of coercion announced by Mr. Lincoln, and indorsed recently by the lower house of Congress on the Branch amendment, by a vote of 136 to 53, leaves the whole question of secession or no secession a barren field for argument. The doctrine of coercion now stands at the summit of the controversy. Practically with Arkansas the question is, whether she is willing to contribute men and money to subjugate her southern sisters to the condition of conquered colonies. If she withdraws, she is lawfully relieved at once from the performance of this onerous duty. If she stays in, she must perform it or rebel against proper authority, and this when pressed to such a necessity, I believe her people will do.” [pp. 45-46]
Rector then addresses compromise proposals: “Amendments to the federal constitution are urged by some as a panacea for all the ills that beset us. That instrument is amply sufficient as it now stands, for the protection of southern rights, if it was only enforced. The South wants practical evidence of good faith from the North, not mere paper agreements and compromises. They believe slavery a sin, we don not, and there lies the trouble.” [Ibid., p. 46]
He does talk about taxation, but not as a reason for secession. Rather, he talks about it as reason to not worry about the economic survival of the slave states on their own apart from the US. “The burthen of taxation necessarily imposed upon the people of the new government, it is said, must be onerous and oppressive. The expenses incident to a government are proportionate to its magnitude. The government of the United States, when first organized, was maintained for years at a cost of less than seven millions of dollars annually. The indirect annual tax paid by the slaveholding states, upon foreign importations, exceed an amount sufficient to maintain and operate a southern confederacy.” [Ibid.]
On March 9, Samuel Robinson of Lawrence County introduced a resolution that said: [begin quote]Resolved, That it is the deliberate sense of this convention that African negroes, and the descendants of the African race, denominated slaves by all the constitutions of the southern slaveholding states, is property, to all intents and purposes, and ought of right to be so considered by all the northern states, being expressly implied by the constitution of the United States, and a denial on the part of the people of the northern states, of the right of property in slaves of the southern states, is, and of right ought to be, sufficient cause, if persisted in by northern people, to dissolve the political connection between said states. [end quote][Ibid., p. 51] Like the other resolutions, this was also referred to the Committee on Federal Relations. Marcus Hawkins of Ashley County then introduced this resolution: [begin quote]Resolved, That it is the sense of this convention, that it is the duty of the governor of the State of Arkansas to resist, by force of arms, any attempt on the part of the federal government, to levy men or money, within the limits of, or against said state, for the purpose of coercing back into the said Federal Union, any one, or all of the seceded states, for the purpose of holding or retaking arsenals or forts in any of said states, or for the purpose of enforcing the collection of duties and imposts therefrom. [end quote] [Ibid.] Again, this was also referred to the Committee on Federal Relations.
Next, Hugh F. Thomason of Crawford County presented these resolutions: [begin quote]
We, the people of the State of Arkansas, in convention assembled, in view of the unfortunate and distracted condition of our once happy and prosperous country, and of the alarming*dissentions existing between the northern and southern sections thereof ; and desiring that a fair and equitable adjustment of the same may be made; do hereby declare the following to be just causes of complaint on the part of the people of the southern states, against their brethren of the northern, or non-slaveholding states:
1. People of the northern states have organized a political party, purely sectional in its character, the central and controlling idea of which is, hostility to the institution of African slavery, as it exists in the southern states, and that party has elected a President and Vice President of the United States, pledged to administer the government upon principles inconsistent with the rights, and subversive of the interests of the people of the southern states.
2. They have denied to the people of the southern states the right to an equal participation in the benefits of the common territories of the Union, by refusing them the same protection to their slave property therein that is afforded to other property, and by declaring that no more slave states shall be admitted into the Union.
3. They have declared that Congress possesses, under the constitution, and ought to exercise, the power to abolish slavery in the territories, in the District of Columbia, and in the forts, arsenals and dock yards of the United States, within the limits of the slaveholding states.
4. They have, in disregard of their constitutional obligations, obstructed the faithful execution ol’ the fugitive slave laws by enactments of their state legislatures.
5. They have denied the citizens of southern states the right of transit through non-slaveholding states with their slaves, and the right to hold them while temporarily sojourning therein.
6. They have degraded American citizens by placing them upon an equality with negroes at the ballot-box.
To redress the grievances hereinbefore complained of, and as a means of restoring harmony and fraternal good will between the people of all the states, the following amendments to the constitution of the United States are proposed:
1. The President and Vice President of the United States shall each be chosen alternately from a slaveholding and no slaveholding state—but, in no case, shall both be chosen from slaveholding or non-slaveholding states,
2. In all the territory of the United States now held, or which may hereafter be acquired, situate north of latitude 36 deg. 30 min., slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime is prohibited while such territory shall remain under territorial government. In all the territory now held, or which may hereafter be acquired, south of said line of latitude, slavery of the African race is hereby recognized as existing, and shall not be interfered with by Congress, but shall be protected as property by all the departments of the territorial government, during its continuance. And when any territory, .north or south of said line, within such boundaries as Congress may prescribe, shall contain the population requisite for a member of Congress, according to the then federal ratio of representation of the people of the United States, it shall, if its form of government be republican, be admitted into the Union on an equal footing with the original states, with or without slavery, as the constitution of such new state may provide.
3. Congress shall have no power to legislate upon the subject of slavery, except to protect the citizen in his right of property in slaves.
4. That in addition to the provisions of third paragraph of the second section of the fourth article of the constitution of the United States, Congress shall have power to provide, by law, and it shall be its duty so to provide, that the United States shall pay to the owner, who shall apply for it, the full value of his fugitive slave, in all cases, when the marshal, or other officer, whose duty it was to arrest said fugitive, was prevented from so doing by violence; or when, after arrest, said fugitive was rescued by force, and the owner thereby prevented and obstructed in the pursuit of his remedy for the recovery of his fugitive slave under the said clause of the constitution and the laws made in pursuance thereof. And in all such cases, when the United States shall pay for such fugitive, they shall have the right, in their own name, to sue the county in which said violence, intimidation or rescue was committed, and to recover from it, with interest and damages, the amount paid by them for said fugitive slave. And the said county, after it has paid said amount to the United States, may, for its indemnity, sue and recover from the wrongdoers or rescuers, by whom the owner was prevented from the recovery of his fugitive slave, in like manner as the owner himself might have sued and recovered.
5. The third paragraph, of the second section of the fourth article of the constitution, shall not be construed to prevent any of the states from having concurrent jurisdiction with the United States, by appropriate legislation, and through the action of their judicial and ministerial officers, from enforcing the delivery of fugitives from labor to the person to whom such service or labor is due.
6. Citizens of slaveholding states when traveling through, or temporarily sojourning with their slaves in non-slaveholding states, shall be protected in their right of property in such slaves.
7. The elective franchise, and the right to hold office, whether federal, state, territorial or municipal, shall not be exercised by persons of the African race, in whole or in part.
8. These amendments, and the third paragraph of the second section of the first article of the constitution, and the third paragraph of the second section of the fourth article thereof, shall not be amended or abolished, without the consent of all the states.
That the sense of the people of the United States may be taken upon the amendments above proposed:
1. Resolved by the people of Arkansas in Convention assembled, That we recommend the calling of a convention of the states of the Federal Union, at the earliest practicable day, in accordance with the provisions of the fifth article of the constitution of the United States.
2. Resolved further, That a committee of three delegates of this convention be appointed, whose duty it shall be to lay before the President and Congress of the United States, and before the governors and legislatures of the several states, a copy of these proceedings.
3. Resolved further, That looking to the call of a national convention, as recommended in the first resolution above, this convention elect five delegates to represent the State of Arkansas in such convention.
4. Resolved further, That a committee of five delegates of this convention be appointed to prepare an address to the people of the United States, urging upon them the importance of a united effort on the part of the patriotic citizens of all section and parties to save the country from the dangers which impend it, and which threaten its destruction—and especially to arrest the reckless and fanatical spirit of sectionalism north and south, which, if not arrested, will inevitably involve us in a bloody civil war.[end quote] [Ibid., pp. 51-54] These resolutions were accepted by the convention and 200 copies were ordered to be printed “for the use of the convention.”
As we can see, at the convention, the overwhelming issue driving the secessionists was the issue of slavery and its protection.
The secessionists didn’t prevail at this session, though. Conditional Unionists prevailed. Rufus Garland of Hempstead County, one of the Conditional Unionists, introduced this resolution on March 13: “Resolved, As the sense of this convention, that the people of Arkansas prefer a perpetuity of this Federal Union to is dismemberment or disruption–provided it can be perpetuated upon a basis recognizing and guaranteeing equal rights and privileges to every state in the Union, south as well as north.” [Ibid., p. 63] Notice the proviso. As long as slavery was protected, they want to stay in the Union. The primacy of the slavery issue isn’t surprising if we consider the makeup of the convention. “The Arkansas secessionist delegates held more slaves than did their opponents. Indeed, the average secessionist holding of 18.0 slaves was nearly three times the average of the anti-secessionist holding of 6.2 slaves. The median holding of the secessionist delegates was ten slaves, while the median for the anti-secessionists was zero. Twenty anti-secessionists were not even slaveholders, and only three of them held 20 slaves or more. One of the three, Thomas H. Bradley of Crittenden, was the largest slaveholder in the convention. The secessionists, on the other hand, included fourteen persons who held 20 or more slaves in 1860, and only nine who were non-slaveholders. These figures seem to indicate a decided relationship between slaveholding and secession in the Arkansas convention.” [Ralph Wooster, “The Arkansas Secession Convention,” The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 2, Summer, 1954, p. 187] The incidence of slaveholding isn’t the only significant factor. “Another striking fact about the counties represented by secessionists is that the ratio of slaves in the total population was higher than in the anti-secessionist counties. Only six Arkansas counties (Union, Lafayette, Chicot, Desha, Arkansas, and Phillips) had more slave than free inhabitants in 1860; all six were represented by secessionists at the Little Rock gathering. Of the sixteen counties more than 25 per cent but less than 50 per cent slave, eleven were secessionist counties before the firing on Fort Sumter. On the other hand, nineteen of the twenty-five counties less than 12½ per cent slave, and twenty-two of the thirty-three counties less than 25 per cent slave were represented by anti-secessionists in the convention.” [Ibid., p. 188]
Concerns about the protection of slavery were at the root of the secession movement in Arkansas. No other issue had the power to drive disunion. However, at first those concerns weren’t enough to drive Arkansas out of the Union. But the question of disunion did cause “a fundamental realignment of Arkansas politics during the winter of 1860-61.” [James M. Woods, Rebellion and Realignment: Arkansas’s Road to Secession, p. 113] Woods explains, “Older political alignments of Democrat and Whig receded before a geophysical division between uplands and lowlands. The two regions had always had their differences. The hills had settled first with immigrants arriving from farther north, and after the great immigration from the slaveholding South to the delta and plains the hills remained a region of yeoman farmers–slaveless farmers. the lowlands became the final frontier for the slaveholding cotton kingdom, finding wealth and prosperity based on cotton production and slave labor. But, however great, the differences had little real effect on the permanent political arrangements prior to the Civil War. The antebellum structure arose from territorial factionalism and evolved into Arkansas’s two political parties–the Democrats and the Whigs. Once the issue of secession was injected into state politics after Lincoln’s election, however, the older party structures evaporated before a resurging division between hills and flatlands. By the end of the winter of 1860-61, this division based on a geophysical split seemed to be tearing the state apart.” [Ibid., pp. 113-114] The Whigs in Arkansas had supported Bell in the 1860 election, and they urged calm in the face of Lincoln’s victory. They counseled waiting until some overt act was made. But while they were willing to wait, they also wanted the slavery issue to be dealt with. The Arkansas State Gazette of Little Rock editorialized, “Redress will be asked for our grievances, and if not granted, fully and entirely, a formal separation will take place. This is inevitable.” [Quoted in Donald E. Reynolds, Editors Make War: Southern Newspapers in the Secession Crisis, p. 183]
James Woods tells us, “By the spring of 1861, most white Arkansans were probably conditional Unionists.” [James M. Woods, Rebellion and Realignment: Arkansas’s Road to Secession, p. 151] Without an overt threat to the safety of slavery in the state, Unionists prevailed in the first session of the Secession Convention. “As much as Unionists wanted reconciliation and peaceful reconstruction of the Old Union, they agreed with their opponents in believing that slavery had to be protected.” [Ibid.] Woods quotes Thomas Hindman’s newspaper in Little Rock, The Old Line Democrat, opined, “We cannot separate from the Cotton growing States. You might as well expect a limb severed from a human body to live. Sink or swim, persevere or perish, our destiny and theirs must be one.” [Quoted in Ibid.] As Woods tells us, “Secessionists believed with Governor Rector that it was ‘the Union without slavery, or slavery without the Union.’ Unionists, as yet unwilling to accept this bleak alternative, still clung to the hope that slavery could be made secure within the Union. In the event of a final break or whenever it appeared that slavery could not be protected, Unionists would not abandon slavery for the sake of the Union. For secessionists and most Unionists slavery had become too important during the 1850s to be disregarded simply to maintain a Union that was no longer convenient and perhaps even hostile to the interests and needs of Arkansas.” [Ibid.] Then came Fort Sumter. With confederates opening fire on Fort Sumter, the rebellion turned into a war, and Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the armed rebellion. This ended all hope of peaceful reconciliation and met the conditions laid down in the convention for calling Lincoln’s actions “coercion.”
Public opinion in Arkansas changed dramatically. Newspapers that had previously been anti-secession published editorials supporting immediate secession. The President of the Secession Convention, David Walker, called the convention back into session on May 6. The very day the convention met, they passed and published an ordinance of secession.
Protection of slavery drove secession in Arkansas. Conditional Unionists held out against secession as long as they believed a reconciliation that protected slavery was possible. Once that dream evaporated, the Unionist support evaporated with it.