The major obstacle that stood in the way of the Fire-Eaters‘ (early Southern nationalists and secessionists) efforts to secure an independent Southern confederacy in the early 1830s through the late 1850s was the conservative nature of the South and especially the ruling class. It is simple to understand the inspiration for such conservatism. The South was a classical, agrarian society based on a racial and social hierarchy which fostered a conservative mindset; and it was one of the wealthiest societies in the world. Though conditions in the Union (especially in the Federal Congress) were moving against Southerners, there were still vast fortunes to be made and the Southern States did exercise a great deal of power within the system. Southern secessionists attempted to achieve independence when major sectional disputes arose over the tariff, Federal threats to militarily prevent nullification and western expansion. These and other issues gradually moved most Southerners away from their natural conservative and unionist position; however, none was sufficient to forge a secessionist majority outside of isolated bastions of Fire-Eater strength such as the South Carolina Lowcountry.
Ultimately, it required the election of Abraham Lincoln, a man seen in the South as a Northern radical and a tool of ‘money power’ (industrialists and bankers) and abolitionists. Lincoln was the candidate of a new party – the Republicans – who were strictly sectional (unlike the Whigs which came before them) and overtly hostile to slavery, free trade and Southern expansion. Essentially, the Republicans were hostile to the basis of the economy and social order of the South and any effort by Southerners to regain parity in the US Senate (by expanding into the West or going further South into Mexico or the Caribbean). It came down to the fact that Southern conservatives were convinced that Lincoln represented a threat to their survival. Lacking the vision of Fire-Eaters, conservatives were motivated primarily by the fear that slavery would be abolished and that this would lead to the destruction of the South and the White race there. In the speeches of the secession commissioners (representatives of the seceded States which were sent to the other Southern States to try to convince them to also secede) this is the subject that is returned to again and again. It was clearly the argument which persuaded the more conservative, unionist elements in the South that independence was necessary. Southerners believed that the Republican-controlled North would either foster a slave revolt which would result in an orgy of slaughter and destruction (as in Haiti – a once wealthy French plantation colony which was destroyed in a slave revolt) or that slavery would be abolished and political and social equality would lead to an amalgamation of the races (as had happened in other areas of Latin America and the Caribbean).
James Lawrence Orr was an example of the sort of conservative unionist who had to be won over to the secessionist cause. Orr was ultimately convinced of the necessity of secession in 1860 and selected by South Carolina as a secession commissioner to Georgia in January of 1861. It was a common strategy for seceded States to choose as commissioners either former unionists or someone with strong ties (in many cases a native son) to the States to which they were sent. Author and history professor Charles B Dew writes about Orr’s successful efforts to sell secession to Georgia conservatives on pages 46 and 47 of his book Apostles of Disunion:
Orr, a veteran South Carolina Democratic congressman and former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, had a well-deserved reputation for political moderation. A longtime foe of Robert Barnwell Rhett, Leonidas W. Spratt, and other radical elements of his native state, Orr had strenuously opposed the move to reopen the slave trade and had not joined the secessionist ranks until almost the eleventh hour. Only in the spring of 1860 with the breakup of the national Democratic Party did Orr come to accept the inevitability of disunion. A key element in his conversion was his fear of the fate of the white race under Republican rule.
On November 23, 1860, less than three weeks after Lincoln’s election, Orr had outlined his views to a mass meeting in Pendleton, South Carolina . The abolition of slavery would produce ruinous competition between the races, he said, a struggle that would force the white man to enter the poorhouse or flee the country. Emancipation also threatened white South Carolinians with the specter of racial equality – a subject Orr was loath even to mention. He vowed that he “never would submit to such equality, equality at the ballot box and jury box, and at the witness stand.” With this sort of threat looming over their heads, the white people of his state had no choice but to seek safety outside the Union.
Orr’s comments to the Georgia [secession convention] delegates came on January 17, 1861, the second day of the convention. After issuing the usual disclaimer about South Carolina’s supposedly “too precipitate action,” he launched into a vitriolic attack on “the Black-Republican party” and everything it stood for. The South “had suffered indignities and insults until they were no longer tolerable,” Orr proclaimed. The North was firmly in the grip “of a blind and relentless fanaticism,” and a Lincoln administration would lead inevitably to “southern degradation and dishonor.” Orr, who described himself as a “conservative and Union-loving man,” saw no way out short of secession. The idea of a Montgomery meeting on February 4 was gaining momentum, and Orr urged the Georgians to take part. According to press reports, the “immense crowd” in attendance greeted Orr’s speech “with a wildness and an enthusiasm that told well, for the effect being produced by this gifted and honored son of Carolina.”
Disunionist forces were in firm control of the Georgia Convention, and Orr did not have to wait long to see the results of this strength. Georgia seceded on January 19, two days after his speech, and agreed to send delegates to Montgomery.