In the late 1820s some Southern leaders began pushing for independence from the United States. These efforts continued and gained more popularity over the course of the following three decades. Many different sectional disputes arose during this time over issues such as the tariff, western expansion, slavery, war, etc. As time went on, the relative strength of the South was weakened as the North filled up with European immigrants and more Northern-aligned States were admitted to the Union. Especially in the US House of Representatives and to a lesser degree in the US Senate and Electoral College, Southerners found themselves at a political disadvantage. Despite ‘firm, uncompromising, and unflinching resistance,’ as advised by South Carolina statesman and early secessionist Robert Barnwell Rhett, the trend was clearly towards a politically weaker South. Some Southerners could plainly see a day in the not too distant future when their concerns would be ignored and the political whims of Northerners on everything from the tariff to slavery would be pushed through the US Congress.
Stephen Fowler Hale (1816-1862) was one of the Southerners who understood that the South was locked in a losing struggle within the Union. He saw the trends and understood where they were leading. Hale, who was born and raised in Kentucky before he moved to Alabama as a young man, was chosen as a secession commissioner from Alabama to Kentucky. Prior to being chosen as a commissioner, Hale had been elected to the Alabama legislature, fought in the Mexican War, unsuccessfully ran for the US Congress and practiced law while operating a small plantation. He was what professor and author Charles B Dew on page 52 of his book Apostles of Disunion called a ‘strong Southern rights Whig’ and an advocate of secession. Hale would go on to sign the Confederate States Constitution and become a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate army. He died of wounds suffered while fighting for Southern independence at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill in 1862.
Part of Hale’s efforts as a secession commissioner included a letter to Kentucky Governor Beriah Magoffin, a Democrat and fellow States’ rights supporter who ultimately attempted to keep his State neutral in the coming war. Hale’s lengthy letter to Magoffin summarised the Southern position on the nature of the Union, the slavery debate, the North’s ‘unrelenting and fanatical war’ on the South, the Republican Party and the election of Abraham Lincoln. Hale was of of the opinion that disunion was inevitable given the different cultures, politics and sectional interests of the North and South. He also understood that the political trends in the Union were moving against the South and believed that the longer that Southerners waited to secede, the worse would be their relative position in any sort of struggle. In the excerpted part of his letter below, Hale makes these very arguments:
Why attempt longer to hold together hostile States under the stipulations of a violated Constitution? It is impossible. Disunion is inevitable. Why, then, wait longer for the consummation of a result that must come? Why waste further time in expostulations and appeals to Northern States and their citizens, only to be met, as we have been for years past, by renewed insults and repeated injuries? Will the South be better prepared to meet the emergency when the North shall be strengthened by the admission of the new Territories of Kansas, Nebraska, Washington, Jefferson, Nevada, Idaho, Chippewa, and Arizona as non-slave-holding States, as we are warned from high sources will be done within the next four years, under the administration of Mr. Lincoln? Can the true men at the North ever make a more powerful or successful rally for the preservation of our rights and the Constitution than they did in the last Presidential contest? There is nothing to inspire hope that they can.
Shall we wait until our enemies shall possess themselves of all the powers of the Government; until abolition judges are on the Supreme Court bench, abolition collectors at every port, and abolition post-masters in every town; secret mail agents traversing the whole land, and a subsidized press established in our midst to demoralize our people? Will we be stronger then or better prepared to meet the struggle, if a struggle must come? No, verily. When that time shall come, well may our adversaries laugh at at our folly and deride our impotence.