In the decades prior to Southern independence in 1860-61 the ranks of secessionists slowly grew until they became a powerful political and social force with a great deal of influence in the Southern media, educational system, the Democratic Party and State governments. During that time the strongest political foes of the early secessionists (the most ardent of whom were called ‘Fire-Eaters’) were Southern conservatives. These conservatives, who were later given control of the Confederate States Government even after many of them had actively opposed secession until it had become a reality, worked hard to marginalise the Fire-Eaters. In particular, they objected to what was called ‘independent State action’ – that is, of one Southern State acting on its own to nullify Federal law or secede from the Union. Some of these conservatives formed a political faction known as ‘Cooperationists.’ They believed that only united Southern action across the many States would enable the South to successfully stand up to the North. In many cases, their ultimate goal was to reform the Union, ensuring a lower tariff, the westward expansion of the South (which would have given the South parity in the US Senate and therefore a de facto veto over anti-Southern legislation) and legal protection for slavery. However, many of the Southern States were much more moderate than South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama and the Lower South States in general. There was little chance in the 1830s or 40s (even in the early 1850s, as history proved) to unite them all behind cooperative action in defiance of the Federal Government. The Fire-Eaters argued that if a single Southern State (and South Carolina was the most radical) were to lead the resistance then the rest of the South would eventually follow. In fact, with every Southern State that potentially left the Union, the worse would be the political position of the remaining Southern States; even without a few of their sister States they would be greatly outnumbered in the US Congress and unable to pose any meaningful opposition to the political agenda of New England and the North.
One of the high points of the early Southern nationalist movement occurred in the summer of 1844 in the South Carolina Lowcountry at Bluffton. Robert Barnwell Rhett, a US Congressman from the area and the leader of the secessionists, spoke to a large crowd of locals (which included many of the Lowcountry’s leading planters) about the need for independent State action and ultimately independence from the Union. He stirred the crowd with his passionate, pro-Southern speech. This meeting quickly gave rise to a Southern nationalist movement which spread throughout the Lowcountry and to other parts of the State, even to some of the other Lower South States. And yet, as quickly as it grew that summer it was effectively defeated by Southern conservatives, led by US Senator from South Carolina John C Calhoun. Calhoun and his supporters and allies were able to halt the movement and prevent the secession of the Palmetto State in 1844, though the Bluffton Movement did prove important in paving the way for secession 16 years later.
Lawrence Rowland, Alexander Moore and George Rogers, Jr. describe the movement that arose from the Bluffton meeting and the conservative opposition to it on pages 421-422 of their work The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina Volume 1, 1514-1861 (published in 1996 by the University of South Carolina Press):
What Rhett was seeking to launch at Bluffton was a statewide political movement to call for an immediate state convention to nullify the Tariff of 1842, which had been raised again in violation of the Compromise of 1833, or for the immediate secession of South Carolina from the union. This was “independent state action” of the most radical sort. In the complicated political factionalism of antebellum politics in South Carolina, the greatest risk for Rhett was that this action was counter to the more moderate and pragmatic position of South Carolina’s giant elder statesman, John C. Calhoun, with whom Rhett had been closely allied before 1844. Opposition to Calhoun had ended the political careers of some of South Carolina’s most prominent political luminaries, such as Judge William Smith of York, the first states’ righter; Senator William Preston of Columbia; and Governor James Hamilton Jr. of St. Peter’s Parish, the architect of the Nullifiers’ victory in 1832. Calhoun’s main concerns in Washington in 1844 were to keep the northern and southern wings of the Democratic Party together, ensure the election of James Knox Polk to the presidency, and secure the annexation of Texas. The last thing Calhoun needed was a secessionist firestorm in his home state which might upset the delicate political balance. Rhett, however, saw the interests of South Carolina, and particularly his lowcountry planter constituents, subsumed in the process and struck out on his own. Rhett was never a man to worry about political risks when principles were involved. And besides, he knew very well the deep anxiety and daily frustrations of his own planter constituents.
Animated dinners were held throughout the district, and the Blufftonites solidified their hold on the younger planters of the Beaufort/Colleton District. Ultimately, though, the Bluffton Movement failed. Calhoun did not endorse the movement, and the rest of the state was not ready for so radical a course. A political coalition of opposition Whigs, old unionists, and Democratic Party leaders loyal to Calhoun accused Rhett of promoting “disunion,” and his popular support was confined to his home district. The movement had gained many powerful adherents, however, including James H. Hammond, Congressman George McDuffied, and Whitmarsh Seabrook of Edisto Island. Ultimately, it was Langdon Cheves of St. Peter’s Parish, one of the most admired elder statesmen in South Carolina, who publicly outlined the tactic that was to galvanize the moderate members of the states’ rights movement six years later. To counter the Blufftonites’ call for immediate separate state action, Cheves called on South Carolina political leaders to develop a program to prepare the other slaveholding states for united southern opposition to the federal government and the ultimate formation of a southern confederacy. This was the beginning of the “Cooperationists” Party, which was the moderate or conservative wing of the states’ rights movement in South Carolina during the 1850s. Though Rhett’s call for separate state action was premature, it was a training ground for a new group of “fire eaters” and another step on the road to secession.
In 1844, Rhett’s appeal was to a new generation of planters who had come of age since the Nullification Crisis. At the Bluffton speech, “he appealed to youth and they responded.” In the newspapers this new group of youthful activists was dubbed the Bluffton Boys, and from then until the Civil War they formed the vanguard of the secessionist movement across the state.
Dr William C Davis provides us with further details on the event at Bluffton itself and the crowd on pages 199-201 of his book Rhett: The Turbulent Life and Times of a Fire-Eater:
Several hundred came, the ladies in their carriages drawn up in a large semi-circle around the platform that had been erected in the shade of a huge oak on John Verdier’s plantation. Most of the great planters were there, all of them wearing badges of palmetto leaves as symbols of resistance.
…The dinner followed, all of the edibles homegrown and none of them imported with odious duties paid…. At a final toast to Rhett he arose and raised his glass to propose one of his own to the 1845 convention he had just demanded: ‘May it be as useful as the Convention of 1776.” The allusion to revolution, whether accidental or intentional, was hardly lost on the crowd, and the toasts that followed became increasingly militant, calling for secession if the Union could not be freed of corruption and for the federal government to be either reformed or abolished.
Also see: The Bluffton Boys & the summer of 1844, Bluffton Secession Tree: The roots of Southern nationalism, Rhett vs Davis on Confederate foreign policy, Calhoun, Rhett & Davis in 1850, Conservatives prevail in Confederate government and Podcast: Rhett vs Southern conservatives