Constitutional Development and the origins of secession in Virginia, Georgia and Mississippi


The project I intend to submit for the “Second International Research Seminar for Young Americanists” builds upon my 2010 Ph.D. dissertation, whose title is: “A Secession Driven by Conventions: Constitutional Developments in the Antebellum U.S. South”.

My research focuses on changes in the institutions of the southern states during the first half of the nineteenth century and through the Secession movement and the making of the Confederate States of America. I have already investigated the processes of constitutional revision that characterized the different states in the U.S. South in the decades before the Civil War. My main objective has been to highlight the social struggle that was at the heart of the attempts to create an increasingly more democratic representative system at the state level, while showing how the nature of this social conflict related to the particular socio-economic and geographic background that characterized each state within the South in its own way. By linking firmly the socio-economic features of the southern states with the different phases of their constitutional development, I intend to offer a novel contribution to the study of the origins of Secession as a logical consequence, in different ways and degrees, of the particular path that the southern states’ political institutions had taken since the revolutionary era and throughout the antebellum period.

The First Step in my Research Project: The Ph.D. Dissertation

I had originally conceived my Ph.D. dissertation as the first of a series of comparative case-studies focusing on the institutions of different southern states, and I decided to begin my analysis by comparing constitutional developments in two particularly significant states: Virginia and Georgia. Both these states are part of the same broad southern Atlantic zone and share a number of similarities in their colonial background; at the same time, the differences between them are highlighted by the fact that, geographically and culturally, they belong also to two distinctive southern regions: the Upper South and the Lower South. Also, the historical importance of Virginia and Georgia within the South, and within the United States, is beyond doubt, given the prestige they always enjoyed among southern states from the revolutionary period to the Civil War. All these factors led me to choose Virginia and Georgia for my first comparative case-study.

In my study, I first highlighted the arguments involved in the debates on constitutional revisions in Virginia and Georgia in the 1830s, showing how slavery was an issue always present in the disputes over the representative process. Then, I sought to link the results of my analysis with the attempt by the southern states to create a common movement in support of the doctrine of states’ rights during the Crisis of 1850; therefore, the last chapter in my Ph.D. dissertation focuses specifically on the analysis of the southern states’ involvement – in terms of both organization and participation – in the 1850 Nashville Convention, which sought to create a first supra-state organization in the South. My analysis has concluded that, if we consider the different degree of involvement showed by Virginia and Georgia in the 1850 movement for southern unity, we can see a clear connection between their effective participation to the movement and their internal debates over the representative system. In Virginia, from the summer of 1850, the issue of constitutional revision dominated the debates within the public opinion; conversely, in Georgia the main arguments over constitutional revisions had ended in the early 1840s, and, therefore, the state showed a greater degree of consistency in her attitude toward both the southern movement for unity and the Federal Government.

The Second Step in my Research Project

The second step in my research project builds upon the important foundations I lay with my Ph.D., but expands its scope in both geographical and temporal terms: on one hand, I intend to introduce another state – specifically Mississippi – in my case-study in order to extend my comparative analysis to those southern states admitted into the Union after the ratification of the Constitution; on the other hand, I intend to extend also the time framework in order to include the Secession movement that began with the 20th December, 1860 South Carolina Ordinance of Secession and the subsequent creation of the Confederate States of America in the course of 1861.

My rationale for introducing Mississippi in my case-studies is based, first and foremost, on the fact that it was a state whose settlement was more recent than that of Atlantic states such as Virginia and Georgia; in fact, Mississippi is located in what used to be the frontier of the cotton-producing region – the most fertile area of the South – for most of the antebellum period. As a result of Mississippi’s early heavy involvement in cotton agriculture – and, therefore, in slavery – the state’s politics were dominated, already from the early nineteenth century, by a strong planter elite.  At the same time, though, Mississippi’s position on the southwestern frontier of the United States meant that the state’s political culture also shared some of the features of the radical democratic tradition that characterized the states of the American West. Both these aspects make Mississippi an important case-study, which will enrich my analysis a great deal, given the similarities and differences with Virginia and Georgia.

My study will focus specifically both on the Secession Conventions and on the Montgomery Convention, through which southern politicians founded the Confederate States of America (CSA). By providing a narrative of continuity – beginning from the revolutionary period’s Provisional Congress through the antebellum Constitutional Convention and then the Nashville Convention, and finally to the Secession Conventions of 1860–61 – my work intends to show how the Convention was central in the process of institutional development, and also how the Convention was a peculiarly American tradition in nineteenth-century politics – an important point that historians and political analysts have mostly overlooked so far. Through a comparison between the developments of political institutions in three representative states of the Upper South, Lower South, and Deep South – all contextualized within their specific socio-economic backgrounds – I intend to provide a comprehensive history of the Convention as a crucial instrument in the institutional developments of the southern states, and ultimately in the making of the Secession movement and of the Confederate States of America.

Overall Aim and Context of the Research Project

Overall, my research project has three main aims. Firstly, it seeks to introduce a novel perspective in the study of American institutional history, by focusing specifically on state constitutional development. Scholars have tended so far to be mostly interested in institutions at the federal level. Instead, by adopting a perspective focusing on the state, it is possible to have a better understanding of how the local political development impacted on the federal structure as a whole.

Secondly, in doing this, my study intends to discuss specifically the historical development of the constitutional Convention in the southern states through the antebellum and Civil War period. During the revolutionary era, each of the thirteenth colonies adopted provisional constitutions, which were then subjected to further norms that included the possibility of revisions and amendments. During the antebellum era, then, the states that formed the Union experienced a period of constitutional reform. As a result, in a number of occasions, delegates gathered in constitutional conventions in order to discuss and, if necessary, approve the proposed revisions. By studying the dynamics through which the constitutional Conventions responded to social and political pressures in the process of revising the Constitution, I intend to highlight the crucial significance of the Convention as an instrument of institutional change.

Thirdly, my analysis of the Convention intends to show that it is possible to gain particularly significant insights in the two most crucial moments of political conflict of the late antebellum era: the Crisis of 1850 and the Secession movement. In both cases, the Conventions emerged as leading institutional forces behind the movements in the defense of southern states’ rights. However, while in 1850 the movement initiated by the Conventions did not result in the formation of a lasting southern political compact, in 1861 the opposite occurred with the formation of the Confederate States of America. My analysis will look at these two events in diachronic comparative fashion in order to contribute to an understanding of the reasons why secession occurred in 1861 and not in 1850.

The Convention is the key to my claim because of the central role it played in constitutional revisions, and in general in the politics of the Southern states throughout the antebellum period. My focus on Virginia, Georgia, and Mississippi as representative states of different regions of the South accounts for the widespread diversity in southern constitutional revision processes. Looking at the institutions of these three states from a comparative perspective, we can observe similar constitutional developments punctuated by significant differences, specifically in regards to the reforms of the representative system. During the entire antebellum period, in conjunction with the main political crises in the federal system, changes occurred in the socio-economic texture of the three states that were reflected  in different types of constitutional revisions. Therefore, it is vitally important to study the social-economic background of these constitutional changes, which varies whether one looks at Virginia, Georgia, or Mississippi, as a result of the different historical trajectories and formations of the two master classes. On one hand, both Virginia and Georgia are Atlantic states whose settlement goes as far back as the pre-revolutionary period, unlike Mississippi whose settlement began in the early nineteenth century. On the other hand, significant differences in the patterns of composition of the slaveholding elites arose as a result of the market revolution beginning from the first decades of the nineteenth century. As a consequence of these changes, throughout the antebellum period, Virginia, Georgia, and Mississippi faced different types of internal divisions and political strains.

In this respect, we can study the Crisis of 1850 and the Secession movement of 1861 as paradigmatic, in that they show how the constitutional Conventions dealt with internal divergences in face of external threats. Such a study, however, transcends the local significance, because of the very nature of the constitutional Convention, which functioned as a buffer between regional and federal throughout the antebellum period. Therefore, one could reasonably argue that, by understanding how this buffer exactly operated at times of particularly difficult political crises, it is possible to acquire a better overall comprehension of the institutional revolution at the origin the Confederate States of America, and therefore, ultimately, also of the very reasons why the American Civil War occurred.

The Sources

Since my analysis focuses on the southern Conventions both as a means of constitutional revision and as an instrument in the making of Secession, the main primary sources I intend to use are represented by the Conventions’ Proceedings and Debates for the three states I have selected: Virginia, Georgia, and Mississippi. For the most part, these are available at the Library of Congress (see W. S. Jenkins, L. A. Hamrick, A Guide to the Microform Collection of Early State Records, Washington, The Library of Congress, 1950). I will also use the Journals of the General Assembly for the same three states, since they give important information on the constitutional revision process and on the governors’ opinion on the same issues. All the three states I will analyze underwent processes of constitutional reforms in the early 1830s; after then, only Virginia underwent a second process constitutional revision in 1850, unlike both Georgia and Mississippi. To be sure, Mississippi actually hosted a Convention in 1849, but its objective was to deal with the incoming Crisis of 1850 over constitutional issues at the federal level. All the three states I have selected held Secession Conventions in 1861; therefore, I will look for the relevant documents related to them. While in the case of Virginia all the Convention’s Debates have been collected and published in Journals and Papers of the Virginia State Convention of 1861, this is not the same for Georgia and Mississippi; therefore, I will look for other types of published primary sources. In particular, I intend to use the Journals of the Secession Conventions, which provide rich detail on the debates held in 1861.