Georgia and the Sectional Crisis
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Georgia played a pivotal role in the sectional crisis of the 1850s, in which southern politicians struggled to prevent northern abolitionists from weakening constitutional protections for slavery. The crisis ultimately led to the outbreak of the Civil War (1861-65). During this period, however, and for much of the antebellum era, Georgians maintained a relatively moderate political course, often frustrating the schemes of southern radicals. The passage in 1850 of the Georgia Platform, which endorsed the Compromise of 1850, helped to avert secession for a decade.
The George W. Crawford, who served as governor from 1843 to 1847, and by rising stars Alexander Stephens and Robert Toombs. The Democrats were headed by the equally capable Howell Cobb, Herschel Johnson, and George W. Towns. The two parties remained evenly matched for much of the 1840s, but the Mexican War placed Georgia Whigs in a defensive position from which they never recovered.
Echoing their northern counterparts, Stephens and other Whigs criticized the war for provoking dangerous questions regarding the status of slavery in the western territories, which the United States stood destined to acquire by defeating Mexico. And while it was a Pennsylvania Democrat who in 1846 offered to Congress the so-called Wilmot Proviso, a measure seeking to ban slavery from these
As the Whigs predicted, the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican War and bestowing the Mexican Cession (the name given to the territorial package that the United States acquired from Mexico), brought slavery to the forefront of a national debate. Politicians seeking sectional compromise instead of the controversial Wilmot Proviso suggested either popular sovereignty within the territories or an extension to the West Coast of the line established by the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which generally prohibited slavery above latitude 36°30' north.
South Carolinian John C. Calhoun and his radical southern followers refused compromise, however,
Mistakenly believing Charles Jones Jenkins. That resolution pledged support for the Union and the Compromise of 1850 under the conditions that the federal government would not try to prevent the expansion of slavery into new territories and would enforce the strengthened Fugitive Slave Act. The result of a strong popular mandate and a document that satisfied the North and the South, the Georgia Platform effectively stifled the radical movement and ended talk of secession. For good measure, in 1851 Georgians elected Unionist Democrat Howell Cobb for governor over States' Rights candidate Charles McDonald by a decisive 18,500 votes.
With the national crisis cooling off after the passage of the Georgia Platform, state politicians seemed to settle back into their old partisan camps. Yet for the rest of the decade Georgia Democrats would continue growing in dominance while the Whigs slipped further into decline. In 1852 Alexander Stephens and Robert Toombs rejected the Whig Party's presidential nomination of Virginian Winfield Scott, whose political alliances with antislavery northerners pointed to a repeat of Taylor's nationalism. Both leaders eventually drifted into the Democratic ranks.
Nevertheless, Garnett Andrews, running under the anti-immigrant American Party label, failed to unseat Johnson despite the fact that less than 2 percent of Georgia's population was foreign born. The Democrats would keep the governor's chair for the rest of the 1850s, and the Whig Party's moderating influence over Georgia politics steadily eroded.
Starting in 1854 controversies surrounding slavery in the western territories again unleashed a storm of national controversy that this time would culminate in civil war. In a highly miscalculated move, Democratic senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois proposed to organize the territories immediately west of his home state under the doctrine of popular sovereignty, a proposal that violated the cherished 36°30' line established by the Missouri Compromise. The resulting Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 infuriated many white northerners who feared that Douglas had opened the door for slavery's westward expansion, which would close off a potential future frontier for white free labor.
Northern resentment quickly gave rise to the Republican Party, a purely sectional organization intent on banning slavery from the western territories. Proving the party's electoral strength, Republican presidential candidate John C. Fremont came shockingly close to winning the election in 1856 despite the fact that Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky were the only slaveholding states to place his name on their ballots.
AsJoseph E. Brown handily defeated pro-Union candidate Benjamin Hill in the 1857 gubernatorial election. A self-made businessman and small slaveholder from the north Georgia mountains, Brown crafted a popular Jacksonian political style by denouncing state banks during the 1857 recession, providing increased funding for Georgia's woeful public schools, and lowering taxes. Riding a wave of popular support, Brown easily won reelection in 1859 by crushing opposition candidate Warren Akin, the last of the neo-Whig challengers. The ardent States' Rights Democrat would thus occupy the governor's chair during the greatest political crisis in Georgia history.
The national Democrats proved incapable of agreeing on a platform position regarding slavery in the territories and sundered along sectional lines. The remaining regular Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas for president (with Georgia's Herschel Johnson for vice president), while the southern faction selected Kentucky's John C. Breckinridge, thus dividing the Democratic Party along sectional lines. Soon thereafter a group of Unionist ex-Whigs selected a third presidential candidate in Tennessean John Bell. The Republicans nominated another ex-Whig, Illinois' Abraham Lincoln, on a platform that reaffirmed the Wilmot Proviso. As with Fremont in 1856, Lincoln's name did not appear on Georgia ballots.
Yet despite Breckinridge's victory, the combined vote totals of Unionist candidates Douglas and Bell surpassed the Kentuckian's tally, suggesting that the majority of Georgian voters were not yet ready to forsake the national Union. Lincoln won the presidency by garnering a majority of the Electoral College despite receiving virtually no support from any southern state. Upon learning of Lincoln's victory, Governor Brown recommended the allocation of $1 million for the state's defense, which was appropriated by the state legislature, and scheduled January 2 elections for a special state convention to discuss secession. The struggle over Georgia's future in the Union had begun.
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