Georgia Secession Convention of 1861
The idea of state secession emerged in the late eighteenth century as tensions developed over the interpretations of state versus federal powers as enumerated by the U.S. Constitution. Earlier conventions, including various nullification conventions in the 1830s and the southern conventions surrounding the crisis over slavery in 1850, considered the act of leaving the Union. Still, none adopted an official proclamation until the South Carolina Secession Convention in December 1860.
On January 2, 1861, a miserably rainy day, Georgia voters went to the polls and selected delegates to a convention that would decide the state's response to Lincoln's election. In many counties the candidates divided along two divergent views. Immediate secessionists advocated leaving the Union without further consideration. Cooperationists, however, tended to be more conciliatory. Their opinions ranged from maintaining a devout Unionism, to desiring a scheme in which the South acted in unison, to advocating a delay of the act of secession. Low voter turnout due to the poor weather may have affected the election's outcome, but the immediate secessionists finished with a slight majority of delegates. Political speeches, newspapers, and the contentiousness of state leaders reveal the deep divisions over the issue of secession at that time.
Once the delegates convened in Milledgeville on January 16, they wasted little time in testing the mood of the convention. After the rules and procedures for the meeting were established on the first day, countering proposals alternated between such immediate secessionists as Eugenius A. Nisbet and cooperationists like Herschel Johnson. Early votes indicated that there might be a close contest: one resolution demonstrated that the split between the immediate secessionists and the cooperationists was as close as 166 to 130 respectively. In the end, however, the final vote on January 19 revealed a major shift in the convention for immediate secession, when the cooperationists
The delegates reconvened on January 21 to begin a new phase of the convention—that of writing a new constitution for the state. In many aspects the Georgia Constitution of 1861 resembled that of the Constitution of 1798. There were, nevertheless, some notable differences. The 1861 document made specific provisions for the protection of slavery in the state. The new constitution also took away the amending power of the assembly and gave it solely to a constitutional convention chosen by the people of Georgia specifically for that purpose.
The convention adjourned temporarily to allow a committee time to write the new constitution and to await the outcome of the Confederate Convention at Montgomery, Alabama, in February 1861. Reconvened in March, the Georgia Secession Convention, now a constitutional convention, ratified the new Confederate Constitution and voted to submit the new Georgia constitution to the people by ballot in July. The delegates adjourned for the last time on March 23, 1861. Nearly three weeks later, on April 12, Confederate batteries fired on federal troops at Fort Sumter, in South Carolina, and thus began hostilities in the Civil War.
Barry L. Brown and Gordon R. Elwell, Crossroads of Conflict: A Guide to Civil War Sites in Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010).
Anthony Gene Carey, Parties, Slavery, and the Union in Antebellum Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997).
William W. Freehling and Craig M. Simpson, eds., Secession Debated: Georgia's Showdown in 1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
Michael P. Johnson, Toward a Patriarchal Republic: The Secession of Georgia (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977).
Horace Montgomery, Cracker Parties (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, ).
Albert Berry Saye, A Constitutional History of Georgia , 1732-1968, rev. ed. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, ).
David Williams, Bitterly Divided: The South's Inner Civil War (New York: New Press, 2008; distributed by W. W. Norton).
George Justice, University of Georgia
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