Georgia Becomes Fifth State to Secede
On January 19, 1861, by a vote of 208 to 89, Georgia’s secession convention delegates, meeting in Milledgeville, declared their independence from the United States. Thus, Georgia became the fifth state to secede, following South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama.
As the vote indicated, not all of the delegates were in favor of secession. One of those opposed was Herschel Vespasian Johnson; Johnson was a major political figure in Georgia, representing the state in the United States Senate and serving as governor
from 1853 to 1857. In 1860, he had reluctantly agreed to be Stephen A. Douglas’s vice presidential running mate. Always a moderate, Johnson believed political compromise was to be preferred over secession. The day before Georgia passed its ordinance of secession, Johnson proposed a compromise solution in the form of an amendment to the United States Constitution. Like the sixty-plus other compromise solutions proposed over Secession Winter, Johnson’s was designed to protect the institution of slavery because that was the major issue dividing the country. His preamble began:
“The State of Georgia is attached to the Union, and desires to preserve it, if it can be done consistent with her rights and safety; but existing circumstances admonish her of danger: that danger arises from the assaults that are made upon the institution of domestic slavery, and is common to all the Southern States.”
Indeed seven of Johnson’s nine articles concerned protecting slavery in the territories, protecting the rights of owners in recovering fugitive slaves, and protecting property rights when owners traveled with their slaves through free states and territories. His proposed amendment also held that Congress had no authority to interfere with the slave trade among states. Johnson’s final article stated:
“The Supreme Court having decided that negroes are not citizens of the United States, no person of African descent shall be permitted to vote for Federal Officers, nor to hold any office or appointment under the government of the United States.”
To no one’s surprise, the convention’s delegates declined to vote for Johnson’s amendment and, the following day, approved an ordinance which stated simply, “That the Union now subsisting between the State of Georgia and other States under the name of the ‘United States of America,’ is hereby dissolved.”
The elected delegates confirmed their reasons for leaving in a lengthier declaration of secession which began:
“For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slaveholding confederate States, with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government, have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic.
“To avoid these evils,” the declaration concluded, “we resume the powers which our Fathers delegated to the Government of the United States, and henceforth will seek new safeguards for our liberty, equality, security and tranquility.”
To ensure that there would be no misunderstanding regarding the reasons that compelled Georgia to leave the Union, the secession convention printed and distributed 10,000 copies of the declaration.
– Submitted by Dwight T. Pitcaithley, New Mexico State University