Arkansas and Tennessee Secede

May 6, 1861/2011
Volume 2, Issue 20 (30 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

Arkansas and Tennessee Secede on the Same Day

May 6, 1861. Like its sister upper-South states of Tennessee and Virginia, Arkansas debated secession for several months. Although the state secession conventions throughout the Deep South discussed secession for an average of four and a half days before seceding, Arkansas’s convention deliberated from March 4 (the day Lincoln was inaugurated) through May 6 before passing its ordinance of secession. Secession was not a

In this strongly anti-Confederate satire, states internally divided over the secession question -- like Tennessee -- are represented by two-headed creatures.

In this strongly anti-Confederate satire, states internally divided over the secession question — like Tennessee — are represented by two-headed creatures.

foregone conclusion. When the voters of Arkansas elected delegates to the state convention, they favored unionists over secessionists 57% to 43%, and the anti-secession forces controlled the convention until Lincoln’s call for troops following the bombardment of Fort Sumter. On May 6, the delegates voted 65 to 5 in favor of secession. Seeking unanimity, the president of the convention asked the five dissenters to change their votes, and four agreed.

Although several Arkansans had proposed changes in the U.S. Constitution to try to effect a Union-saving compromise, Governor Henry M. Rector believed that the Constitution was “amply sufficient as it now stands, for the protection of Southern rights, if it was only enforced. The South wants practical evidence of good faith from the North, not mere paper agreements and compromises.”

But, he added,“They believe slavery a sin, we do not, and there lies the trouble.”

If the convention decided in favor of secession, Rector believed the decision should be ratified by the people. But the convention delegates, believing they had been elected to act on behalf of the people, ultimately declined to allow the voters to second-guess their work.

Tennessee also voted to secede on May 6, but it had come to that decision by a different process. Unlike every other state that joined the Confederacy, Tennessee did not call a secession convention. Instead, the question was left to the state’s General Assembly to debate and decide.

Tennessee Governor Isham G. Harris

Tennessee Governor Isham G. Harris

On January 7, 1861, Governor Isham G. Harris had addressed the legislature using phrases reminiscent of President Buchanan’s message to Congress a month earlier.

“The systematic, wanton, and long continued agitation of the slavery question,” he explained,

“with the actual and threatened aggressions of the Northern States and a portion of their people, upon the well-defined constitutional rights of the Southern citizen . . . have produced a crisis in the affairs of the country.” 

At the Governor’s urging, the General Assembly developed a “plan of adjustment” to the nation’s crisis in the form of a constitutional amendment. Consisting of nine articles, the proposed amendment was designed to protect slavery in various ways throughout the country.

So convinced that they had designed the perfect “compromise” solution, Tennesseans introduced the amendment in the U.S. House of Representatives and presented it to the Washington Peace Conference. Needless to say, it came to naught.

Following Lincoln’s call for troops, Tennessee voted to leave the Union on May 6; the vote was 46 to 21 in the House and 21 to 4 in the Senate. Unlike the convention delegates in Arkansas, Tennessee’s legislators insisted on a popular vote to confirm the decision to secede.

On June 8, 1861, by a two to one majority, Tennessee’s voters upheld the decision of their legislators, thus making Tennessee the last state to secede.

SOURCES: Ralph Wooster, “The Arkansas Secession Convention,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly (Summer 1954, vol. 13., no. 2), 172-195; Journal of the Convention of the State of Arkansas, which was begun and held in the Capitol, in the City of Little Rock, on Monday, the Fourth Day of March, One Thousand, Eight Hundred and Sixty-one. Little Rock: Johnson & Yerkes, State Printers, 1861; Robert H. White, Messages of the Governors of Tennessee, 1857-1869 (Nashville: Tennessee Historical Commission, 1959, 255-303.)

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Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1861

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