This post is an outgrowth of my decision to correct historical mistakes I’ve discovered in my work over the years (see my post of February 10, 2014). I find the subject of J. L. Alcorn interesting and relevant to my future work, so I’ve decided to continue blogging about him for several more posts, highlighting his actions during the War, Reconstruction, and finally the Mississippi Constitutional Convention of 1890. Before I get off the subject of confessing my historical mistakes, the implication made in my 17 February 2014 post that Alcorn was too cozy with the enemy during the War may have been hasty (I’ve been doing a lot of research during the past month). The term double agent could hit closer to the mark.
James Lusk Alcorn was a Whig. The Northern wing of the American Whig Party became the Republican Party. Mississippi had, at the time of the War Between the States and for decades prior, been a Democratic bastion. At no time in the state’s history was its legislature comprised of more than one-third Whigs—the remaining two-thirds being Democrats. Jefferson Davis was a democrat. Democrats and Whigs hated each other. These last two sentences are important to remember.
There were states in the South fonder of Whigs than Mississippi—Louisiana, North Carolina, Florida, and Georgia represent the best examples. But all the Southern states had viable Whig parties comprised of large land owners, but also successful business people. If you think Republican of today (or even yesterday), you’ll have a general feel for Whigs. But like the Democratic Party, the Whig Party had Northern and Southern wings and the great divide—I’m sure you’ve guessed it—was slavery.
The Whig Party began life (metaphorically speaking) in 1833-1834 dispassionate toward slavery, and the Northern and Southern wings managed to work together until the 1840s when the more adamant Free Soil Party, ineffectual on its own, began to sell its votes to the highest bidder (Democrat or Whig) in the Northern state legislatures in return for senate seats. State legislatures couldn’t change slavery; that had to be done at the Washington level. So in return for Free Soilers’ consolidation with either the Democratic or Whig legislatures, in whatever state we happen to be talking about, the victorious party would reward the “spoilers” by sending a Free Soil senator to Washington. [This was before passage of the 17th Amendment.] Too often, Northern Whigs ended up making their beds with Free Soilers, which did not rub well with their fellow Whigs in the South.
The sectional divide was further exacerbated by all that new territory that came with U. S. victory in the Mexican War (i.e., whether slavery should be allowed or not) and the subsequent Compromise of 1850. Controversy over said Compromise led to the founding of the Union Party, put simply here, the brain-child of Georgia Whigs, Alexander Stephens and Robert Toombs, and Georgia Democrat, Howell Cobb who teamed up to offset the sectional strife between the Northern and Southern Wings of the Whig Party and counter the State Rights Southern Democrats who were calling for secession. The “State Righters” were themselves offset by moderate Democrats who did not advocate secession. The “Union” movement also proved popular in the North, but its most secure foothold, though brief, was in the South and represented a moderate, pro-Union fusion of Whigs and Democrats. In Mississippi, J. L. Alcorn, along with many other influential Whigs in the state, became members of the Union Party and that party elected Henry Foote, a Union Democrat, governor in 1850. In my humble and admittedly academically limited opinion, the Southern Whigs did more to curb the secessionist movement in 1850 and get the Compromise through Congress than anyone else, North or South, because everybody had problems with it.
Needless to say, things continued to degenerate between the North and South and both parties skewed along sectional lines.
You know, sometimes I think it was really the political parties that, in their need for dissension in order to gain adherents, created the sectional rift, then dragged their constituents along with them into war. That would mean Calhoun of South Carolina was right. But I wax philosophical here (plus, this is hardly an original concept), and I will now desist, leaving that thought as fodder for another post.
Officially the Whig Party fell apart. The subsequent split in the Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic Party in 1860 resulted in the election of the (it’s just my opinion, but hemlock by any other name is still hemlock) Republican Abraham Lincoln, and we all know what happened next. And yes, Lincoln was a Whig.
James Lusk Alcorn never stopped being a Union Whig and better informed historians than I agree. I think we can safely assume his dislike of Jeff Davis and the Democrats was reciprocated and subsequent slights by the Confederate government possibly reflect this. But most importantly, and I’m believing this more and more as my research continues, James Lusk Alcorn never stopped being a Southerner and a Mississippian. In my 17 February post, I quoted Alcorn’s speech right before he voted for the Ordinance of Secession. It was the overtly dramatic statement that ended “...I enlist in the army that marches to Rome.”
This, after he and a handful of fellow Union Whigs’ had spent two days arguing against secession! I don’t know if he’d prepared his allies for what he was about to do. It was a roll call vote and his was the first name called (A-lcorn—I’m assuming the delegates names were listed alphabetically). The subsequent applause brought down the house and all but one of those Union delegates voted for the Ordinance, then consecrated their “yea” vote with their signature. Alcorn, no doubt, had seen the handwriting on the wall; it was as if he thought, well, hell, they’re going and they’re not going with out me. He might have guessed he’d be on the wrong side of history, but (at least at the time) he wasn’t going to be on the wrong side of Mississippi.
And another thought: One has to wonder what might have happened had there been an Alcorn in Richmond who realized that the army needed to march on Rome and it needed to be quick about it.
Despite Alcorn’s dramatic capitulation in support of secession, his words qualified how he thought the coming war should be fought. It also says a lot about how well he understood the hate-filled enemy residing above the Mason-Dixon line, and I believe it explains his actions during the War, into which I will delve in my next post.
Thanks for reading.