Southern Jacobins?: A Historical Fugue


Southerners are often thought of–and often thought of themselves–as having been the conservatives in the American sectional conflict, desiring to preserve traditional modes of life against the innovative Northerners. But, of course, things in the past–that foreign country–are rarely so simple. What if there was a Jacobin fly in the Southern ointment?

Here is part of a paragraph from James M. McPhersons’s Battle Cry of Freedom, on the conflict over whether Kansas should be a free or a slave state:

Congress now had two referenda to choose from. Fire-eaters below the Potomac heated up their rhetoric to ensure the correct choice. [William Lowndes] Yancey in Alabama talked of forming committees of public safety to “fire the Southern heart” and “precipitate the cotton states into a revolution.”

Battle Cry of Freedom, 166.

“[C]ommittees of public safety”? Sounds awfully–comment dit-onGallican, non? I thought I’d found our drawling Jacobins.

But it is actually more complicated than it might first appear, or at least than it first appeared to me. Notice that that phrase is not actually part of the quote from Yancey. McPherson’s authority (167 n.5) is Avery O. Craven’s The Growth of Southern Nationalism (289). What do we find there?

In Alabama Governor John A. Winston, disgusted with the Kansas situation, bluntly declared that the Union was not the paramount good either to his state or to his section, and the senate asked his successor to call an election for delegates to a state convention which might determine the steps necessary for the protection of Alabama’s rights and honor. Yancy was more than ever convinced that the Democratic party could not be relied on for the protection of Southern rights. Safety demanded the formation of a strictly sectional political organization. With Rhett and Ruffin he now bent his efforts toward the awakening of Southern consciousness.

Growth of Southern Nationalism, 288-89.

Ok; what is his authority? On 289 n. 12, we read:

Dorman, Party Politics in Alabama, 143; William L. Yancey to James S. Slaughter, June 15, 1858, advising the formation of committees of public safety to “free the Southern heart” and “instruct the Southern mind” so as to “precipitate the cotton states into a revolution,” in the Montgomery Confederation, May 26, 1860.

There is that phrase again, those words that grate against the ears of all true lovers of freedom fries, “committees of public safety.” Yet once more it is an authorial addition–likely the source of McPherson’s own phrasing–rather than part of a quotation from a primary source.

At least now we have a lead, though, to find out whether William Yancey used this phrase.

As it happens, he didn’t. It took me a while to track it down. But a reference n. 34 here led me to a book that included the letter. I shall now transcribe it.

Montgomery, June 15, 1858.

Dear Sir–Your kind favor of the 15th is received. I hardly agree with you that a general movement can be made that will clear out the Augean stables. If the Democracy were overthrown, it would result in giving place to a greater and hungrier swarm of flies. The remedy of the South is not in such a process; it is in a diligent organization of her true men for prompt resistance to the next aggression. It must come in the nature of things. No national party can save us–no sectional party can ever do it; but if we could do as our fathers did, organize committees of safety all over the cotton States–and it is only in them that we can hope for an effective movement–we shall fire the Southern heart, instruct the Southern mind, give courage to each other, and at the proper moment, by one organized, concerted action, we can precipitate the cotton states into a revolution.

The idea has been shadowed forth in the South by Mr. Ruffin–has been taken up and recommended in the “Advertiser” under the name of “League of United Southerners,” who, in keeping up their old party relations on all other questions, will hold the Southern issue paramount, and will influence parties, Legislatures, and statesmen. I have no time to enlarge, but to suggest merely.

W.L. Yancey

Reminscences of Public Men in Alabama, 685.

The author, shortly afterwards, fondly recalls hearing Yancey “denounc[e] what he considered aggression and bad faith on the part of Northern fanatics.” He might have been more restrained with such an epithet given what is found in Yancey’s letter. Aside from a clever reference to the Labors of Hercules, we have reluctance to overthrow “Democracy”; we have advocacy of “resistance”; we have the desire for a “movement”; we have a call for “revolution.” If this letter fell down from the sky with names and dates changed, it could read like an Acela-corridor editorial page or a university student manifesto. “From the river to the sea, Alabama will be free!”

One thing we do not have, however, is a reference to “committees of public safety.” One instead finds “committees of safety,” organized after the pattern of “our fathers.” I type this phrase into Wikipedia and find that these were institutions of the American, not the French, Revolution. If there is Jacobinism in this letter, then, it is not in that phrase.

But is this to say that there was no Jacobin streak in the South?


“[C]ommittees of public safety” occurs one more time in McPherson’s book:

Sporting blue cockades (the symbol of secession), some of these enthusiastic revolutionaries even sang “The Southern Marseillaise” in the streets of Charleston and New Orleans. Ex-Governor Henry Wise of Virginia, who urged the formation of committees of public safety, gloried in his reputation as the “Danton of the Secession Movement in Virginia.” Carried away by an excess of Robespierrian zeal, a Georgia disunionist warned cooperationists that “we will go for revolution, and if you…oppose us…we will brand you as traitors, and chop off your heads.”

Battle Cry of Freedom, 240-41.

This time, McPherson’s authorities are (241 n. 14) Emory M. Thomas’s The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience (31) and Michael P. Johnson’s Toward a Patriarchal Republic: The Secession of Georgia (39). The latter indicates that the remarks about revolution and the chopping off of the heads of those who did not go along with it referred specifically to the hypothetical election of Abraham Lincoln as elected president. The former gives Wise the “Danton” moniker, but does not cite a source.

Something it does not include, however, is the phrase “committees of public safety.”

This is curious. The phrase, which has a definite Parisian rather than Washingtonian flavor, appears to be McPherson’s gloss each time it is used (even if it was borrowed from someone else in the first instance) rather than something the primary sources say.


That is not to say that there was no Jacobin radicalism in the South; it is just to say that it does not seem to be found in the use of that phrase, at least as far as my limited investigation here has shown.

It may also be to say that the inspiration of many of the players involved was more 1776 than 1789 in their own self-understanding.[1] So McPherson suggests:

But the American Revolution, not the French, was the preferred model for secessionists. Liberté they sought, but not égalité or fraternité. Were not “the men of 1776. . . Secessionists?” asked an Alabamian. If we remain in the Union, said a Florida slaveholder, “we will be deprived of that right for which our fathers fought in the battles of the revolution.” From “the high and solemn motive of defending and protecting the rights . . . which our fathers bequeathed to us,” declared Jefferson Davis, let us “renew such sacrifices as our fathers made to the holy cause of constitutional liberty.”

What were these rights and liberties for which Confederates contended? The right to own slaves; the liberty to take this property into the territories; freedom from the coercive powers of a centralized government. Black Republican rule in Washington threatened republican freedoms as the South understood them.

Battle Cry of Freedom, 241.


1 But to what degree does the existence of Thomas Jefferson complicate this binary?


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