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The Failure of the South to Convince Delaware to Secede

During the Secession Winter of 1860-1861, several seceding slave states sent commissioners to border slave states in the hopes of convincing them to join them in leaving the United States. In some cases, such as Virginia and Tennessee, the targeted states seceded. In others, such as in Kentucky and Delaware, the secession commissioners failed to convince the legislatures to pull their state out of the Union.


In both the successes and failures we can find the arguments used by the states in rebellion in order to sell secession to the uncertain. While the messages were sometimes tailored to fit the individual states being addressed, more often than not, the same cases were made over and over – that unless they all seceded, the Lincoln administration would destroy slavery.

Such were the arguments delivered by two different secession commissioners to the state of Delaware. 1For Delaware’s background involving slavery, see this.

Delaware had overwhelmingly given pro-slavery candidate John Breckenridge their vote for President in the 1860 election. Around 45% of Delaware voters cast their lots with Breckenridge – a percentage comparable to Maryland’s and Virginia’s vote. 2Approximately 45% of Marylanders and Virginian voted for Breckenridge, though he won the former and lost the latter.

The People Will Demand a Convention

By the turn of the new year, 1861, the only state to have seceded from the United States was South Carolina. Others, however, were swiftly working their way to the same conclusion. Plans were already underway for the secession delegates of Florida to meet on January 3rd, with Mississippi’s and Alabama’s beginning on the 7th, Georgia’s on the 16th, Louisiana’s on the 20th, and Texas’ on the 21st. In a month’s time, those seven states would have voted to secede.

Weeks before Mississippi even met in convention, Governor John J. Pettus dispatched sixteen men to canvas the various slave states teetering on the bring of unionism and disunionism. Henry Dickinson was sent to Delaware. On January 2nd, he, along with Alabama commissioner David Clopton, met with Delaware’s Governor William Burton, in the hopes of convincing him to allow them to address the general assembly. The following day, Burton agreed.

Governor John J. Pettus
Governor John J. Pettus

Dickinson’s address to the General Assembly seemed to have met with some success. Governor Burton, immediately following, called for “a State Convention for the people of this State to decide upon what course they will pursue.” 3Richard F. Miller, Ed., States at War, Volume 4: A Reference Guide for Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey (University Press of New England, 2015) 79.

Inspired, Dickinson wrote to Pettus explaining that Delaware’s “Governor, officers of State, and six-sevenths of the people of Delaware are cordially with Mississippi in the Southern cause.” And though “the present Legislature opposed to immediate secession,” Dickinson was thrilled to announce that “the people will demand a convention and Delaware will co-operate with Mississippi.” 4Official Records, Series 4, Vol. 1, 22.

Perhaps with a bit more enthusiasm than necessary, Dickinson signed “Alex R. Wootten” to the telegram, noting that “Mr. Wootten is attorney-general of the State of Delaware.” This might have been quite a catch, to get such a high public official to agree to put his name to such a document. However, Delaware’s attorney-general was actually named Edward Wooten, not “Alex R. Wootten.” This error might indicate that Wooten was not as on board with the telegraph as Dickinson might want his governor to believe. 5Harold Bell Hancock Delaware During the Civil War (Historical Society of Delaware, 1961) Part II, 224. As quoted in Miller, 201.

Fear the ‘Ultimate Extinction of Slavery’

Now that Dickinson and Mississippi had their chance, it was time for David Clopton, Alabama’s secession commissioner, to see what he could muster from the First State.

By the 8th, Clopton had submitted his appeal to Delaware. He began by describing the Republican Party, especially as it had come together in the previous election, reminding that Lincoln would take office on March 4th. With that, he continued.

“Its animus, its single bond of union, is hostility to the institution of slavery as it exists in the Southern States. Its members, numbering nearly two millions of voters, as evidenced by the late Presidential election, have been collected from all the other various political organizations, and although disagreeing totally upon other important political principles, have nevertheless ignored all these, and been molded into a compact mass of enmity to this particular institution, upon which depend the domestic, social, and political interests of fifteen States of the Union, and which institution was recognized, respected, guarded, and protected by the convention which framed the Constitution and by the people of the States by whom it was ordained and established.

“Those men who direct the sentiment, purpose, and action of this party have notified the people of the slave-holding States that the past policy of the Federal Government is now to be wholly changed; that those principles which have secured our present respect abroad and our past internal prosperity are to be superseded by others which are adverse to the true theory, nature, and designs of the federal government. Mr. Lincoln has left us in no doubt as to his policy.

David Clopton

“He may suppose that the people of the slave-holding States will be satisfied with the assurance that he does not intend to interfere with slavery in the States; but, in thus supposing, he supposes further, that they have not the manhood and honor to assert and maintain, or do not possess the intelligence to understand, their rights in the Territories or wherever else the jurisdiction of the Government extends, and that they are willing to surrender all the outposts, and leave the citadel unguarded, liable to first covert then open attacks. Notwithstanding this assurance, common sense and experience, our knowledge of human nature and all history, teach that, believing slavery to be a moral and political evil, a wrong to the Government, and that these States cannot exist half free and half slave, Mr. Lincoln will exert all his powers, influence, and patronage ‘to place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction.’

“To maintain the value of property and realize its fullest advantages there must be guaranteed permanence, security, and protection. “Republicanism” proposes to place the right to property in slaves under the ban of a consolidated, centralized General Government, and threatens to employ all its powers and resources to the consummation of the single purpose of destroying this single species of property. When this shall be done, the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” must be involved in common ruin, for the admission of sovereignty in a government admits the universal claim of governmental sovereignty to despotic power over all these, whether it is in form a monarchy, a democracy, or a republic.

“From these considerations Your Excellency must concur in the opinion expressed by the Governor of the State of Alabama, that— The success of said party and the power which it now has and will soon acquire, greatly endanger the peace, interests, security, and honor of the slave-holding states, and make it necessary that prompt and efficient measures should be adopted to avoid the evils which must result from a Republican administration Of £ Federal Government.

“You cannot be surprised that, in the opinion of the people of Alabama, the time has arrived when imperious necessity and self-preservation require them to exercise their right to abolish the present Government and institute a new one, laying its foundation in such principles and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

“I will simply suggest that the hope of obtaining new and sufficient guaranties, by way of constitutional amendments or otherwise, has abandoned the hearts of all, even the most moderate Southern men. The expressions of Republican presses and the representative men in and out of Congress, the futile efforts of the Senate and House committees, and the persistent silence of Mr. Lincoln have extinguished the last ray of such hope. But even if new guaranties could be obtained, they can bring no sense of security to the Southern mind; they would prove a temporary and delusive truce, a broken reed to pierce hereafter.

“The slave-holding States have never complained of the insufficiency of the Constitution or of the want of additional and further guaranties. They have asked no more than the faithful observance of those which are contained in the present Constitution. New guaranties will be utterly valueless without an entire revolution in the public temper, prejudices, opinions, sentiments, and education of the people of the non-slaveholding States. Laws passed in compliance with such new guaranties for the security and protection of property in slaves will avail nothing where their execution depends upon the Republican appointees of a Republican President.

“It will be my pleasure to advise and consult with Your Excellency and the members of the Legislature, so far as may be agreeable and practicable, and to communicate the views and purposes of Your Excellency and the sentiments and desires of the people of Delaware to the Governor of the State of Alabama by the time of the meeting of the State convention.” 6Official Records, Series 4, Vol. 1, 34-38. Here.

On January 8th, Clopton wrote to his governor, Andrew B. Moore, with the news. Though he had not yet heard a reply to his missive, he had been “assured that the State of Alabama had the sympathy of many of the citizens of Delaware in this trying emergency, although the members of the Legislature, not having been elected in view of the present crisis, would not probably give expression by a majority vote to this sympathy.”

But it was not all bad news. From the best that Clopton could gather, though the citizens of Delaware were “averse to a dissolution,” and despite they favoring “to adjust and compromise” with the free states, “in the event of dissolution, however accomplished, a large majority of the people of Delaware will defend the South.” This hardly sounded promising. Still, Clopton vowed to make an effort “to procure the call of a convention.” 7Official Records, Series 4, Vol. 1, 33.

She Has Now Passed the Rubicon

With that, Clopton all but disappeared from Delaware. The following month, however, David Crowell Campbell, secession commissioner from Georgia, had a go at it. Campbell had been a newspaper editor in Milledgeville, Georgia, and served as a delegate to the secession convention, which had adopted its ordinance on January 19th. 8Miller, 203.

During the convention, Delaware, along with all of the other still-loyal slave-states, was invited to meet in Atlanta on February 16th “to take into consideration the whole subject of their relations to the Federal Government, and to devise such a course of action as their interest, equality, and safety may require.” 9Official Records, Series 4, Vol. 1, 58. Alabama made an identical invite for an identical meeting to take place in Nashville on the 22nd of February.

While Delaware seemed hesitant to sent delegates to either, Campbell made his way north, arriving in Dover by February 12th. Believing that the state’s General Assembly was “not regarded as a true exponent of the sentiments of the people,” he was obliged to meet with Governor Burton instead.

Campbell understood that Delaware was hardly your typical slave-state. Yet, he also stressed how like she was to the rest of the South.

“You will perceive that the prominent object of my mission is to invite the co-operation of Delaware in the formation of a Southern confederacy. Georgia, in the movement she has made, has not acted in haste or with precipitancy, nor without calm deliberation and after having counted the cost. She did not withdraw from the Union till she had lost all hope of being able to maintain the rights and equality guaranteed to her by the compact into which she had entered and to enjoy the domestic tranquility which was one of the prominent objects of that compact to secure to her. She has now passed the Rubicon and with no intention of taking any steps backward. Already in alliance with other of her sister and neighboring States who have formed a provisional government and intend speedily to organize a permanent government upon the basis of the Constitution of the United States, she looks with interest to those of the slave-holding States who have not yet cast in their lot with her and from whom she has been compelled to separate not without feelings of deep and poignant regret.

“They have heretofore battled with her for the same rights, triumphed with her in the same successes, and mourned with her under the same reverses. Although it is well known in Georgia that Delaware, in proportion to her population, has not as deep an interest in the institution of slavery as the other border slave-holding States, yet it is well known that she is identified with Georgia in interest, more so in sentiment, in principle, and in sympathy, and, it is confidently believed, is destined ere long, under the force of events rapidly crowding upon her, to be identified with her in action and in her future destiny.

“It is no part of my duty to indicate to the State of Delaware what course it may comport with her honor or her interest to pursue, yet pardon me in making the suggestion that the cotton States are agricultural in the pursuits of their people and have heretofore been dependent on the Northern States mainly for the products of manufacturing and mechanical labor. Hereafter they will look for these products across the Atlantic if they cannot be furnished by States in alliance with them. Those Southern border States, therefore, who are far advanced in manufacturing and mechanical skill have now tendered to them the entire South for a market and that without a rival.” 10Official Records, Series 4, Vol. 1, p123-125. The beginning and ending were trimmed for brevity – the full version can be found at the link above.

Delaware’s Response

Governor Burton submitted Campbell’s plea to the General Assembly, again stressing that it call for a secession convention. The Senate responds with a plea for Georgia to remain in the Union, explaining that “as Delaware was the first to adopt, so she will be the last to abandon the Federal Constitution.”


That same day, in a joint secession, the entire legislature declared to Georgia that “no State has the right or the power to dissolve these relations” with the Federal government. They continued, quoting Daniel Webster’s 1833 response to John C. Calhoun: “there can be no such thing as secession without revolution.”

They held that “like any other revolutionary act,” seceding from the United States, “can only be justified by the extremity of oppression.” They were certain that “no such extremity of oppression as will justify revolutionary action has been suffered by the people of the State of Delaware or any of her sister States.” Secession was, they concluded, a “mistaken policy.” 11Delaware Senate Journal, 1861. 50-51. As quoted in Miller, 81.

In the end, of course, Delaware came no closer to secession. This did not mean, however, that they suddenly gave up slavery. Though there were less than 600 slaveowners enslaving around 1,800 slaves within the state, those relative few were fully dedicated to the institution. Despite the fact that over 91% of the state’s black people were free, the slaveowning class were desperate to continue their lifestyle.

Sussex County, which held 75% of the state’s remaining slaves was also a hotbed for secession. There was open support for the Confederate government, and even local militias that were widely thought to be forming for the Southern army. 12Clayton E. Jewett Slavery in the South (Greenwood Press, 2004) 47.

Still, the state remained loyal, furnishing over 12,000 troops to the United States armies, including nearly 1,000 black Americans. The words of the secession commissioners, however, were true. Lincoln’s plan, it seems, was to free the slaves. Before 1861 had ended, he would begin to make serious plans to convince the Delaware legislature to adopt a compensated and gradual emancipation. This, however, is a story for another time.

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Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.