The gathering tempest: The role of Mississippi newspapers in the secession crisis, 1860-1861

Nancy McKenzie Dupont


The severity of the Southern response to the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 has led some historians and legal scholars to conclude that residents of the slave states were unanimous in their agreement to secede from the Union. For secession supporters to achieve such hegemony, there must have been a breakdown in freedom of speech during the secession crisis, or so scholars have concluded. The ideological domination of the Southern mind would have been evidence in newspapers, the only mass medium available to Americans in 1860. Furthermore, the breakdown of democratic discussion would be apparent in the newspapers of Mississippi, the second state to decide to leave the Union. Mississippi newspapers show that while the state was in agreement that slavery should be maintained, there was a lively discussion over the proper response to the election of an avowed abolitionist. Although the state had its share of fire-eating, pro-secessionist editors, it also featured other editors who advocated alternatives to immediate secession. Although their reach may have been limited by Mississippi's high illiteracy rate and the rural nature of the state, the newspapers contain evidence of a lively discussion of secession, its legality, its desirability, and its effect on the state's future. An examination of Mississippi's newspapers from the secession crisis provides ample documentation that assumptions and myths about the South's accord before the Civil War are incorrect. Secession advocates achieved their goal and, indeed, may have achieved majority support, but the decision to secede in Mississippi was far from unanimous.