Headline writers have been apoplectic over Donald Trump’s refusal to say whether he will acknowledge the legitimacy of the election results if he is not the winner. The agreed-upon epithet: “unprecedented.” That ignores, of course, the most famous example in our history in which one side refused to concede defeat and allow the country to unite after a contentious election. In 1860, after Abraham Lincoln was elected to the presidency without a single electoral vote from below the Mason-Dixon line, the South seceded from the Union, and the country soon fell into a vicious civil war.
Yet while many believe secession a sin peculiar to the South, there are, in fact, few regions of the country that have not threatened to leave, few groups of people who have not at one time or another thought disunion might be a good idea, and few eras in our history that have long been free from serious sectional strife. From the Hartford Convention of 1814, where New Englanders met to lick their wounds over the unpopular War of 1812, to the nullification crisis of 1832, when South Carolina tried to unilaterally veto federal laws, to the growing Texas independence movement of today, Americans have regularly resorted to the idea of breaking up the Union when things were not going their way.
Yet while previous calls to dissolve the Union stemmed from complaints about the federal government’s preferential treatment for one region or another or its perceived failure to adequately protect slavery, New Englanders were the first to propose secession on purely moral grounds.
Upset with the results of the 1856 presidential election, a group of particularly angry rabble rousers gathered at the old City Hall in Worcester in January 1857 and demanded the immediate dissolution of the United States of America.
The meeting was organized by a handsome 33-year-old local minister named Thomas Wentworth Higginson. In later years, the colorful Higginson would gain fame as a financier of John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Va.; as colonel of the first regiment of black troops to fight in the Civil War (the subject of his fascinating 1869 memoir, “Army Life in a Black Regiment”); and as friend and editor of Emily Dickinson, who famously wrote to him in 1862 to ask, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?”
But in January of 1857 Higginson was still a largely obscure preacher, poet, and all-purpose agitator — an advocate for women’s suffrage, he researched and published statistics on income disparities between men and women. His fervent abolitionism finally led Higginson to the notion, first propagated by William Lloyd Garrison, that the Constitution was a pact with the devil and the Union a compromise with sin. In the weeks after the 1856 presidential election, when the Democratic candidate, James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, defeated John C. Fremont, the first Republican Party presidential nominee (and an energetic opponent of the expansion of slavery in the West), Higginson and many of his fellow abolitionists decided the moment had arrived to launch a full-on campaign to break up the Union.
A call for the meeting appeared in Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, the day after Christmas. “The result of the recent Presidential election” would necessarily “involve four years more of pro-slavery government, and a rapid increase in the hostility between the two sections of the Union,” the paper observed. “This hostility” was the result of “a fundamental difference in education, habits, and laws.” The Union, then, was “a hopeless attempt to unite under one government two antagonistic systems of society, which diverge more widely with every year.” It was “the duty of intelligent and conscientious men to meet these facts with wisdom and firmness,” the call continued, and that meant assembling “to consider the practicability, probability, and expediency, of a Separation between the Free and Slave States.”
Presided over by Francis Bird, a wealthy paper manufacturer from Walpole, the convention was a bold and spirited gathering, a meeting of the minds between Garrisonian abolitionists fully prepared to jettison the Union and radical Republicans who still hoped emancipation might be achieved through the political process. Letters were read from activists and politicians on both sides of the question, and between speeches the Hutchinson Family Singers sang some of their well-known antislavery songs, such as “Get Off the Tracks” and “There’s a Good Time Coming.”
The rhetoric was fiery, the demands revolutionary. “It is time, high time, and long has been time,” said the Rev. Samuel May, Jr., “when we should cut for ever the bloody bond which unites us to the slaveholders, slave-breeders and slave-traders of this nation, and henceforth have no part nor lot with them in the iniquity and infamy which they are determined to perpetuate, and in which so long they have made us, or we have consented to be made, instruments and participants.” Dr. Daniel Mann, the Garrison family’s dentist — in 1841 he had been forcibly ejected from a train after standing up for the rights of black passengers —
The climax of the convention was Garrison’s speech deriding “the pensioned tools of a pro-slavery Government,” including “mercenary traders, whose god is the ‘almighty dollar’” and “wily politicians, who will sacrifice every thing to their unhallowed lust for office.” Garrison dismissed the “ridiculous glorification of a Union which has only served to extend and strengthen slavery, and to weaken and degrade liberty.” The American Revolution had been a good start, he said, but there was more work to be done. “We have tried the experiment for almost three score years, and it has proved a failure,” Garrison said. “The living and the dead must not be bound together.”
Before adjourning, the convention passed a resolution calling for the creation of “a party whose candidates shall be publicly pledged, in the event of their election, to ignore the Federal Government, to refuse an oath to its Constitution, and to make their respective States free and independent communities.”
That call went unheeded, and the Worcester Disunion Convention was long ago forgotten. But it ought to be better known.
In his address to the gathering, Thomas Wentworth Higginson recalled that “Republican presses and orators” had warned throughout the 1856 campaign that Fremont’s candidacy was “the last hope of freedom.” Yet after the election, those same Republicans were unwilling even to consider the idea of breaking up the Union. “The reason why the newspapers do not respect this movement is, that they have got out of the habit of respecting any movement,” Higginson observed. “They know their politics don’t mean any thing; they suspect other men mean no more.”
It will be interesting to see whether the rhetoric and the arguments offered at the Worcester Disunion Convention are echoed, 160 years later, by those supporters of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump who have spoken so apocalyptically about the consequences of the other candidate’s election — or by those who never quite explained what they meant by “Bernie or bust.” “The vast antagonistic powers are brought into collision,” Higginson declared at the end of his speech at the Worcester Disunion Convention. “The earthquake comes — and all we disunionists say is, if it is coming, in God’s name, let it come quickly!”
Richard Kreitner is the assistant editor at The Nation.