Michael P. Johnson,
Toward a Patriarchal Republic:
The Secession of Georgia

(Louisiana State University Press, 1977)

The intricacies of Southern political and social thought are very well reflected in Michael P. Johnson's study of secession in Georgia.

Johnson rejects the traditional explanations of Georgian secession: that Georgians misinterpreted the threat posed by Lincoln's election and fell victim to fire-eater rhetoric or that the electorate, allowed a new role in determining state policy in the wake of the collapse of political parties in 1860, led Georgia out of the Union in a wave of passion. He follows up on Eugene Genovese's view that slavery's ascension to a priority greater than that of the Union's preservation led to secession, and that the movement was led by the planter elite.

Working on the basis of contemporary explanations of the crisis, Johnson argues that secession was a rational decision made by state leaders. Significantly, though, he identifies the threat behind secession as being not the external threat posed by abolitionism so much as the internal threat within Georgian society itself. He stresses the fact that deep divisions manifested themselves in the debates over secession, in Georgia and across the South. The planter elite, he suggests, saw the crisis as a test of their hegemony in the state; they supposedly worried that their fellow slaveholders would eventually be won over by Republican rhetoric, especially if it manifested itself in the form of patronage enticements. Because slaveholders were unsure as to the long-term commitment to slavery by members of their own circle, they seceded in order to forestall the penetration of the Republican party into Georgia. According to Johnson, there was no ideological consensus behind the state's secession.

Johnson describes a double revolution in Georgia. The first revolution was one for home rule; this involved eliminating the external threat to Southern society, and it was achieved by the decision to secede from the Union. Attention was then turned to a revolution that was internal in nature, the struggle for who would rule at home. This problem was addressed by drafting a new state constitution, one guaranteeing power to the planter elite. He concludes that "secession was driven by political conflict not only between the South and the North but also between the black belt and the upcountry, slaveholders and nonslaveholders, and those who feared democracy and those who valued it."

In the battle for who would rule at home, Johnson describes how the elite created a "patriarchal republic" designed so as to mollify internal discord within white Georgian society. This patriarchal republic, free of the potential excesses of democracy, would soon be destroyed by the War Between the States.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 14 May 2005

Buy it from Amazon.com.