At the dawn of the Civil War, slavery was growing faster in Arkansas than almost everywhere else in the United States.
In 1860, one-fourth of the state’s population was in bondage. In the featured image above, geologist David Dale Owen created an engraving showing a slave pulling water from Lee’s Creek in Crawford County, Arkansas, published in his 1858 report on the geology of the northern counties of the state.
Protecting the institution was in the thoughts and words of Arkansans at that time, according to a new book that examines private and published documents in Arkansas between 1859 and 1861.
Slavery and Secession in Arkansas: A Documentary History, reveals that defending slavery was at the forefront of secession arguments in the state. The book draws from hundreds of sources, including pamphlets, broadsides, legislative debates, public addresses, newspapers and private correspondence.
James Gigantino, a historian at the University of Arkansas who edited the book, said the doctrine of “state’s rights” – often argued as one of the primary causes of the Civil War – also showed up in the documents alongside slaveholding rights.
“But Arkansas’ political actors were more interested in the state’s right to hold slaves more than anything else,” Gigantino said. “In almost every circumstance the political actors were arguing that Arkansas needed to take secession seriously, and the perceived threat that Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party presented to slavery.”
An example of a pro-secession resolution linking slaveholding and states’ rights was from Hempstead County, where slaves represented about 40 percent of the county’s population.
Dated Dec. 24, 1860, the resolution includes the clause, “Resolved, that the institution of slavery, as it exists in the present slaveholding States of this Union, is a constitutional right, secured and recognized by the Constitution of the United States … and that it is the duty of the Congress of the United States to protect this right of property in such slaves in all the common territory belonging to the United States …”
Hempstead County is in the southwest corner of the state. Arkansas’ geography also influenced debates between pro-secessionist Arkansans and those who wanted to remain in the United States, often referred to Unionists.
“Those representing the interests of the state’s largest slaveholding counties in eastern and southern Arkansas were more apt to support secession because they thought the federal government was a threat to their livelihoods,” Gigantino said. “But most political representatives in northern Arkansas, where there were relatively few slaves, were not as interested in secessionism to protect slavery.
“But even in those areas, those Unionists thought the best path to protecting slavery was staying in the Union,” he said.
Gigantino is an associate professor of history in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the U of A. An affiliated faculty member of the African and African American Studies program in Fulbright College, Gigantino is the author of the 2014 book The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775-1865, and editor of The American Revolution in New Jersey: Where Battlefront Meets the Home Front, which was published earlier this year.
Slavery and Secession in Arkansas is published by the University of Arkansas Press as part of its Civil War in the West Series.
Listen to an interview with Gigantino.
Also, learn more about a U of A doctoral graduate’s research into antebellum slavery in Arkansas.