"At the South, and with our People of course, slavery is the element of all value, and a destruction of that destroys all that is property."
—President John C. McGehee, Florida Secession Convention
“As we stand our doom is decreed,”
John C. McGehee declared on January 5, 1861. As President of Florida’s secession convention, he believed remaining in the Union meant allowing rule by those who were "sectional, irresponsible to us, and driven on by an infuriated fanatical madness that defies all opposition" and who would "destroy every vestige of right growing out of property in slaves."
The controversy over slavery was not new to the United States. Between 1820-1859, several key turning points in the struggle over slavery brought the issue to a boiling point. Then, in November 1860, Abraham Lincoln became the next president of the United States. His victory triggered cries of disunion across the South.
McGehee owned 100 enslaved people. It was the foundation of his wealth and power. In 1860 enslaved people were valued at $3 billion, or more than all the farmland in the South, and only gaining value. In Florida, 44% of the population were not citizens but property.
The secession convention had 69 delegates representing Florida’s 36 counties. Every delegate was a white male owning, on average, 10 enslaved people. They argued and debated about when, not if, to secede. A majority favored immediate secession while some wanted to wait until Georgia and Alabama left first.
The convention met in Tallahassee, Florida’s capital, for seven days. Men and women alike filled the meeting hall to hear speeches. On January 7, Leonidas W. Spratt, a visiting secession commissioner from South Carolina, gave his reason why Florida should leave.
“The one is the society of one race, the other of two races. The one is based on free labor, the other slave labor. The one is braced together by but the two great relations of life—the relations of husband and wife, and parent and child; the other by the three relations of husband and wife, parent and child, and master and slave. The one embodies the social principle that equality is the right of man; the other, the social principle that equality is not the right of man, but the right of equals only."
Delegates voted on January 10: 62 delegates voted yea and seven nays. "Then was heard from the people who thronged the hall one simultaneous shout declaratory of the dawn of liberty," one reporter wrote. "The cannon opened their fiery mouths in honor of the fifteen slaveholding States, and announced that Florida had become an independent republic."
Florida listed reasons for leaving the Union in its Declaration of Causes for Seceding. Each complaint related to slavery—the North's disregard for the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, John Brown’s 1859 failed slave uprising, William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator and Frederick Douglass’ The North Star tried to "excite insurrection and servile war," delegates wrote bitterly. Lincoln’s election placed the final nail in the coffin.
Florida became the third state to secede from the Union. The state played an essential role during the secession crisis by standing shoulder-to-shoulder with South Carolina and Mississippi, which seceded earlier. Florida joined the South in its bid to form a slave republic. On January 10, 1861, Florida seceded from the Union to protect the foundation of its wealth and power—slavery. In doing so, it helped propel the United States into four long years of civil war.