The sentiments of the Florida congressional delegation in Washington appear to have followed those of their constituents rather than to have led them in the matter of immediate secession as opposed to a policy of watchful waiting. Senator Yulee, a radical in 1850, so hopeful for the prosperity of Fernandina and the Florida Railroad in 1860, wrote in May that "if the modern Republicans succeed in acquiring possession of the Federal Government, it will be the duty of the Southern States to secede ... until new guaranties of their rights can be obtained; and in failure of this to seek their safety in a new Union of sympathizing and homogeneous States." Yulee, no doubt, belonged to the large minority of southern leaders in 1860-1861 who believed that separation from the old union and formation of a new southern union could be accomplished peacefully. In October 1860 the Florida senator stated: "there is no peace in the land, nor any general harmony between the states; we should arrange together now and at once for living in peace or parting in peace." A month later Yulee, however, in a letter to the General Assembly then about to convene, wrote of his intention to "promptly and joyously return home" to assist the state on secession.
Senator Mallory had remained somewhat aloof in the: turmoil of the decade of the fifties over issues of the North and South. On several occasions the senior senator spoke on the floor of the senate and always in support of the southern rights issue, but never with the earlier radical enthusiasm of Yulee. In 1858 Mallory stated that Republican control which infringed southern rights would induce every effort on his part to induce secession of the affected states. He later wrote he had "believed in secession as a right resulting from state sovereignty," but that he regarded secession "as only another name for revolution."
Representative George S. Hawkins, however, became a "fire-eating radical and plumped for immediate secession." Hawkins refused to serve on a joint committee created to compromise differences between the sections and proudly stated that the call for a state convention in Florida was ample proof that a sovereign state could well settle such important questions at home. Hawkins, unlike Yulee and Mallory, signed the address of thirty southern congressmen which advised their electors to secede and establish a southern nation, for the triumph of the Republican party forebode the future strangulation of southern rights with a denial of equality under the federal constitution and the laws of congress.
In the short campaign for the election of convention delegates the opposition to secession was negligible. If there was an issue, the public discussion revolved around the proposition of immediate secession. The Perry administration, press, and pulpit urged rapid action. When the South Carolina convention voted for secession on December 20 many Floridians were convinced that the gauntlet had been laid down. Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia had also called conventions and Louisiana and Virginia had called special sessions of their legislatures. As a result of the special election the delegates were divided, with a third of convention membership in the moderate group and several delegates who wavered between cooperation and immediate secession.
The convention met to organize on January 3, 1861.Tallahassee was flooded with visitors from over the state, as well as commissioners E. C. Bullock of Alabama and L. W. Spratt of South Carolina. Edmund Ruffin, a rabid fire-eater from Virginia, attended as an unofficial observer and kept a day-to-day account of the proceedings in a diary.
Sixty of the sixty-nine delegates who were members of the convention were present on the first day when a temporary organization was made. There was no meeting on January fourth in deference to President Buchanan's request that the day be observed in fasting and humiliation "on account [wrote Ruffin] of the political dangers and disasters now impending & to be produced not by northern abolitionists, but by the spirit of resistance and disunion of the southern states. The very appointment of the day and service is a rebuke and censure of the seceding states."
The convention delegates and state officials used the day of fast and humiliation to confer on the action necessary to seize the various federal military installations in the state. "The arsenal at Chattahoochee and Fort Marion at St. Augustine were seized by state troops even before passage of the secession ordinance. The Federals were in sufficient force at Pensacola to offer resistance, and the political situation made unwise what military considerations would have dictated." The strength of the union forces and union sentiment at Key West made the union hold on that town secure throughout the entire war.
At Washington Senators Yulee and Mallory wrote the War Department for information on the strength of the federal fortifications and garrisons in Florida, but such intelligence was denied them on the basis of classified matter of interest to the armed forces. On January 5, Yulee wrote Joseph Finegan, a business associate and a delegate to the convention: "The immediately important thing to be done is the occupation of the forts and arsenals in Florida. The Naval Station and forts at Pensacola are first in consequence." Yulee urged Finegan, later a Confederate general, to seek the aid of Georgia troops in the seizure of the forts and also the arsenal at Chattahoochee. Further, Yulee urged the establishment of a confederation of southern states and the formation of a southern army for the defense of the South.
When the secession convention resumed its work on January 5, Judge John C. McGehee of Madison County received forty-seven of the fifty-seven votes cast for president and took the chair. McGehee, an ardent southern rights spokesman, delivered a stirring address in which the threats to slavery arguments of the southern states were reiterated once again. Slavery he found to be the element of all value, a value whose destruction obliterated property. But the peculiar institution meant value to only 5,000 slave holders. The non-slaveholders. feared abolition of slavery as the end of the control of the Negro; they feared the consequences of the social equality of abolition, and likened such an eventuality to the horrors of the Santo Domingo and other insular slave insurrections.
After McGehee's speech the convention was organized with nine standing committees and several lesser officials. The convention began the business for which it had been called when McQueen McIntosh of Apalachicola, who had resigned a federal judgeship on the Republican victory in November, introduced a resolution upholding the right of secession and the necessity of Florida's exercising the right in view of the national political crisis. Two days later, after several amendments had been debated and defeated, the resolution was adopted and the chair appointed a committee to prepare an ordinance of secession. The secession ordinance reached the convention floor on January 9. Jackson Morton and George T. Ward, former Whigs, led a fight of the more conservative members to delay action until Georgia and Alabama had seceded, and further, to require a popular referendum of the electors of the state on the measure. Both proposals were defeated: the delay, 39-30 and the referendum, 41-26. "When it was shown that immediate action could not be blocked, most of the cooperationists declared that they would vote for the ordinance because they felt keenly the political necessity for unanimity. On January 10 the ordinance was passed by a vote of 62 to 7."
Before adjourning on the tenth the convention, by resolution, appointed the judges of the state supreme court to direct the enrolling of the ordinance. The judges, in turn, directed that the ordinance be enrolled on parchment and requested Miss Elizabeth M. Eppes, a lineal descendant of "the immortal author of the first Declaration of American Independence," to bind the document with blue ribbon. On the following day, sixty-four members of the convention proceeded to the east portico of the capitol where the ceremony of signing the ordinance of secession was completed. The ceremony took place before governor-elect Milton, the members of the legislature, Supreme Court, governor's cabinet, and many citizens. After the last member had signed, the state seal was affixed and McGehee announced that Florida was a free, sovereign, and independent state and that all connections with the United States were at an end.
Secession was the occasion for spontaneous celebrations in Tallahassee and other towns in the state. Parades, gun salutes, numerous toasts and speeches were in evidence as the jubilation over secession spread. "Little did the people of Florida realize that they had embarked on a course which was to lead to the destruction of the social and economic institutions and of the way of life which they were determined to preserve?"
The news of secession in Florida reached Washington by telegraph and Yulee and Mallory refrained from participation in the proceedings of the Senate, but did not make a formal withdrawal until January 21. In his farewell speech Yulee reminded the Senate that one of the conditions of the cession of Florida from Spain to the United States was that the residents of the territory should be admitted into the union on terms of equality with the citizens of that nation. Thus, in seceding, Florida was but exercising the equality gained on entrance into the union in 1845. Mallory was more eloquent when he said: "From the Union, governed by the Constitution as our fathers made it, there breathes not a secessionist upon her soil, but a deep sense of injustice, inequality and insecurity ... is brought home to the reason and patriotism of her people; and to secure and maintain these rights which the Constitution no longer accords them, they have placed the State of Florida out of the Confederacy." Mallory concluded with the statement: "We seek not to war upon, or to conquer you; and we know that you cannot conquer us."
April 1861 brought the seceding states face to face with the beginning of armed hostilities. The first gun at Charleston in the fight over Fort Sumter had been fired on the twelfth. Three days later Lincoln called for 75,000 militiamen to quiet the disturbances in the southern states; the "brothers' war" had begun. In Florida, the administration of Perry carried on until October, while the three Florida members of the Provisional Congress of the Confederacy served until February 17, 1862. In addition to the three representatives chosen by the 1861 Convention George T. Ward and John P. Sanderson served in the Provisional Congress on the resignations of Patton Anderson and Ward. James B. Owens and Jackson Morton served out one-year terms. With the organization of the First Congress, Augustus E. Maxwell and James M. Baker served as senators through the four sessions of the First Congress and the two sessions of the Second Congress, all of which were held at Richmond. Robert B. Hilton served as a Representative in both Congresses while James B. Dawkins and John M. Martin divided the term of the second representative in the First Congress and S. St. George Rogers was Hilton's colleague in the Second Congress. "Politically Jackson Morton and George T. Ward had been at first Whigs and later Constitutional Unionists. Owens, Sanderson and Martin were Democrats. Anderson, Morton, Ward and Martin, each served in the Confederate army after their terms in Congress." Both Maxwell and Baker, the two senators, were Democrats.