Like all the extremists who ultimately made a revolution, [John] Quitman considered southern moderation the barrier to destiny. He saw southern national party politicians as keepers of slaveholders’ prison. In their hunger for national party patronage, politicos dumbed down awareness of the South’s dangerous problems and taught the folk to cherish compromised solutions. Like [William L.] Yancey and all the other ultras, whether they operated inside or outside a national party, Quitman meant to find the issue that would remove the blinders from falsely educated eyes.
Yet what made this charismatic educator so unforgettable was less his success at teaching Southerners to be ultras than his capacity to stay simultaneously northern – to remain a very shrewd and practical operator – even in his highest southern flights. No other southern extremist charged ahead so recklessly – or reconsidered so cautiously. Before his Cuban adventure, this Mississippi governor advocated disunion, in response to the Compromise of 1850. In his typical buccaneering spirit, the governor told South Carolina secessionists to back off for a moment. Then he would lead Mississippi out of the Union first. Skittish South Carolinians gladly obliged. But Quitman, after reconsidering, saw that his pledge had come too soon. So momentum was lost, secession folded, and the chagrined fire-eater learned never to move again until he had the firepower to triumph. By accepting that lesson, Quitman showed he was no [William] Walker, no [Narciso] López, just a shrewd ex-Yankee who sought to make practicality a hallmark of the southern extremist.