The Road to Oligarchic Peace: Comparing the Nashville Conventions of 1850 and the Severodonetsk Congress of 2004

by Daria Platonova

5 November 2019

During the Orange Revolution, the people of Ukraine spontaneously took to the streets in what would become known as the country’s “first” Maidan (Image credit: WikiMedia/Sirhey).

In March 1850, following a compromise motion on slavery tabled by Henry Clay in the US Congress and the debates that ensued John Calhoun, a statesman from the slave-holding state of South Carolina, threatened the “aggressive” North with southern secession if it continued to encroach upon the rights of the South in relation to slavery. He said: “If you, who represent the stronger portion, cannot agree to settle [the questions] on the broad principle of justice and duty, say so; and let the States we both represent agree to separate and part in peace.” This statement was followed by two Nashville Conventions in Tennessee at which the southern states debated the Compromise and the potential for secession. In the end, moderation prevailed.

Fast forward a century and a half and in a different country, in 2004, regional deputies took a more radical action than their American counterparts in a series of congresses held in eastern Ukraine and proposed the secession of the east, after mass protests erupted in Kyiv in a phenomenon known as the Orange Revolution. Like Calhoun in America, during the Severodonetsk Congress (Luhansk region) on the 28 November 2004, the chairman of the Donetsk regional council, Borys Kolesnikov similarly couched his message to the deputies in the language of rights: the people of the East exercised their constitutional right to elect Yanukovych, and neither the Ukrainian Parliament nor Viktor Yushchenko could violate it.

After a decade, both countries were plunged into war.[1] In this article, I argue that a comparison between the secessionist endeavours in the United States and Ukraine indicates that, to put it very broadly, internal wars are not caused by some primordial animosities and differences between ethnicities (the so-called “ancient hatreds”). Rather it is the breakdown of an “oligarchic” peace that accounts for internal wars. Here, the different sectional, political and economic interests are held more or less in equilibrium. In this regard, it are especially the compromises that are made between elites that accounts for internal wars.  Indeed, elite compromise is an essential part of a peace process.

On the surface, Ukraine in the post-Soviet period and the United States in the mid-19th century evolved as quintessential “divided societies”. The South in the US was largely agricultural. Slavery, as an economic system, naturally encompassed nearly every aspect of life, and therefore had an undeniable impact on culture and politics of the South. The North, by contrast, was industrialised, with no toleration for slavery. The historian Kenneth Stampp describes the differences between the two sections of the US in the following terms: these were “Southern farmers and planters… and Northern merchants, manufacturers, bondholders, and speculators.” The historian Lee Benson describes the United States at that time as “bicultural,” although there are debates whether the South was a truly distinctive “civilisation”.

The post-Soviet Ukraine developed along the lines of a divided society as a result of its turbulent history: as in America, similar regional divisions existed between the agriculture and services-dominated West and the industrialised East. In Ukraine, the divisions were reflected not only in the political economy of the different regions but also in voting behaviour, the use of Ukrainian and Russian languages, and opinions on the political situation.

In the US, the vital interests of the South were periodically threatened by the North. The two parts of country therefore existed in an uneasy union. In Ukraine, similarly, there were tensions between the West and the East, with the East often resisting the Ukrainisation campaigns (the introduction of the Ukrainian language), showcasing a higher inclination towards Russia, while the West of the country sought closer ties with the European Union and NATO.

In the United States, the pressure to abolish slavery in the South had been building up for a long time. The North criticised the institution of slavery and issued legislation limiting economic growth there. After the Mexican-American war (1848), the major issue facing the Union was whether slavery should be permitted on the new territories. A Compromise was devised by Clay which allowed certain territories to decide the slavery issue for themselves, while entrenching the existing rights of the South to their property in slaves. Continuous debates were held in the Congress for the next several months, with the aim of averting a simmering crisis. Calhoun and the “fire-eaters” (as the radical group of Southerners were called) however argued that the continuing “Northern aggressions” were threatening the state of the Union. The Nashville Conventions inspired by Calhoun were therefore expected to be radical undertakings to demonstrate the unity of the southern states to the North and put pressure on it to ceased its aggressions.

The two Nashville Conventions held in June 1850 and November 1850, however, were by all means moderate. There were some radical Southerners present but, in the end the delegates adopted a “wait-and-see attitude”. They condemned Clay’s Compromise and also the Compromise that was enacted by the Congress in September 1850, issued calls for an extension of the Missouri Compromise Line to the Pacific Ocean, and agreed to meet again. In essence, the Conventions were held in order to demonstrate to the North that the South could act as a single front. In doing so, conflict was avoided.

It can be argued that the reason why the moderates prevailed in America was because the Compromise did not threaten the prevailing “oligarchic peace.” In other words, the Compromise did not endanger the representation of the South in American politics.  As McPherson writes: “California… did not tip the balance in the Senate against the South”. The South still wielded a lot of power in the country. Henry Wilson goes on to write on the power of the South: “They had dictated principles, shaped policies, made Presidents and cabinets, judges of the Supreme Court, Senators, and Representatives”.

In Ukraine, galvanised by the dissatisfaction with the incumbent President Leonid Kuchma’s rule and the outrage at the fraudulent election of his chosen successor Viktor Yanukovych to the Presidency, people in Kyiv and Ukrainian regions took to the streets on that 22 November 2004. These gatherings came to be known as the Orange Revolution. In response to the pickets of the Ukrainian Parliament by the competing candidate from the West Viktor Yushchenko, and the recognition of Yushchenko as president in western Ukraine, the disgruntled deputies in the eastern regions organised a series of congresses attended by delegates from almost all across those regions. They proposed radical actions to tilt the balance back in favour of the East and to force the Parliament and Yushchenko to recognise the unalienable right of eastern Ukrainians to choose their own president. Accordingly, on the 26 November, the deputies of the Kharkiv regional council supported the creation of the South-Eastern Autonomous Republic. The Kharkiv governor Evhen Kushnaryov ruled that no budgetary transfers were to be made to the centre. The regional council deputies proposed to concentrate all power in the regional council and on the 27th of November, the council refused to recognise the central government.

Similar developments took place in other regions. On 28 November 2004, the Donetsk regional council decided to hold a regional referendum in December on granting the Donetsk region a status of an autonomous region within the “Ukrainian federation”. On the same day, the famous “separatist” congress was held in Severodonetsk in the Luhansk region. Following the Congress, a union of all regions was created and the chairman of the Donetsk regional council Borys Kolesnikov was chosen as its head. Kolesnikov proposed to create a “new federal state in the form of a South-Eastern Republic with the capital in Kharkiv,” if Yushchenko won the presidential election.

However, as in America, the conflict was avoided and, in the end, moderation prevailed. Again, the talks between the opposing camps of Yushchenko and Yanukovych carried on through the crisis period. The election results were cancelled, a new election day was agreed, and, most importantly, the two competing sides agreed to a major amendment in the Ukrainian constitution. Like Clay’s compromise, Kuchma’s amendments to the Ukrainian Constitution appeared to save the day. The Constitution was to divide the executive (Hale) and grant more power to the Prime Minister and Parliament. This ensured that Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions, despite now going into opposition, could still wield enormous power in Ukrainian politics. Hence, in the elections of 2006 the Party of Regions won plurality in Parliament and Yanukovych came back as Prime Minister. Yanukovych’s Donetsk clan continued to play an important role in politics.

The historical experience of the US before the Civil War demonstrates that when compromises between elites are made and some deeply entrenched elites are still able to stay in power, a conflict can be avoided. With the election of Abraham Lincoln on the 6 November 1860, it can be argued that the elite compromise ceased to work for the South. In the case of Yanukovych, he fled in February 2014 and left the dominant network of the Party of Regions and its members in disarray. It follows therefore that wars are not caused by primordial ethnic hatreds but by the break down of elite compromises.


[1] This is not a place to discuss whether the war in Ukraine is a civil or any other kind of war. This discussion would merit another article altogether.


Daria is a PhD student at King’s College London. Her research focuses on violence and the unfolding of conflict across several regions in eastern Ukraine, 2013 – 2014. She also leads one of the Causes of War seminars in the War Studies Department. Prior to joining King’s, she worked as a teacher. She graduated with a degree in History from the University of Cambridge in 2011. Her broader interests include European history, war studies, and interdisciplinary methods.

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