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Paranoia and American History

The Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style

by David Brion Davis
Louisiana State University Press, 97 pp., $4.00

Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War

by Eric Foner
Oxford, 353 pp., $2.75 (paper)

Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War

by David Donald
Knopf, 392 pp., $8.95

Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man

by David Donald
Knopf, 595 pp., $15.00

How does one account for America’s sometimes violent past political divisions? Few historians now accept Charles Beard’s view, popular earlier in the century, that a continual struggle between rich and poor explains American strife. Much of the best historical work since the Second World War has undermined Beard’s claims. But as the criticism has proceeded, no convincing alternative to Beard’s theory has emerged. Years ago, a few “consensus” historians sought to turn Beard upside down. They urged that American history is a story of unity, not of conflict; of shared values, not of social warfare. Their influence, while great in the 1950s, now seems to be waning. The consensus view does not square, among other things, with the fact of two savage internal wars between 1776 and 1866.

As awareness of internal American conflict mounts, and as Beard’s explanations become obsolete, historians have two choices. One, not yet pursued with sufficient vigor, is to find a new social basis for political controversy. If the split which Beard stressed between rich and poor will not work, a more subtle study of class, racial, ethnic, and sectional antagonisms may explain why America has at least twice come apart at the seams.

A second possibility, which now promises to be the latest form of orthodoxy, is to construct psychological explanations for American history. The new psychological historians tend to accept the consensus view of American society. They find an understanding of political controversy not in divisive social reality but rather in paranoid misperceptions of a reality hardly divided at all. The psychological historians’ work depends on the important truth that what men perceive at the time, not what historians later know to be true, governs the historical process. Their work has been encouraged by the relatively recent acceptance in this country of intellectual history, with its emphasis on ideas, beliefs, and persuasions. More important, the new psychological historians have arrived at a time when Freudian explanations are all the rage. Where “hang ups” are thought to explain so much, why not find paranoia throughout our history?

During the past decade, every American struggle has been reinterpreted from the perspective of psychoanalysis. Bernard Bailyn, in his brilliant and influential reinterpretation of the American Revolution, has claimed that the War for Independence can largely be accounted for by the colonists’ paranoid fear of a conspiracy against liberty in England.1 John Howe, following Bailyn, has urged that the fight between the followers of Jefferson and those of Hamilton was largely a clash between paranoids who felt threatened by monarchical conspiracies and paranoids obsessed with Jacobin plots.2 Now, in The Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style, David Brion Davis applies similar psychological methods to the coming of the Civil War.

Civil War historiography has long been ripe for such an interpretation. During the 1930s, when most historians found evidence for Beard’s divisions between rich and poor everywhere, an influential group of revisionist historians denied that anything basic divided ante-bellum Northerners and Southerners. James Randall and Avery Craven, for example, argued that Northerners and Southerners did not differ enough on slavery or on race to make war inevitable. Instead, a group of blundering politicians irresponsibly whipped up a hysterical crisis and an unnecessary war.

This interpretation has at least one serious weakness. While Craven and Randall tended to blame paranoia and delusions on irresponsible agitators, they never explained why prewar society, North and South, was so susceptible to such agitation. No wonder that Professor Davis, an expert on paranoid thinking in ante-bellum America, has addressed his new psychological history to precisely this question.

Davis’s answer, in his short and deftly written book, is that nineteenth-century American society was peculiarly mobile, with men moving up and down the social scale and from place to place. In such a society successful men had to adopt one role after another, which produced psychological insecurity, a lack of trust, and a suspicion that other men were not what they appeared. Everyone played roles. Nothing was as it seemed. Thus ante-bellum Southerners could not believe that Northerners were honest in saying that they would leave slavery alone. Slaveholders saw abolitionist conspiracies everywhere. Northerners, in turn, were obsessed with a supposed conspiracy by slaveholders to dominate the Union. “There is something almost providential,” writes Davis, “in the way that the paranoid style, for all its irrationality, finally enabled significant numbers of Americans to perceive the evil of” slavery.

Davis claims that he is not writing about the causes of the Civil War or about the degree of reality behind the paranoia he describes. His argument, however, blunts his claim. It makes no sense to call a view paranoid or to explain it by a theory of role playing if the view is realistic and corresponds to what is objectively happening. Was there, for example, a significant degree of truth in the Republican fear that a slaveholding minority was in control of a nation supposedly based on majority rule? Everything we know about national politics in the 1850s indicates a pattern, if not of Southern conspiracy, at least of tenacious Southern domination which contemporaries could plausibly have seen as conspiratorial. Again, was there a significant degree of truth in Southern fears that antislavery Republicans were playing the role of conservatives in order to gain power to make radical changes? Is prewar rhetoric, in short, irrational and absurd or does it describe real and mortal danger?

By failing to face such questions, Davis reveals the weakness of the new psychological school. He also reveals the failure of that school to learn from some of the most interesting work in current psychiatry. Some psychoanalysts, led by R. D. Laing, emphasize that children who have perceptions that seem schizophrenic are reflecting, in their own way, the schizophrenia-producing situation they face. Mortal danger may cause distorted views of reality. But the distortions, if one learns these children’s vocabulary, illuminate the danger itself. Taking their clue from Laing, historians must ask—as scholars such as Davis characteristically fail to ask—whether irrational-sounding rhetoric offers clues to real social conflict.

Eric Foner’s recent book, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, suggests that ante-bellum Southerners may indeed have been something other than paranoid in fearing that Republicans were abolitionists. His is the first full-scale study of Republican ideology since the work of the revisionists. The book argues that such men as Abraham Lincoln thought their own society, based on free labor, majority rule, and open opportunity, was irretrievably in conflict with a Southern society based on slave labor, minority rule, and closed institutions. Republicans believed that an aggressive “slave power” threatened the best features of life in the North.

Although claiming that they wanted only to contain this slave power, some Republicans hoped to dismantle slavery itself. Radical Republicans, a substantial element in the party, believed that removing positive federal guarantees of states’ rights would weaken slavery. They hoped, at the same time, to guarantee free speech in the South, and to use federal patronage to form a Southern Republican party. With federal protection removed and the closed Southern society cracking open, Southern abolitionists would emerge and eventually bring slavery to its knees.

Foner tries to explain how such a radical ideology could have flourished in a conservative nation. He rejects the argument, now fashionable, that Republicans triumphed over Democrats because they were racists, with solid claims to being the real “white man’s party.” If some Republicans were bigots, others were not, and few believed blacks ought to be enslaved. What made Republican idealism respectable was not its tinge of racism but rather its appearance of conservatism. Republicans repeated in thousands of ways that they merely sought to conserve hallowed American traditions of majority rule and entrepreneurial virtue against slaveholders bent on destroying both. In so far as more radical Republicans sought to attack slavery, they intended to do little more than establish the conditions under which the South would reform itself. They could thus move to end slavery while taking slight action in Washington. They had found a way to make cautious Northerners swallow an extremist view. No wonder Southerners felt threatened.

Foner lays out this dramatic argument with precision. Yet, at times, one wishes this impressive book had still other virtues. Like so many other current academic histories, Foner’s volume lacks color. It conveys little of the drama of the time and none of the qualities of the eccentric characters who inspired the Republican crusade. Moreover, when Foner argues that the Republican idea of free labor was “a product” of an “expanding, enterprising, competitive society,” he seems to be suggesting a Marxist analysis, but he does not pursue it. The ensuing confusion about the origins of ideology is increased by a tendency to catalogue various arguments and imply that they are all equally important. Finally Foner does not say as much as he might about the way Republican ideas changed over time and from place to place. These shortcomings, however, must not obscure the fact that Eric Foner supplies the best guide yet written to the Republican position in the years before the Civil War. His is an important study which no one interested in our past can ignore.

Still, the value of Foner’s contribution to Civil War historiography—and the degree to which his arguments are more convincing than those of David B. Davis—will in the long run depend on work that examines a more extended period in greater detail. We must find out, for example, whether Southerners broke up the Union precisely because they feared that an open debate in the South would destroy slavery. We must also ascertain whether radical Republicans possessed enough power in the Lincoln Administration to have made such a debate possible. Much remains to be done on both problems. But David Donald’s fine new Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man indicates that radical Republicans had at least some influence over President Lincoln and thereby casts further doubt on Davis’s emphasis on paranoia.

Donald’s book is the second and final volume of his life of Sumner. The first, Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War, published a decade ago, traced Sumner’s career until the eve of the Civil War. It described his election as an antislavery senator from Massachusetts in the 1850s, his career as chief tormenter of the ante-bellum South in the Senate and his martyrdom in 1856 after he was brutally assaulted on the Senate floor by Preston Brooks, the nephew of Senator Butler of South Carolina, whom Sumner had attacked. The second volume describes Sumner’s role in emancipation, his relentless fight for racial equality during Reconstruction, and his fall from power during a squabble over foreign policy in the 1870s. Both books provide a brilliant portrait of a dominant figure in the American radical tradition.

While he obviously sympathizes with Sumner’s ideological position, Donald also describes his pomposity, sense of martyrdom, and overblown rhetoric, qualities of which contemporaries were well aware. Sumner lived for his principles. He had little time for people and no time for dogs. He proclaimed stirring principles in violently abusive speeches practiced for hours in the bedroom. Few liked his company, and Donald gives Sumner’s opponents a hearing. The biography also contains many quotations from humanitarians, who loved Sumner for his principles.

The real question, however, is not so much what contemporaries thought of Sumner as how his remarkable career was possible at all. An ideologue who dreamed of a utopia where all the enslaved would be freed and made equals, Sumner thrived in the Senate for two decades, in spite of his abrasive manners and his revolutionary principles. He was that most unusual of American politicians, an extreme radical who was working on the inside. During the Lincoln Administration, as Donald makes clear in the most fascinating part of the second volume, Sumner was a powerful figure in Washington. If Southerners were afraid Lincoln would listen to Charles Sumner, they were not deluded but right. How did Sumner do it?

This question has obviously obsessed Donald, and his answer forms the main theme of the biography. In Volume I, Donald argues that Sumner owed his unlikely victory in his first campaign for the Senate in 1851 to a temporary bargain between a small group of Free Soil antislavery zealots in Massachusetts and a large coalition of hungry Democratic politicians. In return for elevating Sumner to the Senate, the Democrats gained control of state offices. For the next few years, Sumner would have lost badly if he had been up for re-election. Chance intervened. Preston Brooks’s vicious assault made Sumner a martyr at the very time his enemies were plotting to destroy him. While still suffering from the physical effects of Brooks’s attack he was triumphantly re-elected in 1857. In spite of the best efforts of his doctors to kill him, he returned to Washington two years later and served, notwithstanding the ironic sources of his power, as the symbol of diabolical Republicanism to Southerners fleeing from the Union.

In the second volume, Donald tries to account for Sumner’s rise to still greater influence during Lincoln’s Administration. The President, although exasperated by Sumner’s prodding on racial issues, considered the Massachusetts senator too important to be ignored. He consulted Sumner often, and Sumner helped to persuade Lincoln to move against slavery in 1862-3. In return, Sumner was able to maintain radical Republican support of Lincoln whenever the President seemed reluctant to press for abolition. The two, working together, kept their party together and turned it into an agent of emancipation. For the first and perhaps the only time in American history, a radical force sat at the right arm of power and at least partially prevailed.

Donald shows that events outside Sumner’s control made his success possible. The more the war dragged on, the more emancipation of slaves seemed necessary to win it. Furthermore, Lincoln, though hardly a fanatic, believed as devoutly as Sumner in the horror of slavery. His Emancipation Proclamation, however careful its wording, was an act of genuine feeling.

But Sumner was also a skillful politician. He often moved in Washington with a subtle skill at bargaining and timing which extremists seldom possess. Most important of all, Sumner was not merely obsessed by one idea. He was as interested in foreign policy as he was in racial justice. He became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and had wide acquaintance among European intellectuals. He was thus powerful enough to exert strong pressure against Secretary of State William H. Seward, the Administration’s leading racial conservative. In order to deal with the complexities of Civil War diplomacy, Lincoln sometimes needed Sumner almost as badly as the radicals needed the President. For example, Sumner’s moderate position during the Trent affair helped Lincoln to avert a break in the Union’s relations with England. By the end of the war, Sumner’s extraordinary good fortune and his own considerable political talents had gained for him a position in Washington that few would have thought possible.

After Lincoln died, Sumner slowly lost his influence. He spoke out loudly, with some effect, for color-blind democracy in the Reconstruction years. But now he became an “outside agitator,” still sitting in the Senate but increasingly estranged from the center of power. During the 1870s, ironically, the same fascination with foreign policy which had made him useful to Lincoln made him abhorrent to Grant. Though his last great battle was fought against Grant’s scheme to annex Santo Domingo in 1871, until he died he was obsessed with civil rights. When the time for eulogies came, contemporaries knew that Sumner had touched most aspects of their lives.

Donald tells this fascinating story vividly. At times, in his zeal to correct the common notion of Sumner as an obsessed equalitarian fanatic, he devotes perhaps disproportionate space to foreign policy. Moreover, Donald may have been too arbitrary when he decided to discuss Sumner’s psychological problems in the first volume and then assume that no more need be said about such matters in the second volume. For example, his judicious discussion of Sumner’s ugly marriage in the second volume might have been even more compelling if some of the psychological analysis of the first book had been restated.

Some radical historians will find these qualms too mild. They will say of this book, as of the earlier one, that Donald dwells too much on Sumner’s pompous qualities and puts too much emphasis on his political motives.

But Donald is, I think, right to find Sumner’s inflated manner essential to understanding the man and irrelevant to evaluating his crusades. As to Sumner’s political motives, Donald’s guesses about the reasons for his subject’s intrigues—and he admits they are no more than guesses—may occasionally reflect his zeal to show how adroitly Sumner maneuvered in Washington. The speculations of his critics, on the other hand, may reflect their own concern to see the senator as a purist crusader. At any rate, here, as in his long discussions of foreign policy, Donald can be accused of no more than displaying the defect of his virtues. Precisely because he shows so convincingly that Sumner was no one-idea utopian, Donald masterfully describes and explains the triumphs of a great American abolitionist.

Whether or not they concur in this estimate, radical historians will have to agree that Donald’s biography reveals how dangerous Foner’s crusaders could be. These books, taken together, indicate that Southerners may have been partly realistic and hardly “paranoid” in believing that Republicans slipped from role to role in their eternal quest to arouse the nation. Prewar Republicans presented themselves as conservatives and they espoused revolutionary doctrines. Charles Sumner used his maneuvers on the Foreign Relations Committee to ingratiate himself with Lincoln. These were precisely the sly and diabolical methods Southerners expected the antislavery demon would use. Here, just possibly, may lie one essential ingredient for a new explanation of the causes of the Civil War.

This is not to urge David B. Davis or any other historian to eschew psychoanalytic insights. But what historians, no less than psychiatrists, must remember is that monstrous fears feed on monstrous realities. The psychiatrist’s task is to weed out distorted perceptions from real ones, pointing out how paranoias appropriately caused by traumas become inappropriate ways to respond to situations which are not traumatic at all. In this process the psychiatrist, who meets his patient face to face for years, can understand perceptions far more completely than can the historian, who must rely on letters and recollections. This is why, for example, David Donald must often merely guess at Charles Sumner’s motives. The historian, however, does not have to guess at discrepancies between perceptions and reality. His sources enable him constantly to compare inflamed rhetoric with the flaming environment.

Historians must seize that opportunity. The divisions in American society were more subtle ones than Charles Beard supposed. But subtle conflicts, as the Southern response to the Republicans shows, can cause as much anger as broad ones. The ensuing fury, by producing confusion and paranoia, may explode in wild and violent political decisions. The fury, however, must be followed back to the reality that caused it as well as ahead to the delusions about it. When American historians come to terms with both possibilities they may be in the best position since Beard’s influence declined to understand the controversies that have torn apart their nation.

Letters

Paranoid History December 2, 1971

  1. 1

    Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Harvard, 1967).

  2. 2

    John R. Howe, Jr., “Republican Thought and the Political Violence of the 1790’s,” American Quarterly (Summer, 1967), pp. 147-165. I have contributed more than I now think wise to this trend myself. See William W. Freehling, Prelude to Civil War (Harper & Row, 1966), especially Ch. 3.

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