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The South Against Itself

The Road to Disunion: Vol. I: Secessionists at Bay, 1776–1854

by William W. Freehling
Oxford University Press, 640 pp., $30.00

Ken Burns’s highly popular TV series on the Civil War last year barely touched on the “cold war” between the advocates and opponents of slavery that preceded the clash of arms. Yet the tensions between North and South posed problems very much alive today, when disputes over sovereignty and separatism, nationalism and local rights dominate headlines, just as they did in the pre–Civil War United States. As C. Vann Woodward has often reminded us, Southerners should be particularly aware of how predicaments in current world history bear analogy to circumstances in their region’s dark and distinctive past.

In The Road to Disunion, the first of two volumes, William W. Freehling seeks to retrieve a time when the early Republic had not yet become a cohesive nation. As Stanley Elkins pointed out some years ago, the federal union was fragile and relatively lacking in institutional life.1 The country was held together largely by common memories of Revolutionary triumph and the making of the Constitution—and mutual indifference. To most rural Northerners, African-American slaveholding seemed as remote as the Hindus’ suttee. Southern whites were equally removed from the life of Northern cities and factories. Moreover, as Freehling observes, “in the provincial and insular southern world, all outsiders were suspect.”

Indeed, America before the Civil War was little more than a collection of state baronies—not much different from the North German Confederation before Bismarck completed unification. We forget that the United States Postal Service was the only part of the federal government with which the average citizen had much contact. The army was tiny and scattered, the federal court system primitive in its organization, sessions of Congress brief. Except for James K. Polk, who worked long hours, presidents from John Adams through James Buchanan spent more time at their country estates than they did in the White House.

A lack of cohesiveness, Freehling argues, was very evident in the South itself. So “many destinies beckoned,” so many “ossified cultures and raw frontiers divided the South,” he notes, that regional unity was virtually impossible. The Southern leaders even had a theory to justify local waywardness: states’ rights. That doctrine has been little heard of since the collapse of George Wallace’s presidential dreams, but before the Civil War it was a cardinal principle of governance, particularly as Southern whites grew more and more worried about Northern economic and political strength.

In The Road to Disunion Freehling takes a fresh approach to these circumstances. Rather than ask why the Union broke apart when it did, he asks why it did not break up sooner. Freehling is the author of Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Crisis in South Carolina, 1816–1836 (1966), in which he showed how South Carolinians were as concerned to safeguard slavery as to protest a national protective tariff. His new study deals with many of the same political and racial themes across a broader landscape and during a longer period.

Freehling assumes, but does not say, that Southern loyalty to the Union before the Civil War was a matter of contingency—what David M. Potter has explored under the label of “Conditional Unionism.”2 Southern adherence to the Union rested on an implicit but clear condition: so long as control of the core issue of race was strictly left in safe, white, and Southern hands, affiliation with non-slaveholding states could be tolerated; political bargains could be struck with Northern politicians; and federal patronage claims adjusted along sectional lines. Apparently to show how fierce Southerners could be when Southern control over blacks was threatened, Freehling begins his book by describing how Robert Barnwell Rhett, the South Carolina fire-eating secessionist, disparaged Jefferson Davis’s inaugural address at Montgomery on February 11, 1861. In Rhett’s opinion, Davis had not dedicated himself to the defense of slavery with the intensity that many Southern secessionists demanded. Freehling’s study examines the differences between “Hotspurs” like Rhett and “Hamlets” like Davis, to borrow William R. Taylor’s terms. 3

From the 1820s onward, Freehling argues, there were outspoken advocates of secession who tried to stimulate Southern fears that the Yankees would one day betray the South. Yet during the period he deals with, the successes of the Southern enemies of the Union were at best fleeting. He explores in detail a series of political events that took place between 1820 or so and 1854, each one of which shows how Southerners loyal to the Union helped to frustrate the separatists from breaking it up.

The first obstacle to secession, Freehling writes, was the ambivalence of so many masters in the eastern Upper South toward slavery. Their hesitancy about endorsing slavery as a permanent system of labor contrasted with the truculence of their Lower South countrymen. In Maryland and Virginia slavery had been gradually declining throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. Some Chesapeake masters were freeing large numbers of slaves. More, however, were resettling or selling their human property in the Deep South. These transitions encouraged a mild “antislavery” position which Freehling identifies with Thomas Jefferson. The writer of the Notes on the State of Virginia (1781–1782) and his disciples believed. Freehling claims, that slavery presented whites with more power than was good for their morals. They sought pacific means to diminish slavery, Freehling continues, until, or so they hoped, it would finally disappear in a hundred or more years. Believing that slavery was in some sense a necessary evil, the border-state planters favored purely voluntary manumission of slaves by benevolent masters. They added the stipulation, however, that the freedmen had to be removed from the South, the farther away the better. That solution would reduce the hazards of racial unrest or inevitable chaos, or so they contended.

Most of those who saw slavery as a necessary evil insisted that emancipated slaves should be returned to Africa. Freehling is the first scholar to concentrate so explicitly on the persistence of such hopes for the eventual end of slavery. Contrary to what many historians have said, this position was not replaced by the argument in the 1830s that slavery was “a positive good.” The latter view was chiefly popular in the Lower South where its advocates demanded that slavery be defended to the bitter end.

A slowly evolving process of emancipation, its proponents urged, would disrupt neither the contemporary political nor the racial order. Another “sedative,” as the author calls it, was also part of the Jeffersonian legacy; it was the idea that slaves would become so widely distributed throughout the expanding Southwest that the institution would somehow lose its social and political force. Interestingly, he sees the Missouri Compromise of 1821 as based in part upon that alleged remedy. In granting statehood to Missouri (along with Maine as Northern counterweight in the Senate), Congress, after acrimonious debate, created a new slaveholding territory that would have the effect of spreading out more thinly the total number of slaves in the United States. At the same time, the legislators established a free-labor zone north and west of the 36° 30° parallel that separated Missouri from Arkansas. Below the “Missouri Compromise Line,” territories, organized in future, would be open to settlement by slaveholders.

To describe this approach to phasing slavery out—one that permitted slavery temporarily to expand even as the institution was portrayed as unsound—Freehling uses the phrase “Conditional Termination.” Of course, the process of gradual emancipation did not work out as contemplated. Refusing to emigrate to Liberia, in the American Colonization Society’s experiment on the West African coast, nearly all slaves emancipated by their masters chose to remain on native soil, neither wholly free nor slave. Critics of benevolent manumission believed that by a kind of Gresham’s Law of labor, inefficient black workmen were driving skilled white migrants from the Chesapeake job market. As Freehling suggests, the fantasy, in the Upper South, that white workingmen would quickly fill employers’ needs for labor was not realized at the speed anticipated. Skilled artisans, foreign-born and native, preferred other parts of the Union. Moreover, the Chesapeake squires’ abstractly negative view of slavery did not for a moment hinder them from enjoying its benefits. Their attempts to reconcile their long-term schemes for emancipation with their day-to-day exploitation of slaves kept them, Freehling writes, “on that nervous borderline between shame and pride.”

Using his intimate knowledge of Chesapeake politics to advantage, Freehling considers the ironies arising from these fears and hopes, particularly as they arose in the debates over slavery that took place in the border states. But he might have made more of the fact that the kind of hedged “anti-slavery” sentiment he discusses was especially popular among members of the richest and most conservative classes even in Louisiana, Mississippi, and other parts of the Lower South. The members of this sophisticated milieu, some of whom married into equally wealthy and conservative Northern families, chiefly belonged to the Whig party. Their favored leader was Henry Clay, and they supported his nationalistic proposals for an “American System” including federal aid to the states to make internal improvements, a powerful National Bank, and protective tariffs. They quietly opposed the “states’ rights” zealots in their party’s midst. Certainly the Whigs who followed Clay saw no advantage in creating through secession a squabbling confederacy of parochially minded slave states.

On the whole, however, Freehling has freshly and usefully clarified the division in the South between the proslavery ideology of the Lower South—based on the profitable exploitation of blacks in growing cotton, sugar, and rice—and the ambivalent views of the Upper South states, where the slave economy was not expanding and the economy based on free labor was growing. Indeed, the division he explores helps to explain the differing dates of secession of the slave states after Lincoln’s election. The Lower South—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—zealously left the Union in the winter of 1860–1861, even before the inauguration of the new president on March 4. From early February 1861, until Lincoln’s call for troops to suppress the rebellion following the Fort Sumter assault of April 14, the secessionists of the Upper South were losing ground. Afterward, only the states in the lower part of the Upper South joined the Confederacy—Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina—and they did so only with considerable hesitancy. The rest of the slave region—Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri—remained in the Union, though not very happily.

Freehling is most concerned with ambivalence toward slavery in the Upper South for two reasons. First, he sees the difficulties over emancipation in Virginia and Maryland as a portent of things to come: the loosening of the Upper South’s ties to the Lower South as new, free-labor interests and industries developed, particularly in the Chesapeake Bay region. Second, for most of the antebellum decades, the delusion of emancipation in a far distant future made more difficult the secessionists’ hope of uniting the South in bellicose defense of slavery. Radicals in the Lower South had to move cautiously, he argues, not because border-state opinion was decisively Unionist, but because it was vacillating and muddled. Commerce, industry, and commercial farming to feed eastern cities drew Chesapeake landholders toward Northern ways, even as the southward migrations of both masters and slaves—the latter some 800,000 strong—strengthened the ties of some white people in the Upper South to kinfolk and former neighbors in the Lower South. The resulting confusion, when coupled with the usual partisan rivalries, dashed the hopes of John C. Calhoun, a moderate by South Carolinian standards. He sought a sectional solidarity in defense of states’ rights that would be above party and place and, when required, could make disunion swift and irreversible; but no such solidarity was possible.

  1. 1

    Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (University of Chicago Press, 1959).

  2. 2

    See David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis: 1848–1861 (Harper and Row, 1976), p. 128 ff.

  3. 3

    William Robert Taylor, Cavalier and Yankee: The Old South and American National Character (Braziller, 1961), p. 151.

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