Crisis of Fear: Secession in South Carolina
The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830-1930
The Meaning of Henry Ward Beecher: An Essay on the Shifting Values of Mid-Victorian America, 1840-1870
What a historian looks for in the past is often shaped by his concerns in the present. This is particularly true when he is confronting an event which involves great and unresolved questions of national life. The American Civil War is a classic case in point, and the new books by Stephen Channing, Anne Firor Scott, and William McLoughlin illustrate how contemporary concerns—in these cases racism, the role of women in American society, and the ideology of American imperialism—help shape our perceptions of the past.
Channing’s Crisis of Fear, which as a doctoral dissertation was awarded the prestigious Allan Nevins Prize, is an attempt to explain the process of secession in South Carolina. Historians have long known that the election of 1860 and the secession crisis took place in the South in an atmosphere of excitement and apprehension bordering on hysteria. John Brown’s raid of October, 1859, sent shock waves of fear throughout the South, and Brown’s towering figure cast a dark shadow over the events of the ensuing year in South Carolina. Rumors of slave rebellion and insubordination spread across the state, and vigilance committees arrested and punished suspicious slaves and “abolitionist agents.” At the same time, Brown’s near-deification in Northern abolitionist and intellectual circles convinced Southerners that the majority of Northerners, and certainly all Republicans, were at heart abolitionists. Under such circumstances, secession in the event of a Republican election victory became all but inevitable.
Channing’s outline of the events of 1860 extends the interpretation advanced by William Freehling in his important study of South Carolina during the nullification crisis.1 Throughout the nineteenth century, Freehling argued, South Carolina reacted to outside attack in a manner far out of proportion to the actual seriousness of the danger. But while Freehling explained this as a natural outgrowth of Southerners’ deep-seated guilt feelings over an institution which, try as they might, they were unable to reconcile with their Jeffersonian, libertarian professions, Channing rejects the idea that any significant number of white South Carolinians felt guilty about slavery. Rather, their reaction was grounded in racial fear—“in the end fear of the Negro—physical dread, and fear of the consequences of emancipation—would control the course of the state.”
Slavery, in Channing’s view, was at bottom less a labor system than a means of racial control, a way of keeping in subordination a population viewed by white Southerners as savage, hostile, alien, and a threat to the very fabric of white civilization. The reason whites reacted so strongly to Brown’s raid was that it seemed to threaten their complete mastery over their slaves; the reason they were obsessed with snuffing out all internal divisions on the question of slavery was fear that open discussion would encourage slave insurrections and race war. In the end, they could not accept Lincoln’s election in 1860 because they equated Republicans with abolitionists, and Republican victory with eventual Negro equality. Race fear, Channing concludes, was so pervasive in South Carolina that it either subsumed or canceled out the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.