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…

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