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.
In responding to so frustrating a situation, South Carolina extremists like Robert Barnwell Rhett, Freehling writes, showed nothing but contempt for the dithering of Virginian and Maryland slaveholders. The secessionists were particularly dismayed in the mid-1830s, when abolitionists began to reach growing audiences in the North. The Yankee reformers’ propaganda crusade, the proslavery advocates warned, could easily spill across the Mason-Dixon line. William Lloyd Garrison and company would encourage slaves “to escape,” a South Carolinian college professor predicted. Masters would soon face “open rebellion and secret poison.” Meanwhile pious planters would feel obliged to emancipate their human property in misguided repentance for the so-called sin of ownership. Such dangers, the professor worried, would first affect slaveholders in the Upper South, then the Lower. The peril gave special urgency to the militant opponents of the Union, called fire-eaters and hot-heads, who called for secession long before the election of 1860.
As Freehling explains, a succession of Southern crises over Northern opposition to slavery arose in the twenty-five years before the Civil War, ranging from the campaigns by abolitionists in 1835 to circulate “incendiary pamphlets” by mail throughout the South to the stormy debate on slaveholding in Kansas and Nebraska nearly twenty years later. These episodes gave the proslavery Southern radicals plenty of opportunities to demand immediate steps toward secession. Yet, somewhat uncertain of their own strategies, the hot-heads themselves, he observes, were not always effective. In South Carolina, for instance, some young politicians plotted against one another to gain favor with Calhoun while others conspired against “Mr. South Carolina,” as the author labels him. Consequently, as Freehling’s subtitle puts it, each time the secessionists were kept “at bay.”
The Gag Rule controversy in Congress between 1835 and 1845, another major development with which Freehling deals, also showed the division between the Upper South and the Lower South. The dispute arose over how Congress should cope with powerful abolitionist publicity and a lobbying campaign in Washington. The reformers flooded members of Congress with petitions, signed by thousands, in which they beseeched the lawmakers either to abolish slavery everywhere at once, to outlaw the institution or the slave trade in the Federal District—today’s District of Columbia—or to deny slaveholding territories statehood. At times, the introduction of these documents on the floor brought the Congress to a standstill.
Freehling is the first scholar to give so much weight to the quarrel over the petitions, aptly calling it the “Pearl Harbor of the slavery controversy.” He provides a brilliant reconstruction of the tortuous political maneuvering over the issue that continued for years, until the congressmen finally settled their differences. The House, the compromisers proposed, would formally acknowledge the huge piles of petitions upon their arrival but then they would be automatically tabled. Extremists on both sides of the slavery question were indignant. Southern radicals and even their Northern Democratic allies, including James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, counseled immediate rejection of all such compromises, while the antislavery congressmen objected that the timehonored right of petition had been grossly violated. Nevertheless, the compromise of quick recognition and faster rejection was accepted largely because of the split between the Southern Hamlets and Hotspurs. The Southerners could never unite behind Buchanan’s proposal to dismiss the petitions outright. Disunion, Freehling maintains, was postponed once again.
An additional key episode in the story of thwarted secession turns from the South’s eastern seaboard to the distant, slaveholding Republic of Texas, which became independent after a revolution in 1836 against Mexico. The Texas Question was central to the movement toward secession. If annexed to the United States, so vast a country would greatly strengthen the power of the slaveholders. Moreover, as with Missouri, Texan statehood would offer the chance for still greater diffusion of slaves and slavery. So, at least, argued President John Tyler, a states’ rights Virginian, who was determined to add the Texas star to the American flag before he left office in March 1845.
As Freehling observes, the fate of the Texas Republic was difficult to resolve. Some Texans favored a slavefree country. To that end a Houston lawyer, Stephen Pearl Andrews, and Lewis Tappan, a New York abolitionist, met in 1843 with Lord Aberdeen, the British foreign minister. They proposed a scheme for emancipating the slaves in the bankrupt republic in return for an English loan that would allow Texas to retain its independence. Aberdeen saw advantages in having a client state on the southern border of the United States. His promises, however, were repudiated as soon as Duff Green, a fire-eating Virginia journalist, published a distorted account of the secret interview with Andrews and Tappan. Texas counted for less in English calculations than good Anglo-American relations.
Freehling rejects traditional accounts of this story. Earlier historians have stressed the importance of the meeting between Andrews and Aberdeen in accelerating the drive to annex Texas as part of the Union. Freehling speculates persuasively that Abel Upshur of Virginia, Tyler’s secretary of state and a states’ rights Virginia Whig himself, was actually more alarmed by another plan. Lord Aberdeen had urged Mexico to insist upon emancipation as a condition of peace with the breakaway republic. To Tyler and his friends, the presence of a free state adjacent to the slaveholding heartland posed the kind of threat that Spanish East Florida once had been. As in that earlier case of 1821, barely noted in Freehling’s account, the annexation of Florida to the United States was the preferred solution of Lower South politicians anxious to avoid the potential menace of a new antislavery country next to the United States. As Freehling rightly points out, the annexation of Texas, and the almost immediate consequence of war between the United States and a resentful Mexico, considerably weakened the position of the border states, with their vague hopes of eventual emancipation. Defense of slaveholding interests had already shifted from Virginia to South Carolina as a result of the Nullification Crisis (1828–1833), but, after the annexation of Texas, the regional center of political gravity was even more clearly located in the Lower South.
The last major issue of a problematic nationhood to be discussed here was what Freeling calls “the armistice of 1850,” a phrase he borrows from David Potter. The Mexican War had left a rich but troublesome legacy of conquered territory. Sectional quarreling over the spoils, particularly California, was inevitable. Would the new territory be “free soil” or open to slavery? A series of highly volatile issues—after four years of congressional deadlock—were finally settled in 1850 by intricate negotiations among shifting factions of legislators: the admission of California as a free state; the drawing of a Texas boundary favoring free labor in New Mexico, in exchange for the federal government’s taking over of Texas’s public debts; the administration of the remaining Mexican Cession lands—the future states of Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona—whose status regarding slavery was left open, to be determined in subsequent years. In addition, the Compromise settled two long-simmering contests: it called both for passage of a federally enforced fugitive slave law and abolition of commercial slave trading in the Federal District but retention of slavery there so long as the bordering states of Virginia and Maryland so demanded.
Freehling claims to deviate considerably from the orthodox interpretation of the Compromise. Most scholars, he says, credit Henry Clay for its success. In his opinion, however, Clay merely represented the border-state tradition of equivocal opposition to slavery that he emphasizes throughout the book. Freehling is especially scornful of Clay’s ironclad arrangement for preserving slavery in the District. Exactly what Clay could have done to satisfy all parties in this tangle of interests he does not reveal. Sentiment for secession was running high in the Lower South throughout the 1850 crisis. Clay could have done little to meet the demands of Lower South secessionists without antagonizing almost everyone else. Still, this, Freehling’s penultimate section, and his concluding treatment of the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act are the most engaging parts of his complicated and lengthy work and the ones that will supply historians with the most questions to reconsider.
For a number of reasons, however, Freehling’s achievement falls somewhat short. First, he does not provide a sufficiently detailed setting for his interpretation of political events and thought. The dates mentioned in the subtitle suggest that the story of a proslavery, separatist impulse on the one hand and, on the other, the antislavery delusion of the border states, starts in 1776. But Freehling’s political account does not begin with the disputes among the colonies in revolt or even with the protests of Patrick Henry of Virginia, Luther Martin of Maryland, and other anti-Federalists against what they thought would be a dangerously centralized government under the proposed Constitution of 1787. Moreover, the acquisition of the vast Louisiana territory (1803), of Spanish West Florida (1811), and of Spanish East Florida (1821) strongly affected Southern divisiveness by shifting the balance of power to the Lower South, but Freehling says little about it.
It is misleading, moreover, to make Thomas Jefferson epitomize the notion that slavery would eventually be phased out at little social cost. Jefferson need not bear alone the moral failings of his age and region. During the 1780s and 1790s, a period Freehling virtually ignores, Jefferson merely repeated what most respectable gentlemen of differing partisan persuasions told one another. Regardless of their residence, North or South, such men as Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln continued to uphold roughly the same attitudes toward slavery until well into the 1850s and even beyond.
Second, Freehling does not make sufficiently clear how much political influence the slave states had at a time when a sense of American nationhood was still far from established. Southern politicians exercised disproportionate leverage in Washington throughout the period under discussion. After all, apart from John Adams and John Quincy Adams, no president, while in office, entertained the slightest doubt that slavery was indispensable—if only as a means of preserving peace and profit. Moreover, three fifths of the slaves were counted in reckoning the number in congressional delegations, and the inclusion of voteless slaves also enhanced Southern strength in the electoral college. As James McPherson has pointed out, in 1848 the slaves states provided 42 percent of the electoral votes while they comprised only 30 percent of the voters.4 In addition, the South was generously represented in every office, from the presidency, Supreme Court, and various cabinet posts down to the lowliest federal officeholder.
Freehling briefly mentions but belittles the slave South’s political advantages. He notes that only John Adams’s defeat in 1800 was attributable to the malapportioned electoral votes. Surely Jefferson’s victory made more difference than Freehling allows. Southern lawmakers knew the uses of power well enough to combine forces when necessary. Yet a united and aggressive proslavery policy was not seen as absolutely imperative until, for the first time, a “Black Republican,” who was anathema to nearly all Southern whites, won the highest office in 1860. In other words, the divisions among whites Freehling writes about were not nearly as deep as he claims. Southern politicians had too much in common. For instance, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe easily suppressed their constitutional scruples in order to provide their allies in the Lower South with literally millions of acres of free land at the expense of Napoleon and the Spanish monarchy. Common devotion to slavery, property rights (including slaveholding), Protestant creeds, and limited government far outdistanced any regional disagreements over when, if ever, slavery ought to be terminated in a very remote future.
Besides, the diversity of economic practices, ethnic groups, and religious institutions in the North and the resulting factionalism among them were far greater than the diversity and factionalism that Freehling claims were characteristic in the South. What kept the “secessionists at bay” was not only disunity within the South. Equally significant was the effectiveness of Southern influence without secession. One might even claim that an unacknowledged collaboration took place between Upper and Lower South leaders. The latter group howled, stamped, and made threats if they felt the slaveholding interest was in danger, and they usually found that border-state compromisers on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line were ready to mollify them. After all, slaveholders, hot-headed and otherwise, required only one thing: a federal policy of mindless inaction. By and large that course was sustained for decades, although with increasing difficulty.
Third, quite apart from what happened in the Congress, the state houses, or the White House, Freehling does not combine his political analysis with an awareness of the Southern cultural background, perhaps because of a bias against a society so alien to our own times, so distant from our egalitarian hopes. He charges, for example, that Jefferson self-consciously equivocated about slavery as if he were an American Tartuffe and not a man of extraordinary sensibility facing an insoluble dilemma. “No wonder,” Freehling writes inaccurately, “posterity scorns this procrastinator.” He claims “dissimulation” in Jefferson’s silence about Sally Hemings, his putative mistress. It was nothing of the sort. According to the code by which he lived, ignoring impertinent questions would not be an evasion. He belonged to the eighteenth century, not the twentieth.
If Southern political history is to give Southern culture the attention it deserves, the historian should take seriously contemporary statements about why people behaved as they did. For instance, in 1866, Sarah Dorsey, a Louisiana novelist, observed that “virtue” always came in sundry guises: “With the Christian martyr, it is faith; with the savage, it is honor; with the republican, it is liberty.”5 These were indeed the major components of the secessionist impulse. With reference to the first, Freehling says nothing about the Southern churches and their attitudes toward slavery. Yet theological positions were frequently connected with negative and positive convictions in the political circles of the Upper and Lower South that he explores so well. (He is apparently saving the story of schisms over slavery with Northern and Southern churches during the 1840s for the next volume.)
As for the anthropology of the “savage’s” virtue mentioned by Sarah Dorsey, Freehling seems to have little understanding of why Southern leaders spoke frequently and so intensely about “points of honor” and why they so furiously resented, as offenses against their honor, the petitions against slavery, the attempts to exclude slaveholders from western territories, and the defiance against enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. These were seen as signs of moral contempt by Southern leaders. In 1850, during a Senate debate on prohibiting slaveholding in the West, Robert Toombs of Georgia bluntly explained that its passage would compel him to “bring my children and my constituents to the altar of liberty, and like Hamilcar, I would swear them your foul domination.” Likewise, when the Vermont legislature in 1851 passed a bill to prevent the return of fugitive slaves to the South, Governor John B. Floyd of Virginia retorted, “Vermont has thus inflicted upon the whole South at once an injury and an insult. To neither can we with honor or self-respect submit.”6
Freehling claims that dread of lost self-esteem caused Southerners to make such flamboyant rejoinders to antislavery criticism, but his explanation is too simple. We must understand that Southern whites thought and acted within a set of cultural standards very different from our own and also that of their contemporaries in the North. The Southerner linked his identity with his lineage, family, posterity, and community. As a result, the regional politician—and voter, too—did not easily distinguish those insults directed toward himself from those that disparaged, as he saw it, the values of his neighborhood, state, or region. The individual was merged into the whole even as he felt himself to be its representative to the world. For instance, Reuben Davis, a Mississippi congressman favoring secession, in recollection boasted that he had been “the mouthpiece of a wronged and outraged people, and their righteous indignation poured itself through me.”7 Under these circumstances, politicians saw themselves as stout defenders of those communal values without which, they insisted, political order could not be preserved. To ignore the workings of the psychology of honor is to miss the anger and hurt pride that secession was intended in large measure to vindicate.
Concerning liberty, Freehling applies a contemporary definition to a culture and time in which the word included other meanings. Abstractions formulated nearly two hundred years ago must be decoded if we are to apprehend their significance. The Southern whites’ notion of liberty encompassed the right of “laissez asservir“—to enslave others, as David Hackett Fischer has observed.8 Freehling claims that Southern whites were deceiving themselves and acting hypocritically both in claiming that community values took precedence over individual dissent and in enforcing those values by extralegal means including lynching and mob coercion. But here again he is uncomprehending of the mentality of Southerners whose concept of democracy was contradictory and deplorable by our standards, not theirs. They placed community conformity above individual dissent and enlisted extralegal, as well as legal means, to enforce that consensus. After a lynching of some gamblers, quack doctors, and abolitionists (as the miscreants were thought to be), a Vicksburg editor in 1835 proposed, as justification, that society was comparable in nature to “the elements, which, although ‘order is their first law,’ can sometimes be purified only by a storm.”9 Southern courts also reinforced community values—at the expense, at times, of justice itself.
Freehling characterizes the white South as “schizophrenic.” In his first book, he attributed a sense of guilt over slaveholding to South Carolinian Nullifiers as a way to explain their seemingly irrational anti-Unionist fury. He now withdraws that interpretation and instead uses the language of pathology to describe them, although he sees them as pathological in a moral and not a clinical sense. For example he writes about a “schizophrenia of the elitist as egalitarian.” That kind of juxtaposition, which Freehling interprets as compromising the integrity of an aristocrat like Jefferson in particular, would seem equally applicable to the career of Theodore Roosevelt or Franklin Roosevelt, popular leaders not usually designated as mentally ill or morally at fault for championing democracy as it was understood and practiced in their day. Freehling seeks to stigmatize Southern slaveholders, not to describe them, and his moralizing too often obscures historical reality.
Finally, Freehling’s otherwise stimulating and powerful work is made difficult to read by a slangy prose that may strike the reader as an unfortunate attempt to imitate Mencken, with phrases like “cotton boobacracy,” “patriarchal charade,” and “Cuffee-like phoniness.” It does not help that in trying for an informal tone he uses or misuses such expressions as “Do-good Christianity” (Northern Evangelicalism), “kneejerk,” “blockbuster,” “zany,” and “tad less.” At times, his account sounds anachronistic, as when he writes that in the Midwest of the 1850s, “Many farmers drove up-to-speed tractors.” Other passages become almost impenetrable. One chapter begins, “Mr. Border South Whig was Mr. Northern Democrat’s best hope that Southern Democrats would ease annexationist pressure.” Even a specialist in Southern history has to pause before realizing that the sentence contains a telling insight when it is decoded.
The Road to Disunion thus combines wonderful and challenging perceptions of sectional politics with defects equally striking. Perhaps in preparing his second study, which will cover the last, dramatic years before war, Freehling will regain the commanding voice of his Prelude to Civil War. Even if not, we can look forward to an account of antebellum politics that will be as provocative and spirited as it is in these pages, although it is sad that so gifted a historian of the South often seems unable to imagine what it would be like to be a white Southerner.
October 10, 1991
Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (University of Chicago Press, 1959). ↩
See David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis: 1848–1861 (Harper and Row, 1976), p. 128 ff. ↩
William Robert Taylor, Cavalier and Yankee: The Old South and American National Character (Braziller, 1961), p. 151. ↩
James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 54, note 17. ↩
Sarah A. Dorsey, Recollections of Henry Watkins Allen (New Orleans: M. Doolady, 1866), p. 10. Dorsey’s three principles are a quotation from Jean Paul F. Richter. ↩
Toombs is quoted in William Y. Thompson, Robert Toombs of Georgia (Louisiana State University Press, 1966), p. 65; Floyd quoted in Allan Nevins, Ordeal of the Union (Scribner’s, 1947), Vol. I, p. 367. ↩
Reuben Davis, Recollections of Mississippi and Mississippians (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1889), p. 398. ↩
David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 413. ↩
Vicksburg Register, quoted in H. R. Howard, comp. The History of Virgil A. Stewart and His Adventure (Harper, 1836; reprinted 1976), p. 268. ↩