Disunion: the battle over slavery before the Civil War

There’s a great article by Michael Woods in the lastest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians) called “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature.” It is, as it says, a review of current scholarship on disunion and why it happened—why the southern states seceded in 1860-1. We’ll parse what’s in here over a few posts, because this is a topic of evergreen interest to all Americans. All of the quotes in this short series are from Woods’ article (it’s only available online if you’re a member of the OAH so we can’t link you to it).

As Woods says, most scholars agree that slavery caused secession and war, but, as Elizabeth Varon says, “there is still much to be said about why slavery proved so divisive and why sectional compromise ultimately proved elusive.” (Varon’s own book Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 is a valuable read that proves definitively that from ratification of the Constitution to the eve of war there was never a time that slavery was not a difficult, divisive, fiery issue that required constant mediation and provoked constant threats and accusations of disunion.) 

The first trend in scholarship since 2000 has been to extend the period under discussion—“antebellum” can now begin in 1789, 1776, or with the arrival of the first slave ship in Virginia in 1619—and to relate the U.S. experience with slavery and war to those of its neighbors: emancipation in the British West Indies, most particularly Haiti’s revolution (1791-1804) impacted the terms of the slavery debate in the U.S. We usually learn that division over slavery did not really begin in the U.S. until the 1850s, after the Mexican War gave us all that new territory in the west to create as free or slave states, but by the 1850s the nation was already well-seasoned in sectional debate, threats of disunion, an attempt at secession by South Carolina, and a major compromise over slavery (the Missouri Compromise of 1820). As Matthew Mason points out, “there was never a time between the Revolution and the Civil War in which slavery went unchallenged.” The Compromise of 1820 was bitterly fought because, as John Craig Hammond points out, “[of the slavery dispute’s] contentious prehistory, not from its novelty.”

Taking this long view of the slavery debate helps us to see that debate as its contemporaries did; Americans who argued antislavy, abolition, or proslavery knew that they were taking up well-established lines of argument and they knew well what had been said and done before them. Both sides, North and South, blamed each other for causing the war with their activism for or against slavery since the Revolution, since the first Congress, since ratification of the Constitution. And they were right.

In our next post we’ll examine the ways the term “disunion” was used over this long time period—the four-score and six years between the Revolution and the outbreak of the war—by the many different sides involved in the slavery debate.

Next time: disunion as prophecy, threat, accusation, and process

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