The coming of the Civil War: how disunion evolved over the decades
Welcome to part 2 of our perusal of Michael Woods’ very interesting article 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.” Here we look at Elizabeth Varon’s book Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 and her persusasive argument that cries of disunion evolved in interesting ways between 1789 and 1860.
Disunion, just to be clear, refers to states leaving the United States and, therefore, breaking up the Union. Disunion was a cry heard constantly in the decades in question in the U.S., and was synonymous with civil war.
We should also describe the sides that participated in disunion language. We tend to think there were people for slavery and people who wanted slavery to be abolished, but there were more sides than that. There were proslavery Americans who wanted slavery to remain protected by the Constitution; these split into some who thought slavery should not extend into the west (because this provoked antislavery protests) and those who thought it should. Then there were antislavery Americans who did not support abolishing slavery—slavery could still exist in the U.S.—they just wanted to keep it hemmed in in the southern states where it already existed and keep it out of the west. Antislavery people differed from proslavery Americans in that they did not claim that slavery was a terrific benefit for the enslaved and a mandate from God, as proslavery Americans did. Antislavery Americans would have liked to see slavery disappear but did not want the newly freed black Americans to stay in the country, and since there seemed to be no way to get rid of them all, were content to live with the status quo (which meant stopping the westward expansion of slavery).
Abolitionists wanted to get rid of slavery. They divided into immediatists, who wanted slavery ended immediately, by any means necessary, no matter what, and gradualists who wanted to wait until a good plan to deal with newly freed people could be agreed upon by all. Gradualists would have been happy with a state-by-state progress of states deciding to abolish slavery in their own good time. Immediatists would not accept this, and embraced charges that they would bring about a race war or, even worse in the eyes of proslavery supporters, interracial marriage by immediately freeing black Americans.
In her book Varon describes how each group described disunion over time as, variously,
—a prophecy: proslavery Americans predicted that antislaveryites and abolitionists were bringing about disunion with their attacks on slavery, while antislaveryites foresaw a future where proslaveryites had caused disunion. Prophecy disunion prevailed mostly in the early part of our 1789-1860 time period, when real civil war seemed very unlikely, and was referred to as part of a distant, dystopian future that could never come to pass.
—a threat: proslaveryites were constantly threatening to secede from the Union in response to perceived “attacks” on slavery. If the Constitution was going to be trampled, they said, then there was no valid Union to support. Antislavery Americans swung between fear at these threats and bored eye-rolling at the states who cried secession once too often. On the other hand, immediatist abolitionists in the 1830s began to make their own threats of disunion, saying that any Union that protected slavery was no Union and should be immediately destroyed and a new nation brought forth in true freedom. Angry accusations that they would bring about civil war were happily accepted by these immediatists. Threat disunion came on the scene in the 1820s with the Nullification Crisis and picked up steam after the Mexican Cession in 1848, which brought huge western lands under U.S. control and made the question of spreading slavery into the west the hottest issue of the day. Immediatists threatened disunion if slavery did go west, proslaveryites threatened it if slavery did not go west.
—an accusation: Each of the three sides accused the others of bringing about disunion with their radical talk or stubborn ways. Sometimes the accusation was that one side was unknowingly provoking disunion, sometimes that a side was deliberately and premeditatedly weakening the nation. Accusation, like threat language, picked up after the Mexican Cession as Americans battled fiercely to make the new western states slave or free, and John C. Calhoun’s “Southern Address” is a good example of this language.
—a process: Americans recognized that slavery was an issue carving out factions in the nation, and making the divide of regional sectionism more and more impassable. Whether they supported slavery or wanted it limited or abolished, all Americans saw that the process of debating slavery was creating a deadly us v. them mentality that could only lead to civil war. The process of arguing about slavery had made disunion nearly inevitable, and this was the feeling from the Cession on. Republican Senator William Seward’s “irrespressible conflict” speech is a classic example of process disunion language.
—a program: This was for those Americans, of all sides, who saw the wheels of disunion already in motion because of the evil actions of the other sides. Those who began to favor disunion (the immediatists and proslaveryites) promoted disunion processes as necessary and ultimately for the greater good of the new nation that would be formed once the old Union was torn apart. Program talk was also more common after the Cession and especially in the 1850s.
Next we’ll look at the ways the proslavery stance and its language changed over these decades.