The Peculiar Institution of Disunion

Wlecome to part 3 of our perusal of Michael Woods’ very interesting article in the latest 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’re looking at how the depiction of disunion changed in the 1850s.

In earlier decades, going right back to 1787, any mention of disunion—of breaking up the United States through the secession of any of its member states—provoked real dismay and even horror. It was the threat of last resort, and anyone talking about breaking up the Union was reproached vehemently for even invoking the spectre of civil war. All sides of the slavery debate, from antislaveryites to aboilitionists to prosleveryites, lambasted any opponent who threatened disunion or accused that side of provoking it. Now, proslaveryites in the south often threatened disunion all the same, saying that northern states or the federal government were trying to kill slavery and thus invalidate the Consitution, and that they would rather leave the Union than remain in an adulterated, ruined version of the nation. Disunion here was still threatened as the ultimate evil, and those claiming they might be forced to leave the Union wasted no adjectives in describing the bloodshed and miscegenation that would follow if disunion were forced on the nation. So even as some southerners threatened disunion, they still painted it as an evil they would never willingly embrace, and predicted dire, dire consequences for all Americans if it ever came to pass.

But by 1850, the language began to change, and proslavery radicals began to shift southern public perception of secession and disunion. To set the stage, remember that Southerners immediately after the Revolution, when attacked for their hypocrisy in enslaving people after they had fought for a free republic, had made the case that of course slavery was evil but there was no way to get rid of it right away—it was a regrettable evil that had to be endured until it died away. But in the early decades of the 1800s, slaveholders began to shift that argument, gradually introducing the idea that slavery was not actually evil in nature, because it provided food and shelter and loving care to inferior peoples who could not function in educated society. It also kept those inferior peoples from making trouble in society. Slavery, over a few decades, changed from an unavoidable evil to a positive good. Slavery, from this new angle, was a terrific benefit to the enslaved that also encouraged slaveholders to be kind and loving protectors of the enslaved.

The same odious logic was now turned on disunion. Over the 1850s, secession was transformed by radicals from the worst nightmare that could befall the nation to a positive good. Disunion would preserve the slavery enabling Constitution. Disunion would create a new,  slaveholding American nation that lived up to the principles of the Founders completely. Disunion would leave the antislavery, abolitionist north a weak, isolated half-nation dangling over the abyss of worldwide scorn and shame—and economic collapse. Disunion would protect white southern homes, families, women, children, and race purity. Disunion, eventually, became one’s civic duty as a southerner/real American. Destroying the Union meant destroying the ties that bound the south to scheming, unAmerican northerners.

By the presidential election of 1860, much of the Deep South’s political leadership was ready for secession should necessity (Lincoln’s election) call for it, and the Upper South would be fairly easily persuadable by spring 1861. While most southern citizens did not want civil war, they too would be convinced that there was no alternative for the patriotic southerner.

Northerners up to the last moment before the war rolled their eyes in disgust at southern “bluffing” on secession. They still believed the south would never try to leave the Union, and used the old reproaches against disunion talk as the ultimate evil right up to First Bull Run. But they were no longer reaching their audience. This disconnect was the result, in part, of northern sectionalism, a phenomenon not often fully appreciated by Americans today, and the focus of our next post.

Next time: the North was a section, too

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