The Road to Disunion, Volume 1: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854
William W. Freehling
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Far from a monolithic block of diehard slave states, the antebellum South was, in William Freehling's words, "a world so lushly various as to be a storyteller's dream." It was a world where Deep South cotton planters clashed with South Carolina rice growers, as Northern egalitarianism infiltrated border states already bitterly divided on key issues. It was the world of Jefferson Davis, John C. Calhoun, Andrew Jackson, and Thomas Jefferson, and also of Gullah Jack, Nat Turner, and Frederick Douglass.
Now, in the first volume of his long awaited, monumental study of the South's road to disunion, historian William Freehling offers a sweeping political and social history of the antebellum South from 1776 to 1854. All the dramatic events leading to secession are here: the Missouri Compromise, the Nullification Controversy, the Gag Rule, the Annexation of Texas, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Vivid accounts of each crisis reveal the surprising extent to which slavery influenced national politics before 1850 and provide important reinterpretations of American republicanism, Jeffersonian states' rights, Jacksonian democracy, and the causes of the American Civil War.
Freehling's brilliant historical insights illustrate a work of rich social observation. In the cities of the Antebellum South, in the big house of a typical plantation, we feel anew the tensions between the slaveowner and his family, poor whites and planters, the Old and New Souths, and most powerfully between slave and master. Freehling has evoked the Old South in all its color, cruelty, and diversity. It is a memorable portrait, certain to be a key analysis of this crucial era in American history.
redundant slaves back on the decaying older South, and black hands would be increasingly idle. That prospect inspired racial as much as economic fears. With an attitude running from jealousy to disgust, whites had long considered blacks overly promiscuous. What would be the fate of a stagnating South bottled up between the Atlantic on the East, an anglified Texas on the West, and free labor to the North, containing blacks breeding like rabbits? We will be “smothered and overwhelmed by a
prominence in the Old South. Nothing would have changed if planters had held every office. In black-belt areas, anti-abolitionist speeches paved the road to political success. Political prominence paved the road to legal success. Oratory, that southern art, gave a fellow notoriety and assured potential clients that he was a persuasive pleader. Business came most often from slaveholders—a dreary, profitable round of land titles, wills, estates, and slave sales. No third estate existed, as in
Carolina’s anti-spoilsmen “utopia” be transferred to nineteenth-century Washington? Those who read the Disquisition closely knew that Calhoun’s logic placed national government beyond redemption. Calhoun conceded that demagogues could always control mobocracies. He admitted that spoilsmen would never be wise or disinterested enough to compromise and thus avoid anarchy. Calhoun’s utopia depended on emptying the pork barrel so thoroughly that pols would retire and patriarchs would rule. Minority
1965); John F. Stover, The Iron Road to the West: American Railroads in the 1850s (New York, 1978); Eugene Alvarez, Travel on Southern Railroads, 1828–1860 (University, Ala., 1974); Robert C. Black, III, The Railroads of the Confederacy (Chapel Hill, 1972); and U. B. Phillips, A History of Transportation in the Eastern Cotton Belt to 1860 (New York, 1908). 2. A nice feel for the sparseness of southwestern population and the tone of inhabitants is rendered in C. Mackay, Life and Liberty, 1: 36ff;
impositions on attempts to persuade, was not the Old South a closed society? A somewhat closed society the South assuredly was. But the slavocracy could not quite keep insiders from ducking and weaving and continuing to fight. In Kentucky in the mid-1830s, James Birney could have resumed national colonization alliances, if he had cut his ties to Arthur Tappan. Birney also could have returned to his Alabama pretenses, preaching that slavery violated Kentucky whites’ economic interests. We will