Sunday, August 19, 2007

Fitful trip on the "Road to Disunion"

For the past few months now, I've been picking my way through the first half of William Freehling's Road to Disunion (Vol. 2). This snail's pace almost matches that of my personal record-holding reading of Jacques Barzun's crusty fountain of erudition From Dawn to Decadence. Generally, I am a fast reader, but books that are so obviously the distillation of an entire life's work by a talented scholar take time. Hopefully, finishing Freehling won't consume the year and a half it took me to complete Barzun.

[The Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant by William W. Freehling (Oxford University Press, 2007) Hardback, photos, maps, notes, bibliography. Page total=621 ISBN:9780195058154 $35]

While the reader would undoubtedly be richer for it, one gets the impression that a thorough reading of Vol. 1 is not necessary for an adequate contextual understanding of the second book. Freehling begins Secessionists Triumphant with a nice summary of his concept of the three Souths (Lower, Middle, and Border)-- he even throws in the helpful notion of a distinct Border North. This conceptualization is fully defined in previous works by the author, and it is a critical cog in understanding the common theme throughout Road to Disunion of a very divided South (politically, economically, and socially).

Freehling moves on to a survey of the southern pro-slavery intellectual tradition, characterized by the writings of men such as George Fitzhugh, Josiah Nott, and James Thornwell. Some Deep South thinkers struggled almost as much with the place of poor whites as they did with blacks, even to the extent of the need to enslave poor whites (an unpopular idea quickly recanted).

Part IV is perhaps the most enlightening section of the book's first half. While all readers have heard of John Brown and his plan to destroy slavery with the sword, many, perhaps most, are unfamiliar with the other "invasions". Freehling's detailed examination of John Fee's religious invasion, John Underwood's economic invasion, and John Clark's political invasion broadens and multiplies the catalog of fears -- both real and abstract -- held by southerners. In the process, it vastly increases our understanding of just how besieged the ruling class perceived itself and how differently the threats were assessed by citizens of the three souths. What is unclear is how much or little impression these issues made in the minds of the average, lower class, non-slaveholding southern citizen [most unfortunately labelled "rednecks" by the author].

The election of 1860 is dealt with in Part V. Of course the subject is heavily covered in the literature, but Freehling's contribution is important. It centers around how differently politicians viewed the depth of the threat of a Republican administration to the South's institutions. Were these fears immediate and real or were they best characterized as legitimate abstractions and only time would tell if they would come to fruition? It undoubtedly infuriated Deep South politicians that the Border South had the highest pressure on the institution of slavery yet were the most reluctant of secessionists. It made them deeply question their fellow southerners on their "soundness" on the issue.

Freehling cannot be put in the school of thought that the Civil War was inevitable. Individuals of power and influence can steer masses of reluctant constituents toward secession, yet those individuals are subject themselves to the randomness of events. Timing can be everything, as evidenced by the embarrassing failure of Christopher Memminger's Cooperationists mission to Virginia in January of 1860.

(To be Continued)

For some odd reason, a chapter reading of Road to Disunion reminds me of a narrative equivalent of an episode of James Burke's wonderful television series Connections (image at right from Wikipedia). Perhaps it's Freehling's deft integration of the important contributions of obscure figures into well known historical narratives.

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