Monday, December 4, 2017

Review of Robinson - "A UNION INDIVISIBLE: Secession and the Politics of Slavery in the Border South"

[A Union Indivisible: Secession and the Politics of Slavery in the Border South by Michael D. Robinson (University of North Carolina Press, 2017). Hardcover, map, illustrations, tables, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:224/310. ISBN:978-1-4696-3378-7. $34.95]

By now, surely most readers operate under the assumption that the American South never possessed anything like a monolithic body politic. Recent scholars have produced numerous works recognizing the vast section of the country below the Mason-Dixon Line as a layered aggregation of distinctive social, political, and economic sub-regions. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that southern reactions to Lincoln's election in 1860 would vary, with no unanimity of feeling regarding either the depth of any assumed dangers posed by the victorious Republicans or how best these concerns might be remedied. Indeed, any person traveling northward from the Lower (or Deep) South to the Upper South and finally to the Border South would have encountered at each stage a steadily diminished fervor for secession as the preferred solution to the crisis.

As in most parts of the Upper South, in the Border South (the states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware) it was widely believed that slavery was best preserved through continued enjoyment of the protections traditionally guaranteed and maintained by the federal government. To these proslavery moderates, secession only meant chaos, war, and slavery's inevitable destruction (sooner rather than later). It is this border state brand of proslavery Unionism that is the subject of Michael Robinson's A Union Indivisible: Secession and the Politics of Slavery in the Border South. In it Robinson examines the Border South's inner war pitting majority proslavery moderates against minority secessionist "fire-eaters," a political contest that would prove critically important to the course and outcome of the Civil War.

Using the common terminology, Robinson's study groups Border South citizens (he also calls them "borderites") into three major factions: unconditional Unionists, conditional Unionists, and Southern Rights advocates/secessionists. The political views of the great majority of voters in the region resided somewhere along the spectrum of conditional Unionism, on middle ground that would prove increasingly precarious over the period examined in the book. As demonstrated in the text, the loyalty and political supremacy of conditional Unionists would be sorely tested throughout 1861 by forces inside and outside the confines of the Border South.

Everyone acknowledges that John Brown's 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry sparked a general crisis in North-South relations, but Robinson usefully centers his own study's attention on the failed insurrection's effect on perhaps the nation's most important intersectional bond, the stabilizing political alliance between border southerners and Lower North moderates. In the tumult that followed the failed raid, northern denunciations of Brown became lost amid southern fears that abolitionist support in the North was far more widespread and militant than previously believed. Before Harpers Ferry the Kansas-Missouri violence was viewed by most border southerners as a far off frontier exception to the rule, but after the raid more and more individuals in Kentucky and Maryland began to see it as a harbinger of their own future. Even though the rapid dispatch of U.S. Marines to Harpers Ferry quickly crushed the uprising, Border South confidence in the federal government's ability to safeguard southern lives and property was badly shaken.

According to Robinson, the Brown affair was the chief factor in ending all hopes of creating a broad anti-Democrat alliance that would include Republicans (though he perceptively observes that the odds of such a thing being carried off were slim to none from the very beginning). Fusion proponents hoped to achieve two major goals, the destruction of the Democracy and the moderation of the Republican rank and file (the assumption regarding the latter being that the most radical elements would be marginalized in order to widen the fusion ticket's electoral appeal). As the author notes, the bad timing of Brown's Raid, in combination with the stormy vote over the speakership of the House and the upcoming national election's promise of further divisiveness, thoroughly eroded feelings of cooperation between sections and also helped rob many Border State citizens of their own much treasured moderation.

Given that the heart of Constitutional Union Party support was located in the Border South and Upper South, there is substantial emphasis in the book on that new party's failed attempts at sectional reconciliation. Like historian Michael Holt also did in his very recent study of the 1860 election, Robinson persuasively presents the party as well intentioned regarding the saving of the Union but badly managed, with fundamental flaws in composition and strategy (i.e. a substantial age gap at the top, a 'say nothing' platform, and a party message widely seen as unprincipled in a time of extreme partisanship).

History is replete with examples of small, zealous radical groups overawing and defeating more moderate majorities, and Robinson's study effectively reminds us that the Border South strain of Unionism was strong yet also precarious enough to require constant vigilance and aggressive activity for its maintenance. During the months following Lincoln's election, a pro-Union political "offensive" kept in check increasingly dangerous secessionist elements. According to Robinson, the sustained floating of compromise proposals of sufficient power to keep moderates in the fold proved to be one of the most important weapons in the border Unionist arsenal. As mentioned before, the overall message helped convince the majority that slavery was best protected within the Union and that secession inevitably meant war and emancipation. The author also interestingly cites a less talked about tool of persuasion, a concept of southern honor peculiar to the Border South. While secessionists tried to exploit the traditional southern honor code in order to whip up support for disunion, Border State moderates turned this weapon around on its own wielders by accusing those radicals of trying to shield themselves behind the Border South in a cowardly manner. Attached to this was a strong honor-based objection to Lower South attempts to control the Border South's future, with submission to the Lower South an anathema equal to submission to the North. Most Border South citizens also realized that they would dominated by their brethren economically and politically in any new Confederacy of slave states. Such a lowered status was distinctly unappealing to a region that fancied itself vital to the growth and stability of the United States. Throughout this fragile period, border Unionists relentlessly and effectively employed all means of popular persuasion to sustain their cause, and they used every parliamentary maneuver in the book to defeat all attempts to pass secession-friendly legislative measures.

Even so, this Unionist offensive would be challenged during the period approaching Lincoln's inauguration, when Republicans closed ranks against any possible compromise that would be acceptable to Southern Rights advocates and the threat of "coercion" became heightened. Lincoln's pre-inaugural silence, the hard line stance of the victorious Republicans, and the failure of the Washington Peace Conference to hammer out any kind of mutually acceptable adjustment all made the the job of the proslavery Border South Unionist much more difficult. But once again Kentucky's John Crittenden came to the rescue. Coming out of his intended retirement to deliver a rousing pro-Union speech in Frankfort and organize a border state conference for late May, the heir to Henry Clay yet again outmaneuvered secessionists by keeping the hope of compromise alive during the dangerous transition period into the Lincoln presidency.

The greatest stress test to the conditional Unionism of the Border South majority was Lincoln's nationwide call for 75,000 volunteers to crush the rebellion after the Confederate bombardment and capture of Fort Sumter, which was followed by bloody riots in Baltimore and later St. Louis. It was Sumter and Baltimore in particular that caused Border South moderates to lose their Lower North allies along with much of their hope for an enduring compromise solution to the crisis. As Robinson shows, even in this hostile climate Unionists in Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware were able to yet again defeat the growing fire-eater element through superior political organization, strategy, and maneuver. Robinson also points out a fortuitous element of historical contingency at work. The firing on Ft. Sumter and Lincoln's call to war occurred mere weeks after the legislatures of Missouri and Kentucky went home on break. If both bodies were in session, even though the Unionists had already spent months ensuring that no quick mechanisms for secession was put in place, there is no telling exactly what might have occurred at such a moment of heightened emotion over the long-dreaded threat of coercion becoming real.

At this point, something else was needed to sustain the Unionist offensive. Replacing the fading (or rather dead at this point) promise of sectional compromise was the widespread appeal, particularly among moderates, of the new Border State policy of armed neutrality. Clearly a flawed solution, state neutrality meant different things to different groups, and no one expected it to last forever. Unionist leaders like Crittenden in Kentucky and Governor Hicks in Maryland thought it the best and only way to cool passions, keep the fire-eaters at bay, and ensure that their homes would not become the seat of war. On the other side, Governor Jackson of Missouri tried to use neutrality as a means of gaining vital breathing room for his state to arm itself and eventually join the Confederacy. Jackson's machinations aside, Robinson is largely persuasive in presenting neutrality as a sincere political strategy, quite different from the cynicism attached to it by contemporary critics as well as most of today's historians. While it's impossible to know what might have happened otherwise, Robinson does plausibly argue that neutrality alone might not have sustained Border South Unionism in the face of expanding war and that the mass of federal bayonets in Maryland and Missouri in 1861 was probably essential to crushing the secessionist threat once and for all.

Through the summer of 1861 when neutrality clearly no longer became an option anywhere, Border South Unionists shifted the chief thrust of their winning political message yet again by convincing the populace that slavery was safe and the war was being fought only to restore the Union. Even after Crittenden's border state convention turned out to be a fizzle, pro-Union congressional candidates defeated Southern Rights candidates in nearly all districts in Maryland and Kentucky (these elections had been moved up to June so that the most representative candidates could be present when Congress returned to session in July). That Unionist candidates won victories in nearly all districts with the highest slave populations leads the author to conclude that Border South belief continued to run strong that the institution was best preserved by staying the course. Another factor helped the cause, too. While acknowledging war's general tendency toward dislocation, Robinson convincingly interprets the fall in voter turnout between 1859 and 1861 (particularly in Maryland) as indicative of high numbers of Southern Rights adherents leaving those states. Robinson's comparative demographic analysis, incomplete as it is, nevertheless supports the general observation (drawn from available voting and census data along with the manuscript record) that Border South citizens and delegates with the deepest personal ties to slavery most often viewed the Union as the safest and best guarantor of their property rights. However, ever increasing northern hostility combined with the First Confiscation Act and General Fremont's emancipation edict in Missouri (quickly rescinded by Lincoln) caused many to fear the future.

From the evidence presented in A Union Indivisible, one might make a strong argument that the triumph of Unionism in the Border South was the most important political victory of the twelve-month period following Lincoln's election. Fall 1862 and summer 1864 are the most frequently cited moments of extreme crisis for the Union, but this book clearly demonstrates that the Border South's turbulent 1861 summer deserves similar consideration with those other seasons of emergency. Though Robinson doesn't make the case for that kind of comparison in the book, it seems he would more than likely approve of it. He would almost certainly agree that the triumph of Unionism in the Border South was chiefly due to the constant vigilance and strategic effectiveness of its homegrown leaders, who deftly confronted and defeated the fire-eaters in their midst and weathered more than a few counterproductive challenges from the Lincoln administration and the army. Robinson's study consolidates and greatly improves our understanding of Border South proslavery Unionism and the many factors behind its success during one of the most dangerous times in U.S. history. Highly recommended.

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1 comment:

  1. I really cannot believe they did it again. Does the American Historical Association have some animosity towards West Virginia and its history? I started keeping a list of books that should include West Virginia but don't. William Harris (Lincoln and the Border States) said he didn't include West Virginia in his book because it wasn't that important, though he did mention Delaware over 60 times. West Virginia ranks 6th on the list of states with most battles and skirmishes, let alone the tar pit of statehood and all the complications that entailed in the midst of the war. So now Mr. Robinson decides that West Virginia isn't a border state either, that it has been covered elsewhere. What is he talking about? The only Civil War history I read is West Virginia, and there is not one single book I know of that deals with the issue of West Virginia and the Civil War and the partitioning of Virginia. There is not one. But I suppose I should be grateful for small favors, since I doubt that any of these historians would be able to effectively deal with the subject.


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