THE ROAD TO DISUNION
Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861
By William W. Freehling
Illustrated. 605 pp. Oxford University Press. $13
In his second volume of The Road to Disunion, William W. Freehling explores the climax of the secessionist movement in the American South. “Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861” takes the reader from the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which reignited anti-slavery controversy in the territories, to the opening shots of the War Between the States at Fort Sumter. Long a thwarted minority, secessionists emerged from the political wilderness in these years and fatefully tore the White Republic asunder.
White Nationalists will be surprised to learn that Freehling’s revisionist interpretation of secession challenges the conventional wisdom on the topic. Every American teenager is taught in high school that Southerners stormed out of the Union over their failure to expand slavery in the territories. The Republican Party would have carved out new free states in the West. Eventually, free soilers would have achieved the necessary 3/4th majority to abolish slavery in the South. Thus, Southerners had no choice but to secede and form their own independent nation, as slavery was doomed within the Union.
Freehling uses multiple lines of evidence to undermine this argument. He points out that the most important secessionists, the South Carolina hotspurs, were the least enthusiastic about national expansion. Their champion John C. Calhoun had warned that the Mexican Cession would poison the Union. Likewise, the most important expansionists, the New Orleans imperialists, were among the strongest unionists. South Carolina had wanted to secede from the Union since 1850 and was deterred only because no other state would follow. The Kansas controversy that ensued in the mid-1850s didn’t precipitate the crisis. In the hearts and minds of South Carolinians, the fateful decision for disunion had been made long ago.
Far from being a beleagured minority, the Slave Power had been chalking up one victory after another, and making ever more extreme demands on their Northern colleagues. Texas was annexed to the Union in 1846. The Far Southwest was acquired in the Mexican Cession. The Wilmot Proviso was repeatedly defeated. In the Compromise of 1850, slaveholders had won a new fugitive slave law. The Whig Party was tried and convicted of treason to slavery in the Lower South. In the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Missouri Compromise was repealed and all the territories were flung open to slavery. In the Dred Scott decision, Congress was stripped of its power to abolish slavery in the territories and free blacks lost their citizenship. Finally, Stephen Douglas defeated Abraham Lincoln in an 1858 Illinois Senate race. The Republican Party grew only because of the seemingly insatiable demands of slaveholders who had never been more powerful.
The Western territories which allegedly were the cause of disunion were largely unsuited for plantation agriculture. Slavery wasn’t about to establish itself in New Mexico, Utah, or Nebraska. This was no real loss: planters had an overabundance of land in more tropical Arkansas and Texas waiting to be exploited. Free states like California and Oregon also usually voted with the South in Congress. In Kansas, a mere 200 slaves were imported into the territory. Southerners knew the North would settle the region with their far larger population. Even if Kansas had been admitted as a slave state under the Lecompton constitution, it wouldn’t have remained one a dozen years later.
Under close examination, disunion seems even more bizarre. Southerners were outraged at Northerners who wanted to ban slavery in the territories, but in seceding from the Union they renounced their claim to all the territories. Southerners worried about the erosion of slavery in the Border South, but in seceding from the Union they abolished slavery in the region. Southerners were worried that non-slaveholders would flock to a Southern Republican Party, but secession divided Virginia and produced thousands of anti-Confederates in East Tennessee, North Alabama, and Western North Carolina. Southerners worried about servile insurrection, but nothing was more likely to produce that result than a Civil War!
The “Black Republican” threat was vastly exaggerated. Only 2% of Northerners wanted to abolish slavery where it already existed. The Republicans only wished to ban slavery in places it could never take root. They had lost on that point in the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Dred Scott decision. In 1860/1861, the Republicans were willing to pass an irrevocable constitutional amendment that would have legalized slavery forever in the Southern states, including the Border South where it was imperiled. Abraham Lincoln even conceded that he wouldn’t use patronage to create a Southern Republican Party in the Lower South.
Lincoln’s election, the proximate cause of disunion, was desired by secessionists like William Lowndes Yancey and Robert Barnwell Rhett. Yancey deliberately used an abstract debate over a congressional slave code to divide the Democratic Party, defeat Stephen Douglas’ candidacy, and ensure a Lincoln victory. This outrage could then be exploited to drive a handful of the most radical states out the Union. The more reluctant Gulf States would then be forced to secede with their brethren. If Lincoln chose to coerce a seceded state, this would force Upper South (and hopefully the Border South) into a Southern Confederacy.
It boggles the mind: secessionists diligently went to work destroying their national political party through which they had lately controlled the Presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court. If the Democrats had united behind Douglas, they could have defeated the Republicans in 1860. If slaveholders had conceded inhospitable and unwinnable territories within the Union, as they did by leaving the Union, the Republican Party would have faded. Slavery would have been ensconced in an impregnable constitutional fortress. There is no telling when it may have ultimately been abolished.
The revolution the secessionists incited thrust men into power who had not championed disunion. Jefferson Davis, Confederate President, had been a Washington insider and favorite of James Buchanan. He had opposed secession until 1860. Alexander Stephens, Confederate Vice President, opposed Georgia’s secession from the Union. Robert Toombs, Confederate Secretary of State, was a unionist who opposed Georgia secession in 1850. Christopher Memminger, Confederate Treasury Secretary, had been a Cooperationist. The Confederate government was stacked with other late comers. Noticeably absent were the Fire Eaters (Robert Barnwell Rhett and William Lowndes Yancey) who prodded the South to disunion.
These men exploited several issues to drive a wedge between North and South. Robert Barnwell Rhett hoped the Republicans would revisit the issue of abolishing slavery in Washington, DC. Maybe that could be used to dissolve the Union. Yancey argued for reopening the African slave trade in the hope that it would alienate Northern Democrats. Kansas and Caribbean expansion were also seen as useful devices for justifying disunion. Ultimately, the congressional slave code with the abstract “when necessary” language proved the most lethal and effective weapon.
South Carolina set the chain of dominos in motion. There haughty lowcountry aristocrats had long despised American mobocracy and yearned for deliverance. Touchy Southwesterners in Alabama and Mississippi could not tolerate the dishonor of being morally stigmatized or excluded from any territory. They could also not tolerate the decision of the Buchanan administration to coerce South Carolina by sending the Star of the West to resupply Fort Sumter. Florida and Georgia followed their neighbors. Louisiana and Texas cast their lot with their sister states.
The Upper South decisively rejected secession until Lincoln decided to coerce the Confederacy. The Whites in these states felt South Carolinians had been foolish and unwise, but did not contest their right to secede. Lincoln’s violation of states’ rights took Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee out of the Union. In the Border South, 1/3 of Whites sided with the Confederacy; 2/3 with the Union. Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland degenerated into civil war.
William W. Freehling searched in vain for a rational explanation for disunion. Wasn’t there an “irrepressible conflict” between the Free States and Slave States? His research uncovered an untidy variety of causes as divergent as the various subregions of the South. Some Southerners were swept along by the excitement and momentum of events beyond their control. Some felt they were being treated as less than equals. Some despised Yankee holier-than-thous. Some felt that slavery would be safer in a Southern Confederacy. Some believed that Northern protectionists were fleecing them with high tariffs. Some would side with their own misguided kin. Some did not believe the federal government could coerce a seceded state. Most subscribed to some combination of these grievances.
It is worth noting that the demise of the White Republic was a self inflicted blow on American civilization. Northerners and Southerners heaped up their own funeral pyre over insoluble sectional differences. Jews did not play an important role in the final unraveling. The reconstructed nation that emerged from the carnage would elevate negroes to civil and political equality. A few years earlier, this had been an unthinkable scenario except in the minds of the wildest fanatics like John Brown. If there is any useful lesson that White Nationalists can draw from this, it is that White fratricide always works to the advantage of our racial enemies.