Roots of Secession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia

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Roots of Secession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia. By William A. Link. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Pp. xvii, 387. Preface, introduction, prologue, illustrations, epilogue, notes, bibliography, index. $45.00.)

Like the Energizer Bunny, debate over why the Confederate states left the Union just keeps going, and going, and going. William A. Link has no doubts about why Virginia seceded. It was all about slavery. Other explanations, most notably state rights, he maintains, came from postwar ploys by former rebels to purify their Lost Cause. This is a widely accepted argument. One could quibble about the definition of state rights, the viability of single-cause explanations of complex events, and so on, but slavery clearly was an important part of the mix. Link makes a good case for his position, too, in this first scholarly consideration of the Virginia secession movement in seventy years. However, he also complicates matters by raising new issues and leaving unanswered questions in his wake.

Link explains Virginia secession in the context of state elections during the 1850s. The principal issue of the decade, he submits, was slavery, and it was explosive. Virginia had changed during the preceding twenty years. Economic prosperity and growing urbanization-stimulated by the market and transportation revolutions-had given more political power to nonslaveholders and changed the nature of slavery. The result was a vigorous political dialogue over the future of the institution. What made this debate particularly vital, Link continues, was the influence that slaves had on political discourse. A growing sense of freedom-prompted by increases in urban slavery and slave hiring-and an awareness of the importance of slavery in the state's politics emboldened blacks. They became defiant, ran away from their masters, assaulted whites, and engaged in arson and theft. These actions, Link maintains, constituted political statements, which, in combination with growing white opposition to slavery, affected elections and permitted a coalition of Whigs, Know-Nothings, and Republicans to challenge Democratic rule.

Much of Link's interpretation makes sense. It certainly complements recent scholarship on antebellum politics, which shows a tendency for the two-party system to maintain a certain vitality in the Upper South (including Arkansas) even as it was breaking up in the Lower South. …