The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina

By Holden, Charles J. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, October 2001 | Go to article overview

The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina


Holden, Charles J., South Carolina Historical Magazine


The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina. By Manisha Sinha. (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Pp. xiii, $55.00, cloth; $19.95, paper.)

Manisha Sinha's The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina challenges the republicanism thesis as the best interpretive framework for understanding antebellum South Carolina politics. As set forth by historians such as Lacy Ford, this thesis holds that because of slavery, "country" republican values such as independence, liberty, and honor flourished among white South Carolinians. These republican values accommodated the diverse realities of white South Carolinians, rich and poor, planter and yeoman, Upcountry and Lowcountry. The result was a durable, if contentious, political culture adhering the state's white male citizenry. The final, dramatic act of secession, therefore, with the state's yeomanry deeply involved and committed, struck a blow for this southern republicanism grown so at odds with the political winds blowing through the North in 1860.

In The Counterrevolution of Slavery, Manisha Sinha argues that planter politicians, deeply committed to slavery and openly disdainful of the democratic tide sweeping through the poorer white yeomen, were the driving force propelling South Carolina society toward its ultimate destruction in war. The republican thesis, Sinha contends, overlooks the "slaveholders' special stake in the institution of slavery and planters' political power" (p. 3). Politics, after all, was the "sphere of the powerful and the articulate" (p. 5). Moreover, by the 1850s, South Carolina was "one gigantic black belt" (p. 10) of slaveowning planters. Secession under this interpretation represented the final, desperate political gamble-the "last foray"-of the planter class, as evidenced by the state's secession convention and its 90% planter membership (p. 243). Sinha takes her readers through the Nullification Crisis in the early 1830s, the Oregon Territory debates of the late 1840s, the African slave trade dispute of the late 1850s, and, of course, the secession crisis. In doing so she demonstrates how planter politicians, influenced heavily John C. Calhoun, developed a separatist, proslavery ideology fundamentally at odds with republican values.

Boldly argued and powerfully written, Sinha's The Counterrevolution of Slavery will force students of South Carolina history to reconsider the state's leaders' antebellum commitment to republicanism. Republicanism, she grants, was "the everyday rhetoric" of politics and no doubt many antebellum South Carolinians took their republican values seriously (p. …

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