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

By Startup, Kenneth M. | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview

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


Startup, Kenneth M., The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina. By Manisha Sinha. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Pp. xiii, 362. Acknowledgments, introduction, maps, tables, epilogue, notes, bibliography of primary sources, index. $55.00, cloth; $19.95, paper.)

Manisha Sinha's detailed study describes what the author regards as the rise of an aggressive and uniquely influential proslavery southern nationalist political movement in antebellum South Carolina. Elite South Carolinians repudiated the Revolution of 1776 and drew the greater part of the slave South into an "Aristotelian" counterrevolution (p. 256). She concludes that this process resulted ultimately-and directly-in secession and war. The author also asserts that nullification and the agitation to reopen the slave trade served as stalking horses for the Carolinians' proslavery, antidemocratic bid to create an oligarchic southern nation. In Sinha's telling, masses of southerners were either goaded, duped, coerced, frightened, or otherwise hustled into secession and war by South Carolina planters. In her own words, the "rise of a slavery-based southern nationalism was a testament to the antebellum ideological and political leadership of the Carolinian planter politicians" (p.187). Her perspective is not unlike similar arguments voiced in the antebellum and Reconstruction eras by many northerners-and some southerners.

The arch villain of Sinha's narrative is, not surprisingly, John C. Calhoun. Her treatment of Calhoun is provocative and forcefully argued. Sinha describes Calhoun as far more than a man driven by mendacious personal ambition. To her, Calhoun was a man of deep, desperately held convictions-racist, proslavery, elitist convictions. More than anything else, Calhoun and his coterie were consumed, the author contends, with the ideal of preserving slavery, to the extent that he-and they-rushed to abandon democratic idealism for secession and oligarchy as the surer means of doing so.

In her discussion of Calhoun's ideology and agenda, Sinha seems to posit an overly distinct polarity between an ascendant Jeffersonian-Jacksonian democracy and a defensive Carolinian-Calhoun oligarchy. This construction is a useful means for decrying the Carolina plutocracy's racism and elitism, but it is too stark, too simple, and misses the complex, venerable American roots of Calhoun's political ideas. …

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