Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859

Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859

Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859

Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859

Synopsis

In the decades before the Civil War, Americans debating the fate of slavery often invoked the specter of disunion to frighten or discredit their opponents. According to Elizabeth Varon, "disunion" was a startling and provocative keyword in Americans' political vocabulary: it connoted the failure of the founders' singular effort to establish a lasting representative government. For many Americans in both the North and the South, disunion was a nightmare, the image of a cataclysm that would reduce them to misery and fratricidal war. For many others, however, threats, accusations, and intimations of disunion were instruments they could wield to achieve their partisan and sectional goals. In this bracing reinterpretation of the origins of the Civil War, Varon blends political history with intellectual and cultural history to show how Americans, as far back as the earliest days of the republic, agonized and strategized over disunion. She focuses not only on politicians but also on a wide range of reformers, editors, writers, and commentators. Included here are the voices of fugitive slaves, white Southern dissenters, free black activists, abolitionist women, and other outsiders to the halls of power. In a new and expanding nation still learning how to meld disparate and powerful interests, the rhetoric of disunion proved pervasive--and volatile. As the word was marshaled by competing sectional interests in the tumultuous 1840s and 1850s, the politics of compromise grew more remote and an epic collision between the free North and slaveholding South seemed the only way to resolve, once and for all, whether the struggling republic would survive.

Excerpt

“Folly and wickedness are inherent proclivities of human nature.” So began an editorial in the influential Philadelphia North American, published in January 1849, a time of bitter debates over whether slavery should extend into the Western territories the United States had claimed at the end of the Mexican War. Entitled “Union or Disunion—Life or Death,” the editorial condemned proslavery Southerners who threatened to dissolve the Union if slavery's expansion were restricted. Disunion, the commentary warned, would bring “an almost immediate war, of the most deadly character” between the slave states and the free ones, a war “of treason on the one side, and of vengeance on the other.” Civil war would soon give rise to a second kind of “mortal struggle”: a “universal insurrection … of slaves against their masters” that would bathe the country in “flames and massacre.” The prospect of such a descent into chaos, the editorial lamented, “makes the heart sick.” Pleading for moderation and compromise, it concluded by saying of disunion: “Wo [sic] to the American, whether of the North or the South, who compels his countrymen to think such thoughts and dream such dreams.”

This book argues that “disunion” was once the most provocative and potent word in the political vocabulary of Americans. From the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 up to the Civil War, disunion conjured up the most profound anxieties of Americans as they considered the fate of their republic. This one word contained, and stimulated, their fears of extreme political factionalism, tyranny, regionalism, economic decline, foreign intervention, class conflict, gender disorder, racial strife, widespread violence and anarchy, and civil war, all of which could be interpreted as God's retributions for America's moral failings. Disunion connoted the dissolution of the republic—the failure of the Founders' efforts to establish a stable and lasting representative government. For many Americans in the North and the South . . .

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