Roots of Secession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia

Roots of Secession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia

Roots of Secession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia

Roots of Secession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia

Synopsis

Offering a provocative new look at the politics of secession in antebellum Virginia, William Link places African Americans at the center of events and argues that their acts of defiance and rebellion had powerful political repercussions throughout the turbulent period leading up to the Civil War.

An upper South state with nearly half a million slaves--more than any other state in the nation--and some 50,000 free blacks, Virginia witnessed a uniquely volatile convergence of slave resistance and electoral politics in the 1850s. While masters struggled with slaves, disunionists sought to join a regionwide effort to secede and moderates sought to protect slavery but remain in the Union. Arguing for a definition of political action that extends beyond the electoral sphere, Link shows that the coming of the Civil War was directly connected to Virginia's system of slavery, as the tension between defiant slaves and anxious slaveholders energized Virginia politics and spurred on the impending sectional crisis.

Excerpt

This book IS AN ATTEMPT to understand the political dynamics leading to secession and Civil War in a southern state, Virginia, and to consider its relationship to slavery and slaveholding. My path toward the writing of this book requires some explanation. The subject represents a departure from my previous research, which has focused on the postbellum South. Still, a constant in my work has been a search for the interconnections between social conditions and politics and an attempt to widen our understanding and revisit our view of the political system and governance. In no period in American history were these connections more important than in the late antebellum years. The advent of the Civil War was a political process, involving the most serious breakdown of the constitutional system in American history; absent that breakdown, there would have been no Civil War. Secession was a particular political act that reflected years of changes in electoral politics. At the same time, the Civil War crisis reflected the unique social conditions of the 1850s that were focused on slaveholding and slavery. During the late antebellum years, politics truly mirrored social conditions and tensions.

I had originally intended to write a very different book, a case study about society and politics in mid-nineteenth-century Virginia between the 1850s and 1870s. But I changed strategy after discovering two realities. First, I found that the 1850s were a highly complex decade that contained both intense social change and an accelerating political crisis. What brought the social and the political together was slavery, and reading the words and thoughts of white and black Virginians made it obvious that it was central to the late antebellum years. This complex mixture of factors forced me to conclude that the 1850s merited on their own a full-length study. Second, somewhat to my surprise I found the sources to be overwhelmingly abundant. I say “somewhat to my surprise” because some of my most serious challenges as a twentieth-century historian of the South have come from large archival sources and the daunting prospect of gathering oral histories. I was reassured by the belief that examining antebellum southern history would be simpler; the sources could not . . .

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