A Union Indivisible: Secession and the Politics of Slavery in the Border States

A Union Indivisible: Secession and the Politics of Slavery in the Border States

A Union Indivisible: Secession and the Politics of Slavery in the Border States

A Union Indivisible: Secession and the Politics of Slavery in the Border States

Synopsis

Many accounts of the secession crisis overlook the sharp political conflict that took place in the Border South states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri. Michael D. Robinson expands the scope of this crisis to show how the fate of the Border South, and with it the Union, desperately hung in the balance during the fateful months surrounding the clash at Fort Sumter. During this period, Border South politicians revealed the region's deep commitment to slavery, disputed whether or not to leave the Union, and schemed to win enough support to carry the day. Although these border states contained fewer enslaved people than the eleven states that seceded, white border Southerners chose to remain in the Union because they felt the decision best protected their peculiar institution.

Robinson reveals anew how the choice for union was fraught with anguish and uncertainty, dividing families and producing years of bitter internecine violence. Letters, diaries, newspapers, and quantitative evidence illuminate how, in the absence of a compromise settlement, proslavery Unionists managed to defeat secession in the Border South.

Excerpt

Shortly after dawn on Independence Day, 1857, a bustling throng descended on the Lexington Cemetery a quaint burial ground nestled in the heart of Kentucky ‘s Bluegrass region. Brilliant sunlight shimmered in the cloudless blue sky and cast a fitting air over the assemblage, which had congregated to celebrate the life’s work of Henry Clay Kentucky’s famed statesman. Bunting, flowers, and flags adorned many homes in tribute to the republic’s birth and to memorialize Clay, a son of Lexington who had labored throughout his career to bind the disparate sections of the nation into an indivisible Union. Five separate brass bands regaled the crowd with patriotic tunes, and around the middle of the morning, local militia companies and fire brigades led a procession through town to a large stage that had been erected next to Clay’s spartan gravesite. On the platform sat Clay’s family, his friends and associates, and his political heirs. They had come to Lexington to lay the cornerstone of a monument that would commemorate the life of the Bluegrass State’s favorite son and provide the departed doyen with a resting place worthy of his eminent political career.

Five years prior, Clay had been laid to rest in the cemetery after a lifetime of public service to a nation that he had witnessed grow from a loose association of former British colonies hugging the Atlantic Seaboard to a sprawling transcontinental colossus stretching to the Pacific Ocean. By the time of his death in 1852, few other Americans had left such an indelible mark on the republic. Clay occupied several important political posts, from Speaker of the House of Representatives and long stints in the United States Senate to secretary of state, but also experienced the pain of defeat as an unsuccessful candidate in three separate presidential contests. He had few equals as a political manager. As the architect of the Whig Party, Clay used his considerable political acumen to build a formidable organization that challenged Andrew Jackson’s Democrats in the rollicking arena of antebellum politics. His conservative approach to America’s mounting concern with the spread of slavery and his penchant for sectional compromise grew out of his unique geographic locus in the Border South state of Kentucky, situated on the boundary between freedom and slavery. in the last three decades of his life, Clay anxiously observed the radicalization of sectional politics and witnessed mounting . . .

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