Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Republic in Crisis, 1848-1861

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Republic in Crisis, 1848-1861

Article excerpt

The Republic in Crisis, 1848-1861. By John Ashworth. (New York and other cities: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. [x], 209. Paper, $22.99, ISBN 978-1-107-63923-2; cloth, $75.00, ISBN 978-1-107-02408-3.)

In The Republic in Crisis, 1848-1861, John Ashworth offers a brief interpretation of the 1850s that focuses on how changes in ideology and economics, particularly their impact on how northerners and southerners viewed slavery, caused the Civil War. Throughout the volume Ashworth engages the most recent interpretations of the sectional crisis while offering a distillation of his long-standing argument that a profound divergence between North and South led to conflict in 1861.

Readers familiar with the narrative of the sectional crisis will find little new in Ashworth's clear and straightforward retelling. But the arguments that he weaves within that story make this book an accessible precis of his two-volume work Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic (2 vols.; New York, 1995, 2007). Ashworth develops two themes regarding Civil War causation that he believes scholars of the period have neglected. First, he posits that the war came because of economic and moral changes emerging within and between the sections. The rise of northern wage labor led northerners to oppose slavery on economic and moral terms even as it pointed to inherent economic weaknesses within the southern labor system. Second, Ashworth argues forcefully that active slave resistance led to the outbreak of the conflict and to the eventual abolition of slavery. Indeed, in Ashworth's mind, the corrosive ability of slaves to subvert the planter regime through active and passive resistance greatly weakened southern economic development at a time when the northern free labor economy grew dramatically.

Rapid industrialization led northerners to reconsider the negative connotations of wage labor. Ashworth contends that the promise of upward economic mobility available to free laborers not only legitimated wage labor but also discredited slavery. Free laborers had incentive to work harder, whereas slaves did not. This economic axiom played out in the ability of free laborers to compartmentalize work and home life. With work occurring outside the house, the home itself became a safe haven for the family. Slavery did violence to the family unit. Therefore, moral opposition became ingrained within northern society as individual conscience convinced northerners of the moral and economic superiority of their way of life compared with a southern system linked to slavery. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.