The Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861

By Woods, James M. | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

The Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861


Woods, James M., The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


The Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861. By William W. Freehling. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Pp.vii, 605. Preface, text, maps, illustrations, endnotes, index. $35.00.)

This is the second volume of William W. Freehling's magnum opus, a survey of the South's road to disunion between 1776 and 1861. In the first volume, the author recounted the failure of secessionists to secure disunion. This concluding volume now moves the narrative from the KansasNebraska controversy through the onset of war in 1861. In both volumes, Freehling has distinguished three major areas of the South: the Lower South, the seven states that seceded before Lincoln's inauguration; the Middle South, the four states seceding after the war began; and the Border South, the four slave states that remained within the Union. In the long term, the Border South was becoming less tied to slavery vis-à-vis the Lower South. In 1790, the border states had contained 25 percent of the slave population. By 1860, they contained about 13 percent. Only 21 percent of American slaves lived in the lower South in 1790, yet on the eve of the Civil War, 59 percent did. The figures are not exactly comparable, the Border South in 1790 being only Delaware and Maryland, and the Lower South consisting of South Carolina and Georgia alone. Nevertheless, Freehling shows that "the slaveholding establishment had to become thinner northward to become thicker southward" (p. 13).

In narrating the events of 1854-1861, Freehling covers familiar ground, yet in his own inimitable way. He describes the failure of southern radicals to gain new territory south of the U.S. or to reopen the African slave trade, these designs usually being defeated by upper-South moderates. Freehling quotes a New Orleans paper in 1859 complaining that Maryland "was already well-nigh half-abolitionized," while Delaware was only nominally enslaved (p. 201). Freehling covers John Brown's career, yet he also highlights other, lesser known "Johns" who sought to end slavery through moral suasion or an economic transformation of the South.

Sectional tensions came to a head in the presidential election of 1860. In the South, John Breckinridge, the most disunionist candidate, garnered only 44 percent of the vote, to moderate John Bell's 40 percent and Stephen Douglas of Illinois's 16 percent. Republican Abraham Lincoln and Douglas together obtained almost 90 percent of the northern vote, though Lincoln won only 40 percent nationally. The South had retained national power because its slave property was counted as three-fifths of a person and also because it dominated the Democratic party, an entity no longer national by 1860. As Freehling concludes, "For a quarter century, Southerners had shown how minorities dominate majoritarian processes. The overwhelmingly anti-Slave-Power North had now shown how an awakened majority routs a minority" (pp. …

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