Essays on American Antebellum Politics, 1840-1860

By William E. Gienapp; Thomas B. Alexander et al. | Go to book overview

JOEL H. SILBEY


The Surge of Republican Power: Partisan Antipathy, American Social Conflict, and the Coming of the Civil War

The secession of eleven southern states between December, 1860, and the spring of 1861 remains the central, traumatic moment in the American historical experience. Recognizing its importance, historians have expended efforts over more than a century detailing and explaining why secession became the chosen course and why it occurred when it did.1 This historiographic enthusiasm has yet to wane, and studies of the dynamics of secession continue to appear. In recent years, in fact, after a period of decline, there has been a resurgence of interest in the subject. In the last decade Don Fehrenbacher, Kenneth Stampp, William Barney, Steven Channing, the late David Potter, Michael Johnson, David Donald, Mills Thornton, Peyton McCrary, Eric Foner, Michael Holt, and Thomas P. Alexander have all made significant efforts to decipher the complex problem posed by the failure of the constitutional experiment at the beginning of the 1860s.2

____________________
1
Thomas Pressly, Americans Interpret Their Civil War ( Princeton, 1954), is the standard treatment of historiography to its date of publication. For assessments of more recent works, see Eric Foner, Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War ( New York, 1980), 15-53. In a special, and important, historiographic category is Lee Benson "Explanations of American Civil War Causation: A Critical Assessment and a Modest Proposal to Reorient and Reorganize the Social Sciences", in Toward the Scientific Study of History: Selected Essays of Lee Benson ( Philadelphia, 1972), 225-340. I have benefited from the critical and helpful comments of Ronald Formisano, Michael Holt, James McPherson, Phyllis Field, Andrew Rotter, Gerard Bradley, and Steven Fram on earlier versions of this essay.
2
Don S. Fehrenbacher, The South and Three Sectional Crises ( Baton Rouge, 1980); Kenneth Stampp, The Imperiled Union: Essays on the Background of the Civil War ( New York, 1980); William Barney, The Road to Secession: A New Perspective on the Old South ( New York, 1972); William Barney, The Secessionist Impulse: Alabama and Mississippi in 1860 ( Princeton, 1974); Steven A. Channing, Crisis of Fear: Secession in South Carolina ( New York, 1970); David Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848- 1861 ( New York,

-199-

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