Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 (review)
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Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859. Elizabeth R. Varon. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-8078-7159-1, 472 pp., paper, $21.00.

Elizabeth Varon's impressive synthesis of the recent scholarship on the coming of the Civil War represents both a new account of the war's origins and continues a rich tradition of scholarship on how immediate emancipationists influenced the sectional conflict.

Varon identifies "disunion" as a term that "offers a new and hitherto hidden key to understanding the origins of the American Civil War" (2). Unlike secession, a specific legal-political mechanism, disunion "was a sublimely adaptable concept" that became entangled with discussions of slavery and served as a "catalyst" of sectional conflict (4, 6). Operating in the five "registers" of prophecy, threat, accusation, process, and program, talk of disunion "worked at every stage to escalate sectional tensions" (14).

Disunion! reflects trends in historical writing that have broadened the scope of the sectional conflict beyond the confines of elections and government and pushed its origins back to the eighteenth century. Varon begins with the Constitutional Convention rather than a more familiar starting point, such as the Missouri crisis, nullification, or the Wilmot Proviso. More than any other synthetic work on the Civil War's origins, Varon gives attention to African Americans and white women, who often played leading roles in disunion debates despite their disfranchisement.

Varon's "heroes" are "radical abolitionists" like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, whose "incisive and trenchant . . . political analyses" unified the North against the slaveholders (15). By 1858 abolitionist ideas had been mainstreamed by Republican Party leaders like William Seward, who described disunion "as a cataclysmic collision" and a "secular vision of deliverance" (319-20). John Brown's raid, which "brought antebellum politics to an abrupt end," capped abolitionists' drive to replace northern fears of slaveholder disunion threats with a program for a new Union based on freedom and equal rights (335).

Immediatism's northern triumph benefited from southern disunionists who publicized antislavery radicals in order to conflate the North with abolition, and abolition with an apocalypse of race war, gender disorder, and economic ruin. Despite strengthening their northern enemy, disunion rhetoric helped proslavery activists neutralize pro-Union arguments within the South. Fire-eaters' program of disunion as a remedy for northern aggressions [End Page 272] turned tactical defeats, like the Compromise of 1850, into long-term victories by forcing moderates to agree that northern conduct should be tested by southern standards of honor and racial solidarity. Once southern voters agreed that the Union was conditional on the North's good behavior, disunionists had victory within their sights.

On one hand, Varon's focus on disunion rhetoric offers a new understanding of the Civil War's origins that moves beyond a debate over how much direct impact slavery had in causing the war. On the other, her emphasis on abolitionist ideas as drivers of sectional politics carries forward a long-running interpretation of antislavery as the North's primary motivation and the South's principal fear. Beginning in the 1940s with reassessments of Lincoln during the secession crisis, scholars in subsequent decades argued for the sincerity of Republican antislavery and assigned abolitionists a more substantial role than what many earlier historians allowed.

Varon's vast reading in the secondary literature is impressive, yet the book's emphasis on rhetoric downplays economic and social studies that jar with the story of immediatism preparing the North to wage a war for freedom while stimulating slaveholders to go for broke in the opposite direction. Jonathan Earle, Lori Ginzberg, and Bruce Laurie argue that political antislavery owed more to poorer agricultural and artisan communities than to the urbanizing, bourgeois world of Garrison and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Slavery as a wealth-generating system of property rights led others to identify power and profits as secessionists' primary motivation. Similarly, northern fears of slavery's economic invasion—fears hastened by railroad integration of regional markets—may have outweighed concerns over political invasion. Finally, newer work on the international dimensions of the sectional conflict shows that in addition to their internal debates, Americans were also influenced by...