The Fragile Fabric of Union: Cotton, Federal Politics, and the Global Origins of the Civil War by Brian Schoen (review)
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Reviewed by
Brian Schoen. The Fragile Fabric of Union: Cotton, Federal Politics, and the Global Origins of the Civil War. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. vii + 384 pp. ISBN 0-8018-9303-8, $57.00 (cloth); 1-4214-0404-4, $30 (paper).

In The Fragile Fabric of Union, Brian Schoen offers historians a compelling, highly readable, and historiographically significant account of [End Page 202] the exact circumstances that led to Southern secession in the late 1860 and early 1861. Schoen posits that historians have mostly overlooked the central role that “King Cotton” played in the southern movement toward disunion in favor of arguments that posit fear, arrogance, “honor” affairs, a slave-holders’ counterrevolution, or the “climax of a second American Revolution” (258). According to Schoen, the importance of cotton production in the world view of southern politicians, newspaper editors, orators, planters, and intellectuals demonstrates that the origins of the American Civil War were rooted in “not just slavery, but slavery directed toward cotton production” (256).

Schoen is among a number of recent early American historians, including Andrew Shankman, Lawrence Peskin, and Robin Einhorn, who have adopted the framework of political economy to analyze how “economic realities and ideological beliefs interacted to shape political perspectives and decisions” (6). In this, The Fragile Fabric of Union is neither a traditional economic history, nor a rigid intellectual history, of the antebellum south. Rather, by adopting political economy as his framework, Schoen is able to give historical credence to both ideas and institutions within antebellum America to show how they shaped, and were in turn shaped by, the South’s particular economic circumstances. This method allows Schoen to reliably show how the American South’s dedication to monocrop cotton agriculture began with increasing European demand for the good in the late eighteenth century, which in turn eventually altered the region’s outlook on the importance of the Union from a desirous compact to a limiting political institution. Thus, in Schoen’s analysis, it was cotton production for a global market, and not the institution of slavery, that formed the most significant aspect of Southern economic life and the drive toward disunion and war.

It is this historical and historiographical contribution, the reorientation of southern economic life away from the institution of slavery and instead toward cotton production for an international market, that forms the core of Schoen’s analysis. Schoen nicely frames his argument about the importance of cotton by locating its production within the contours of two American Constitutions: that of the United States in 1787, and that of the Confederacy in 1861. The underlying context of both constitutional conventions shows historians that cotton and easy access to world markets were of primary concern among the delegates at these two conventions some seventy years apart. In the years between the two constitutions, Schoen charts the rise of the political economy of cotton agriculture from the pro-unionist writings of Pennsylvanian Tench Coxe and other Jeffersonians, through the political battles over the tariff and Henry Clay’s American System as the cotton crop found a growing market in Great Britain following the War of 1812, and finally into the development of an all-encompassing [End Page 203] “King Cotton” before the Civil War as a Southern proslavery, proex-pansionist, and prosecession movement.

Weak points within Schoen’s analysis are few and do not detract from his book’s overall arguments, but they are noticeable nonetheless. Perhaps most glaring is Schoen’s framework of “global” instead of “Atlantic” to frame the issues of Southern cotton production. While Schoen does include occasional references to the East Indies in his analysis, his sources instead point to the importance, first and foremost, of Anglo-American trade. Likewise, Schoen’s treatment of Southern expansionist (and sometimes antiexpansionist) tendencies toward Latin America only shows their relevance in their relation to European powers. All told, Schoen’s work would fit better within a Euro-American or “Atlantic” framework, instead of his chosen one of “global,” to explain changes in Southern political economy in the early nineteenth century.

The book The Fragile Fabric of Union deserves to be widely read, particularly in graduate seminars on...