- A Union Indivisible: Secession and the Politics of Slavery in the Border South by Michael D. Robinson
In 1949, early in a herculean career as a historian and political activist, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. published a controversial book with which scholars still reckon. The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom sought to influence responses to the Cold War by staking out a position of liberal anticommunism. The criticisms offered a reminder of the difficulty of finding a middle ground, or anything approaching the middle, on great issues. The idea of a vital center, and the problem of being in the middle, forms the core of Michael Robinson's fine book.
A Union Indivisible: Secession and the Politics of Slavery in the Border South joins a recent, welcome trend in Civil War historiography, exemplified by Christopher Phillips's The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil War and the Remaking of the American Middle Border (2016) and similarly focused studies: an attempt to come to grips with border regions and, indeed, to define just what the border was. "Although contemporary Americans understood the stakes of the Border South's secession, historians traditionally have devoted scant attention to the region as a collective entity," Robinson observes. "Hindsight provides great clarity about the final outcome of the Civil War in the Border South, but it also tends to obscure the unpredictable path that border Southerners traversed during the secession crisis" (6). By "Border South," Robinson means the four states that remained in the Union with a slave population of at least some substance: Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and Missouri. This thoroughly researched work examines in detail the political actors and actions in those states that shaped their responses to secession, and the importance of the "proslavery unionism" that Robinson describes and analyzes throughout the book. [End Page 705]
The word "responses" should indeed be plural, not merely because each state had its own characteristics, but because Robinson makes clear that the trajectory of the border states varied with events. That he begins in and with Kentucky is appropriate, since Henry Clay's ghost loomed large, between the earlier efforts of "the Great Compromiser" and the pivotal roles of his old state and his aging protégé, John J. Crittenden, a veteran Bluegrass State politician who took it upon himself to don Clay's mantle and find a way to avoid secession and the dissolution of the Union. Leaders in the border slave states grasped the Union's fragility in the late 1850s, by dint of their location and their lesser dependence on the peculiar institution. Caught between lower northern states and the Upper and Lower South, border southerners realized that their region could be the battleground over the future of slavery. Their status on the border between slavery and freedom would pose risks and problems for not only their reliance on slavery along the border, but also their society and culture.
Indeed, border southerners already foresaw a grave threat, as Robinson demonstrates. John Brown's attack on Harpers Ferry obviously put Republicans in a bind and enraged the fire-eaters, but he shows how it proved particularly problematic in the border states, where it excited the secessionist sentiment that Crittenden and his allies had been desperately trying to ease. The era's political divisions are well known, but Robinson gives added texture to them by showing how they shaped the responses of the border states to such pivotal moments as the election of 1860, South Carolina's secession, and the coming of the war. He also digs deeper into some less studied battles, such as the contest to elect a Speaker of the House in 1859 and 1860 and how it reflected and affected border state unionism.
Robinson displays a great command of the sources, including not only a variety of letters, speeches, and newspaper reports, but also several tables showing how voters and their elected officials in the four states reacted to Unionism and threats to it. He presents fascinating...