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The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859

Elizabeth R. Varon

Publication Year: 2008

In the decades before the Civil War, Americans debating the fate of slavery often invoked the specter of disunion to frighten or discredit their opponents. According to Elizabeth Varon, disunion was a startling and provocative keyword in Americans' political vocabulary: it connoted the failure of the founders' singular effort to establish a lasting representative government. For many Americans in both the North and the South, disunion was a nightmare, the image of a cataclysm that would reduce them to misery and fratricidal war. For many others, however, threats, accusations, and intimations of disunion were instruments they could wield to achieve their partisan and sectional goals.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press

Series: Littlefield History of the Civil War Era


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. iii-iv


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. xi-xii

As I wrote this book I benefited immeasurably from the sage advice of friends and colleagues. Keith Poulter was the first one to read the whole manuscript draft through—and his keen eye caught and corrected many infelicities of style and substance. Richard Newman and David Waldstreicher read the ...

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pp. 1-16

‘‘Folly and wickedness are inherent proclivities of human nature.’’ So began an editorial in the influential Philadelphia North American, published in January 1849, a time of bitter debates over whether slavery should extend into the Western territories the United States had claimed at the end of the ...

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pp. 17-27

The antislavery impulse was as old as the republic itself. So too were sectional tensions deriving from the diverging interests of the free labor North and the slaveholding South. By the eve of the American Revolution, slavery had existed in North America for more than 150 years; it was legal in every one ...

PART I. 1789 – 1836

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1. The Language of Terrifying Prophecy: Disunion Debates in the Early Republic

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pp. 31-53

The era of constitution making bequeathed to the young nation not only a legacy of compromise and indecision on slavery, but also the beginnings of a discourse in which politicians summoned images of disunion to advance their own regional and partisan agendas. The early years of the republic witnessed ...

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2. We Claim Our Rights: The Advent of Abolitionism

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pp. 55-85

As America approached its fiftieth birthday, the ‘‘triumphal’’ 1824–25 tour of Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette served as the occasion for a public outpouring of pride and optimism—and of praise for the inestimable benefits of the glorious Union. Albert Gallatin, former secretary of the ...

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3. Ruinous Tendencies: The Anti-Abolition Backlash

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pp. 87-124

‘‘Who does not see that the American people are walking over a subterranean fire, the flames of which are fed by slavery?’’ These words, with their ominous ring, were written by abolitionist Lydia Maria Child as a commentary on the nullification crisis, the protracted clash between South Carolina and the ...

PART II. 1837 – 1850

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4. The Idea Will Become Familiar: Disunion in the Era of Mass Party Politics

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pp. 127-164

In 1837 a new litmus test for loyalty to slavery emerged as the issue of Texas annexation became a centerpiece of the antislavery petition campaign. The Republic of Texas had declared independence from Mexico in 1836 Texans overwhelmingly favored annexation to the United States. Abolitionists vehemently ...

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5. Oh for a Man Who Is a Man: Debating Slavery’s Expansion

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pp. 165-197

When the fractious Twenty-seventh Congress came to a close, the antislavery lobby in the House (Adams, Slade, Giddings, and ten others) promulgated an address to the ‘‘people of the free states’’ on the subject of Texas annexation. The project of annexing Texas may have been on the political ...

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6. That Is Revolution!: The Crisis of 1850

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pp. 199-231

Garrisonian hope that the debates over the Mexican Cession would expose the futility of a national electoral system easily dominated by the South had to be deferred. With the House and Senate in turmoil over Wilmot’s proposal, the fate of slavery in the territories ‘‘passed to the people, in a national ...

PART III. 1851 – 1859

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7. Beneath the Iron Heel: Fugitive Slaves and Bleeding Kansas

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pp. 235-271

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 legitimized and lent immediacy to an argument that abolitionists had long been making—that Northerners were complicit in the slave system. Northern outrage at the law, in turn, legitimized a long-standing argument of the South’s proslavery vanguard—that Northerners ...

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8. To Consummate Its Boldest Designs: The Slave Power Confronts the Republicans

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pp. 273-304

‘‘The country is now passing through the most portentous crisis which it has encountered since the revolution,’’ wrote Democrat Bedford Brown of Maryland to his party’s candidate, James Buchanan, on the eve of the 1856 presidential election. From North to South, Buchanan received letters expressing ...

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9. War to the Knife: Images of the Coming Fight

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pp. 305-335

The antislavery consensus that the Dred Scott decision was a link in a chain of portentous events—by which the Slave Power escalated its claims that the Constitution protected slavery in perpetuity—soon found a≈rmation in Kansas. Railing against the proslavery Lecompton constitution that had been ...

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EPILOGUE: The Rubicon Is Passed: The War and Beyond

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pp. 337-347

‘‘The question of Union or Disunion is dead and buried,’’ declared an article that ran in the Staunton Vindicator in March 1861, during Virginia’s secession convention. Led by South Carolina and the Deep South states, dissolution had already taken place, and now Virginia faced a stark choice between ...


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pp. 349-399


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pp. 401-429


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pp. 432-455

E-ISBN-13: 9781469606200
E-ISBN-10: 1469606208
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807832325
Print-ISBN-10: 0807832324

Page Count: 472
Illustrations: 2 line drawings, 1 map
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: Littlefield History of the Civil War Era
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OCLC Number: 405097257
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Disunion!

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1783-1865.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1783-1865 -- Sources.
  • Sectionalism (United States) -- History.
  • Sectionalism (United States) -- History -- Sources.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Causes.
  • Slavery -- Political aspects -- United States -- History.
  • Antislavery movements -- United States -- History.
  • Rhetoric -- Political aspects -- United States -- History.
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