restricted access EPILOGUE: The Rubicon Is Passed: The War and Beyond

From: Disunion!

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337 EPILOGUE The Rubicon Is Passed THE WAR AND BEYOND ‘‘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 joining its ‘‘sister States’’ or ‘‘subordination of our section to Black Republican and abolition aggression and outrage.’’ Secessionists promised those white Southerners who embraced the Confederacy, among many other bounties , linguistic clarity—an end to the long, harrowing debates over the causes and imagined consequences of disunion, and a new emphasis on the justness of secession, the need for martial vindication, and the bright prospects of the Southern nation.∞ This book has argued that from the very founding of the United States, the ‘‘question of Union or Disunion’’ was inseparable from the issue of slavery’s destiny. The central premise of American political culture, in the North and South alike, was that the republic was fragile—beset by external and internal enemies, and in perpetual danger of moral decline. Americans proved endlessly creative in tapping deep anxieties about the republic’s survival as a rhetorical weapon in their political combat. By the time immediatists took the stage, Americans with rival political agendas had already, for nearly half a 338 Δ Epilogue century, honed the art of casting their opponents as traitors bent on destroying the Union. On one level, the story I have told is the story of how Americans came to regard slavery as the most potent of all sources of disunion. But I have also tried to show that slavery as a political issue did not displace other disunion anxieties—it encompassed them. For Southern slaveholders, the end of slavery represented a congeries of dangers: race war and civil war, most prominently, but also class and gender disorder, foreign intervention, moral decline, and economic decay. For antislavery Northerners, it was the ‘‘Slave Power’’ that embodied all of these various dangers to the nation. From the start, defenders of slavery used prophecies, threats, and accusations of disunion to stigmatize opponents of slavery as treasonous. In the 1830s, in response to the rise of immediatism, proslavery ideologues popularized the idea that disunion was an inexorable process of sectional alienation , and that the South needed guarantees of protection against the increasingly hostile North. By the late 1840s, a cadre of disunion strategists had taken the field, led by Robert Barnwell Rhett, to argue that such guarantees were no longer possible now that abolitionists controlled Northern politics. In the region’s newspapers, colleges, commercial conventions, literature, and other public forums, these strategists built the case that disunion need not be a fearful prospect, provided that the South was prepared for it—unified, prosperous, righteous, and defiant. Only if the white South were divided and ‘‘submissive’’ would ‘‘Black Republicans’’ be able to fulfill their own disunion dream of destroying the slave regime. Northerners, no less than Southerners, used the rhetoric of disunion to grapple with the problem of slavery. Anti-abolitionists, fearful of the prospect of racial equality, stigmatized all opponents of slavery as agitators who would bring national ruin. Antislavery forces, notwithstanding the profound tactical and philosophical di√erences in their ranks, elaborated their own rhetoric of disunion as a process—a process that revealed the incompatibility of freedom and slavery and the superiority of the free labor system to the slave labor one. In the mid-1850s, Republicans took up the challenge of convincing Northerners that the Slave Power, in suppressing the fundamental rights of free speech and majority rule, sought to weaken the North and even impose slavery there. Northerners could no longer allow themselves to be manipu- Epilogue Δ 339 lated by Southern threats of secession into giving up ground—for the prospect of subjugation was even more frightful than that of separation. John Brown’s raid vindicated Southern secessionists’ fear of a Northern invasion, and Southern reactions to the raid vindicated Republicans in their argument that the Slave Power was more intent on domination than ever. The Harpers Ferry incident thus opened the last chapter in the history of the Civil War’s origins—the ‘‘secession crisis’’ of 1859 to 1861. When he asserted that the Harpers Ferry clash had closed the ‘‘time for compromises,’’ Frederick Douglass had in mind a cascade of events—the schism of militant Southern states’ rights Democrats from the national party; the bitter...


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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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