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Perfecting the Work of the Founders

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 23, Number 3, September 1995
pp. 444-449 | 10.1353/rah.1995.0075

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Reviews in American History 23.3 (1995) 444-449

William C. Davis. ``A Government of Our Own'': The Making of the Confederacy. New York: Free Press, 1994. x 550 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $27.95.

George C. Rable. The Confederate Republic: A Revolution Against Politics. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994. x 416 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index. $34.95.

We think of the Confederate States of America as a political aberration: two million Union soldiers fought over 10,000 military engagements to make sure of that. The artisans of America's last great venture in state formation, of course, saw matters much differently. To them it was no aberration at all, but a chance to retrieve an earlier experiment in republican government that had begun well but disastrously miscarried. The creators of the Confederacy were determined to correct the mistakes and thereby perfect the work of the founders.

The memory of their revolutionary forebears hung heavily over the secessionists of 1861. Even foreigners were struck by the historical parallel. Observing a session of the Confederate congress in May, the British correspondent William Howard Russell mused that ``in all but garments, [the delegates] were like the men who first conceived the great rebellion which led to the independence of this wonderful country -- so earnest, so grave, so sober, and so vindictive.'' Historians, however, have not been quite persuaded by the Confederates' claim to the legacy of the American Revolution. At best, it has seemed a conceit -- telling but mistaken -- on the part of conservatives trying to recapture the past; at worst, an unconvincing attempt to identify the slaveholders' republic with an American nation that was really founded on the principle of human equality. Historians have therefore appreciated the candor of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, who declaimed that the cornerstone of the Confederate republic was slavery, not equality. Such a regime could not possibly be the legitimate heir of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison.

Yet after all, Washington, Jefferson, and Madison were southern slaveholders, and the hallowed Constitution of 1787 included several provisions that implicitly recognized and protected chattel slavery. Although unpalatable, it is not unreasonable to suggest that by embracing slavery unequivocally, Confederates did not thereby relinquish their claim to the revolutionary past. Indeed, the Confederate critique of mid-nineteenth-century America went beyond simple concerns about slavery. Although the free soil threat was doubtless the main factor that drove them to disunion, most southern statesmen genuinely embraced a different vision of the ideal American republic than their northern counterparts.

Confederate politics, therefore, is worth taking seriously for its own sake. The two works under review try to do this. The first offers a detailed look at the men who brought the Confederate States of America into existence; the other is an extended exploration of the assumptions, values, and beliefs that fostered a distinctively Confederate political culture.

``A Government of Our Own'' recounts the formation of the Confederate government from February 1861, when delegates from the lower South assembled in Montgomery, Alabama; to May, when the resulting government decided Richmond would be its permanent capital. Davis's principal purpose is to bring the episode to life, not to advance an original historical interpretation, and thus much of his tale will be familiar to students of the period. Even so, no one has yet crafted such a detailed, well-researched portrayal of the breathless weeks in which the Confederacy was founded.

As befits a historian who has long earned a living from his pen, Davis has a gift for evoking personalities, and he is very good at portraying the constellation of statesmen who descended on Montgomery. He focuses especially on Alexander Stephens, the brothers Howell and Thomas Cobb, Robert Toombs, Robert Barnwell Rhett, and, inevitably, Jefferson Davis. His narrative voice is assured, omniscient, though where the evidence conflicts he evaluates his sources shrewdly, albeit in long endnotes so as not to detain the layman.

The emphasis throughout is on the clash of personalities. Davis seems less interested in the clash of ideas, and though he adequately summarizes the debates on the Confederate constitutions (both provisional and permanent), these receive noticeably less attention than the backroom maneuvers, torchlight...