restricted access The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Counterrevolution
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Reviews in American History 30.1 (2002) 31-38

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The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Counterrevolution

Susan-Mary Grant

Leonard L. Richards. The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780-1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000. x + 228 pp. Maps, tables, and index. $39.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

Manisha Sinha. The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. xiii + 362 pp. Notes, tables, and index. $55.00 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

Most Civil War historians recognize the name of Virginian secessionist Edmund Ruffin, whose feelings for the South proved so strong that he preferred to blow his own brains out rather than live under Yankee rule. Compromise, clearly, did not form a part of Ruffin's world view. Ruffin is generally regarded as somewhat unusual, both in terms of his opinions and the action these led him to. However, in the context of Leonard Richards's and Manisha Sinha's recent studies, Ruffin's extreme act of self-destruction seems, perhaps for the first time, wholly explicable. As a member of a society so determined to protect an anachronism that it failed to consider the consequences, Ruffin left himself nowhere to go. Yet, for so long, men like Ruffin felt secure, even powerful, within the federal Union. Convinced, and not without good reason, that the South constituted the economic linchpin around which the nation's fortunes turned, southerners justified both their existence and their power on the basis of their peculiar institution. As one southerner commented on the eve of secession: "The history of the wealth and power of nations is but a record of slave products," and America, as he and others well knew, was no exception to this general rule. 1 Many northerners concurred, but increasingly reluctantly. Having effectively washed their hands of the problem of slavery, they preferred that the rather embarrassing source of their nation's wealth be neither seen nor heard. This, of course, was unrealistic. The South had a voice and used it. Indeed, it used it to such effect that northerners came to feel threatened by it. Citing a wealth of evidence to show the range, extent, and duration of southern political power, a growing number of northerners identified a specific Slave Power conspiracy, an [End Page 31] attempt on the part of the South to control the federal government, extend slavery, and dictate the future economic, political, and social direction of the nation.

The idea of a Slave Power conspiracy is hardly new, as Richards acknowledges. Historians, he argues, "have long known that the notion that a slaveholding oligarchy ran the country--and ran it for their own advantage--had wide support in the years before and after the Civil War. It was the basic theme that Abraham Lincoln and his fellow Republicans used in the 1850s to gain political power. Before that, it was deemed a self-evident truth by scores of prominent northerners" (pp. 1-2). A wide range of northern intellectuals, including John Gorham Palfrey, Josiah Quincy, Horace Bushnell and, after the war, Horace Greeley and Henry Wilson published a vast amount on the subject of the Slave Power, showing through a combination of emotive argument and hard statistical data that the South had long held a disproportionate level of power within the nation. Nevertheless, Richards suggests, historians have not taken it as seriously as they should. For years they simply "belittled the thesis," he asserts, and now "it is more fashionable to dismiss the notion of a conspiring Slave Power as just one of the many conspiracy theories that bedeviled the early Republic" (pp. 17-8).

The Slave Power thesis was susceptible in part, Richards notes, because it "enjoyed wide support among the lunatic fringe, and for that reason many discredited it" (p. 2). In purely historiographical terms, however, Richards identifies Chauncey S. Boucher as the guilty party. In 1921, Boucher dismissed the whole idea of a Slave Power conspiracy as nothing more than "antislavery polemics" (p. 17...