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I58CIVIL WAR HISTORY stereotypes handed down by earlier writers. He appears to be at times a little puzzled by evidence to the contrary. For instance, Davis was, it is said, notoriously impatient, yet the author concludes that in the case of Joseph E. Johnston (of all people) he was too patient. He also, perhaps in an effort to avoid being too friendly to his man, stops to criticize him rather gratuitously on occasion. When the author comes to strike the final balance, he finds that the credits "somewhat outweigh" (704) the debits—not very satisfying, perhaps , but at least an honest admission of the complexity of the task at hand. Then there comes what must be the inescapable comparison: "Not even Lincoln could have achieved Confederate independence, though with his human and executive skills he would certainly have done a betterjob than Davis. But that is because Lincoln was truly a great man. Jefferson Davis was a good man, possessed of elements of greatness, but few of them suited to the impossible task he was called upon to perform" (704). William C. Davis may not have written the definitive biography ofhis man, if there is such a thing as a definitive biography, but he has written one that will be useful to a wide variety of readers for years to come. He leaves us considerably in his debt. Ludwell H. Johnson, III College of William and Mary The Fire-Eaters. By Eric H. Walther. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992. Pp. xv, 333. Illustrations. Cloth, $39.95; paper, $12.95.) Throughout his collective biography of nine secessionists, Eric Walther weaves a complex tapestry of the personal lives and careers of the fire-eaters and, by extension, the Southern society which they sought to preserve. Fireeaters , Walther maintains, must be understood as standing apart from both moderate states' rights politicians who would use the threat of secession to extract Northern concessions on the slavery question as well as other radicals who promoted Southern interests but stopped short of secession. If states' rights politicians and radicals sought Southern salvation within the Union, Walther's fire-eaters viewed secession as the means by which Southern liberty , independence, and honor would be preserved and perpetuated. Secessionists pursued this objective with a common single-mindedness that belied the diversity of their backgrounds and interests. Louis T. Wigfall's poverty and crudeness contrasted with John A. Quitman's wealth and Laurence Keitt's ennobled sense of honor. Edmund Ruffin was sixty-six when South Carolina seceded; William Porcher Miles was thirty-eight. Nathaniel Beverly Tucker withdrew from politics to teach the theory of secession in the classroom; William Lowndes Yancey was the quintessential political agitator. Robert Barnwell Rhett, driven and devious, became an adroit political tactician , while fellow South Carolinian Miles forever struggled to reconcile abstract principles with political realities. Ruffin and James D. B. De Bow both BOOK REVIEWS159 criticized the South's economy; yet Ruffin championed scientific agriculture while De Bow promoted industrialization. Walther contends that, paradoxically, complexity and diversity underlay the fire-eaters' success in realizing their commonly shared objective. Believing that by their nature, politicians and parties jeopardized Southern rights and liberties through compromise and by avoiding decisive action on the slavery question, secessionists were early on alienated from the republic's political system. Yet rather than form a third party, these dissimilar individuals appealed separately and together to a variety of interests and individuals in the South who, by the end of the Buchanan administration, too came to believe that only a Southern republic could preserve their society and traditional liberties. Without duplicity or hypocrisy, their message resonated with agriculturists and industrialists, slaveholders and non-slaveholders, citydwellers and yeomen. Although diverse in guise, the fire-eater message was consistent and simple. A diseased North, corrupt and class-ridden, posed an overwhelming and immutable threat to the South. By dominance of numbers and a manipulation of the spirit if not the letter of the Constitution, Northern politicians would limit then abolish slavery—an institution which by promoting white equality and liberty, secured the liberties of republican government. Drawing on the ideals and heritage of the Founding Fathers, fire-eaters espoused a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 158-160
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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