The Fragile Fabric of Union: Cotton, Federal Politics, and the Global Origins of the Civil War (review)
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Cotton, U.S. Civil War, Slavery, Tariffs, Secession

The Fragile Fabric of Union: Cotton, Federal Politics, and the Global Origins of the Civil War. By Brian Schoen. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. Pp. 369. Cloth: $55.00.)

White southerners, especially those of the secessionist variety, have traditionally been seen as a rather parochial, backward-looking crowd. The Fragile Fabric of the Union, with its emphasis on southern connections with the rest of the modern world, is part of a growing challenge to this stereotype. Placing cotton at the center of his narrative, Brian Schoen details the political and economic development of the main cotton-producing states between the Constitution and the Civil War, arguing that this "white gold" fundamentally shaped the region's role within both the Union and the wider world. Ultimately, cotton produced a self-confident, internationally aware, economically oriented leadership that pursued secession as a means of furthering its material development.

This story begins in 1787. Schoen depicts South Carolinian and Georgian participants in the constitutional debates as aggressive advocates [End Page 350] of slavery who embraced the Union as a source of economic and political security in an uncertain world—on condition that it explicitly protected slavery. The lower South's commitment to slavery was already strong, but it was not yet tied to cotton. Indeed, at this point Americans were consumers rather than suppliers in the trans-Atlantic cotton trade: In 1790 only 0.2% of British cotton imports came from the United States, a figure that would increase to over 50% by 1810 and over 80% by 1850. The rise of the "Cotton Kingdom" is a well-known tale, of course: The South's ability to exploit slave labor coincided with Britain's rapidly rising demand and turned the expanding lower South into the cotton South, offering white slave owners extraordinary opportunity and sealing the fate of the enslaved labor force. But the version Schoen offers is unusually rigorous, incorporating merchants, factors, and even seed experimentation as well as westward expansion and Eli Whitney's cotton gin. Here and elsewhere, Schoen is careful not to completely overshadow human agency with broad, impersonal economic forces.

The ascendancy of cotton shaped the region's relations with the rest of the United States and with the wider world. Thus Schoen traces its impact on America's relations with Britain during the early nineteenth century, when economic and military conflicts only temporarily upset the growth of American cotton sales to British textile manufacturers. On the home front, he surveys tariff debates in the 1820s and 1830s, particularly the free-trade position that developed among cotton-producing slaveholders. This came to a head, of course, with the nullification crisis. Here Schoen takes a firm stance against William Freehling's aging but still-dominant interpretation that anxiety over slavery was the underlying driver of nullification. Schoen urges his readers to instead see the tariff debates as being about, well, tariffs, revealing rival economic visions that were certainly connected to slavery but more fundamentally involved the rational advancement of economic interest.

Although nullification failed, and although it had enjoyed significant support only in South Carolina, Schoen presents it as the expression of a long-term, regionwide economic vision resting on slave-produced cotton for the international market. This economic vision also underpinned the maturation of proslavery thought. Here again Schoen portrays slaveholders not as defensive reactionaries but as shrewd economic realists who built a forward-looking economic system around a modern system of labor. Writers like William Harper, James Henry Hammond, and William Henry Trescot provide strong evidence for this argument. Slaveholders [End Page 351] continued to advance their interests aggressively at home and abroad, securing Texas annexation, for instance, as a means of strengthening their hand against the northern United States and against British policymakers who saw in a Texan republic an antislavery and dependent source of raw cotton. Victory in Texas, together with the more general strength of the cotton South in the 1840s and 1850s, underpinned what Schoen sees as a strikingly self-confident road to secession for the cotton South. Other interpretations, he contends, have greatly overstated the importance of...