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Revolution or Counterrevolution?: The Political Ideology of Secession in Antebellum South Carolina Manisha Sinha In his influential American Slavery, American Freedom, Edmund Morgan argued that the enslavement of a racially outcast, working poor allowed revolutionary Virginia's slaveholding gentry to espouse a vision of an egalitarian republic of independent, virtuous, landowning, white citizenry. When planters such as Colonel Thomas Mann Randolph received common white folk with mud splattered boots in their living rooms, the event symbolized this new conception ofrepublican equality among white men across class lines. A historian of nineteenth-century South Carolina has described a similar vignette of a substantial slaveholder, James Chesnut, meeting a well digger with the ubiquitous muddied boots on a footing of social equality, to support bis argument that the American revolutionary heritage and democratic republican values spurred white South Carolinians to secession.1 But ifracial slavery formed the unseemly material base for the championship of universal liberty and equality by Virginia's Founding Fathers, it gave birth to a far more consistent, anti-democratic, and conservative worldview among antebellum Carolinian planter politicians like James Chesnut. In an important i860 speech before Congress, Senator Chesnut, a Southern rights man and future Confederate office holder, drew attention to the fundamental "conflictofideas" between Northernproponents ofantislavery and Southern slaveholders. The revolutionary and destructive theory of universal equality derived from the Declaration of Independence, he argued, inspired the former. The author is grateful to Eric Foner, Barbara Fields James, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Michael P. Johnson, James Roark, Michael McGerr, Eric Walther, Mrinalini Sinha, Karsten Stueber, and the anonymous readers of thejournal for their comments on earlier versions of this article. 1 Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: W. W. Norton, 1975), 378-79; Lacy K. Ford Jr., Origins ofSouthern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry, 1800-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 372-73. Civil War History, Vol. xlvi No. 3 © 2000 by The Kent State University Press 2?6CIVIL WAR HISTORY "Red republicanism" in America had merely "blacked its face." In contrast, the defense ofslavery—based on tradition, history, and experience—was conservative in nature and promoted stability. Chesnut also condemned the principle of mass democracy because, in his opinion, it challenged established institutions like slavery and created anarchy and social upheaval. So pleased was proslavery ideologue George Fitzhugh with the efforts of the Carolina politician that he bestowed on him "the gown ofthe philosopher" and "the mantle ofthe prophet." Chesnut had revealed not only the sectional divide over slavery on the eve of disunion, but also the ideological distance between the revolutionary generation ofVirginia slaveholders and mid-nineteenth century Carolina planters. The political ideology of secession, exemplified by his speech, belonged to the tide of reaction that followed the age of revolution in the Atlantic world.2 The age of democratic revolutions inaugurated by the American revolution made the existence of slavery and servile labor questionable for the first time in western history. Whatever revolutionary precedent some slaveholders evoked to justify and legitimate their fight for a separate Southern nation, their movement was fundamentally of a different ideological cast. Like European conservatives who bemoaned the spread ofdemocracy and the alleged excesses ofthe age of revolution, they sought to protect racial slavery from the onset of forces that defined modernity. In this sense, the counterrevolution inaugurated by them was long in the making and encompassed more than a response to the election of Abraham Lincoln.3 The older view ofa "great reaction" in the slave South, which made Southern slaveholders suddenly discard Jeffersonian republicanism and replace the view of slavery as a "necessary evil" for a "positive good" in the 1830s was schematic and not altogether accurate.4 However, the tendency to collapse the dif2 Congressional Globe, 36th Cong., ist sess. 1613-19; De Bow's Review 29 (Aug. i860): 176, 178. 3 David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1820 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975). For the classic statement on modern conservatism as a reaction to revolutionary ideas see Karl Mannheim, Conservatism: A Contribution to the Sociology ofKnowledge , ed. and trans. David Kettler, Volker Meja, and Nico Stehr (London: Routledge, 1986), 721...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 205-226
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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