In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Slave Rebels and Abolitionists:The Black Atlantic and the Coming of the Civil War
  • Edward B. Rugemer (bio)

On November 12, 1860, the Georgia jurist Thomas Cobb delivered a forceful address to his state's legislature advocating secession from the United States. The previous week had seen the election of Abraham Lincoln, and Cobb drew attention to a particular phrase in the preamble to the Constitution that he believed Lincoln's election had undermined. The states had adopted the Constitution, in part, "to ensure domestic tranquility," but in light of the radical abolitionism that he believed Lincoln represented, Cobb argued that the Union could no longer hold. He asked his audience to recall "the trembling hand of a loved wife, as she whispered her fears from the incendiary and the assassin." Cobb was quick to assure his listeners that he did not personally fear violence from the "happy and contented" slaves, but he did fear danger from the "emissaries of Northern Abolitionists." These men had been seen throughout the southern states, and they just might instigate rebellion. Cobb reminded the legislature that only the president had the power to call upon the armed forces to suppress insurrections. Could white southerners trust a "Black Republican Abolitionist" to use this power if necessary? Cobb did not think so. Secession was the only alternative.1

Cobb was not the only speaker in Georgia to connect the election of Lincoln to the threat of insurrection. For Robert A. Toombs, the history of the Republican Party was simply the history of abolitionism, and Toombs asserted that for twenty years the abolitionists had been working "to excite our slaves to insurrection." Henry Benning warned that the abolition of slavery was now practically inevitable; when it happened, Benning predicted, a race war would result. The South would become "another Jamaica, or St. Domingo."2

Benning's fear that the South might relive a Caribbean history of abolition would have resonated with his audience. Many of the forces operating to tear apart the United States had transatlantic dimensions that historians have only begun to explore. Influenced by the development of [End Page 179] Atlantic history, a growing number of scholars are venturing beyond the borders of the United States to tell stories about the coming of the Civil War. Recent surveys by David Brion Davis, Seymour Drescher, and Robin Blackburn situate the coming of the U.S. Civil War within a much longer history of the struggle over slavery in the Atlantic world (and beyond) that stretched back to ancient times. Monographs by Richard J. M. Blackett, myself, Matthew Pratt Guterl, Brian Schoen, Matthew J. Clavin, and Sam W. Haynes have explored various transatlantic dimensions of the Civil War era, and important dissertations by Steven Heath Mitton, W. Caleb McDaniel, Ronald Angelo Johnson, Matthew J. Karp, and Daniel B. Rood promise to continue the development of this branch of the historiography. As this literature explains, the political struggles among slaves, abolitionists, and slaveholders; the expansion of slave-based economies; and the contests between states that fell on opposite sides of the abolition question were all transatlantic phenomena whose past and present had a powerful impact on antebellum Americans.3

This is a rich new literature, but we still need to weave transatlantic developments into the antebellum narrative. Classic accounts of the coming of the Civil War tend to focus on that well-known series of events that sectionalized U.S. politics from the 1830s to the secession of the Deep South states in 1861. Gary J. Kornblith has recently described the two principal schools of thought that now predominate in the historiography. On the one hand, "fundamentalists" emphasize the centrality of slavery in the creation of two vitally different and antagonistic societies, North and South, that were bound to clash. On the other hand, the "revisionists" counter with detailed analysis of the antebellum political system that reveal a multitude of factors—not just slavery—that pushed the nation toward political collapse and civil war. Edward L. Ayers has advanced the concept of "deep contingency" as a means of reconciling this historiographical divide. An emphasis on deep contingency focuses on "the connection between structure and event, on the relationships...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 179-202
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.