- Secession as an International Phenomenon: From America’s Civil War to Contemporary Separatist Movements
While the American South’s secession and the Civil War resonated internationally in the 1860s and continue to factor into secessionist debates today, the South’s desire to preserve slavery makes it a unique [End Page 442] case. Should slaveholding southerners be compared to oppressed ethnic or religious minorities when Confederates intended to perpetuate a system of racial slavery? Of course not. Yet, as Don Doyle points out in his introduction to the multifaceted essays contained in Secession as an International Phenomenon, the southern case for a “political divorce” (3), the Union’s decision to resist secession militarily and legally, and the post-war reconciliation have made the American case a “historical benchmark” (2) for secessionist movements in different times and places. This volume of wide-ranging essays highlights different methodological approaches to understanding secessionist movements as well as historical analyses of particular times and places.
Edited by Doyle, a southern historian who has turned toward transnational understandings of the United States and the South, the collection is the second from the Association for Research on Ethnicity and Nationalism in the Americas (ARENA). It seeks in part to locate the American Civil War in a comparative framework, and several of the essays belong to the growing field of transnational history. After an introductory essay from philosopher Christopher Wellman explaining his position on the conditions in which secession should be accepted, six essays focus on the American Civil War, and three others use the American Civil War comparatively, in relation to China and Taiwan, German reunification, and civil violence more generally. Other contributors do not address the American case at all, and instead examine other secessionist movements: the early nineteenth-century Gulf of Mexico, including Texas, Florida, and the Yucatán; modern-day Quebec; Iraqi Kurdistan; postindependence Africa; Slovenia, Kosovo, Chechnya, and Biafra; and the Soviet successor states of Ukraine and Moldova. Together, the essays raise questions about the formation of distinctive ethnic, racial, religious, and nationalist identities, the conditions likely to produce civil violence, and the strong relationship between nationalist independence movements and later secessionist efforts. For example, the United States’ declaration of independence from the British Empire served as a critical precedent for southern secessionists. Similarly, in the last half of the twentieth century, African states’ independence from European empires and the dissolution of the Soviet Union produced contexts ripe for secessionism. While all of the essays deserve attention in their own right, for purposes of this review, I will highlight the arguments of the six essays on the American Civil War.
Legal scholar Paul Radan questions Abraham Lincoln’s case against secession, and Radan uses a close reading of Lincoln’s writings to show the flaws in his argument. Charles B. Dew and Susan-Mary Grant examine southern secession primarily in the American context. Dew’s portrait [End Page 443] of John Ashmore, a moderate slaveholder–turned–fire-eater, points out white men’s intense fear of “amalgamation,” or race mixing, should the Republican agenda triumph. Grant insightfully argues that southern secession and the ongoing Civil War helped to establish the North’s identity as a nation and a state, well before the state building of Reconstruction. Looking more internationally, Robert E. Bonner, Paul Quigley, and Frank Towers locate the South and southern secessionists in relation to global politics and European nationalists of the mid-1800s. Using statistics-filled proslavery publications, Bonner shows how the 1850s proslavery secessionists calculated the Confederacy’s future success as an economic and imperial power, a tactic the earlier nullification advocates of the 1820s and 1830s had not used. The fire-eaters of the 1850s saw secession as a “proslavery variant of manifest destiny” (122). Quigley and Towers point out the importance of European nationalist movements to white southerners’ efforts to create a distinct national identity for themselves. Containing liberal and reforming impulses as well as more conservative ethnocultural strains...