The Fragile Fabric of Union: Cotton, Federal Politics, and the Global Origins of the Civil War by Brian Schoen (review)
- Ohio Valley History
- The Filson Historical Society and Cincinnati Museum Center
- Volume 10, Number 1, Spring 2010
- pp. 96-97
- Additional Information
BOOK REVIEWS 96 OHIO VALLEY HISTORY B y 1860, King Cotton had indeed become king in several southern states. The extraordinarily high prices then being offered for the fiber convinced Fire-eaters in South Carolina and elsewhere that they had an economic and political advantage that could not be beat. Therefore they argued that the South’s interests could and should be served by an independent country where cotton would form the center of a new political economy, one that would rival the North. What made them gamecock sure of their argument, however, had nothing to do with the South. Their confidence arose from overseas, from the fact that Britain needed cotton to fuel a massive textile industry . The Fire-eaters also took comfort from the supposition that Britain’s empire could not supplant the American South as the world’s chief supplier of cotton. But King Cotton had not always been king. It took several decades after the Revolution for it to rise to that position, an uneven ascension punctuated by economic setbacks and grave political crises. The Fragile Fabric of the Union gets off to a slow start as Brian Schoen outlines the place of cotton in politics immediately after the Revolution. The difficulty here resides in the fact that cotton accounted for only a tiny portion of the South’s production of commodities until the invention of the cotton gin made the planting of short staple cotton profitable in the upcountry. The book picks up quickly afterward with an account of how Thomas Jefferson’s trade embargo made unlikely enemies and allies among planters and merchants north and south, and led to the collapse of the first party system. Schoen then provides a detailed account of the long depression that followed the Panic of 1819, during which cotton planters prospered and shifted the center of production to the lower South, creating new political divisions between the upper and lower South states. The vast expansion of cotton cultivation gave rise to a new alliance of interests between the Deep South and northern manufacturers, financiers, insurers, and shippers, an alliance only temporarily interrupted by the nullification controversy in 1832. Once a compromise of sorts had been reached to modify the tariff schedule of 1828, peace and goodwill reigned between North and South with two notable exceptions. Small farmers in the west craving free land sought to create new states in places where cotton would never be king, and thereby upset the delicate balance of power between North and South. This led to several conflicts and compromises over territorial expansion beginning with Missouri, as well as filibustering expeditions into Central America. At the same time, abolitionists in the North and antislavery men in the upper South threatened to undermine the moral as well as political dominance of the southern states at the national level. This neutered the Whig Party in the South, and created The Fragile Fabric of Union: Cotton, Federal Politics, and the Global Origins of the Civil War Brian Schoen BOOK REVIEWS SPRING 2010 97 Brian Schoen. The Fragile Fabric of Union: Cotton, Federal Politics , and the Global Origins of the Civil War. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. 357 pp. ISBN: 9070801893932 (cloth), $55.00. one-party states in the Deep South that internalized conflict in the Democratic Party. It also led to the election of a sectional president in 1860 that placed an interesting choice in front of southern Democrats: the possibility of establishing a southern nation with cotton planters at its center. In an important final chapter, Shoen explains how Fire-eaters and later prominent Democrats carefully and deliberately calculated their chances of succeeding in a rebellion, and made the wrong choice. They believed that Britain and its empire could not do without cotton in the short run, and that would force Britain’s hand into aiding the new southern republic. In short, the globalization of cotton production and consumption led to economic prosperity and political disaster for cotton planters in the South. Schoen’s study tells the story of how those who grew cotton came to have so much political power in the antebellum South, and how it led them to make a...