- The Slaveholding Crisis: Fear of Insurrection and the Coming of the Civil War by Carl Lawrence Paulus
Narratives—one’s way of understanding reality—always underpin change. This book is about competing visions of American exceptionalism and the narrative that created the Confederate States of America. Was America unique in that liberty was the right of all people, regardless of socioeconomic status or race? Or was the United States special because its particular balance of white power prevented slave insurrections from upending the great American experiment? For the southern elite, one had only to look at the violent revolution in Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti) to see the truth: Abolitionism would corrupt and destroy America’s distinctive constitutional government. Carl Paulus convincingly advances the thesis that due to fears of black insurrection southern planters developed their own narrative of American exceptionalism—one with slaveholding at its center—and linked the territorial expansion of slavery to the prevention of an enslaved rebellion.
Paulus joins a long tradition of scholars (notably, Bertram Wyatt-Brown and Michael Holt) who seek to identify the tipping point that led southerners to conclude that secession was their only option for preserving slavery. He does so by expanding our geographical lens. Attention to the Caribbean’s role is not in itself unexpected (see Matthew Guterl and Edward Rugemer on West Indian influence on the American South; David Brion Davis and Robin Blackburn on Saint-Domingue’s impact to Atlantic slavery; or Alfred Hunt, Matthew Clavin, and Ashli White on the effects of the Haitian Revolution on the United States). But whereas many who employ an Atlantic paradigm emphasize a shared trans-national slaveholder outlook, Paulus stresses the (at least self-perceived) uniqueness of the U.S. South. The book’s chief contribution is twofold: (a) revealing how much the 1791–1804 Haitian Revolution influenced the founding of the Confederacy, and (b) explaining the shift from southern endorsement of national power to states’ rights. [End Page 391]
Paulus begins by spotlighting three well-known episodes in the early republic that contributed to southerners’ fears of rebellion. The Virginia blacksmith Gabriel’s plot to overthrow the white master class in 1800, enslaved carpenter Denmark Vesey’s failed 1822 uprising in South Carolina, and Nat Turner’s Southampton insurrection in 1831 each manifested to the public a clear progression. Southerners started connecting the dots between what occurred in Saint-Domingue and these intended American revolutions. As Paulus argues, Gabriel and Vesey’s plots were real, but no white blood was spilled. Haiti and the 1811 German Coast uprising were real but remote. Nat Turner’s revolt was real, close, and deadly.
Paulus then moves to an incisive analysis of the reception of Daniel Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829) and Thomas Roderick Dew’s Review of the Debates in the Legislature (1832). Walker’s open injunction to African Americans to follow the example of Haiti generated worry among white southerners about importing fanaticism. Dew’s Review, in turn, implored Americans to look further south where Colombia and Guatemala’s rank and murderous societies proved the deleterious effects of emancipation. But ultimately, Paulus contends, the success of British emancipation in the West Indies (1833), combined with the U.S. abolitionist postal campaign, pushed proslavery southerners to reassess and alter their strategy: They moved to bolster federal authority against slavery.
In the 1840s, planter theorists began to see westward expansion, particularly the annexation of Texas, as a primary weapon in their battle for slavery’s preservation. Mississippi Senator Robert Walker presented Texas as a “safety-valve” for the black population to move south and west—an argument, according to Paulus, that led proslavery intellectuals to pursue increased federal power and northern Democrats to support expansionism as part of American exceptionalism. The turning point from slaveholders’ advocacy for federalism to states’ rights, Paulus posits, came in 1846 with the Wilmot Proviso—an appropriation bill stipulating that territory gained from the war with Mexico...