- Performing Disunion: The Coming of the Civil War in Charleston, South Carolina by Lawrence T. McDonnell
In Performing Disunion, Lawrence T. McDonnell argues that historians of secession have focused too much on why the Civil War came in 1861 instead of investigating who accomplished the task and how they did it. The significance of secession in this book comes less from the political motivations behind it and more from the people who performed disunion. "Of this, we know almost nothing," McDonnell posits. "Which means that we know precious little about secession at all" (9). Historians can and will debate that provocative claim, but McDonnell lays out, in painstaking detail, how the citizens of that hotbed of secessionism—Charleston, South Carolina—performed disunion in 1860–61. And to McDonnell, "performed" is the operative term, because in the milieu of antebellum Charleston, people acted out the process of secession according to the class and station they held within the community.
In describing the ways in which Charlestonians acted out the process of disunion, McDonnell seems to take inspiration from recent works that emphasize political culture and popular participation in politics. This recent scholarship, epitomized by David Waldstreicher's brilliant In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776–1820 (1997), emphasizes the role that parades, celebrations, and other public events played in mobilizing political action among elites and common people in the early American republic. McDonnell goes further, however, by depicting the carefully orchestrated political theater of antebellum Charleston as just that—political theater in which people of all stations and colors played a role in the political process. Drawing on the extensive literature of honor culture in the American South, McDonnell argues that different constituencies had specific roles to play in a great drama unfolding in Charleston, which he calls the "South Carolina jeremiad." Authored by John C. Calhoun beginning in the 1840s and revised by his disciples in the next decade, the jeremiad sought to quell "internal division, subversion, and the rise of self-interested factions" and instill white southerners with a common "moral, social, and political ethic" (144).
Their drama played out via politics, chess, and hats, as McDonnell playfully teases in his prologue. Young men seeking honor and respectability acted out their fears and ideas in organizations such as the Vigilant Rifles. The drama's symbols—whether the theater of political action in Charleston's streets; the game of chess, with its carefully choreographed [End Page 314] moves and unmistakable ties to chivalry; or headwear, which signified status and station—classified Charlestonians by class, social identity, and political affiliation. The blue cockade of secession was a symbol that delivered a message to fellow Charlestonians. All of it, however, became melded into a melodrama that McDonnell charts in careful detail.
McDonnell sees antebellum Charleston as a place besieged by fear of the unknown. In this respect, he draws from Steven Channing's study of South Carolina on the eve of secession, Crisis of Fear: Secession in South Carolina (1970). To McDonnell, Charlestonians feared plenty. They looked at capitalism with fear of how wage labor could erode their slave society. They saw the outside as a threat to their curious world in which premodern and modern elements coexisted in tension. Transportation promised access to markets, for example, but it also brought in the element of the unknown. Class and economic disparities threatened political cohesion; hence the South Carolina jeremiad became necessary. And, of course, they feared the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. All of these elements led to an irrational fear of change that threatened the world Charlestonians lived in. McDonnell focuses intensely on these fears, which makes Charleston seem like a claustrophobic place where dangers lurked everywhere.
McDonnell offers some fascinating insights about Charleston on the eve of the Civil War, but in many respects his argument, and the text that conveys it, seems at times too clever by half. Frequent truisms about history, psychology, and other subjects within...