Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War. . – book review
J. Boone Dr. Bartholomees
Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War. By Charles B. Dew. A Nation Divided: New Studies in Civil War History series. Ed. James I. Robertson. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001. 124 pages. $22.95. Reviewed by Dr. J. Boone Bartholomees, Jr., Professor of Military History, US Army War College.
In this volume, Charles Dew, a history professor at Williams College whose previous Civil War work includes a biography of Joseph R. Anderson of the Tredegar Iron Works, decided to wade into the still lively debate about the causes of the Civil War. He examines the question from the Southern point of view during the secession crisis in the late fall and early winter of 1860-61.
Lincoln’s election caused the states of the deep South, led by South Carolina, to secede. Secession led almost immediately to the dispatch of commissioners from the seceded states to other Southern states that were still debating the issue. The commissioners were official representatives who were supposed to explain why their state had seceded and encourage similar action from their audiences. The commissioners almost universally had some connection to the state to which they were accredited. Some had national reputations, but most were locally prominent businessmen or politicians. They addressed governors and/or secession conventions, so they were dealing with influential people; their activities were high-profile events. The commissioners sometimes presented the coordinated, formal official positions of their states; in all cases they had at least general instructions from either their state legislature or secession convention. Of course, the commissioners made speeches, wrote letters, and even published pa mphlets. The newspapers reported their activities in detail. The commissioners’ explanation of secession could be expected to be both politically correct for the time and as persuasive as possible for a contemporary Southern political audience. That was the whole purpose of their missions–they were apostles of disunion.
Surprisingly, although the existence of this primary material has long been known, modern scholars have largely overlooked it as they debate the causes of the Civil War. Professor Dew concluded that as official contemporary statements by Southerners to Southerners, the commissioners’ accounts probably provide as honest and as useful an explanation of secession as one is likely to find.
Because of his Southern heritage, Dew says he was surprised by what he discovered. His analysis led to the inescapable conclusion that three themes ran strongest through the extant sources. The first was that Republicanism, equated in the South to abolitionism, was a threat to racial supremacy. “The commissioners insisted almost to a man that Republican ascendancy in Washington placed white supremacy in the South in mortal peril.” The fear was of both political and social equality. Second was the prophecy of race war. The commissioners believed the Republicans would encourage and even incite slave rebellion and pointed to John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry raid as evidence. Finally, the commissioners predicted racial amalgamation as the ultimate product of Republican rule. Interracial marriage threatened Southern womanhood. Of course, the commissioners used every available argument–states rights, tariffs, etc.–to bolster their point. However, Professor Dew finds their emphasis on the racial issues embedded in slav ery as the heart of their argument.
After the war even unreconstructed Southerners changed their tunes, and the states’ rights issue rose to the top of their list of grievances. That was not what they had said at the war’s beginning. Perhaps Henry L. Benning, a Confederate general and famous states’ rights advocate both at the time and after the war as an associate Georgia Supreme Court justice, said it most plainly in his address as a commissioner to the Virginia secession convention: “‘What was the reason that induced Georgia to take the step of secession?’ Benning asked as he opened his speech to the Virginia delegates. ‘This reason may be summed up in a single proposition,’ he answered. ‘It was a conviction, a deep conviction on the part of Georgia, that separation from the North was the only thing that could prevent the abolition of slavery.'” Slavery was the basis of Southern society, economy, and culture. The South viewed the Republican Party as an abolition party. Slavery and Republican control of the national government could not coexi st, so the South withdrew from the union.
Despite his Southern heritage, Professor Dew should not have been surprised by the result of his investigation (and I am unconvinced that he actually was). The material he uses and his approach are new–the conclusion they lead to is not. The chief position of one of the contending schools in the debate about the causes of the Civil War is that only unreconstructed, uneducated, or unengaged Southerners cling to the view that the war was primarily a struggle over states’ rights with slavery as at best a peripheral issue. The only states’ right that really counted was the right to slavery. That logic has been espoused for years without winning the debate. Apostles of Disunion will not likely settle the argument. Potential rebuttals remain. One, on which Professor Dew unfortunately touches only briefly, is the claim that all the slavery talk was simply propaganda, and the real issues were the underlying political and economic struggles. There is, of course, evidence to support that point of view. I found Apostle s of Disunion convincing–others will not. All should read and ponder it.
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