A review of The Road to Disunion, Vol. 1: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854 and The Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861, by William W. Freehling


The attempt by eleven southern—and slaveholding—states to secede from the Union in the winter and spring of 1860-61 presented the United States with the greatest internal political challenge it had ever faced. Because the Constitution had created a federal Union, secession (which broke the ties of Union) was a dagger at the heart of the American polity. The fact that this secession was motivated by Southerners' determination to protect their investment in human slavery added a cruel twist of the blade. Not only did secession fracture the Union, it did so on behalf of a practice which obliterated the fundamental natural right to liberty, which the federal Constitution was supposed to protect.

But secession struck to an even deeper level, to the very roots of popular government. The seceding states made their bolt for the door not in response to invasion or military occupation or internal taxation, but because their favored candidates did not win a presidential election. The genius of popular government was wound around the twin propositions that majorities have the privilege of winning, and that minorities have the obligation to be cooperative losers. Secession was a declaration of non-cooperation with a national vote, and since the United States in 1860 was virtually the only large-scale example of a successful popular democracy, the threat that the American republic would fracture over a lost election seemed to call into question the entire workability of popular government.

The secession crisis has never had a more ambitious historian than William W. Freehling, retired from the University of Kentucky. In 1966, he published a major study of the preliminary secessionist scare of 1831-32, Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina. Then in 1990, he published The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854, the first of a two-volume history of the great secession crisis itself. In the intervening 25 years, he published nothing more than a handful of brilliant but quixotic essays on the principal characters in South Carolina's secession movement. So when The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay dropped from the heavens, the impact was almost palpable: at the end of this long silence, Freehling had written the first large-scale, comprehensive history of the Southern states' attempt to secede from the Union. There had been plenty of studies of secession in particular states, and several outstanding surveys of the secession winter of 1860-61. What set Freehling decisively apart was the sheer scope of his project—nothing less than a full chronological overview of the idea of secession from the foundations of the republic, and, what was more, a full geographical survey of secession's complexities, hesitations, and internal ambiguities within the South. And as he delighted in demonstrating, those ambiguities abounded. Southerners, snapped Horace Greeley, "could no more unite upon a scheme of secession, than a company of lunatics could conspire to break out of Bedlam," and much of what went into Secessionists at Bay was an exploration of why, until the 1850s, the lunatics had failed to resolve the ambiguities. Secessionists Triumphant, the long-promised sequel, would then explain why, at the last minute, they pulled it off.

The most startling aspect of the first volume of The Road to Disunion was its meticulous analysis of Southern slavery—or rather, the varieties of Southern slavery. Freehling argued that there never was one "South." Instead, there were three: the Lower South (the Gulf and lower Mississippi river states); the Middle South (Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas); and the Border South (Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware, and Maryland). At the outbreak of the Revolution, every one of the British North American colonies that became the United States possessed slaves. But the largest concentrations of slaves obeyed the logic of agricultural economics—which is to say, wherever labor-intensive cash crops were grown (tobacco in the Chesapeake, rice in the Carolina low-country), there slavery provided the least expensive labor source. As the world markets for agricultural commodities changed in the 19th century, so did American slavery. Tobacco and rice declined, and so did slave labor in the places which produced them; but cotton stepped into their place, and since the bottom lands of the Mississippi delta proved to be the world's richest cotton-growing soil, slaves were drained away from the old Border and Middle South states toward the new Southwest.

This economic drainage was linked to political and racial power. The more slaves were sold out of the Border and Middle South, the more the Border and Middle loosened their identification with the interests of the Gulf and Southwest. And as cotton agriculture passed the Border and Middle states by, more and more of the remaining slaves in those states were shunted into industrial and urban labor, slave discipline slackened and losses in the form of runaways mounted—to the point where forms of compensated emancipation began to be discussed there as a viable way of cutting slaveholders' losses.

Slaveholders in the Gulf and Southwest viewed these shifts with apprehension and suspicion. Anything that weakened the united front the slaveholding states maintained in Congress might provide an opening to the Northern free states to use their increasing control of Congress to interfere directly with slavery everywhere. And it created a constant preoccupation in the Gulf and Southwest states with bucking up their weaker sisters, and calculating whether, if secession did finally come, the Middle and Border South might not with one consent begin to make excuse.

The burden of Secessionists at Bay was to show how slaveholders of the Gulf and Southwestern states deployed every trick they could to ensure the cooperation of the other Souths in the protection of slavery. Those tricks included an appeal to fear—especially of slave insurrection, which would not distinguish fire-eating Mississippi cotton planters from non-slaveholding Tennessee dirt farmers—and to race, since Southern slaveholding was confined to blacks (and those who could be ‘scientifically' determined to be ‘black') and invited all Southern whites to think of themselves in terms of racial solidarity. And this strategy resulted in demands on the national government—for the annexation of Texas, for the opening of the western territories to slavery, for the re-opening of the African slave trade, for filibustering in the Caribbean, and for the admission of Kansas as a slave state (in order to shore-up Missouri's loyalty to slavery)—which became harder and harder for pro-slavery agitators to pull off. And even when they were successful, the victories were often pyrrhic. The result was that more and more Southerners felt less and less in the way of common interests.

* * *

That was the cliff on which Freehling left his readers dangling in 1990, and, to mix metaphors, it has taken 17 years for the other shoe to drop. The question is whether it has been worth the wait.

The argument of Secessionists at Bay was not necessarily a new one or even, for that matter, a coherent one. James Oakes and Eugene Genovese had each offered serious and sophisticated analyses of the internal divisions between the various white "Souths," and Freehling seemed to be saying much the same thing, except on a larger canvas. Methodologically, however, he could not seem to decide whether the tensions between the divided Souths were the product of some quasi-Marxian movement of inexorable economic forces, or the happenstance result of individual decisions, made by desperate slaveholders or indifferent Border Southers. Overall, Freehling seemed in 1990 to be voting for contingency. His attention to the decisions of individuals is what made his chapters on the gag rule and the debate over Texas annexation kick into life; whereas in a strictly Marxian interpretation, these could hardly have been other than uninspiring footnotes to the larger economic story.

The question then becomes whether Secessionists Triumphant is going to keep cheering for individual contingency over economic determinism. Freehling gave part of the answer away in 2001, when he published The South vs. the South:How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War. This ought to have been, strictly speaking, the third and concluding volume of The Road to Disunion, since it explained that so many Southerners balked at secession that 300,000 of them ended up fighting for the Union, and thus doomed secession to failure. With this, Freehling linked arms with a substantial corps of historians, from David Donald to Richard Beringer, Drew Faust, and Emory Thomas, who explained Confederate defeat in terms of unavoidable and fatal internal disorders rather than military losses—which is to say, no amount of individual action or genius could have saved the day. Game, set and match to determinism.

But if there is anything which Secessionists Triumphant is a monument to, it is contingency. "To bridge potentially corrosive differences," late antebellum Southerners deployed ever more intriguing proslavery ideologies and ever more zany political crusades" in order to drive the car off the cliff before the sane people in the back seat could get control. It would depend entirely on who—the Southern fire-eaters or the Southern Unionists—got there (to invoke one well-known Confederate) firstest with the mostest. And so a cast of thousands processes across Freehling's stage, some of them Southerners whose lukewarmness over slavery posed the disunionists' worst nightmare (e.g., John Fee), some of them Southerners who confected visions of pro-slavery societies that were bound to stick in other white Southerners' craws (e.g., James Henry Hammond), and at the end, some of them canny and clever politicians who manipulated accidental occurrences (the arrival of a train of Georgia disunionists in Charleston on November 9, 1860) so as to "render secession a necessity."

Yet even at the end, Freehling cannot decide whether the monument should only be to contingency. Secession, Freehling concludes, should be seen as a product of "recurring impersonal forces" which "wrenched the sections apart and made some form of civil war at some time, highly probable" (and notice how, even in this sentence, determinism begins to elide into contingency).

It is genuinely amazing that, after more than a thousand pages (in two volumes), Freehling manages to avoid two important questions: first, how real were the disunionists' anxieties over the future of slavery? The answer provided by contingency theorists is usually not very—in the work of Avery O. Craven, J.G. Randall, and Roy F. Nichols, slavery was a vestigial system that few Northerners were interested in going to war to eradicate, especially if victory in that war turned loose four million newly-freed slaves to compete for jobs in the North. In these historians' view—and it seems, at times, in Freehling's—the only reason secession and civil war occurred was because a handful of irrationalists, spreading irrationalism throughout the body politic, pushed the country into it.

But slavery was not a vestigial system. Cotton was the 19th-century's prize commodity and (since cotton textiles drove the Industrial Revolution) the white gold of the transatlantic economy. Southern cotton accounted for over half of the U.S. exports before 1860; two-thirds of American estates worth over $100,000 were located in the South. In 1860, the twelve wealthiest counties in the United States were below the Mason and Dixon line, and the wealthiest county in the country, in terms of per capita wealth, was not Westchester county or Middlesex county, but Adams County, Mississippi. Judged purely by gross GDP, the Confederacy would have ranked as the fourth most prosperous country in the world. Nor can it be said that the downfall of the Confederacy from within was inevitable, despite Freehling's struggle to switch into determinist mode once the Civil War begins. For a polity which so many think was doomed to collapse, the Confederacy summoned up some impressive resources for resistance, and enough staying-power to offer up the lives of 289,000 of its youth (an astounding 27% of military-age Confederate white males). The Confederacy did not wither and die on its own; it had to be killed.

The second question Freehling skirts is an even larger one: should secession have succeeded? It is certainly odd that after expending so much effort and talent on anatomizing it, Freehling never once reflects on the legitimacy of the idea of secession within the framework of popular government. If he had, he might have discovered ironies aplenty, not the least of which is the eagerness and vigor with which the foreign skeptics of popular government cheered for Confederate success. Today's neo-Confederates like Thomas DiLorenzo, Walter Kennedy, or Charles Adams delight in cataloguing the outrages practiced upon supine democracy by the viperous Lincoln Administration, but without ever asking whether the real enemies of democracy were the people who preferred to overthrow a democratic polity in pursuit of their own self-interest.

But perhaps Freehling should not be pressed, as a historian, to answer a question which any number of political thinkers also prefer to ignore. The American Left has never had much enthusiasm for popular government, since the common man has never shown much interest in the regulative aristocracy that statism promises. That the Confederacy delivered exactly that kind of aristocracy (and to the point of pushing Raimondo Luraghi to speculate that the Confederacy was the first modern experiment in state socialism) is an embarrassment which the Left would prefer not to be reminded of. But the Right has just as frequently avoided the terrible implications of secession in a democracy in the mistaken belief that secession is some form of protest against statism. It is one of the enduring ironies of American conservatism that so many of its thinkers idolize John C. Calhoun as the American Burke, when the Confederacy that Calhoun dreamt of turned into one of the most egregious practitioners of state centralization, price-fixing, forced industrialization, and economic nationalization—and with the most scant regard for civil liberties—in American history. And growing as the Confederacy did out of an economic environment dominated by the practice of forced labor, why should this be a surprise? It was not Abraham Lincoln who invented the nanny-state; it was that son of the Confederacy, Woodrow Wilson. That American conservatives, even more than American leftists, should today manage to find themselves enamored of the secessionist republic may be the crowning irony of them all.