H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-South@h-net.msu.edu (January, 2002)
Charles B. Dew. Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners
and the Causes of the Civil War. A Nation Divided: New Studies in
War History. Charlottesville and London: University Press of
Virginia, 2001. x + 124 pp. Cloth ($22.95), ISBN 0-8139-2036-1.
Reviewed for H-South by Christopher Olsen, Department of History,
Indiana State University.
Secession, Slavery, and Racism: Confederates vs. Neo-Confederates
This slender volume
examines the work of secession commissioners sent from the deep South to
other slave states in the winter of 1860-1861. The
men were charged with defending secession and urging fellow southerners
to follow them out of the Union. Charles B. Dew properly notes that
historians trying to uncover the emotions and motives behind disunion have
rarely examined the words of these commissioners. The men themselves
are commonly ignored by historians entirely or dismissed as minor figures.
Dew has speeches or letters from forty-one of the fifty-two men who
commissioners. They were all slaveowning politicians, with varying
experience and partisan affiliations; most were natives of the states to
which they were appointed. This is not a complete study of the men
or all of their work, but it is an important contribution to the literature
secession and a good introduction to the story of these neglected figures.
Dew evidently intends the book for both academics and
a more general readership. The text is barely eighty pages, followed by an
only a minimum of notes, which should make it appealing for classroom use.
The prose is clear, jargon-free, and includes enough of the
narrative of secession that even beginning students will be able to follow
the book. But the material is complex enough, and the representative
documents well chosen, so that it should also stimulate discussion among
For the book's primary audience -- non academics and beginning
students -- the author's intent clearly is to disabuse them of the (incredibly)
still popular notion that secession was not about preserving slavery and
racial subordination (and the southern culture based on them), but rather
to assert some sort of abstract commitment to states' rights. Academic
historians, of course, have long-since concluded that states' rights was
the means, not a primary motive, for secession and war. Dew's principal
target is the somewhat shadowy "Neo-Confederate" movement, including the
League of the South and the patrons of "Neo-Confederate web sites,
bumper stickers, and T-shirts" (10). He notes correctly that secessionists
themselves "talked much more openly about slavery than present-day-neo-Confederates
seem willing to do" (10). The book's first chapter makes clear the
relevance of his discussion to recent controversies over the Confederate
flag in a number of states and Virginia's Confederate history month, among
others. The author writes with some obvious passion. A native
southerner he recalls "my boyhood dreaming about
Confederate glory," and confesses that he is "still hit with a profound
sadness when I read over the material on which this study is based" (2).
Not surprisingly, Dew has little difficulty demonstrating
his primary thesis. The secession commissioners repeated the same message
they went: Lincoln and the Republicans were abolitionists determined to
establish racial equality or promote amalgamation; secession and independence
offered white men the only alternative to degradation and cultural destruction.
The Republican threat, the men argued, was really three-fold: racial equality,
race war, and racial amalgamation. The authors of Mississippi's "Declaration
of Immediate Causes," for instance, claimed that the North "advocates negro
equality, socially and
politically, and promotes insurrection and incendiarism in our midst" (13).
Alabama's Leroy Pope Walker summarized that Republican rule would cost southerners
first, "our property," "then our liberties," and finally "the sacred purity
of our daughters" (79).
Perhaps the most effective evidence Dew offers is the
coarse racism that punctuated many of the commissioners' appeals. Thoughtful
readers will recognize that the preservation of slavery and racial purity
-- of the Ku Klux Klan variety -- were founding principles of the Confederacy.
As Stephen Hale, Alabama's commissioner to Kentucky, wrote: Republican victory
was "nothing less than an open declaration of war, for the triumph of this
new theory of government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her
fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection,
consigning her citizens to assassinations and her wives and daughters to
pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans" (54).
Dew touts Hale's letter as the best
summary of secessionist arguments about slavery and race -- indeed, he quotes
the passage cited above on three separate occasions -- and its full text
is presented in the Appendix.
Another of the book's strengths is Dew's effective juxtaposition
of comments made by the same men before and after the war. Through
words of Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens, J. L. M. Curry, John Smith
Preston, and others, the author demonstrates that ex-Confederates created
myth of states' rights causation when they wrote Lost Cause memoirs.
Before and during the war these men framed arguments for independence and
Confederate nationalism in terms of slavery and racism. After the
defeat, however, they sang a different tune. Stephens, of course, delivered
"cornerstone" speech in March, 1861, and Dew presents a thorough discussion
of his remarks. In his 1868 memoirs, however, Stephens insisted that
the war "was a strife between the principles of Federation, on the one side,
and Centralism, or Consolidation, on the other." Slavery "was but _the
question_ on which these antagonistic principles" finally collided (16).
After the war Preston defended the Confederacy as a noble defense
of "true constitutional liberty," a far cry from his antebellum characterization
of Republican "canting, fanatics, festering in the
licentiousness of abolition and amalgamation" (75).
For specialists, of course, these themes -- if not specifically
the material -- will be very familiar. Many historians of the secession
movement will object to Dew's contention that "there is no better place
to look [for the "secessionist mind"] than in the speeches and letters of
the men who served their states as secession commissioners on the eve of
the conflict" (18). Furthermore, probably few would agree that to the
commissioners fell "the challenge of providing such an explanation [for secession]
-- of informing the Southern people of the dark forces
threatening their region and driving their states to seek sanctuary outside
the Union" (24). Editors, politicians, and a host of other public
spokesmen hammered away at the same themes throughout the 1850s and certainly
the 1860 presidential campaign; the arguments to explain and
justify secession had already received full expression when Lincoln was
Dew also does not engage the historiography; his list
of "recent" scholarship includes only two books published since 1988 (one
of them a
collection of essays). More frustrating for some readers will be the lack
of attention to how "slavery" conjured different images for different
listeners. Some of the most innovative work on secession -- books
by Lacy Ford or Stephanie McCurry, for instance -- has considered the various
meanings of slavery within the context of southern political culture and
secession. The call to protect slavery from Black Republicanism was
tied to the preservation of regional equality and honor, personal manhood,
the rights of white male property owners and husbands, and more -- in short,
the duties and privileges of white men were at stake as well as the actual
future of slavery and racial superiority.
None of these objections takes away from the author's
primary thesis or the book's effectiveness. In fact, much of the material
in the book may make
it even more valuable as a teaching tool for advanced students. A
careful reading and discussion should force them to engage the notion that
southerners understood "slavery" as more than just the institution itself
and racial superiority. For instance, the words of South Carolina's
Leonidas W. Spratt, commissioner to Florida, related the importance of masculinity
as well as slavery: "We knew that the men of the South were too instructed,
and too brave, to submit to the severities of final subjugation" (44).
Religious imagery infused the speeches of Mississippi's Fulton Anderson.
Northerners were corrupted, he said, by "an infidel fanaticism" that warped
men and women into believing "that we are a race inferior to them in morality
and civilization." Republicans were
determined to wage "a holy crusade for our benefit in seeking the destruction
of that institution which . . . lies at the very foundation of our social
political fabric" (63). Numerous passages repeated the ubiquitous
terms -- always linked by southern spokesmen -- of "degradation and dishonor."
In short, Dew's work should prompt readers to consider the many themes related
to slavery that informed the secession crisis and affected how southern
men understood the imperative dangers that Republicanism brought home.
The inclusion of two full texts in the Appendix is especially welcome in
Apostles of Disunion should, although
it won't, end the discussion of whether or not the South's primary goal in
1861 was to defend its
slave-based culture. The book offers all of us who struggle with the irrepressible
myth of states' rights devotion an effective way to force
students to confront the integral place of slavery and racism in the mind
of the Old South and the popular movement for secession.
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