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35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly Recommended for Any Serious Scholar of the Civil War, January 31, 2012
This review is from: Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (A Nation Divided: Studies in the Civil War Era) (Paperback)
The debate over the causes of secession is contentious even today. While one side of this debate argues the Confederate states seceded solely over the issue of states' rights, the other contends that the institution of slavery was the primary cause of the conflict. In Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War, Charles B. Dew attempts to end this debate by examining pre-Civil War political documents, letters, and speeches made by secession commissioners and Southern politicians. According to Dew, these sources clearly demonstrate that the institution of slavery was at the heart of the conflict.
Dew organizes this book chronologically and provides an extensive appendix, endnotes, and a short index. Dew begins this book by discussing several current events that demonstrate that Americans have not come to a consensus on the causes of the Civil War. For instance, on the Immigration and Naturalization Service's citizenship exam, the question, "`The Civil War was fought over what important issue?,'" can be answered by choosing either "slavery" or "states rights" (4). The debate surrounding the Confederate battle flag also reveals what Dew describes as "the deep division and profound ambivalence in contemporary American culture over the origin of the Civil War" (4). While some see this flag as a symbol of racism and oppression, others view it as a symbol of "Southern heritage" (8). Despite this contemporary debate, in the closing pages of chapter one, Dew argues that the words of the secession commissioner leave no question about the central role that slavery played in the Civil War.
After this brief introduction, Dew examines the course of events that led Southern states to appoint secession commissioners and the role these men played in garnering support for the Confederacy. According to Dew, the first secession commissioners were appointed just a few weeks after the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won the presidential election on November 6, 1860. In fact, Mississippi appointed secession "commissioners to every slave state" in the Union twenty-four days later, and eventually most of the states in the Deep South would follow suit (23). While the messages these men brought to other Southern states varied, the central argument was the same: secession was the only logical course of action given the Republican Party's hostility towards the institution of slavery. For example, William L. Harris, a secession commissioner from Mississippi, told a joint meeting of the Georgia General Assembly, that the North wanted constitutionally guaranteed "equality between the white and negro races" (29). Harris went on to declare, that Lincoln's election "promised `freedom to the slave, but eternal degradation for you and for us" (29). Dew claims that Harris's speech set the tone for every subsequent speech of the secession commissioners.
In the next three chapters, Dew discusses the speeches made by the secession commissioners to South Carolina, Alabama, and Virginia. While the rhetoric of secession commissioners may have softened the farther North they went, the message was still the same: the North wants to institute racial equality and abolish slavery. Secession commissioner Andrew Pickens Calhoun's speech to the Alabama Convention is a prime example of this type of argument. The foundation of Calhoun's speech was that, "The election of a `Black Republican' to the presidency threatened South Carolina with `degradation and annihilation'" (41). Degradation would come in the form of federally imposed racial equality and annihilation would result from slave insurrection and the resulting racial amalgamation. Fulton Anderson, an appointee from Mississippi, was even more direct in his speech to the Virginia Secession Convention. Anderson argued that a Republican controlled federal government would be hostile to the South and described the Republican Party as having an "unrelenting and eternal hostility to the institution of slavery" (p. 62). Based upon the remarks of the secession commissioners, Dew argues that the preservation of slavery was a primary cause of secession and thus, the Civil War.
Dew concludes this book by examining how Southern politicians, including many secession commissioners, attempted to reframe the conflict in a more noble light after the end of the war. For example, Jabez L. M. Curry, a secession commissioner from Alabama, wrote in 1901 that the Civil War was fought to "save the principles of the Constitution," but he made no mention of the role that slavery played (57, 76). Even Jefferson Davis, former President of the Confederacy, tried to reframe the conflict writing in 1881, "`The sectional hostility' that developed before 1861 `was not the consequence of any difference on the abstract question of slavery'" (17). Instead, Davis claims, "The South...fought for the noblest principles...for `constitutional government,' for `the supremacy of law' and for `the natural rights of man'" (17).
According to Dew, the fact that the debate over the origins of the Civil War continues today, demonstrates the success of this concerted effort to reframe the conflict.
While initially overlooked, historians today view the arguments made by secession commissioners as an important factor in understanding the origins of the Civil War, and Charles B. Dew's Apostles of Disunion is largely responsible for this historiographic shift. Orville Vernon Burton's The Age of Lincoln demonstrates the persuasiveness of Dew's argument. In addition to making clear that the institution of slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War, Burton includes a short discussion of the secession commissioners. Burton even cites Henry L. Benning, a secession commissioner from Georgia, as declaring, "It was a conviction, a deep conviction on the part of Georgia, that a separation from the North was the only thing that could prevent the abolition of her slavery" (Burton 120). Due to the soundness of Dew's argument, and the endorsement of historians like Burton, this reviewer earnestly recommends Apostles of Disunion to anyone interested in understanding the Age of Lincoln or the American Civil War.
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