Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The South Shall Rise Again!

While at my friendly neighborhood Borders on Sunday, I noticed that William W. Freehling's The Road To Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 has been published. It will not shock you to read that this is the follow-up to Freehling's The Road To Disunion, Volume I: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854. This book has been a long time in coming: the first volume was published in 1991, and the publisher has been promising its publication periodically at least since 2002.

Volume I made a number of very good points about the ante-bellum United States, the most important being that it is a fallacy to view the United States of that period as being divided into North and South (or North, South, and West, as is sometimes done) or into Slave and Free. There were different sections of the North and South, and each of these different sections had its own interests, even as they related to slavery. The lower North, for example, began to abolish slavery after the Revolutionary War, but it was a gradual emancipation that allowed slave owners plenty of time to avoid the seizure of their property by selling them further South. At least until slavery was completely abolished there, they were not interested in any anti-slavery measures that might have impeded their ability to dispose of their slaves profitably. The lower South did not have much to worry about runaway slaves and were consequently not especially eager to go to the mattresses over a fugitive slave law. South Carolina was not interested in the expansion of slavery and was consequently only militant about slavery in the territories to support their pro-slavery brethren to the West. It was an interesting, informative, and useful book, and I have been looking forward to its sequel for years.

One fly in the ointment, though: I don't know if I can trust Freehling. To see why, read Michael P. Johnson's article "Denmark Vesey And His Co-conspirators" in the October, 2001 issue of The William and Mary Quarterly. Denmark Vesey's conspiracy, along with Nat Turner's rebellion, is one of the most famous cases of the violent resistance of slaves to their status in the ante-bellum South. The only problem, as Johnson argues persuasively, is that the only real pieces of evidence that a widespread conspiracy (or any conspiracy at all, for that matter) existed were the statements tortured out of the alleged conspirators by the South Carolina authorities and the misleading characterizations of these statements that the authorities made to the South Carolina legislature. South Carolinians, and ante-bellum Southern whites generally, believed in the conspiracy because they were conditioned to fear that a slave revolt was just around the corner. Modern historians have tended to believe in the conspiracy because they want to find examples of slaves resisting their status. What does this have to do with Freehling? Well, he's one of the most vociferous defenders of the existence of the Vesey conspiracy. It doesn't speak well of his historical judgment if one believes that Johnson has made a persuasive case that the evidence for conspiracy is inadequate, and I believe he does.

Nevertheless, I'll probably buy the new Freehling book (but only after it comes out in paperback) and read it with a grain of salt.

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