Elizabeth R. Varon’s Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 is a history of the concept of disunion in the Early Republic and Antebellum era.
“Disunion” used to be the most powerful and provocative concept in the American political vocabulary. Previous generations had a sense that the American Republic was a voluntary union. It was an alliance of states that was held together by the affection and self-interest of its constituent parts.
The Union of the Founding Fathers was based on Enlightenment rationalism: it was a federation of republics, a compact that had been created for the mutual advantage of all parties, a free government that had been founded to secure the rights of its citizens and the “Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” a government that was based on the “consent of the governed,” etc.
If this sounds unfamiliar to modern ears, it is because the eighteenth century Union expired on the battlefields of the War Between the States. In its place, Lincoln and the Radical Republicans created a forced Union and consolidated nation-state based on nineteenth century Northern romantic nationalism, in which the 14th Amendment reduced the South to the status of junior partner.
“Disunion” was originally a dirty word. It connoted the dissolution of the Republic – “the failure of the Founders’ efforts to establish a stable and lasting representative government.” The term was associated with “extreme political factionalism, class conflict, gender disorder, racial strife, widespread violence and anarchy, and civil war, all of which could be interpreted as God’s retribution for America’s moral failings.”
In this sense, “disunion” was invoked as a threat, an accusation, a prophecy, a process, and a program in the Early Republic and Antebellum era. As a threat, disunion was invoked as leverage in making political demands. As an accusation, disunion was invoked in partisan debates to score political points by accusing rivals of being disunionists. As a prophecy, disunion was invoked as a forecast of national ruin to encourage sectional compromise. As a process, disunion was used to describe sectional alienation. As a program, disunion was cooperative or individual state secession which was the mechanism by which states severed their ties to the Union.
Northerners and Southerners invoked the language of disunion throughout this period. The Constitution of 1789 was a compromise between the North and the South. It was practical settlement that pleased neither side which was necessary to create a stronger federal government while preserving the Union.
The Anti-Federalists believed the Constitution gave too much power to the federal government and that it would prove to be destructive to the rights of the states. Patrick Henry “smelt a rat in Philadelphia” and opposed the Constitution. George Mason objected that “there was no declaration of rights” and that “the five Southern states will be ruined” by commercial regulations and that “the power of providing for the general welfare may be perverted to its destruction.”
In response to these concerns, James Madison claimed in The Federalist #45 that, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”
The Bill of Rights was passed to mollify Anti-Federalist sentiment. In particular, the Tenth Amendment was adopted which declares, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
After the adoption of the Constitution, the North and South immediately started to clash under the terms of the Union over the assumption of states debts by the federal government, the location of the national capitol, and foreign policy toward Revolutionary France. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 in protest of the Alien and Sedition Acts. This would become a cornerstone of states’ rights ideology in later years.
In the Early Republic, the North developed a reputation as the disunionist section. The first cries of disunion were heard in New England in 1803 when Thomas Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase Treaty with France. The objection was that the Louisiana Purchase was unconstitutional and would disrupt the sectional balance of power within the Union by adding more states “at the other extremity.”
In 1814, Massachusetts called the Hartford Convention to discuss New England secession from the United States. Ultimately, the Hartford Convention shrank from disunion (having failed to persuade Vermont and New Hampshire to send delegates), but its report called for ending the 3/5 compromise which tilted the balance of power within the Union toward the South.
The Tertium Quids led by John Randolph of Roanoke and John Taylor of Caroline County in Virginia and Nathaniel Macon in North Carolina nurtured and elaborated a systematic theory of state sovereignty during this period. From this political philosophy, they derived the right of secession, which would be popularized in the Missouri debates.
In the Missouri Crisis of 1819 to 1820, the North objected to the admission of Missouri into the Union as a slave state. New England had earlier opposed the Louisiana Purchase and the admission of Louisiana. The Missouri Compromise temporarily settled the matter by admitting Missouri into the Union while banning slavery in the Louisiana Purchase north of the 36th parallel.
Two events stand out as a historic turning point in the rhetoric of disunion: the South Carolina Nullification Crisis of 1828 to 1832, in which South Carolina nullified the Tariff of Abominations, asserted the doctrine of state sovereignty, and threatened to secede from the Union, and William Lloyd Garrison founding The Liberator in 1831.
From that point forward, there was a disaffected minority within the Union in both the North and the South, primarily in Massachusetts and South Carolina. Abolitionists would grow in strength over the course of the next decade. Congress would be polarized over anti-slavery petitions and the gag rule. Texas annexation was blocked by anti-slavery opposition in the North.
In 1836, Nathaniel Beverly Tucker published The Partisan Leader: A Tale of the Future. Set thirteen years in the future during the Van Buren administration, the Deep South has seceded and formed the “Southern Confederacy.” The obscure book which was a commercial failure at the time discusses a guerrilla war in Virginia between Southerners and Yankees as Virginians fight to liberate their state and join the independent Confederacy.
By the early 1840s, Garrison has become the most prominent champion of disunion in America. For the next twenty years, William Lloyd Garrison would advocate the immediate dissolution of the Union on the grounds that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document and a wicked pact with Southern slaveowners and that the false Union was a moral abomination. The anti-slavery movement grew in the North throughout this period, but it increasingly splintered into abolitionist and “free soil” factions.
In South Carolina, the Bluffton Movement of 1844 was an attempt to invoke separate section action against the Tariff of 1842. John C. Calhoun disowned the movement. The nullifiers around Calhoun are were growing increasingly alienated from the Union, but even Robert Barnwell Rhett was still only invoking disunion as a prophecy of secession and a process of sectional estrangement rather than as an active program of disunion.
The annexation of Texas provoked renewed calls for New England secession. The Massachusetts state legislature passed a resolution which stated, “the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, faithful to the compact between the people of the United States, according to the plain meaning and intent in which it was understood by them, is sincerely anxious for its preservation; but that it is determined, as it doubts not the other states are, to submit to undelegated powers in no body of men on earth” and “the project of the annexation of Texas unless arrested on the threshold, may tend to drive these states into a dissolution of the Union.”
The Mexican War provoked bitter opposition in some parts of the North. When the dust settled and the United States acquired California and the Southwest in the Mexican Cession, the squabbling between the sections over the spoils of war provoked the Secession Crisis of 1846 to 1851, which was the biggest sectional crisis since the Missouri Compromise.
The Compromise of 1850 repealed the Missouri Compromise, brought California into the Union as a free state, and provided for the organization of New Mexico Territory on the basis of popular sovereignty. In exchange for acquiescing to the admission of California to the Union as a free state, the South got a new and more powerful fugitive slave law, although the Northern states were quick to pass new versions of their “personal liberty laws” to prohibit state officials from participating in the return of fugitive slaves.
By the early 1850s, the South had developed a secessionist vanguard in South Carolina and the other future Confederate states. Robert Barnwell Rhett had become South Carolina’s leading disunionist. William Lowndes Yancey and Edmund Ruffin converted to the secessionist camp. The majority of White Southerners had revealed themselves to be conditional unionists in the Secession Crisis of 1846 to 1851.
As previously noted, the Compromise of 1850 had repealed the Missouri Compromise by admitting California as a free state. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska out of the Louisiana Purchase which were open to slavery. The drummed up outrage at the repeal of the sacred Missouri Compromise (which the North had repudiated in California) led to the formation of the Republican Party in 1854 which was based on the doctrine that Southern slaveowners should be excluded from the territories.
The Dred Scott decision in 1857 denied that African-Americans were citizens, formally repudiated the Missouri Compromise, and opened the entirely of the Louisiana Purchase to slavery. Republicans were outraged. James Buchanan was elected president in 1856 and the entirety of his term was consumed by the polarizing rhetoric of disunion which was invoked as an accusation, a threat, a prophecy, a process, and for the first time as a formal program of secession.
In this context, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 created a sea change in White Southern attitudes toward the Union. Previously, the threat to the South posed by abolitionist fanatics seemed remote. Most Southerners didn’t believe that slavery could take root in the Western territories anyway because of the dry climate. The overwhelming majority of slaves were concentrated in the South. There were only a handful of blacks in the West in the 1850s and their status there seemed abstract and remote to the White majority.
The John Brown raid illustrated that abolitionists were willing to invade the South to kill Southerners and to arm the slaves to launch a race war. From the South’s perspective, it was the Antebellum equivalent of the 9/11 attacks, and the fact that John Brown was celebrated as a hero and a martyr in the North was the incidental that snapped the bonds of sentiment that had previously deterred the conditional Unionist majority in the South from embracing secession.
Suddenly, the secessionist vanguard triumphed in South Carolina and the Lower South. The extremists had become the new mainstream. The Democratic establishment felt the political ground shifting under their feet and rushed to catch up with public opinion which was racing toward disunion on the basis of an “overt act” by the Republicans that would justify secession.
Elizabeth Varon closes her book with the John Brown raid on Harper’s Ferry. Everything that followed Harper’s Ferry leading up to the formation of the Confederacy and Fort Sumter was political theater. Secession had reached a critical mass in the Lower South and the provocation of Lincoln’s election in the wake of John Brown proved to be the death knell of the Union.
Oddly enough, when the South seceded from the Union, Kansas had not been admitted to the Union as a free state and the entirety of the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican Cession outside of California was open to slavery. If Southerners had wanted to spread slavery into the Western territories, they were still free to do so when the first shots of the War Between the States were fired at Fort Sumter. The South had won the battle over the territories in the Dred Scott decision and could have easily united behind Stephen Douglas to defeat Lincoln.
The Union had been sustained by the spirit of fraternity. In the Early Republic, the spirit of fraternity prevailed and the North and South were able to settle their differences over the territories while preserving Southern honor. Slavery had not prevented the Founders from creating the Union. By sowing the seeds of hatred and discord toward the South, abolition was the “mother’s milk” of disunion, “the hand that had rocked the cradle.”
William Lloyd Garrison and his Yankee followers antagonized and alienated the South to the point where the conditional Unionist majority decided to rashly bolt the Union following John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Hundreds of thousands of Americans died as a consequence. But slavery was abolished in the process.
So now we pretend that slavery was the cause of the war rather than abolitionism.