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American History in the Making

Review: Crisis of Fear

Review Channing Crisis of Fear

Crisis of Fear: Secession in South Carolina. By Steven A. Channing (1970) New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970 pp. 293, ISBN 671-20516-1 (hardcover) $7.95 U.S.

“Secession was a revolution of passion and the passion was fear” (p. 293). Dr. Steven Channing’s political-historical drama analyzing the power of fear in South Carolina’s political society prior to the Civil War is a well-written and engaging. The South was gripped in paralyzing fear deeply rooted in guilt and apprehension over their human chattel. The South was dreadful of the liberal democratic changes embodied in the emerging Republican party of the 1840s and 50s. Southern politicians masterfully capitalized the root fears to generate a powerful political base and inordinate national influence all focused on protecting the South’s primary interest: slavery. The fires of fear were built and fuelled to an unquenchable flame that spilled over into war as a direct result of Republican victory in 1860.

Published in 1970, Dr. Steven A Channing’s text offers a powerful early entry into revisionist history. It reflects trends of the late 1960s and early 70s in American history careful re-examination of the histories of darker periods of the history of the United States. When published, this book was well-received and won the prestigious Allan Nevins History Prize. Channing received his PhD from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill and has taught at the University of Kentucky, Stanford University, Duke University, and the University of Genoa, Italy and was a research fellow at Johns Hopkins University. He has published several Civil War era texts and since the 1980s has gained recognition as an Emmy award-winning filmmaker. Presently, he is the head of Video Dialog, Inc. a production studio focused on developing high-quality, historically-focused films. From his varied background and writing in Crisis of Fear he exposed few overt biases and admirably approached his investigation of South Carolina’s political leaders with a commendable degree of objectivity given the sensitivity of the topic he examined.

In two parts and across nine chapters, Channing consistently developed his central thesis that fear drove the South to secession. The untitled Part One of the text builds the case for a showdown in 1860 by examining the Southern political climate and psychology as a reactionary, ultra-conservative, fearful place and way of thinking. He argues the fear was fanned by the John Brown Raids. “John Brown had plunged a knife deep into the psyche of Southern whites, and life would never be quite the same again” (p. 23). The absolutist terms Channing uses indicates his perception of Southern mentality at the time. He successfully argues that Southerners collectively reached the point of absolutism and the crisis was boiled down to black and white, anti-polar extremes. To feed the fears of a general slave uprising, he cites the role of increased vigilance patrols, arson claims and fears, and increased violence towards slaves, free blacks, and outsiders. Channing exposes the reactionary nature of the South and examines Southern failure to acknowledge the true root of their fears: slavery and the guilt and hypocrisy born of slavery.

Channing’s strength lies in his ability to deftly perceive the Southern psychology. His second chapter deals with the memories and thoughts of the South leading up to 1860. He convincingly tells of a society growing increasingly paranoid about its stability. In the face of the total collapse of its societal order, the South grows almost despondent and blindly accepting of the upcoming war. He tells of a South that was “aware that some day the ultimate question would be fairly drawn – Union or slavery …” (p. 67). Southerners were caught in a contradictory whirlwind that would ultimately prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy and lead to war. Northern efforts trying to placate Southern fears were answered with the ire of Southern leaders. Northern efforts at postponement or appeasement provided ample opportunity for South Carolina’s political radicals to raise the stakes higher and expand the hysteria and, therefore, their political influence. Channing balances the radicals thirst for power and fear mongering with an overly cautious and conciliatory Unionist and cooperatist sentiment from South Carolina’s moderates. Because of the moderates’ norms of caution, they were unable to answer the radical’s popular advance. Channing describes a Southern political culture where open debate is stifled and reaction to contradicting views carried harsh penalties.

In Part Two, Channing relays the events leading to war. His comfortable style of writing imparts the feeling of chaos, helplessness, and acceptance leading to war. His story is much like that of a massive head-to-head train collision. The South is in a position to avoid it, but it decides to watch the ensuing wreck instead. Channing’s depiction of the demise of the Democratic Party over the course of the party conventions during the summer of 1860 shows the complete failure of rational thinking that gripped South Carolina’s leadership that summer. Further complicating the story and contributing to the tragedy, South Carolina found itself in the unfortunate position of wanting revolution but not wanting to be the leaders of that revolution. Instead, they wanted to be the first among the backers of secession. When Alabama, Mississippi, or Virginia decided they did not want the responsibility of leading the revolution, South Carolina found itself in the position of having to start the revolution as a result of the hysteria they directed. Channing describes a self-induced disaster.

South Carolina so effectively whipped up fear of its black inhabitants in a fight to protect the status quo that it backed itself into a corner and, Channing argues, had to resort to war immediately upon a Republican victory. By November 1860 secession, and to a very real extent war, was a foregone conclusion. The political leaders essentially tipped the first domino and the rest fell with a chorus of popular support, the noise of which prevented any parties from withdrawing from the precipice of war.

This well-written book offers much insight into the South Carolina mind and opens much debate about the control of the political class over the populace. It also encourages debate on what sort of democracy the South exercised in the mid-1800s. Channing summarized it best when he said, “”Plebiscitary democracy triumphed in South Carolina” (p. 285). In plebiscitary democracy there is a fine line between ordered democracy and mob rule. Channing’s warning is clear: mob rule comes at a tremendous cost. The book is well-written and a worthy read. It is representative of impressive study in 1970 as it undoubtedly informed and impacted a generation of historians emerging from the historiographical challenges of the 1970s and 80s. In 2010, the text informs the reader of the collective psychology of a complex society and subsequent work could benefit from more complex approaches while leveraging this solid foundation. With forty years of historiography and research to build upon, there lies an opportunity to examine Channing’s thesis with a far deeper exploration into the complexities, contradictions, and dualities of Southern political science.

Regardless, the text was extremely well researched, pulling from a vast archive of personal, political, and professional correspondence and reporting to paint a picture of the South. By leveraging the somewhat reluctant leadership of South Carolina to tell the story it magnifies the crime of secession in its tragedy. The people of the South were led to believe secession was possible and was good and that an independent South would prosper. No true leadership rose to prepare the South to go alone. South Carolina ended up starting a fight it only wanted to instigate, not actually lead.

Ultimately, this text should be included in any Southern historian’s library and is a foundational part of his understanding. As a part of a larger study, text could benefit from more modern approaches in an effort to paint the fullest possible picture, but taken as a forty-year old work, it is a superb starting point.

George Mason University    Carl Allard Young

February 22, 2010 Posted by | American Civil War | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: On the Threshold of Freedom

Review Mohr On the Threshold

On the Threshold Analysis

On the Threshold of Freedom: Masters and Slaves in Civil War Georgia. By Clarence L. Mohr (1986) Athens: University of Georgia Press, pp. xxiii + 397, ISBN 0-8203-0941-9
(paperback) $35.00 U.S.

Professor Clarence Mohr has been the chair of the Department of History at the University of South Alabama since 1998 and re-released his work On the Threshold of Freedom in 2001 through the Louisiana State University Press.  Originally published in 1986, On the Threshold was selected as the 1987 winner of the Avery O. Craven Award from the Organization of American Historians.  Mohr is a long-standing professor of history and a prodigious writer with dozens of articles, anthology entries, reviews and six books with three books in progress.  In On the Threshold, Mohr argues the war and the crisis of the South made Southerners enemies of slavery and facilitated its demise beyond the direct effects of emancipation and the loss of the war itself.  He discusses the end of slavery and the challenges of antebellum events and the war on slaveholding society in Georgia.

On the Threshold is a deeply researched and complex text charting the changes in slave culture as the slaves evolved to become multi-generation African Americans in a static pre-war plantation culture developing complex cultural expressions in religious and social settings through the chaos and upheaval of the war where plantation life itself was uprooted and the social order destroyed.  A central theme in Mohr’s book focuses on the shift from the static plantation life to a dynamic, urban, industrial life as a result of the “refugeeing” of the seaboard slaves and their masters.  Mohr’s book is broken in to three major sections discussing the white reactions to slave rebellion, the stretching of slavery to the point of chaos, and various attempts at reform and what he refers to as “Confederate emancipation.”

The first section examines Southern reaction to the Harper’s Ferry uprising which fed a general paranoia throughout the South and especially in Georgia.  Defensive and suspicious Southerners became openly hostile to any outsiders, especially, Mohr notes, any Northerners who asked too many questions.  Politicians in Georgia benefited from this atmosphere of distrust and fear and they fanned the flames of concern for political gain leading to tacit approval of an increasingly violent society that directly threatened slave equilibrium.  Georgia slave-owners were cognizant of their tenuous position and Mohr describes them as openly fearful of revolts and uprisings.  After a rash of arson in Georgia towns, the violence expanded and even political efforts were made to remove all free blacks from Georgia or re-enslave them.  As the federal army seized control of the sea islands, blacks, slave and free, began enlisting in the Union Army to fight their former masters.

An encroaching Union Army; violence, spurred by fear and sanctioned by the state; and the unsettling of the plantation society introduced chaos and uncertainty into the lives of the white and black citizens of Georgia.   This is the second main theme in Mohr’s text as he charts the antebellum solidification of slave culture as a distinct Afro-centric culture and the tenuous hold on order held by the slave owners.  When war forces the plantation owners to decamp and flee to the interior of Georgia, the slaves see, for the first time, that the power of the slaveholder is not absolute.  Additionally, many slave-owners are unable to reestablish plantations in the interior, mainly, Mohr argues, because of wild land speculation and outrageous price gouging by fellow Georgians.  This forces plantation refugees to flee to the industrial areas of Georgia and slaves become laborers in the industry of war: hospitals, munitions, mining, metal, etc.  Mohr’s strongest and most detailed research is found in a seventy-page fifth chapter examining slaves’ roles in wartime industry.

Mohr’s third section discusses the changes in the slave system and largely failed attempts at reform of the slave laws in Georgia.  Building on evidence presented in the previous two sections, Mohr describes the cumulative effects of war on the white population, the unsettling effects of refugeeing, the impact of religion, and the deeper, strategic issues faced by the Confederacy.  The society of fear was maintained by confident, white plantation owners and politicians who became white soldiers generally stationed in Georgia at the beginning of the war.  As the whites began to leave, the power and strength behind the threat of violence left with them.  In Mohr’s weakest section, he describes this shift in power and strength as the beginning of the end of slavery.  He ties this to the opening of abolitionist and reform sentiment among the clergy who supported notions of black literacy and the legitimization of black marriages.  As the war drew to its inevitable conclusion, Mohr notes that foreign intrigue prompted Jefferson Davis to consider emancipation in exchange for Anglo-French recognition in the hopes of drawing the North to the peace table.  Mohr’s interpretation of the debate over arming the slaves would later be echoed by Robert E. Bonner in Mastering America as Mohr says, “At its deepest level the debate over arming the slaves involved a search for Southern identity and a quest for national purpose” (p.275).

Mohr’s argument is forceful and backed by solid, but disconnected evidence.  It is clear he did his best research and analysis on the slave involvement of the wartime industry.  He describes the slave participation in the wartime industry as vital and unheralded.  In fact, slave presence in industry with artisans was vital only because Georgia had no other choice.  There was no available pool of white labor from which to draw and there was a surplus of slave labor produced by the refugeeing of the sea island plantations.  Further, the evidence Mohr examines and copious tables he presents are drawn from incomplete sources which present a risk to his analysis.  His work represents a solid entry in the quantitative school of history, but the gaps in the data leave too much to the imagination to build such a definitive case.  Further, he closes with his weakest argument on the amelioration of slavery in Georgia.  His strongest premise was his reliance on political will and religious support but he is forced to admit that no significant legislation was passed on the topic prior to the end of the war.

Regardless, the argument is informative and highlights several often overlooked sections of southern wartime economy, namely industrial labor and the impact of refugees.  The text is ideal for serious scholars in Civil War social, economic, or political history and offers data that is worth reviewing.  In the fourteen years since the original publication, it may be worth re-examining the data and investigating potentially new sources of data for support or augmentation to his primary argument that societal upheaval drove the South toward emancipation as much as the war did.  On the Threshold is a dense but well-written book that greatly serves the study of the South and of the Civil War.

February 21, 2010 Posted by | American Civil War | , , , | 2 Comments

Review: Mastering America

Bonner Mastering America

Robert E. Bonner. Mastering America: Southern Slaveholders and the Crisis of American Nationhood. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xxii + 328 pp. $16.46 (pbk), ISBN 978-0-521-54177-0

One should consider notions of nationality with notions of revolution as a fundamental component of that revolution. Revolutionary peoples should have an idea of who they, collectively, want to be after the struggles of revolution are complete. As a result, the fate of the revolutionary nationalism is tied to the fate of the revolution. For example, revolutionary ideals of liberty and representative democracy survived the war with England in the American colonies; liberté, égalité, fraternité survived the dark days in Paris and the maturation of modern-day France. The ideals of the revolutionaries, who lose, however, are often discarded with the fates of the traitors themselves. In Mastering America, Robert E. Bonner, associate professor of history at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, suggests many of the nationalist ideals of slaveholders not only contributed to cause of secession and the formation of the Confederate States of America, but also fundamentally contributed to the larger notions of American nationalism within the United States of America well beyond the American Civil War of 1861-1865.

Professor Bonner separates his work in three major sections dealing with the pre-war geopolitics, a larger view of proslavery Americanism, and Confederate nationhood. His discussion on geopolitics covers a wide range of topics intending to set the stage for how proslavery sentiment, political action, and religious support flourished in pre-Civil War America and describing the key elements of the national psyche at play. Prior to 1860, Bonner claims the strength of the Union was essential for slavery’s survival and was key in the development of southern identity. The westward expansion offered new territories to exploit while the economic boom of “King Cotton” fueled a level of relative wealth unparalleled elsewhere in the world. Additionally, a growing federal state provided a measure of protection against the Caribbean unrest, European incursions in the west, and Mexican incursion in the southwest. Federal strength thus protected the outer boundaries while the booming economic growth and westward expansion offered southern politicians increased clout in the Congress. Protected from without and politically supported from within, slavery was relatively secure in the southern states until the late 1850s.

The larger view of proslavery sentiment throughout America offers a more complex picture. Professor Bonner paints a picture of complex psychology where the American political and social conscience was beginning to sense its role in the larger world; where the larger Western world was beginning to loose its chattel; and where religion was called upon to defend both sides. At the heart of the intellectual battle is the hypocrisy of the Jeffersonian agrarians who extolled the virtues of liberty while demanding enslavement of whole peoples. Bonner cites such leading voices such as B.F. Stringfellow, who claimed “in a republic based on racial slavery, the institution, ‘elevates the character of not only the master, the actual owner of slaves, but of all who wear the colour of freeman’ “”(p. 88). Bonner responds by quoting the opposing voice of Edmund Burke who, seventy-nine years earlier, said, “the political capacities of white American masters had been sapped by their ‘unlimited right over the lives and liberties of others'”(p.88). Intellectual debate was also stifled by blind acceptance by southerners of “the orthodoxy of accepted truth” which “declare[ed] that further inquiry was unnecessary”(p.97). Bonner argued that southerners reached a point where debate was rejected and the truths of the sovereignty of slavery were self evident.

Bonner also reasoned slavery’s support in the role of national identity is based on a large demonstration of religious support for slavery. Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, and Baptists all rose to provide divine approval for the institution of slavery and formed a southern view while paradoxically strengthening larger views of American identity. There were objections within each denomination, but the rejections succeeded only in producing schism in the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists not any significant shift in the southerners. The result was a very strong, largely sectional, southern contingent of each marching forward to provide a religious basis for a slave-holding society. The South found an intellectual rationale for slavery and divine backing to give them a common voice behind their inordinate political power. The South formed what Benedict Anderson would call an imagined community with a common language of slavery against a common enemy of the north. In the 1850s, the strength of the Union was no longer as critical as before so the imagined community shifted to focus on the central issue of slave holding society.

To counter the civic influence of a louder politico-religious voice in the South as well as the inordinate political power of southern politicians, Bonner describes the Republican party’s consolidation of political power in the North. Bonner claims, as a result of the rising voice from below and the increasing power of the Republican party, in a Republican victory in 1860 “would come not simply a shift in national power, but a destruction of proslavery political capital that had been decades in the making”(p. 213). The proslavery voices that consolidated power in the South gave rise to an enemy with a focus on disrupting and destroying that power in the northern Republicans.

Bonner’s most convincing arguments came in his third section exposing the absolute logical fallacies and ultimate breakdown of southern nationalism. Bonner describes the atmosphere just before the election of 1860 as one later similar to the period just before World War I when all parties expected a purifying war experience to set things right. The South knew if Lincoln won there would be war and slavery would be under direct assault leaving the South politically impotent in the new Republican framework. The imminence of war focused the southern eyes on the common enemy of the Yankee who was the agent opposing God’s will for a slaveholding society. Bonner says, “Lincoln had done more to unite the South over the course of several months than they had managed through far and more considerable efforts over the span of decades”(p.220). The South would break away and war would begin, but the martial conflict with the Union would be one of many problems the South would face.

Bonner details the conflicts, logically, philosophically, and politically that would attack the Confederacy from its beginning on December 24, 1860 with the Secession of South Carolina. Suddenly, the ardent states’ rights activists had to rapidly consolidate a new federal power, raise a cohesive army, and go to war while drafting a Constitution and forming a new federal government. For the leading politicians, states’ rights no longer applied to the individual states of the Confederacy but of the federal Confederacy as a whole. Ideals of liberty and independence likewise applied to the whole Confederacy, not its constituent parts. Bonner highlights the war’s progression with Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ restriction of many civil liberties and ultimately the enlistment of the very slaves they were fighting to keep.

Bonner also describes the sudden loss of cohesion as soon as the Confederacy was born. There was no strategic vision in the South. Beyond the desire for slavery, the South could agree on very little. Even the Confederate Constitution offered little radical protection for slavery beyond an opportunity to address the issue at a later time. Southerners viewed themselves as inheritors of the revolutionary ideals of colonial America while confronting the notion of being “the world’s first proudly and self-consciously slaveholding republic” (p. 254) and defending their view in terms of martial paternalism on behalf of their constituent slave populations.

As the war drew to its inevitable conclusion, the specter of slave conscription logically nullified all that the war was fought over. The ideals that formed the South became hollow and the ideals of a larger American identity remained. The Lost Cause sentiment that grew after the war would seed more southern nationalism and unity than the South could muster before or during the war. Regardless, there was no significant debate over the South rising again. The defeated South adopted the nationalism of Union and set about beginning to deal with racism, not slavery.

Bonner paints a very convincing picture of a simultaneously coexistent and combative nationalism before the war. He supports his theory that the South needed the Union for a period to establish a certain measure of security. During that time, southern politicians gained power and influence at the same time a common voice in the press and the pulpit gave rationale and divine blessing for slavery. This increased sectionalism galvanized the North and the Republicans to confront the political inequities and imbalances of their southern brothers. Professor Bonner’s claim that secession and confederacy failed in part because the South could only muster enough cohesion to break away, not stay together. Simultaneously, the focus against slavery and the South brought the North together with fervent pro-union sentiment.

The careful analysis and weight given to religious voices, political voices, and press voices offers a unique picture of how southerners came to view the world. In essence, southerners saw themselves in a complex and contradictory light, at once espousing the ideals of liberty and Christianity while ignoring and shutting debate on the inconsistencies of holding human chattel.

Bonner is thoroughly convincing. His evidence is well researched and presented from several perspectives: religious, political, press, North, and South. This text is not for the typical Civil War buff interested in the great story of good versus evil or of theories of why the war was fought or what events transpired. This is a complex narrative of intertwining views of nationality and how they changed over time and offers a partial explanation of how the South was reintegrated after the war best suited for academic audiences interested in the broader complexities and better able to accept a history that does not neatly fit into a simple equation. Consequently, this text could benefit from more analysis of that reintegration process to determine how well and where the notions of nationality from the North or the South played in the post-war reunion.

Professor Bonner’s arguments for the influence, cause, and relationship of nationalism in the South and in the Union is well considered and an essential text. It does little to create unnecessary angst for the partial reader and does much to offer reason, logic, and defense for the impartial. As a result, many questions are answered, but many more are introduced. This work informs any intellectual study into the remaining questions and offers a new approach to existing questions about American nationalism.

February 1, 2010 Posted by | American Civil War | , , , , | Leave a comment