On the Brink of War

A review of Shearer Davis Bowman, At the Precipice: Americans North and South during the Secession Crisis, (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

Shearer Davis Bowman presents a comprehensive view of the events leading to the secession of the southern states. Bowman (p. 12) explores “what Americans on the eve of the Civil War believe[d] about themselves and the world around them.”

One of the great strengths of the book is that Bowman includes perspectives from people from multiple backgrounds: northern and southern, famous and obscure, wealthy men and yeomen, men and women. The result is a fairly balanced and comprehensive narrative, not the usual morality tale of good northerners and bad southerners. Bowman notes (p. 64) that historian Robert Cook observed that white Iowans “had little affection for slavery, but even less for black people themselves.” Bowman argues that this applies to white northerners in general. Bowman cites Edward L. Ayers’ comparative study of Augusta County, Virginia and Franklin County, Pennsylvania, in which Ayers observes that “despite the high-flying rhetoric about justice,” neither the Democratic nor the Republican Party “displayed any sympathy toward their black neighbors.”

Bowman explains the blundering generation thesis (p. 30), when he writes that:

Many people of the time, and a good many observers since, have lamented that ambitious, shortsighted, and irresponsible politicians failed to engineer and endorse the substantive compromises that would have avoided a…civil war. The stability and health of representative, democratic government depends on effective political compromise. “It is their willingness to compromise that makes politicians so indispensable and so untrustworthy,” historian James Oakes explains.

Paul Begala, who recently criticized White House Chief of Staff John Kelly for attributing the war to an inability to compromise, should take note.

Bowman also shows (p. 35) that Southern people were not monolithic in their thinking on the subject of slavery. For example, former governor of Tennessee William B. Campbell wrote in 1860 that “As a pro-slavery man, I repudiate the southern move as unwise and impolitic, and tending to the ruin an overthrow of Negro slavery. The rights of the slaveholder cannot be maintained out of the Union so well as in it, and I fear cannot be maintained out of it at all.” This idea that slavery was safer in the Union than out of it was echoed by men from western Virginia and southwestern Mississippi.

Interestingly, Bowman captures well the security concerns of white southerners. Henry Clay, for example, believed that “without colonization of free blacks abroad, Kentuckians will face a racial ‘civil war’ that [would] result in ‘the ultimate extermination or expulsion of the blacks.’” Bowman quotes South Carolina plantation mistress Keziah Brevard extensively as she wrote about her concerns over her security in the face of abolitionist agitation. In November 1860, Brevard wrote, “it is dreadful to dwell on insurrections – many an hour have I laid awake in my life thinking of our danger.” Brevard was aware of the threats of poisoning and arson by slaves instigated by northern abolitionists. On 10 December, she expressed hatred for northern abolitionists because they wanted slaves to become “assassins, the selfish & envious sons of Satan.”[1]

A certain cottage industry has arisen today that argues that secession was somehow undemocratic. Historians today like democracy but do not like secession (witness the caterwauling when Britons decided to leave the European Union and the maligning of Catalonian secessionists). Bowman accurately points out (p. 68) that “elections for conventions and all the states that they did, upper as well as lower South, proved just as democratic and fair as most electoral contest of that era, and the candidates have made their positions rather clear to the electorate.” Bowman (p. 69), however, hedges a bit. “The Palmetto State provides an important and illustrative example of an influential group of political insiders who shape the chain of decisions and events that brought about their states crucial initial assertion of state sovereignty.” South Carolina, despite modern-day protestations, seceded because the voters of South Carolina overwhelmingly wanted her to.

Three critiques, however, are in order. First, the book reads like a stream of consciousness. It would be exceedingly difficult to outline the structure of the arguments made in the chapters. Bowman examined a mountain of sources is, and the text covers an enormous amount of area, but the narrative meanders a bit.

Second, Bowman attempts to establish moral equivalency between the North and the South, but in doing so, he underemphasizes such things as northern antislavery violence and northern acceptance and endorsement of such violence. Bowman points out that “conservative Republicans such as Lincoln and Seward denounced Brown’s illegal plans.” Lincoln, however, trying to maintain his appeal with moderates and still attract radical abolitionists, reservedly condemned Brown’s action. Seward did so belatedly, and only after early revelations of Seward’s foreknowledge had ruined his chances of being the Republican nominee for president in 1860.

Third, the constitutional issues associated with secession and coercion are dismissed without adequate discussion. Bowman writes that “The U.S. president invoked the authority (under Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution) to take care that the laws shall be faithfully executed. … The militia acts of 1789 and 1807 supplemented Article I, Section 8 which authorize the commander-in-chief to summon the militia “to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions.” Bowman does not however note that the sending of the military into a state required the request of the state where the insurrection was to have happened. No southern state in 1861 requested Lincoln send troops to suppress an insurrection. And no provision of the Constitution allows the Federal government to overthrow, by military force, a republican state government and replace it with an appointed military governor, yet that is what Lincoln set out to do. This was precisely the issue on which the Upper South states left the Union. Sectional economic exploitation of the South by the North is hardly addressed at all, although the secession declarations of South Carolina and Georgia devote considerable space to the issue, and even Texas complained of “partial legislation” through which the North was “enriching themselves by draining our substance.” In the end, the book is a comprehensive and balanced view, worth a read by those interested in the run-up to the war.

[1] Bowman, At the Precipice, 247.

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