Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 - Elizabeth R. Varon In Disunion!, Elizabeth Varon looks at the 70 years between the founding of the Republic and the opening salvos of the Civil War, focusing on the political vocabulary in use at the time. Specifically, as the title strongly suggests, the use of the word "disunion." She argues that "disunion" was once the most provocative and potent word in American political rhetoric. "From the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 up to the Civil War, disunion conjured up the most profound anxieties of Americans as they considered the fate of their republic.... Disunion was...a keyword of the nation's political vocabulary - a word that had no fixed `content,' that captured complex ideas of values, and that served as a site for protracted moral, political, and economic conflicts in a deeply...divided nation." (p. 1-2)

Varon seeks to provide a more nuanced view of antebellum America that shows the North and South were not (at first) fundamentally antagonistic societies. Many in the North could live with slavery, their concerns were focused more on the problems of industrialization and workers' rights than on slavery per se (though it's true in the latter half of the period, the anti-slavery side raised the specter of slave-labor competition to rally support). In the South, while slavery was arguably the most important pillar of the economy, the slave-owning class was very small, and class and regional divides make blanket generalizations about the Slave Power inadequate. For example, in the years just after the Revolution plans were noised about in Virginia for the gradual emancipation of slaves (it was, unfortunately for subsequent history, never seriously pursued). Simultaneously, in the North, there was a general movement to deny the franchise to black Americans, and otherwise deny them equal status.

The author considers the idea of "disunion" in five ways:

1. Disunion as prophecy: In this guise, disunion adumbrated apocalypse. Like the prophets of Israel, American politicians bewailed the consequences of disunion (war, chaos, widespread death and terror) to encourage a final solution to the problem of slavery.

2. Disunion as a threat: An especially potent weapon in Southern rhetoric but also found in Northern quivers, the threat of disunion was used to cow political opponents. It was a threat not seriously contemplated except by the most radical partisans (such as Southerner Robert Rhett or the Garrisonian wing of the abolitionists).

3. Disunion as accusation: Here, disunion was used to accuse opponents of treason or of fomenting slave rebellions and disrupting the harmony and future prosperity of the country. As such it was used by all sides: Proslavery advocates (mostly Southerners); abolitionists, who were feared because of their radical ideas about social and gender equality (though there were degrees of commitment, as in any mass movement); and anti-abolitionists, who were antislavery in the sense that they didn't want to see its spread beyond its current limits but were against the abolitionist agenda(s).

It's important to remember that the North was not a bastion of racial equality much less a redoubt of abolitionist crusaders. Its racism could be quite as vicious as any Southerner's. Even among abolitionists and antislavery activists (e.g., Lincoln) black Americans were too often considered little children or hardly better than savages. And the best solution to the slavery problem? Return them to Africa; at the very least, keep the races apart because they could never live together.

4. Disunion as a process: In this manifestation, disunion was part of a process most clearly articulated by that great advocate of nullification and slavery as a "positive good" John C. Calhoun. He invoked disunion as a way to rally Southern and anti-abolitionist interests, and build up an impregnable consensus to resist antislavery agendas. A similar development occurred in anti-slavery circles that eventually coalesced in the late 1850s into the Republican Party.

5. Disunion as a program: As the 1850s passed and all sides became radicalized, the North painted the South as hell bent on disunion; the aggressors in a campaign to destroy the Union and perpetuate slavery in the U.S. and expand it into Latin and South America. Southerners, meanwhile, painted their Northern cousins as plotting to force the South to secede and then launch a war of conquest that would abolish slavery and destroy the Southern way of life.

"Disunion" was a far more pervasive concept than "secession." (p. 14) Secession was an end to be avoided and the horrors of disunion were constantly brought forth to discourage it. But the rhetoric of disunion only exacerbated sectional differences, and contributed to the radicalization of both sides. "Suffused as it was with images of treason, rebellion, retribution, and bloodshed, the discourse of disunion bred disillusionment with party politics; mistrust of compromise; and...the expectation that only violent conflict would resolve the debate over slavery once and for all." (p. 16)

I have written elsewhere on this site that my knowledge of U.S. history between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars is abysmal so I found this book extremely informative and well argued. Varon doesn't call for her argument to support more weight than it can and presents a fascinating and nuanced account of the factors that led up to the bloodiest conflict in American history. Inevitably, the book also invites a comparison between the politics of the era and our modern predicaments. Specific comparisons break down quickly but I chose the quote in the previous paragraph because the zeitgeist it describes in the decade before Fort Sumter could be applied to today's discourse. Americans don't yet have anything as fundamentally divisive as slavery (or as obviously immoral) to radicalize most people but the impulse to demonize opposition and the desire to paper over different interests in the interests of "bipartisanship" are alive and increasingly strong. And the question that faced our forebears is the same one facing us - Is this union ("the last, best hope of the world," to paraphrase Lincoln) worth preserving?

I'm sure better read readers can find holes in parts of Varon's argument or details to quibble about but I would recommend the book to anyone interested in this critical period in U.S. history (and read it in conjunction with Sean Wilentz's The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, which offers a related but broader view of the same period).