The Slaveholding Crisis: Fear of Insurrection and the Coming of the Civil War
by Carl Lawrence Paulus.
LSU Press, 2017.
Hardcover, 328 pages, $49.
Reviewed by Kyle Sammin
In the teaching of American history, the United States is often portrayed as going it alone. Especially in the period from 1815 to 1898, America’s story is traditionally one of a nation struggling with itself, balancing interests and factions within its own politics and borders. Beyond the brief excursion into Mexico in 1846, the casual student of history could study this entire period and come across only glancing references to other countries.
The debate over slavery, in particular, has been explained as one occurring solely among Americans. In The Slaveholding Crisis: Fear of Insurrection and the Coming of the Civil War, Carl Lawrence Paulus reassesses this trope and examines the impact of other countries’ slavery debates and decisions on our own and how events outside our borders—especially with regard to slave insurrections—shaped the debate within them.
Although that foreign influence is the biggest departure in Paulus’s book, he begins in noting that North and South both believed in American exceptionalism. At first, the regions were not so different, and what the people there believed unique about their country was similar, if not identical. This assertion flies in the face of the school of thought that regional differences made civil war inevitable. But it makes sense: when Washington took the oath of office in 1789, he presided over a diverse nation, but not a divided one. Even on the issue addressed here, slavery, the differences played out in a spectrum, from completely free Massachusetts to South Carolina, where 43 percent of all residents were enslaved.
That touches on a larger point, as well: to the extent that North and South became different societies, it was slavery itself that made them different. As the lines hardened, with Northern states becoming completely free and some Southern states’ populations becoming majority-slave, the two peoples’ visions of society necessarily grew apart in opposition to each other. Understanding this is key to understanding the roots of the Civil War and makes the question of what caused it nonsensical: if sectional differences caused secession, not slavery, then it was slavery that created those sectional differences. Both sides of the argument are, in truth, saying the same thing.
Both societies were exceptional, and their differences were a part of what made them so. The Northern, dignity-based society was one of freedom and radical equality, unlike anything known before it in the world. In the South, the honor-focused society offered even more freedom, if possible, but only to a select few, and at the price of the oppression of the rest. Northern society increasingly saw slavery as an aberration, a stain on the nation’s honor. For Southern planters, the existence of slavery is what made their society possible—their exceptional vision, they knew, could not survive emancipation. By mid-century, as Paulus writes, “both northerners and southerners embraced the notion that ‘this government cannot endure, permanently half-slave and half-free’ and declared their ideological opponents to be un-American.”
But that is to get ahead of the story. Paulus traces the divergence from the beginning. The Founding generation often seemed embarrassed at slavery and spoke of it as a remnant of the past that would not long survive them. That all changed in the next few decades. Basic histories often trace the rebirth of slavery to the invention of the cotton gin, which made cotton planting far more lucrative—especially when the labor involved was unfree. But that only solidified the financial argument for the change in hearts and minds rippling through the South. The source of those ripples, and what stopped the decline of slaveholding as an institution, was the political explosion off our southern coast: the Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804.
It is ironic that instead of echoing freedom to the lands around it, Haiti’s slave revolt resounded in the ears of slaveowners abroad as a signal to clamp down ever harder on their human property. It is in this period that Southern states began to pass laws about slavery designed to draw a bright line between black and white that could never be crossed. Free blacks were barred from moving into Southern states, and those living there were encouraged (sometimes required) to leave. Manumission was made more difficult and teaching slaves to read and write was outlawed.
None of these prevented the most famous American slave revolt: Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831. Turner, a slave in southern Virginia, led a bloody, if brief, revolt that took the lives of more than fifty people, most of them white. The rebellion was a full-on race war (or, from Turner’s point of view, the continuation of a race war that began when his ancestors were forcibly brought to American shores). The next year, delegates in the Virginia legislature debated the appropriate reaction. Some saw slavery as doomed and called for gradual emancipation, but the majority voted to press down harder on the oppressed people, believing that leniency had made rebellion possible.
Those interested in the former option had their thinking informed by British emancipation in the West Indies in 1833. The same event added fuel to the intellectual fires of pro-slavery voices as the South became increasingly isolated and surrounded by free-labor territories. From this time, tracts in favor of the peculiar institution took on a more aggressive stance, praising slavery more than before and even claiming its superiority to wage labor systems. Writings of the time also grew more paranoid, developing a sort of Abolitionist Derangement Syndrome, in which every criticism of slavery was searched for perceived coded language in favor of black rebellion.
Paulus writes that “conspiracy theories have often served as the liturgy of dying ideas,” and it is certainly true in slavery’s case. If criticism of slavery was painted as encouraging insurrection, attempts to limit its spread were seen as tantamount to civil war. Some even answered the North’s alleged conspiracies with cabals of their own, launching filibustering expeditions to conquer Latin American nations and calling for annexation of territories to America’s south. Moving beyond preservation, its most ardent advocates now claimed that slavery must grow to survive.
The pressure continued to build in a Union that both sides claimed to revere but that was increasingly too small to contain both varieties of exceptionalism. With John Brown’s attempt to spark a new slave revolt in 1859, Southerners’ worst fears seemed to come true. That rebellion had few participants and was easily crushed, but the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 signaled to the South that a majority of the country was against them. Lincoln’s aims were moderate, but were enough for the fire-eaters’ conspiratorial minds to perceive in them the end of slavery and the society it supported.
White Southerners’ fears were not grounded in Lincoln and Brown alone, but in the whole history of slavery in the Western Hemisphere, most especially slavery’s end in Haiti. Our history books are inward-looking at times, but Southern planters drew information and, later, fear from events outside the nation’s borders. America was a part of the greater Atlantic world, and events in one nation affected those in others. In weaving together these threads, Paulus’s The Slaveholding Crisis has added a new element to the old story of division, secession, and eventual liberation, helping us to understand antebellum America’s place in the world.
Kyle Sammin is a lawyer and writer from Pennsylvania. Find more of his work at kylesammin.com or follow him on Twitter at @kylesammin.