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Charles B. Dew is the Van Alan Clark Third Century Professor in the Social Sciences at Williams College.

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The question of what the Civil War was fought over is both one of the most innocuous and the most divisive question in American history. The answer expressed to that question – slavery or states rights – can speak more to the respondent’s ancestry, background, and ideological beliefs than to their understanding of history. Few appreciate this better than Charles Dew. A self-professed “son of the South”, he grew up amid the assertions that South seceded over state’s rights. Yet as his book demonstrates, the issue that agitated secessionists and motivated them to leave the union was slavery, clear and simple.

To demonstrate this, Dew turns to a previously unutilized source: the speeches made by “secession commissioners” sent out by Southern state legislatures to convince their neighbors to join them in leaving the union. Mississippi and Alabama were the first, sending ambassadors of agitation to Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina even before their own convention had met. Soon delegates crisscrossed the region, hoping to persuade as many of the slave states as they could. As Dew demonstrates, in speech after speech, the argument they resorted to was the threat Abraham Lincoln’s election posed to the institution of slavery. Repeatedly they argued that Lincoln’s election would unleash a vanguard of “Black Republican” activists who would create a race war or mass miscegenation. Such statements clearly identify the cause around which Southern states rallied to defend, with the issue of “states rights” only emerging after the war with the Confederacy’s defeat and the abolition of slavery accomplished.

Dew’s slim book is a powerful rebuttal to those who would deny that slavery was the defining issue of secession. Yet while Dew does an excellent job of analyzing the arguments of the commissioners, his narrow focus on the speeches themselves leaves a few questions unanswered. Nowhere, for example, does he explore their composition – whether the speeches were based on a common set of talking points, for example, or if each commissioner was left to his own devices in writing them. The impact of the speeches on the secession debates is also left unexamined, leaving the reader with no idea whether the speakers’ arguments were ignored or whether they influenced the debate and were taken up by others in advocating disunion. Nevertheless, in his stated goal Dew makes a convincing and well-supported argument. His book is a persuasive addition to the debate, one that is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand secession and the causes of the Civil War for themselves.
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MacDad | 5 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Mar 27, 2020 |
This is an account of the commissioners sent by seceding states to persuade other southern states to join them in the critical months after Lincoln's election. The main focus is on the rhetoric used by the commissioners in their public speeches and messages, which he sees as frankly racist, and supporting the view that slavery was "the" cause of the Civil War. While I think slavery undoubtedly was the major issue triggering the war, and these speeches do contain open declarations that whites were racially superior to blacks and that the southern states' policy of racial inequality had to be defended against the "Black Republican" policy of racial equality. (This was not in fact the policy of most Republicans, including Lincoln well into the Civil War itself., but the southerners tended to exaggerate the influence of the handful of northern idealists who actually advocated it.)
However, they also contain practical points --the fear that the Republicans would set off a "servile insurrection" like Haiti's, which seemed quite probable at the time, though it turned out not to be true, and that the south could not be expected to give up $4 billion dollars worth of property, which is realistic. I think there is no doubt the abolitionist campaign for "uncompensated" abolition did much to render a reasonable settlement impossible. .Ultimately the emotional point was that the Repubicans said slavery was a sin, ad the southerners resented being called sinners.
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antiquary | 5 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Feb 21, 2017 |
In the folk memory of many white southerners, secession and the Civil War resulted from a disagreement among brave and principled white men who finally resorted to arms to settle their differences. The principal cause of the disagreement was a doctrine called "state's rights." As one of the many consequences of these white men's actions, black slaves were freed. According to this story, the men who formed the Confederate States of America selflessly adhered to principle in spite of overwhelming odds.

It's far less common to recall the mood of crisis, both North and South, during the winter of 1860-61. It wasn't cool deliberation that drove most of the South to secede from the United States. It was something more like panic.

For Charles Dew, author of Apostles of Disunion, the question of what caused the southern states to secede is of vital present-day interest. He links the question to controversies that made headlines in Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia as the book was being written. That is why Dew directs his argument to general readers rather than experts, and especially to white southerners who have received from their elders the belief that their Confederate ancestors struggled nobly for the cause of state's rights and a more judicious balance of constitutional powers.

Dew assails this popular view by highlighting the public utterances of secession commissioners, appointed by the first five seceding states to help persuade the other slave states to join their southern confederacy. In all there were about 52 commissioners, many of whom were chosen because of ties to the upper South (Missouri, Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, North Carolina, and Tennessee). Dew tracked down speeches and writings of 48 of these commissioners, and in this book he presents their words as a source of key insights into the South's drive to secede.

Dew makes a strong case that these messages, which consistently stressed racist grounds for the maintenance of slavery, are reliable clues to the motivations behind secession. The secession commissioners were delegates from southerners to southerners; their missions were prominent and received press attention. They spoke to politicians in private, addressed legislatures, and harangued public crowds. If there was ever a case of the South talking to itself, this was it.

Dew also assails the present-day "state's rights" cause by contrasting the postwar claims of Confederate leaders, such as Alexander Stephens and Jefferson Davis, that the Confederacy fought for state's rights, with the same officials' wartime utterances emphasizing slavery and race.
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Muscogulus | 5 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Oct 5, 2013 |
Seldom told story of the secession commissioners that most southern states sent out shortly after the election of 1860. Should put to rest for good the whole "states' rights" smokescreen...
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ScoutJ | 5 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Mar 31, 2013 |

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