Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Road to Disunion II: Secessionists Triumphant

I am wending my way through William Freehling's Road to Secession Volume II. After about 150 pages, my reaction is that this should not be the first book you should read on the period 1854-1861. Professor Freehling is too idiosyncratic a writer for that. Putting aside his offputting writing style, the good professor tends to zero in on particular topics that interest him -- for example, the tensions inherent in different southern justifications of slavery -- and then gives comparatively brief treatment to others.

His discussion of Kansas and Lecompton is a good example. You can tease out of the discussion the basic underlying facts, but Professor Freehling is really more interested in focusing on particular issues. Why were southerners so hell-bent on Kansas? Why did President Buchanan wind up supporting the Lecompton Constitution? I'm pretty sure that, if I did not already have the basic facts in hand, I would be looking for a more straightforward description of events and the supporting evidence.

That said, if you've got some background, Professor Freehling offers interesting insights, and you shouldn't miss his book. Take the last issue mentioned above, for example. Elsewhere, you can discover that the evidence is strong to the point of conclusive that, before he went to Kansas, Robert Walker sought and obtained assurances from President Buchanan that Buchanan would support him in demanding that any Kansas constitution be submitted to a popular referendum. Yet after Walker took this position, based on Buchanan's promise, Buchanan reversed course, disavowed his promise, supported the Lecompton Constitution, and went a long way to destroying his presidency, his party and the country in the process. Why on Earth did Buchanan pursue so destructive a course?

Professor Freehling paints a highly plausible picture of Buchanan torn by conflicting loyalties, personal and political. Buchanan's jovial good friend and trusted political confidant Howell Cobb, Secretary of the Treasury in Buchanan's cabinet, felt strongly both that the federal government should not reject an application for statehood simply because the work of a duly elected state convention was not ratified by a popular referendum, and that it was foolish and counterproductive for the state convention to refuse to submit its work to a referendum. With Buchanan's express or tacit consent, Cobb took up the laboring oar to try to insure that the Lecompton convention endorsed a referendum. However, because he believed that the federal government could not and should not dictate to a state on such a matter, he sought to persuade rather than order the convention to provide for a referendum.

When this tactic failed, Buchanan was left with an extremely awkward choice, on both the personal and political levels. If he repudiated the Lecompton Constitution, he would in effect be repudiating his friend Cobb's work and principles, risking mass resignations from the cabinet in the process. He therefore chose the alternate course, justifying his position to himself by relying on the fact that the Lecompton convention had provided for a partial referendum, and convincing himself that any negative political ramifications would be only temporary.

Professor Freehling frankly admits that the psychological picture he paints represents his best guess based on inferences from the available evidence and is not conclusive, but that refreshing admission only makes it the more convincing.

2 comments:

  1. Anonymous12:25 PM

    Have you read Michael P. Johnson's "Toward a Patriarchal Republic: The Secession of Georgia"? The themes of RTDv2 are readily apparent in his exploration of Georgia's secession.

    You'll probably also wonder at the contradictions between MPJ's and JMT's theories as to why Georgia and Alabama seceded... I don't think it's likely that radically different dynamics were at play in Alabama than in Georgia. I find MPJ's hypothesis much more satisfying. Secession simply wasn't widely popular, even in the lower South. Certainly not in Georgia, and not in Alabama either.

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  2. I haven't read it -- but it's going on the list. Thanks for the lead!

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