Wednesday, April 18, 2007

William Freehling on the Michael Holt Issue

There is no doubt in my mind that Michael Holt's The Political Crisis of the 1850s is one of the most important books written about the causes of the Civil War in the past thirty years. In it, Professor Holt posits that any theory about why the south seceded must explain why the seven lower southern States seceded based merely on President Lincoln's election, while the remaining slaveowning States did not do so.

Professor Holt argues that the traditional explanation -- that the middle and border southern states had fewer slaves, measured as a percentage of population or as a percentage of white slaveowning families -- is insufficient. (See, for example, the chart at page 229 of the Norton paperback edition and surrounding discussion.) He argues that the crucial determinant is the historical strength of two-party competition in each State. His analysis of interparty competition purports to show that, in the period immediately before the War, interparty competition substantially decreased in the "lower south" (the seven States that seceded before Lincoln's inauguration) but remained steady in the other slaveholding States.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that, as I read William Freehling's The Road to Disunion II, I would be on the lookout for any discussion of this issue. Although I am not quite finished with the book, it is apparent that Professor Freehling's primary interest lies with why and how the lower southern States seceded. That in itself is a fascinating story, and Professor Freehling sheds light on that story that I, at least, have never encountered, and that makes his book invaluable.

However, for better or worse, it appears that the eventual secession of four other slaveholding States is of less interest to him. (In addition, or in the alternative, a footnote suggests that that Professor Freehling was discouraged from re-ploughing the same ground so admirably trodden by Daniel Crofts.) As a result, he has little to say on Professor Holt's issue, and when he does discuss it he seems to sit squarely on the fence, suggesting that both differences in slave populations and differences in party competitiveness explain the different reactions to President Lincoln's election:

A solid South [in favor of secession] would have to transcend the social fact that 47 percent of the Lower South's peoples were slaves compared to 32 percent of the Middle South's and 13 percent of the Border South's, the political fact that that ex-Whigs (later Americans or Know-Nothings and yet later Oppositionists and still later Constitutional Unionists) had remained very competitive in the Upper South while becoming largely unelectable in the Lower South, and the later electoral fact that John Breckenridge had received 56 percent of the Lower South's 1860 popular presidential vote compared to 32 percent in the Border South.

Professor Freehling may well be right, but this stray sentence simply does not prove it. In particular, the statistics, while presumably perfectly accurate, evade the statistics that Professor Holt cites. If slaves and slaveholding are sufficient causes, why did Texas (28% white families owning slaves) secede, while Virginia (27.3%), North Carolina (29%), Tennessee (24.9%), and even Kentucky (23.5%) did not? Professor Freehling's impressionistic statement simply does not burrow sufficiently deep to grapple with the issues that Professor raises.

I am not, by the way, a member of the school that contends that slavery had nothing to do with secession. To the contrary, I think it had everything to do with it. But at the same time I think that Professor Holt has presented arguments that strongly suggest that the interaction is, somehow, far more complex than most consider it to be. My disappointment arises precisely from the fact that I was hoping that a historian of Professor Freehling's stature would give this issue his close attention.


  1. Anonymous9:27 AM

    Texas' secession, more than any other, was an extralegal and anti-democratic affair. There was an "election" of sorts, but nothing that would be recognized as Democracy in action. So the differences between Texas and the others, in my view, would have to do with the relative strength and stability of democratic institutions.

    Dale Baum's book may be a good source on Texas secession, but I've only read reviews of the book.

  2. A,

    I haven't read that one either. My knowledge of the details of Texas' secession fits on the head of a pin. Freehling's Road II has a few pages on it, and that's all I know. BTW, at least one of the books you recommended (I forget which one!) arrives tomorrow, but I've got to finish Chandra Manning's new book first.


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