Friday, September 25, 2009

Origins of South Carolinian Radicalism

I mentioned the other day that I did not recall an extensive discussion of the Denmark Vesey conspiracy in Lacy K. Ford's Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry 1800-1860. I'm relieved to report that my memory did not fail me. A quick check of the index disclosed exactly one reference to Denmark Vesey, and that proved to be a passing one.

A quick review of that volume also indicates that my more general point was correct: Prof. Ford there argued that it was the later Nullification Crisis that sent South Carolina spinning off course. “Prior to the nullification crisis, there was little evidence to suggest that South Carolina was not part of the national political mainstream, or at the very least, typical of the other states along the South Atlantic seaboard.” Prof. Ford's sole mention of the Vesey scare came in the context of a laundry list of events that tended to put National Republicanism on the defensive in the early and mid 1820s, including the Missouri Compromise debates and the higher tariff of 1824. Nonetheless,
[p]olitics in South Carolina prior to nullification was remarkably similar to politics in the other Southern states, as well as several Northern ones, during the so-called “Era of Good Feelings.” . . . Indeed, a superficial glance at South Carolina politics during the mid-1820s offers the observer little reason to believe that the state was about to veer off on a remarkable and controversial tangent that would not only place it in radical defiance of the national government but would also do much to isolate it from the other southern states.

I must emphasize that my suggestion that Prof. Ford's views may have shifted somewhat is by no means a criticism. Quite the contrary. Origins of Southern Radicalism was published in 1988 and presumably (I am guessing here) grew out of Prof. Ford's doctoral dissertation. To his credit, twenty years of further research and study by a perceptive scholar have produced a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the stages of South Carolina's unique journey toward interposition and secession. What I'd love to see is an updated and revised version of the book that incorporates Prof. Ford's additional learning.

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