LIBERTY AND SLAVERY: Southern Politics to 1860 by

LIBERTY AND SLAVERY: Southern Politics to 1860

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In The South and the Politics of Slavery, 1828-1856 (1978), LSU historian Cooper argued that Southerners defended slavery to maintain ""control over their own destiny""--which is, at any rate, what many of them said. Here, he has converted that frail thesis into a pat formulation and extended it to cover virtually the whole of antebellum Southern history. ""Their acute awareness of slavery led Southerners to a highly developed sense of liberty""; but liberty to them meant ""the freedom to preserve black slavery."" It is difficult to find much value in this near-static, monocausal view of events. Cooper professes to be talking about an entity called ""politically active Southerners,"" which allegedly evinced ""a strong cultural unity"" by the 19th century; so much for sectional, economic, and social differences (which, however, Cooper alludes to in passing)--along with the sectional, economic, and social interests that figured in the defense of slavery. Characterizing colonial Southern politics as ""both deferential and democratic,"" he calls that combination ""participatory politics,"" contrary to common understanding. Thereafter, in the early Republic, unremittingly: ""Southerners looked upon their political leaders to protect their liberty in the larger world, the National Congress. . . . This political culture placed a premium on liberty because nothing mattered so much to individual Southerners."" The Missouri Crisis, entailing a threat to the spread of slavery, and the concurrent Panic of 1819, which Southerners blamed on the Bank of the United States, ""revived and reinforced the lesson of the 1790s."" And so to Secession: ""When the despised Republicans won the election of 1860, Southerners saw slavery looming over them."" This is not meant, of course, as an apologia for the Southern defense of black slavery; it does read like a paraphrase of pro-slavery rhetoric, however, or at best as a narrow restatement of the traditional slavery/cultural interpretation of the Civil War's origin. Pointless for the knowing and vastly inferior, for others, to Clement Eaton (on the South) and David Potter (on the sources of conflict).

Pub Date: Aug. 10th, 1983
Publisher: Knopf