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Exploiting Southern sensitivities

The contested route to a house dividing

A Southern depiction of abolitionist John Brown as a violent killer. ("Secessionists Triumphant"/kansas state historical society)

The Road to Disunion, Vol. 2: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861
By William W. Freehling
Oxford University, 605 pp., $35

The former mayor of New York must have thought that if he could handle 9/11, he could handle anything -- even the grueling run for president. But on his opening turn in the South in April , when an Alabama reporter lobbed him the oldest spitball of American politics, he whiffed, mightily. The Confederate flag , a matter of "different sensitivities"? Maybe in a soothing Clintonian mini-drawl, but never in the smirking tough talk of a Yankee named Giuliani. Suddenly Northern papers of record quoted Dixie editorials. Real presidential timber would have rested on the shoulder.

We may not still be fighting the Civil War, but we still fly its flags and watch who salutes. William W. Freehling knows the deep background of this game as well as anyone alive. "Secessionists Triumphant," the second volume of his history of Southern secession, is a hard - nosed and dramatic account of how the nation split in 1861.

The flag covers an unlikely story. A few proslavery militants had wanted to leave the union years before. These wealthy men dominated parts of coastal South Carolina, but nowhere else, even in the cotton boom of the 1850s. How did they get an entire region to see things their way? Freehling recognizes that even a revolution does not require unity. It only requires the fiction of unity, a fear of alternatives, and enough hatred of a common enemy. This book breaks up every war-tested stereotype of Southern rebels to show how such sensitivities came to be.

It begins with slavery. In the acclaimed first volume, "Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854," Freehling described how upper South liberals like Thomas Jefferson, who doubted the morality of slavery and feared slave rebellions, embraced a dream of painless slavery reform through the colonization of emancipated slaves and the "diffusion" of excess slaves in new territories. These gentry doubters made just enough common cause with nouveau riche southwestern masters like Andrew Jackson for the "slave power" to dominate national politics for a half-century. In the 1830s, abolitionists, finally listening to the former slaves of the North, responded with a new insistence on the absolute evil of slavery. In response, elite Southerners developed several explanations of why Africans needed chains in America. "Secessionists Triumphant" begins with those biological, economic, and religious arguments. Each one was flawed, and none of them persuaded every Southerner. Even with the crutch of racism, it proved easier to denounce slavery's enemies than to defend human bondage.

So Southern statesmen sought practical solutions to the threat of antislavery: fugitive slave laws, new buffer slave states, a Caribbean American empire, even the reopening of the African slave trade a half-century after it had been closed, in 1808 . There was a logic to Southern politics, a logic of power but also a logic of damage control, of managing the expanding South's underbelly: its diversity. The process worried politicians from Richmond to Mobile. Freehling etches delicious portraits of Southern crusaders, men like William Lowndes Yancey , whose pious Yankee stepfather had shamed his Southern mother into giving up her home. These partisans of the Old South were neither born nor raised: They made themselves. James P. Holcombe's slave - owning father had followed his antislavery mother and moved to Indiana, freeing the family slaves. But he had married a wealthy Virginian and became a professor at Mr. Jefferson's university. This road to the brothers' war is littered with white broken families, victims of their own half-slave, half-free pasts.

Freehling is vivid on episodes like nervous Preston Brooks's caning of Senator Charles Sumner in 1856 . He's even better dredging up lesser - known incidents. Representative Laurence Keitt of South Carolina ordered a "Black Republican puppy," his Pennsylvania colleague, Galusha Grow , out of his aisle. Grow retorted that his colleague sounded like a whip-cracking slave driver. How could Keitt be insulted when he'd played the race card himself? Because insult was intended. Gradually, after more confrontations and compromises, leading Southerners believed that the Yankees they dominated and derided actually looked down on them, because of slavery.

In 1860 secessionists argued that a victorious Abraham Lincoln could use the power of patronage to seed slavery haters in post offices all over the South. They had a point. But Freehling deftly shows that South Carolina still had to force the issue, turning the issue from slavery to the right of secession, to get the lower South into line. Other states did not do so until forced to choose, after Fort Sumter's surrender, when Lincoln called for troops. Timing, strategy, and geography explain as much as Southern pride supposedly does. White Southerners did not choose to leave the United States in some sort of plebiscite or survey: They chose not to be on the other side in a war. As Freehling has written in his already published sequel on the war years, "The South vs. the South," four upper South states did not even do that. Their decision, their arms, and their ex-slaves secured the borderland, and with it the union's victory.

Freehling's taste for irony, unintended consequences, and bizarre personalities will not endear him to every lover of history (much less every Southerner). But there's a strong case to be made for the particular pathos of Southern history, and nobody has made that case with less sentimentality, or more real sensitivity.

David Waldstreicher teaches at Temple University, in Philadelphia, and is the author of "Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution."