By the year 1860 the post-Revolutionary War generations of America had finally eroded their Union with their political zeal and rising anxiety over the reason for which the nation even existed. There were many fears present from the outset, ranging from the fear of corrupt usage of public power to the fear of a collapsing economy, and they would grow alongside the nations borders with slavery being the sticking point. In this book
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Varon, a professor of American History at the University of Virginia, explores how the seeds of disunion were always present within the new United States.
She does an exceptional job of providing critical assessments of the most recent scholarship, and while aware of other issues in the politics of America at the time, considers slavery to have been the central issue that led to the splitting of the United States.
As Varon notes early on in her book, a desire to put an end to slavery could be seen even in the very beginnings of the republic. While it was legal in each of the first thirteen colonies, the economic concerns differing by section meant that the practice was not central to the economies of every colony. With Northern states being much less dependent on the institution of slavery they would inevitably be where the call for abolition would spread the most quickly, and of course the Southern states which were more dependent on slavery would become increasingly defensive. There was debate over the issue even during the crafting of the Constitution, but when some representatives from the South threatened not to join the Union were slavery to be prohibited in their states the idea was discarded for then, showing how divisive the topic was.
The author points to how disunion was appealed to as a threat in many other instances, initially by those seeking to maintain the institution of slavery and eventually by those looking to abolish it. Both the proslavery and abolitionist sides wished for their threats to intimidate the other to the point that they would make concessions. With this having been said, Varon suggests that disunion was not used only as a threat but also as an accusation. When she does, she refers to the problems faced by those that called for an immediate end to slavery- how they were widely considered to be for a program that would lead to rebellions by slaves.
Proslavery mouthpieces would contrast the possibility of a civil war, the result of continued abolitionist activity, with the alternative of prosperity that would follow were such activity to cease. With disunion being touted as a lead up to a civil war and it being suggested that such a war would be worth what it might cost it seems clear that there was such resolve on both sides of the issue that there was little which could have been done to avoid the young Union ripping itself in two.
To the degree that she manages to amalgamate the various ways in which disunion was used leading up to the Civil War, Varon succeeds in reframing the discussion about what it was that brought the nation there.
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