The Most Provocative and Potent Word!

A Review of Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1859   Elizabeth R.Varon. Chapel Hill: university of North Carolina Press, 2008. 347 pp. 
In this beautifully written monograph, Elizabeth R. Varon sets out to reframe the discussion of American Civil War causality.  She acknowledges upfront that she does not intend to challenge the several various explanations already proffered in the historiography for precipitating the Civil War (or at least contributing to the outbreak of hostilities), such as demographics, economics, ideology, culture, and slavery; rather she seeks to “offer[s] a new way to look at …the terms of the debate that pulled the Union apart” (2). Varon begins by outlining the two main “interpretive camps” of Civil War scholarship: the “fundamentalists,” for whom slavery is definitively the root cause of the Civil War, and the “revisionists,” who look to other causes, and often, but not always, eschew sectionalist interpretations of the antebellum period (3).  
For her part, Varon proceeds pretty convincingly to revise the fundamentalistargument!  Like Edward Ayers, whom she cites (see page 4), Varon has “straddled the line,” of this “dichotomy” and she has answered his call to “look anew for ‘catalysts’ of sectionalism,” while adamantly declaiming that “the thing is slavery,” (16) and “radical abolitionists are not the villains of the sectional drama but the heroes” (14-15).
Varon’s text is an accomplished synthesis (as she hoped to provide) of the current scholarship, as well as providing a radically new approach to analyzing causality through an investigation of disunion rhetoric.  Varon emphasizes that “disunion” should not be thought of as synonymous with “secession,” and that the word “disunion” was in fact “the most provocative and potent word in the political vocabulary of Americans,” for some considerable time, especially during the antebellum period (1).  Varon describes “five registers” of disunion in the text: prophecy, threat, accusation, process, and program, and she proceeds to explicate, persuasively, how each register was prevalent at different stages in the antebellum timeline, sometimes overlapping, but generally describing a progressive development from the birth of the United States as a Union to the lead up to the Civil War (5).  
In a lecture given at The Library of Virginia shortly after publication, Varon talks about her initial desire to produce a study that focuses on the voices that had hitherto not been successfully integrated into Civil War scholarship—particularly those “outside the halls of power”: the voices of the free and enslaved blacks, female abolitionist voices, and white dissenters in the South (15).  She admits that while conducting her research she was struck by the overwhelming indications that disunion rhetoric profoundly affected the imaginations of antebellum citizens; the very word “disunion,” she said, seemed to “bristle with significance,” and she decided to change her emphasis in order to show how the politics surrounding disunion rhetoric ultimately discouraged compromise and provided an “aura of inexorability to the cataclysmic confrontation of North and South” (2).
The significance of her achievement, and the most compelling aspect of her work, is that she has managed to do both exceptionally well. She has accomplished all her aims, as outlined in the introduction and done so convincingly.   The weight of her meticulously documented and intelligently analyzed evidence certainly persuades that sectionalism was alive and well at the birth of the Union, AND that there was a pervasive rhetoric of disunion (accompanied by fears of tyranny, class conflict, racial strife, regionalism, gender disorder, and even anarchy) that seemed to saturate relationships and divisions between North and South throughout the antebellum period.  Recent scholarship would suggest that sectionalist history “has been told by projecting the histories of the territorial units secession created…backward in time,” (see River of Dark Dreams by Walter Johnson), but Varon’s impeccably rigorous research challenges this view [both accounts are so absorbing and convincing that a straddling of the lines might be necessary once again to accommodate a synthesis of both views, perhaps…]
Varon covers an extraordinary amount of ground in a remarkably concise fashion, which adds to the readability of her text, and she handles the subject of political rhetoric masterfully, managing to keep the pace of the narrative exciting when the topic has the potential to be uncommonly stodgy.  It is in her analysis of black voices and women’s contributions that she is strongest, and consequently she spends more time on the period from 1830 onwards, but the work does not suffer from this concentration.  While convincing us that there were more divisions between the South and North than shared attributes, Varon demonstrates that there was also contention among proponents of the same side. For example Frederick Douglass objected to the Garrisonianimmediatists’ use of disunion as a threat (even if it was initially intended merely as a conscience raising tool), because it also implied a disunion with enslaved blacks in the South, and signified an abandonment of the very souls they were fighting to free.  This is a particularly compelling aspect of her narrative, as are the sections on the perhaps less well known figures, such as the Grimké sisters, and their impressive work for abolitionism and women’s rights in the face of accusations (from their own sex and from Northern quarters) that they were “spawning hatred and resentment,” in the South, “undermining gradualist efforts to dismantle slavery, “ and bringing the USA to “the ‘very verge of the precipice’ of disunion” (132).
It is difficult to criticize this offering from Varon; however, after such a comprehensive coverage and analysis of events, the resolution of the book seems unnecessarily and oddly abrupt. Varon concludes her examination with John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry rather than proceeding to a more natural conclusion at the outbreak of the Civil War, and the epilogue doesn’t quite seem to compensate.  In her presentation at The Library of Virginia, Varon announces that Disunion! Is theinaugural volume in a new series of civil war books – The Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, a multi-volume series,” which may account for this unusual decision. It seems unlikely that she just ran out of steam and material after such rigorous research throughout.  It does not appear, following a quick survey of the titles that have since arrived in the Littlefield History of the Civil War era series, that Varon curtailed her account in order to make way for the next author in the series. Perhaps, I offer somewhat optimistically, she is preparing for a follow up volume of her own in which she will render an equally compelling interpolation of the reconstruction era scrutinizing the connotations and contemporary nuances of the word “Union.”  
According to its website, the UNC Press has so far produced eight of the texts in its intended “landmark series of sixteen volumes–written by some of today’s most respected Civil War historians.” I have not yet read any of the editions following Disunion! but it is clear that Varon has set the bar exceedingly high for her fellow collaborators in the series, and other historians, in terms of meaningfully advancing the field of Civil War scholarship.


A political cartoon released by the Democratic Party mocking the Hartford Convention candidate.
(public domain image: Source –
Benson John Lossing, ed. Harper’s Encyclopedia of United States History (vol. 4) (New York, NY: Harper and Brothers, 1912)

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