Growing the Land of Cotton

Mastering America by Robert E. Bonner (Cambridge University Press; 368 pp.)

Mastering America by Robert E. Bonner (Cambridge University Press; 368 pp.)

After the American colonies heeded Benjamin Franklin’s advice to “join” rather than to “die,” the political bonds that tied our great nation together loosened, frayed and eventually broke. Most educated Americans have some conception of the causes of the Civil War and can name particularly influential points of contingency during the course of antebellum American political disintegration. The invention of the cotton gin in 1797 helped precipitate the explosion of a massive slave based economy that exported “King Cotton” all over the world. At the same time, the growth of abolitionist sentiment in the North coincided with widening economic divisions between the two regions: the nation was drifting apart. After the Mexican War, the 1850s witnessed a series of events harbingering the breakdown of political authority in the South. The Compromise of 1850, the rise of the Republican Party, Bleeding Kansas, the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the Dred Scott decision (to name but a few) all came to a head. At the turn of the decade, Lincoln’s election was the final straw. Between Election Day and his inauguration, seven states had already succeeded, with four more to follow. The next five years would witness the bloodiest war in American history to date and the bloodiest conflict ever to occur on American soil, causing the deaths of over 625,000 Union and Confederate soldiers.

Those parts of the American national narrative are well known. However, one aspect of the story has been given less attention: the series of events and understandings that led to the development of a nationalistic Southern identity that was consummated and solidified in the Confederate States. Robert Bonner, Chair of the Dartmouth History Department, in his Mastering America: Southern Slaveholders and the Crisis of American Nationhood deftly follows this development, revealing the interesting intellectual, social and political history of the Southern nationalism throughout antebellum America. It is a work of true scholarly achievement. He adroitly traces different strands of Southern nationalism from their sources, shedding light on a complex identity that had been in the works for many years before the bombardment at Fort Sumter.

The South didn’t always have such an assertive self-perception. As Bonner relates, around the time of the nation’s founding, one of the most influential commentaries on the Southern economy came from Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, in which he condemned slavery for its barbarity and harm to republican virtue. (Of course, Jefferson’s convictions were less stringent with regards to his own Virginia plantation). Nevertheless, there was a strong feeling during the early republic that slavery was holding the South back. Slave uprisings in the Caribbean during the 1790s, particularly in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) reinforced a narrative that the slave system was unstable, liable to fall, and that the South was relatively weak and incapable of controlling it. In fact, even many Southerners internalized this perception.

However, by the 1830s, the founding generation was dying off, and a new set of leaders began to take their place. This generation of more assertive slaveholding politicians (think Andrew Jackson) began to declare Southern economic dominance, military capabilities, and social strength. No longer was the slave society seen to be inherently explosive. By contrast, the South began to see itself as the model for stability. Jefferson Davis’ proclamation in 1848 that he had “no more dread of our slaves than I have of our cattle” was typical of this “Great Reaction.” With its renewed confidence, ambitious proslavery leaders shifted their sights westward into Texas and beyond. With two-thirds of the American force in the Mexican war being composed of citizens from slave states, slavery was said to have had a natural home there.

At the same time, Northern abolitionists were looking westward. Texas’ admission into the Union maintained the slave-free state balance; however, westward expansion was continually an issue. With the admission of California to the Union as a free state, thus shifting the balance of Congressional power towards free states, “the standard of measurement changed, and the important test became whether slaveholders could retain an effective veto of constitutional change.” At the same time, Southern constitutional thought was taking a decidedly anti-nationalist turn. Virginians such as planter John Tyler foresaw the growing threat of “consolidationism.” They argued vehemently against the Marshall Court’s use of the terms “American people” or “national government” as opposed to the more Jeffersonian conception that America was composed of a confederation of nearly independent states. Semantic battles evolved into more substantive debates about the balance of power between the federal government and the states and the need for forceful subjugation of the Southern slave force. Fastidious observance of Caribbean abolitionism taught Southern slaveholders that slavery could be ended gradually and peaceful under the guidance of a strong central government, further exacerbating Southern apprehension of a federal power.

As the book progresses, Bonner is particularly adept at articulating the relationship between slavery and a complex maturation of constitutional thought in the South. The ideas of John C. Calhoun, one of the South’s most well spoken thinkers and an advocate of slavery, altered the trajectory of intellectual discourse. His recognition that “the Constitution may be as grossly violated by acting against its meaning as against its letter” led him to later speak in terms of states rights, a powerful rhetorical move that still has salience today. Of course, some of his other ideas – like his suggestion that the United States have a dual presidency – were less persuasive.

Bonner explores various other areas of nationalistic development. He investigates the cultural and moral framework that developed, as well as the fight for a Southern conception of civilization based on racial bondage. The South developed a unique religious culture, as well. The division of Christian institutions and organizations during the late antebellum period, a phenomenon Bonner explores in fascinating detail, foreshadowed the subsequent breakup of the Union. The region further set itself apart by developing its own nationalistic historical consciousness. As Bonner relays, in so many ways, the South was forming its own national identity long before the breakup of the union.

In 1831 when Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States from France, he was struck by the economic and social disparity between the North and the South. Standing upon the banks of the Ohio River between Mississippi and Ohio, he pondered: “Upon the [Mississippi] bank of the stream… society seems to be asleep, man to be idle, and nature alone offers a scene of activity and of life. From the [Ohio] bank, on the contrary, a confused hum is heard which proclaims the presence of industry; the fields are covered with abundant harvests… and man appears to be in the enjoyment of that wealth and contentment which is the reward of labor.” The uniqueness of the Southern identity was rooted in this striking contrast. Mastering America explains in nuanced and scholarly detail the way slave society fed into a Southern self-perception and nationalism that eventually torn our nation apart. It is a fascinating work, impressive in its erudition, nuanced in its argumentation, and novel in its subject matter: a great book for any history buff interested in the Civil War or antebellum political development.