The little book that started the big war

This is a review I wrote for the Journal of the Early Republic of “There is a North”: Fugitive Slaves, Political Crisis, and Cultural Transformation in the Coming of the Civil War. By John L. Brooke

The premise of this important book is that to understand the coming of the civil war we need to focus less on why it happened and more on how it did. It is probably true that, as Chris Clark argued in his book on the coming of the First World War, Sleepwalkers, historians often under-study the “how” compared to the “why”. In truth, the two are often so entangled that without a careful sequencing of events and forensic attention to relationships and communication, the “why” can become an abstraction.

So far as the American Civil War is concerned, no serious historian disagrees with Abraham Lincoln’s observation in his second inaugural about why the war came: slavery, he said, was “somehow, the cause of the war.” The historiographical question is about that “somehow”. The brilliance of John Brooke’s analysis is to engage with this “how” question by setting in a single frame both the political and the cultural transformations of the 1850s, and then to offer a method for understanding the nature of their entanglement.

The literature on the coming of the Civil War is usually framed (one might say “caricatured”) as a debate between “fundamentalists” and “revisionists”. The former emphasize the inevitability of an “irrepressible conflict” between free society and one based on human enslavement, while the latter point out that since there had been a division over slavery since at least the revolutionary era without a civil war, the critical question was what happened in the 1850s to disrupt the political order—and sometimes they have found answers that do not bear directly on slavery at all. Like the “fundamentalists,” Brooke sees slavery as an intractable, deep-seated problem. Indeed, he effectively aligns himself with the most recent variant of the “fundamentalist” school as exemplified by the work of Richard Blackett and Manisha Sinha which specifically identifies the self-emancipation of enslaved people as the critical disruptive force. But, like the “revisionists,” Brooke’s focus is on why, given this instability, the system broke down when it did.

Until quite recently it was the accepted wisdom that the Compromise of 1850 temporarily quietened the sectional conflict until it was ripped open again by the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. That, after all, was apparently how Abraham Lincoln experienced those years. But Brooke joins many other scholars in moving the critical juncture earlier by emphasising the de-stabilising, radical impact of the Underground Railroad and the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. The famous “Appeal of the Independent Democrats” which triggered the political realignments of the mid-1850s fell on fertile ground; the northern population had already become newly conscious of the humanity of enslaved people and the threat to the polity inherent in maintaining the slave system. The Fugitive Slave Act was a brutal manifestation of the apparent intention of the Slave Power to force the submission to their rule not just of black people but also of white Northerners who were legally compelled, in theory, to assist in the rendition of fugitives.

There is a refreshing clarity to Brooke’s insistence that the arena we need to focus on in is, in the end, not the South but the North. The white South, after all, knew only too well how difficult it was to maintain slavery. Whatever the proslavery literature claimed to the contrary, the obvious reality that enslaved people wanted to be free drove the politics of the South. Slaveholders needed the Federal government to be strong enough to be coercive and willing to uphold the doctrine of property in man. As Brooke writes, the white South would never have been willing to accept a Federal government controlled by a party that did not accept the legitimacy of slave property. That had been as true in 1800 as in 1860. So Southern proslavery was a necessary but not sufficient precondition for war. The dynamic force was the rise of an antislavery Republican party with the electoral strength to challenge the proslavery South’s control of the levers of power in Washington. That made secession inevitable; and secession, in turn, made war highly likely.

Brooke’s argument—a compelling one, in my view—is that political historians have paid insufficient attention to the cultural conditions that laid the basis for the rise of political antislavery in the North. Enter, predictably, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. There is, of course, already a huge literature on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s publishing sensation and on its many stage and musical spin-offs, but what Brooke does far better than any other analysis I have read is to explain exactly why this book mattered and how it fed into electoral politics. With vivid detail and prodigious archival research, as well as a theoretical model drawn from the anthropologist Victor Turner’s concept of liminality, Brooke illuminates how the reading of Uncle Tom worked to disrupt routine understandings and assumptions. “Certain moments in time matter because the familiar patterns suddenly shift toward new configurations, new possibilities,” Brooke writes (p. 4). He is especially good at showing how the particular “liminal” conditions of the early 50s heightened emotion and created a fluid imaginative space in which people saw new connections and associations.

In the context of this liminality, Brooke makes a cautious, caveated but highly suggestive argument about the vital role played by a new, ambiguous “entanglement” of black and white, which he (and other scholars) call the “creolization” of American culture in the 50s. Blackface minstrelsy thus becomes part of the story along with Uncle Tom and its various stage versions, making “blackness” visible in white culture as it had not been before. The sympathy generated by this liminal moment briefly gave cultural productions about fugitive slaves box office success, tying commercial imperatives to a rising antislavery consciousness.

There were, of course, manifold ambiguities to this revivified antislavery. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, after all, ends with, in effect, an endorsement of colonization—in other words, racial separation. The limits to even radical Republicans’ capacity to recognize black humanity were, after all, revealed by the failing commitment to protect the rights of emancipated people after the Civil War.

Brooke’s use of the theory of liminal rupture provides an analytical sharpness to his argument. The result is a book that explains more carefully than any other how it was that the issue of slavery came to matter so much more to Northerners by the mid-1850s than it had done just a few years earlier.

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