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You’re Tearing Me Apart: On William L. Barney’s “Rebels in the Making: The Secession Crisis and the Birth of the Confederacy”

SECESSION OF CONFEDERATE STATES from the Union in 1861 was the inevitable crest of the defensive battles fought by slaveholders after the first moral assaults on slavery emerged in the late 18th century.

The Enlightenment and other liberation ideologies had put slavery under fire, an attack that intensified with the abolition of the overseas trade in kidnapped humans in 1808. Meanwhile, a new middle class was emerging with republican sensibilities, and the old order was starting to crumble in Europe.

“This was the international context of insurgent liberalism that the Confederacy sought to reverse with its bid for a reactionary slaveholders’ republic ruled by a landed elite,” writes William L. Barney in his masterly new study, Rebels in the Making.

The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and the fear of antislavery agents spreading a freedom message in the South created intense paranoia that the Southern way of life and its institutions were under attack. And many Northern political figures, including President James Buchanan, remained sympathetic to the South’s position, and to their Southern colleagues in Congress. Abolitionists were a minority even in the North, and often reviled, but their voices were becoming more insistent.

Rebels in the Making, the first one-volume narrative history of secession in all the 15 slave states, is both a withering indictment of secessionist folly and a concerted attempt to examine the divergent and often contradictory threads of its fabric. The years 1860 and 1861 were pivotal, but Barney, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also demonstrates how revolt had been fomenting for decades.

Read entire article at Los Angeles Review of Books