Posts Tagged John Brown

Reflections on Antebellum Language and Public Discourse: A mini-review

“As soon as we start putting our thoughts into words and sentences everything gets distorted, language is just no damn good—I use it because I have to, but I don’t put any trust in it. We never understand each other.”                       ― Marcel Duchamp

Elizabeth R. Varon’s 2008 book, Disunion: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859, explores the non-partisan use of the term “disunion,” and delves into the layered meanings of the word in the political and social landscape of antebellum America. She argues that use of the term “disunion” was a significant cause of tensions that led to the Civil War. A chronologically organized work, Varon mines a multitude of primary sources to “…reframe the issue of Civil War causality.”1 Moreover, Varon’s work seeks to answer why “…Americans [could] not debate the fate of slavery without also conjuring up the notion of disunion?”2 More than a theoretical debate on the power of language or of its various inflectional interpretations, Varon’s argument centers on the pervasive fear held by antebellum Americans that the Union was potentially “contingent—and even fatally flawed.”3 Used as a rhetorical catch-phrase in the North and the South, Varon encapsulates “disunion” into five categorical “registers:” prophecy, threat, accusation, process, and program. Her delineated categorical approach helps to organize what is a plethora of material on the subject.

Varon clearly states that “disunion” is not interchangeable with “secession,” that as secession was a clear political and legal process, disunion was a “sublimely adaptable concept and thus could be put to a stunning range of uses.”4 As an answer to the challenge of fellow historian Edward Ayers to revisit the causes of sectionalism, Varon’s attempt is a successful one, not only for her approach to her subject matter, but also for the sheer professionalism of her scholarship.

Varon follows an accepted course of scholarship in her attention to the large issues that are fundamentally cited as catalysts of sectionalism: the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, abolitionist movements, and political partisanship, among others. She definitively argues that it was slavery that made the war an inevitable event, but that specter of disunion, “suffused as it was with images of treason, rebellion, retribution, and bloodshed…bred disillusionment with part politics; mistrust of compromise; and…the expectation that only violent conflict would resolve the debate over slavery once and for all.”5

Forcefully argued and well-supported, Varon cogently weaves an intricate narrative that is an important contribution to existing pre-Civil War scholarship. She successfully illustrates how the use of disunion as a rhetorical device contributed to intense sectionalism, and stands as a trail-blazer for other scholars as they continue to ask new questions of existing sources of antebellum America. An example of Varon’s willingness to tread new ground is her disagreement with Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer and his analysis of the Lincoln/Douglas debates. Varon states clearly that Holzer missed the “striking departure [of] Lincoln’s June speech…from the Lecompton congressional debates of 1857-58.” By asking readers to re-analyze old material, Varon is keeping the scholarship of the Civil War moving forward.

Civil War scholarship is a challenging historical genre in that the existing framework of the political conditions that existed prior to 1860, to many scholars, is not only the focal point of causation, but also the only legitimate answer to causation. Varon boldly attacks the preexisting scholarly consensus by presenting the argument that an ephemeral concept (language) could be as divisive as an Act of Congress. Yet her work is not blind to the integrated aspect of political action and rhetorical process, as her argument illustrates.

Varon weaves numerous social and cultural gems into her male dominated, politically focused argument, providing readers additional layers of historical analysis. With nuance, she points out other conventions of language (i.e. “morbid,” and “sickly,”) to show how Victorian gender roles used language as a “weapon.” This is significant to her overall argument as the “distinct meaning in Victorian discourse” had deeper implications than our twenty-first century perception of the words alone would imply.

I find it intriguing that Varon ended her discussion in 1859, with John Brown. Brown is a powerful representation of the verbosity with which the antebellum era is rife; his violent response to slavery shows the power of language to provoke, and he is widely thought of as the cause, the match to the torch of secession. Varon’s analysis of language in pre-Civil War America to engender sectionalism shows a masterful understanding of both the intricacies of human discourse, and the repercussions of it.

1. Elizabeth R. Varon, Disunion: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 4.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., 5.
4. Ibid., 6.
5. Ibid., 16.

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