Posts Tagged Language
February 1866 saw the Northern states, and the Republican-led Union government, deep in the trenches of Presidential Reconstruction. Andrew Johnson’s leniency toward the former Confederate states precipitated the enactment of Black Codes that tightly proscribed the lives of former slaves; the election of former Confederates to local, regional, and national offices; and widespread maltreatment of Freedmen, Unionists, and Union officials living and working in the south.
Reconstruction was never billed in any way to be an easy process. Lincoln had not settled on a particular course of action, nor had his cabinet any miraculous insights into a resolution of the problem of rejoining the southern states to the Union. The difficulties were immense. The challenges nearly overwhelming. The dangers of Reconstruction going badly would have rippling consequences.
Arguments in the Union Congress toward the end of the war varied greatly on how best to accomplish the task of Reconstruction. There were moderate views, hard-line views, though no consensus came. Northern legislators feared the defeated South would be unrepentant toward their victors, and like a snake in the grass, strike at those that threatened them. This fear was not unfounded as the initial year post-war came to reveal. No one in the North believed that the South would simply acquiesce to terms, nor were Northern legislators so naive to think there would be no backlash to Northern occupation of the South after the war. But, the extent of the backlash and the utter vengeful quality of the Southern response shocked and angered the North. To better understand Southern rejection of Reconstruction, it helps to revisit the rhetoric of the Secession Crisis.
Lincoln’s election in 1860 sent shock-waves through the South. In response, Secession Commissioners were sent out from several of the slave states to drum up support for the creation of a Southern Confederacy. These commissioners, as Charles B. Dew describes in his book Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War, were a mix of radical and moderate pro-slavery voices. The commissioners identified as both Democrats and Whigs, but they had in common a consistent Southern message based on white supremacy, and the rejection of the “Black Republican” government of Lincoln based on threat of annihilation of the Southern way of life.
Stephen Hale was a Secession Commissioner from Alabama tasked with bringing Kentucky into the secession fold. Unable to meet with the Kentucky legislature, Hale drafted a letter to Kentucky’s governor Beriah Magoffin, in which he outlined the argument supporting secession. A passionate Southern-rights Whig, Hale’s letter encapsulated the Southern argument, and serves as a perfect example of why Reconstruction would have such difficulties.
…the election of Mr. Lincoln is hailed not simply as a change of administration, but as the inauguration of new principles and a new theory of government, and even as the downfall of slavery. Therefore it is that the election of Mr. Lincoln cannot be regarded otherwise than a solemn declaration, on the part of a great majority of the Northern people, of hostility to the South, her property, and her institutions; nothing less than an open declaration of war, for the triumph of this new theory of government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans….The slave-holder and non-slave-holder must ultimately share the same fate; all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes, stand side by side with them at the polls, and fraternize in all the social relations of life, or else there will be an eternal war of races, desolating the land with blood, and utterly wasting and destroying all the resources of the country.¹
Hale’s rhetoric was the heart of the Confederate will, and no amount of Reconstruction would erase the entrenched social and cultural views on race held by Southerners, nor would it erase the antagonism toward the “Black Republicans” who forced them into a new political, economic, and social order. Political reconstruction could be possible, but social reconstruction would never be possible when the Southern heart took Hale’s words as sacrosanct.
The views that Hale proffered were generations old, and as the South contemplated its collective losses precipitated by the war, resentment and revenge smoldered in the crucible of the day. Reconstruction would not change the minds of the former slave South on questions of racial equality. Reconstruction would require those members of the Old South who wished to move beyond the war, to proclaim oaths of loyalty to the Union. But these oaths, honestly or fervently given, could not erase the deep seated animosity toward a forced acceptance of a new world order.
It isn’t that Reconstruction failed, or was doomed to fail, but instead that Reconstruction was a necessary process to restore former Confederate states to a functional status in a re-formed Union. The necessity of this restoration or reunification meant only that Southerners had to reject former political organization to an extent believable by the North. Southern acceptance of the new political environment would only go as far as necessary in order to provide political power, with which the South would be positioned to refuse the new economic and social organizations imposed by a Republican government it only grudgingly recognized as legitimate.
Hale’s letter is an excellent example of why Presidential Reconstruction was so fraught with insubordination to Northern victory. The Southern heart would never be swayed by political processes that destroyed the social and economic order of the Old South.
Dew argues that slavery was always at the heart of the secession crisis, and the ultimate cause of the Civil War, and further was precipitated not solely from Northern abolitionist cells, but directly as a result of Southern protectionism of the institution of slavery. Revisiting the writings and speeches of the Secession Commissioners also gives insight into the response of the South to Reconstruction, and further into the rise of Jim Crow in the post-Reconstruction years.
¹ S.F. Hale to Governor Beriah Magoffin of Kentucky, Frankfort, KY, 27 December 1860, in Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War, Charles B. Dew (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2001), 90-103.
“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.