Book Review: The Course Of The South To Secession

The Course Of The South To Secession, an interpretation by Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, edited by E. Merton Coulter

This book is a fascinating one, although it only tells about half of the necessary story or so when it comes to antebellum history and the path to secession.  The author died in 1934 and this book was published in 1939, and the author was one of the foremost historians of the American Historical Society at the time despite not living very long.  The work is therefore a bit fragmentary but certainly very interesting in how it discusses the history of the South in the late 18th and first part of the 19th century.  As the author himself came from a Southern background but spent time in notable universities of the North, he was well-equipped to write about the history of the South from a sympathetic perspective, but it is by no means an uncritical one.  Given the low level of historical scholarship that one sees from the Lost Cause historiography of the nadir of American race relations that occurred during this time, the author’s work is certainly a cut above the expected standard for someone writing about the south from a point of view that is remotely sympathetic to the South, and that is worth appreciating.

This book is a bit more than 150 pages and is divided into six numbered chapters as well as a conclusion.  The book begins with a discussion of the Southern colonies from Maryland on south looking at what it is that differentiated the South from others, pointing out that if it was not exactly slavery than it was certainly a racialist approach (1), a remarkable degree of honesty.   After that the author discusses the frame of independence and the way that Virginia’s own choice to accept the Constitution was a very close argument that depended on the Bill of Rights (2).  The author then discusses the Virginia Dynasty in its peak power during the first quarter of the 19th century, not only looking at the presidents themselves but also the slightly lesser-known figures who were important (3).  After that the author looks at the decline of Virginia and the question of ethics and the struggle of gradual abolition that banned the slave trade but that made discussion of any abolition even in the Border south doomed as early as 1830 (4).  The author then discusses the answer of race and slave codes that increasingly dominated the thinking of southern leaders in the period after the 1830’s (5) before discussing the fire-eaters and their frequent connection to South Carolina in the late 1840’s and 1850’s (6) as tensions between the North and South were raised considerably.  The author then closes with a look at the central theme of Southern history and the importance of “racial security, “self-determination” by Southern whites, and everything that increased possession of these.  If the author’s standards are not to be celebrated, his honesty and candor is commendable.

And indeed it is candor that marks this work as a worthwhile one.  It is certainly not pleasant in the present-day to read a notable academic historian from less than a century ago celebrating white supremacy as the unifying thread in Southern history that divides it from other regions, but that was certainly the case at the time the author was writing and if it is an unpleasant historical truth it is no less true for being unpleasant.  The author honestly admits the continental spread of slavery at the beginning of America’s history but notes that the obsession with racial security for whites was far higher in the South than in other areas of the country and that this concern continued after the Civil war ended.  Of course, he blames abolitionist agitation for the prickliness of Southerners, but all the same he points out that the sine qua non of Southern acceptance of Union even during the Reconstruction period was local self-rule for white elites.  The consent of the governed is not a straightforward matter.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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