Eric Foner Reviews Freehlings Road To Disunion

The latest issue of the New York Times Book Review includes a short review of William Freehling’s latest study by Eric Foner.  Foner basically summarizes Freehling’s argument, but unfortunately never really penetrates the surface of what is a sophisticated and well-argued book.  More to the point I thought that Foner nitpicked at some of Freehling’s references.  At one point he criticizes Freehling’s emphasis on the role of individual decisions as a salient factor in understanding the triumph of Lower South secessionists over their more conservative brothers in the Upper South:

There is no question that “Secessionists Triumphant” is peopled by a colorful cast of characters, from William L. Yancey, a hotheaded secessionist who tried to inspire Southerners with a sense of nationhood, to James Henry Hammond, a South Carolina planter who preyed on his female slaves. But Freehling’s fondness for individual stories puts undue emphasis on psychological explanations, with words like “frustration” and “rage” sprinkling the text. Moreover, the attempt to assume a popular literary style often seems forced. (Was the pro-slavery theorist George Fitzhugh really dealing in “sound bites”?)

It’s difficult to know why Foner is so troubled by psychological explanations given that Freehling’s book is the result of a great deal of time spent thinking about the motivations and emotional states of these important historical actors.  There are indeed a handful of such references, but I don’t find that they overly detract from the other points made which buttress his central claims.  Perhaps that is not what is bothering Foner:

I think it’s time to declare a moratorium on scholars’ denigrating other scholars for failing to achieve popularity. As Freehling’s own extensive footnotes demonstrate, those much-maligned specialized studies are the building blocks of historical knowledge. Nor is his dismissal of what he calls “multicultural social history” in favor of the study of politics persuasive. Surely, the task of the historian is to integrate the two.

If I remember correctly, Freehling makes a point in one of the early footnotes for professional historians to write for a general audience, which involves a change of style.  Again, I think Foner is nitpicking here.  Freehling does not suggest that the more specialized studies have no place, but that professional historians have resisted taking the opportunity to write books that are readable, but do not sacrifice scholarship, for a general audience.  Freehling does not want historians to write to achieve popularity, but to educate a wide audience.  Finally, I believe that Freehling is trying to resurrect a traditional style of political history that has tended in recent years to take a backseat to social history.  Perhaps in trying to emphasize the importance of individual decisions within the highest seats of government there is a danger of painting a picture that does give short thrift to the kinds of forces at work from the bottom-up that exercise influence.  In highlighting those political decisions, however, it may be worth the price.

1 comment… add one

  • Bruce Miller Apr 18, 2007

    I’m slowly making my way through Freehling’s new book. I was very impressed by Vol. 1, especially the way he showed in concrete terms how the dictatorial rule of slaveowners over their human property created increasing conflicts with what he calls “white republicanism”, a useful term.

    That volume also has the first and only description I’ve come across that made sense out of Thomas Jefferson’s attitude toward the 1920 Missouri Compromise.

    I find his dicussion in the new book’s first 100 pages or so of individual advocates for slavery to be useful. His description of the interaction between James Buchanan and the proslavery Democrats on the Supreme Court as they deliberated the Dred Scott decision makes it very clearly that the Republicans were right in suspecting that there was a “Slave Power conspiracy” at work.

    One of the challenges that Freehling’s history presents is that he’s focusing on the conflicts within the South over slavery and disunion. After all, it was the South that seceeded and therefore the dynamics of Southern politics that eventually produced that result. His discussions of the differing perspectives in slave states like Missouri and Kentucky with lower percentages of slaves compared to those like South Carolina and Mississippi with high concentrations is also very helpful. But it’s a “Southern viewpoint” though definitely not a pro-Confederate or Lost Cause viewpoint, which sometimes makes me do double-takes. In analyzing the viewpoints of proslavery advocates, many of whom where nasty characters, he has to “learn to love his monster”, which he mostly succeeds in doing without losing his perspective.

    And he doesn’t ignore “social history”. One of his goals in the 2nd volume is to recount something that has much bearing on one of the favorite arguments of Lost Cause advocates: how the slaveowners undertook to gain the support of nonslaveowning whites in the South for the Peculiar Institution.

    One thing I found that I would quibble over is his one-paragraph description of the most controversial episode in John Brown’s career, the execution of five proslavery settlers in the “Bleeding Kansas” conflict. He makes it sound like Brown and his men snuck into their bedrooms and chopped them up in a sadistic frenzy. Whatever one concludes about the rightness or wrongness of what he did there, Freehling’s description just gives a wrong picture of what happened. Whatever else it was, it was a cold and deliberate decision.

    Freehling does say, though, that he has changed his previous opinion of whether Brown’s Harper’s Ferry plan was feasible, saying he now thinks it was. I agree with his analysis of that. The plan itself was workable, and would have gotten much further if Brown’s group had seized weapons from the federal armory and fled into the Virginia mountains as they planned. It was Brown’s own mistakes and hesitations that prevented them from doing that.

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