Civil War Trivia, Story of Slavery

Disunion – A Precursor of the Civil War

Disunion was nothing new to American politics. Since the ratification of the Constitution (which ended the period of governing under the Articles of Confederation that gave individual states more autonomy than the federal government) the idea of disunion had been thrown around by politicians and journalists alike. The notion of disunion manifested in a variety of ways, explained well by Elizabeth Varon in her book, Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789 – 1859. To begin, disunion and secession are defined differently. Secession is merely the mechanism and process used to carry out disunion. The threat of secession occurred only a handful of times in American history, but disunion had been present at every sectional and party conflict, most of which had to do with the institution of slavery in one form or another.

Utilized by both the North and the South, disunion was a tool to get what they wanted during a moment of heated disagreement. It was used as a threat, mostly by the South when legislature appeared to jeopardize their way of life, whether that was protecting the system of slavery, its extension, or a violation of state sovereignty. In some ways, Southern threats of disunion were based in the longstanding “cult of honor,” which declared it was more honorable to leave the Union than to accept laws that contradicted their values. Notable characters such as Robert Barnwell Rhett used disunion regularly and went a long way to stir up their fellow Southerners to want the same. Until the presidential election of 1860, Northern politicians compromised and gave in to demands set forth by the “Slave Power” of the South. Other Northerners supported disunion and even used it as a threat for their own purposes, though not for the same reasons as the Southern pro-slavery factions. Frederick Douglass and – occasionally – William Lloyd Garrison supported disunion as opposed to giving in to Slave Power.

On the flipside, the idea of disunion was not something to be thrown around lightly. Disunion, as Northern Republicans rallied against in the Civil War, was considered a blatant sacrilege against the founding fathers and their intentions for America to sustain itself as a united nation. Therefore, in some circumstances, threatening disunion or attempting it through secession was not cool. When disunion was used as an accusation against an opposing politician or party, it was hoped to bank the fires of any radical ideas – namely immediate and total abolitionism. Since the 1830s when the abolitionists began to lobby for complete abolishment of slavery in all the states, the slaveholding South took the stage to condemn abolitionists – and later moderate and radical Republicans – as trying to tear apart the Union by invoking a racial war. To the South, who had kept their black chattel under their firm control for generations, an unleashing of this population into society would prove disastrous – a fear that many believed would come out of the Reconstruction Era following the war’s end. Ignorant, dependent upon charity, and potentially resentful for their centuries of subjugation, blacks were thought to be the destructive force to bring down the Southern way of life. Southerners would have rather seceded from the Union than risk staying within a government that did not hold their economic, political, and social wellbeing at heart when that same government was willing to mess with slavery. Therefore, abolitionists who supported the emancipation of blacks and wanted to see the end of the slaveholding aristocracy, were believed to be the ultimate catalyst of disunion, should it happen. The South used disunion as an accusation to make abolitionists back off from their mission.

At the same time, Northerners could easily point the finger at the South and accuse them of disunion the more they manipulated and dominated national politics. Their mission to expand slavery into the western territories – where slavery may or may not flourish due to the deficiency of the environment to support a large plantation agriculture as the Southern Black Belt could – was thought not only to ensure the survival of white supremist ideology, but also to boost the representation of the pro-slavery faction within Congress. The Missouri Compromise ensured that this balance of power between free and slave in the federal government remained even – when one slave state joined the Union below the “Mason Dixon” line, another free state above that line would also be admitted. However, when it was repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act a couple of decades later, which supported that a new state or territory should be able to decide for itself whether to protect the institution of slavery or not, the fear of an imbalance gave further fuel to the “Slave Power Conspiracy” that gripped many Northern politicians. The more Southerners demanded that slavery be protected across the board, the more Northerners accused them of bringing down the Union by making the country into something the founding fathers did not intend – a country where slavery deprived the average white man to free labor (the notion that a man can earn a living working for himself, not wage or unpaid labor), where free speech was laughed at (as Southerners censored abolitionist media sent to its states), and majority rule was disregarded (in the conflict of Bleeding Kansas where pro-slavery Missourians committed voter fraud to make Kansas a slave state despite the anti-slavery sentiment of its citizens).

For the first half of the nineteenth century, the two sides of Congress played tug-of-war, compromising and adjusting as they could to appease both sides of the aisle and keep the Union together. It wasn’t until the rise of the Republican Party in the 1850s – a party largely founded on the platform of free labor, free soil, and some variety of abolitionism – and the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 did disunion become a reality. A multitude of factors played in the final decision for South Carolina to secede, including John Browns’ Raid on Harper’s Ferry and its political ramifications, but at the heart of it was Lincoln’s stance on slavery. Through many of his speeches, he promised up and down that he would not touch slavery were it currently existed, but he did wish to limit its spread into the territories. Lincoln said in one of his speeches, “Never forget that we have before us this whole matter of the right or wrong of slavery in this Union, though the immediate question is as to its spreading out into new Territories and States.”[1] This implied that while restricting slavery in the territories was his aim, he and his Republican allies still had ambitions to suffocate slavery where it already resided. In addition to this, Lincoln valued all men as equal at least in human and civil rights and made it clear that slavery was a “moral, social, and political evil.”[2] This, of course, outraged the white supremist population, leading them to feel that a government run by Republicans was a direct threat to Democrats and the Southern civilization.

By this point in American history, the country had become polarized between Democrats vs. Republicans, Southerners vs. Northerners, pro-slavery vs. anti-slavery, and Unionists vs. Disunionists. Both parties and both sections were so diametrically opposed that Theodore Sedgwick aptly noted that “there is an irreconcilable difference in our interests, institutions, and pursuits; in our sentiments and feelings.”[3] Had a Democrat who supported the Southern values of expansion been elected into office instead of the “Black Republican” Lincoln, the proslavery radicals may not have reacted the way they did. To accept the outcome of the presidential election of 1860 was, in the minds of the political leaders of the South, to accept the gradual destruction of their society and to even admit that slavery was not worth expanding into the territories. As such, it was an infringement upon their honor not to act in response to this threat. The result would be secession, the formation of the Confederate States of America, and eventually war. As the nation was on the verge of a bloody conflict, Congressman Roger Pryor fittingly said, “the Union, like the womb of Rebecca, is torn by two associate but irreconcilable elements… that this controversy is inevitable and incurable, and must go on with increasing fury until one or the other principle be vanquished or exterminated.”[4] Disunion had been a longtime coming and the only way to satiate the separatist fantasy was to take the plunge and see if America could survive in two pieces.


[1] Roy P. Basler, et al., eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, (New Brunswick, J.C., Rutgers University Presses, 1953-1955), Vol 3, p. 369

[2] Speech at Bloomington, September 26, 1854, Ibid, p. 239

[3] Congressional Globe, 36 Congress, 2 Session, p. 797

[4] Roger A. Pryor, Speech of Hon. Roger A. Pryor of Virginia, on the Principles and Policy of the Black Republican Party, (Washington D.C., Congressional Globe Office, 1859), pp. 11-14


Elizabeth R. Varon, Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859, (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2008)

Daniel Walker Howe, What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, (New York, Oxford University Press, 2007)

Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Man: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1995)

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