Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859
Elizabeth R. Varon’s Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 is a history of the concept of disunion in the Early Republic and Antebellum era.
“Disunion” used to be the most powerful and provocative concept in the American political vocabulary. Previous generations had a sense that the American Republic was a voluntary union. It was an alliance of states that was held together by the affection and self-interest of its constituent parts.
The Union of the Founding Fathers was based on Enlightenment rationalism: it was a federation of republics, a compact that had been created for the mutual advantage of all parties, a free government that had been founded to secure the rights of its citizens and the “Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” a government that was based on the “consent of the governed,” etc.
If this sounds unfamiliar to modern ears, it is because the eighteenth century Union expired on the battlefields of War Between the States. In its place, Lincoln and the Radical Republicans created a forced Union and consolidated nation-state based on nineteenth century Northern romantic nationalism, in which the 14th Amendment reduced the South to the status of junior partner.
“Disunion” was originally a dirty word. It connoted the dissolution of the Republic – “the failure of the Founders’ efforts to establish a stable and lasting representative government.” The term was associated with “extreme political factionalism, class conflict, gender disorder, racial strife, widespread violence and anarchy, and civil war, all of which could be interpreted as God’s retribution for America’s moral failings.”
In this sense, “disunion” was invoked as a threat, an accusation, a prophecy, a process, and a program in the Early Republic and Antebellum era. As a threat, disunion was invoked as leverage in making political demands. As an accusation, disunion was invoked in partisan debates to score political points by accusing rivals of being disunionists. As a prophecy, disunion was invoked as a forecast of national ruin to encourage sectional compromise. As a process, disunion was used to describe sectional alienation. As a program, disunion was cooperative or individual state secession which was the mechanism by which states severed their ties to the Union.
Northerners and Southerners invoked the language of disunion throughout this period. The Constitution of 1789 was a compromise between the North and the South. It was practical settlement that fully pleased neither side which was necessary to create a stronger federal government while preserving the Union.
The Anti-Federalists believed the Constitution gave too much power to the federal government and that it would prove to be destructive to the rights of the states. Patrick Henry “smelt a rat in Philadelphia” and opposed the Constitution. George Mason objected that “there was no declaration of rights” and that “the five Southern states will be ruined” by commercial regulations and that “the power of providing for the general welfare may be perverted to its destruction.”
In response to these concerns, James Madison claimed in The Federalist #45 that, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”