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Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (Nation Divided: Studies in the Civil War Era) [Paperback]

Charles B. Dew
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

30 April 2002 Nation Divided: Studies in the Civil War Era
In late 1860 and early 1861, state-appointed commissioners traveled the length and breadth of the slave South carrying a fervent message in pursuit of a clear goal: to persuade the political leadership and the citizenry of the uncommitted slave states to join in the effort to destroy the Union and forge a new Southern nation.Directly refuting the neo-Confederate contention that slavery was neither the reason for secession nor the catalyst for the resulting onset of hostilities in 1861, Charles B. Dew finds in the commissioners' brutally candid rhetoric a stark white supremacist ideology that proves the contrary. The commissioners included in their speeches a constitutional justification for secession, to be sure, and they pointed to a number of political "outrages" committed by the North in the decades prior to Lincoln's election. But the core of their argument--the reason the right of secession had to be invoked and invoked immediately--did not turn on matters of constitutional interpretation or political principle. Over and over again, the commissioners returned to the same point: that Lincoln's election signaled an unequivocal commitment on the part of the North to destroy slavery and that emancipation would plunge the South into a racial nightmare.Dew's discovery and study of the highly illuminating public letters and speeches of these apostles of disunion--often relatively obscure men sent out to convert the unconverted to the secessionist cause--have led him to suggest that the arguments the commissioners presented provide us with the best evidence we have of the motives behind the secession of the lower South in 1860-61.Addressing topics still hotly debated among historians and the public at large more than a century after the Civil War, Dew challenges many current perceptions of the causes of the conflict. He offers a compelling and clearly substantiated argument that slavery and race were absolutely critical factors in the outbreak of war--indeed, that they were at the heart of our great national crisis.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 138 pages
  • Publisher: University of Virginia Press; New edition edition (30 April 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 081392104X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0813921044
  • Product Dimensions: 14.1 x 1.1 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,412,890 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"This incisive history should dispel the pernicious notion that the Confederacy fought the Civil War to advance the constitutional principle of states' rights and only coincidentally to preserve slavery." - Allen D. Boyer, New York Times Book Review "Dew has produced an eye-opening study of the men appointed by seceding states as commissioners to visit other slave states - for example, Virginia and Kentucky - in order to persuade them also to leave the Union and join together to form the Confederacy." - James M. McPherson, New York Review of Books "This slim volume should be required reading for all those who steadfastly hold to the notion that slavery was not the main cause of secession." - Jason H. Silverman, North and South "In late 1860 and early 1861, five Deep South states (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina) appointed 'commissioners' to other slave states to spread the word about secession and explain why existing circumstances made such action necessary. Over the next several weeks these 52 men visited the other slave states, speaking at public gatherings, to legislatures, and to state conventions and writing letters to public officials to explain why the Deep South states were either going to seeede or had already done so. "In this important little book, Charles Dew describes the activities of these men and details the message they spread across the South. By examining their letters and speeches, Dew maintains, 'we can get inside the secessionist mindset' and, thereby, come to understand the motives that led to the establishment of the Confederacy." - Richard M. McMurry, Civil War News

About the Author

Charles B. Dew, W. Van Alan Clark Third Century Professor in the Social Sciences at Williams College, is the author of Bond of Iron: Master and Slave at Buffalo Forge and Ironmaker to the Confederacy: Joseph R. Anderson and the Tredegar Iron Works.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Truth Will Out 14 Jun 2004
Why did the southern states attempt to secede from the Union in 1860-'61?
Confederate apologists constantly insist it was all a question of the Constitution. The Northern states were violating the Southern states rights to do something or another, and the South had no choice except secession in order to preserve 'Constitutional' govt. Union supporters insist that this isn't so. So what really happened?
Prof. Charles Dew cuts right to the heart of things by quoting the arguments made in 1861 by supporters of secession. Seven states passed secession ordinances in 1860 and '61, and four of them sent representatives to other slave states, explaining the reasons why they too should secede.
So what was the Southern cause? Surprise, surprise. It was WHITE SUPREMACY. The South needed to secede before the North amended the Constitution. In the nightmare world of the disunionists, the "Black Republicans," as the South invariably called them, were bent on seeing a South simultaneously: drenched in blood when the slaves rose in revolt; drenched in equality, as whites and blacks lived together withouth a master race; and drenched in miscegnation, as the races became one. Of course, it was logically impossible for all these things to happen at the same time, but logic was not the South's strong point.
Neither was honesty. As Dew makes clear, disunionists started lying about why they'd pushed secession as soon as they lost. Dew notes he was indoctrinated during his Florida youth with the story that "the South had seceded for one reason and one reason only: states' rights;" Dew also quotes contemporary neo-Confederates trying to deny the truth that the South was trying to preserve White Supremacy and Slavery.
Still, we progress.
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The question of what the Civil War was fought over is both one of the most innocuous and THE most divisive question in American history. The answer expressed to that question - slavery or states rights - can speak more to the respondent's ancestry, background, and ideological beliefs than to their understanding of history. Few appreciate this better than Charles Dew. A self-professed "son of the South", he grew up amid the assertions that South seceded over state's rights. Yet as his book demonstrates, the issue that agitated secessionists and motivated them to leave the union was slavery, clear and simple.

To demonstrate this, Dew turns to a previously unutilized source: the speeches made by "secession commissioners" sent out by Southern state legislatures to convince their neighbors to join them in leaving the union. Mississippi and Alabama were the first, sending ambassadors of agitation to Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina even before their own convention had met. Soon delegates crisscrossed the region, hoping to persuade as many of the slave states as they could. As Dew demonstrates, in speech after speech, the argument they resorted to was the threat Abraham Lincoln's election posed to the institution of slavery. Repeatedly they argued that Lincoln's election would unleash a vanguard of "Black Republican" activists who would create a race war or mass miscegenation. Such statements clearly identify the cause around which Southern states rallied to defend, with the issue of "states rights" only emerging after the war with the Confederacy's defeat and the abolition of slavery accomplished.

Dew's slim book is a powerful rebuttal to those who would deny that slavery was the defining issue of secession.
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  52 reviews
35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly Recommended for Any Serious Scholar of the Civil War 1 Feb 2012
By Ball State Grad-RMN - Published on Amazon.com
The debate over the causes of secession is contentious even today. While one side of this debate argues the Confederate states seceded solely over the issue of states' rights, the other contends that the institution of slavery was the primary cause of the conflict. In Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War, Charles B. Dew attempts to end this debate by examining pre-Civil War political documents, letters, and speeches made by secession commissioners and Southern politicians. According to Dew, these sources clearly demonstrate that the institution of slavery was at the heart of the conflict.
Dew organizes this book chronologically and provides an extensive appendix, endnotes, and a short index. Dew begins this book by discussing several current events that demonstrate that Americans have not come to a consensus on the causes of the Civil War. For instance, on the Immigration and Naturalization Service's citizenship exam, the question, "`The Civil War was fought over what important issue?,'" can be answered by choosing either "slavery" or "states rights" (4). The debate surrounding the Confederate battle flag also reveals what Dew describes as "the deep division and profound ambivalence in contemporary American culture over the origin of the Civil War" (4). While some see this flag as a symbol of racism and oppression, others view it as a symbol of "Southern heritage" (8). Despite this contemporary debate, in the closing pages of chapter one, Dew argues that the words of the secession commissioner leave no question about the central role that slavery played in the Civil War.
After this brief introduction, Dew examines the course of events that led Southern states to appoint secession commissioners and the role these men played in garnering support for the Confederacy. According to Dew, the first secession commissioners were appointed just a few weeks after the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won the presidential election on November 6, 1860. In fact, Mississippi appointed secession "commissioners to every slave state" in the Union twenty-four days later, and eventually most of the states in the Deep South would follow suit (23). While the messages these men brought to other Southern states varied, the central argument was the same: secession was the only logical course of action given the Republican Party's hostility towards the institution of slavery. For example, William L. Harris, a secession commissioner from Mississippi, told a joint meeting of the Georgia General Assembly, that the North wanted constitutionally guaranteed "equality between the white and negro races" (29). Harris went on to declare, that Lincoln's election "promised `freedom to the slave, but eternal degradation for you and for us" (29). Dew claims that Harris's speech set the tone for every subsequent speech of the secession commissioners.
In the next three chapters, Dew discusses the speeches made by the secession commissioners to South Carolina, Alabama, and Virginia. While the rhetoric of secession commissioners may have softened the farther North they went, the message was still the same: the North wants to institute racial equality and abolish slavery. Secession commissioner Andrew Pickens Calhoun's speech to the Alabama Convention is a prime example of this type of argument. The foundation of Calhoun's speech was that, "The election of a `Black Republican' to the presidency threatened South Carolina with `degradation and annihilation'" (41). Degradation would come in the form of federally imposed racial equality and annihilation would result from slave insurrection and the resulting racial amalgamation. Fulton Anderson, an appointee from Mississippi, was even more direct in his speech to the Virginia Secession Convention. Anderson argued that a Republican controlled federal government would be hostile to the South and described the Republican Party as having an "unrelenting and eternal hostility to the institution of slavery" (p. 62). Based upon the remarks of the secession commissioners, Dew argues that the preservation of slavery was a primary cause of secession and thus, the Civil War.
Dew concludes this book by examining how Southern politicians, including many secession commissioners, attempted to reframe the conflict in a more noble light after the end of the war. For example, Jabez L. M. Curry, a secession commissioner from Alabama, wrote in 1901 that the Civil War was fought to "save the principles of the Constitution," but he made no mention of the role that slavery played (57, 76). Even Jefferson Davis, former President of the Confederacy, tried to reframe the conflict writing in 1881, "`The sectional hostility' that developed before 1861 `was not the consequence of any difference on the abstract question of slavery'" (17). Instead, Davis claims, "The South...fought for the noblest principles...for `constitutional government,' for `the supremacy of law' and for `the natural rights of man'" (17).
According to Dew, the fact that the debate over the origins of the Civil War continues today, demonstrates the success of this concerted effort to reframe the conflict.
While initially overlooked, historians today view the arguments made by secession commissioners as an important factor in understanding the origins of the Civil War, and Charles B. Dew's Apostles of Disunion is largely responsible for this historiographic shift. Orville Vernon Burton's The Age of Lincoln demonstrates the persuasiveness of Dew's argument. In addition to making clear that the institution of slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War, Burton includes a short discussion of the secession commissioners. Burton even cites Henry L. Benning, a secession commissioner from Georgia, as declaring, "It was a conviction, a deep conviction on the part of Georgia, that a separation from the North was the only thing that could prevent the abolition of her slavery" (Burton 120). Due to the soundness of Dew's argument, and the endorsement of historians like Burton, this reviewer earnestly recommends Apostles of Disunion to anyone interested in understanding the Age of Lincoln or the American Civil War.
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Must-read for every American 21 Dec 2011
By Andariel Halo - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
According to this book, the American Civil War was not about slavery... it was about racism, and racial hierarchy.

Rife with quotes from the public speeches and private letters of the men assigned with persuading other states to join in secession, this book is quick, short, and easy to read, if slightly repetitive.

This sort of book is harsh and to the point because it needs to be. Too widespread is the fictional belief that the Civil War was a squeaky-clean "gentlemen's" affair over "states rights" (States rights to keep slavery), oblivious to all evidence to the contrary, choosing instead to believe the post-war arse-covering writings of people like Jefferson Davis and others sugar-coating the Confederacy.

The language used in the documents (of which several are included in the book's appendix) is undeniable; virtually nowhere does the idea of "states' rights" appear. Virtually everywhere do the ideas of racial hierarchy appear; the black man at the very bottom, all white people above them. The speeches play on fears of Southerners at the time, giving the image of What Will Happen If Lincoln Is Elected/If Your State Does Not Secede; apocalyptic images of American soldiers running roughshod over Southern lands, with freed slaves raping white women of all ages, and the white man relegated to the same subhuman status the slaves themselves were in.

Straight from the secessionists themselves come visions of this, and outright THREATS that true Southerners would never allow themselves the "degredation" of racial equality, and that an end to slavery would institute a "saturnalia of blood"

Due to the heated nature of Civil War literature, the author (much like in many other books) writes in the prologue stating that he IS a Southerner, with ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War, and was obsessed with the Civil War as a young man.
68 of 85 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Chain of causality 9 Nov 2002
By Timothy Hulsey - Published on Amazon.com
Dew's _Apostles of Disunion_ is one of several recent books to assert that slavery, not states' rights, was the cause of the Civil War. His train of reasoning runs as follows: According to Southern secession commissioners, the men appointed by states which had seceded to convince other slaveholding states to join them in a new confederation, the primary reason for secession was the fear that a Republican president would abolish slavery and place "the Negro" on an equal plane with White citizens. Thus, the maintenance of slavery and race-based oppression were the public reasons behind the secession movement, and secession marked the start of the Civil War.
If this were the only evidence that supported Dew's case, and if Dew's were the only book to come to this conclusion, it would be fairly thin gruel. But there is plenty of other evidence to confirm the point. Before the war, President Buchanan had rejected Kansas's petition to abolish slavery, and the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision mandated governmental support of slavery even in states which had determined to reject this "peculiar institution." Both of these decisions were clear violations of the doctrine of states' rights, yet slaveowning Southerners cheered. The problems came with the possibility that future states, given a free choice (and a Republican presidency), would not embrace slavery -- and might even endorse social and political equality for Black Americans.
_Apostles of Disunion_ is refreshingly concise, direct and accessible; the book can be read in less than an hour, but its impact is impossible to shake. Dew has found a remarkable series of documents in the letters and speeches of secession commissioners.
Even more disturbing, the commissioners' arguments for secession in December 1860 and January 1861 closely resemble Southern anti-civil-rights rhetoric over a century later. Dew reminds us, once again, how much has changed in race relations over the past forty years, and how little had changed before that.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Review 31 Oct 2011
By JDW - Published on Amazon.com
I was not aware of the existence of the Secessionist Commissioners until reading this book. This provides examples of the Commissioners speeches and writing and uses them to prove that the South seceded because they wanted to preserve Slavery. The examples are enlightening and entertaining. The book with its examples does show the prevailing viewpoint in the South and illustrates the way the first States to secede attempted to persuade other States to Secede and join the Confederacy. This is a very interesting book and suitable for the general reader.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It is a fairly quick and interesting read. It does add yet more support against the "Lost Cause" notion. 20 Feb 2012
By Mahog - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The main premise of this book is the Secession Commissioners (SC), "[T]he lower South...appointed commissioner to other slave states and instructed them to spread the secessionist message across the entire region. These commissioners often explained in detail why their states were exiting the Union, and they did everything in their power to persuade laggard slave states to join the secessionist cause." (Dew 2001)

Dew takes forty speeches and public letters from the Secession Commissioners to show, not in his words, but in the words of the men who were sent all over the south in late 1860 and early 1861 to gather all the states they could to break away from the union.

The commissioners were charged by their respective states to make an appeal for secession throughout the South, which they did, without ambiguity. They were quite clear on the reasons the Southern states needed to break away.
There were comments about honor and an oppressive North filled with Black Lincoln Republicans, but it was what those Black Lincoln republicans were going to do with the South if they got their way. They were going to destroy slavery and create equality between Blacks and Whites. Amalgamation and equality was their stated fear.

The greatest portion of the book is when Dew uses the speeches and letters from the same Commissioners that used vitriolic race baiting fear mongering during the turbulent times before the Civil War's onset, to show the developed amnesia in their rhetoric after they lost. It is almost as if they had no concept that their previous speeches, and letters would be kept for posterity.

First they (the Commissioners) speak of the how slavery is the only way for the White man to interact with the inferior Negro, four years later..."The Lost Cause". Do not take my word for it, borrow the book, buy the book, read the book for yourself. The author has notes and an index. Use the references and read the full speeches.

Charles Dew, Apostles of Disunion, (Virginia : University of Virginia Press, 2001), chap. 5.
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