Saturday, April 7, 2007

Foner reviews Freehling, The Road to Disunion: Vol II, Secessionists Triumphant

THE ROAD TO DISUNION: Volume Two. Secessionists Triumphant: 1854-1861, by William W. Freehling (Oxford University Press) is reviewed by Eric Foner in Sunday's New York Times.

In the course of his review, Foner takes aim at the tendency "for historians writing with one eye on the best-seller list to disparage fellow scholars for supposedly alienating the broad reading public." He suggests: "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."

Foner begins his discussion of Freehling this way:

Everyone who lived through the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln observed in his second Inaugural Address, knew that slavery was “somehow” its cause. Ever since, historians have been struggling to explain that “somehow.” Their interpretations fall into two broad schools. One sees the war as the result of an “irrepressible conflict” between two societies with incompatible interests and values. The second blames irresponsible agitators and a “blundering generation” of political leaders for bringing about a war that could and should have been avoided.

In “The Road to Disunion: Secessionists Triumphant,” the conclusion of a two-volume account of the Civil War’s origins, William W. Freehling seems to combine these approaches. It is “indisputable,” he writes, that slavery was the war’s main cause, and some kind of clash was probably inevitable. But not necessarily in 1861. Whatever the underlying reasons, the war that actually took place resulted from individual decisions, chance events and at least one “incredible coincidence.”

Since the publication four decades ago of “Prelude to Civil War,” a study of the nullification crisis of the early 1830s, Freehling has been among the foremost students of 19th-century Southern history. If one theme unites his scholarship it is that the Old South cannot be viewed as a monolith.

For the rest, click here.