Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 / Edition 1

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In the decades of the early republic, Americans debating the fate of slavery often invoked the specter of disunion to frighten their opponents. As Elizabeth Varon shows, "disunion" connoted the dissolution of the republic—the failure of the founders' effort to establish a stable and lasting representative government. For many Americans in both the North and the South, disunion was a nightmare, a cataclysm that would plunge the nation into the kind of fear and misery that seemed to pervade the rest of the world. For many others, however, disunion was seen as the main instrument by which they could achieve their partisan and sectional goals. Varon blends political history with intellectual, cultural, and gender history to examine the ongoing debates over disunion that long preceded the secession crisis of 1860-61.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
[A] well-reasoned study of the long war of words and ideas predating the open bloodshed of the Civil War.—The Midwest Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807832325
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/2008
  • Series: Littlefield History of the Civil War Era Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 472
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth R. Varon is professor of history at Temple University.

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Table of Contents



Part I. 1789-1836
1. The Language of Terrifying Prophecy: Disunion Debates in the Early Republic
2. We Claim Our Rights: The Advent of Abolitionism
3. Ruinous Tendencies: The Anti-Abolition Backlash

Part II. 1837-1850
4. The Idea Will Become Familiar: Disunion in the Era of Mass Party Politics
5. Oh for a Man Who Is a Man: Debating Slavery's Expansion
6. That Is Revolution!: The Crisis of 1850

Part III. 1851-1859
7. Beneath the Iron Heel: Fugitive Slaves and Bleeding Kansas
8. To Consummate Its Boldest Designs: The Slave Power Confronts the Republicans
9. War to the Knife: Images of the Coming Fight

Epilogue. The Rubicon Is Passed: War and Beyond

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  • Posted July 1, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A sublimely adaptable concept

    For the definition of a word, we consult the dictionary and find the current acceptable definition of the word. Words can have much more than a definition. Words can have meaning and emotions that change with time and place. Disunion is a word with a definition that has not changed much in 200 years. However, the meaning, the emotions that disunion had are no longer available to us. These were unique to 19th Century Americans in the years leading up to the Civil War. Their reaction to the word disunion was much different and meaningful than ours. This book is a history of the meaning and emotions of one word during that time. The author has recreated the meaning and emotions of those times, giving us a real understanding of this highly charged word.
    This book shows how disunion was the code for a "sublimely adaptable concept" that had a wide usage in politics. Disunion was at the same time, a prophecy or a threat, or an accusation and a process. Politicians used all to these tools to force an agenda on their opponents. At the same time, social groups made use of these tools to push forward their causes. From 1789 to 1859, when secession becomes fact, disunion is often spoken or considered by both Northerners and Southerners. The author states she is a firm member of the Emancipation Tradition and declares her sympathies are with the Abolitionists. However, she never lets this keep her from telling all sides of the story. She never allows this to descend into attacks on The South or to keep her from telling the full story. Her even handed treatment results in an excellent history that is well balanced and fairly presents all sides.
    This can be a very revealing book to read. Consider the following:
    Abolitionists were the biggest users of the word. Garrison wanted disunion and wrote that it was best for the nation.
    Disunion petitions were common from people living in the Northern part of the nation.
    The South had considered disunion a number of times prior to 1860. Pro-Union Southerners had always defeated this idea. Lincoln's hope that war could be avoided is not such a forlorn hope after reading the history of these conventions.
    The history of the word "disunion" is a history of American from 1789 to 1859. The book covers each major political event and many minor ones at the right level of detail. We never get bogged down but we have the information needed to understand the causes and motivations involved. In addition, the reader gets a history of the Abolition Movement and race relations in the North and South. This is quite an amount of information for one book. The author's writing is for academia and can be somewhat difficult. I never found her boring and will state that any "work" involved in reading this book is going to pay dividends later.
    I recommend this book to all Civil War readers as an essential foundation to understanding why the war came and many of the decisions of 1860 to 1862.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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