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. Yet while Dew does an excellent job of analyzing the arguments of the commissioners, his narrow focus on the speeches themselves leaves a few questions unanswered. Nowhere, for example, does he explore their composition – whether the speeches were based on a common set of talking points, for example, or if each commissioner was left to his own devices in writing them. The impact of the speeches on the secession debates is also left unexamined, leaving the reader with no idea whether the speakers’ arguments were ignored or whether they influenced the debate and were taken up by others in advocating disunion. Nevertheless, in his stated goal Dew makes a convincing and well-supported argument. His book is a persuasive addition to the debate, one that is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand secession and the causes of the Civil War for themselves.