Review: Charles B. Dew’s "Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War"

Updated on March 27, 2020
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J. Schatzel works in healthcare administration in rural upstate NY and has a master's degree in history.

Secession and Northern Conscience

Throughout Charles B. Dew’s Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War, Dew argues that the leading proponents of southern secession advocated secession as a means of protecting southern slave-holding culture and race-based social hierarchies. Using such primary sources as speeches, writings, and correspondence of the leaders of the southern secession movement, Dew validates his thesis that southern secessionists such as Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens, and John Smith Preston feared that continued union with the north would lead to an inevitable war between free–labor states and slave-holding states (45); a clash of cultures in which southern whites protected their racial superiority to their slaves through forced subordination through the implementation of slavery (50).[1]

According to Dew’s analysis of the abundant documentation of the secession movement in the antebellum south, southern advocates of secession from the union believed separation from the north was the only way to effectively maintain white racial superiority in southern society (55). Despite post-war claims that the Civil War had been caused by a northern violation of southern civil liberties in a series of acts of “northern aggression,” (9) Dew uses evidence of antebellum secessionist ideologies to disprove such theories, and reassert his thesis that the electoral success of Abraham Lincoln as a republican president was interpreted as a threat to southern economic institutions and racial societal stratifications based upon slavery (56). Dew’s analysis of southern antebellum secessionist ideology provides a compelling argument that southerners seceded because they feared that republicans and free blacks in the north would promote the idea that slavery is morally wrong and make slavery illegal. Such changes to southern society as the abolition of slavery threatened to damage the deeply embedded race based social constructions within the culture of slaveholding states (24).

Dew states that the “northern conscience” would, in the south’s view, incorrectly assume that slavery was sinful, this corrupting northern perceptions of the south and leading the north to presumptuously act out against the system of slavery white southerners adamantly defended as a means of maintaining increased equality of whites through the subordination of their slaves (57). As shown through Dew’s assertions and validated by primary source evidence such as the remarks of Commissioner Anderson, the south equated the northern quest for the “extinction of slavery” with the “degradation of the south” (62). Through the use of a thematic organization of prevalent themes present throughout a series of political events immediately preceding southern secession, Dew deems the “Apostles of disunion” the “Apostles of racism,” (74) who desperately sought secession as a means of deliverance from “abolition domination” (76).

Using the letters and speeches of secession advocates such as Henry L. Benning, Dew supports his thesis through an analysis of southern secession ideology, such as Benning’s assertion that the election of Abraham Lincoln as a republican president was a “death sentence for the institution of slavery” (65). Dew reinforces his argument with primary sources in support of his thesis, creating a convincing argument that the “apostles of disunion” feared that an inevitable war would follow northern attempts to abolish slavery in the south; a perceived attack on white southerners’ racial superiority salvageable only through secession from a free-labor, republican, north (78).

[1] Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of The Civil War. (London: University of Virginia Press. 2002)

Special Thanks

Special Thanks to the State University of NY at Oswego for providing a beautiful campus at which to find a quiet corner to read.
Special Thanks to the State University of NY at Oswego for providing a beautiful campus at which to find a quiet corner to read.

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