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Southern Argument on Secession

ISSUE:  Winter 1932

Southern Editorials on Secession. Edited by Dwight Lowell Dumond. New York: The Century Company. $4.00.

Income from a fund created in memory of Senator Albert J. Beveridge has enabled the American Historical Association to begin a series of documentary publications to illuminate various phases of American history. The initial volume, admirably selected and edited by Professor Dwight L. Dumond of the University of Michigan, goes far to clarify the Southern state of mind in which a stroke for Confederate independence was considered.

Among the millions of citizens between the Potomac and the Rio Grande the crisis of 1860-61 in its rapidly changing phases evoked a multitude of opinions. In almost every conceivable shade these found expression from the pens of journalists. As newspapers the Southern dailies, semi-weeklies, and weeklies of that period may seem a bit primitive by latter-day comparison; as organs of opinion they merit pronounced respect.

The chief journals from which the hundred and eighty-three selections have been made are the Mercury, and the Courier of Charleston, the Enquirer and the Examiner of Richmond, the Journal and the Courier of Louisville, the Republican of St. Louis, the Union and American and the Patriot of Nashville, the Bee, the Delta, the True Delta, the Crescent, and the Picayune of New Orleans. From within this periphery many less prominent papers have been sampled to good effect. In his introduction Professor Dumond has identified and appraised the foremost editors; but sundry others whom we should like to know are not named.

For example, who was the Virginian Socrates and Quixote, rolled into one, writing the notable series taken from the Charlottesville Review? Its proprietors, and presumably editors, in 1860-61 were Green Peyton and James C. Southall; but the authorship of these editorials has not been definitely determined. Soon after the dismaying election of Lincoln their author said: “Sentiment on the Slavery question shades off with the precision and the regularity of the law of temperature. Give the latitude, and you can give the figure at which the negrometer stands. An opinion on Slavery is not an intelligent judgment; it is a prejudice. . . . It is idle for Mr. Seward to say, he knows he is right. It is idle for Mr. Toombs to say, he knows he is right. They each form their opinions according to the range of the thermometer, and the thermometer cannot settle accurately a moral question.”

At the turn of the year: “We entertain towards South Carolina the most bitter resentment. We feel that she has not only precipitately thrown down the bulwarks of the Union, and inaugurated on her own responsibility revolution and anarchy; but she has done this with the full knowledge—aye, the intention—to hold Virginia and the border States between her and the storm.”

But, later: “The question of honor is paramount to all others. . . . Let our slaves be lost; let our fields be desolated; let our blood flow; never—never with our consent shall the free, proud spirit of this Commonwealth be humbled. . . . There is a habit of speaking derisively of going to war for an idea—an abstraction—something which you cannot see. That is precisely the point on which we would go to war.”

Finally, in response to Lincoln’s call for troops: “We through this journal have contended for the Union as a man contends for his life. We have encountered pecuniary injury, and the estrangement of valued friends, in the path of what we believed to be a duty to the welfare of the State, the interests of the American nation, and the cause of human liberty. And now while President Lincoln holds in suspense the uplifted gauge of battle, we warn him in the name of the former Union party in Virginia, that there are no divisions here now that the curtain has begun to rise.”

A number of other interesting mental histories may be traced by reading in series the selections from individual papers. To larger effect, the book as a whole will improve posterity’s understanding of a time which tried the souls of men.


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