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A Study in Secession

ISSUE:  Summer 1932

Edmund Ruffin, Southerner. A Study in Secession. By Avery Craven. New York: D. Appleton and Company. $3.00.

Whether or not history is the lengthened shadow of great men, it is undoubtedly true that the clearest view of a movement can often be gained from the study of an individual.

The reason is fairly obvious. A movement of men, that composite of motives, thoughts, and actions of every sort, is a difficult thing to analyze and describe at a distant day. The mechanism can be so hidden by a multitude of details. But now and then in the study of the life and thought of an individual, the confusion of the mass disappears and leaves the mainsprings of the movement open to view. Such individuals are rare, and he who undertakes to make one of them live and act the movement needs qualifications beyond the ordinary. He must so know the movement as to have a sympathetic understanding of all its causes and phases. He must be so familiar with the period that he can without difficulty summon the magic carpet which is always ready for the true historian and be so completely transported into the past that, for a time at least, he belongs to it. He must know the locality so well that if not born there he must be ready, as the darkey said, “to make it his native place.” And, above all, he must so accurately have analyzed and comprehended his personal subject; have become so completely familiar with him in all his moods and tenses, sensing his ambitions and aspirations, weighing his strength and weakness, as to feel himself not only his intimate contemporary, but almost his alter ego. He must be a part of the time, the place, and the man.

Mr. Craven, in his “Edmund Ruffin, Southerner,” has proven himself such a biographer and historian. It is first of all a remarkable interpretative biography of Edmund Ruffin, who is in these pages a living person. It is, further, a study of one of our first great agricultural scientists, whose work was profoundly important, and who would have been entitled to fame if there had never been a secession movement. It is a masterly study of the development of a secessionist, a leader in the movement for Southern nationalism. And it is more: it is a penetrating analysis and discussion in brief compass of the influences which not only made Southern nationalists, but finally gave them victory over the conservative elements of the South.

Edmund Ruffin, it should be said, is a helpful assistant in his own portrayal. His diary is a most revealing document and scarcely less so are his books, papers, speeches, and letters. Few, if any, figures in the South have contributed more material to aid a biographer.

Similar to most of his class and time in background and beginnings, Ruffin was different as a result of many things. Intellectually eager, possessed of unusual ability, and voraciously versatile, he was shy, temperamental, bent on reforms of various kinds, deeply serious, and entirely unable to join in the compromises necessary in ordinary political and social life, or even to consent to them. Easily wounded, he could not accept with any degree of inward calmness the inevitable disappointments of the reformer. Added to these characteristics were ill-health and lack of ability to make his ideas effectually articulate in speech in a community where the spoken word far outweighed the written one.

Driven throughout his life by the urge of personal ambition and a fierce zeal for betterment that tried his frail body and well-nigh exhausted his capacity for patience, he went so far ahead of his group that only at infrequent intervals did he hold the place in their affection and confidence that he felt was his due. He failed in politics because he would not and could not play politics. Henceforth an “outlaw” in politics, he became an avowed champion of the right of the few to rule and of the rights of the States. In him were “Hamilton and Jefferson reconciled,” as the author says. The glory of his early agricultural achievement was dimmed by the unpopularity of his views on banking, and The Farmers’ Register ended its brilliant career. Virginia, so he felt, had disowned him.

At this crucial moment Governor Hammond invited him to make an agricultural survey of South Carolina. “Here was a congenial governor, fighting banks and tariffs, upholding slavery, and taking a radical position with evident public approval. South Carolina, the home of gentlemen, was calling him at the very moment of repudiation at home. . . . From that day forward South Carolina and Charleston in South Carolina became to Edmund Ruffin the incarnation of the highest Southern good.” And upon it followed his agricultural triumph in Virginia.

A provincial, Ruffin had always viewed the North with suspicion. With the tariff controversy, sectional and personal interest intensified his feeling, and the development of the abolition movement led him to his final opinion. Slavery, from an evil to be eliminated, became a positive good. The Wilmot Proviso spurred him to a close analysis of the national situation, which made him able to say that he “was the first, and for some years the only man in Virginia who was bold and disinterested enough to advocate the dissolution of the union between the Northern and the slave-holding States.” The North had been the persistent aggressor; the remedy was to submit no longer.

Through the years which followed, with pen and tongue he preached this gospel. Completely out of sight of his Virginia neighbors, he was, for most of the time, in advance of the radical South Carolina group. John Brown’s raid was, in his opinion, not only his crown as a prophet, but a much needed spur to the South. In the uniform of a V. M. I. cadet he attended the execution and, securing enough of Brown’s pikes to send one to each Southern governor as a horrible warning, he redoubled his propagandist activities.

He was in Columbia when the convention was called, in Charleston when secession was voted. Moving to South Carolina before Lincoln’s inauguration, he enlisted in the Palmetto Guards and presently fired the shot which made Virginia again his home. He fought at Manassas, suffered through the years of loss of property, the death of a cherished son, and the destruction of his dearest hopes, and at last, without desire to live, he voluntarily joined the past. A tragic figure with elements of greatness, and a lovable and loving human being, in spite of bitterness, emerges from Mr. Craven’s portrayal.

It is impossible to comment extensively on striking points in Mr. Craven’s illuminating study. But it is important to note his conclusion that Republican aggression on slavery was inevitable after victory. He thus sums up the case: “The South, therefore, in 18G1 could take its choice between revolution and ultimate subjection to the most advanced of those who held in their hands the unity of the Republican party. The slavery issue could not be cast aside; it must be kept alive or the party would perish.” Ruffin and the Southern radicals saw this clearly. It has not always been so well recognized since then.

Charmingly written, powerful and penetrating, colorful and fascinating, the book is one of the most significant contributions of our time to the history of the Old South.


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