Michael D. Robinson: Where Was the Political Middle Ground during the Secession Crisis?

A Union Indivisible by Michael D. RobinsonToday, we welcome a guest post from Michael D. Robinson, author of A Union Indivisible:  Secession and the Politics of Slavery in the Border South.

Many accounts of the secession crisis overlook the sharp political conflict that took place in the Border South states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri. In A Union Indivisible, Michael D. Robinson expands the scope of this crisis to show how the fate of the Border South, and with it the Union, desperately hung in the balance during the fateful months surrounding the clash at Fort Sumter. During this period, Border South politicians revealed the region’s deep commitment to slavery, disputed whether or not to leave the Union, and schemed to win enough support to carry the day. Although these border states contained fewer enslaved people than the eleven states that seceded, white border Southerners chose to remain in the Union because they felt the decision best protected their peculiar institution. Robinson reveals anew how the choice for union was fraught with anguish and uncertainty, dividing families and producing years of bitter internecine violence. Letters, diaries, newspapers, and quantitative evidence illuminate how, in the absence of a compromise settlement, proslavery Unionists managed to defeat secession in the Border South.

A Union Indivisible is now available in both print and e-book editions.


Where Was the Political Middle Ground during the Secession Crisis?

A quick perusal of today’s headlines can leave one feeling as if moderates and centrists no longer have a voice in American politics.  Heated partisan and ideological battles over the last couple of decades have driven a seismic shift from the seemingly halcyon days of political consensus-building to our present state of affairs, where the smallest details of government often get bogged down in a flashy show of brinksmanship that leaves many observers exhausted and cynical.  One easily throws up his or her hands and asks, “Has American politics ever been so polarized?” 

Any search for precedent naturally leads to the secession winter of 1860-61, a crisis of unmatched proportions that churned forth in the wake of Republican Abraham Lincoln’s November electoral victory.  So often Americans remember that voters had constitutionally sent a president to the White House whose party’s foundation consisted of a program designed to restrict the spread of slavery to the western territories.  Fearful of the Republican Party’s promised choke-hold on American slavery and the anti-southern rhetoric that whipped voters to a frenzy during the campaign, white southerners opted to leave the cherished Union behind and start their own government shorn of all elements hostile to the peculiar institution.  This telling of events leaves one confident that no middle ground existed in 1860-61.  After all, eleven slaveholding states seceded and the nation was pushed ever-closer to a war so destructive that its aftershocks are still felt today.  The middle ground had evaporated and Americans either joined the camp of pro-slavery secessionists or Republican Unionists.

Such an approach to the secession crisis provides a usable past for present-day commentators anxious to find historical parallels and explain Washington D.C.’s current dysfunctional tableau.  The problem, however, is that it provides a flawed depiction of the nation during the secession crisis.  Instead of stark black and white divisions on partisan and ideological grounds, Americans during the middle of the nineteenth century occupied a political spectrum marked by an expansive pallet of gray shades.  Southern intransigence on the slavery question and the rise of the Republican Party certainly narrowed the middle ground over the course of the 1850s, but even in 1860 it still persisted.  The great heart of that political middle ground beat in the Border South states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, the focus of my book A Union Indivisible: Secession and the Politics of Slavery in the Border South.  Moderates in the Border South found themselves delicately balancing a political tightrope that swung between the dangerous poles of extremism during the secession crisis.  And as they looked across their region and outward to the nation, Border South moderates realized many other Americans joined them on this middle ground between proslavery secessionists and unyielding Republicans.  The calls for conciliation came from all quarters; the American body politic still consisted of much more than two diametrically opposed components even at this dangerous hour.  My book attempts to add complexity to the story of the secession crisis and cast more light on this middle ground, demonstrating that even in our darkest political moment the framework of consensus remained in place.  Although politicians failed to secure a settlement to prevent war prior to April 1861, throughout the winter some Americans signaled a willingness to listen, to understand one another, and to find solutions.  Those political discussions revolved around the issue of slavery’s place in the nation’s future, and sadly many Americans were all but too willing to offer up the freedom of African Americans in exchange for peace.  Republicans, jettisoning the age-old American tradition of compromise, took a principled stand at this critical juncture and paved the way for a “new birth of freedom” that came in the course of the Civil War.

The drums of war eventually drowned out the voice of the middle ground, but we cannot deny that it did exist during the secession crisis.  Beneath the din of polarizing ranting and raving, the structure of the middle ground endured.  And one suspects that if an individual is willing to wade through the muck and mire and look hard enough, the familiar path of consensus is still there today.


Michael D. Robinson is assistant professor of history at the University of Mobile.