Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 111 / Number 2 - Review
Roots of Secession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia.
By William A. Link. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina University Press, 2003. xx, 387 pp. $45.00.
Best known for contentious debate, Civil War scholarship has recently arrived at a remarkably strong consensus
about the origins of southern secession. Protecting slavery from the perceived threat of the northern antislavery
movement, most scholars now agree, was the fundamental reason why the Confederates left the Union. William
A. Link's important study of Virginia's secession takes the relationship between slavery and secession one step
further. Rather than examine slavery simply as a political or economic issue, Link focuses on slaves as agents
of change. Link argues that slave resistance fueled the anxieties of white Virginians, thus increasing sectional
tensions throughout the 1850s. Slaves who stole from their masters, ran away from their plantations, or even
killed their overseers contributed to a crisis atmosphere that made secession a viable option for a growing
number of white Virginians. In Link's framework, secession was more than a conflict between North and
South; it was also a confrontation between master and slave.
Deftly integrating social, economic, and political history, Link presents this argument in an analytical narrative
of the 1850s. Link argues that Virginia's expanding economy created new ways for slaveholders to make money
from their human property. Some hired out their slaves to railroads, tobacco companies, and other industries,
while others took advantage of improved transportation to expand slavery into new areas. If these changes
fattened the pocketbooks of the master class, they also created a sense of uncertainty and anxiety. To
many masters, slavery in the 1850s appeared increasingly less stable and less regulated. Integrating the
social history literature of slavery with his own extensive research into legal records, Link argues that
Virginia's masters had good reason to be concerned. Stories of murdered overseers, mysterious
arsons, and vast conspiracies haunted the imaginations of Virginia's slaveholders. Regional tensions
within the state only added to planter anxiety. Eastern slaveholders wondered aloud if western
Virginians, who owned few slaves themselves, might soon become abolitionists eager to end
slavery throughout the state.
The potential ability of northerners to encourage slave resistance, according to southern extremists, made
abolitionists and Republicans a real threat to Virginia slaveholders. The protection of slavery soon became the
primary political issue within the state. In 1852, for example, Democratic governor Joseph Johnson commuted
the death sentence of Jordan Hatcher, a Richmond slave who had killed his overseer. Johnson's commutation
produced outrage in Richmond and throughout the state, clearly showing that no politician could appear soft
on slavery. In such a political environment, southern extremists found traction for their secessionist message.
What better way to protect slavery, they asked, than to form an independent southern confederacy free from
pernicious northern influences? A good many Virginians, fearing that their state would become a bloody battleground,
still believed that slavery could best be protected within the Union. Moderates staved off secession, even after
John Brown's 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry and Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860, but Lincoln's call for the
forcible suppression of the cotton states made Unionism impossible to sustain. Opposition to secession—at
least in eastern Virginia—quickly collapsed in April 1861.
Roots of Secession is obviously an important contribution to the Civil War literature. The prose is lucid
and lively. The research is exceptionally deep, incorporating a broad reading of the secondary literature with
painstaking archival work in newspapers, legal records, and manuscript collections. Link's emphasis on
individuals, particularly little-known politicians, makes his argument persuasively concrete. Link also
manages to incorporate a large number of complex elements within his narrative: the nature of the
master-slave relationship, the longstanding tensions between eastern and western Virginians, and
the internal dynamics of Virginia's political parties and factions. Here is a model-both in terms of
argument and execution-that historians will want to use to understand secession in other states.
If Link's argument is generally persuasive, it also contains important ambiguities. His fundamental
insight is surely correct: the threat of slave violence made Virginia slaveholders extraordinarily sensitive
to the threat of abolitionists and "Black Republicans." The evidence that slave resistance increased in
the 1850s, though, is somewhat thin, and could itself be the product of the growing anxiety of white
Virginians. Link notes several times when slaves were convicted of arson and other crimes on the
flimsiest of evidence, and he readily admits that it is difficult to separate "real" conspiracies from
planter paranoia. These ambiguities raise some difficult questions. Did slave resistance really
increase during the 1850s, or did masters interpret slave resistance differently in light of the
growing anti-slavery movement in the North? Are criminal cases involving slaves the best
measure of slave resistance? Can historians link particular acts of resistance to the rise
of the northern antislavery movement? If no single monograph can provide definitive
answers to these questions, it is to William Link's credit that historians of secession
have a new set of issues to consider.
University of California, Santa Barbara