In December 1860, South Carolinians voted to abandon the Union,
sparking the deadliest war in American history. Led by a proslavery
movement that viewed Abraham Lincoln's place at the helm of the
federal government as a real and present danger to the security of
the South, southerners, both slaveholders and nonslaveholders,
willingly risked civil war by seceding from the United States.
Radical proslavery activists contended that without defending
slavery's westward expansion American planters would, like their
former counterparts in the West Indies, become greatly outnumbered
by those they enslaved. The result would transform the South into a
mere colony within the federal government and make white
southerners reliant on antislavery outsiders for protection of
their personal safety and wealth. Faith in American exceptionalism
played an important role in the reasoning of the antebellum
American public, shaping how those in both the free and slave
states viewed the world. Questions about who might share the bounty
of the exceptional nature of the country became the battleground
over which Americans fought, first with words, then with guns. Carl
Lawrence Paulus's The Slaveholding Crisis examines how, due to the
fear of insurrection by the enslaved, southerners created their own
version of American exceptionalism, one that placed the
perpetuation of slavery at its forefront. Feeling a loss of power
in the years before the Civil War, the planter elite no longer saw
the Union, as a whole, fulfilling that vision of exceptionalism. As
a result, Paulus contends, slaveholders and nonslaveholding
southerners believed that the white South could anticipate racial
conflict and brutal warfare. This narrative postulated that
limiting slavery's expansion within the Union was a riskier
proposition than fighting a war of secession. In the end, Paulus
argues, by insisting that the new party in control of the federal
government promoted this very insurrection, the planter elite
gained enough popular support to create the Confederate States of
America. In doing so, they established a thoroughly proslavery,
modern state with the military capability to quell massive
resistance by the enslaved, expand its territorial borders, and war
against the forces of the Atlantic antislavery movement.
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