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The Fragile Fabric of Union: Cotton, Federal Politics, and the Global Origins of the Civil War.

The Fragile Fabric of Union: Cotton, Federal Politics, and the Global Origins of the Civil War. By Brian Schoen (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. xiv plus 369 pp.).

Property is a central focus of the recent historical literature on the American South, slavery, and secession. John Huston and Gavin Wright, for example, emphasize the Souths disproportionate investment in slaves and its importance to the southern economy as the key factor for understanding the severing of the Union. (1) In The Fragile Fabric of Union: Cotton, Federal Politics, and the Global Origins of the Civil War, Brian Schoen agrees with this line of argument, but directs our attention to the main product of slave labor--cotton. Just like Huston and Wright, Schoen concentrates on the political economy of the nineteenth-century South and U.S., but analyzes the global power of cotton. King Cotton is not a new topic, but by connecting the Lower South planters and politicians who depended on it and chattel slavery with the world economy, Schoen makes a significant contribution to reframing U.S. history in trans-Atlantic and global terms. (2)

The Fragile Fabric of Union links the rise of cotton production with the increased demand of British textile manufacturers and the peaceful political relations established by Jay's Treaty in the 1790s. "By the beginning of the nineteenth century," Schoen argues, "a vast and intricate web of commerce already had created a regional, national, and global interest grounded in the raw cotton of the Lower South" (49). The Cotton Souths support for Jefferson's Embargo Act in the early 1800s, when global politics turned sour (specifically over British impressments of U.S. sailors), reflected the region's nationalist impulses. In turn, the region's opposition to the subsequent non-intercourse and non-importation policies aimed solely at Great Britain and France demonstrated "sectional" and "sectorial" interests in staple agriculture. This interweaving of politics and economics, region and nation, and sectional and international perspectives is the main strength of this study.

Schoen reemphasizes the importance of the tariff debates to national and sectional development during the early nineteenth century, showing how Lower South anti-protectionists spurred regional self-awareness. "Only by probing the specific logic of the Cotton South's embrace of free trade theory and practice," he argues, "can regional thought and the politics of the Jacksonian period be properly understood" (111). This probing reveals that spokesmen of the Cotton South pursued liberal economic principles, despite their attachment to slavery. In the 1820s, such free traders as Professor Thomas Cooper at South Carolina College "promoted a vision of America as a dynamic commercial agrarian nation" (124), one that sought national wealth and international peace through the global cotton trade. During the 1830s and 1840s, railroad projects, southern commercial conventions, and direct trade with the West and Europe spearheaded the Cotton South's interests. This is interesting terrain that follows a trend toward refashioning the South as a region in pursuit of modernization, not mired in "static agrarianism." (3)

Pro-slavery theorists such as William Harper of South Carolina likewise based their arguments on the idea of "global commercial expansion" through slave-produced cotton. As Schoen indicates, this was a decidedly modern view for the time period, albeit imbued with a twisted racial-moral logic. In this respect, the study might have benefited from a more complete examination of such theorists before turning to a discussion of the southern indictment of British emancipation in the West Indies. All the same, Schoen does provide the global context for understanding the tariff debates of the 1840s and the annexation of Texas (which spurred Democrats to the forefront in the Cotton South) to move the analysis to the main topic--secession and the Civil War.

Schoen argues that the Cotton South's efforts at economic diversification in the 1850s were quite impressive in comparison with the rest of the world (besides the U.S. North, Western Europe, and the Upper South). Likewise, southern plans for expansion into the Caribbean and debates over re-opening the slave trade did not disrupt commercial relations with Great Britain. The result was that Lower South politicians such as James Henry Hammond concluded cotton was king, or "the tie that bound Atlantic commerce together" (225). The region felt emboldened while domestic politics turned decidedly bitter and sectional over such issues as homesteading, the annexation of Cuba, and westward expansion. Schoen's analysis thus connects the economic story of cotton with the politics of the first half of the nineteenth century, with apt attention to such key milestones as the LeCompton Constitution and Stephen Douglas's Freeport Doctrine.

More importantly, Schoen situates the unfolding sectional crises amidst international developments, as with the turn toward African indentured and Chinese or "coolie" labor in the West Indies, to explain the rising faith in cotton and slavery in the Lower South even while the Democratic party split and secession became a reality--one with seemingly great economic potential. The belief that the Union had stopped serving regional interests (especially the rights of slaveholders) ran alongside the conviction that "international economic and political developments afforded them considerable opportunities for advancement outside of the Union" (258). Hence, secession became something of a blessing for Lower South politicians and planters.

Through an examination of the Congressional records, such contemporary journals as the Southern Literary Messenger, and manuscript collections such as the George McDuffie Papers, Schoen effectively links ideology, institutions, and econometrics to demonstrate that the Deep South's commitment to slavery was predicated upon the production of cotton, which launched it into secession. This study could have provided a fuller conclusion to connect the discussion back to the post-Revolutionary period, but this is a minor issue when considering how Schoen skillfully places the nineteenth-century South and U.S. on the global stage. It is probably not an overstatement to claim, "Like sugar before it and oil after it, cotton's growth, manufacture, and sale defined an era in world economic history" (2).


(1.) James L. Huston, Calculating the Value of the Union: Slavery, Property Rights, and the Economic Origins of the Civil War (Chapel Hill, 2003); Gavin Wright, Slavery and American Economic Development (Baton Rouge, 2006).

(2.) On the global nature of slavery and the nineteenth-century U.S., Schoen references historians David Brion Davis and Daniel Walker Howe. This study also fits in with more recent trans-Atlantic works, such as Edward Bartlett Rugemer, The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War (Baton Rouge, 2008).

(3.) For a recent work that that stresses this theme, see John Majewski, Modernizing a Slave Economy: The Economic Vision of the Confederate, Nation (Chapel Hill, 2009).

Todd W. Wahlstrom

University of California, Santa Barbara
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Author:Wahlstrom, Todd W.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2011
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