Civil War Talk Radio: October 2, 2009

Air Date: 100209

Subject: Pre-War Political Rhetoric

Books: Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859

Guest: Professor Elizabeth R. Varon


Summary: Professor Elizabeth Varon discusses pre-war political rhetoric and how language shaped the coming of the Civil War.

Brett’s Summary: Professor Varon is currently at Temple University in Philadelphia.  Gerry started the hour by commenting what a groundbreaking and useful book Disunion is.  Varon commented on the myriad periods of history evident in Philadelphia.

The book focuses on the word “disunion”, showing how this particular word contributed to the eventual coming of the Civil War.  The word conjured up many fears for antebellum Americans who were worried about the “experiment” that was American government.  Disunion became a catchall phrase to sum up these fears, and Varon said that the word became a key word in pre-war political rhetoric.  Disunion meant more than secession, with Varon equating it to national ruin.  The word became politically useful.  There were many worries about disunion from the founding of the nation through the Civil War.

Gerry asked if the book is in any way deflecting slavery as a main cause of the war, and Liz Varon denied this vehemently.  She further commented that there were different political identities and viewpoints prior to the war.  She believes that the deepest fear about disunion was that slavery would cause it.

Garrisonian “Immediatists” arrived on the scene on the 1830s asking for an end to slavery immediately.  Prophecies of disunion followed any agitation about the slavery issue.  Immediatists tried to counter disunion rhetoric with images of racial harmony and equality.  This did not work all that well due to the amount of racism in the North.  Fears of equality for Blacks worried some Northerners as much as fears of slave insurrections worried Southerners.  As a result, many both North and South labeled Immediatists and other abolitionsists as disunionists.  Abolitionists struggled with these accusations and tried to find ways to counteract them.  Eventually, Garrison adopted a radical stance and claimed he WAS a disunionist, because the Union as it existed with slavery was immoral and wrong.  As a result, more moderate abolitionists distanced themselves from Garrison and his followers.  The Liberty, Free Soil, and Republican parties were political movements which were against slavery and claimed Southerners were the disunionists.  The rest of the second segment discussed how American politics have changed since the early 18th century.  One key point was that almost every media source available held a partisan viewpoint in antebellum America.

The third segment started with Gerry noting the story is not told from the White male standpoint.  Instead, the abolitionist movement is told from a variety of perspectives.  During the Wilmot Proviso argument, each side characterized the other in highly gendered language, claiming they were acting in a “manly” fashion while the other was not. 

Lincoln in particular was bothered by charges of disunion against the Republican Party.  He developed an argument in the 1850s that the Republicans should be moderates on slavery in order to become the majority party and proceed with correcting what the party perceived as wrongs within the antebellum U.S. system (i.e. slavery).  Lincoln continued in the 1860s during the Civil War to deflect criticisms of the Republican Party as disunionist.  His goal was always to triumph over slavery via the ballot box.  The only way to do this was to remain moderate on slavery as long as necessary to foment the extinction of slavery.

Civil War Talk Radio airs most Fridays at 12 PM Pacific on World Talk Radio Studio A. Host Gerry Prokopowicz, the History Chair at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, interviews a guest each week and discusses their interest in the Civil War. Most interviews center around a book or books if the guest is an author. Other guests over the years have included public historians such as park rangers and museum curators, wargamers, bloggers, and even a member of an American Civil War Round Table located in London, England.

In this series of blog entries, I will be posting air dates, subjects, and guests, and if I have time, I’ll provide a brief summary of the program. You can find all of the past episodes I’ve entered into the blog by clicking on the Civil War Talk Radio category. Each program should appear either on or near the date it was first broadcast.

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One response to “Civil War Talk Radio: October 2, 2009”

  1. Dylan Hyde Avatar

    Great summary! I thought Gerry had one of his best opening lines ever this week. He (sarcastically) stated that if CWTR was a ‘real’ talk show, he would identify all those who disagree with his interpretation as “freedom-hating anti-American socialistic hippy communist pervert atheists.” Classic!

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