Better understand the mechanics of radicalization

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018

T. Greer lists every book he read in 2017, and it’s a long list, but he picks out one book he thinks is the most important for others to read, William Freehling’s two volume Road to Disunion:

I highlighted the first volume of this book back in 2013 as one of the top-ten reads of that year; the second volume is not quite as good, but would probably make it into the top-fifteen cut for this year. Together they provide an immensely satisfying social and political history of the American south from revolution to secession.

Why this book? The national fracas over the cause of the U.S. Civil War revealed just how ill-informed we are about why that war happened. “Slavery” is the easy, obvious answer. It is also utterly inadequate: slavery and disunionism had existed since the birth of the American republic, and slavers willing to sacrifice the Union for sake of slavery had been around just as long. So why did they succeed in only in 1860—not 1789, or 1800, or 1820, or 1855? Some might answer that the South was more ‘radical’ in 1860 than decades earlier, but all that reflexive answer does is give you another question: just how did the South get that way? Radicalism does not just happen. In the South radicalism emerged because it was planned. Freehling’s first volume tells the story of the plans that failed: of attempts to get southerners of different stripes and interests to identity with “the South,” convince these converts that this magical “South” was under attack, and that the only defense of “Southern” institutions was secession. In a wonderful mix of cultural, social, and political history Freehling shows why each of these attempts fell apart. But the last group of secessionists were by far the most self-aware of the bunch. In the second book, Freehling charts the rise of a conniving group of tyrants who consciously used the history past defeats to craft a stronger, more sinister political strategy. This strategy was intended to radicalize the South and drive the Union into a crisis intentionally designed to make compromise impossible.

It is a remarkable book. It is masterfully written. It is topical. But most important of all, its concepts can be generalized. No other book has helped me to better understand the mechanics of radicalization. All Americans should be aware of these mechanics. There are eerie parallels between the principles and strategies employed by the secessionists of antebellum days and certain political groups in America today. This book will help you see them.

I suppose a more detailed exposition on that theme deserves its own post. I will not say anything more on this one. But consider buying and reading both volumes.


  1. Gaikokumaniakku says:

    “slavery and disunionism had existed since the birth of the American republic”

    My interpretation of Thomas Jefferson’s writings is that he favored freedom of secession but he thought it was not needed during his lifetime. He wrote about “scission.”

    ‘The Missouri constitution is recently rejected by the House of Representatives. What will be their next step is yet to be seen. If accepted on the condition that Missouri shall expunge from it the prohibition of free people of colour from emigration to their state, it will be expunged, and all will be quieted until the advance of some new state shall present the question again. If rejected unconditionally, Missouri assumes independent self-government, and Congress, after pouting awhile, must recieve them on the footing of the original states. Should the Representative propose force, 1. the Senate will not concur. 2. were they to concur, there would be a secession of the members South of the line, & probably of the three North Western states, who, however inclined to the other side, would scarcely separate from those who would hold the Misisipi from it’s mouth to it’s source. What next? Conjecture itself is at a loss. But whatever it shall be you will hear from others and from the newspapers. And finally the whole will depend on Pensylvania. While she and Virginia hold together, the Atlantic states can never separate. Unfortunately in the present case she has become more fanaticised than any other state. However useful where you are, I wish you were with them. You might turn the scale there, which would turn it for the whole. Should this scission take place, one of it’s most deplorable consequences would be it’s discouragement of the efforts of the European nations in the regeneration of their oppressive and Cannibal governments.

    Amidst this prospect of evil, I am glad to see one good effect. It has brought the necessity of some plan of general emancipation & deportation more home to the minds of our people than it has ever been before.’
    -TJ, 1820

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