Posted by: Jeff | December 27, 2010

Disunion: Living History 150 Years Later

Blogging is a really cool medium for a lot of things – news, style and design, humor, and opinions.  Add history to the list.  To celebrate the 150th year anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, The New York Times has dug into its immense archives to unearth primary sources documenting an historic era and has used them to re-live the Civil War in real time.  Through the creation of a new blog, “Disunion”, the modern paper of record has invited Civil War historians and academics to re-create the stories and opinions of the day in blog form, publishing the events of a day exactly 150 years in the past.

I subscribed to the “Disunion” blog in November as it began, but neglected to keep up with it as posts queued in my reader.  This morning I’ve delved into the wonderful writing and insight of the blog, and am nearly caught up (to December 27, 1860).  It’s a tremendous resource for history buffs or those who are simply interested in gaining a glimpse into the lives of people on both sides of the divisive political conflict that led to bloody war.  Filled with quotes from primary documents and pictures, reading through even a couple of entries can be a real joy.  It’s a blog I will move permanently to the top of the queue.

Demographics of Slavery in the South. Image from "Disunion" blog at The New York Times.

An excerpt from a recent post (December 18, 1860) highlights the quality of writing and depth of insight made available on “Disunion”:

Sent to Congress, Johnson was seated next to John Quincy Adams, a former president who returned to serve in the House, and was near him when he died in 1848, at his desk. The two men could not have been more different, yet Johnson seemed to absorb a few qualities from the stubborn ex-president. By 1860 he had become a senator, and was on the Senate floor in the dark days of December, with the secession movement unstoppable and the only question remaining, How much of the South would leave? As late as Dec. 13, Johnson supported the Crittenden Compromise, which would have protected slavery permanently and — perhaps — prevented secession.

But on Dec. 18, Johnson decided he had heard enough from the gentry of the South — personified by Jefferson Davis, the aristocrat who sneered at self-made men like Johnson. The Congressional Globe records the usual business that day: a chaplain offering a prayer, dull proposals for the relief of constituents. Then, suddenly, the senator from Tennessee stood up. He began speaking haltingly, then found his voice, and over the next two days delivered a crushing blow to the leaders of the secession movement, who presumed to be speaking for the entire South. “There are many ideas afloat about this threatened dissolution,” he said, “and it is time to speak out.”

Growing in eloquence the more he spoke, he attacked, point by point, the logic of secession, and returned with great force to the love of Union that had formed the country, and to the Constitution that still bound each of the states with legal force. Speaking politely but firmly to “my Southern friends,” Johnson denounced secession as an act of cowardice and treason that would destroy the United States and the right of free people to govern themselves. Lincoln’s election had been legal, he said; therefore the South should accept it and fight for its objectives within the system. Johnson even volunteered to join that fight — he was no admirer of Lincoln. Movingly, he said, “I voted against him; I spoke against him; I spent my money to defeat him; but still I love my country.

Yet he had more in common with Lincoln than he might have realized. He drew strength from the example of earlier Unionists, including Washington and his fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson. He argued that secession, once allowed, might never stop; tellingly, he quoted Jefferson’s remark, “We might as well keep the North to quarrel with; for if we have no North to quarrel with, we shall quarrel among ourselves.” And at bottom, he loved democracy, because this former street urchin had lived it: “I have an abiding faith, I have an unshaken confidence, in man’s capability to govern himself.” His peroration left fellow senators gasping: “Let us stand by the Constitution; and in preserving the Constitution we shall save the Union; and in saving the Union, we save this, the greatest Government on earth.”

The reaction was swift and intense. Northerners raced to praise it; the New York Times, in an uncharacteristic burst of emotion, issued a headline, “Great Speech of Senator Johnson, of Tennessee.” A stunned South denounced him as a traitor to his section, and he received a slew of threatening mail. A Mississippi man wrote that he was sending his slave to horsewhip him. Henry Adams, the grandson of his old friend, gave a thrilling eyewitness account of the speech, reprinted in his essay “The Great Secession Winter”:

“His bold and uncompromising attack was the first blow that the disunionists suffered in Congress. Jefferson Davis actually writhed under it, and listened with a look and an attitude of the bitterest hatred and disgust. It was a defection from their own ranks; a rebellion among their own slaves.”

The rest of Johnson’s career is, well, history. The speech and his support for the Union brought him into the favorable light of the administration, and in 1862 Lincoln appointed him the military governor of Tennessee. In 1864 he was invited to join the ticket of the man he had conspicuously voted against in 1860. The vice presidency did not begin well — he was drunk at his own inauguration, nor did he leave a good record as president, an office he had thrust upon him by the horrific circumstances of April 15, 1865.

It could not have been easy for anyone to follow Lincoln, and in Johnson’s case, the burden was heavy. The same stubbornness that he showed against Jefferson Davis impelled him to fight against a similarly condescending Congress that wished to exact revenge on the South; their struggle ultimately led to his impeachment and near conviction in the Senate (he was acquitted by one vote).

But in 1875, after his not very elegant escape from the presidency, a special election returned him to the Senate, the only ex-president to do so. It seems fitting that he was able to stand one more time in the place where, for one brief moment in the dark days of December 1860, this brave Southerner stood athwart the secession movement, in defense of his country. One can’t help thinking that John Quincy Adams would have been proud.



  1. […] I’ve highlighted The New York Times’ Disunion blog once before, but now that the 150th anniversary of hostilities between the Union and the Southern Confederacy […]

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