Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Christopher Phillips's "The Rivers Ran Backward"

Christopher Phillips is Professor of History and Department Head at the University of Cincinnati. He is the author of seven books, including Damned Yankee: The Life of General Nathaniel Lyon; Freedom's Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860; Missouri's Confederate: Claiborne Fox Jackson and the Creation of Southern Identity in the Border West; and The Civil War in the Border South.

Phillips applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil War and the Remaking of the American Middle Border, and reported the following:
From page 99:
On July 4, 1857, a large crowd of Kentuckians gathered at the city cemetery just north of Lexington. For five years, it had boasted the unadorned remains of the state’s most celebrated resident, Henry Clay, whose whistle-stop funeral train had drawn men from their plows and girls in white dresses to stand along its route to honor the western region’s most distinguished statesman. Now, construction was begun on a fitting grave monument: a towering, 120-foot corinthian column topped by a twelve-and-a-half-foot limestone statue of Clay. Adorning the monument to the Great Compromiser, the first person to lie in state in the nation’s Capitol, was a simple headstone inscribed with perhaps his most famous utterance: “I know no North—no South—no East—no West.” Fittingly, eulogist Robert J. Breckinridge, a noted antislavery activist, lauded Clay as a slaveholder who had no hardened sectional inclinations over slavery.

Had any listeners been in attendance in early October 1842 at Richmond, Indiana, they would have recalled a harder, more sectionalized posturing from the great Kentucky pacificator. There, Clay had admonished local Quakers who had presented him with a petition, amid a chorus of boos from other Indianans then present, asking him to free his own slaves. Kentucky’s laws, he reminded them, clearly and unambiguously recognized “the right of property in slaves,” and universal emancipation and amalgamation would trigger a racial “civil war” in his home state. The great statesman condemned meddling abolitionists for their “unfortunate agitation of the subject,” and with unstatesmanlike annoyance dismissed “monomaniacs” in the audience “who think with [them].” “Go home and mind your own business,” he barked, “and leave other people to take care of theirs.” Fifteen years later, any of these Quakers who might have been in Lexington would certainly have noticed of the deceased Kentucky senator’s statue the effects of sectional strife on his non-nonsectional image, its south facing perhaps betokening the slave state’s future direction.
One cannot help but consider the irony of Henry Clay’s un-sectionalized celebration amid a growing sectional divide. Could antislavery free staters actually have revered a Kentucky slaveholder, nearly as did his kinspeople, a scant four years before the outbreak of the Civil War? Did Henry Clay’s reputation as an antislavery moderate actually grow in his proslavery home state after his death, in the midst of a sectional crisis in full flower? The answer to both, it would seem, is yes. Have we then misunderstood the nature of that war, one that in our understanding pitted proslavery southerners (including many Kentuckians and Missourians) against antislavery northerners (including many Ohioans, Indianans, and Illinoisans) in a contest to end the South’s peculiar institution? The answer, at least in this border region, is both yes and no, which of course is the purpose of this book to explain.

But to start the story where it should begin: The Rivers Ran Backward posits that the border didn’t create the war, the war made the border. Slavery might have lain at the heart of the war, but the Middle Border, west of the Appalachians, was hardly divided irrevocably over it as late as 1861. But it divided, slowly and often imperceptibly, and later than the nation as a whole and in part after the war. The book examines how a western political culture that traditionally accommodated slavery was transformed by the era of the Civil War into the cultural politics of region. It explains how slavery could organize the life of an entire region even as it became the foundation of the conflict while having at once been its least attributed and most unreconciled cause among those white residents who endured it. It also explains how in their haste to make a fully formed sectional border divided by slavery historians have largely ignored the centrality of Lincoln’s home region—the West—to perhaps the war’s most lasting outcome. Beneath the edifice of postwar American nationalism lay newly formed regional identities that were anything but unifying and have proven more enduring than their sectionalized predecessors. And by sustained and irreconciled postwar cultural politics surrounding the war and its divisive outcome—emancipation—claimants of the former West’s promise of liberty changed what was once a lived border of confluence into an imagined and antagonistic border of separation defined as North and South and, more complicatedly, Middle West and Midwest. The formation of regional identities completed the nationalistic struggle that brought the war, and in doing so, the West was effectively written out of the national war narratives, accomplishing the moving frontier not by conquering physical space or its inhabitants but by creating a new regional geography understood as culture. The experience on the Middle Border requires us to reconsider exactly what the “North-South” border itself actually means, or meant.
Learn more about The Rivers Ran Backward at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue