Are You There Bryan Edwards? It’s Me, Southern Planter.

Did Bryan Edwards have the single greatest influence on the South’s decision to secede, and the eruption of the American Civil War?  That’s kinda the feeling I was left with after finishing The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War.  Rugemer’s argument in every chapter seems to hinge on the widespread acceptance and influence of the “Edwards Thesis.”  Responses to, and perceptions of the causes of slave insurrections, and the impact of discussing and enacting abolition all seem to come back to an acceptance or rejection of the Edwards thesis.

That said, even despite the centrality of the Edwards thesis, Rugemer’s argument certainly seems to hold water.  He gauges public opinion on slavery, insurrection, and abolition primarily through his analysis of newspaper articles.  In addressing popular responses to events, Rugemer is engaging with what Edward Ayers has dubbed “deep contingency.”  Rugemer quotes Ayers’s explication of deep contingency at length, and I think it would be fruitful, for the sake of emphasis, to reproduce that again here.  He states that deep contingency focuses on the “’connection between structure and event, on the relationships between the long-existing problem of slavery and the immediate world of politics.’  One of the central structures in democratic societies is public opinion, particularly as it influences political life, and for the antebellum United States, public opinions about black emancipation were important” (8).

Rugemer tracks these public opinions through periodicals published in the United States, including articles from Caribbean papers, and finds that they demonstrate considerable concern with developments in the Caribbean when assessing the slavery question in the US.  For southern planters, Caribbean developments demonstrated that discussing emancipation in the legislature led to slave insurrections, while for northern abolitionists, agitating for emancipation ultimately led to official abolition.  Opinions were formed based on these interpretations of the developments in the Caribbean, and battle lines were drawn accordingly.

I’m not quite sure, however, how far this line of reasoning can be extended.  Did developments in the Caribbean around emancipation debates stoke sectional tensions? Did it ultimately lead to the South to secede? Did the conflicting views in regards to the Edwards thesis cause the Civil War?  Rugemer seems to bring the reader along this path, but kind of left me hanging in terms of how far he thought this could go.  He’s clearly engaging the conversations on what started the Civil War, but given his argument, the answer has to be something more complex than “slavery.”

Rugemer’s discussion of the influence of newspaper articles discussing abolition and the slavery question on slave insurrection, and to an extent the Edwards thesis itself, seems to parallel the arguments made by Johnson and Sidbury in their contributions to the Vesey Conspiracy forum.  In light of the fact that Rugemer presents rather matter-of-factly to what Johnson and Sidbury draw significant attention, it seems that the idea that literate slaves and free blacks transferred information through slave communication and information networks has been solidified in the historiography.  Also, considering the way Rugemer discusses the perceived causes of, and responses to slave insurrections, it’s interesting to juxtapose his argument with those in the Making of a Slave Conspiracy forum, and also Furstenberg’s take on how planters explained the existence of slave uprisings.

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