Marc W. Kruman,
Parties & Politics in
North Carolina, 1836-1865

(Louisiana State University Press, 1983)

Marc W. Kruman examines politics in North Carolina during the antebellum and war-torn years of its history. He is openly working under the influence of J. Mills Thornton's study of Alabama politics and Michael F. Holt's controversial work, The Political Crisis of the 1850s. Kruman credits Thornton and Holt with having shown the importance of viewing the sectional conflict of North and South in the context of the political culture of the 1850s present at both national and state levels. He echoes their call to avoid studying antebellum politics through the "prism" of the War Between the States -- such work has already lent confusion to and hampered understanding of the sectional conflict. Kruman says that competitive party politics revolved around the question of which party best could preserve not slavery per se, but rather republicanism and equality for the South within the nation. Much of his information is quantitative, but he deftly works it in to make a clear exposition of his arguments.

Kruman acknowledges the fact that North Carolina was atypical, even among states of the Upper South, in keeping a vibrant two-party system during the War for Southern Independence. During the turbulent 1850s, both Whigs and Democrats struggled to retain their constituencies. Internal improvements had by now become popular among voters, forcing the Democrats to concede to Whig calls for progressive reform, while Whigs, faced with the open break with northern members of their party, were compelled to support the Democratic call for strict interpretation of the constitution, which essentially made them proslavery in their rhetoric. Thus, both parties worked to retain and secure a constituency by parading as the true defenders of the Southern way of life, endorsing republicanism, democracy and slavery.

Because North Carolina faced the same issues as did her sister states in the sectional crisis and war experience, Kruman hopes to understand why exactly the two-party system broke down in the South by examining how and why two-party politics remained vibrant in North Carolina during the War. At the very least, such a study emphasizes the complexity of the Southern experience, reinforcing the differences between the Upper and Lower South. Partisan politics emerged soon after the state's two parties joined to endorse secession and entrance into the Confederacy. Major sources of unhappiness included the increasing centralization of the Confederate government and the policies of conscription and confiscation that it unfurled, the governor's appointment policies, and the Union occupation of the North Carolina coast. These issues were able to keep alive partisan division largely because North Carolina was spared any significant fighting within her borders until Sherman arrived in the closing days of the conflict.

Kruman's study basically ends at 1865. Although I disagree with some of his conclusions about an eventual breakdown of two-party politics in the state in the later Reconstruction years, I heartily applaud his interpretation of North Carolina politics before and during the War Between the States. Kruman's intention is not to condemn or absolve the South from blame but rather to objectively show the complexities of Southern antebellum politics. Southerners were far from unified in secessionist sentiment, even in 1861; unionism was particularly strong in the Upper South up until the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. Only an understanding of how national, state and local politics impinged on each other, working through the vehicle of the two-party system, can allow us to understand the basic nature of the political crisis of the 1850s. Kruman's study is a praiseworthy attempt to forego a monolithic interpretation of Southern history and instead to study the complex internal issues that pervaded and essentially defined one Southern state's (North Carolina's) antebellum society.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 16 May 2005

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