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William Kenneth Boyd, 1879-1938
North Carolina on the Eve of Secession
Washington: [American Historical Association], 1912.


William Boyd's North Carolina on the Eve of Secession discusses the factors that led North Carolina—one of the last Southern states to join the Confederacy—to secede from the Union. These factors include social structure, intra-state sectionalism, and industrial organization, along with the influence of national debates over slavery and states' rights. Boyd maintains that North Carolina of the late 1850s was largely populated by small, non-slave- holding farmers who felt few of slavery's effects; the state lacked unity primarily due to sectional diversity in geography, race, economy, and culture. He notes that North Carolina politics was marked by an isolationism that gave way to conservatism, and that early in the nineteenth century, most leaders were strong advocates of states' rights, as seen in the tariff nullification controversy of 1827-1832. Yet, with the rise of the Whig Party in the mid-1850s, there were some powerful lawmakers who favored a strong Federal government. This group, according to Boyd, gained popularity in the non-slaveholding western, central, and coastal areas of the state with its platform of government-funded aid and improvement. Boyd also gives examples of some of the events that led to secession. As the national debate over slavery heated up with the Compromise of 1850, the state's Whigs and Democrats began to factionalize, and N.C. legislators debated secession. When the 1851 election's campaign platforms brought the issue to the people, however, pro-secession candidates were defeated soundly. Nevertheless, Boyd labels these candidates "a strong, active states-rights minority" of "extremists" who survived by feeding off of the state's "radical spirit," which until 1861 steadily intensified, manifesting itself in increasing abolitionist arrests and public violence against Republicans.

Boyd also points to two non-slavery-related issues that contributed to secession. The first, an 1852 Congressional proposal to distribute public lands among the states, spurred a bitterly contentious gubernatorial campaign in 1858. The second was an "inequality in the revenue system" that Boyd claims disadvantaged landholders and mechanics with inappropriate tax burdens. This 'inequality' led to the formation of the Raleigh Workingmen's Association and "agitation" among the affected groups.

Then, during the presidential election of 1860, further discord between the pro-Union and pro-secession Democrats and successful Whig appeals to North Carolinians' patriotism deepened divisions in the state, thereby preventing any group from gaining enough power to enact their proposed platforms. The state thus did not act on the secession question until after the battle at Fort Sumter. Even then, Boyd asserts, North Carolina only grudgingly left the Union to avoid "fighting against the South."

Works Consulted: William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, vol. 1, Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.

Kevin Cherry

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