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The Fragile Fabric of Union

, 384 pages

9 halftones

August 2009



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The Fragile Fabric of Union

Cotton, Federal Politics, and the Global Origins of the Civil War

Winner, 2010 Bennett H. Wall Award, Southern Historical Association

In this fresh study Brian Schoen views the Deep South and its cotton industry from a global perspective, revisiting old assumptions and providing new insights into the region, the political history of the United States, and the causes of the Civil War.

Schoen takes a unique and broad approach. Rather than seeing the Deep South and its planters as isolated from larger intellectual, economic, and political developments, he places the region firmly within them. In doing so, he demonstrates that the region’s prominence within the modern world—and not its opposition to it—indelibly shaped Southern history.

The place of "King Cotton" in the sectional thinking and budding nationalism of the Lower South seems obvious enough, but Schoen reexamines the ever-shifting landscape of international trade from the 1780s through the eve of the Civil War. He argues that the Southern cotton trade was essential to the European economy, seemingly worth any price for Europeans to protect and maintain, and something to defend aggressively in the halls of Congress. This powerful association gave the Deep South the confidence to ultimately secede from the Union.

By integrating the history of the region with global events, Schoen reveals how white farmers, planters, and merchants created a "Cotton South," preserved its profitability for many years, and ensured its dominance in the international raw cotton markets. The story he tells reveals the opportunities and costs of cotton production for the Lower South and the United States.

Brian Schoen is an associate professor of history at Ohio University.

"Schoen has written an immensely important history of southern political economy, one that is destined to be prominent in future studies of the Old South."

"Schoen's chronological approach in five chapter develops his arguments and does a masterful job of keeping the focus on cotton, its politics, its exploitation of slaves, and ultimately the self-delusions of the cotton states vis-à-vis the world... An excellent book on all counts. Highly recommended."

"A sophisticated, nuanced analysis of elite political-economic rhetoric in the antebellum South."

"In sure-footed fashion, Brian Schoen guides the reader through overlooked issues in the oft-told account of southern secession."

"Students of the causes of the Civil War should read The Fragile Fabric of Union. It is well written and extensively documented... The author brings the issues to life by illustrating how economic self interested colored the views of the South to the point that it was willing to sunder the Union and go to war."

"I found myself reading this book in light of current events. Schoen does a good job pointing out that legislative victors may rue their triumph, while losers may inadvertently reap benefits from loathed legislation... The book is clearly written."

"Impressive... Adds an intriguing new dimension to ongoing debates about the nature of southern economic development, what motivated southern states to secede, why they seceded when they did, and ultimately what caused the Civil War."

"In this provocative book, he forces historians who have not done so already to discount 'Lost Cause' lore and pay greater attention to southerners who thought they could use their monopoly in raw cotton as leverage to advance the interests of their region in the larger world."

"An important contribution to the reinterpretation of plantation slavery and the origins of the U.S. Civil War... A lucidly written, richly researched, and convincing analysis of the global forces that shaped the politics of the southern slaveholders."

"There is much to admire in Brian Schoen's ambitious new book... A remarkable scholarly debut that represents one of the most important studies of 'why the South fought' to be released in over a generation."

"Schoen's readable prose deserves a wide audience. His explanations of tariffs and other economic issues are clear, and he has admirable command of a wide range of political and economic subjects (both domestically and in foreign relations). This book will be a welcome addition to the bookshelf of any scholar of the antebellum era."

"Schoen extends the transatlantic dimensions of this era; just as the politics of slavery were shaped by developments in the Caribbean and Europe, so too did the political economy of cotton stretch throughout the Atlantic world. This book should be read by all those interested in broadening their understanding of both the Atlantic world of the nineteenth century and the coming of the American Civil War."

"Schoen challenges previous studies and underscores the impact of external global economics as a primary cause of the Civil War. This contention is likely to stir controversy and healthy debate."

"Schoen's Fragile Fabric commendably sheds renewed light on the conflict's origins at the local, sectional, and transatlantic level."

"Schoen effectively links ideology, institutions, and econometrics... [and] skillfully places the nineteenth-century South and U.S. on the global stage."

"Specialists will welcome Schoen's deeply researched, well-crafter, and sophisticated book."

"The insights presented here are novel and require the engagement of all scholars of Old South politics and economic processes... Provocative, well-written."

"Anyone interested in the growing importance of the cotton industry to the South during the ante-bellum period, and to American and global politics, will find this work of use."

"In The Fragile Fabric of Union, Brian Schoen offers historians a compelling, highly readable, and historiographically significant account of the exact circumstances that led to Southern secession in the late 1860 and early 1861... The book deserves to be widely read, particularly in graduate seminars of the Early American Republic, the American Civil War, and American Economic History."

"A complex portrayal of southern cotton planters that will revise the way many scholars interpret the political economy of slavery."

"In this bold new interpretation of the contours of southern political economy between the Constitution and the Civil War, Brian Schoen skillfully embeds U.S. history in its proper international context. The Fragile Fabric of Union marks the impressive debut of an exceptional young historian."

"This fascinating and deeply researched book challenges enduring myths about the Cotton South and the roots of the Civil War. From the vantage point of global political economy, it sheds new light on how American slaveholders aggressively pursued commercial power."

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