In this thought-provoking study, Jonathan M. Atkins provides a fresh look at the partisan ideological battles that marked the political culture of antebellum Tennessee. He argues that the legacy of party politics was a key factor in shaping Tennessee's hesitant course during the crisis of Union in 1860–61.
Between the Jacksonian era and the outbreak of the Civil War, Atkins demonstrates, the competition between Democrats and Whigs in Tennessee was as heated as any in the country. The conflict centered largely on differing conceptions of republican liberty and each party's contention that the other posed a serious threat to that liberty. As the slavery question pushed to the forefront of national politics, Tennessee's parties absorbed the issue into the partisan tumult that already existed. Both parties pledged to defend southern interests while preserving the integrity of the Union. Appeals for the defense of liberty and Union interests proved effective with voters and profoundly influenced the state's actions during the secession crisis. The belief that a new national Union party could preserve the Union while checking the Lincoln administration encouraged voters initially to reject secession. With the outbreak of war, however, West and Middle Tennesseans chose to accept disunion to avoid what they saw as coercion and military despotism by the North. East Tennesseans, meanwhile, preferred loyalty to the Union over membership in a Southern confederacy dominated by a slaveholding aristocracy.
No previous book has so clearly detailed the role of party politics and ideology in Tennessee's early history. As Atkins shows, the ideological debate helps to explain not only the character and survival of Tennessee's party system but also the peristent strength of unionism in a state that ultimately joined the Southern cause.
The Author: Jonathan M. Atkins is assistant professor of history at Berry College in Mt. Berry, Georgia.