The essentially tragic political fate of the American South in the nineteenth century resulted from what Robert F. Durden calls a "self-inflicted wound" -- the gradual surrender of the white majority to the pride, fears, and hates of racism. In this gracefully written and closely reasoned study, Durden traces the course of southern political life from the predominantly optimistic, nationalistic Jeffersonian era to the sullenly sectional, chronically defensive decades following the Civil War.
Politics, as the clearest reflection of the southern electorate's collective hopes and fears, illustrates the South's transition from buoyant nationalism to aggrieved sectionalism. Like the rest of the new nation, the South entered the nineteenth century as proud heirs of the American Revolution and its ideology of liberty, property, and equal rights. But for southerners, from the 1820s on, that liberty came increasingly to mean the freedom to own slave property and to take that property into the nation's new western territories.
As the possibility of a ban on slavery in the territories rose to the center of national attention during and after the Mexican War, the South's views on the "peculiar institution" became increasingly defensive and intransigent. The presidential victory in 1860 of an all-northern party pledged to the exclusion of slavery from the territories made the Civil War inevitable. In its aftermath, white southerners sought and ultimately found, in the hegemony of the Democratic party, other ways to maintain their national position and their dominance over the black minority. But the South would long suffer the aftereffects of its "self-inflicted wound."