The Confederate Republic: A Revolution Against Politics.  By George C. Rable.  (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, c. 1994.  ISBN 0-8078-2144-6).

In discussing why the South lost the Civil War, many historians claim that the Confederacy not having a defined party system as being a big reason.  Due to the lack of parties, the Southern government was severely weaker, and therefore could not handle the burdens that warfare placed on the government.  However, in George C. Rable’s book, The Confederate Republic: A Revolution Against Politics, he argues that the South did have a pre-party political climate.  This book covers from Confederate secession to the fall of the Confederacy, and largely focuses on the areas of Richmond, Georgia, and North Carolina.  Rable contends that the Southerners desired to achieve a perfect Republican system in modeling their government.  Therefore, the South sought a nation in which no organized political parties existed.  Organized political parties were viewed as a corrupt component of the old American system, which is why they must be eliminated.  Southerners held a higher goal, looking to establish a society without campaigning and electioneering.  In the words of Rable, Southerners clamored for a “revolution against politics” (1).  This “revolution against politics” was the main force behind Confederate nationalism as promoted by Jefferson Davis.  While trying to establish this Republican model, there were two main groups who vied for control.  The libertarians clamored for individual freedom and rights, along with local authority.  Meanwhile, the nationalists advocated national unity along with centralization.  Nationalists stressed the nation as collective enterprise of the political community, and advocated a centralized war effort.  The leader of the nationalists was the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, while men such as Robert Toombs, Alexander Stephens, and Joseph Brown led those with libertarian beliefs.  These parties largely were divided over two major issues.  These issues were conscription and the suspension of habeas corpus.  Since there were no organized political parties, these differences were aired in either public discussions and confrontations, or personal conflicts between politicians.  Yet, despite their differences, the libertarians and nationalists were not vehemently in opposition against one another, as they shared several similarities.  Both groups contended that they would protect the institution of slavery and protect Southern liberty.

            Despite the prominence of these two groups, most Southerners still held an anti-party attitude.  Rable looks quite favorably upon this attitude and claims that organized political parties would not have strengthened the republic.  Consequently, Rable claims that it was not politics that lost the war for the Confederacy.  Instead, the author places the blame on military and economy.  The author illustrates that the Confederate government was largely unorganized and lacked experience, yet that was still not the reason for the demise of the Confederacy.  For the most part, the author is sympathetic with Jefferson Davis, noting the many obstacles he faced.  There were those within and outside the government who were either way too radical or too conservative, and Davis had to contend with both of them.  Despite the flaws within the government, Rable asserts that economics and military were bigger reasons for the fall of the Confederacy.  In discussing the military aspect of the war, Rable discusses Jefferson Davis’ noted disagreements with Joseph E. Johnston and P. G. T. Beauregard.  Also, the author illustrates Davis’s good relationships with men such as John Pemberton.  Rable effectively illustrates that the military and government were directly correlated with one another.  The more successful Confederate military commanders were on the battlefield, the more successful Jefferson Davis was at promoting nationalism.

            In this work, Rable challenges the largely held notion that the South did not have political parties.  Although Rable agrees that the South was largely an anti-political climate, he illustrates that two groups were quite active in Southern politics, the nationalists and the libertarians.  The nationalists clamored for unity and a centralized war effort, while the libertarians advocated individual freedom along with local authority.  Davis was the leader of the nationalists while Alexander Stephens was the most recognized libertarian.  These two groups were largely divided over the issues of conscription and the suspension of habeas corpus.  Yet both nationalists and libertarians claimed that they would protect slavery and the liberty of the Southern people.  Throughout this work, Rable displays the many flaws within the unorganized Confederate government, and illustrates that a perfect Republican system was not feasible at the time.  Despite the many errors within the Confederate administration, the author contends that the military and poor economy of the South were more critical in the defeat of the Confederacy.

Albert Cox

Texas Christian University


The Confederate Republic:  A Revolution Against Politics, By George C. Rable. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994, 1-302.

            In The Confederate Republic, George C. Rable gives an overview of how the Confederacy functioned politically.  Before the Civil War commenced, Southerners were members of either the Whig or Democrat parties.  After secession, Southerners formed the Confederate States of America.  Confederates proclaimed that they created a unified nation, and they sought to do away with their former party allegiances.  Rable argues that the Confederacy sought to mirror the politics of early America.  The Framers of the American Constitution believed that parties were the bane of any society.  The Confederates believed that their nation aligned with the Founders intentions, while the Union had become corrupt.  Southerners contended that their nation expressed a true form of republicanism.  Rable notes that Confederates expressed republicanism as freedom for white males and the ability to possess slaves (1-302). 

            In forming the Confederacy, Southerners established their own constitution.  This constitution allowed Southerners to form a bicameral congress and created an executive branch.  According to Rable, “The Confederacy’s founding fathers initially had few qualms about creating a powerful presidency….  The possibility of war … influenced their thinking, but antebellum political … experience … affected their decisions.  [They] agreed that the president should not be a party leader but instead should stand as a patriot rallying the people…” (59).  The Confederacy’s constitution also defended the institution of slavery.  Confederates contended that they understood republicanism better than Northerners.  For the South, republicanism meant that government did not infringe on the liberties of whites.  Southerners’ version of republicanism also endorsed the enslavement of blacks by whites (1-287). 

            Before the war, the Southerners voted as Whigs or Democrats.  With the formation of the Confederacy, parties were no longer seen as beneficial to society.  According to Rable, Southerners believed that “[c]ampaigning, stump speeches, patronage, and demagoguery had seriously weakened the Union, nearly destroyed public virtue, and fatally alienated the sections” (63).  Confederates looked to create a purer form of politics.  Instead of allowing political parties to dominate, Southerners wanted to select candidates and to hold elections with the least amount of commotion.  Because Confederates discouraged the formation of political parties, many elections only had one candidate.  Southerners believed that these forms of elections would demonstrate to the Union that they had formed a unified country.  Rable notes that many people did not vote, because they believed that their votes did not matter.  Although there were no Whig and Democrat parties in the Confederacy, some voters chose candidates based on their former ties to partisanship (17-235). 

            In many ways, the Confederacy attempted to duplicate the Revolutionary War.  On the Confederate seal was a depiction of George Washington.  Confederates compared Davis to Washington.  Davis even gave his inaugural speech on Washington’s birthday (23-252).  Confederates believed that the Framers of the American Constitution were virtuous and had sought to create a moral form of government.  Southerners hoped that their government and leaders would parallel that earlier period.  Confederates believed that abolitionists and Abraham Lincoln brought corruption to the Union (64-252). 

            Southerners maintained that for a republican society to exist it must permit slavery to be present.  With Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Southerners realized that their society was in grave danger.  The Union’s victory brought an end to the war and to slavery.  Rable’s The Confederate Republic shows how the Confederacy hoped to function.  As a nation, they sought to do away with parties and vice.  They believed that they could create a republican nation and still allow whites to own slaves (1-302).  Unlike Joel H. Silbey, who shows that the 19th century was a period that had high voter turnout, Rable notes that unopposed elections kept Confederate voters in their homes on their farms. 

Andrea Ondruch                                                                                   Texas Christian University


The Confederate Republic: A Revolution Against Politics. By George C. Rable. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 416 p.

          A prevailing view among historians and civil war buffs alike is that the lack of a two-party political system was a detriment to the Confederate States of America.  In his book The Confederate Republic, George Rable contends that the fact that the Confederacy had no discernable political parties was actually a strength of the fledgling nation.  The author believes that the “revolution against politics” reflected an ongoing battle fought between competing political cultures.  Rable chronicles the efforts of the Confederates to create a republic and a political society in their view that continued to follow the path that the “Founding Fathers” of the American Revolution laid out almost a century earlier.  Well written and interesting, Rable’s work provides a new interpretation to the notion that the absence of a formal party system in the Confederacy hindered its efforts at war and government.

          The author states that the “book will explore Confederate political culture in its own right rather than as a reflection of the problematic character of Southern nationalism or as a possible factor in Confederate defeat.” (1)  In doing so, Rable’s emphasis is on the values, beliefs, and assumptions that laid the foundation for a Confederate political culture.  He also focuses the immediate questions and problems that inhibited Southern leadership.  A major theme prevalent through the book is the constant tug of war between political ideology and political practice, something that still rings true even in today’s society.  This battle between ideology and function formed the basis, in Rable’s view, for conflict and differences between often ambitious and individualistic political leaders.  Most of the disputes came about due to disagreement over how to create the “purified republicanism” the Southern leaders thought was essential to a Confederate nation.  Their goal was class, social, civic harmony devoid of corruption, demagoguery, and free of the evils of partisanship.

          Rable develops his analysis chronologically and he outlines Confederate politics from the crisis of secession to the end of the war.  The author argues that antipathy towards national parties and the existing political system swept through the South in the years leading up to the Civil War.  This attitude, which held sway during the war, coupled with the hope that Southerners were creating a pristine republic based on the Founding Fathers ideology, helped the Southern war effort.  When things went well for the Confederacy, attacks and diatribes against the government seemed to lessen in their amount and volatility.  It looked selfish and factious.  Additionally, public perception and anti-political party ideology made political opposition to Jefferson Davis much less effective and less dangerous and than it would have been otherwise. (300)  According to Rable, only North Carolina remotely exhibited anything resembling a party system but in the end this did not truly affect Confederate policies as a whole.

          The author argues that after the war the Southern leadership class emerged with a deep mistrust of politics and parties.  This affected their views of Reconstruction and even hindered the process of rejoining the national Democratic party.  Rable believes that when all is said and done, “the political values that were so central to the Confederate experience remained important in Southern po0litics long after the Confederate republic had disappeared.” (302)  In some ways, purified republicanism still rears its head in the Southern and lately Western states of the United States.  Although the efforts to create a new nation failed, the Confederacy’s “revolution against politics” was on its own terms, a success and helped develop a Southern nationalism committed to antiparty ideology.

          Rable’s work is an analytical narrative that successfully explores the interactions among Confederate political culture, events, and leadership.  He successfully examines the idealism and ideology that framed the Confederacy’s path to a purified republicanism from of government.  A well-written, albeit in some places a bit too flowery in its use of language, Rable’s work is a worthy addition to the historiography of Civil War politics and for that matter, Southern politics in general.

Halen J. Watkins