Sunday, June 01, 2008

Phillips: "Missouri's Confederate: Claiborne Fox Jackson and the Creation of Southern Identity in the Border West"

[Missouri's Confederate: Claiborne Fox Jackson and the Creation of Southern Identity in the Border West by Christopher Phillips (Univ. of Missouri Press, 2000) Cloth, photos, 2 maps, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 309/355 ISBN: 978-0826212726 $34.95 ]

Christopher Phillips's unwillingness to embrace the traditional approach to Civil War biography, first with Nathaniel Lyon and now Claiborne Jackson, marks him as an innovative voice, and an always interesting historian of note. While the psychological profile of Lyon went far beyond the standard expectations of biography, Missouri's Confederate adheres even less to the traditional template. With Jackson, the biographer declares himself uncertain of whether his subject is even deserving of a full biography [in my opinion, an unfounded hesitancy]. Searching for a means to escape from this dilemma, Phillips developed a plan for a dual focus study, part biography part social & political history of Missouri. The end result is the intriguing study Missouri's Confederate: Claiborne Fox Jackson and the Creation of Southern Identity in the Border West.

A native Kentuckian, Claiborne Jackson sought an independent beginning in Missouri in 1827. By skill and hard work he established himself as a merchant in the Boon's Lick region along the Missouri River, the area of the state with the highest density of slaves and slave ownership. His heavy involvement in business and banking, not to mention Democratic politics, is indicative of a unique brand of Missouri political society where independent, pro-slavery agrarian ideals were not incompatible with the acceptance and promotion of industry and commerce.

While the vast majority of residents hailed from slave states, Phillips develops the notion of Missouri as sectionally independent, a state that identified itself as western rather than northern or southern. According to the author, it wasn't until the swelling northern abolitionist attacks of the 1840s, and the conversion of powerful Democratic senator Thomas Hart Benton to "Free Soilism", that large numbers of Missouri citizens embraced a southern identity. Unfortunately, Phillips does not fully develop his concept of just what this identity meant for Missourians beyond a stiffer defense of slavery and its extension. On the other hand, the author very ably traces the rowdy political conflict over slavery and annexation between "Old Bullion" Benton and Jackson (a relatively minor figure at the time), the result of which was the discrediting of both men and the rise of pro-slavery expansionist David Rice Atchison. Phillips also notes the rise of St. Louis, the rapidly expanding city that became an almost alien presence in the state and a direct threat to the political clout of the Boon's Lick leaders.

Politically irrelevant by the early 1850s, Jackson utilized his Sappington family connections to set himself up as a planter/farmer in Saline County, biding his time for a comeback. Although Phillips does not make clear the details of Jackson's transformation from pariah to elected governor, the rise of the Republican party and the Kansas troubles largely snuffed out Free Soil appeal amongst Missourians, breathing renewed political life into the discarded careers of many of the state's prominent conservative Democrats. The author confirms the accepted notion that Jackson, who harbored secessionist views, projected moderate views simply as a means to get elected. Unfortunately, from this point on, Phillips appeared to be in a rush to complete his study. Out of 300+ pages of main text, only a few dozen cover the turbulent period from the firing on Ft. Sumter to Jackson's December 1862 death from cancer and tuberculosis. This will likely be a source of disappointment for those individuals primarily interested in Jackson's actions during the secession winter and the early Civil War period.

However, I wouldn't recommend that readers allow the deficiency in wartime coverage to deter them from reading this well balanced and deeply researched political biography. Phillips's overall theme that Missourians considered themselves foremost as conservative westerners situated above the sectional fray (with a southern identity primarily formed in response to northern pressures) is to a large degree persuasive. As a profile of Claiborne Jackson's life and career, certainly no other work approaches the depth of Missouri's Confederate. The book should also be regarded as essential reading for those students interested in learning more about the complexity of border state politics, and the democratic model Missourians hoped to create for the new West.

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