Crisis Of Fear: Book Analysis


Slavery was a central issue in the life of Americans in the larger part of the 19th century. Slaves were crucial to the economy of American states and the role that they played could not be ignored. However, during the second half of 19


century, there were concerted efforts to abolish slavery and emancipate all the slaves that were in America. The issue of emancipating the slaves was not received well by all Americans. There were vested interests at play and soon, the issue became so politicized as to affect the outcome of the presidential elections of 1860. There were those people who felt that the slaves should be emancipated unconditionally and the slave trade abolished. However, others, especially those who relied so much on the slaves for their economical upkeep, felt that this move will vanquish them economically.

The above scenario is what inspired Steven A. Channing to come up with a book in 1974 that was revolving around this issue. He wrote a book titled Crisis of Fear: Secession in South


The book was published in

1974 by a New

York based publisher, Norton and Company.

In this book, Channing vividly describes the crisis that was riding through America as far as slavery was concerned in mid 19th century. He refers to this crisis as crisis of fear. His analysis revolves around the experiences of the state of Carolina. This was one of American states that were so involved with slavery such that any changes that could have affected slavery could also affect the state in one way or the other. North Carolina pushed for the abolishment of slavery and emancipation of the slaves while the South pulled in the opposite direction. This tug of war led to secession of South Carolina from the union. The southerners, according to Channing, were in a crisis of fear, fearing what abolishment of slavery will do to their economic life.

Crisis Of Fear: Book Analysis

Central Argument of Crisis of Fear

In this book, Channing argues that the secession of Southern Carolina was based on the southerner’s fear of what emancipation and abolishment of slavery will do to their economic life. In other words, Channing is arguing that South Carolina seceded in a fear crisis stemming from the uncertainty of effects of abolishment of slavery. The writer is of the view that all South Carolina citizens were in what he terms as “a state of fear and distrust” (Brooks 2005, 25). They were frustrated and that is the reason why they opted to secede from the Union and lead their independent lives.

Apart from the fear of slave emancipation and abolishment of slavery, there were also some other reasons why the southerners were forced to secede. The first is the raid that was carried out on Harpers Ferry (Brooks 2005, 25). This was perpetrated by John Brown, a feared and loathed figure in southern Carolina. He was a Northerner himself. The fact that there was likelihood of the American presidency going to a Republican also instilled terror in the hearts of the southerners. This means that, according to Channing, there was also a political twist to the secession. This scenario, as aptly presented by Channing, creates an impression of a citizenry caught in a crisis of fear.

According to Channing, the crisis of fear for South Carolina started way back in 1859. The aforementioned Harpers Ferry raid was the impetus for this panic (Brooks 2005, 28). The perpetrator, John Brown, represented all the fears and anxieties of the south. This was especially the case with his support for slave insurrection. This is something, according to Channing, that the south has always feared. When Brown came along and started advocating for it, the southerners were at long last able to give their fears a human face. The population of the slaves in South Carolina surpassed that of the whites. This has not been an issue before because there were legislations that ensured that, despite their sheer number, the blacks will never rise above the minority whites (Brooks 2005, 28). However, this was been challenged by John and his Northern lieutenants as they fought for the abolishment of slavery.

Crisis Of Fear: Book Analysis

The Harpers raid could just be that; a raid just like any other. However, South Carolinians, having picked a paranoid attribute along the way, read a lot from it. They took it as a plot orchestrated by the abolitionists against them. They could not fail to see that it was organized with the blessings of the highest political authority in the state, and as such, a very crucial political issue (Brooks 2005, 30). They viewed it as a sneak preview of a greater scheme been hatched against them.

Channing argues that no one could claim that the fears that precipitated in the crisis were baseless. In the contrary, apart from the raid, some events that followed fueled them more and more. There followed newspaper bulletins that carried the census estimates. These were to be found on Brown’s maps. There was a likelihood that these could have only originated from the governmental. It is thus not far fetched, argues Channing, to claim that the government was deliberately carrying out a propaganda campaign aimed at unsettling the southerners (Brooks 2005, 30). The truth or lack of it in this statement is debatable, but the fact that these figures, whether right or skewed to serve a predetermined end, instilled more fear among the southerners.

The fear fed on itself and led to the revival of vigilante teams (Brooks 2005, 29). At this stage, the fear crisis has taken a completely new dimension as the southerners tried to fend off the northerners and to survive. Just like any vigilante group, they engaged in harassment of suspected abolitionist amongst them. The threat of these groups was amplified when they were reorganized and restructured to make them more effective. This was done by Barnwell Rhett. The groups were given the mandate to hold just and fair trials to suspected individuals (Brooks 2005, 26). In other words, the groups were legalized and entrenched in the white man’s society. Channing describes this as the culmination of “institutionalization of the southerners’ fear” (Brooks 2005, 28).

Channing could not afford to end his book without arguing on the significance of 1860 presidential elections. He is of the view that the institutionalization of the vigilant groups led to factions within the state. There are those people who did not see the need for such a reaction, as they did not consider the issue at hand to be a matter of life and death. However, the radicals will settle for nothing short of secession (Brooks 2005, 28). The outcome of the election would determine the fate of slavery, and the southerners wished to influence it to their favor. However, this was made impossible by the splits within and finally, Lincoln, a Republican, took over the

Crisis Of Fear: Book Analysis

reigns of power (Brooks 2005, 30).

Strengths and Weaknesses of this Book

The major strength of this book is that it gives a point by point description of the fear crisis of the southerners. The writer describes vividly the genesis of their fears. The progression of the fears, and how they were feeding on themselves and in some cases encouraged along by outside influences, is also given. The major historical events, like the Harper’s raid, and the significance that they had is laid down clearly. This makes it easier for the reader to make the elusive connection between historical events and their influence on the direction of history.

However, the major weakness of the book is that the writer gives a one sided story. This is because he gives largely the accounts and opinions of the southerners, ignoring that the northerners also had a hand in the developments. The book would make a better and informative reading if the opinions of both parties are equally represented. It is also obvious from the tone of the book that Channing was sympathetic of the southerners’ cause. As much as he has the right to form his own opinions, he should let the readers form theirs also rather than forcing his on them.

An Analysis of Channing’s Arguments

The way that Channing presents his arguments makes them more credible and convincing. The use of the political machinations of the north, like the Harper’s raid to justify the fears of the southerners is highly commendable. There is no doubt that slavery is immoral and unethical. But Channing ingeniously avoids contradicting this by illustrating that the southerners’ fights were not just for slavery. They were trying to safeguard their way of life, how they have been used to leading their lives. There is no one who can deny them this opportunity, and Channing brings this out very well.

Crisis Of Fear: Book Analysis

However, the credibility of the arguments is watered down by the fact that there are subtle signs of the writer trying a bit too hard to convince the readers. He is trying to force his opinions on the justification of the fights down the readers’ throat. This condescending attitude makes it hard for the reader to believe the impartiality of the writer. Channing also pays a lot of attention to the way slavery shaped the southerners’ lives while ignoring the fact that there are other issues which could have been affecting them. For example, maybe the crisis could also have had effects from economic crunch or something similar.


Channing spends a lot of efforts trying to convince the reader that the lives of the southerners were at a risk if there was abolishment of slavery. Their lives will be changed and affected negatively. However, he does not give the reader a description of their life. As such, the reader is unable to follow on how slavery could have affected ways of life that he is not familiar with. However, despite these few weaknesses, Crisis of Fear is a rich historical text.

Crisis Of Fear: Book Analysis


Brooks, Samantha H. Crisis of Fear: Book Review. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005.