Yes it Was About Slavery

slavescars

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I have began to write about racism in regard to the Confederate Flag controversy and what I call the “sanitized history” of organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans which in their revisionist history seek to divorce the actions of Confederate soldiers from the cause for which they fought. As a disclaimer, I could be a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans based on the service of members of both sides of my family in the Confederate army. Likewise, if I was a real white Supremacist I could boast of my family’s slave owning past in the western part of Virginia, the land now known as West Virginia. Yes, my family were slave owners who fought for the Confederacy. At one time in my young life I was proud of that. but as a historian who is all for “unsanitized” history I have to admit that the sanitized history of the Lost Cause is not history, it is at best a romantic myth, but more correctly a bold faced lie. 

So tonight I post a section of my Civil War and Gettysburg text. I hope that it is both challenging and thought provoking. You can expect a number of posts dealing with this issue in the coming days.

Have a nice and thoughtful night,

Peace

Padre Steve+

If we are to really understand the Civil War we have to understand the ideological clash between Abolitionists in the North, and Southern proponents of slavery. Both the ideologies of the Abolitionists who believed that African Americans were created by God and had the same rights as whites, as well as the arguments of Southern political leaders that blacks were inferior and slavery was a positive good, were buttressed by profoundly religious arguments which were related directly to a divergence in values. These diverging values crept into every aspect of life and as such it was this “conflict of values, rather than a conflict of interests or a conflict of cultures, lay at the root of the sectional schism.” [1]

Slavery was the key issue that permeated all aspects of the Civil War to include the cultural, the economic and the ideological. David M. Potter summed up this understanding of the connection between the ideological, cultural and economic aspects of the conflict and just how the issue of slavery connected all three realms in the American Civil War:

“These three explanations – cultural, economic and ideological – have long been the standard formulas for explaining the sectional conflict. Each has been defended as though it were necessarily incompatible with the other two. But culture, economic interest, and values may all reflect the same fundamental forces at work in a society, in which case each will appear as an aspect of the other. Diversity of culture may produce both diversity of interests and diversity of values. Further, the differences between a slaveholding and a nonslaveholding society would be reflected in all three aspects. Slavery represented an inescapable ethical question which precipitated a sharp conflict of values.” [2]

Sadly this is something that those who study the war from a purely military perspective tend to miss, or even willingly gloss over in order make the war more palatable to their own prejudice tend to “blur the reality that slavery was at the heart of the matter, ignore the baser realities of the brutal fighting, romanticize our own home-grown terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, and distort the consequences of the Civil War that still intrude on our national life.” [3] For many people it is far easier not to deal with the harsh reality that slavery and racism was at the heart of the issue and escape to the bloodless romanticism which even ignores the human cost of the war, approximately 750,000 military dead alone. If we extrapolate the percentage of the population that that 750,000 represents and compared it to today’s census that number would be the equivalent of 7.5 million Americans dead. This is a fact that many Civil War buffs tend to ignore.

The political ends of the Civil War grew out of the growing cultural, economic, ideological and religious differences between the North and South that had been widening since the 1830s. However, slavery was the one issue which helped produce this conflict in values and it was “basic to the cultural divergence of the North and South, because it was inextricably fused into the key elements of southern life – the staple crop of the plantation system, the social and political ascendency of the planter class, the authoritarian system of social control.” [4] Without slavery and the Southern commitment to an economy based on slave labor, the southern economy would have most likely undergone a similar transformation as what happened in the North; thus the economic divergence between North and South would “been less clear cut, and would have not met in such head-on collision.” [5] But slavery was much more than an economic policy for Southerners; it was a key component of their religious, racial and philosophic worldview.

The issue of slavery even divided the ante-bellum United States on what the words freedom and liberty meant. The dispute can be seen in the writings of many before the war, with each side emphasizing their particular understanding of these concepts. In the South, freedom was reserved for those who occupied the positions of economic power; slavery was key to that from not only an economic point of view but as a social philosophy. The concept of human equality, which was so much a part of the Declaration of Independence was downplayed George Fitzhugh, a planter and slave owner in eastern Virginia commented that that concept “is practically impossible, and directly conflicts with all government, all separate property, and all social existence.” [6]

The political philosophy such as Fitzhugh’s, which was quite common, was buttressed by a profound religious belief that it was the South’s God ordained mission to maintain and expand slavery. One Methodist preacher in his justification of slavery wrote, “God as he is infinitely wise, just and holy never could authorize the practice of moral evil. But God has authorized the practice of slavery, not only by bare permission of his providence, but by the express permission of his word.” [7] Buttressed by such scriptural arguments Southerners increasingly felt that they were the only people following God. The Northern abolitionists as well as those who advocated for the concept of human equality and free labor were heretics to be damned. As such the “South’s ideological isolation within an increasingly antislavery world was not a stigma or a source of guilt but a badge of righteousness and a foundation for national identity and pride.” [8]

Speaking of the necessity for slavery, as well as limitations on the equality of human beings no matter what their race or sex, Fitzhugh penned words that explained that human relationships were not to be seen in terms of individual liberty, “but in relations of strict domination and subordination. Successful societies were those whose members acknowledged their places within that hierarchy.” [9]

Fitzhugh was quite caustic when he discussed the real implications of his philosophy:

“We conclude that about nineteen out of twenty individuals have “a natural and inalienable right” to be taken care of and protected, to have guardians, trustees, husbands or masters; in other words they have a natural and inalienable right to be slaves. The one in twenty are clearly born or educated in some way fitted for command and liberty.” [10]

Fitzhugh’s chilling conclusion was summarized in the words “Liberty for the few – slavery in every form, for the mass.” [11]

But many Southerners, including many poor whites, especially the Yeoman farmers who were the backbone of the Southern populace did not see or understand the limitations that were placed on their own liberty by the slavery system and instead saw slavery as the guarantee of their economic freedom. John C. Calhoun said to the Senate in 1848 that “With us, the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all of the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” [12] Calhoun’s racial distinction is important if we are to understand why poor whites would fight and die for a social and economic idea that did not benefit them or their families.

But it was Abraham Lincoln, who cut to the heart of the matter when he noted the difference between his understanding of liberty and that of Calhoun and others in the South who defended slavery and the privileges of the Southern oligarchs:

“We all declare for liberty” but “in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men and the product of other men’s labor.” [13]

The growing economic disparity between the Slave and Free states became more about the expansion of slavery in federal territories as disunion and war approached; for a number of often competing reasons. These differences, amplified by the issue of slavery led to the substitution of stereotypes of each other and had the “effect of changing men’s attitudes toward the disagreements which are always certain to arise in politics: ordinary, resolvable disputes were converted into questions of principle, involving rigid, unnegotiable dogma.” [14] The Charleston Mercury noted in 1858 “on the subject of slavery…the North and the South…are not only two peoples, but they are rival, hostile peoples.” [15]

This was driven both by the South’s insistence on both maintaining slavery where it was already legal and expanding it into new territories which was set against the vocal abolitionist movement. But Southern exponents of expanding slavery were fighting an even more powerful enemy than the abolitionists, who despite their vocal protests were not yet in a position to influence policy. They were now fighting Northern industrialists who were not as idealistic as the abolitionists who were much more concerned with “economic policy designed to secure Northern domination of Western lands than the initial step in a broad plan to end slavery.” [16]

This competition between the regions not only affected politics, it affected religion and culture. In the South it produced a growing culture of victimhood, which was manifest in the words of Robert Toombs who authored Georgia’s declaration of causes for secession:

“For twenty years past, the Abolitionists and their allies in the Northern states, have been engaged in constant efforts to subvert our institutions, and to excite insurrection and servile war among us…” whose “avowed purpose is to subject our society, subject us, not only to the loss of our property but the destruction of ourselves, our wives and our children, and the dissolution of our homes, our altars, and our firesides.” [17]

As the social, economic, cultural and religious differences between the two regions grew wider and the people of the South became ever more closed off from the North. “More than other Americans, Southerners developed a sectional identity outside the national mainstream. The Southern life style tended to contradict the national norm in ways that life styles of other sections did not.” [18]

The complex relationship of Southern society where “Southern bodies social, economic, intellectual, and political were decidedly commingled” [19] came to embrace the need for slavery and its importance to Southern society. This occurred despite the fact that the system did not benefit poor whites in the South and actually harmed them economically. The Southern: “system of subordination reached out still further to require a certain kind of society, one in which certain questions were not publically discussed. It must give blacks no hope of cultivating dissention among the whites. It must commit non slaveholders to the unquestioning support of racial subordination…. In short, the South became increasingly a closed society, distrustful of isms from outside and unsympathetic to dissenters. Such were the pervasive consequences of giving top priority to the maintenance of a system of racial subordination.” [20]

Southern planters declared war on all critics of their “particular institution” beginning in the 1820s. As Northern abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and his newspaper The Liberator grew in its distribution and began to appear in the South various elected officials throughout the South “suppressed antislavery books, newspapers, lectures, and sermons and strove generally to deny critics of bondage access to any public forum.[21] Despite this resistance, abolitionists continued to use the U.S. Mail service to send their literature south provoking even more drastic action from Southern legislators.

In response to the proliferation of abolitionist literature in the South, John C. Calhoun proposed that Congress pass a law to prosecute “any postmaster who would “knowingly receive or put into the mail any pamphlet, newspaper, handbill, or any printed, written, or pictorial representation touching the subject of slavery.” [22] Calhoun was not alone as other members of Congress as well as state legislatures worked to restrict the import of what they considered subversive and dangerous literature.

Beginning in 1836 the House of Representatives, led by Southern members of Congress passed a “gag rule” for its members which “banned all petitions, memorials, resolutions, propositions, or papers related in any way or to any extent whatever to the subject of slavery.” [23] Former President John Quincy Adams challenged the gag-rule in 1842, as did a number of others. The pressure was such that finally in 1844 the House voted to rescind it.

However, Southern politicians were unhappy with this measure and “began to spout demands that the federal government and the Northern states issue assurances that the abolitionists would never be allowed to tamper with what John Calhoun had described as the South’s “peculiar domestic institution.” [24] As tensions grew between the regions, the issue of slavery more than any other issue “transformed political action from a process of accommodation to a mode of combat.” [25]

Around the same time as the gag rule was played out in Congress the Supreme Court had ruled that the Federal government alone “had jurisdiction where escaped slaves were concerned” which resulted in several states enacting “personal liberty laws” to “forbid their own elected officials from those pursuing fugitives.” Southern politicians at the federal and state levels reacted strongly to these moves, which they believed to be an assault on their institutions and their rights to their human property. Virginia legislators said these laws were a “disgusting and revolting exhibition of faithless and unconstitutional legislation.” [26]

The issue of slavery shaped political debate and “structured and polarized many random, unoriented points of conflict on which sectional interest diverged.” [27] As the divide grew leaders and people in both the North and the South began to react to the most distorted images of each other imaginable- “the North to an image of a southern world of lascivious and sadistic slave drivers; the South to the image of a northern world of cunning Yankee traders and radical abolitionists plotting slave insurrections.” [28]

Notes

[1] Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis: America before the Civil War 1848-1861 completed and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher Harper Collins Publishers, New York 1976 p.41

[2] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.41

[3] Burns, Ken A Conflict’s Acoustic Shadows in The New York Times Disunion: Modern Historians Revisit and Reconsider the Civil War from Lincoln’s Election to the Emancipation Proclamation Black Dog and Leventhal Publishing, New York 2013 p.102

[4] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.42

[5] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.42

[6] Levine, Bruce Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of the Civil War Revised Edition, Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York 1992 and 1995 p.140

[7] Daly, John Patrick When Slavery Was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington KY 2002 pp.63-64

[8] Faust, Drew Gilpin The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge and London p.61

[9] Ibid. Levin Half Slave and Half Free p.140

[10] Ibid. Levin Half Slave and Half Free p.140

[11] Ibid. Levin Half Slave and Half Free p.141

[12] McPherson, James M. Drawn With the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1996 p.50

[13] Ibid. Levin Half Slave and Half Free p.122

[14] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.43

[15] Ibid. McPherson Drawn With the Sword p.16

[16] Egnal, Marc Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War Hill and Wang a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York 2009 p.6

[17] Dew, Charles B. Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville and London 2001 p.12

[18] Thomas, Emory The Confederate Nation 1861-1865 Harper Perennial, New York and London 1979 p.5

[19] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.5

[20] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis pp.457-458

[21] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.166

[22] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening pp.50-51

[23] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free pp.169-170

[24] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening pp.51-52

[25] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.43

[26] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free pp.169-170

[27] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.43

[28] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.43

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5 Comments

Filed under civil rights, civil war, History, Political Commentary

5 responses to “Yes it Was About Slavery

  1. Jim

    It is very interesting revisionist history to blame the south for everything about slavery. The fact is that slavery existed for about 89 years under the stars and stripes; free Negroes and Free Whites fought the revolution to keep free men free and slaves as slaves. After the civil war Negroes were subjected to reconstruction and Jim Crow as the Yankees literally ran out of the South in 1865; this continued under the Stars and Stripes for another 100 years until 1964. The South was left to pick up the pieces; a ruined, destroyed and impoverished South did just that about as well as it could be done under all the circumstances.

    Maybe the black man is confused about which flag enslaved him; if the Emancipation is considered as fact then the black man was a slave for about 2 years under the stars and bars. He was oppressed far longer under the Stars and Stripes.

    Maybe we could all learn to live together as one nation if people were not so eager to muck rake the past and portray only one view of one of the most complex social structures in the history of this country. The fact is that slavery was an abomination. But it had many faces and many stories; if you can’t tell the whole story at least tell a balanced story.

    • padresteve

      Jim

      This is not revisionism and if you bother to read my other articles on the period you will find that I do write about northern complicity in the institution of slavery before the war. That being said, in the years between 1789 and 1858 the South dominated American politics, most presidents, a historic Southern majority in the Supreme Court, all Secretaries of War, and a Southern Democrat dominated Congress which had a stranglehold on the country ensured slavery’s existence and was working to expand slavery to the territories, Cuba, Central America and through the Fugitive Slave Act and the Dred Scott ruling sought to force Free States to support it and we’re using the courts to try to force Free states to allow slavery within their borders. That is history.
      As to the Northerners running away in 1865 nothing can be further from the truth. Since I will be posting an a number of articles about Reconstruction and Jim Crow soon I am not going to go into details in this response.

      This is certainly not muckraking the past, it is a bold faced attempt to confront the lies that are continuing to be told about this era by those who promote the Myth of the Lost Cause, the Immortal Confederacy, and the romanticized fiction of the noble South which are told by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and numerous other groups.

      I do look to the future, but when I see the same tactics being employed to continue racism and slavery by another name I have to go back to the past because it still matters.

      Your historical ignorance is mind numbing.

      Peace

      Padre Steve+

  2. Amy Herrmann

    It’s frightening to realize that so much of this still applies today. ‘Personal liberty laws’ are now ‘religious freedom laws.’ We hear the same rhetoric dividing conservatives from progressives. There is no single issue that’s being used as a lightning rod, but rather a host of them. Same-sex marriage, gun control, reproductive rights, the ridiculous perceived assault on Christianity. Our politics today are just as contentious as they were then.

    • padresteve

      I know, I have written about those laws. Very little difference in them and the arguments of those who used the law to subjugate African Americans in the South after the Civil War

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