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America’s Original Sin, Part Three: The Fire Eaters

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today the third installment of this series on American slavery. Today I discuss a number of the men who were called “fire eaters,” even by other pro-slavery men. All forms of systematic evil need men who are able to state their support for positions so extreme that they make the mainstream supporters of that position look good by comparison.

We see this every day in our media where outlandish and evil men build up followings and make others who hold their beliefs, without their character flaws look good by comparison. So here is tonight’s installment from one of my books dealing with the history of slavery, emancipation, and the return of Jim Crow and White Supremacy.

I admit that it is not a comfortable read and unfortunately it is also all too contemporary for comfort.

Peace

Padre Steve+

The Importance of people: Edmund Ruffin and the Fire-Eaters

Edmund-Ruffin

Edmund Ruffin 

As important as it is to understand the political, religious and ideological debate around slavery, we cannot adequately do so unless we begin to understand the people involved in the debates and the controversies of the time. As I constantly note, human beings are the one constant in history. Two of these men, there are two that I think stand out from almost all other Southern supporters of slavery. One, Edmund Ruffin, because he can be legitimately called one of the proponents of Confederate nationalism; and the other, Robert Barnwell Rhett, who was so hard line in his beliefs that he could not work within any system that required compromise, even at the end of the war.

Among the people most enraged by Northern opposition to slavery was Edmund Ruffin. Ruffin is one of the more interesting characters who stridently supported slavery, white supremacy, and secession in the ante-bellum south. Ruffin became the face of slaveholding ideology, but he not always pro-slavery, or pro-secession. As a younger man he had been a Jeffersonian Republican who as early as 1816 was concerned about growing federal power, but his writings were considered academic, scholarly, and moderate. However that began to change as the country lurched from one sectional crisis to the next.

As early as 1845 Ruffin was beginning to write about the probability of fighting the North, “We shall have to defend our rights by the strong hand against Northern abolitionists and perhaps the tariffites…” [1] But it was the passage of the Compromise of 1850, a compromise that actually did more to help Southern slaveholders than to harm them, which turned him into an ardent and hardline secessionist.

When he decided on secession he did so with the zeal of a man on consumed by something almost akin to religious conversion:

he promptly threw himself into the new cause, replacing his formerly scholarly approach to issues with a fire-eater’s polemical and emotional style. “I will not pretend,” he now announced, “to restrain my pen, nor attempt to be correct in plan or expression – as is more or less usually the case in my writing.” [2]

Ruffin’s conversion was remarkable because as young man, Ruffin believed that slavery was an evil. But he began to study the works of Thomas Dew he became convinced of the necessity of slavery and its justification. In his tract The Political Economy of Slavery he wrote,

“Slavery… would be frequently… attended with circumstances of great hardship, injustice, and sometimes atrocious cruelty. Still, the consequences and general results were highly beneficial. By this means only–the compulsion of domestic slaves–in the early conditions of society, could labor be made to produce wealth. By this aid only could leisure be afforded to the master class to cultivate mental improvement and refinement of manners; and artificial wants be created and indulged, which would stimulate the desire and produce the effect, to accumulate the products of labor, which alone constitute private and public wealth. To the operation and first results of domestic slavery were due the gradual civilization and general improvement of manners and of arts among all originally barbarous peoples, who, of themselves, or without being conquered and subjugated (or enslaved politically) by a more enlightened people, have subsequently emerged from barbarism and dark ignorance…” [3]

But Ruffin was not a unlearned or unsuccessful man. He was an agricultural reformer who pioneered the use of lime to enhance the effectiveness of other fertilizers. He edited a successful farm paper, and ran a very successful planation outside of Hopewell, Virginia, near Richmond.

Ruffin passionately argued for secession and Southern independence for fifteen years, even before the Compromise Of 1850 hardened him into the most passionate advocate of secession. He “perceived the planter civilization of the South in peril; the source of the peril was “Yankee” and union with “Yankees.” Thus he preached revolution, Ruffin was a rebel with a cause, a secular prophet…” [4] He was the type of man who understood reality far better than some of the more moderate oligarchs that populated the Southern political and social elite. He knew that the only way slavery to survive was for the South to become a nation of its own, and that meant secession. While in the years leading up to the war, these men, including John Calhoun attempted to secure the continued existence and spread of slavery within the Union through the Congress and the courts, Ruffin condemned their efforts.

As early as 1850, Ruffin recognized that in order for slavery to survive the slaveholding South would have to secede from the Union. Ruffin and other radical secessionists believed that there could be no compromise with the north. In 1850 he and James Hammond attempted to use a meeting in Nashville to “secure Cooperative State Secession and wrote to Hammond, against those who sought to use the meeting to preserve the Union, “If the Convention does not open the way to dissolution…I hope it shall never meet.” [5] Ruffin believed that slave holding states had to be independent from the North in order to maintain the institution of slavery.

Ruffin’s views were not unique to him. They formed the basis of how most slave owners and supporters felt about slavery’s economic and social benefits of slavery and the Southern cotton economy. But while many Southerners wrote about the importance and necessity of slavery, Ruffin was one of its most eloquent defenders. He wrote:

“Still, even this worst and least profitable kind of slavery (the subjection of equals and men of the same race with their masters) served as the foundation and the essential first cause of all the civilization and refinement, and improvement of arts and learning, that distinguished the oldest nations. Except where the special Providence and care of God may have interposed to guard a particular family and its descendants, there was nothing but the existence of slavery to prevent any race or society in a state of nature from sinking into the rudest barbarism. And no people could ever have been raised from that low condition without the aid and operation of slavery, either by some individuals of the community being enslaved, by conquest and subjugation, in some form, to a foreign and more enlightened people.” [6]

The most striking thing about Ruffin’s defense of slavery is the distinction that he makes between enslaving people of the same race, which he calls the “worst and least profitable kind of slavery” over the enslavement of inferior races. He did not disapprove of enslaving people of the same race, but he believed that the enslavement of people of the same race was wise, nor profitable. But Ruffin, a true believer in White Supremacy believed that enslavement of inferior races was not only permissible, but in fact the bedrock of civilization. Likewise his understanding that slavery alone was the only thing that prevented “any race or society in a state of nature from sinking into the rudest barbarism,” was common among the Southern planting class.

In 1860 the then 67-year-old Ruffin helped change the world forever when, according to popular legend he pulled the lanyard that fired the first shot at Fort Sumter. While he had joined the Palmetto Guards and was present, he probably did not fire the first shot. Instead, he was probably was given the honor of firing the first shot from his battery; as other guns from other emplacements may have fired first shot.

220px-robert_barnwell_rhett_sr

Robert Barnwell Rhett

But Ruffin was not alone, he was numbered with other Fire-Eaters who beginning in the 1840s began urging secession in order to protect the institution of slavery. The real “father” of Southern secession was Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina. Rhett was a lawyer who was born under the name of Robert Barnwell Smith in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1800, but who adopted the surname of a famous ancestor in order to have a name which would befit him more in aristocratic South Carolina.

In a twist of irony, the man who became the father of the secessionist movement studied law under Thomas Grimke, the brother of the two famous abolitionist sisters, and “a leader of South Carolina’s anti-slavery American Colonization Society.” [8] Rhett was a talented attorney with excellent oratorical skills and he was elected to the South Carolina legislature in 1826 as the controversy over nullification began. Rhett, like other opponents of a Federal Tariff led by Senator John C. Calhoun urged secession as early as 1830 he told a crowd that before submitting to the tyranny of Federal Government, that they must be read to destroy the Union:

“Aye – disunion, rather, into a thousand fragments. And why, gentlemen! would I prefer disunion to such a Government? Because under such a Government I would be a slave – a fearful slave, ruled despotically by those who do not represent me … with every base and destructive passion of man bearing upon my shieldless destiny.” [9]

Later, in the face of President Andrew Jackson’s political strength and much congressional opposition led by Henry Clay, South Carolina dropped nullification. Rhett was angry. He told his colleagues in the legislature that “Your “northern brethren,” aye, “the entire world are in arms against your institutions…. Until this Government is made a limited Government… there is no liberty – no security for the South.” [10] He then described disunion as the only way for the South to survive and to escape what he called “unconstitutional legislation.” He described a “Confederacy of the Southern States… [as] a happy termination – happy beyond expectation, of our long struggle for our rights against oppression.” [11]

Rhett worked against compromise at every opportunity, especially compromise which would preserve the Union. Absolutely convinced of the rightness of his cause he distrusted the politicians who favored compromise and had no faith in political parties. He worked from 1833 until the very end in order to support slavery, disunion, and secession, using every crisis as an opportunity. His dream was for “all Southerners – to unite across party lines and unyieldingly defend slavery and Southern interests as he defined them.” [12] 

During the debate over secession following the Compromise of 1850, Rhett resigned his seat in the U.S. Senate which had been elected to following the death of John C. Calhoun, rather than accept the premise that the state convention’s ruling that secession was not justified.

After leaving office he became the editor, and later the full owner of the Charleston Mercury newspaper where he continued to advocate for secession in often the most outrageous ways,  “The more outrageous the Mercury’s charges, the more they were picked up and reprinted by other papers. Rhett’s propaganda technique was part of a larger secessionist strategy. “Men having both nerve and self-sacrificing patriotism,” he wrote, “must lead the movement and shape its course, controlling and compelling their inferior contemporaries.” He worked to push those without sufficient patriotic nerve – that is, moderate leaders – out of the political arena, believing correctly that without a solid middle ground to stand on, Southern voters would rally increasingly to the fire-eaters’ standard.” [13]

In 1860 Rhett “joined a drive to either rule or ruin the 1860 Democratic convention scheduled for Charleston.” [14] His work was successful, he devised the strategy to destroy the Union by first destroying the Democratic Party, and he wrote in January 1860 that “the destruction of the Union must… begin with the “demolition” of the party. So long as the Democratic Party, as a “National” organization exists in power in the South,… our public men” will “trim their sails.” [15] 

When South Carolina seceded from the Union, it was Rhett who drafted South Carolina’s secession ordinance, which claimed that South Carolina was not “perpetrating a treasonous revolution, but… simply taking back… the same powers it had temporarily surrendered… when South Carolina ratified the federal Constitution.” [16] 

Rhett was elected to the Confederate House Of Representative but However, following secession Rhett’s inability to compromise and his intemperate behavior alienated from him from Jefferson Davis and other Southern leaders. He grew increasingly isolated, and become one of Davis’s most bitter critics. As late as March of 1865, with Sherman’s Union armies having overrun South Carolina and Grant’s at the gates of Richmond, Rhett remained defiant and uncompromising. He opposed any move to compromise on the issue of slavery, even the belated attempt of Jefferson Davis and some in the Confederate Congress to grant limited emancipation to African American slaves who enlisted to fight for survival of the Confederacy.

Rhett moves to Louisiana and left the Mercury to his son, he never reentered politics and died in 1876. Ruffin made a more spectacular exit. Two months after the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army Of Northern Virginia, Ruffin exited his earthly life.

When the war ended with the Confederacy defeated and the south in ruins, Ruffin still could not abide the result. In a carefully crafted suicide note he sent to his son the bitter and hate filled old man wrote on June 14th 1865:

“I here declare my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule- to all political, social and business connections with the Yankees and to the Yankee race. Would that I could impress these sentiments, in their full force, on every living Southerner and bequeath them to every one yet to be born! May such sentiments be held universally in the outraged and down trodden South, though in silence and stillness, until the now far-distant day shall arrive for just retribution for Yankee usurpation, oppression and outrages, and for deliverance and vengeance for the now ruined, subjugated and enslaved Southern States! … And now with my latest writing and utterance, and with what will be near my last breath, I here repeat and would willingly proclaim my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule — to all political, social and business connections with Yankees, and the perfidious, malignant and vile Yankee race.” [17]

There will be more to come.

Notes

[1] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.463

[2] Abrahamson, James L. The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 Scholarly Resources Books, Wilmington DE 2000 pp.43-44

[3] Ruffin, Edmund The Political Economy of Slavery in McKitrick, Eric L. ed. Slavery Defended: The Views of the Old South. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall/Spectrum Books, 1963.Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/lincolns-political-economy/ 24 March 2014

[4] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.1

[5] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One: Secessionists at Bay p.481

[6] Ibid. Ruffin The Political Economy of Slaveryhttp://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/lincolns-political-economy/

[7] Catton, Bruce The Coming Fury Phoenix Press, London 1961 pp.314-315

[8] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.33

[9] Goodheart, Adam The Happiest Man in the South in The New York Times Opinionator December 16th 2010 retrieved from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/the-happiest-man-in-the-south/?_r=0 26 July 2016

[10] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One: Secessionists at Bay p.286

[11] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.34

[12] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.34

[13] Ibid. Goodheart The Happiest Man in the Southhttp://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/the-happiest-man-in-the-south/?_r=0

[14] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.34

[15] Freehling, William. The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2007 p.295

[16] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.130

[17] Edmund Ruffin (1794-1865). Diary entry, June 18, 1865. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress Retrieved from http://blogs.loc.gov/civil-war-voices/about/edmund-ruffin/ 24 March 2014

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America’s Original Sin and its Continuing Legacy: Part Two, “Liberty for the few – slavery in every form, for the mass”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am going to be posting a number of articles from my various texts dealing with the American Civil War era dealing with topics that some would want to forget, but are very important if we want to fully appreciate the struggle of African-Americans for equality. This is the second of those posts.

Of course this original sin is the distinctly American version of slavery that arose in the American South, was protected in the Constitution, and supported by not only the Slave holders, and their Southern political protectors, but the businessmen, bankers, and equally complicit political allies in the North.

I honestly wish that we had really advanced beyond where we are now. But we are not. We’re still dealing with what has been called our nation’s original sin. over course slavery was abolished, and African Americans given citizenship and voting rights, but those rights would become a mockery in the Post-Reconstruction Jim Crow South, and in the Sundown Towns of the North and West. Even today, after the gains of the Civil Rights Movement we still deal with the continued effects of it. Our President and his closest advisers are White Nationalists, and White Supremacy is thriving under his tacit blessing. But that’s not enough, men like the Democratic Party Governor of Virginia posed in black face or in a KKK hood in his medical school yearbook. I could go on with a laundry list of other issues related to this but that would turn this introduction into another book, which is ironic because the content of this article was an introductory chapter of a Civil War Text about the Battle of Gettysburg that became part of a book of its own.

American Slavery and Racism is the subject of this and the following articles. More articles will follow in the next couple of weeks.

Have a great day,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

OTCauction

Abolition versus Slave Power

The conflicting 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]   The support of the church in Europe and the Americas was key to the religious and moral belief in the rightness of slavery.

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. A world without slavery was unimaginable and incomprehensible to them: politics, economics, religion, philosophy, and even the interpretation the Constitution itself depended on one’s view of slavery and white supremacy.

_65344344_cottonpickers1875_getty

The issue of slavery divided the ante-bellum United States on even 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 to accommodate slavery and white supremacy.

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] Fitzhugh was very critical of the founder’s philosophy of natural liberty and human equality which he found repugnant and error ridden. He wrote:

“We must combat the doctrines of natural liberty and human equality, and the social contract as taught by Locke and the American sages of 1776. Under the spell of Locke and the Enlightenment, Jefferson and other misguided patriots ruined the splendid political edifice they erected by espousing dangerous abstractions – the crazy notions of liberty and equality that they wrote into the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Bill of Rights. No wonder the abolitionists loved to quote the Declaration of Independence! Its precepts are wholly at war with slavery and equally at war with all government, all subordination, all order. It is full if mendacity and error. Consider its verbose, newborn, false and unmeaning preamble…. There is, finally, no such thing as inalienable rights. Life and liberty are not inalienable…. Jefferson in sum, was the architect of ruin, the inaugurator of anarchy. As his Declaration of Independence Stands, it deserves the appropriate epithets which Major Lee somewhere applies to the thought of Mr. Jefferson, it is “exuberantly false, and absurdly fallacious.”   ” [7]

The political philosophy such as Fitzhugh’s, which was quite common in the South, and 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.” [8] 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.” [9]

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.” [10]

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.” [11]

Fitzhugh’s chilling conclusion was summarized in the words “Liberty for the few – slavery in every form, for the mass.” [12]

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.” [13] 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, then as well as now.

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.” [14]

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.” [15] 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.” [16]

This was driven both by the South’s insistence on both maintaining slavery where it was already legal, and expanding it into new territories, even where it was forbidden by Federal laws enacted by Congress. This set it 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.” [17]

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.” [18]

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.” [19]

The complex relationship of Southern society where “Southern bodies social, economic, intellectual, and political were decidedly commingled” 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.

Southern society had become dependent on a race based social hierarchy in which dissent was neither welcome or tolerated. This

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.” [21]

A number of slave revolts, and planned slave revolts which were caught before they could erupt serve to heighten the fear and paranoia of Southerners living in the “Black belts” where slaves outnumbered whites by great margins. “In thickly enslaved areas, fancied dangers united white classes and sexes. Whites in black belts shared horror images about freed blacks as rioters, rapists, arsonists, and cannibals. The whites characteristically thought that using slavery to control alleged barbarians meant saving civilization.”[22]

Even before the abolitionist movement took any recognizable form in the North, “with an intensity that escalated through the Civil War, planters declared war on all open criticism of the peculiar institution.” [23] 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. [24] 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.

garrison by jocelyn 1833

William Lloyd Garrison 

But Garrison and the more radical abolitionists did not have a great following even in the North, most Northerners who even leaned toward abolition were supporters of a very gradual emancipation and not supportive of the immediate emancipation demanded by Garrison and his allies. In fact in the North, Garrison and his followers were not popular, they were “a small and often despised group.” [25] This was born out by facts that Garrison understood all too well, which made him even more uncompromising in his message even as support for it dropped. Even in the North Garrison was considered an unlikeable extremist.

In 1840, support for Garrison extremism peaked at around 2 percent of the northern voting population. The other 98 percent of northern citizens considered immediate abolition to be too extreme to be American, too problack to be tolerable, too keen on seizing property to be capitalistic, and too antisouthern to be safe for the Union.” [26] 

Garrison despised his northern opponents and wrote that he found among them “contempt more bitter, opposition more active, detraction more relentless, prejudice more stubborn, and apathy more frozen, than among slave owners themselves.” [27] Opponents broke up his meetings and on one occasion paraded Garrison “through the streets of Boston with a rope around his neck.” [28]

But Southerners, particularly those in the Black Belts where slaves constituted a majority of the population were further outraged by Garrison and his follower’s incendiary words and what they considered to be “almost pornographic diatribes,” which they felt had assaulted their “self-respect and sense of honor.” [29] In response to the proliferation of abolitionist literature in the South which was being sent through the mail, Senator 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.” [30] The law was a direct assault on the First Amendment, but in the South anything and anyone that took a stand against slavery had no Constitutional rights.

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. The condescending attitude of the radical abolitionists provoked an “emotional wildfire” [31] in the South, which united slave owners and poor whites in the Black Belt regions and served to increase their fear and loathing of Yankees who they believed wanted to destroy them and their way of life. Had they really understood just how united much of the North was with them they may not have pushed as hard to force Northern allies to accept laws that eventually offended the sensibilities of even non-abolitionists Northerners.

attention-southern-men

But Southern fears of real and imagined slave revolts, and hatred of radicals like Garrison brought about a host of new problem. Southerners now attempted to crush First Amendment protections of free speech in the north and to blot out any mention of slavery in the House of Representatives.

Beginning in 1836 the House of Representatives, led by Southern members of Congress passed a “gag rule” for its members. The “Gag Rule” “banned all petitions, memorials, resolutions, propositions, or papers related in any way or to any extent whatever to the subject of slavery.” [32]Former President John Quincy Adams continually challenged the gag-rule beginning in 1842, as did a number of others. The pressure was such that in 1844 the House finally voted to rescind it.

anti-slavery-meetings

However, Southern politicians were unhappy with the recension of the Gag Rule 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.” [33] 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.” [34]

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.” [35]

The issue of slavery shaped political debate and “structured and polarized many random, unoriented points of conflict on which sectional interest diverged.” [36] 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.” [37]

To be continued…

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] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of the Civil War Revised Edition p.140

[7] Fitzhugh, George. New Haven Lecture 1855, in The Approaching Fury: Voices From the Storm, 1820-1861 Stephen B. Oates, Editor, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London 1997 p.135

[8] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War pp.63-64

[9] Ibid. Faust, Drew The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South p.61

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[17] 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

[18] 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

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

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

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

[22] Freehling, William W. The South vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2001 p.20

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

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

[25] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation p.27

[26] Ibid. Freehling The South vs. The South p. 34

[27] Ibid. Varon Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858 pp.70-71

[28] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.27

[29] Ibid. Freehling The South vs. The South p.22

[30] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning pp.50-51

[31] Ibid. Freehling The South vs. The South p.22

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

[33] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning pp.51-52

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

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

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

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

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Radicals That Make Mainstream Evil Look Good: The Fire Eaters, Slavery, and Secession

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today the third installment of this series on American slavery from my yet to be published book “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” Race, Religion, Ideology and Politics in the Civil War Era” that I will publish this week. Today I discuss a number of the men who were called the “fire eaters,” even by other pro-slavery men due to their radical views on race and the enslavement of people that they considered to be less than human.

The fact is that all forms of systematic evil need men who are able to state their support for positions so extreme that they make the mainstream supporters of that position look good by comparison. We see this every day in our media and in our current presidential administration.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Understanding the Issue, The Importance of people: Edmund Ruffin and the Fire-Eaters

Edmund-Ruffin

Edmund Ruffin

As important as it is to understand the political, religious and ideological debate, we cannot adequately do so unless we begin to understand the people involved in the debates and the controversies of the time. Two of these men stand out. One, Edmund Ruffin, because he can be legitimately called a proponent of Confederate nationalism, and the other, Robert Barnwell Rhett because of his inability to work within any system that required compromise.

Among the people most enraged by Northern opposition to slavery was Edmund Ruffin. Ruffin is one of the more interesting characters who stridently supported slavery, white supremacy and secession in the ante-bellum south. Ruffin became the face of slaveholding ideology, but he not always pro-slavery, or pro-secession. As a younger man he had been a Jeffersonian Republican who as early as 1816 was concerned about growing federal power, but his writings were considered academic, scholarly, and moderate. However that began to change as the country lurched from one sectional crisis to the next.

As early as 1845 Ruffin was beginning to write about the probability of fighting the North, “We shall have to defend our rights by the strong hand against Northern abolitionists and perhaps the tariffites…” [1] But it was the passage of the Compromise of 1850 turned him into an ardent and hardline secessionist. When he did so, “he promptly threw himself into the new cause, replacing his formerly scholarly approach to issues with a fire-eater’s polemical and emotional style. “I will not pretend,” he now announced, “to restrain my pen, nor attempt to be correct in plan or expression – as is more or less usually the case in my writing.” [2]

Likewise, as a young man, Ruffin believed that slavery was an evil. But he began to study the works of Thomas Dew he became convinced of the necessity of slavery and its justification. In his tract The Political Economy of Slavery he wrote,

“Slavery… would be frequently… attended with circumstances of great hardship, injustice, and sometimes atrocious cruelty. Still, the consequences and general results were highly beneficial. By this means only–the compulsion of domestic slaves–in the early conditions of society, could labor be made to produce wealth. By this aid only could leisure be afforded to the master class to cultivate mental improvement and refinement of manners; and artificial wants be created and indulged, which would stimulate the desire and produce the effect, to accumulate the products of labor, which alone constitute private and public wealth. To the operation and first results of domestic slavery were due the gradual civilization and general improvement of manners and of arts among all originally barbarous peoples, who, of themselves, or without being conquered and subjugated (or enslaved politically) by a more enlightened people, have subsequently emerged from barbarism and dark ignorance…” [3]

Ruffin was an agricultural reformer who pioneered the use of lime to enhance the effectiveness of other fertilizers. He edited a successful farm paper and ran a very successful planation outside of Hopewell, Virginia, near Richmond.

Ruffin passionately argued for secession and Southern independence for fifteen years. He “perceived the planter civilization of the South in peril; the source of the peril was “Yankee” and union with “Yankees.” Thus he preached revolution, Ruffin was a rebel with a cause, a secular prophet…” [4] He was a type of man who understood reality far better than some of the more moderate oligarchs that populated the Southern political and social elite. While in the years leading up to the war, these men, including John Calhoun attempted to secure the continued existence and spread of slavery within the Union through the Congress and the courts, Ruffin condemned their efforts.

As early as 1850, Ruffin recognized that in order for slavery to survive the slaveholding South would have to secede from the Union. Ruffin and other radical secessionists believed that there could be no compromise with the north. In 1850 he and James Hammond attempted to use a meeting in Nashville to“secure Cooperative State Secession and wrote to Hammond, against those who sought to use the meeting to preserve the Union, “If the Convention does not open the way to dissolution…I hope it shall never meet.” [5] Ruffin believed that slave holding states had to be independent from the North in order to maintain the institution of slavery.

Ruffin’s views were not unique to him. They formed the basis of how most slave owners and supporters felt about slavery’s economic and social benefits of slavery and the Southern cotton economy. But while many Southerners wrote about the importance and necessity of slavery, Ruffin was one of its most eloquent defenders. He wrote:

“Still, even this worst and least profitable kind of slavery (the subjection of equals and men of the same race with their masters) served as the foundation and the essential first cause of all the civilization and refinement, and improvement of arts and learning, that distinguished the oldest nations. Except where the special Providence and care of God may have interposed to guard a particular family and its descendants, there was nothing but the existence of slavery to prevent any race or society in a state of nature from sinking into the rudest barbarism. And no people could ever have been raised from that low condition without the aid and operation of slavery, either by some individuals of the community being enslaved, by conquest and subjugation, in some form, to a foreign and more enlightened people.” [6]

The most striking thing about Ruffin’s defense of slavery is the distinction that he makes between enslaving people of the same race, which he calls the “worst and least profitable kind of slavery” over the enslavement of inferior races. He did not believe that the enslavement of people of the same race was wise, nor profitable, but he did believe that enslavement of inferior races was not only permissible, but in fact the bedrock of civilization. Likewise his understanding that slavery alone was the only thing that prevented “any race or society in a state of nature from sinking into the rudest barbarism,” was common among the Southern planting class.

In 1860 the then 67-year-old Ruffin helped change the world forever when, according to popular legend he pulled the lanyard that fired the first shot at Fort Sumter. While he had joined the Palmetto Guards and was present, he probably did not fire the first shot. Instead, he was probably was given the honor of firing the first shot from his battery; as other guns from other emplacements may have fired first. [7]

220px-robert_barnwell_rhett_sr

Robert Barnwell Rhett

But Ruffin was not alone, he was numbered with other Fire-Eaters who beginning in the 1840s began urging secession in order to protect the institution of slavery. The real “father” of Southern secession was Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina. Rhett was a lawyer who was born under the name of Robert Barnwell Smith in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1800, but who adopted the surname of a famous ancestor in order to have a name which would befit him more in aristocratic South Carolina.

In a twist of irony, the man who became the father of the secessionist movement studied law under Thomas Grimke, the brother of the two famous abolitionist sisters, and “a leader of South Carolina’s anti-slavery American Colonization Society.” [8] He was a talented attorney with excellent oratorical skills and he was elected to the South Carolina legislature in 1826 as the controversy over nullification began. Rhett, like other opponents of a Federal Tariff led by Senator John C. Calhoun urged secession as early as 1830 he told a crowd that before submitting to the tyranny of Federal Government, that they must be read to destroy the Union:

“Aye – disunion, rather, into a thousand fragments. And why, gentlemen! would I prefer disunion to such a Government? Because under such a Government I would be a slave – a fearful slave, ruled despotically by those who do not represent me … with every base and destructive passion of man bearing upon my shieldless destiny.” [9]

Later, in the face of President Andrew Jackson’s political strength and much congressional opposition led by Henry Clay, South Carolina dropped nullification, Rhett was angry. He told his colleagues in the legislature that “Your “northern brethren,” aye, “the entire world are in arms against your institutions…. Until this Government is made a limited Government… there is no liberty – no security for the South.” [10] He then described disunion as the only way for the South to survive and to escape what he called “unconstitutional legislation.” He described a “Confederacy of the Southern States… [as] a happy termination – happy beyond expectation, of our long struggle for our rights against oppression.” [11]

Rhett worked against compromise at every opportunity, especially compromise which would preserve the Union. Absolutely convinced of the rightness of his cause he distrusted the politicians who favored compromise and had no faith in political parties. He worked from 1833 until the very end in order to support slavery, disunion, and secession, using every crisis as an opportunity. His dream was for “all Southerners – to unite across party lines and unyieldingly defend slavery and Southern interests as he defined them.” [12] During the debate over secession following the Compromise of 1850, Rhett would resign his seat in the U.S. Senate which had been elected to following the death of John C. Calhoun, rather than accept a state convention’s ruling that secession was not justified. After leaving office he became the editor, and later the full owner of the Charleston Mercury newspaper where he continued to advocate for secession in often the most outrageous ways, but The more outrageous the Mercury’s charges, the more they were picked up and reprinted by other papers. Rhett’s propaganda technique was part of a larger secessionist strategy. “Men having both nerve and self-sacrificing patriotism,” he wrote, “must lead the movement and shape its course, controlling and compelling their inferior contemporaries.” He worked to push those without sufficient patriotic nerve – that is, moderate leaders – out of the political arena, believing correctly that without a solid middle ground to stand on, Southern voters would rally increasingly to the fire-eaters’ standard.” [13]

In 1860 Rhett “joined a drive to either rule or ruin the 1860 Democratic convention scheduled for Charleston.” [14] His work was successful, he devised the strategy to destroy the Union by first destroying the Democratic Party, and he wrote in January 1860 that “the destruction of the Union must… begin with the “demolition” of the party. So long as the Democratic Party, as a “National” organization exists in power in the South,… our public men” will “trim their sails.” [15] When South Carolina seceded from the Union, it was Rhett who drafted South Carolina’s secession ordinance, which claimed that South Carolina was not “perpetrating a treasonous revolution, but… simply taking back… the same powers it had temporarily surrendered… when South Carolina ratified the federal Constitution.” [16] However, his inability to compromise and his intemperate behavior alienated from him from Jefferson Davis and other Southern leaders, and he grew increasingly isolated, becoming one of Davis’s most bitter critics. As late as March of 1865 Rhett with Union armies having overrun South Carolina and at the gates of Richmond, Rhett was opposing any move to compromise on the issue of slavery, even the attempt of Jefferson Davis and some in the Confederate Congress to grant limited emancipation to African American slaves who enlisted to fight for the Confederacy.

Notes

[1] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.463

[2] Abrahamson, James L. The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 Scholarly Resources Books, Wilmington DE 2000 pp.43-44

[3] Ruffin, Edmund The Political Economy of Slavery in McKitrick, Eric L. ed. Slavery Defended: The Views of the Old South. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall/Spectrum Books, 1963.Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/lincolns-political-economy/ 24 March 2014

[4] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.1

[5] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One: Secessionists at Bayp.481

[6] Ibid. Ruffin The Political Economy of Slaveryhttp://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/lincolns-political-economy/

[7] Catton, Bruce The Coming Fury Phoenix Press, London 1961 pp.314-315

[8] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.33

[9] Goodheart, Adam The Happiest Man in the South in The New York Times Opinionator December 16th 2010 retrieved from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/the-happiest-man-in-the-south/?_r=0 26 July 2016

[10] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One: Secessionists at Bayp.286

[11] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.34

[12] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.34

[13] Ibid. Goodheart The Happiest Man in the Southhttp://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/the-happiest-man-in-the-south/?_r=0

[14] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.34

[15] Freehling, William. The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2007 p.295

[16] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.130

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Human Beings as Property Part 3: American Slavery

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today the third installment of this series on American slavery. Today I discuss a number of the men who were called “fire eaters,” even by other pro-slavery men. All forms of systematic evil need men who are able to state their support for positions so extreme that they make the mainstream supporters of that position look good by comparison. We see this every day in our media. So here is

Peace

Padre Steve+

Understanding the Issue, The Importance of people: Edmund Ruffin and the Fire-Eaters

Edmund-Ruffin

Edmund Ruffin

As important as it is to understand the political, religious and ideological debate, we cannot adequately do so unless we begin to understand the people involved in the debates and the controversies of the time. Two of these men stand out. One, Edmund Ruffin, because he can be legitimately called a proponent of Confederate nationalism, and the other, Robert Barnwell Rhett because of his inability to work within any system that required compromise.

Among the people most enraged by Northern opposition to slavery was Edmund Ruffin. Ruffin is one of the more interesting characters who stridently supported slavery, white supremacy and secession in the ante-bellum south. Ruffin became the face of slaveholding ideology, but he not always pro-slavery, or pro-secession. As a younger man he had been a Jeffersonian Republican who as early as 1816 was concerned about growing federal power, but his writings were considered academic, scholarly, and moderate. However that began to change as the country lurched from one sectional crisis to the next.

As early as 1845 Ruffin was beginning to write about the probability of fighting the North, “We shall have to defend our rights by the strong hand against Northern abolitionists and perhaps the tariffites…” [1] But it was the passage of the Compromise of 1850 turned him into an ardent and hardline secessionist. When he did so, “he promptly threw himself into the new cause, replacing his formerly scholarly approach to issues with a fire-eater’s polemical and emotional style. “I will not pretend,” he now announced, “to restrain my pen, nor attempt to be correct in plan or expression – as is more or less usually the case in my writing.” [2]

Likewise, as a young man, Ruffin believed that slavery was an evil. But he began to study the works of Thomas Dew he became convinced of the necessity of slavery and its justification. In his tract The Political Economy of Slavery he wrote,

“Slavery… would be frequently… attended with circumstances of great hardship, injustice, and sometimes atrocious cruelty. Still, the consequences and general results were highly beneficial. By this means only–the compulsion of domestic slaves–in the early conditions of society, could labor be made to produce wealth. By this aid only could leisure be afforded to the master class to cultivate mental improvement and refinement of manners; and artificial wants be created and indulged, which would stimulate the desire and produce the effect, to accumulate the products of labor, which alone constitute private and public wealth. To the operation and first results of domestic slavery were due the gradual civilization and general improvement of manners and of arts among all originally barbarous peoples, who, of themselves, or without being conquered and subjugated (or enslaved politically) by a more enlightened people, have subsequently emerged from barbarism and dark ignorance…” [3]

Ruffin was an agricultural reformer who pioneered the use of lime to enhance the effectiveness of other fertilizers. He edited a successful farm paper and ran a very successful planation outside of Hopewell, Virginia, near Richmond.

Ruffin passionately argued for secession and Southern independence for fifteen years. He “perceived the planter civilization of the South in peril; the source of the peril was “Yankee” and union with “Yankees.” Thus he preached revolution, Ruffin was a rebel with a cause, a secular prophet…” [4] He was a type of man who understood reality far better than some of the more moderate oligarchs that populated the Southern political and social elite. While in the years leading up to the war, these men, including John Calhoun attempted to secure the continued existence and spread of slavery within the Union through the Congress and the courts, Ruffin condemned their efforts.

As early as 1850, Ruffin recognized that in order for slavery to survive the slaveholding South would have to secede from the Union. Ruffin and other radical secessionists believed that there could be no compromise with the north. In 1850 he and James Hammond attempted to use a meeting in Nashville to “secure Cooperative State Secession and wrote to Hammond, against those who sought to use the meeting to preserve the Union, “If the Convention does not open the way to dissolution…I hope it shall never meet.” [5] Ruffin believed that slave holding states had to be independent from the North in order to maintain the institution of slavery.

Ruffin’s views were not unique to him. They formed the basis of how most slave owners and supporters felt about slavery’s economic and social benefits of slavery and the Southern cotton economy. But while many Southerners wrote about the importance and necessity of slavery, Ruffin was one of its most eloquent defenders. He wrote:

“Still, even this worst and least profitable kind of slavery (the subjection of equals and men of the same race with their masters) served as the foundation and the essential first cause of all the civilization and refinement, and improvement of arts and learning, that distinguished the oldest nations. Except where the special Providence and care of God may have interposed to guard a particular family and its descendants, there was nothing but the existence of slavery to prevent any race or society in a state of nature from sinking into the rudest barbarism. And no people could ever have been raised from that low condition without the aid and operation of slavery, either by some individuals of the community being enslaved, by conquest and subjugation, in some form, to a foreign and more enlightened people.” [6]

The most striking thing about Ruffin’s defense of slavery is the distinction that he makes between enslaving people of the same race, which he calls the “worst and least profitable kind of slavery” over the enslavement of inferior races. He did not believe that the enslavement of people of the same race was wise, nor profitable, but he did believe that enslavement of inferior races was not only permissible, but in fact the bedrock of civilization. Likewise his understanding that slavery alone was the only thing that prevented “any race or society in a state of nature from sinking into the rudest barbarism,” was common among the Southern planting class.

In 1860 the then 67-year-old Ruffin helped change the world forever when, according to popular legend he pulled the lanyard that fired the first shot at Fort Sumter. While he had joined the Palmetto Guards and was present, he probably did not fire the first shot. Instead, he was probably was given the honor of firing the first shot from his battery; as other guns from other emplacements may have fired first. [7]

220px-robert_barnwell_rhett_sr

Robert Barnwell Rhett

But Ruffin was not alone, he was numbered with other Fire-Eaters who beginning in the 1840s began urging secession in order to protect the institution of slavery. The real “father” of Southern secession was Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina. Rhett was a lawyer who was born under the name of Robert Barnwell Smith in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1800, but who adopted the surname of a famous ancestor in order to have a name which would befit him more in aristocratic South Carolina.

In a twist of irony, the man who became the father of the secessionist movement studied law under Thomas Grimke, the brother of the two famous abolitionist sisters, and “a leader of South Carolina’s anti-slavery American Colonization Society.” [8] He was a talented attorney with excellent oratorical skills and he was elected to the South Carolina legislature in 1826 as the controversy over nullification began. Rhett, like other opponents of a Federal Tariff led by Senator John C. Calhoun urged secession as early as 1830 he told a crowd that before submitting to the tyranny of Federal Government, that they must be read to destroy the Union:

“Aye – disunion, rather, into a thousand fragments. And why, gentlemen! would I prefer disunion to such a Government? Because under such a Government I would be a slave – a fearful slave, ruled despotically by those who do not represent me … with every base and destructive passion of man bearing upon my shieldless destiny.” [9]

Later, in the face of President Andrew Jackson’s political strength and much congressional opposition led by Henry Clay, South Carolina dropped nullification, Rhett was angry. He told his colleagues in the legislature that “Your “northern brethren,” aye, “the entire world are in arms against your institutions…. Until this Government is made a limited Government… there is no liberty – no security for the South.” [10] He then described disunion as the only way for the South to survive and to escape what he called “unconstitutional legislation.” He described a “Confederacy of the Southern States… [as] a happy termination – happy beyond expectation, of our long struggle for our rights against oppression.” [11]

Rhett worked against compromise at every opportunity, especially compromise which would preserve the Union. Absolutely convinced of the rightness of his cause he distrusted the politicians who favored compromise and had no faith in political parties. He worked from 1833 until the very end in order to support slavery, disunion, and secession, using every crisis as an opportunity. His dream was for “all Southerners – to unite across party lines and unyieldingly defend slavery and Southern interests as he defined them.” [12] During the debate over secession following the Compromise of 1850, Rhett would resign his seat in the U.S. Senate which had been elected to following the death of John C. Calhoun, rather than accept a state convention’s ruling that secession was not justified. After leaving office he became the editor, and later the full owner of the Charleston Mercury newspaper where he continued to advocate for secession in often the most outrageous ways, but The more outrageous the Mercury’s charges, the more they were picked up and reprinted by other papers. Rhett’s propaganda technique was part of a larger secessionist strategy. “Men having both nerve and self-sacrificing patriotism,” he wrote, “must lead the movement and shape its course, controlling and compelling their inferior contemporaries.” He worked to push those without sufficient patriotic nerve – that is, moderate leaders – out of the political arena, believing correctly that without a solid middle ground to stand on, Southern voters would rally increasingly to the fire-eaters’ standard.” [13]

In 1860 Rhett “joined a drive to either rule or ruin the 1860 Democratic convention scheduled for Charleston.” [14] His work was successful, he devised the strategy to destroy the Union by first destroying the Democratic Party, and he wrote in January 1860 that “the destruction of the Union must… begin with the “demolition” of the party. So long as the Democratic Party, as a “National” organization exists in power in the South,… our public men” will “trim their sails.” [15] When South Carolina seceded from the Union, it was Rhett who drafted South Carolina’s secession ordinance, which claimed that South Carolina was not “perpetrating a treasonous revolution, but… simply taking back… the same powers it had temporarily surrendered… when South Carolina ratified the federal Constitution.” [16] However, his inability to compromise and his intemperate behavior alienated from him from Jefferson Davis and other Southern leaders, and he grew increasingly isolated, becoming one of Davis’s most bitter critics. As late as March of 1865 Rhett with Union armies having overrun South Carolina and at the gates of Richmond, Rhett was opposing any move to compromise on the issue of slavery, even the attempt of Jefferson Davis and some in the Confederate Congress to grant limited emancipation to African American slaves who enlisted to fight for the Confederacy.

Notes

[1] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.463

[2] Abrahamson, James L. The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 Scholarly Resources Books, Wilmington DE 2000 pp.43-44

[3] Ruffin, Edmund The Political Economy of Slavery in McKitrick, Eric L. ed. Slavery Defended: The Views of the Old South. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall/Spectrum Books, 1963.Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/lincolns-political-economy/ 24 March 2014

[4] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.1

[5] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One: Secessionists at Bay p.481

[6] Ibid. Ruffin The Political Economy of Slavery http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/lincolns-political-economy/

[7] Catton, Bruce The Coming Fury Phoenix Press, London 1961 pp.314-315

[8] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.33

[9] Goodheart, Adam The Happiest Man in the South in The New York Times Opinionator December 16th 2010 retrieved from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/the-happiest-man-in-the-south/?_r=0 26 July 2016

[10] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One: Secessionists at Bay p.286

[11] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.34

[12] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.34

[13] Ibid. Goodheart The Happiest Man in the South http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/the-happiest-man-in-the-south/?_r=0

[14] Ibid. Abrahamson The Men of Secession and Civil War, 1859-1861 p.34

[15] Freehling, William. The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2007 p.295

[16] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.130

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The Unreconstructed President: Andrew Johnson

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I am going to be exploring the issue of the abolition of slavery and Reconstruction after the Civil War. Sadly, the effort to integrate society and to ensure that African Americans had the same rights, political, social, legal, economic and educational as whites failed due to a number of factors. The biggest factor was that former Confederates continued the war by other means until they wore down the will of the North and reestablished white supremacy in all areas of Southern life and in the process re-wrote history in the form of the myth of the Lost Cause, something that continues even today with the new Texas history textbooks which promote that myth, minimize slavery and not even talk about Jim Crow. 

Yesterday I received a comment from an officer of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Georgia Military Order of the Stars and Bars calling my work revisionism and spouting the lies of the sanitized history presented by such groups.  That has emboldened me to continue my work on this subject. Here is a part of my text dealing with the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and the work of President Andrew Johnson to subvert the efforts of Congress and those who worked to provide African Americans the basics to lift themselves out of the hole dug for them by their White masters before the war. 

So I continue today,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Andrew Johnson

Colin Gray writes that “A successful exercise in peacemaking should persuade the defeated party to accept its defeat.” [1] When the war ended the Confederacy was beaten and most people in the South would have agreed to anything that the North presented regarding peace and return to the Union. The primary political policy goal of Lincoln regarding the war was the reestablishment of the Union and one of the military measures adopted by Lincoln was the emancipation of the South’s slaves who were an important part of the Southern war economy. “During the last two years of the war the abolition of slavery evolved from a means of winning the war to a war aim – from national strategy to national policy.” [2] By Lincoln’s reelection in 1864 that policy included the unconditional surrender of the Confederacy as well as the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

That change in policy, the complete abolition of slavery necessitated a remaking of the old South, a culture where economics, social standing and even religion was linked to the “peculiar institution.” In a sense Reconstruction was “what the war was about.” [3] Just two months after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Richard Henry Dana, a Federal District Attorney in Boston, declared that “a war is over when its purpose is secured. It is a fatal mistake to hold that this war is over because the fighting has ceased. This war is not over…” [4] As Dana, and Clausewitz understood so well that war is a continuation of policy and politics by other means, and the failure of the President Johnson and others in the North to fully grasp this fact led to over a century of subjugation of emancipated African Americans. The confusion and lack of determined purpose has fueled a continual racial divide in the United States that is still felt today. Defeated on the battlefield Southerners soon turned to political, psychological and violent means to reverse their losses.

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Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass understood that simple emancipation was not enough, and that the “war and its outcome demanded racial equality.” [5] Despite the that efforts of many in the North this would not happen during Reconstruction and Douglass knew that the failure to accomplish this would be disastrous, “Whether the tremendous war so heroically fought…shall pass into history a miserable failure…or whether on the other hand, we shall, as the rightful reward of victory over treason have a solid nation, entirely delivered from all contradictions and social antagonisms, must be determined one way or another.” [6]

There was a problem with implementing Reconstruction; when John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln, the political leaders of the North could not agree on how to do this. The new President, Andrew Johnson was probably the worst possible leader to lead the country in the aftermath of war for all practical purposes Johnson was a Democrat who believed in white supremacy, he had been brought onto the ticket for his efforts to keep Kentucky in the Union and to support Unionist elements in Tennessee. While his selection helped Lincoln in parts of the North and the Border States it was a disaster for the post-war era. Johnson’s approach to reconstruction was very simply to “impose minimal demands on the South. He required only minor concessions from the former Confederates before allowing them to resume their political rights and retain their land. As for freedmen, he seemed to think that the needed no further protection beyond the fact of their emancipation.” [7]

Johnson was “a lonely stubborn man with few confidants, who seemed to develop his policies without consulting anyone, then stuck to them inflexibly in the face of any and all criticism. He lacked Lincoln’s ability to conciliate his foes and his capacity for growth, which was best illustrated by Lincoln’s evolving attitude to black suffrage during the Civil War.” [8] In the months after his unexpected accession to the presidency Johnson demonstrated that he had no understanding of Lincoln’s political goals for the South and the desires of the Republican dominated Congress.

By the summer of 1865 Johnson was already demonstrating “that his sympathies were with the Southern white population and that he believed that their interests should be cared for even at the expense of freedmen.” [9] Johnson’s approach to reconstruction was very simply to “impose minimal demands on the South. He required only minor concessions from the former Confederates before allowing them to resume their political rights and retain their land. As for freedmen, he seemed to think that the needed no further protection beyond the fact of their emancipation.” [10] Johnson gave individual pardons to more than thirteen thousand “high-ranking Confederate civil and military officers and wealthy Southerners.” [11] While doing this he minimized political influence the Southern Unionists who had not supported the Confederacy and ensured that freed slaves were excluded from the political process. He issued a number of orders “appointing interim provisional governors and urging the writing of new state constitutions based upon the voter qualifications in force at the time of secession in 1861 – which meant, in large but invisible letters, no blacks.” [12]

When Frederick Douglass led a delegation of blacks to meet with Johnson in February 1866 Johnson preached that it was impossible to give political freedom to blacks. When Douglass attempted to object Johnson became angry and told Douglass “I do not like to be arraigned by some who can get up handsomely-rounded periods and rhetoric, and talk about abstract ideas of liberty, who never periled life, liberty, or property.” [13] When Douglass took his objections to Johnson’s harangue to a Washington newspaper, Johnson railed against Douglass “I know that d—–d Douglass…he’s just like any other nigger & would sooner cut a white man’s throat than not.” [14]

To be continued…

Notes

[1] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.14

[2] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 132

[3] Perman, Michael and Murrell Taylor, Amy editors The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition Wadsworth Cengage Learning Boston MA 2011 p.323

[4] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 175

[5] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.407

[6] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.407

[7] Ibid. Perman and Taylor The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition p.323

[8] Foner, Eric Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2005 p.108

[9] Carpenter, John A. Sword and Olive Branch: Oliver Otis Howard Fordham University Press, New York 1999 p.109

 

[10] Ibid. Perman and Taylor The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition p.323

[11] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 177

[12] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.490

[13] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.494

[14] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.494

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A Great Day for Liberty for All

Mini-Stonewall

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today is a good day for freedom. It has been to long coming. The Supreme Court, citing the Fourteenth Amendment ruled in favor of Marriage Equality for Gays Lesbians and others in the LGBTQ community in the case of Obergfell v. Hodges. I am quite happy for my Gay and Lesbian friends  for this.

As historian and who has and continues to study the American Civil War, especially the fight for the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of African Americans and the extension of the the full benefits of citizenship and liberty.

As early as 1854 Lincoln posed the idea that the Declaration of Independence was the standard maxim of free society …constantly spreading and deepening its influence,” ultimately applicable “to peoples of all colors everywhere.” 

The understanding that the liberties enunciated in the Declaration extend to first to African-Americans was made part of the Constitution in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. The precedent of Fourteenth Amendment has been used to grant Suffrage to Women, to end Jim Crow laws, Black Codes and Separate but Equal laws. Today it was correctly used to ensure that all people have the freedom to marry.

The ruling was about liberty, it was about equality, it was about due process, and today the Court’s majority noted:

The history of marriage as a union between two persons of the opposite sex marks the beginning of these cases. To the respond- ents, it would demean a timeless institution if marriage were extend- ed to same-sex couples. But the petitioners, far from seeking to devalue marriage, seek it for themselves because of their respect—and need—for its privileges and responsibilities, as illustrated by the petitioners’ own experiences.

The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change.

Changes, such as the decline of arranged marriages and the abandonment of the law of coverture, have worked deep transformations in the structure of marriage, affecting aspects of marriage once viewed as essential. These new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution. Changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations.

They also added:

The fundamental liberties protected by the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause extend to certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choic- es defining personal identity and beliefs.

Most of the opposition to Gay marriage and for that matter to all Gay Rights has been from conservative Christians. Sadly it was conservative Christians who have been in the forefront of denying liberty to people in the country since the beginning of the abolition movement in the 1830s. They labeled fellow evangelicals in the abolition movement as “atheists, infidels, communists, free-lovers, Bible-haters, and anti-Christian levelers.” 

This was not limited to Southern  conservative Christians.

The fact that so many Protestant ministers, intellectuals, and theologians, not only Southerners, but men like “Princeton’s venerable theologian Charles B. Hodge – supported the institution of slavery on biblical grounds, often dismissing abolitionists as liberal progressives who did not take the Bible seriously” leaves a troubling question over those who claim to oppose issues on supposedly Biblical grounds. Such men in the North spoke out for it “in order to protect and promote interests concomitant to slavery, namely biblical traditionalism, and social and theological authority.” [1] The Northern clerical defenders of slavery perceived the spread of abolitionist preaching as a threat, not just to slavery “but also to the very principle of social and ecclesiastical hierarchy.” [2]Alistair McGrath asks a very important question for modern Christians who might be tempted to support a position for the same reasons today, “Might not the same mistakes be made all over again, this time over another issue?” [3]

Throughout American history conservative Christians have often espoused a concept of limited liberty, liberty for the few and the powerful. This happened as I have noted during the fight against emancipation, but also Women’s Suffrage and the various Jim Crow laws and rights for other groups. This is happening again today with anti-Gay Christians attacking the ruling and like those who fought abolition proclaiming in apocalyptic language that Christians will be persecuted and that God will judge the United States for allowing Gays to marry.

However, the fact is that very little will change in the country, most people will move along. Christian conservatives will not be persecuted, religious liberties will not be violated they will be enhanced as churches who allow Gays to marry will be able to extend this rite of their churches to their parishioners and others.

Today, despite the cries of many on the American Religious Right liberty has been protected. as Lincoln said: the declaration’s promise of equality was “a beacon to guide” not only “the whole race of man then living” but “their children and their children’s children, and the countless myriads of generations who should inhabit the earth in other ages.” [4]

Marriage-Equality-104371316011_xlarge

I am happy for my Gay friends who have labored for this for so long enduring hatred, violence and social, political, religious and economic discrimination for so many years.

Have a great night,

Peace

Padre Steve+

[1] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.38

[2] Ibid. Varon Disunion! P.108

[3] Ibid. McGrath Christianity’s Dangerous Idea p.324

[4] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 203

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The Unchristian Christianity of Modern America

I cannot and will not recant

We live in an era where religion and politics especially in conservative circles have become one just as they were in the days following Constantine’s granting of religious freedom to all in the Empire while making the Catholic Church the State religion which went from a persecuted Church to an Imperial Church overnight. The Church in the coming centuries became an arm of the State something that until the enlightenment it remained in many nations. Most of the English Colonies that became the United States had State Religions even after the Bill of Rights the last to disestablish its state religion being the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1833.  Most European State Churches remained until the fall of the Empires after the First World War but many countries in Europe still have State Churches which are not very vibrant now days.

The curious thing is that until the 18th and 19th Centuries the powers of State Churches were great and heavily benefited greatly through their allegiance to the State.  To disobey the Church was to disobey the State and to disobey the State was often tantamount to disobeying God since the State and the rulers thereof were not simply ordained by God but in fact God’s instruments. Unfortunately this led to many abuses of power by those in the Church as well as the State and thankfully we in the United States were able to for the most part break with that tradition which was and is repugnant to the Gospel as well as human freedom.

In fact the United States has been the foremost proponent of religious freedom and tolerance of any nation in history. It was something that we enshrined, the right of all people to worship according to their faith. Now we haven’t been perfect practitioners of our ideal as there have been plenty of religious based prejudice and persecution in this country dating to colonial times, especially of religions outside the mainstream of Protestant Christianity, it took nearly 150 years for Catholics to become part of mainstream America and longer for others especially religions outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Despite those instances our experiment of religious liberty has been an amazing success in which many denominations have prospered.

All that being said I fear we are entering a stage where authoritarian religious groups closely allied with the rich and the powerful are on the ascendant in the United States just as radicals in other religions, particularly Islam but not limited to Islam are on the rise. Frankly I expect that people who are either living in a culture that still believes that the world is like it was back in the 13th Century and those that have become fantastically rich and enamored with the technology of the West to be that way. Let us face facts most of the counties in the Middle East lack the centuries of related social, political, philosophic or religious development that is part of Western culture and we still screw things up. The Islamic World has not experienced anything like the Renaissance, Reformation or Enlightenment. There is a chance that it might amid the pro-democracy and freedom protests that are occurring throughout the Middle East even as radical Islamists dream of a new Caliphate, something that seems to be anathema to many of the young protestors in Egypt and other Arab Nations.

In the United States the movement to religious authoritarian systems closely allied with politicians and the State to do their bidding comes from conservative circles, particularly conservative and fundamental Evangelical Christian churches and the Roman Catholic Church which since the reforms of Vatican Two has retreated into its old Ultramontanistic self.

That being said I figure I should go ahead and continue to dig my grave with my conservative brethren who view anyone to the left of them as a wild eyed raving liberal and quite possibly a Socialist.  I am a moderate and I might be classed as a liberal conservative or conservative liberal.  Thus I and people like me stand in the uncomfortable middle of a deeply polarized society where most to our left or right despise us for actually deviating from the established dogmas of the left or the right.

To the extreme right I might be a raving liberal, and the far left an intolerant conservative but the I choose to live in the tension between the two, although I think that in today’s Tea Party charged environment I would be called a liberal.  But I am a moderate and I will not give up the middle ground simply because others have adopted a scorched earth policy in faith and politics where “if you ain’t for us you’re against us” is the norm. In fact I think that Jesus stood against that kind of thought process, if you don’t believe me look at Mark 9:38-40 where Jesus says something different when the disciples confront him about others casting out demons in his name “he who is not against us is for us.”

As a passionate moderate who is also a Priest and Christian my goal in life is to get along, find common ground among disparate groups and care for God’s people.  I do this by acknowledging and maintaining the tensions that are inherent in a pluralistic society and not simply going along what whatever is popular or expedient. This takes a lot of effort and does not exclude being prophetic.  However that prophetic role comes in relationship with others where there is mutual respect, civility and care for each other even when we do not agree. It does not come from being angry or acting disrespectfully just because I can.  The prophetic role does not come from the outside looking in railing at your opponents.  That only increases your isolation, eventually to the point that you are no longer a player in the debate, simply an annoying pest with absolutely no say in anything.  It takes more courage to be open and dialogue with people respectfully than it does to rail against them.  Anyone can be a critic and anyone can be a wrecking ball.  That’s easy.  There is little personal risk in doing so, because you don’t have to open you self up to the possibility that there may be some merit in your opponent’s view and once you have a relationship with someone it is hard to demonize or dehumanize them.  Unfortunately that is what is happening across the religious and political divide in our society.

Despite the rancor on the extremes I think that there are more people out there like me than not. My belief is that voices like ours are drowned out by drumbeat of competing demagogues on the far right and the far left.  Since I am a priest my focus will be on the dangers that I see in the current climate and the captivity that churches have unwittingly placed themselves in making political alliances.  These alliances, particularly those of conservative Christians have become so incestuous and so intertwined that they are seen as one with supposed political conservatives. As such these churches and Christian leaders have become the religious voice of political movements fighting a cultural war in which only one side can win and in which there is no room for compromise or dialogue.

In doing so these religious leaders have compromised themselves so that only their followers give any credence to what they are saying.  They are so to speak “preaching to the choir” and not reaching out to or even caring about the welfare of their opponents, they are in a sense like the Taliban. They frequently demonize their opponents or for that matter anyone, even other Christians that might disagree with their understanding of the Christian faith.

That is why I say that many have become like the Taliban. If you do not agree with them on their social-religious agenda you are a heretic regardless of how orthodox you are in your actual theology.  Theology and belief is no longer the test, the test is if you agree with a social-political-religious agenda which often is at odds with the Christian faith proclaimed by Jesus.  This is like the Taliban because the goal is to gain control of the government and use the government to impose a social-religious theocracy where the church uses the “police power of the government” to achieve its goals.  Such a message is anathema to the Gospel and its redemptive message that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting men’s sins against them.” What many churches and Christian leaders have done is to for practical purposes discard any real attempts to engage people with the message of the Gospel in favor of using political power to coerce non-believers into compliance through the police power of the government.  This in stark opposition to the early Church which was martyred for their faith in Christ versus their opposition to government policy or social ills, of which there were plenty that they could have protested.

Early in his “Reforming” days the young Martin Luther wrote a book entitled “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.” It was a severe critique of abuses in the Roman Catholic Church of his era.  I think churches today have become captive to various political parties, social and economic theories, movements and ideas.  These are not necessarily Christian even though any churches have “baptized” them so to speak.  Capitalism for instance is has many benefits, however unbridled capitalism which is not moderated with true concern for the least, the lost and the lonely, is nothing more that economic social Darwinism.  It is the survival of the fittest with little concern or regard for real people.  People in the world of baptized unbridled capitalism are not people, but consumers and economic units.  In the United States we can see this in practical terms where historically US corporations which at one time employed millions of Americans and produced actual good that were in turn exported to the world have outsourced so many jobs and industries to other nations.

This was done in order to increase corporate profits by paying foreign workers almost nothing and not having to abide by US environmental laws or tax codes.  This may bring cheaper goods in the marketplace but it has endangered our economic and even strategic military security. Economic power is one of the key elements of national security.  In the military we call this the DIME:  Diplomatic, Intelligence, Military and Economic power and unless your economy can keep up you will fail.  Just ask the Soviet Union.  It is interesting to see many Christian leaders and churches talk of capitalism as if came down from heaven even using the Bible to try to bolster their argument.  This is just one of many areas where the church is not longer a prophetic voice, but a willing captive mouthpiece for political and economic institutions which at their heart could care less about the Christian faith and wouldn’t mind it going away.

On the left many churches have embraced social reform, the civil rights movement, women’s liberation as well as left leaning and even socialistic economic models and a demonstrated preference for the Democratic Party.  While none of these goals of themselves are anti-Christian the linkage to the causes often over the Gospel has hurt progressive Christianity.

On the right conservative churches beginning in the 1970s in reaction to the social revolutions of the 1960s moved lock, stock and barrel to the Republican Party. They were led by men such as Jerry Falwell who founded the Moral Majority in 1979, Pat Robertson who founded the Christian Coalition and Dr D. James Kennedy who founded the now defunct “Center for Reclaiming America for Christ.”  Ronald Reagan was the political spokesman and was an outspoken advocate of the role of America’s Judeo-Christian heritage. Conservative religious leaders solidified that relationship in the 1990s during the presidency of Bill Clinton, whose sexual proclivities did nothing to help his cause with Christians despite him signing the Defense of Marriage Act.  The 1994 “Republican Revolution” and “Contract for America” helped solidify Christian conservatives as a central component of the Republican Party and by that point there was a clear alliance between Christian conservatives and the Republican Party.  It was also during this time that politically conservative talk radio became a force in American politics and many on the Christian Right gravitated to broadcasters such as Rush Limbaugh and later Sean Hannity.  Conservative Christians now stand at the center of the Tea Party movement and are a force that no Republican politician can ignore if he or she wants to keep their job.

Despite what I have said I am not saying that people’s faith should not play an important part of their political viewpoint.  Churches and influential pastors have been an important part of American life and has contributed to many advances in our society including the civil rights movement, which could not have succeeded without the efforts of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and many other clergymen and women, from across the denominational and racial spectrum.

Other examples of where churches spoke to societal wrongs included slavery and child labor.  Now this was not a unified front as many churches especially regarding slavery and civil rights opposed these measures.  This included the major denominations that split into northern and southern factions over the issue of slavery prior to the Civil War.  The Southern Baptist Church is a product of this split.  Other churches such as the Methodists and Presbyterians eventually came back together, the Presbyterian Church USA doing so in 1982, 117 years after the Civil War…better late than never I guess.  This will not happen with the Southern and American Baptist Convention’s as they are now theologically poles apart.

There has been a trend over the last 20 years or so by many clergy and laity in both liberal and conservative churches to be uncritical in their relationships with political parties. In my view this has emasculated the witness of the church.  I have experienced this on both the left and the right. When I was a kid my dad, a career Navy Chief Petty Officer was serving in Vietnam. New to the area we went to a church of the denomination that my parents had grown up in and in which I had been baptized.  This was a mainline Protestant church, the name I will not mention because it is irrelevant to the discussion.  The minister constantly preached against the war and the military probably assuming that he had no military families in the congregation.  At that church I had a Sunday school teacher tell me that my dad was a “baby killer” when I told her that my dad was serving in Vietnam.  If it had not been for the Roman Catholic chaplain at the little Navy base in town who showed my family the love of God when that happened, caring for our Protestant family without trying to make us Catholic I would have probably never reconciled with the church.

I trace my vocation as a priest and chaplain to that man. Since I have spent more of my life in conservative churches in the days since I have seen a growing and ever more strident move to the political right in conservative churches.  I think this has less to do with the actual churches but the influence of conservative talk radio which has catered to conservatives, especially social conservative Christians.  Conservative Christians are a key part of this demographic and it is not unusual to hear ministers as well as lay people simply parroting what these broadcasters are saying. I often hear my fellow Christians on the right talk more vociferously about free markets capitalism, the war on terror and justifying the other conservative causes which are general less than central to the faith in public forums like Facebook.  Some of what is written is scary.  People who pray for the government to fail, pray for the President to be killed, call anyone who disagrees with them pretty horrible names or prays the “imprecatory Psalms” against their opponents.  I saw an active duty Army Chaplain call the President “that reject.” The words of a lot of these folks are much more like Sean Hannity than the Apostle Paul.  When I have challenged conservative Christian friends on what I think are inconsistencies I have in some cases been attacked and pretty nastily if I might add.

I see this in stark contrast to the witness of the early church.  Pliny’s letter to the Emperor Trajan sums up how Christians responded to real, not imagined persecution for their Christian faith, not social-political cause.

“They stated that the sum of their guilt or error amounted to this, that they used to gather on a stated day before dawn and sing to Christ as if he were a god, and that they took an oath not to involve themselves in villainy, but rather to commit no theft, no fraud, no adultery; not to break faith, nor to deny money placed with them in trust. Once these things were done, it was their custom to part and return later to eat a meal together, innocently, although they stopped this after my edict, in which I, following your mandate, forbade all secret societies.”

Pliny was perplexed because although he thought their religion to be “fanatical superstitions” he could find no other fault in their lives; they even obeyed his order to stop meeting together.  My view is that Christians some on the left but especially on the right lost any prophetic voice not only in society, in their respective political party alliances.  They have become special interest groups who compete with other special interest groups, which politicians of both parties treat as their loyal servants.  This is what I mean by captivity.  I think that the church has to be able to speak her mind and be a witness of the redemption and reconciliation message of the Gospel and hold politicians, political parties and other power structures accountable for their treatment of the least, the lost and the lonely; caring for those that to those who seek to maintain political and economic control, merely numbers.  The church has to maintain her independence or lose submit to slavery.  There are many examples we can look to in this just a couple of relatively modern examples being William Wilberforce and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  We can find many others throughout Church history. These men were not apolitical, but they and their ministries were both prophetic and redemptive.  They maintained peaceful dialogue with their opponents and helped bring about justice.  Billy Graham never gave in to the temptation to endorse any political party.  Instead he had a voice and relationship with every US President during his active ministry, be they Republican or Democrat.

It is incumbent on Christians and other people of faith seek to embody this witness in our divided and dangerous world.  Christians especially cannot allow themselves to be ghettoized in any political party, or political faction where they are just another interest group even an important one. Nor can they allow their public witness to be absorbed and consumed by the promotion of political agendas or causes, even if those causes are worthy of support.  It is a matter of keeping priorities causes can never take precedence over the message of God’s love and reconciliation in Christ.  Unfortunately this is too often the case.

My view is that if you build relationships with people by loving them, caring for them and treating them with the same respect that you would want for yourself; even with those that you have major differences, then you will have a place at the table and your voice will be heard.  If we on the other hand cauterize ourselves from relationships and dialogue we will be relegated, and rightly so to the margins of the social and political process of our nation.  In effect we will ensure that people will stop listening to us not only on the social and political issues, but more importantly in our proclamation of the faith in the Kingdom of God which was proclaimed by Jesus which that comes to us from the Apostles.

Unfortunately I believe that Christians thinking that they are more influential than they are have marginalized themselves.  This is because many have compromised the faith by allowing extremists to be the public face of the Christian church in public debates on social, morale and political issues.  I hope someday we will rebuild our credibility as people who actually care about the life of our fellow citizens and our country and not just those who agree with us.  God have mercy on us all.

Peace, Steve+

 

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