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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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