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Slavery and National Expansion: the Compromise of 1850 or “The Privilege of Belonging to the Superior Race…” Part 2


Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today the second of a three installment bit of my work dealing with American Slavery in the ante-bellum period. These next articles deal with the subject of what happens when laws are made that further restrict the liberty of already despised, or enslaved people. In this case the subject is the Compromise of 1850 and its associated laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

This is an uncomfortable period of history for Americans with either a sense of conscience, or those who believe the racist myths surrounding the “Noble South” and “The Lost Cause.”  I hope that you find them interesting, especially in light of current events in the United States.


Padre Steve+

Economic Effects of the Compromise of 1850

The interregional slave trade guaranteed slave owners of a source of slaves even if they were cut off from the international trade and it was an immense part of not just the Southern economy but the American economy. Slave owners “hitched their future to slavery; a single cash crop and fresh land,” [1] and refused to take an interest in manufacturing or diversifying their agricultural production outside of King Cotton. Slave prices tripled between 1800 and 1860 making human property one of the most lucrative markets for investment. The price of a “prime male field hand in New Orleans began at around $500 in 1800 and rose as high as $1,800 by the time of the Civil War.” [2] The result was that slave owners and those who benefited from the interregional slave trade had a vested interest in not only seeing slavery preserved, but expanded.

This resulted in two significant trends in the South, first was that slave owners grew significantly richer as the value of the slave population increased. Using even a conservative number of $750 dollars as the value of a single slave in 1860 the amount of value in this human property was significantly more than almost any other investment in the nation.  It was enormous. Steven Deyle notes that:

“It was roughly three times greater than the total amount of all capital invested in manufacturing in the North and in the South combined, three times the amount invested in railroads, and seven times the amount invested in banks. It was about equal to about seven times the value of all currency in circulation in the country three times the value of the entire livestock population, twelve times the value of the entire U.S. cotton crop, and forty-eight times the expenditures of the federal government that year. ….”by 1860, in fact in the slaveowning states alone, slave property had surpassed the assessed value of real estate.” [3]

The rise in slave values and the increasing wealth of slave owners had a depreciating effect on poor southern whites by ensuring that there was no middle class, which “blocked any hope of social advancement for the mass of poor whites, for it was all but impossible for a non-slaveholder to rise in the southern aristocracy.” [4] The impoverishment of southern whites created some worry for those astute enough to take an interest in such matters. “In 1850, about 40 percent of the South’s white farmers owned real estate at all. There was thus, worried the Southern Cultivator in 1856, “a large number at the South who have no legal right or interest in the soil [and] no homes of their own.” The editor of a South Carolina newspaper that year framed the matter in less sympathetic terms: “There is in this State,” he wrote, “as impoverished and ignorant as white population as can be found in any other in the Union.” [5]

Some Southerners recognized the growing issue that the south was falling behind the north in terms of real economic advancement and that slavery was the culprit. Hinton Helper, a non-slave owning North Carolinian who had made his fortune in the California Gold Rush of 1849 and returned home to become disillusioned with what he saw wrote a book that had a major impact in the North among Republican politicians, but which was either banned or restricted in much of the South. That book “The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It (1857) was “a book on the debilitating impact of slavery on the South in general and on southern whites in particular.” [6] Helper’s attack on the slavery system was as devastating as that of any abolitionist, and since he was a southerner the effects of his words helped further anti-slavery sentiment in the North and would be used by the Republican party in an abridged form as a campaign tool that they printed and distributed during the build up to the election n of 1860. Helper wrote that:

“Slavery lies at the root of all the shame, poverty, tyranny and imbecility of the South.” Echoing the free-soil argument Helper maintained that slavery degraded all labor to the level of bond labor. Planters looked down their noses at nonslaveholders and refused to tax themselves to provide a decent school system. “Slavery is hostile to general education…Its very life, is in the ignorance and stolidity of the masses.”  [7]

Many southern leaders saw Helper’s book as a danger and worried that should Helper and others like him speak freely long enough “that they will have an Abolition party in the South, of Southern men.” When that happened, “the contest for slavery will no longer be one between the North and the South. It will be in the South between the people of the South.” [8] That was something that the landed gentry of the slave owning oligarchy could never tolerate for if the non-slave holding whites rejected slavery, the institution would die. Thus, Helper, who was no fan of black people and held many violently racist attitudes, was denounced “as a traitor, a renegade, an apostate, a “dishonest, degraded and disgraced man.” [9]

Men like Helper were an anomaly in the South, other leaders were much more like Jefferson Davis who urged the creation of a “Southern “system,” internal improvements, building factories, even reforming education to eliminate all textbooks at odds with his notion of the blessings of slavery.” [10]

In the years the before the war, the North embraced the Industrial Revolution leading to advances which gave it a marked economic advantage over the South in which through  its “commitment to the use of slave labor inhibited economic diversification and industrialization and strengthened the tyranny of King Cotton.” [11] The population of the North also expanded at a clip that far outpaced the South as European immigrants swelled the population.

The divide was not helped by the various compromises worked out between northern and southern legislators. After the Missouri Compromise Thomas Jefferson wrote these words of warning:

“but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.” [12]

The trigger for the increase in tensions that eventually ignited the powder keg was the war with Mexico in which the United States annexed nearly half of Mexico. The new territories were viewed by those who advocated the expansion of slavery as fresh and fertile ground for its spread. Ulysses S Grant, who served in the war, noted the effects of the war with Mexico in his memoirs:

“In taking military possession of Texas after annexation, the army of occupation, under General [Zachary] Taylor, was directed to occupy the disputed territory.  The army did not stop at the Nueces and offer to negotiate for a settlement of the boundary question, but went beyond, apparently in order to force Mexico to initiate war….To us it was an empire and of incalculable value; but it might have been obtained by other means.  The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war.” [13]

To be continued…


[1] Ibid. Egnal  Clash of Extremes p.10

[2] Ibid. Deyle The Domestic Slave Trade p.53 Deyle’s numbers come from the 1860 census.

[3] Ibid. Egnal  Clash of Extremes p.54

[4] Ibid. Foner Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men p.48

[5] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.37

[6] Ibid. Goldfield  America Aflame  p.177

[7] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.199

[8] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.235

[9] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.397

[10] Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour Harper Collins Publishers New York 1991 p.258

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

[12] Jefferson, Thomas Letter to John Holmes dated April 22nd 1824 retrieved from www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/159.html  24 March 2014

[13] Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant New York 1885 pp.243-245


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The Power of Soft Power: Union Diplomacy in the Civil War


Charles Francis Adams

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is another section of my Gettysburg and Civil War text. For those that have been following my posts on this subject

Diplomacy is a key part of the whole of government, the whole of national power, and the understanding of waging war and winning the peace and it does matter before, during, and after the conclusion of any war. Diplomacy is an essential part of the DIME and Union diplomacy had a major effect on the American Civil War, and during the war it was the Federal government and Union diplomats who understood this far better than their Confederate counterparts and were facing leaders of Britain and France who resented the power of the United States and wanted it to fail. This was particularly the case with the conservative British Tory party, like so many other governments of aristocratic regimes the English aristocracy “sympathized with what they saw as a corresponding plantation aristocracy in the South, and were not sad at the prospect of the American republic demonstrating what they had all along insisted was the fate of all popular democracies – instability, faction, civil war, and dismemberment.” [1]

Early Confederate diplomacy was based on the belief that European trading partners could not do without Southern cotton and would intervene in the war to break the Union blockade. As a result, cotton became “the principle weapon of Southern foreign policy.” [2] England depended on southern cotton to supply its massive textile industry and before the war the South had supplied roughly seventy-five percent of its demand. While the Confederates were able to receive recognition as a belligerent from some European powers, including the British, whose position infuriated Secretary of State Seward, the Confederacy, much to the chagrin of its leaders never received diplomatic recognition as a nation.

The efforts of the Confederacy to secure recognition would be due to Union diplomacy, much of it led by the United States Minister to Great Britain, Charles Francis Adams who “tirelessly represented the Union Cause to the British government and the British people but also financed an active network of spies and agents who relentlessly exposed Confederate violations of the British neutrality laws and hobbled Confederate efforts to raise money and but arms.” [3]

Union diplomats in Europe had to manage a very complex situation at the very outset of the conflict when a Captain Charles Wilkes of the United States Navy, commanding the steam sloop USS San Jacinto, fired on and stopped the British passenger steamer Trent, in international waters during November 1861 and removed two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell and their secretaries, who were on their way to Britain. Ignoring the protests of the Trent’s master, Wilkes returned the two Confederates to New York setting of a firestorm of protest. The British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, “immediately drafted an ultimate and ordered a squadron of steamers and 7,000 troops readied to send to Canada.” [4]

The incident became known as the Trent affair and provided an early challenge for Union diplomacy, and nearly wrecked the Union war effort. As Charles F. Adams noted in a letter to his son, “Captain Wilkes has not positively shipwrecked us, but he has come as near close to it without succeeding as he could.” [5] Confederates rejoiced, the chief Confederate propagandist in England wrote, “If Commodore Wilkes designed making a sensation he succeeded to his heart’s content…. The usually apathetic Englishmen were roused to a sudden frenzy by this insult to their flag, such as I have never witne4ssed in them before.” [6] Fears of war with Britain dominated the financial markets and “dried up the sale of bonds to finance the war against the Confederacy.” [7]

These fears were not unfounded, as the crisis dragged on into December, Britain made other military preparations some 5,000 Canadian troops trained to British Army standards and 35,000 other Canadian volunteer militia were called up, and “an additional 11,000 British Regulars were soon on their way to Canada.” [8] Additionally the British government placed an embargo on the shipment of saltpeter from India to the United States until the affair was settled. Since India was the largest supplier of this material which was vital to the manufacture of gunpowder, this threatened to cripple the Union war effort, and as soon as the crisis was ended, this vital material was soon on the way to Northern manufacturers who rapidly turned it into gunpowder.

Had it not been for the skilled efforts of Adams, the United States minister to defuse the situation, the affair could have led to British recognition of the Confederacy and intervention in the war. Adams’ efforts to defuse the situation in Britain, and to convince Lincoln to release the Confederates and return them to the British were so successful that they “left Anglo-American relations in better shape than before the crisis.” [9]

Adams also had to deal with Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward’s indignation of Confederate commissioners meeting with British Foreign Minister Lord Russell. Those meetings sent Seward into a rage, he told Senator Charles Sumner “God damn them, I’ll give them hell” and he wrote Adams instructing the American Minister to “break off relations if the British government had any more dealings with southern envoys. If Britain officially recognized the Confederacy, “we from that hour, shall cease to be friends and become once more, as we have twice before been forced to be, enemies of Great Britain.” [10] Lincoln, knowing how critical the situation was gave Adams the discretion of presenting the substance of the matter verbally rather than hand Seward’s dispatch to Russell. Adams handled the matter deftly, and Russell “conceded that he had twice met with the Southern commissioners, but “had no expectation of seeing them any more.” [11]

In the end the release of the Confederate envoys “improved Anglo-American relations and disappointed Confederate hopes for an Anglo-American war that might assure their independence.” [12] Adams wrote, “The first effect of the surrender of Messrs. Mason and Slidell has been extraordinary. The current which ran against us with such extreme violence six weeks ago now seems to be going with equal fury in our favor.” [13]

This was very import because there was much support for the Confederate cause in the European aristocracy and some in Europe hoped for Confederate success. They were encouraged by Union military defeats at the outset of the war, but Union diplomats helped to keep Europeans out of the war. Confederate diplomacy in Europe was not helped when the Confederates elected to embargo cotton exports in order to force Britain and other powers to recognize them. But despite the fears of the loss of cotton and the negative effects on their economies, European powers, especially the British were resentful of the Confederate attempt to blackmail them through the use of the embargo. The Times of London, a Tory paper sympathetic to the Confederacy declared that if Southerners “thought that they could extort our cooperation by the agency of king cotton… they had better think again. To intervene on the behalf of the South “because they keep cotton from us” said Lord Russell in September 1861, “would be ignominious beyond measure…. No English Parliament could do so base a thing.” [14]

British visitors to the South in 1861 were surprised and how fervently many Southerners believed that cotton would spur European involvement in the war on their behalf. The Southern hubris about their importance to the world economy was and how Britain could not survive without their cotton. One reporter wrote:

“there can be no doubt that the prevalent conviction in the South is that England cannot do without the “king” that all cotton, except American is  too short or too long; and that the medium is the only staple Manchester can have. In vain we tell them that our manufacturers would soon change their machinery, and adapt it to the necessities of the times; that our Government was making great exertions to procure cotton from India and Africa; and that it was our interest to foster our own colonies, and to produce it there if possible; and that if we were deprived of America as a market, the more strenuous would our efforts be to render ourselves independent of it. But it was of no use; they were ineradicably impressed with the conviction that they can command the market at any time; and that the distance from England at which its rivals are placed must always give the Confederacy an advantage.” [15]

By early 1862 the British government had decided to recognize the Union blockade. The cotton embargo had had an effect until Britain turned to Egypt and other cotton producers to make up the difference, and diversified by expanding the manufacture of steel and ships. Likewise, the Confederate had harmed the Southern even worse. Since so little of the cotton could be exported and sold on the foreign market, prices for it dried up and the Confederate economy began to implode. Mary Boykin Chesnut bitterly wrote of the effects in March 1862:

“Cotton is five cents a pound and labor of no value at all; it commands no price whatsoever. People gladly hire out their negroes to have them fed and clothed, which the latter cannot be done. Cotton osnaburg at 37 ½ cents a yard, leaves no chance to clothe them…. We poor fools, who are patriotically ruining ourselves will see our children in the gutter while treacherous dogs of millionaires go rolling by in their coaches – coaches that were acquired by taking advantage of our necessities.” [16]

However, Union diplomats were aided by tensions in Europe regarding the Schleswig-Holstein problem between Prussia and Austria, as well as unrest in Poland, as a result “European realpolitik hindered the Rebel’s diplomatic objectives as well.” [17] The British in particular were loath to risk intervening in a conflict that might be “a disturbance in the precarious balance of power which might be the signal for a general conflagration, they recalled Voltaire’s comment that a torch lighted in 1756 in the forests of the new world had promptly wrapped the old world in flames.” [18] Thus, European leaders and diplomats were very hesitant to allow Southern legations to convince them to intervene. In January 1863 an extremely frustrated Jefferson Davis made mention of the neutral nations of Europe which had refused to recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation.

Another factor in the success of Union diplomacy was the success of Union military operations on the periphery of the Confederacy, many of them spearheaded by joint Army-Navy operations. While the Confederates won many early battles in 1861 and 1862 it was the success of the Union military that altered the diplomatic landscape and helped doom the Confederacy. The joint operations conducted by Ulysses Grant and Flag Officer Foote at Island Number Ten, Fort Henry, Fort Donaldson and Shiloh opened the door to the western Confederacy making it vulnerable to Union invasion. Likewise, the joint operations conducted by the Union Navy and Army against the Confederacy through the blockade and capture of key ports such as New Orleans by 1862; combined with the bloody repulses of Confederate armies at Perryville and Antietam allowed Lincoln to make his Emancipation Proclamation, an act which reverberated across the Atlantic.

These military successes enabled British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, to reject a French proposal for France, England and Russia to propose to the warring parties, a “North-South armistice, accompanied by a six month lifting of the blockade. The result, if they had agreed- as they had been in no uncertain terms warned by Seward in private conversations with British representatives overseas- would have been a complete diplomatic rupture, if not an outright declaration of war.” [19]

The issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation ensured that Europe would not recognize the Confederacy.  In part this was because even the most pro-Southern English political leaders could not appear to give the slightest appearance of supporting slavery, especially as both England and France had abolished slavery decades before, while Russia had only recently emancipated its serfs and despite being a less democratic monarchy than Britain “was pro-Union from the start….” [20] Popular sentiment in Britain, France, Russia and other European countries, outside of the ruling class and business elites, was heavily in favor of emancipation, especially among the working classes. The leaders of the workingmen of Manchester England, a major textile producer, who which had been among the “hardest hit by the cotton famine, sent him [Lincoln] an address approved at a meeting on New Year’s Eve, announcing their support of the North in its efforts to “strike off the fetters of the slave” [21] following the Emancipation Proclamation.

The success of the Union blockade was a key factor in the diplomatic efforts. There were many people, especially business leaders and members of the aristocracy in both Britain and France who sympathized with the South and hoped for Southern victory. However they were not impressed by Confederate attempts to subject them to an embargo of all Southern cotton until they recognized the independence of the Confederacy. Confederate commissioners attempted to persuade the British and French that the Union blockade was a “paper blockade” that was not binding on the British. While a good number of Confederate blockade runners got through the Union blockade, they carried very little cotton. While many Englishmen were offended by Seward’s bluster, many “resented even more the Confederacy’s attempt at economic blackmail.” [22] When the Confederates pressured the British Lord Russell announced to Parliament a corollary to the Declaration of Paris which affirmed the effectiveness of the Union blockade and “drove a stake through the heart of the Confederate efforts to convince the European governments of the blockade’s illegitimacy.” [23]

The British especially were keen on not going to war for the sake of the South, as there was far too much at stake for them. This was something that the Southern leaders and representatives did not fully comprehend. Prime Minister Viscount Palmerston and Foreign Minister Lord Russell were concerned about the economic impact of the loss of Southern cotton but also “recognized that any action against the blockade could lead to a conflict with the United States more harmful to England’s interests than the temporary loss of Southern cotton.” [24] Palmerston well remembered the war of 1812 when he served as Minister of War, and the disastrous results for the British Merchant Marine, and he realized that “England could not only afford the risk of a loss in a sideline war; she could not even afford to win one.” [25]

Union diplomats led by Adams scored another major victory against South in September 1863. During the war, Confederate agents working through shadow companies had managed to purchase large fast ships as commerce raiders. While this was not legal, while building the ships were declared by the builders of the Laird Company as merchant ships, and then sailed out of the country to be armed and equipped as Confederate commerce raiders. These include the ships which became the CSS Florida, CSS Georgia, and the most successful Confederate raider of all, the CSS Alabama.


Laird Ram

The escape of these ships and their use as raiders proved to be a great embarrassment to the British government, and in “March of 1863 the House of Commons had undertaken an investigation of the earlier cases of the Florida and Alabama. Its report condemned the government for laxness in enforcing British neutrality.” [26]   When it was discovered that Confederate agents were contracting with English and French shipyards to build modern oceangoing ironclad rams, frigates and commerce raiders, Union diplomats intervened. The two rams, to be built by Laird’s were to displace 1,800 tons, mount six nine inch guns in rotating turrets and were equipped with a seven foot long submerged bow mounted ram.

The presence of the turrets made them hard to disguise as merchantmen and Adams sent a note to Foreign Secretary Russel a declaration that if these ships were allowed to escape, that “It would be superfluous to me to point out your Lordship, that this is war.” [27] Having been embarrassed by the past incidents and the scrutiny of Parliament, neither Russell or Prime Minister Palmerston were about to let such an event happen again, in fact before he had even received Adam’s protest had already taken steps to detain the vessels over the protests of the Confederate agents and officials, but the British interest in the case was not simply due to the protests, again, realpolitik came into play. Russell did not want Britain to be held liable for Union financial claims of loss after the war due, but even more importantly, that in another war the situation could be reversed. In this case ships were being built for the Confederacy in British shipyards, but in the next war it was quite conceivable that “in the next war that the roles could be reversed, with warships being constructed in American shipyards for use against the British merchant fleet. Britain was generally a belligerent in nineteenth century wars, not a neutral, and it did not want to lose sight of its long term interests.” [28]

Though Palmerston was offended at the brusqueness of Adams’s note, Union diplomacy had won a victory that “Henry Adams described as “a second Vicksburg.” [29] The British eventually bought the two ships for use in the Royal Navy where they became known as the Scorpion Class of which one ship served until 1922. Russell sent a dispatch to Richmond addressed to Jefferson Davis and warned him “against the efforts of the authorities of the so-called Confederate States to build war vessels with Her Majesty’s dominions to be employed against the Government of the United States.” [30]

The efforts of Adams and his counterpart in France, William Drayton were instrumental in hampering Confederate efforts at recognition by exposing Confederate plots and machinations against the laws of England and France won the praise of Confederate propagandists, one who admitted that Adams, “played well his part, and by his singular moderation of language and action… sustained his own dignity and that of the people he represented… and won reluctant admiration from many who loved not the cause or the Government he sustained.” [31]


[1] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.289

[2] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.383

[3] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.298

[4] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.287

[5] Adams, Charles F. Letter to Charles F. Adams Jr. in The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection, William E. Gienapp editor, W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2001 p.144

[6] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.288

[7] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War p.54

[8] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.288

[9] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.391

[10] Ibid. McPherson the Battle Cry of Freedom pp.388-389

[11] ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom

[12] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War p.54

[13] Ibid. Adams  Letter to Charles F. Adams Jr. p.144

[14] ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom pp.384-385

[15] ____________. “A Month With the Rebels,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 90 (December 1861): 762-763 in The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection edited by William E. Gienapp, W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2001 p.143

[16] Ibid. Mary Chesnut’s Diary p.122

[17] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation p.315

[18] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.154

[19] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Two p.153

[20] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Two p.153

[21] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Two p.155

[22] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.384

[23] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 71

[24] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.384

[25] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Two p.154

[26] McPherson, James M. War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2012 p.202

[27] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.100

[28] Stahr, Walter Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man Simon and Schuster, New York 2012 p.374

[29] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.682

[30] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.100

[31] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.298

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Reflecting on the High Water Mark of the Confederacy and the Importance of Our Union

Yesterday was the 148th Anniversary of Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. There is a spot near the Copse of Trees along Cemetery Ridge which is referred to as the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.” It is the spot close to where Confederate Brigadier General Lo Armistead fell mortally wounded as the decimated remains of his command were overwhelmed by Union forces shortly after they breached the Union line. It is a place immortalized in history, literature and film. It is the place that marked the beginning of the end for the great evil of slavery in America.

My ancestors lived in Cabell County which in 1861 was part of Virginia. They were slave holders along the Mud River, a tributary of the Ohio River just to the north of what is now Huntington West Virginia. When war came to the country the family patriarch James Dundas and my great, great grandfather joined the 8th Virginia Cavalry Regiment in which he served the bulk of the war as a Lieutenant.  When it ended he refused to sign the loyalty oath to the Union and had his lands, which are now some of the most valuable in that part of West Virginia confiscated and sold by the Federal Government.  He was a believer in the “Lost Cause” that romantic and confused idea about the rightness of the South in its war against what they called “Northern aggression.”

Because he served I am eligible for membership in the Sons of the Confederacy. However it is something that I cannot do.  There are some that do this as a means to honor their relatives that served in the war and I do not make light of their devotion to their family, but there are some that take that devotion to places that I cannot go.  As much as I admire the valor and personal integrity of many military men who served the Confederacy I cannot for a moment think that their “cause” was just.

It has been said that the North won the war but that the South won the history.  I think this is true. Many people now days like to reduce the reasons for the war to the South protecting its rights.  Sometimes the argument is “states rights” or “economic freedom” and those that make these arguments romanticize the valor shown by Confederate soldiers on the battlefield but conveniently ignore or obscure the evil of the Southern economic system. The “rights” and the “economic freedom” were based upon the enslavement and exploitation of the Black man to maintain an archaic economy based on agriculture, particularly the export of King Cotton.  Arguments which try to place the blame on the North, especially arguments that attempt to turn the Northern States into economic predators’ intent on suppressing the economic rights of Southerners only serve to show the bankruptcy of the idea itself. The fact that the “economic and political freedom” of Southerners was founded on the enslavement of a whole race of people matters not because the “cause” is greater.

The fact is that the longer the South relied solely on its agriculture which was supported by the institution of slavery it deprived itself of the means of economic progress, the same progress that propelled the North to prosperity. The south lagged in all industrial areas as well as transportation infrastructure. The majority of non-slave owning whites lived at the poverty line and only enjoyed some elevated social status because the slaves ranked beneath them on the sociological and economic hierarchy.  The South depended on cheap imports from England, which then was still considered an enemy of the country. When tariffs to protect newly establish American industries were enacted in 1828 South Carolina attempted to nullify the Federal law even raising troops and threatened a revolt in 1832.

The Southern economic system was immoral and antiquated. It enslaved blacks and it impoverished most rural Southerners, with the exception of those that owned the land and the slaves. It was a hateful, backward and loathsome system which even the southern churches attempted to justify from Scripture.  Southern Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians would all break away from their parent denominations regarding slavery.

This does not mean that I think that the average Confederate soldier or officers were dishonorable men. Many officers who had served in the United States Army hated the breakup of the Union but served the South because it was the land that they were from. It was the home of their families and part of who they were.  To judge them as wanting 150 years later when we have almost no connection to family or home in a post industrial world is to impose the standards of a world that they did not know upon them. For those that gave up everything to serve one can feel a measure of sympathy.  So many died and so much of the South was destroyed in the defense of that “cause” one has to wonder just why the political and religious leaders of the South were willing to maintain such an inadequate and evil economic system one that hurt poor Southern whites nearly as much as it did blacks.

The war devastated the South and the radicals that ran “Reconstruction” ensured that Southerners suffered terrible degradation and that Southern blacks would have even more obstacles raised against them by the now very angry and revengeful whites.  It would take another 80-100 years to end segregation and secure voting rights for blacks. Thus I have no desire to become part of an organization that even gives the appearance of supporting the “cause” even if doing so would allow me to “honor” an ancestor who raised his hand against the country that I serve.

I was raised on the West Coast but have lived in the South much of my adult life due to military assignments. I have served in National Guard units that trace their lineage to Confederate regiments in Texas and Virginia. Despite my Confederate connections both familial and by service I can find little of the romance and idealism that some find in the Confederacy and the “Lost Cause.” I see the Civil War for what it was, a tragedy of the highest order brought about by the need of some to enslave others to maintain their economic system.

Today there are many that use the flags of the Confederacy outside of their historic context. They are often used as a symbol of either racial hatred or of defiance to the Federal Government by white Supremacist or anti-government organizations.  Many that use them openly advocate for the overthrow of the Federal Government.  The calls for such “revolt” can be found all over the country even in the halls of Congress much as they were in the 1830s, 40s and 50s. Some of this is based in libertarian economic philosophy which labels the government as the enemy of business, some based social policies which are against their religious beliefs and some sadly to say based in an almost xenophobic racial hatred.  The scary thing as that the divisions in the country are probably as great as or greater than they were in the 1850s as the country lurched inexorably to Civil War with neither side willing to do anything that might lessen their political or economic power even if it means the ruin of the country.

In recent weeks I have seen the symbols of the Confederacy, particularly the Battle Flag displayed in manners that can only be seen as symbols of defiance.  Tomorrow is July 4th and it seems to me that the flag that should be most prominently displayed is not a Confederate banner, nor even the Gadsen flag, a flag from the Revolutionary War which is used as a rallying symbol for many in the Tea Party movement but the Stars and Stripes.  Somehow I find the flag flown in rebellion to the country that I serve displayed in such an arrogant manner

For many of these people it is the Federal Government which is the enemy. Now I know that our system of government has its flaws. Likewise I cannot agree more about the corruption of many in political office, regardless of their political allegiance.  While it is true that the Federal Government has taken upon itself many powers some never envisioned by those that crafted the Constitution, it has done so because leaders of both political parties have consented to it and even worked to strengthen the Federal Government with the consent of the American people that elect them again and again.

Despite this much of this has been accomplished by the Federal Government has been for the good for the country and people no matter what the critics say. Many of the things that we enjoy today are the result of the work of the Federal Government and not business as much as those that deify big corporations want to believe. There are the National Parks, laws against child labor and for safe workplaces brought about by Teddy Roosevelt, the infrastructure built in the 1930s and 1940s by the Franklin Roosevelt administration. The Roosevelt administration also brought about Social Security and banking regulations to protect Americans from corporations and banks that violated the public trust. The Eisenhower administration began the Interstate Highway system which is the backbone of our transportation system.  Likewise the Space Program and yes even the military have led the way in technological, scientific and medical innovation including that thing that we all take for granted today the Internet.

Today quite a few people are calling for revolt or secession if they do not get what they want be it socially, politically or economically. For years politicians on both sides have fought to minimize such talk and enact compromises with the usual discontent that comes with compromise.  Unfortunately many of those compromises have had the effect of widening the political divide much as the various compromises on the road to the Civil War.  Jefferson said of the Missouri Compromise of 1824: “but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.”

We have allowed the issues of our time to become a fire of unbridled angry passion where those with almost no historical understanding and whose history is often based on myth stake claims and promote ideas that will destroy this Union if they continue. Unfortunately we have not yet reached the high water mark of this movement yet and I fear like Jefferson that the hatred and division will only grow worse as both radical on the right and left prepare for conflict.

Tomorrow we celebrate the 235th anniversary of our Declaration of Independence.  It is a remarkable occasion. It is the anniversary that free people as well as those oppressed around the world look to as a beacon of liberty. It has been paid for time and time again, especially during that cruel Civil War which killed more American soldiers than any other war that we have fought.

A few months after Gettysburg Abraham Lincoln a man much reviled by those that have romanticized the Cause and who is demonized by many “conservative” politicians and pundits today as a “tyrant” made these brief remarks at the site of the battle:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Today with so many radicals on both the political right and political left doing all that they can to plunge us into yet another civil war we should remember Lincoln’s word and rededicate ourselves to this Union, this remarkable Union.  Tony Blair the former Prime Minster of Great Britain remarked today:

“It may be strange for a former British Prime Minister to offer thoughts on America when the country will be celebrating its independence from Britain. But the circumstances of independence are part of what makes America the great and proud nation it is today. And what gives nobility to the American character.

That nobility isn’t about being nicer, better or more successful than anyone else. It is a feeling about the country. It is a devotion to the American ideal that at a certain point transcends class, race, religion or upbringing. That ideal is about values, freedom, the rule of law, democracy. It is also about the way you achieve: on merit, by your own efforts and hard work.

But it is most of all that in striving for and protecting that ideal, you as an individual take second place to the interests of the nation as a whole. This is what makes the country determined to overcome its challenges. It is what makes its soldiers give their lives in sacrifice. It is what brings every variety of American, from the lowest to the highest, to their feet when “The Star-Spangled Banner” is played.

Of course the ideal is not always met – that is obvious. But it is always striven for.

The next years will test the American character. The world is changing. New powers are emerging. But America should have confidence. This changing world does not diminish the need for that American ideal. It only reaffirms it.”

I think that the Prime Minister got it right.


Padre Steve+


Filed under History, philosophy, Political Commentary, Religion