Slavery and Secession: The Daily Show’s Take

Because I am buried in Midterm essays–yet again–in my Summer online courses, I don’t have time to make a proper entry. But since the topic has come up in the comments, I figured this is an excellent time to show a nice video on the relationship between slavery and secession. This was what Larry Wilmore and Jon Stewart of The Daily Show came up with back in 2010 during the sesquicentennial of South Carolina’s secession. Enjoy!

The South’s Secession Commemoration

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“We Must Disenthrall Ourselves”

“We Must Disenthrall Ourselves”

In an interview promoting the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln, Daniel Day Lewis discussed how he read Lincoln’s speeches as a way to prepare his epic performance. In particular, Day Lewis told the interviewer, he was surprised to find that Lincoln used the word “disenthralled.” “I’d never seen that word before and I’m always looking for a context ever since where I can use that word, I love it so much….The richest source, which creates a very broad, illuminated avenue towards an understanding of Lincoln and his life is through his own words and his own language.”

And, come to think of it, I’ve never heard the word, either—not in any presidential address, nor any form of writing, nor even in actual speech. I can never remember hearing another human use the word. Lincoln’s message to Congress in December, 1862, is the only time I can think of ever hearing disenthrall:

The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

The context, of course, is the eve of the final Emancipation Proclamation. At midnight on January 1863, the Civil War was going to take a drastic new course. Slaves held in rebel-controlled territory would be considered free; all they had to do was get to the Union armies. And these former slaves would be encouraged to join those armies and then smite the men who had held them in bondage. Lincoln had come to realize, sometime in the late spring of 1862, that the war could not be won without striking at the institution that ultimately caused destruction of the Union. And so, as a war measure, Lincoln changed the terms of the war from one of restoring the Union alone to one of liberation.

Pretty dramatic stuff.

Of course, the word enthrall is not mysterious at all, really. It’s right there in Webster’s Dictionary. My mom used to use it fairly frequently. She always used it as a synonym for “fascinated” or “enchanted” or “infatuated.” to the point of being in someone else’s power. She used it for people who she was in awe of, usually actors and the like: “I’m just enthralled with him!” Often, a young man might become “enthralled” with a young woman—and, in this context, behave foolishly. The definition the word has always had for me was some kind of mystic hold on a person. But that is just one of the two definitions in Webster’s.

The other definition for enthrall in Webster’s is “to enslave.” I had never had an opportunity to hear enthrall in this context until I read The Lord of the Rings as a 14-year-old. More than once, Tolkien says the Dark Lord held so-and-so “in thrall.” He was usually speaking of some weak-minded tribe of men, easily swayed by the allure of evil power. And so while I never explicitly heard it as a meaning for enslaved, I certainly absorbed the gist—which is, really, the way we all learn new words. But even so, as I think back on it, I’ve never heard another human add the prefix and utter the word “disenthrall”—except for Day Lewis in that interview, and Lincoln, and anyone reading his words.

Eric Foner has remarked that the Emancipation Proclamation emancipated not just the slaves, but Lincoln himself. It marked a profound change in his thinking, and enabled him to cast off the long-championed, beguiling chimera of colonization—freeing blacks, but then encouraging them to relocate outside the United States. Whatever happened after January 1, 1863, the United States was going to fight a war for the liberation of 4 million Americans. How would the nation regard these new freedmen—180,000 of whom picked up a rifle, put on a blue coat, and spilled their blood for their country? What sort of rights would they be accorded? It was these questions many mainstream Republicans fretted over on the eve of emancipation.

And this shift in the war toward liberty and equality—this was not originally what Lincoln had wanted; from the beginning he had been trying to keep the war from becoming “a remorseless revolutionary struggle,” as he had put it exactly one year earlier in the State of the Union in 1861. But a brutal, bloody year had gone by, and now Lincoln was saying that revolution was here–that, in his mind, the inexorable logic of the war pointed toward freedom.

One of the many ironies of the Civil War is that Lincoln, one of the greatest and most articulate proponents of Jefferson’s idea that all men are created equal, resisted that principle until pursuing it was the only way to win the war. This is not a criticism; on the contrary, this is Lincoln both following through on his commitment to the Constitution, and recognizing the atmosphere of public opinion. He had stated again and again that slavery was protected in the Constitution; and he had also stated that whatever his notions on black equality, as a politician he was required to bow to public opinion, a position he clearly laid out in 1858 in the Lincoln-Douglas debates:

What next? Free them [blacks], and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if, indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded. [My emphasis.]

That was in peacetime. In wartime, Lincoln understood that the life of the nation depended on striking at slavery, and even then only if he could frame it as a legitimate war measure. And by the middle of 1862, it most certainly was. His job, then, was to coax along his countrymen, and get them to understand that their “universal feeling” was outdated, was no longer relevant, and must be discarded. And Lincoln, as usual, found precisely the right word, the right phrase, to communicate with his people:

We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

In that state of the Union message, Lincoln was expressing to Americans they must rid themselves of this infatuation—a morbid fascination, to our way of thinking—with the unknown status of millions of newly emancipated blacks. The logic of the Union was gesturing more and more emphatically toward liberty and equality, for all. In short, it was time for white Americans to get over themselves so they could win this war for Union, democracy, and liberty. The details Americans could figure out later.

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Yes, Slavery Did Cause the Civil War, Part 4

Slavery and Society

The Confederate states seceded, then, because they suspected Lincoln and the North would, sooner or later, abolish slavery. They clearly dreaded the end of slavery. I trust the previous posts have shown this, but there’s one last issue. Why did Southerners fear the end of slavery so much?

This is a complex issue, but it is ultimately based on the fact that the South was a slave society. One can attempt to separate out other issues—economics, increasing hostility toward the North, a growing sense of nationalism—but in the end, all of these issues inexorably point back to slavery.

Scholars differentiate between slave societies and societies that have slaves. The difference lies in the completeness with which slavery affects every aspect of a society. It is a bit difficult to convey to the modern reader the totality of slavery in the South. Historian Peter Kolchin writes:

Slavery affected the whole South, not just the slaves.…Because the antebellum South was a slave society, not merely a society in which some people were slaves, few areas of life there escaped the touch of the peculiar institution….Slavery undergirded the Southern economy, Southern politics, and, increasingly, Southern literary expression. Slavery also buttressed the religious orthodoxy that set the South apart from the North, undermined the growth of a variety of reform movements, and helped shape virtually every facet of social relations, from the law and schooling to the position of women. By the eve of the Civil War, slavery virtually defined the South to both Southerners and Northerners; to be “anti-Southern” in the political lexicon of the era meant to be anti-slavery, to be “pro-Southern” meant to be pro-slavery. Few in either North or South doubted that the South’s way of life was a reflection of that section’s slave-labor system. When the challenge to that system appeared too great, Southern political leaders demonstrated the extent to which they identified slavery as central to their world by taking their states out of the Union and into war.

Was slavery so crucial to the economy of the South that economic concerns alone could have provoked secession? Perhaps. The profitability of slavery, once questioned by scholars, is now beyond question: slaves represented more capital investment than all other capital investments combined. Add up all the money invested in factories, banks, and railroads; the money sunk into slaves eclipses all. Eric Foner has recently pointed out [1:40] that American slavery—at nearly 4,000,000 slaves worth $3.5 billion (which works out to something like $75 billion in today’s money)—was the largest, wealthiest slave society in the history of the world. The staple crops these slaves produced (mostly cotton in the Deep South, but sugar as well) represented a vast source of wealth to the entire country—not just in exported staples, and raw cotton shipped to Northern factories, but in the slaves themselves. Slaves were bought, sold, brokered, insured, loaned out, and used as collateral in loans. (This massive source of capital and wealth shows that the modern Libertarian argument that slavery was dying out is pure fantasy.) So it’s not surprising that slaveholders should have objected to any notion that slavery was wrong in any way—either economically backwards, destructive of republican liberty, or morally reprehensible. It’s conceivable that for economic reasons alone, slaveholders would have violently resisted abolition. They might have considered secession for purely economic reasons, as Federalists in New England did with the Hartford Convention during the War of 1812.

One of the characteristics of the 1840s and 1850s is the increasing hostility between the sections. Southerners more and more began to feel that Northerners—especially abolitionists—insulted Southern honor. Words like “insolent” turn up again and again in the historical record. As New Englanders and other “insolent Yankees” increased their criticism of slavery, so Southerners increasingly felt their “way of life” was under attack, and they mobilized to defend themselves. It was John C. Calhoun who developed the most sophisticated arguments for the South. Using the “offense is the best defense” model, he defended slavery by attacking the “way of life” of Northerners, accusing them of being hypocrites. Plantation owners took care of their laborers from cradle to grave, Calhoun argued; Yankee factory owners forced their workers to fend for themselves, to become in effect “wage slaves.”

This increased hostility was fed significantly by the increasing dependence of Southern cotton producers on Northern financiers. In order to turn their staples into greater and greater profits, plantation owners had to rely more and more on outside expertise. But the more Southerners grew in outward prosperity, the more debt they seemed to be in; and most of this debt was owed to New York bankers and the like. Nobody loves their creditor. To carry on the lavish lifestyles to which the Southern gentry were accustomed meant leveraging more and more cotton and more and more slaves. Alan Taylor, in his excellent book The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832, demonstrates that one of chief reasons for not freeing slaves was simply that slave-owners were in too much debt to manumit slaves, even if they wanted to.

But these reasons for wishing to protect slavery—the great wealth it generated,  the anger at Northerners for disparaging them, the nationalism this anger engendered—which all hinge in one way or another on economics, don’t explain certain characteristics of the ante-bellum period, the Civil War, and Reconstruction (and beyond). What compounded matters, what made slavery indispensable to Southerners above and beyond its value as part of an economic system for controlling labor, is that American slavery was as much a tool to control blacks as it was to control labor—a slave society that ensured white supremacy. It’s my contention that these two impulses—the potential for great profitability and the legal subjugation of blacks—ranked as equally important to Southerners. This fraternization of the two became what they referred to as their “way of life”, and explains how Southern polemicists could make such crazy (to us) arguments urging secession; explains why Confederates fought so hard for so long, into 1865 when the war was clearly just a matter of time, drawing out the great pain and destruction and death, fighting far beyond what was reasonable; and explains why white Southerners went to such extraordinary lengths to perpetuate race control before, during, and long after Reconstruction—long after slavery had disappeared.

From the time Virginians institutionalized racism in the late 1660s and early 1700s, which degraded the humanity of free blacks as well as slaves, Southern lawmakers and slaveholders (which were much the same thing), equated blackness with inferiority and degradation. And it was this racism—this fear of “the other,” of blacks—that became the irrational underpinning of the entire society.

I’ve said before, and it deserves mentioning as often as possible, that race doesn’t exist. Science cannot determine a person’s “race” by looking at their DNA. Yet this notion continues to “inform” and influence institutions in society. (As Ta-Nahesi Coates has put it, race doesn’t exist; but racism does.) Since there is no such thing as race, any ideas based on race are, by definition, irrational.

And no idea perhaps is more irrational than American race-based slavery. The irony of a republic based on the principle of human liberty incorporating slavery into its organic law, overlapping with institutionalized racism, creates such an irrational foundation that we should not be surprised at all that it took a devastating war to end slavery—leaving behind the ugly stepbrother of racism.

It is important to emphasize here that in no way were Southerners alone in this racism. Racism was part and parcel of Northern politics in the nineteenth century. Politicians like Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln, to name just two out of the majority of Northern statesmen, pushed the idea of colonization (the idea of sending free blacks out of the country, “colonizing” them in Latin America or Africa) until the end of 1862. But because numbers of blacks in the North were a fraction of what they were in the South, that racism—that irrational fear—tended to be far less vast and virulent.

Thomas Jefferson famously said, more than once, that adopting slavery was foolish, like taking “a wolf by the ears.” It was a dumb thing to do, but once done, you couldn’t let go. Well, why not? Why couldn’t white Americans accept that they had made a mistake, that slavery was wrong and free their slaves? And while it is true that some couldn’t free their slaves because of their huge debts, the real answer comes back that they couldn’t envision themselves living in a multi-racial society. The fear of free blacks living among them in large numbers was simply unthinkable. Free blacks were considered more dangerous to whites than slaves—a bizarre (irrational) notion, since free blacks had no particular need to attack whites, but enslaved blacks did. Indeed, the presence of free blacks vexed the slave society of the South.

Since almost the beginning, slave-masters had constructed a fantastical logic that bound them tighter and tighter to slavery. In The Internal Enemy, Alan Taylor shows how slavery made the Tidewater region of the Chesapeake Bay exceptionally vulnerable to British attack in the War of 1812. Virginians’ fear of all blacks, and their inability to trust free blacks—seen as bad examples to slaves who would covet freedom—meant that they were paralyzed, even as a truly dangerous, truly existent enemy in the form of the Royal Navy prowled the Tidewater shores. Virginians preferred that their militia was constantly needed at home to protect against an intangible slave revolt rather than fight the very tangible British.

And the British took advantage of this by encouraging slaves to flee their plantations in the night and board British ships, thus becoming free. The British even turned a number of these freedmen into the “Colonial Marines”: armed, uniformed, military units, terrifying the Virginia planter elite.

Events like the Haitian Revolution, the aborted slave revolt of Denmark Vesey in South Carolina, and the devastating rebellion of Nat Turner in 1831 appeared to justify Southern fears of slave revolts and free blacks. However, the simple fact that these events are so few in number—only two above occurred in the United States—confirm for us that Southerners allowed slavery to create for themselves an atmosphere of terror. Jefferson’s “fire bell in the night” quote regarding the Missouri Compromise is almost never given in its full context. In a given locale, the fire bell was rung to call volunteer firemen out to fight fire. But it was also used to call out militia in the case of slave insurrection. Thus, the “knell of the Union,” Jefferson’s chief metaphor for his fear that the Union might be destroyed by the issue of slavery, was the fear of slave insurrection.

If we then consider the irrationality caused by race-based slavery, the subsequent events beginning with the Mexican War leading to secession should not really surprise us. At every step, the Southern states behaved in an increasingly irrational fashion. (I’m going to set aside the truly insane attempts by Southern filibusteros to force Latin American countries into a “slave empire” from this narrative. We have plenty to work with without them.) Fearing the bounding of slavery by free states—and thereby putting slavery on the road to extinction—Southern aristocrats attempted to secede. Faced with Lincoln’s inflexibility on the dissolubility of the Union, and convinced that remaining was a direct threat to slavery, Southerners chose war against “the colossus of the North”–a war, of course, that ironically destroyed slavery. Confronted by defeat on all fronts in the winter of 1864 and 1865, the Confederacy continued to fight, continued to see its young men killed, continued to use propaganda to encourage its citizens that victory was at hand against the Yankee invader, refused to see reality as it existed. And after the war, ex-Confederates refused to accept black equality in any form. They passed the “Black Codes” to prevent that equality; they used murder and terror to prevent that equality; they delayed their own readmission to the Union rather than submit to “negro rule.” And after the ultimate failure of Reconstruction, the systematic attempt to humiliate and control blacks through Jim Crow. And why did they do this?

Because they did not like black people.

This hypothesis of irrationality/racism helps, I think, to explain why Southerners behaved as if they were insane.

This “irrational fear/racism” idea accounts for more than just Southern secession in 1860. In his excellent long essay “Losing the War,” writer Lee Sandlin argues that the irrational cultural ideologies of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany—ideologies based on the racial superiority of each—compelled those nations to continue fighting the Second World War far beyond what was rational. If the war had just been about territory or economics, the Axis Powers would have sued for peace long before 1945. But they did not, because both were subsumed by their own cultural superiority, and felt that defeat meant the total annihilation of that culture: for Japan, that meant the Emperor, bushido, and the myth of Amaterasu; for the Nazis, it meant the Thousand Year Reich, the volk, and the Aryan myth. Both exhorted their people to fight to the very death; that death was preferable to cultural extinction. Sandlin argues that this recalcitrance, dragging the war on beyond any reasonable hope for victory, was one of the reasons it was an easy choice for the United States to drop the atomic bombs on Japan.

So it was with the Confederacy. The war was effectively over by fall of 1864, with the fall of Atlanta and Lincoln’s election. Any reasonable people or nation would have—should have—sued for peace. But not Jefferson Davis; not the Confederacy.

(Note: I know this portion of the essay threatens to invoke “Godwin’s Law.” It is not my intent to compare Southerners to Nazis, far from it. My purpose is merely to compare the irrational nature of the cultures to which each clung beyond reason.)

Their behavior shows what can only be considered irrational fury. From seceding because they disliked an election result, to fighting the war long past what can be considered reasonable, to their treatment of freedmen during Reconstruction—all of this behavior suggests deep irrational fear.

And so this, ultimately, is why slavery caused the American Civil War. The racism we live with today is not the residue of slavery; it is slavery’s brother.

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The Real Lost Cause

Because I’m up to my eyeballs grading midterms, I haven’t had a chance to finish my series on slavery as the cause of the Civil War. So, to entertain readers in the meantime, here’s a video of a talk by historian Gary Gallagher.

One of the things that is difficult for us to comprehend today is the idea that most Americans 150 years ago considered the Union sacred—sacred enough to die for. Lincoln was not the only Northerner who realized that secession meant the destruction of the American government, and thereby the destruction of, as Lincoln put it, “The last best hope of mankind.” Prof. Gallagher is a pretty funny guy and does an excellent job of conveying this urgency in this lecture and entertaining at the same time.

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Yes, Slavery Did Cause the Civil War, Part 3.

Slavery and Power

Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution reads:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. [My emphasis]

The notorious “three-fifths” clause was one of the crucial compromises of the Constitutional Convention. It meant that when counting people to see how many members each state would get in the House of Representatives, slaves would be counted as three fifths of a person. In other words, a state would be entitled to one member of the House for every 30,000 whites or 50,000 slaves. A common misconception of this is that Southerners hated blacks so much they “only counted slaves as 3/5s of a person.” But this misses the salient point, since it was Southerners who wanted to count each slave as a full person—but only for the purposes of representation. Northerners, on the other hand, didn’t want to count slaves at all. Northerners felt that counting property was silly. One doesn’t count livestock, for example, when deciding representation; why would one count slaves? And so, the compromise. But while it was necessary to get the Southern states to join the new Union, this three-fifths compromise had profound effects on the American political system, especially the shape and composition of the federal government. It led to what Northerners came to call the “Slavocracy,” or sometimes the “slave-power conspiracy.”

To begin with, slave states had a substantially greater number of members of the House of Representatives than they would have without counting slaves. For example, the states that joined the Confederacy had by 1860 just 19% of the free population of the country, yet they had almost 28% of the seats in the House. And so the three-fifths clause expanded the power of slave states in Congress.

But the effect of this moved beyond giving slave states disproportional numbers in Congress—the three-fifths clause reached into all three branches of government. The executive branch, for example: the electoral college selects the president, and states’ votes in the EC are determined by adding together the number of House seats and Senate seats a state has. Because the Southern states had an artificially inflated number of house seats, they likewise had a disproportionate number of votes to select the president. It’s no coincidence that 12 of the first 15 presidents either owned slaves or supported slavery. And because the president selects members of the Supreme Court, the three-fifths clause ensured that most nominees would likewise be supporters of slavery. Decisions like Dred Scott v. Sanford graphically demonstrate this.

Who cares? This is important because it shows that although Southerners were a minority population, they had a substantive hold on the federal government. But the rise of the Republican Party in the 1850s, and Lincoln’s election in 1860 threatened the crazy math of the three-fifths clause. The Republican platform explicitly pronounced a determination that slavery be restricted from all territories, which would mean that, if it were up to the new president, no new territories would have slaves; which meant no new slave states would enter the Union; which meant the fragile hold the “slave power” had over the federal government was destined to evaporate. Slavery had to expand or it would die—that was the conventional wisdom. But whether that was true or not, it was a fact that not expanding slavery meant slavery would die out over time. Lincoln figured 75 or so years. But Southerners were not going to wait to find out. A growing majority of free states might not wait for slavery’s evolutionary end; this growing majority might introduce a Constitutional amendment outlawing slavery altogether, with or without compensation for slave owners.

This was the threat Southern slave-owners perceived in 1860 with Lincoln’s election: the destruction of slavery. It didn’t matter what Lincoln’s timetable was; Southerners were committed to the institution. And the reason for this is far beyond economics. They were committed to slavery because of its aspect of social control.

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