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.