Don't get me wrong,
I'm all in favor of anything that stimulates broad popular interest in
history. Yet, although the widespread
attention devoted to the sesquicentennial of the Recent Unpleasantness has
certainly done this, it has also
summoned forth a veritable horde of aspiring myth busters. Some of these are motivated by nothing more
than a sincere desire to set the record straight--as they see it at least.
Others are little more than axe-grinding
oversimplifiers who wish fervently to sell us on the idea that the lessons of
this highly complex phenomenon can be broken down into a simple and succinct
validation of their political or ideological agenda for the present. In either case, however, the problem here is
that myths are not mere vaporous fantasies that float aimlessly across the generations like
wind-borne balloons. Rather, they
survive because they continue to serve particular entrenched interests,
prejudices and points of view. Accordingly,
disposing of myths typically turns out to be less like a delicate surgical excision
than the demolition of a brick wall with a sledgehammer. Not surprisingly, then, myth busting inflicts
considerable collateral damage, especially where complexity and precision are
concerned. Take, for example, the
efforts of sociologist James W. Loewen, a self-styled debunker of supposed
popular historical misconceptions who undertakes in the Washington Post to explode the following "five myths about
why the South seceded:"
1. The South seceded over states' rights.
Confederate states did claim the right to secede, but no state claimed to be
seceding for that right. In fact, Confederates opposed states' rights -- that
is, the right of Northern states not to support slavery. Semantic gymnastics, anyone? Read on...
On Dec. 24, 1860, delegates at South Carolina's secession convention adopted
a "Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the
Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union." It noted "an
increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution
of slavery" and protested that Northern states had failed to "fulfill
their constitutional obligations" by interfering with the return of
fugitive slaves to bondage. Slavery, not states' rights, birthed the Civil War.
South Carolina was further upset that New York no longer allowed
"slavery transit." In the past, if Charleston gentry wanted to spend
August in the Hamptons, they could bring their cook along. No longer -- and
South Carolina's delegates were outraged. In addition, they objected that New
England states let black men vote and tolerated abolitionist societies.
According to South Carolina, states should not have the right to let their
citizens assemble and speak freely when what they said threatened slavery.
Other seceding states echoed South Carolina. "Our position is
thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery -- the greatest material
interest of the world," proclaimed Mississippi in its own secession
declaration, passed Jan. 9, 1861. "Its labor supplies the product which
constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of the commerce of
the earth. . . . A blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and
The South's opposition to states' rights is not surprising. Until the Civil
War, Southern presidents and lawmakers had dominated the federal government. This is more
or less correct, but, by the middle of the 19th century, the rapid growth of
the free states and the concomitantly
meteoric rise of the
Republican Party as a largely sectional representation of free-state and New
England aims and prerogatives pointed to a future in which the slave states
were likely to be a permanent minority.
The people in power in Washington always oppose states' rights. Doing so
preserves their own. Say what? Remember
the Reagan and Bush regimes? I guess the Republicans currently controlling the
House of Representatives haven't gotten the memo on this either. I'd say the
Washington crowd frequently supports states' rights when it involves doing something they
lack the stomach to do or don't want to see done at all.
2. Secession was about tariffs and taxes.
During the nadir of post-civil-war race relations - the terrible years after
1890 when town after town across the North became all-white "sundown
towns" and state after state across the South prevented African
Americans from voting - "anything but slavery" explanations of the
Civil War gained traction. To this day Confederate sympathizers successfully
float this false claim, along with their preferred name for the conflict: the
War Between the States. At the infamous Secession Ball in South Carolina,
hosted in December by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, "the main reasons
for secession were portrayed as high tariffs and Northern states using Southern
tax money to build their own infrastructure," The
Washington Post reported.
These explanations are flatly wrong. High tariffs had prompted the
Nullification Crisis in 1831-33, when, after South Carolina demanded the right
to nullify federal laws or secede in protest, President Andrew Jackson
threatened force. No state joined the movement, and South Carolina backed down.
Tariffs were not an issue in 1860, and Southern states said nothing about them.
Why would they? Southerners had written the tariff of 1857, under which the
nation was functioning. Its rates were lower than at any point since 1816.
not forget here, the role of professional historians, North and South, in
legitimizing this point of view. Between
the two world wars, Charles A. Beard of Columbia University led the way in
fashioning an interpretation of the Civil War that pointedly rejected slavery
as a cause, emphasizing instead the fundamental incompatibility of the agrarian
South and industrial North.
3. Most white Southerners didn't own slaves, so they
wouldn't secede for slavery.
Indeed, most white Southern families had no slaves. Less than half of white
Mississippi households owned one or more slaves, for example, and that
proportion was smaller still in whiter states such as Virginia and Tennessee.
It is also true that, in areas with few slaves, most white Southerners did not
support secession. West Virginia seceded from Virginia to stay with the Union,
and Confederate troops had to occupy parts of eastern Tennessee and northern
Alabama to hold them in line.
ideological factors caused most Southern whites, including those who were not
slave-owners, to defend slavery. First, Americans are wondrous optimists,
looking to the upper class and expecting to join it someday. In 1860, many
subsistence farmers aspired to become large slave-owners. So poor white
Southerners supported slavery then, just as many low-income people support the
extension of George W. Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy now. This is a stretch more than
sufficient to give the India rubber man a double hernia. Just as Bush's tax
cuts on higher incomes were tightly embedded in a far-reaching political and
cultural agenda, the specter of broad externally imposed proscriptions on the
everyday lives of all white southerners loomed large in 1860. It was true
enough that in the first half of the 19th century many a southern yeoman had
dreamed of joining the slavocracy and a number had actually managed to do
it. The startling spike in slave prices
in the 1850s, however, had generally taken this option off the table, and in
some states the growing restiveness of non-slaveholding whites had alarmed the
planter element to the point of encouraging efforts to restrict the franchise
via property or wealth requirements. What Loewen neglects here is the striking
underrepresentation of slaveless whites in state assemblies or secession conventions. In Georgia, for example, although
slaveholders accounted for less than one third of the state's adult white male
population in 1860, they held roughly 2/3 of the seats in the state legislature
and more than half of the members of that body owned 20 slaves or more.
If we factor in the number of
legislators in Georgia and elsewhere who may have owned few if any slaves
themselves but as lawyers, merchants, bankers, etc. had direct economic ties to
the peculiar institution, the dominance of the slaveholding interests is even
more pronounced. Second and
more important, belief in white supremacy provided a rationale for slavery. As
the French political theorist Montesquieu observed wryly in 1748: "It is
impossible for us to suppose these creatures [enslaved Africans] to be men;
because allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are
not Christians." Given this belief, most white Southerners -- and many Northerners,
too -- could not envision life in black-majority states such as South Carolina
and Mississippi unless blacks were in chains. Georgia Supreme Court Justice
Henry Benning, trying to persuade the Virginia Legislature to leave the Union,
predicted race war if slavery was not protected. "The consequence will be
that our men will be all exterminated or expelled to wander as vagabonds over a
hostile earth, and as for our women, their fate will be too horrible to
contemplate even in fancy." Thus, secession would maintain not only
slavery but the prevailing ideology of white supremacy as well. By failing to take slaveholders'
dominance of such proceedings into proper account, Loewen misses the chance to
point out here that, overwhelmingly, the debates over secession in whatever
body to which the decision was entrusted amounted largely to arguments over
whether the interests of slavery would be better served by leaving the Union or
seeking some sort of favorable compromise within it.
4. Abraham Lincoln went to war to end slavery.
Since the Civil War did end slavery, many Americans think abolition was the
Union's goal. But the North initially went to war to hold the nation together.
Abolition came later.
On Aug. 22, 1862, President Lincoln wrote a letter to the New York Tribune
that included the following passage: "If I could save the Union without
freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the
slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving
others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored
race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I
forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union."
However, Lincoln's own anti-slavery sentiment was widely known at the time.
In the same letter, he went on: "I have here stated my purpose according
to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal
wish that all men everywhere could be free." A month later, Lincoln
combined official duty and private wish in his preliminary Emancipation
White Northerners' fear of freed slaves moving north then caused Republicans
to lose the Midwest in the congressional elections of November 1862. It would be safer and more accurate here to say that
this fear clearly hurt the Republican cause in the lower Midwest and some
cities where whites were most concerned about the potential in-migration of
freedmen. What is missing here is the absolutely
critical distinction between a desire to abolish slavery outright and the
Republican position in 1860 of simply opposing its spread into any of the new territories. Although both tended to vote Republican, abolitionists
who sought the former outcome were a different breed from those "free soilers"
who had no particular quarrel with slavery where it already existed but
demanded that free white labor be protected from competition with slave labor
in any of the new states entering the Union.
Hence, when Kentucky Senator John J. Crittenden's proposed a compromise to save
the Union, Lincoln could accept an "un-amendable" constitutional amendment
assuring the sanctity of slavery as it stood in 1860, but could not sign off
on a provision allowing slavery in any
new territories south of the 36° 30′ line. Not surprisingly, despite its
potential to bring the war to a speedier end and/or forestall an increasingly
abolitionist Europe's diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy, Lincoln's
Emancipation Proclamation of September 22, 1862 struck many free-soil voters as
actually inimical to the aims that had led them to support him in 1860.
Gradually, as Union soldiers found help from
black civilians in the South and black recruits impressed white units with
their bravery, many soldiers -- and those they wrote home to -- became
abolitionists. By 1864, when Maryland voted to end slavery, soldiers' and
sailors' votes made the difference. There is
surely some truth to this conversion narrative, but the question of how much to
make of it looms large. My colleague
Stephen Berry has shown how
vitally important (in the right hands, at least ) the letters, diaries
or memoirs of Confederate soldiers can be.
This does not mean, however, that such sources should always be taken as
purely candid and straightforward revelations of the motivations of combat troops. The process of self-psyching requisite to
putting one's life on the line for any cause requires that the cause be seen as
indisputably noble and worthy.
Accordingly, although it is not unheard of, it would be surprising to
find either large numbers of southern
soldiers admitting that they were fighting to preserve human bondage or a
sizable contingent of northern troops declaring that they were braving Rebel
bullets in order to preserve the economic leverage of white laborers in the new
Western states. In this sense, a Confederate
private's insistence in a letter to his mama that he would happily die for the
cause of "states' rights" should, all things being equal, be no less credible than his Union counterpart's assertion that he
is fighting for "the rights of all men to be free." Many a northern soldier may have taken pity
on blacks who were enslaved, but evidence of similarly sympathetic attitudes
after several years of association with blacks as free people on northern soil
is hardly widespread, to say the least.
5. The South couldn't have made it long as a slave
Slavery was hardly on its last legs in 1860. That year, the South produced
almost 75 percent of all U.S. exports. Slaves were worth more than all the
manufacturing companies and railroads in the nation. No elite class in history
has ever given up such an immense interest voluntarily. Moreover, Confederates
eyed territorial expansion into Mexico and Cuba. Short of war, who would have
stopped them - or forced them to abandon slavery?
To claim that slavery would have ended of its own accord by the mid-20th
century is impossible to disprove but difficult to accept. In 1860, slavery was
growing more entrenched in the South. Unpaid labor makes for big profits, and
the Southern elite was growing ever richer. Freeing slaves was becoming more
and more difficult for their owners, as was the position of free blacks in the
United States, North as well as South. For the foreseeable future, slavery
looked secure. Perhaps a civil war was required to end it. Perhaps, although as Loewen notes, at the outset, there
were damn few whites outside the South who were ready to support a war with abolition
as its stated objective. Abolitionism
was certainly on the rise throughout Western Europe, and to a great extent, the
failure of "King Cotton diplomacy" to secure British or French support for the
Confederacy reflected as much. We know
now that the growth of European cotton demand had begun to level off even
before Fort Sumter, and it is also clear that the emerging industrial/commercial
economy of the northern states promised European capitalists a more enticing
new transatlantic investment and trade network that would render the
slavery-based agricultural economy of the South increasingly peripheral. This is not to say, of course, that this
economy was on the brink of collapse in 1860 or that slave labor might not have
been employed in such a manufacturing economy as the rather late-to-the-industrial-table
South might have scraped together. In short, as Loewen suggests, the demise of
slavery by natural causes was hardly imminent, and let's just say, based on sad
experience, "inevitable" is not a term that I choose to employ very often.
As we commemorate the sesquicentennial of that war, let us take pride this
time - as we did not during the centennial - that secession on slavery's behalf
failed. There's no argument from the ol'
Bloviator here. The very fact that this benedictional pronouncement still seems
necessary--and I certainly agree that it does--offers sobering testimony to the enduring
relationship between the unyielding divisions of the present and the failure to
comprehend or acknowledge the realities of the past in which those divisions
are so deeply rooted.
P.S. The Ol' Bloviator apologizes for the over-sized type. He does not mean to shout, save at this infernal computer, which so delights in antagonizing him.