The Ol' Bloviator Revisits the Origins of The Recent Unpleasantness"

The Ol' Bloviator began the entry below as an attempt to respond to a query from an old and dear friend about the causes of the Civil War. He had no intention at the time of penning such a lengthy disquisition on the matter. Yet any hope for brevity vanished when it occurred to him that,well-worn as the topic may seem there might be some outside the Sacred Circle of Pointy Heads who would benefit from a more precise explanation of why the election of a Republican president in1860 triggered such an immediate outcry for secession in most of the major slaveholding states. The aforementioned pointy-heads may well find much reason to quibble with what follows, but this was not written for their edification, and their slings and snarks stand no chance of penetrating the OB's battle-thickened hide.

We historians may find some satisfaction in a recent survey suggesting that, at long last, a solid majority of Americans chose slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War (Psst: Don't tell Nikki Haley.) as opposed to the old "states' rights" dodge that was the top response just a dozen years ago.   This acknowledgement of what has been an unpleasant and long-denied historical truth for many whites is heartening to be sure. Still, identifying slavery as the dominant factor behind such an epochal historical event is not the same as grasping the particular aspect of the slavery question most immediately responsible for the South's exit from the Union in 1860, which in turn became the critical precipitant for the four years of savage bloodletting that ensued.

As the largest, most centrally located Deep South state with the largest enslaved population and the most slaveholders, Georgia's decision on secession seemed critical to any hopes of establishing a viable southern nation. Less than two weeks after Republican Abraham Lincoln captured the presidency in 1860, Judge Henry L. Benning stood before the Georgia General Assembly to make an impassioned case for secession, his "first proposition" being that the new president meant to abolish slavery "as soon as the party which elected him shall acquire the power to do the deed." Yet with Lincoln polling only 40 percent of the popular vote and the more slavery-amenable Democrats still in the majority in the Senate at that point, it stood to be quite a while before the Republicans acquired the power to wipe out slavery, much less demonstrated the will. The 1860 Republican platform expressly acknowledged "the right of each state to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively."  Lincoln himself had made no secret of his personal distaste for slavery, but he had more than once foresworn any attempt to interfere with it "in the states where it exists, because the constitution forbids it, and the general welfare does not require us to do so."

These were hardly the words of a wild-eyed radical looking to destroy slavery on the spot, and on their face, they seem to beg the question of why Lincoln's election and the ascent of the Republican Party provoked such an outcry for secession from Benning and his ilk. Allowing for certain complexities, the key to answering this question lies in understanding that for many of the most dedicated guardians of slavery, the gnawing concern was not simply whether it would continue to exist within the Union, but where.

The near warp-speed of slavery's westward progression after the invention of the cotton gin had led to the admission of three new slave states between 1800 and 1819.  Protracted wrangling over congressional representation between free- and slave-stated delegates to the constitutional convention in 1787 had led to the inclusion a provision that three-fifths of a state's enslaved population would be added to its free population in determining how many seats it would be allocated in the House of Representatives. Free-state leaders were soon complaining that this supposed "compromise" gave an unfair advantage to the slave states, although the three free states that had recently joined the Union made for at least a numerical free-state/ slave-state balance of eleven each in 1819.  The Missouri Compromise of 1820 seemed to offer a blueprint for maintaining that equivalency by pairing the admission of Missouri as a slave state with the entry of Maine as a free state, though it imposed geographic restrictions on the spread of slavery by banning it in any new territory north of the 36th parallel.

In the face of continuing western territorial expansion over the next three decades, congressional leaders took pains to preserve free-state/slave state parity by essentially granting statehood to individual slave and free territories in pairs.  This studiously maintained equilibrium was shattered in 1850, however, when, under the terms of the Compromise of 1850, California entered the Union as a free state without a slave state to offset it.  

Faster population growth had already allowed the free states to overcome the old "three-fifths" advantage enjoyed by the slave states in the House of Representatives by that point, but southern slaveholding interests had counted on a numerical stalemate in the Senate to forestall any move to eradicate or weaken slavery. Now, with the entry of California, the chances of re-leveling the political terrain in the Senate seemed next to nil because any territory likely to join the Union in the foreseeable future was situated north of the old Missouri Compromise line where slavery was forbidden. That changed abruptly in 1854, thanks to the machinations of Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, a Democrat with presidential ambitions who was also courting southern support for building a transcontinental railroad that would originate in Chicago.  To that end, Douglas pushed through legislation effectively removing the old Missouri Compromise line as the northern limit for the extension of slavery and allowing settlers of the Kansas and Nebraska territories to settle the matter among themselves by popular vote. The intense backlash against the measure the free states quickly gave rise to the Republican Party, which began in 1854 as a loose coalition comprised primarily of former Whigs and veterans of the "Free Soil" movement. There was also a smattering of abolitionists, but in the main the Republican Party was united by little more than a shared determination, not to end slavery immediately, but to keep it out of the new western territories at all costs. (Otherwise, the white "free labor" drawn to these areas could find itself competing directly with labor that was anything but.) Though it was a new, effectively single-issue party with a decidedly regional base, strong support in New England and the fast-growing Upper Midwest enabled the first Republican presidential candidate, John C. Fremont of California, to capture nearly 40 percent of the electoral votes in 1856. Fremont's surprisingly strong showing foretold the nightmare scenario awaiting southern slaveholding interests four years later with the election of a president whose party's central unifying purpose lay in blocking any further extension of slavery.  Although Lincoln had offered numerous assurances that he meant to leave slavery intact where it already existed, he had likewise made it clear that he would accept "no compromise which assists or permits the extension of the institution on soil owned by the nation."

Despite Lincoln's promises to leave them alone, in a future when slavery could no longer expand, slaveholders foresaw not only increasingly pronounced political isolation but the certainty of financial ruin. The soaring demand for labor accompanying the rapid spread of cotton cultivation into the southern interior after 1800 had led to consistent increases in slave prices for over half a century.  As early as 1848, a Georgia farmer who owned just 10 prime field hands was wealthier than all but 1 percent of the citizens of Boston.  By 1860, the average slaveholder in Georgia was five times wealthier than the average northerner, and one who owned just two slaves and nothing else was at least as well off.   

Georgia's largest slaveholders were some of the richest people not only in the nation but in the world. Serendipitously or otherwise, Howell Cobb married one of the richest women in Georgia in Mary Ann Lamar. Despite his free-spending ways, at the end of the 1850s he and Mary Ann still laid claim to large plantations in four counties. With slave prices averaging roughly $1,000 in 1860 (and those in their prime working years often going for considerably more), the enslaved labor forces on each plantation accounted for the lion's share of their worth. In this case, combined value of just two of the Cobbs' holdings likely surpassed $400,000, which in 1860 would have packed the purchasing power of roughly $15,000,000 today.

The value of the Cobbs' holdings was eclipsed by those of Joseph Bond, who owned eight plantations (six in Dougherty County and two in Lee) and five hundred slaves, and his estimated net worth exceeded a million dollars in 1859. In 1858 his plantations had also yielded a cotton crop worth $100,000. Still, as Howell Cobb understood full well, for a large slaveholder, cotton was but a secondary crop. With every infant born in captivity an addition to his assets as both capital and labor, his "largest source of prosperity [was] in the Negroes he raises." Cobb had once exulted that his own slaves "multiplied like rabbits," and speculated that their numbers might even double every fifteen years or so.

 This would profit him but little, of course, if restrictions on where slaves could be taken or compelled to work were allowed to diminish their value as either labor or capital.  The resulting deflation of slave prices stood to be exacerbated by the same high rate of natural increase within the enslaved population that had once been such a boon to the planter's finances, but now promised only to increase the supply of enslaved labor at a time of slackening demand for it.

Finally, there was the emotionally fraught question of how whites were to maintain control of a relentlessly expanding slave population that in Georgia's case had swelled by more than 100,000 in the 1840s.  The 1850 census showed enslaved blacks already outnumbering whites in more than a third of Georgia counties, and by more than two to one in several of them.  The racial imbalances ran even higher in older coastal counties such as Glynn, Liberty, and McIntosh. With no outlet for a constantly swelling enslaved population desperate from freedom and bent on revenge, slaveholders would in live in constant fear of midnight massacres.  Meanwhile, steeped in the age-old mythology that within every adult black male beat the heart of a bestial rapist, their wives and daughters would live in absolute terror of sexual assaults so unimaginably savage that as Henry Benning depicted them, "they would cry out for the mountains to fall on them."  

Incendiary secessionist orators like Benning played shamelessly on these horrific fantasies to a target audience consisting by and large of the wealthy and powerful slaveholders who were strikingly overrepresented in the state legislature, where half the members owned twenty slaves or more. Meanwhile, at the convention where the ordinance of secession was subsequently drafted roughly three times as many delegates as legislators owned at least that many. Not surprisingly then, the principal question to be resolved at the assemblage was not whether slavery must be preserved, even at the price of secession, but whether at that juncture some better means of assuring its perpetuity might still be devised within the Union.

The events of the previous decade culminating in the election of Lincoln and the Republicans hardly inspired optimism about the latter option, however. Acutely aware that his election had energized the secession movement in Georgia, in December 1860 Abraham Lincoln wrote to assure his old friend and former Whig compatriot Alexander Stephens that slavery would be in no more jeopardy on his watch than it had been "in the days of Washington." Yet he appeared to acknowledge the futility of his effort when he allowed that "You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us." Not only did that difference prove substantial enough to tear the Union apart, but in doing so it underscored the profound irony of the conviction among the South's powerful slaveholding interests that their wealth and future welfare depended on ensuring that the "peculiar institution" became less peculiarly southern.  

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This page contains a single entry by Jim Cobb published on April 17, 2024 11:43 AM.


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