Within the purview of post-1950’s modern historiography, anything proclaimed in defense of the South is labeled “Lost Cause Myth” – a product of the “Lost Cause School” of thought. The term “Lost Cause” originates from the title of an 1866 book written in defense of the South but is now applied pejoratively to an entire category of Southern apologetics. Today, because the category defends the South, it is quickly dismissed as illegitimate “historical negationist ideology.” Closer historical scrutiny is needed to determine the legitimacy of this accusation. Were those of the so called “Lost Cause School” mere ideologues defending the South by using a fabricated and highly romanticized narrative divorced from historical reality? Or could it be that the post-1950’s academics who coined the pejoratives “Lost Cause School” and “Lost Cause Myth” are fallacious ideologues?
Dr. Don Livingston has rightly called ideology “a disease of the intellect.”(1) It is the belief that what is good or evil in life is a matter to be abstractly determined by the subjective intellect, divorced from the practical circumstances and experiences of life. Most of today’s academic historians are consumed by a fashionable postmodern Leftist ideology that eschews real evidence-based history for a more abstract weaponized form that serves a radical social justice agenda. Yet it is an ideology whose foundation is permeated with contradiction. After all, postmodernism asserts that all truth is relative and subjective, yet their highly critical assessment of the antebellum South is avowed absolute truth. They claim that all moral values are subjective, yet Southern slavery was an absolute evil. Theirs is a contradiction of subjectivism and relativism concomitant with a dogmatic absolutism. When slavery is considered, their eyes glaze over in ideological stupor blinding them to any legitimate consideration of the nature and historical context of Southern slavery.
Southern antebellum slavery provides an example of how historical truth can be obscured by the imaginings of ideology. When slavery is considered abstractly as a violation of the natural law of human liberty, it is certainly objectionable to all freedom loving Americans. This included most in the antebellum South. But Southern slavery was not a mere abstraction, it occurred within a real historical context that must be considered when passing judgement. Which is why future Confederate VP Alexander Stephens could honestly say in an 1845 speech that he was “no defender of slavery in the abstract” without hypocritical contradiction as a Southern slave owner. Yet here emerges more contradictions of the postmodern Left.(2) They claim that tolerance is good and being judgmental wrong, therefore all cultures are equal and deserving of respect. On the other hand, Southern antebellum culture is the apex of an evil Western civilization. Judgement is considerable and tolerance is out the window if any defense of the South is expressed. And so, the late historian Dr. Ludwell Johnson lamented concerning modern historiographical method: “It decrees that some things should be accepted without question – otherwise the elaborate machinery of academic control and social hostility will exact their full measure of retribution on the dissenter…. the South and Southerners offer many tempting targets to the holier than thou.”(3)
Modern Leftist historians dominate the academic history discipline by a 33.5:1 ratio.(4) That their ideology preempts any thorough consideration of all the historical evidence is demonstrated by how “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” will be commonly found in the syllabi of history classes, but you’ll look long and hard to find any mention of “A Southside View of Slavery.” The fictional “Cabin” supports their ideological stereotype of Southern slavery as intolerably cruel and oppressive, while “Southside” supports the integrity of the Lost Cause School which undercuts that claim. The latter must therefore be suppressed; along with a plethora of other primary sources such as a book written by a Georgia slave entitled, “Slavery and Abolitionism as Viewed by a Georgia Slave.”(5) The “Slave Narratives” are yet another source which has to be carefully cherry-picked to avoid the vast testimonies that support the Southern claim of slavery as a benevolent institution. An overview of some of the themes in “Southside” is presented here to expose what the modern postmodernists ideologues are desperate to hide.
If modern academic historians were intent on an objective examination of antebellum slavery, what more could they ask for than “A Southside View of Slavery,” a book written in 1854 based upon research in which Boston abolitionist, Dr. Nehemiah Adams, spent three months in the South seeking firsthand knowledge of Southern slavery? Though the work is anecdotal and observational, it has far more to offer than the work of fiction written by author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who had never witnessed slavery firsthand and whose content was highly influenced by her antislavery bias along with the radical abolitionists who were her peer group.
Dr. Nehemiah Adams was a Harvard educated pastor of a Boston Congregationalist Church. He had helped draft a letter on behalf of New England clergymen that protested slavery’s extension into the territories. He was active in the abolitionist movement and certainly no apologist for slavery but was willing to see for himself if the perceptions created by abolitionist propaganda held any basis in fact. Early in his book Adams asserts that he was not going to allow his antislavery bias to preempt objectivity:
“I will relate the impressions and expectations with which I went to the south; the correction or confirmation of my northern opinions and feelings… I shall not drop upon fictitious scenes and feelings, but shall give such statements as I would desire to receive from a friend to whom I should put the question, ‘What am I to believe? How am I to feel and act?’”(6)
Adams would admit in his book that his perceptions about slavery were changed by what he saw and heard:
“The impression here made upon me, or rather confirmed and illustrated afresh, was, that the slaves, so far as I had seen, were unconscious of any feeling of restraint; the natural order of life proceeded with them; they did not act like a driven, overborne people, stealing about with sulky looks, imbruted by abuse, crazed, stupidly melancholic… they had sources of enjoyment and ways of manifesting it which suggested to a spectator no thought of involuntary servitude.” pp. 25 – 28
Here is a book written by a man who had every reason to show bias against the South. Yet while he believed that slavery in the abstract was an unjust evil, he was not an ideologue unable to examine slavery within the real-life context in which it occurred. He saw how the combination of abolitionism and Northern political strategy had backed the South into a corner that made ending slavery impossible without a humane and economic disaster. His book is a polemic against a Northern antislavery ideology that blinded its adherents to what was best for the slave.
The book provides examples of that ideology. In one such example he demonstrates how the ideologue blindly asserts “slavery is evil” without asking the practical question of “in relation to what circumstance and what provides the best life outcome for the slave:”
“While at the north, a servant came to his master, and asked for money to buy some articles for his wife at home. He received some money, and that night deserted his master…When the master was returning to the south, the weak, sickly man came to him and besought him to take him back. He protested that he had had enough of freedom, that he had been imposed upon by his friends, and that he should be miserable to be left behind… Should his master have yielded to his request?
‘No,’ says the abolitionist; ‘he had no right to own a fellow human being as a slave; not even to support him without any remuneration, or to nurse him in sickness, or to pension him for life from his estate. Better, far better, to do right then to do kindly…’
A fugitive slave is not necessarily, nor as a matter of course, an object of compassion; it is not certain that he has fled from a bad to a better condition; that freedom in Boston is invariably preferable to slavery in Charleston.” pp. 130 – 131
Adams emphasized that the imposition of abstract ideological beliefs does not always make life better! He too had to deal with the same kind of ideologues as we do today. At the mere mention of a benevolent slavery, modern Leftists roll their eyes unable to look past the abstract evil of slavery and focus on what might have been a better historical outcome for the slaves.
A recurring theme throughout Dr. Adams book, echoing the earlier sentiments of Northern Senator Daniel Webster, is his realization that Northern bias and interference had caused far more harm than good. It was probably the most negative influence in the prevention of Southern emancipation:
“What strange adversity has followed those who have been foremost in the anti-slavery cause! The south was just on the eve of abolishing slavery; the abolitionist arose and put it back within its inner most entrenchments.” Pg. 115
“The south was about to free herself of her slaves; northern interference, seeking to hasten the day, prevented it, perhaps forever…” pp. 143-144
Adams quotes a Southern slave holder as being typical of the South’s desire to end slavery if only the North would make it possible in a manner for the good of the slaves:
“’If our friends at the north would devise ways in which we could dispose of these poor people for their good, I should then no longer be a servant of servants’…. There are probably few who would not abstractly prefer free labor; but what shall be done with the blacks?” Pg. 90, 91
Taking on the ideological fabrications of abolitionists, Adams would make clear that what he saw firsthand did not correlate with what he had read in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin:”
“And then, as a whole, I found that the book (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) gives a northerner false conceptions of the actual state of things at the south, not excepting abuses in slavery; with respect even to them, after reading the book, apparitions will be ever present to one’s thoughts, which will not be laid except by going south.” Pg. 162
“I found myself, for three months, in a state of society, in different places, which made me say, “If uncle Tom’s cabin is true, there are other things just as true which ought to modify every judgment of slavery as dictated by that book.” Pg. 168
Dr. Adams book is a nightmare for modern academic historians. They have fabricated the mythical “Lost Cause Myth” as a convenient means of dismissing the Southern view of history without having to give Southern claims any serious consideration. The Southern claim of a close bond between master and slave they dismiss as a tenet of the “Lost Cause Myth.” Yet in Adams observations, it is a recurring theme:
“A colored woman with her children lived in a separate cabin belonging to her master, washing clothes for families in that place. She paid her master a percentage of her earnings, and had laid up more than enough to buy her freedom and that of her children. Why, as she might be made free, does she not use it rather? She says that if she were to buy her freedom, she would have no one to take care of her for the rest of her life. Now her master is responsible for her support. She has no care about the future. Old age, sickness, poverty, do not trouble her.… If I buy my freedom, I cut myself off from the interest of the white folks in me. Now they feel that I belong to them, and people will look to see if they treat me well.’ Her only trouble is that her master may die before her; then she will ‘have to be free.’” Pg. 49, 50
“Instances come to mind of servants in whose condition nothing is wanting to promote happiness in this world and preparation for the next; and the only source of disquietude in such cases you will hear thus expressed: ‘Master may die, and then I shall have to be free’…. preferring the feeling of protection, the gratification of loving and serving a white person, to abstract liberty.” pp. 91, 92
A common myth dispelled by Adams is that slaves had no legal rights. This fabrication has more to do with the reality of Northern free blacks than it does Southern slaves. Dr. Adams witnessed firsthand the use of protective laws during his study of slavery:
“Every slave has an inalienable claim in law upon his owner for support for the whole of life. He cannot be thrust into an almshouse, he cannot become a vagrant, he cannot beg his living, he cannot be wholly neglected when he is old and decrepit.” p. 47
“In Georgia it is much safer to kill a white man than a Negro; and if either is done in South Carolina, the law is exceedingly apt to be put in force. In Georgia I have witnessed a strong purpose among lawyers to the murderer of a negro from escaping justice.” P. 38
21st century ideologues shout “slavery is evil,” the 19th century slave asks, “but where am I most happy.” A recurring observation in Dr. Adams’ study is the vast number of liberties afforded the slaves which distinguishes the abstract from the real:
“Some planters allow their hands a certain portion of the soil for their own culture, and give them stated times to work it; some prefer to allow them out of the whole crop a percentage equal to such a distribution of land… It is the common law, however, with all who regard public opinion at the South, to allow their hands certain privileges and exemptions, such as long rest in the middle of the day, early dismission from the field at night, a half day occasionally, in addition to holidays…
They raise poultry, swine, melons; keep bees; catch fish; pedal brooms, and small articles of cabinet making; and, if they please, lay up the money, or spend it on their wives and children… Some slaves are owners of bank and railroad shares.…. it is gratifying to know that such things as these characterize the intercourse of masters and servants at the south. Nameless as are they, in a thousand cases….” pp. 34 – 3
Slavery, like any other human institution, evolved over time. To the extent that human bondage could be made benevolent, the South sought to do so. Any evils related to slavery were abhorred and included an unwanted social stigma. Dr. Adams observed:
“Many planters do not employ white overseers, but use some of the hands in their stead, paying them for this responsibility. Touching instances of faithfulness are related of these colored head men…. a cruel, neglectful master is marked and despised; and if cruel or neglectful by proxy, he does not escape reprobation. It was not unusual to hear one say of another, ‘I have been told that he does not use his people well.’ This is a brand up on a man which he and his family are made to feel deeply.“ pg. 97
Here presented is but a sampling of the vast wealth of information contained in Adams’ book. It is necessary to do this review to bring exposure to some of the themes of this much suppressed primary source. Making the book known is just one step in correcting the myths of the popular modern narrative which has more to do with politics than history. Ideologues will desperately cling to their abstract myth no matter how much the primary source historical evidence is against them. Their agendas depend on it. But those with a real commitment to truth, will allow Dr. Adams’ evidence to inform their narrative, not to defend slavery, but to understand it in its historical context. This is an important first step in countering the narrative of an inhumane and bondage happy South; a narrative being played for political ends. It is also an important step exposing that the way slavery ended was anything but humane, held no real concern for the slaves, and led directly to further oppression that plagued the slaves and their descendants for the next one hundred years.
1) from a 2017 Abbeville Institute lecture titled, “What is Wrong with Ideology”
2) Louis Pendleton, Alexander H. Stephens: American Crisis Biographies (Portage Portage Publications, Inc.,) 2003
3) Ludwell H. Johnson, North Against South, Columbia, South Carolina, 2002 (“Note to the 2002 Printing”), pg. XV
4) Econ Journal Watch 13 (3); Faculty Voter Registration in Economics, History, Journalism, Law, and Psychology; Mitchell Langbert, Anthony J. Quain, and Daniel B. Klein; pp. 422-451
5) Harrison Berry, Slavery and Abolitionism as Viewed by a Georgia Slave, Atlanta, M. Lynch and Co., Publishers 1861
6) Nehemiah Adams, A Southside View of Slavery, Applewood Books, Bedford, MA,1854, pg. 9 (All references to this book going forward will be included in the text of this paper.)
7) Daniel Webster, Seventh of March Speech, March 7, 1850, United States Senate Chambers.