Part 3 in Clyde Wilson’s series “African-American Slavery in Historical Perspective.” Read Part 1 and Part 2.
In 1798 Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Taylor: “It is true that we are completely under the saddle of Massachusetts and Connecticut, and that they ride us very hard, cruelly insulting our feelings as well as exhausting our strength and substance.” He added that the Yankees were marked by a permanent “perversity of character.” In his letter of resignation from Washington’s Cabinet, he had made the point that the government was being used to exploit the South and enrich the North.
Jefferson was pointing out how things had developed under the new federal government: legislation and court rulings designed to profit wealthy Northerners and continual insults to the South in New England books, speeches, and sermons. And the Sedition Act, a blatant contradiction of the Bill of Rights, justified by the commercially-crafty fraud of pretending that Common Law gave the federal government power beyond its written limitations.
This was not exactly what most Virginians had expected in signing on to the new Constitution. Although Patrick Henry and George Mason had predicted in the Virginia ratifying convention that the South would become the “milch cow” of the Union because aggressive Northern interests would use the commerce and taxing power to enrich themselves. Some far-sighted Southern members of early Congressional sessions made the same point as the Jeffersonian movement was gathering strength.
This remained a common theme in Southern political discourse until the War for Southern Independence, and Northern Democrats tended to agree. By legislation the tariff gave the North a protected market for its factories and by “internal improvements” Southern tribute was used to build Northern infrastructure. And a “national bank” gave the immense power to control credit and currency to Northern bankers.
In 1824, John Randolph, referring to the ever-increasing tariff, proclaimed: “When the scorpion’s sting is probing us to the quick, shall we stop to chop logic?”
In the last year of his life, Jefferson suggested a need for Virginia to initiate nullification (something which Calhoun broached two years later) against federal economic legislation: Secession was not out of the question: “We should separate from our companions only when the sole alternatives left, are the dissolution of the Union with them, or submission to a government without limits to its power. Between the two evils, when we must make a choice, there can be no hesitation.” To appeal to self-interested Northerners was as useless as arguing with the marble columns of the Capitol.
A while back I remember an obnoxious reporter arguing with President Trump about monument destruction. The reporter, whose ignorant opinions are of no interest to anyone, declared he hated Lee but loved Jefferson. How different is the real Jefferson from who Americans imagine him to be.
“Insulting our feelings.” Just before the war William Gilmore Simms wrote about New Englanders’ control of print culture in which they claimed all American virtue for themselves and distorted and slandered the history of the South, falsely claiming, for example, that the South had been rescued by the North during the War of Independence. Such chauvinism had begun at least as early as the 1790s. Since making a union with Northerners, Simms wrote, Southerners had been keeping company with a voracious tiger that saw them as its meat.
Note that none of these Southern complaints had anything to do with defending slavery. They were responses to economic and cultural imperialism.
It seems to be an accepted American belief that Union soldiers went to war to emancipate the suffering African Americans from bondage. This is a self-serving lie in the same category as pretending that dropping missiles on innocent people on the other side of the world is “saving democracy” or a rowdy walk-through at the Capitol is an “insurrection.”
Before the war of 1861—1865 nearly everyone understood that there was never the intention, the will, the power, the means, or the right in American society or the federal government for such a vast undertaking as blanket emancipation. The question was not even raised and no plan was ever put forward. Abolitionists were a small number and ineffective except in propaganda. Most Northerners, including much of the orthodox clergy, disdained them.
However, Calhoun pointed out in one of his last public statements: while most Northerners were not abolitionists, the rising generation had been fed on hatred of the South and cynical Yankee political managers of any party would not hesitate to court the antislavery vote if it gave them the margin of victory.
An obstacle to emancipation was the vast property represented by black labour and its interweaved presence in the daily life of a large part of the Union. Another major impediment was the fact that Northerners did not want to take any free black people into their “free soil” empire. Further, Northerners were not about to make any sacrifice for emancipation. Compensated emancipation had worked in the British Caribbean colonies, although those rich islands soon descended into chronic poverty. For the ruling element of the North the purpose of the government was to make them money. To pay taxes for the benefit of Southerners and black people was beyond unthinkable.
Fundamental was the intractable issue of race. This left the United States with only one solution—colonisation of the freed blacks outside of white territory. This impossible idea was kept alive as the only plausible sounding positive solution. Lincoln was still bringing up this idea in the last days of his life. Lincoln, who was colloquial and randy in private conversation, used the n-word all his life as did most Northerners until quite recent times.
Lincoln and his Republican Congress declared officially at the very beginning of their invasion of the Southern States that they had no purpose of interfering with slavery. Lincoln said that Northerners would be just like Southerners if they were in the same situation and that he would not know what to do about slavery, even if he had the power, which he did not have. All he wanted was for the new western lands awaiting settlement to be reserved for white people, even foreign immigrants, without blacks, slave or free. Such was his platform—directly contradicting the belief of Jefferson and Madison that the “restriction of slavery” did not free a single person and that emancipation would happen more readily if the black people were spread out.
Delegation after delegation came to Lincoln in early days to beg him to do something to avoid war. Remember that 60% of the people had voted against him, which ought to have put him in conciliatory frame of mind. There were militant elements in the North and South but the vast majority of Americans did not want war. If Lincoln had been the kind of great statesmen that he is alleged to be, this was a marvelous opportunity to work toward a new consensus and a future amelioration of slavery and economic conflict. But Lincoln was a politician anxious to enjoy the spoils of office. In his world political posturing was the name of the game and he regarded Southern protest in the same light—as something to be overruled by a little carrot and stick.
He indicated he was willing to consent to a 13th Constitutional Amendment guaranteeing slavery in perpetuity. But he invariably said that he could not do without “his revenue,” and that despite secession he would continue to enforce the tariff at Southern ports and refuse any discussion with Southern representatives over that matter. He knew that his position depended upon New England/New York money men and the rising power of the new industrialists and railroad men of Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago who were aggressively demanding that the federal government sponsor and support them. “His revenue” was also the source of the patronage for offices and contracts for his hungry supporters, indispensable to maintaining his party.
Hardly a single Union soldier thought that he risked his life to free the black people. Distinguished European observers said that obviously the war was not for the slaves but for Northern supremacy. Anti-war Northerners added that it was for the profit of certain interests in the North.
A declaration of emancipation, defined as a military measure, came after two years of bloody, unsuccessful war, discrediting Lincoln’s shallow assumption that a show of force would end “the rebellion” against his authority. It was a cynical measure designed to influence European opinion, which was somewhat successful, and to raise slave insurrection, which did not happen at all. It also caused an outbreak of even greater than usual army desertion and draft evasion in the North.
The Northern anti-slavery movement was never focused on the liberty and well-being of the slaves. It was an aggressive political, economic, and cultural war against all the South.
Americans like to congratulate themselves on the abolitionists’ benevolent interest in raising black people to equality as Americans. But reading abolition literature gives a different impression. What they wanted was a pure Anglo-Saxon Puritan republic free from the corrupting anomaly of black people. It was often asserted that Southern whites had been rendered depraved by intimate association with blacks. The North’s great intellectual Emerson said: “The abolitionist wishes to abolish slavery because he wishes to abolish the black man.” Abolition propaganda was also a disguised form of closet pornography for puritans, dwelling on illicit sex, brandings, whippings, and the like.
Abolitionists seldom showed any real interest in the welfare of the slaves. For them it was never a question of black welfare or freedom but a matter of the superiority and supremacy of the Northern version of “America.” The South, all its people, was a domain of Satan that had to be extinguished by puritan zeal, although for Southern theologians it was child’s play to show that the Bible ordained no campaign against servitude. Southerners were no more sinful than the rest of frail humanity. Maybe in some respects less so than their critics.
Abolitionism spewed hatred at the South without ever once suggesting any steps toward a gradual and practical solution.
General Sherman is reported to have said “Damn the niggers! I wish they were anywhere but here and could be kept at work.” He was not fighting for the emancipation of black people. He was a proto-fascist who wanted to crush people—men, women, and children— who had the gall to disobey the government.
The gracious Mrs. Sherman agreed. She wrote her husband: “I hope this may not be a war of emancipation but of extermination, & that all under the influence of the foul fiend may be driven like swine into the sea. May we carry fire and sword into their states till not one habitation is left standing.” Not much about the freedom and welfare of black people or even recognition of their massive existence as a part of the South to be destroyed.
As the war began the abolitionist Theodore Weld declared that the South had to be wiped out because it is “the foe of Northern industry—to our mines, our manufactures, our commerce.” The famous abolition preacher (and sexual predator) Henry Ward Beecher, enjoying a European holiday while rivers of blood were flowing in America, was asked by a British audience why the North did not simply let the South go. His reply: “O that the South would go! But they must leave us their lands.” A Massachusetts colonel wrote his abolitionist governor: “The thing we seek is permanent dominion . . . . They think we mean to take their slaves! Bah! We must take their ports, their mines, their water power, the very soil they plow . . . .”
The New York Times editorialised: “The commercial bearing of the [secession] question has acted upon the North. We were divided and confused until our pockets were touched.” A New Hampshire paper, like many others, announced: “It is very clear that the South gains by this process and we lose. No, we must not let the South go.” Since the 1830s some Northern tariff advocates had been saying that if the South remained recalcitrant on the issue Southern ports must be seized by force.
Anti-war Northerners, far more numerous and respectable than has even been admitted, had some perspective. Joel Parker, the Democratic governor of New Jersey, remarked: “Slavery is no more the cause of this war than gold is the cause of robbery.” Horatio Seymour, the Democratic governor of New York, condemned the war on Southerners, who had always been good patriots and ready to help Northerners in a crisis, as an atrocity brought about New England fanatics.
The libertarian abolitionist Lysander Spooner, who believed and boldly stated before the war that slaves had a right to kill their masters, called Lincoln’s rule “usurpation and tyranny” that had nothing to do with a moral opposition to slavery. As one “Copperhead” editor put it, the war was simply “a murderous crusade for plunder and party power.” He added the quite true claim that a prime activity of the Union forces was stealing cotton, which indeed made some Yankee generals, admirals, and Lincoln-connected businessmen rich.
Seizing Southern resources was a common theme among advocates of the Union. Southerners were not fellow citizens. They were obstacles to be disposed of so Yankees could use their resources to suit themselves. For the South the Union was an economic burden. For the North control of the South was essential for its economic prosperity. The treatment of Southerners as low, disposable creatures with no right to their own opinion or interests has remained a common attitude right up to today. By simply defending their own interests Southerners became enemies of “the Union.”
Could this relentless barrage of hatred against their Southern fellow Americans and determination to dominate them have something to do with an impulse for secession?
Honest historians understand to what degree the Northern conquest of the South had the goal of economic profit. General Sherman’s brother, Senator John Sherman of Ohio, told the Senate that establishing the National Bank was a more important goal than freeing the slaves. Many Northerners’ estimates of black character suggested that emancipated blacks would die out if deprived of the protection of masters. Others were sure that “free labour” would be more profitable than life-time care of slaves. Those who came to the South to get rich on confiscated plantations during the war and Reconstruction learned differently.
The Northern elite believed that the norm of the universe was that the government should be used to make them money. They so acted from the first day the federal government came into existence under the Constitution and have continued to do so up to today.
In the 1850s the Northern elite felt their strength, political and economic, increasing and grew more and more impatient with the Constitutional scruples of Southern Congressmen and the free-trade interests of the South.
As soon as they gained a Congressional majority the Republicans passed the highest tariff in American history. The Confederate South declared a minimum tariff and offered Northerners free navigation of the Mississippi and use of the port of New Orleans.
The Republican campaign to gain dominance of the federal government could count on the almost universal Northern determination to keep the blacks, slave or free, confined to the South As Lincoln said more than once, the territories were for white people. Republicans would entertain the idea (deceitfully) of giving confiscated land in the South to the freedmen, but never in the vast Western territory open to foreign whites and to be used as bounty to crooked corporations.
The free blacks of the North had few civil rights. Most States, like Lincoln’s Illinois, refused even to allow blacks to become residents. The strong abolitionist Republican governors of Massachusetts and Illinois refused during the war to accept even a handful of black refugees. The governor of Massachusetts, an open supporter of John Brown, commented that they would be happier in the South.
What could emancipation amount to in such a situation?
Southern power was an obstacle to Northern interests. A new rallying cry was needed. They found it in “the slave power conspiracy,” a false interpretation which remains the mainstream view of the antebellum South today. It is basically a Marxist “class struggle” account of history, and indeed it was proclaimed by Karl Marx at the time, who declared the war to be against an arrogant, aggressive Southern ruling class. Like all other Union supporters, Marx had no interest in the fate of African Americans but thought of himself as defending the white working class, especially German immigrants to the U.S. from the failed 1848 revolutions.
According to Republican and abolitionist propaganda the South was ruled by a small imperious minority of large slaveowners, determined to rule or ruin the country and to bring slavery to Northern whites. They were a “slave power” aggressively threatening the virtue, freedom, and prosperity of the North. No such conspiracy existed. Southerners had no designs on the North and wanted to be left alone, although they did strenuously insist on a few clear Constitutional provisions.
The attribution of the imaginary evil of the “slave power” rested on the puritan tendency to project bad things on an enemy that was to be subdued and punished. It was the same mentality that motivated the “Know-Nothing” party and caused Yankee mobs, with the collusion of local authorities, to destroy convents in Boston and Philadelphia, while in South Carolina the Catholic bishop was invited to address the legislature.
The fiction of the “slave power conspiracy” encouraged Northerners to believe that they were overthrowing an evil ruling class, not killing other Americans. According to the theory, the “slave power” lorded it over a mass of impoverished and ignorant whites who did not know their own interests. This was ideal propaganda for the fourth of the Northern population who were recent immigrants and who knew nothing of the South or the Constitution.
I recently read a “conservative” writer who declared that “poor whites” were oppressed and persecuted in the Old South comparably to how the present elite treats American “deplorables.” He gets it entirely backward. I have always wondered exactly how this class domination was supposed to work. Inequality of wealth and influence has been known in every society that has ever existed. Among whites in the antebellum South, where facts are entertained, this inequality was no more and often less than in other societies of the time. And certainly less than in the plutocratic regime of state capitalism (private property and profit with government support) that was installed with Lincoln and has remained the basic American regime.
Part of the orchestrated “slave power” propaganda was the claim that the South was impoverished and backward. Frederick Law Olmsted’s subsidized news reports from the “cotton states,” and Hinton Rowan Helper’s Impending Crisis of the South, described an impoverished and backward Southern society. These were not careful reports but deliberate Republican propaganda for the 1860 election. However, Republicans were happy to accept support from slaveowners who had useful influence.
Helper’s book, endorsed by sixty-nine Republican congressman, advocated cutting the throats of slave owners. Olmsted’s description of the backward South reflected the mind of an urbaniser who did not understand that the vast Southern territory had features of a dispersed population. As one Texas pioneer wrote: “The rude cabin was no indication of the class of the inhabiters.”
That Southerners preferred the country life to factories did not mean that they were too backward to have factories, but that they preferred their way of life and were not driven like Northerners to make wealth-gathering the main purpose of life. In time of need the Confederacy performed miracles of industrial output. The white South was not impoverished and lazy in comparison to the North or as class-ridden as this propaganda proposed to the Northern reading public. A Confederate humourist said war came about because Southerners were a contented people and Northerners were not.
The “slave power” was not aggressive. Early advocates of secession complained of the slowness of Southerners to react to provocation and the largest slave-holders were generally wary of secession.
White social mobility was common in the South. Many successful men started poor and rose to a comfortable income. The biographies of Southern office-holders and Confederate officers show this. Of course there were poor people in the South, as there are in every human society, and certainly were in the antebellum North, but the large majority were independent families.
How exactly are the rich planters to boss around such people, especially such people as had a strong sense of personal honour and liberty? Politicians had to face the people in public debates and influential men were often defeated in elections. Stephen Burbridge, one of the largest slave-owners in Kentucky, had been repeatedly defeated for public office. He became a vehement Unionist, notorious for the persecution of his fellow Kentuckians.
Southerners felt that the Union their fathers had agreed to was a joint enterprise to serve all the parts. They had a living personal memory of their Revolutionary fathers and grandfathers. With John Brown’s raid (a 9/11 incident in its revelation of violent hatred) and Lincoln’s election and all that led up to it, it was clear that the future meant domination by hostile elements.
The middling mass of Southern people had no inclination for extreme action until they were convinced that secession was necessary. Popular votes in Virginia, Tennessee, and Texas approved secession by large majorities. Despite many internal divisions, the Southern people were greatly unified in their resistance to invasion. This fact was widely observed by European visitors and others. General Sherman complained of the mass determination of the Southern people to resist him and the lack of such patriotism in the North.
Presidential candidate Lincoln had irresponsibly posed as a prophet in declaring that the Union could not endure half slave and half free and must become all one thing or all the other.
What exactly was this supposed to mean?
Then there was John Brown. Brown and his gang, already guilty of cold-blooded murder and extensive robbery in Kansas, invaded the Virginia town of Harper’s Ferry in hope of the seizing the arsenal there. They murdered five people including a respectable free black man. Brown had a cargo of pikes that could be used by the slaves to eviscerate their master and his family. He had a big store of rifles and handguns, but these were only to be entrusted to white men. He also had a constitution, which he had written himself in Canada, making himself dictator of a new country of liberated slaves.
Brown’s raid was a murderous fiasco. It is still pretended today that it was a slave uprising though not a single black Southerner had any part in it. It was an invasion.
Not one single slave joined Brown’s attempted blow against slavery.
If Brown had had any understanding of the Southern society he hated he would have known that there would be no uprising. Brown took George Washington’s sword from Col. John Augustine Washington, to use as a talisman. He demanded that Washington give over his slaves. The colonel replied that he could not find them—they were likely out fishing. One of Brown’s men, before his execution said that he had been misled about slavery in the South.
Even more significant than this exhibition of violent hate toward Southerners was the fact that six Northern rich men secretly financed Brown and others contributed. The two most prominent Republican Senators, Sumner and Seward, knew beforehand of Brown’s plans but said nothing. In distancing themselves from Brown many Republican leaders faulted his tactics rather than his intention. Patriotic citizens in Pennsylvania apprehended two of Brown’s accomplices and the Democratic governor extradited them to Virginia. The Republican governors of Ohio and Iowa colluded in the escape of other killers.
Many in the North treated Brown as a saint and martyr, even tolling the church bells at his execution and painting a phony picture of him blessing a black child on the way to his execution. Emerson said that Brown’s gallows was as glorious as the Cross and Thoreau equated the lunatic thief and murderer with Jesus. The governor of Virginia was inundated with messages threatening him with deadly retaliation if he did not pardon Brown.
All respectable historians know that white Southerners are violent, evil people. They recount that after Brown’s raid Southerners began to arm and expect war, despite Lincoln and the North posing no real threat to them. It would be surprising if proud Americans did not respond to such an event and consider the protection of their communities. The arming of the South was largely local, spontaneous, slow, and defensive.
Respectable historians almost never mention the “Wide Awakes.” These were Republican paramilitary groups—organised, armed, and drilling, numbering by some estimates as many as 400,000. They acted to control elections and suppress dissent in the North and were a potential force for enforcing Republican will on the people of the South.
An aspect of the Slave Power Myth that has been worked hard by Lincolnites is that the South had betrayed the egalitarian beliefs of the Founding Fathers. This has remained a powerful and cherished piece of false propaganda right up till today: the claim that the Founding Fathers intended to abolish slavery but just did not quite get around to it is a staple of American belief that comforts sentimental believers in unique American benevolence. Thus the “equality” phrase in the Declaration of Independence is portrayed as a national mission. Such a claim is a ridiculous misunderstanding of the Founding of the United States. Many of the Founders, especially Southern ones, were critical of aspects of African American slavery. But they of course never thought that the federal Union they were making had power to undertake universal emancipation.
Antislavery sentiments in the early South disappeared (although manumission continued on an individual basis) with the abundant increase of the slave population and the violent abuse of the abolitionists that appeared in the 1830s. Daniel Webster, the great man of the North, pointed out in 1850 that it was the abolitionists who had blocked Southern emancipation sentiment.
Jefferson and Madison, at the time of the Missouri Compromise, did not advocate emancipation or even the restriction of slavery from new States. Their primary reaction was the fear that Northern antagonism to the South, so vividly demonstrated, spelled conflict and the death of the Union. The “fire-bell in the night” heard by Jefferson was not Southern slavery but cynical Northern aggression that had nothing really to do with the place and welfare of African Americans.
The Slave Power Myth claims that the South turned its back on the Founding Fathers and devoted itself entirely to the evil mission of preserving and expanding slavery. But Southern society had not changed in such a way—it was still attached to the Constitutional republicanism of the Founding and to the way of life it had followed for two centuries. It was the North that had changed radically in its economic drive and its state of mind, with some intellectual input from the French Revolution.
Southerners fought not “to preserve slavery,” which was under no immediate threat from the U.S. government. They fought to preserve the self-government bequeathed by their fathers and grandfathers and to deal with their vital issues in their own way. Most Confederates indeed had fathers and grandfathers who had served in the first War of Independence.
Lincoln, Seward, and other Republicans were right in declaring slavery to be a major problem that needed to be removed. But it was an American problem and could only be solved as such. It was an immense part of the daily existence of a large part of the population. Southerners were mostly Christians, true American patriots, and people of good will. For the predominant element of the North to treat these good, independent-minded fellow citizens as enemies and factors to be manipulated and exploited was the surest possible way to make certain that there could be no peaceful end of slavery.
Withdrawal from a Union does not itself make a war. War comes when a stronger power does not accept the decision of the smaller power. That the South made war only to “preserve slavery,” is now the standard interpretation. In order for it to be true it has to be assumed that the North made war to free the slaves, a sentimental, self-serving distortion of history. If it had been merely a question of freeing the slaves, there would not have been such a war.