Is “White Supremacy” an Exclusively “Southern” Ideology?

Gettysburg Address

“We abhor the doctrine of the “Types of Mankind;” first, because it is at war with scripture, which teaches us that the whole human race is descended from a common parentage; and, secondly, because it encourages and incites brutal masters to treat negroes, not as weak, ignorant and dependent brethren, but as wicked beasts, without the pale of humanity. The Southerner is the negro’s friend, his only friend.” George Fitzhugh, 1854

On April 23 (judging by the pictures) five idiots—probably all FBI informants—showed up at Stone Mountain, GA to hold a “white supremacist” event.  All waved what appeared to be newly purchased Confederate Battle Flags.  These knuckleheads were met by a mob of violent “protestor” knuckleheads—probably all on a Marxist organization’s payroll—who started throwing rocks at police and igniting fires.  Eventually, the riot squad was called in, arrests were made, and order was restored, but not before pictures of the “white supremacist” kooks waving Confederate Battle Flags were plastered all over the Internet.

The message was clear: the Confederate Battle Flag is a symbol of hate and white power.

In other words, that flag represents exclusively Southern traits.

But is either position correct?

If you listen to the mainstream media or historical profession you would think so.  Many almost go to hysterics to “prove” that the root of Southern society was “hatred” for black Americans.  The Confederacy was simply an extension of that fact.  The common narrative is that the South has had a three-century long monopoly on racism in the United States.  The North, on the other hand, was the happy land of free thinking, benevolent, egalitarian, civic minded statesman fighting for equal rights and social justice.

There is one problem with this particular story.  It is based on a romantic, Utopian vision of Northern society and culture, the true “lost cause myth” in American history.  Both that North and that Northerner were almost as rare as a Unicorn in both antebellum and post-bellum America.

Were antebellum Southerners racist?  Absolutely, but no more so than antebellum Northerners.  Were post-bellum Southerners racist?  Again, absolutely but no more so than post-bellum Northerners.  Did antebellum Southerners consider blacks to be an inferior, “child-like” race?  Yes, but so did antebellum Northerners.  Racism as we understand it today was an American trait for most of American history.

“White supremacy” was in fact a popular idea in the North both before and after the War, perhaps even more popular there than in the South.

The proof is readily available.

Several historians in the 1960s—most conspicuously Leon Litwack in North of Slavery and Eugene Berwanger in The Frontier Against Slavery—sought to outline the hypocrisy of Northern attacks on the South during the Civil Rights era.  These were not pro-Southern ideologues but dedicated academics who wanted to describe the complex history of race relations in America.  That story has been lost in current mainstream history or explained away by revisionists in an attempt to salvage the good name of their Northern heroes. Abraham Lincoln, for example, may have been a racist in his youth, even up to the time he was elected President in 1860, but he changed during the four years of war.  And even if he didn’t, Lincoln and the Republicans should be given a pass because they advocated the end of slavery.  You see, it is far easier to demonize the South than to accept guilt in the comprehensive American legacy of racism and slavery.  One act of political and military expediency, which is how Lincoln classified the Emancipation Proclamation, makes up for years of vitriolic racist language.

As for examples of Northern “white supremacy,” there are far too many to list, but here are several.

David Wilmot, the Pennsylvania Democrat who introduced the Wilmot Proviso in 1846—a rider to a defense bill that would have excluded slavery in any territory acquired by the United States in the War with Mexico—wrote this about the Proviso: It was “the cause and the rights of [the] white freeman [and] I would preserve to free white labor a fair country, a rich inheritance, where the sons of toil, of my own race and own color, can live without the disgrace which association with negro slavery brings upon free labor.” He later wrote privately, “By God, sir, men born and nursed of white women are not going to be ruled by men who were brought up on the milk of some damn Negro wench!”

The radical abolitionist Benjamin Wade of Ohio, famous for advocating the execution of Southern secessionists, the confiscation of Southern lands, the arming of former slaves, and as co-sponsor of the Wade-Davis Bill of 1864, said this when he arrived for the first time in Washington D.C. in 1851: “On the whole, this is a mean God forsaken Nigger rid[d]en place. The Niggers are certainly the most intelligent part of the population but the Nigger smell I cannot bear, yet it is in on and about every thing you see.”  He then complained that the food was “cooked by Niggers, until I can smell & taste the Nigger.”  Several years after the War, Wade said that he was “sick and tired of niggers.”

Jacob Brinkerhoff, an Ohio Democrat, said in 1846 that, “I have selfishness enough greatly to prefer the welfare of my own race to that of any other and vindictiveness enough to wish…to keep [in] the South the burden which they themselves created,” of course meaning black slavery and a large population of black Americans.

A Wisconsin resident, fearful of extending voting rights to black Americans, thought that giving suffrage to blacks would give them permission to “marry our sisters and daughters, and smutty wenches to [marry] our brothers and sons.”

William Sawyer at the Ohio convention for revision of the state constitution in 1850 said, “the United States were designed by God in Heaven to be governed and inhabited by the Anglo-Saxon race and by them alone….[Blacks were] very little removed from the condition of dumb beasts—they wallowed in the mire like hogs and there was nothing of civilization in their aboriginal conditions.”

William H. Seward of New York, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, said blacks were a “foreign and feeble element, like the Indian, incapable of assimilation [and] unwisely and unnecessarily transplanted to our fields.”

John Fairfield of Maine avoided dinners with Congressional colleagues in Washington D.C. because he did not like “black odoriferous niggers” around.

An Ohio Republican pleaded with Democrats to stop “shouting Sambo at us.  We have no Sambo in our platform…We object to Sambo.  We don’t want him about.  We insist that he shall not be forced upon us.”  The Republican Party, he claimed, was created for the benefit of the white race alone.

James Harlan, a United States Senator from Iowa, asked in 1860, “Shall the Territories be Africanized?” to which he answered that he favored territorial extension only for the white race.

Lyman Trumbull of Illinois said in 1859 that, “We the Republican party, are the white man’s party.  We are for the free white man, and for making white labor acceptable and honorable, which it can never be when negro slave labor is brought into competition with it.”

The Iowa Republican Party used “WE ARE FOR LAND FOR THE LANDLESS, NOT NIGGERS FOR THE NIGGERLESS” as their campaign slogan in 1860.

A Kansan writing to the New York Tribune in 1855 summarized the sentiment of most Northern Republicans and Democrats:

First, then be not deceived in the character of the anti-Slavery feeling.  Many who are known as Free-State men are not anti-Slavery in our Northern acceptation of the word.  They are more properly negro haters, who vote Free-State to keep negroes out, free or slave; one half of them would go for Slavery if negroes were to be allowed here at all.  The inherent sinfulness of Slavery is not one thought by them.  One-third of the Free-State party is made up of men who act from convictions of conscious—the remaining two thirds are Free-State men from conviction that the profits of Freedom, derivable in the shape of customers would be greater than if slavery existed.

While many Union soldiers eventually accepted abolition as a war aim, a large percentage bristled at Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.  One Ohio private declared, “we did not enlist to fight for the negro and I can tell you that we never shall…sacrafise [our] lives for the liberty of a miserable black race of beings….Abolitionism is traitorism in its darkest collar.”

A Union lieutenant colonel from New York wrote, “I did not come out to fight for the nigger or abolition of Slavery. [Lincoln] ought to be lashed up to 4 big fat niggers & left to wander about with them the bal[ance] of his life.” Another New York soldier wrote, “I’m no nigger worshipper.”

During the War, a Pennsylvania newspaper suggested, “The producing classes, the mechanic, laborer, etc., had better cut the throats of their children at once than hand them to ‘impartial freedom,’ degradation and amalgamation with negroes.”

A New York newspaper reported that, “Filthy black niggers, greasy, sweaty, and disgusting, now jostle white people and even ladies everywhere, even at the President’s levees.”

A Northern newspaper editor, Dr. J.H. Van Evrie, claimed during the war that, “The equality of all whom God has created equal (white men), and the inequality of those He has made unequal (negroes and other inferior races) are the corner-stone of American democracy, and the vital principle of American civilization and human progress.  We should announce that the grad humanitarian policy of progressive and civilized America is to restore subgenation all over the American continent.”  Van Evrie changed the name of his newspaper to The Caucasian during the War and was one of the most vocal proponents of “white supremacy” in the nineteenth century.  He was from New York.

In all Midwestern states in the 1850s, referendums extending voting rights to blacks were defeated by crushing majorities, and in several of these states, blacks were not allowed to establish residency.  This was commonplace.  Even Northeastern states adopted harsh policies toward blacks before the War.  Many of these policies had waned by the 1850s, but their legacy ensured that the free black population of New England would remain low for most of its history.  Massachusetts prescribed whipping for any non-resident free black who stayed in the State longer than two months.  Connecticut denied blacks residency in the colonial period.  There were strict policies regarding black property ownership in all New England states in the colonial period and free blacks had to carry passes to travel.  Even into the 1850s, Pennsylvania debated allowing free blacks to settle in the State.

It must also be said that free black Southerners could vote in Southern colonies and some Southern states into the early nineteenth century.  The same was not true for the North.  Black Northerners could not vote in 19 of 24 Northern states at the end of the War in 1865, and before 1860 Northern blacks could not serve on juries.

Alexis de Tocqueville described the situation for black Northerners as thus in his Democracy in America: “So the Negro [in the North] is free, but he cannot share the rights, pleasures, labors, griefs, or even the tomb of him whose equal he has been declared; there is nowhere where he can meet him, neither in life nor in death.”

While the situation in the post-bellum period seemed to be better in the North, some of the most brutal race riots and lynchings took place on Northern soil in the early-twentieth century.

The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s did not wave the Confederate Battle Flag, but instead displayed Old Glory at every rally.  The U.S. flag was the only one on parade during a large Klan march in Washington D.C. in 1925.  Their dream was a progressive America devoid of black residents.  The last “grand wizard” of the 1920s Klan was from Indiana.  He was later convicted of rape and when denied a pardon by his good friend the Governor of Indiana, he exposed several leading Indiana politicians as members of the Klan, many of them Republicans.

The lynching of Will Brown in Nebraska in 1919 was one of the most brutal and heinous in American history.  He was beaten, hung, shot, and burned by a mob.  This lynching was part of a series of race riots in Northern cities during the summer of 1919, often called the “Red Summer Race Riots.”

The infamous photo of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith was taken in Indiana in 1930, many miles from the Mason-Dixon.

The worst of the 1968 race riots were in the Northern cities of Chicago and Detroit.

Race riots broke out in Boston in the mid-1970s over forced busing, a policy Bostonians gladly accepted for their Southern brothers but violently rejected in their own backyard.

Last time I checked, none of these States were part of the old Confederacy, and none has a history of “Confederate imagery.”

The most iconic image from one of the 1976 Boston race riots was of a white Bostonian beating an unarmed black attorney with the U.S. Flag.

I don’t recall the Confederate Battle Flag ever being used as a physical weapon against black Americans.

Rally around the U.S. Flag, boys!

Of course, anyone could reasonably claim that the U.S. flag in these instances was being used out of context, that its meaning was hijacked by the Klan and other Northern racists.  Some even admit that the U.S. flag has flown over far more racist events than the Confederate Battle Flag—even over slavery for ninety years—but because that flag today represents something else to most Americans, it should not viewed as a symbol of “hate.”

That is the same claim made by the vast majority of those who currently fly the Confederate Battle Flag.  Isn’t it ironic?

To these Southerners, the flag’s meaning has been distorted, abused, and stolen by “white supremacist” groups like those who showed up at Stone Mountain.  The leader of the Brazilian group dedicated to the preservation of Confederado history (relocated Southerners after the War) calls the Battle Flag a “symbol of love,” meaning a love for his family, its traditions and history, and its people. To other Americans, the flag is a symbol of self-determination, of the Jeffersonian tradition of self-government and resistance to tyranny, a distinctly American tradition.   The Battle Flag was displayed in Europe during waning days of the Cold War as a dissident gesture to the Soviet Bloc governments.  A modified form has been adopted by the leaders of the Ukrainian separatist movement today.

The opening quote by proslavery advocate George Fitzhugh may seem odd to the modern reader.  Fitzhugh did not believe white and black Southerners to be equal—far from it—but there is a touch of humanity that a modern American would not expect to find from such a “hate filled” man.  Hate would be the incorrect word to use to describe the white antebellum Southern attitude toward black Americans.  Superiority, yes, but not hate.  By the eve of the War in 1861, Southerners commonly recognized the humanity of slaves.  The preeminent historian Eugene Genovese wrote in his seminal Roll, Jordan, Roll, “The white South, almost with one voice in the late antebellum period, denounced cruelty to slaves and denied that much of it existed.  Here and there, yes, one could find it; to a significant or noteworthy extent, no. Northerners who knew the South well often agreed.”  Following the War, Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia, infamously known for his “Cornerstone Speech,” urged the State of Georgia to accept black Southerners as equal before the law as a sign of “gratitude.”

In fact, Southerners realized that they lived in a much more racially diverse region than the North.  That is why Fitzhugh could claim that the Southerner was “the negro’s…only friend.” The historian Jennifer Weber noted in her study of Northern Copperheads that “no prominent Copperheads ever discussed or even acknowledged the fact that racial mixing was well established in American life, having taken place for generations on Southern plantations.”  Northern Republicans labeled the Democrat Party the “Mulatto Democracy” because they believed Democrats favored “bleaching the darkies…the best blood of the Democracy [ran] in the veins of the ‘peculiar property.’”  Indeed, the free black population of the South was larger than that of the North in 1860, even though the Northern population, counting the Midwestern states, was nearly twice the size of the South. Many of these Southern “free people of color” were mulattoes.

White and black Southerners had lived together for over two hundred years by 1854, and nearly four hundred years by 2016.  Their common history has not always pretty or peaceful, it was even exploitative (so was nineteenth-century Northern industrial wage labor) and unfortunately sometimes brutally violent, but there was a familiarity between these groups of people that escaped Northern Americans, both then and now, a familiarity that Northerners wished to avoid.  “Free Soil, Free (white) Labor, Free (white) Men!”  De Tocqueville again noted in his Democracy in America, “In the South, where slavery still exists, less trouble is taken to keep the Negro apart: they sometimes share the labors and the pleasures of the white men; people are prepared to mix with them to some extent; legislation is more harsh against them, but customs are more tolerant and gentle.”  This is why in 1895 Booker T. Washington could ask white and black Southerners to “cast down your buckets where you are,” and why he characterized his white “mentor” as a typical “Yankee woman.”  Washington was a Southerner first and foremost.  He never complained about voting in Macon County, Alabama.

One off the more interesting pictures from the “white supremacist” rally at Stone Mountain was of a black protestor, identified only as “Miss Black Woman,” wrapped in a Confederate flag.  Ostensibly, she did this to thumb her nose at the white power crowd, perhaps even to incite their rebuke.  The people I know who honor the Confederate flag would have given her a hug and invited her to supper.  Just as with the Confederadoes in Brazil, their support for the flag is one of love.

Genovese wrote in Roll, Jordan, Roll that, “Blacks and whites in America may be viewed as one nation or two or as a nation within a nation, but their common history guarantees that, one way or another, they are both American.”  Genovese was correct, but he missed one important point.  Most black Americans were and are not just American, but Southern. Many are moving back to the South after years in Northern cities for that reason.  The South is home.

Racial reconciliation is a laudable and desirable goal, but removing, renaming, or re-contextualizing Confederate symbols, or worse outright vandalism, is not going to achieve any type of resolution to the American—not just Southern—legacy of racism.  Fully understanding the complex relations and history of white and black Southerners including the good, not just the bad and the ugly, could be better achieved without a Reign of Terror style purge of anything deemed “racist” by the self-appointed gatekeepers of “truth” in America today.

There are many Northern symbols and heroes that would need a thorough re-contextualization as well.  When that process begins, perhaps more Southerners would be open to a discussion of their symbols, but I have yet to see a call for the renaming of Yale or Brown University, of Faneuil Hall, of the removal of the Lyman Trumbull statue from the Illinois Statehouse, the furling of the U.S. flag, or a “re-contextualization” of the Lincoln memorial with information about his support for colonization or with an added inscription of his own words: “I am not in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people…” or “I am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position.”

For those who need interpretation, that would be called “white supremacy.”

About Brion McClanahan

Brion McClanahan is the author or co-author of five books, 9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America and Four Who Tried to Save Her (Regnery History, 2016), The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers, (Regnery, 2009), The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution (Regnery History, 2012), Forgotten Conservatives in American History (Pelican, 2012), and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Real American Heroes, (Regnery, 2012).

He received a B.A. in History from Salisbury University in 1997 and an M.A. in History from the University of South Carolina in 1999. He finished his Ph.D. in History at the University of South Carolina in 2006, and had the privilege of being Clyde Wilson’s last doctoral student. He lives in Alabama with his wife and three daughters.

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