Of all people to go to when attempting to answer the question of why the Confederacy fell, there is probably no one more qualified than Jefferson Davis himself, the first and last president of the Confederate States of America. In an excerpt from his work, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, he writes,
“The act of February 17, 1864 […], which authorized the employment of slaves, produced less results than had been anticipated. It, however, brought forward the question of the employment of the negroes as soldiers in the army, which was warmly advocated by some and as ardently opposed by others. My own views upon it were expressed freely and frequently in intercourse with members of Congress, and emphatically in my message of November 7, 1864, when, urging upon Congress the consideration of the propriety of a radical modification of the theory of the law, I said:
Viewed merely as property, and therefore as the subject of impressment, the service or labor of the slave has been frequently claimed for short periods in the construction of defensive works. The slave, however, bears another relation to the state—that of a person. The law of last February contemplates only the relation of the slave to the master, and limits the impressment to a certain term of service
But, for the purposes enumerated in the act, instruction in the manner of camping, marching, and packing trains is needful, so that even in this limited employment length of service adds greatly to the value of the negro’s labor. Hazard is also encountered in all the positions to which negroes can be assigned for service with the army, and the duties required of them demand loyalty and zeal.
In this aspect the relation of person predominates so far as to render it doubtful whether the private right of property can consistently and beneficially be continued, and it would seem proper to acquire for the public service the entire property in the labor of the slave, and to pay therefor due compensation, rather than to impress his labor for short terms; and this the more especially as the effect of the present law would vest this entire property in all cases where the slave might be recaptured after compensation for his loss had been paid to the private owner. Whenever the entire property in the service of a slave is thus acquired by the Government, the question is presented by what tenure he should be held. Should he be retained in servitude, or should his emancipation be held out to him as a reward for faithful service, or should it be granted at once on the promise of such service; and if emancipated what action should be taken to secure for the freed man the permission of the State from which he was drawn to reside within its limits after the close of his public service? The permission would doubtless be more readily accorded as a reward for past faithful service, and a double motive for zealous discharge of duty would thus be offered to those employed by the Government—their freedom and the gratification of the local attachment which is so marked a characteristic of the negro and forms so powerful an incentive to his action. The policy of engaging to liberate the negro on his discharge after service faithfully rendered seems to me preferable to that of granting immediate manumission, or that of retaining him in servitude. If this policy should commend itself to the judgment of Congress, it is suggested that, in addition to the duties heretofore performed by the slave, he might be advantageously employed as a pioneer and engineer laborer, and, in that event, that the number should be augmented to forty thousand.
Beyond this limit and these employments it does not seem to me desirable under existing circumstances to go.[…] Subsequent events advanced my views from a prospective to a present need for the enrollment of negroes to take their place in the ranks. Strenuously I argued the question with members of Congress who called to confer with me. To a member of the Senate (the House in which we most needed a vote) I stated, as I had done to many others, the fact of having led negroes against a lawless body of armed white men, and the assurance which the experiment gave me that they might, under proper conditions, be relied on in battle, and finally used to him the expression which I believe I can repeat exactly: “If the Confederacy falls, there should be written on its tombstone, ‘Died of a theory.'”
The theory referred to was not a theory of slavery writ large, or else Davis would be condemning himself, since he remained a defender of slavery until his death, but it was a specific theory, that had gained traction in the South in the years prior to the outbreak of the war. The theory’s name was polygenesis.
Polygenesis was the idea that the races of humanity had distinct origins. In the context of the largely Christian South, with reference to blacks and whites, this usually meant the idea that white people were descended from Adam, and black people were descended from another “Adam”. There were all kinds of variations on the theory; having to do with Cain intermarrying with the races of the “Other Adams”, having to do with Ham intermarrying with the Other Adams, simply positing that blacks were a distinct and inferior species of humanity from whites, or in the most extreme cases, positing that blacks were not human at all and were instead beasts that were taken on the ark with Noah. A fantastically informative article which I encourage everyone to read in full by Christopher Luse titled Slavery’s champions stood at odds: polygenesis and the defense of slavery goes into detail about the Christians who defended slavery against both the abolitionists as well as the polygenists:
“Defenders of Christian slavery noted the ominous fact that abolitionism and polygenism arose together. Until the 1830s, antislavery remained weak, apologetic, and reformist instead of revolutionary. Until the mid-nineteenth century, ethnologists overwhelmingly defended Genesis and embraced monogenesis. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, researchers such as German Johann Blumenbach, Frenchmen Comte de Buffon and Cuvier, and British James Prichard all staunchly defended the common origin of humanity. Only in the sectional crisis of the 1850s did the “unity controversy” became [sic] truly heated.
Proslavery Christians frequently equated both abolitionists and ethnologists with a radical desire to overturn society. George Howe, professor of theology at the Columbia (South Carolina) Theological Seminary, noted the “coincidence between the infidel opposers of slavery and its infidel defenders.” Both ethnologists and abolitionists displayed the same overweening confidence in rationalism and the same rejection of revelation and traditional authority. Both rejected the scriptures when they stood in the way of their radical theories. Southern Christians believed that it would be mad to throw away the Bible, the shield of slavery, to embrace a doubtful theory that would alienate religious sentiment around the world. A reviewer in the Southern Quarterly Review contended that the Bible remained “an immovable basis of truth” and embracing the new ethnology would allow enemies the moral advantage of representing “we hold our slaves only as a higher race of Ourangs” outside the precepts of Christian morality. The reviewer sadly concluded that the infidel science was “not only a new thing under the sun, but a strange and portentous anomaly in the progress of human experience.”
[…] Southern Christians viewed the ethnologists’ reinterpretation of the origin and nature of humanity as a fundamental threat. They vigorously contended that the unity of the races was interwoven throughout the Bible. The editor of the Presbyterian Richmond Watchman and Observer maintained, “The unity of the human race is the cornerstone of the edifice, and if that were removed, the whole fabrick of revelation would be worthless.” Opponents of the new ethnology repeatedly quoted Acts 17:26, where Saint Paul proclaimed in Athens that “God hath made of one blood all the nations which dwell upon the earth.” Southern denominational newspapers quoted Saint Paul again and again to defend the unity of the races. Richmond’s The Religious Herald complained, “If we accept that God ‘hath made of one blood all nations of men,’ we are told that this is a question of science and we must abandon it to the philosopher.” Christians also often cited Genesis 3:20, proclaiming Eve as “the mother of all living.” Southern Christians explicitly linked a defense of the unity of all humanity to the veracity of the Bible.
They believed that by relentlessly undermining the Bible, the ethnologists were also weakening the strongest defense of slavery.”
Many Christians in the South certainly were staunch defenders of orthodoxy, however, there was a much larger-than-acceptable faction that did not stand up for what was right in the way that they should have, alongside a small but vocal minority of those who did not care much for Christianity that paved the way for all kinds of evil, as described by the same article:
“A few scholars depart from the prevailing consensus and maintain that polygenesis played a major role in Southern thought. George Frederickson, in his seminal The Black Image in the White Mind, notes that the controversial Josiah Nott “was hardly a martyr to scientific truth,” suffering no personal harassment, but instead enjoyed widespread support. Nott’s biographer, Reginald Horsman, claims that “in spite of his anti-clericalism, he was deeply admired by the society in which he lived.” Nott wrote to his friend and fellow ethnologist Ephraim George Squier that despite his “infidelity” he enjoyed a thriving medical practice, claiming that he was the favorite of the local clergy. Nott freely admitted his ambition to “kick up a dam’d fuss generally” and gain renown. He maintained that “the great mass of the people of the South at least have sustained me & if I have done no other good, I have been at least been [sic] a successful agitator.”
The popularity of an “infidel” theory in a strongly orthodox South raises some interesting questions. Clement Eaton contended that by the late antebellum era, the vigorous freedom of debate evident in Jefferson’s generation had been crushed by a proslavery consensus. Yet, within a broad acceptance of slavery, Southern ethnologists could attack sacred religious dogmas, viciously slander leading clergymen, challenge accepted truths in science, and undermine established doctrines in moral philosophy. Within the “cotton curtain” an acrimonious debate raged over the nature of slavery, race, religion, and science. Southern ethnologists and clergymen argued over how to defend slavery. The controversy illustrated that it was safer in the Old South to be religiously heterodox than to be seen as weak on slavery.”
Jefferson Davis himself had apparently entertained polygenesis as evidenced in his statement in response to Senator Harlan in a fiery (and honestly, outright bonkers, for more reasons than one) senate debate on a bill that had to do with appropriating funds from the federal government for the education of black children in the District of Columbia on April 12th, 1860:
“Mr. Harlan: Do you then believe in the political and social equality of all individuals of the white race?
Mr. Davis: I will answer you, yes; the exact political equality of all white men who are citizens of the United States. That equality may be lost by the commission of crime; but white men, the descendants of the Adamic race, under our institutions, are born equal; and that is the effect of the Declaration of Independence.” (Emphasis mine)
White people being the “descendants of the Adamic race,” the implication was that black people were then not descendants of Adam. Earlier in the discourse between Senator Harlan and Senator Davis, Davis makes this statement further clarifying his association with ideas of polygenesis:
“When Cain, for the commission of the first great crime, was driven from the face of Adam, no longer the fit associate of those who were created to exercise dominion over the earth, he found in the land of Nod those to whom his crime had degraded him to an equality; and when the low and vulgar son of Noah, who laughed at his father’s exposure, sunk by debasing himself and his lineage by a connection with an inferior race of men, he doomed his descendants to perpetual slavery. Noah spoke the decree, or prophecy, as gentlemen may choose to consider it, one or the other.”
It should be noted, however, that Davis was apparently not a firm believer in these ideas, or at least he did not connect these ideas deeply with his day to day life, as he conveyed in this statement shortly after his remarks about the political equality of white male citizens: “This is not a debating society. We are not here to deal in general theories, and mere speculative philosophy, but to treat subjects as political questions.”
Fortunately, when the theories of polygenesis came head to head with the practicalities of winning the war and defending his people, Davis chose his people. Unfortunately, however, there were other Confederates who dragged their feet, as Davis describes:
“General Lee was brought before a committee to state his opinion as to the probable efficiency of negroes as soldiers, and disappointed the probable expectation by his unqualified advocacy of the proposed measure.
After much discussion in Congress, a bill authorizing the President to ask for and accept from their owners such a number of able-bodied negro men as he might deem expedient subsequently passed the House, but was lost in the Senate by one vote. The Senators of Virginia opposed the measure so strongly that only legislative instruction could secure their support of it. Their Legislature did so instruct them, and they voted for it. Finally, the bill passed, with an amendment providing that not more than twenty-five per cent. of the male slaves between the ages of eighteen and forty-five should be called out. But the passage of the act had been so long delayed that the opportunity was lost. There did not remain time enough to obtain any result from its provisions.”
So if someone asks why the Confederacy fell, instead of answering “slavery,” you can answer “polygenesis.”