God, plunder and peerage of white man: Why most southerners supported slavery

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 7, 2001

What do historians of the Civil War era say about the reasons for secession, for the formation of the Confederacy, and for the war itself? First, I’ll define my terms.

For my purposes, by &uot;historians&uot; I do not mean weekend amateurs, or the hack purveyors of &uot;pop&uot; history suitable for glossy magazines and TV, or those who make an avocation of &uot;not seeing the forest for the trees&uot; — the nearsighted antiquarians who sit in awe of epaulets. I do not even mean instructors of outrageously broad, freshman/sophomore level survey classes in American civilization at community colleges.

I mean actual, professional, university scholars who have spent most of a lifetime poring over the primary sources specific to the Civil War era, and then publishing their findings for peer (and public) review in the mainstream academic press.

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Of course, we’ve got to remember that scholarly types aren’t perfectly objective either, certainly aren’t infallible, and are of a species perhaps more prone to internal squabbling than any other. Scholars like to disagree in fact; in graduate seminars they are bred for intellectual combat as surely as a pit bull is bred to go for the jugular.

But that reality just makes it all the more remarkable that on the subject of the origins of the Confederacy and the Civil War, a clear consensus opinion has developed among the overwhelming majority of these scholars over the course of the last 60 years — with that majority including scholars southern as well as northern, American and non-American. On this point, the evidence is so compelling, the analyses are so thoroughly reasoned through, and the consent among historians is so nearly universal, that even 30 years ago, in the leading scholarly historical journal in the US, Philip Paludan could assert without fear of contradiction, &uot;We know with some precision why the South seceded.&uot;

With a degree of conviction rare among professorial sorts, Bertram Wyatt-Brown said of this consensus, &uot;at a time when scholars agree about very little, it would be perverse to cast doubt on so acceptable a proposition.&uot; And so, with passions hopefully cast aside, but with citations front and center, let’s consider that precise and acceptable interpretation — what do the academicians say as to why the Confederacy came to be, and therefore, what heritage (and/or hate) its battle banner represented?

Allowing that the Civil War, like any major human event, had multiple causes, we still want if possible to get at the core reason for secession and armed conflict, the one reason that explains all the other reasons. Southern men spoke of fighting for &uot;honor.&uot; They swore an affinity for &uot;states-rights.&uot; They demanded the right of &uot;self-determination.&uot; But these claims only beg the question — how had their honor been offended? What rights of states were threatened, and why? In a land where southern men had the suffrage, just what was it that they were no longer able to determine for themselves? Was there an underlying dispute which would explain the offense to Southern honor, the threat to Southern rights, and the loss of self-determination? The scholarly judgment is, yes. That dispute was over slavery.

These other issues always &uot;seemed to be rationalizations for the root issue — a rising emotionalism growing out of slavery.&uot; (John Ray Skates, Mississippi: A History, Norton, 1979, p. 102 — Skates was born in Mississippi, educated at Ole Miss and MSU, taught at MUW, and became Chairman of the History Department at USM) Lincoln’s election [in 1860] was a threat to &uot;the survival of slavery, the foundation of the Southern way of life.&uot; (Philip Paludan, &uot;The American Civil War as a Crisis in Law and Order,&uot; Am Historical Review, LXXVII, 1972) A threat that could not be ignored, since &uot;evidence for the centrality of slavery in southern political thought and action is ubiquitous.&uot; (Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Yankee Saints and Southern Sinners, LSU Press, 1985, p. 183 — the author is a professor at the University of Florida).

Charles Reagan Wilson, a native of Texas and now Director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss, concluded, &uot;White southerners did not simply justify the war as a crusade for slavery. Nonetheless, there is no escaping the racial dimension of a war fought by a slave society; the conflict was a logical culmination of the proslavery argument.&uot; (Charles Reagan Wilson, &uot;History and Manners,&uot; Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Charles Reagan Wilson & William Ferris, eds., University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1989, pp.587-88)

I will refrain from shouting, &uot;I told you so,&uot; because I know the argument has only just begun. Based on the scarcity of slaveholders in the South, and of abolitionists in the North, many of you have probably concluded that the pointy-headed historians, despite their common consensus, need a dose of common sense. You are asking, how could an institution benefiting only a minority of southerners have been so &uot;central&uot; to its thought and action?

And then, how could the non-abolitionist, racist North generally, and Lincoln’s election specifically have posed a &uot;threat&uot; to slavery? And finally, how could an argument between at most a northern abolitionist minority and a southern slaveholder minority have been the core of the dispute between the entire North and the entire South, and so vital a dispute as to cause the deadliest war in American history?

Well, despite these seeming contradictions, over the course of this discourse, I will hazard to demonstrate that the pointy-heads are right. The key to reconciling these facts with most historians’ interpretations is to avoid the pitfall of oversimplifying slavery’s importance in the US. As to the benefits of the institution, most think only in terms of economic gain accruing to slave owners. And as to the institution’s critics, most think only in terms of the moral objections of the outright abolitionists. First, we must acknowledge that these two minority’s had influence in their respective regions all out of proportion to their size.

But more, to understand slavery’s role in bringing on secession and war, we have to look beyond the slaveholders’ interests to grasp why most southerners really did view slavery as the &uot;cornerstone&uot; of their way of life, and beyond the abolitionists’ humanitarian concerns to grasp why most northerners viewed it as problematic at best.

For the South, looking beyond the slaveholders’ interests focuses our attention on the crux of the matter — the assumption that if most white southerners owned no slaves, then most white southerners didn’t care much about the institution’s preservation, certainly not enough to shed their blood in its defense. Quite simply, wrong. Of all the points to be made about the causal connection between slavery and the Civil War, this is probably the most salient — &uot;White racism brought a shared racial solidarity between the wealthy planters and the yeoman farmers. The commitment of the South was to both slavery and democracy.

The region’s political rhetoric said that all white men were created equal with inalienable rights, which depended, though, on black subjugation&uot; (Wilson, &uot;History and Manners,&uot; Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, p. 588). &uot;The doctrine of the inherent superiority of whites over Negroesserved to rationalize slavery and also to unite slaveholders and nonslaveholders in defense of the institution as a system, primarily, of racial subordination&uot; (David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861, Harper & Row, 1976, p. 458).

And, by 1860, secession was believed to be necessary to defend slavery. &uot;Disunion sentiment was strongest in [the areas] containing a large slave population, but the fear of all classes that Republican rule would destroy the control of whites over the Negroes, or the maintenance of white supremacy, was the dominant motive behind secession&uot; (Clement Eaton, A History of the Southern Confederacy, Macmillan, 1954, p. 7). Eaton is here speaking of South Carolina specifically, but for the South as a whole, William Barney also observed, &uot;Secessiongenerally received its strongest support from those areas with the heaviest concentrations of slaves&uot; (William L. Barney, &uot;Secession,&uot; in Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, p. 1195).

It is the dirty little &uot;open&uot; secret of our past — historically, this has been a profoundly racist country, north, east and west, as well as south, with peoples of a variety of hues, not just blacks, being affected. But regarding the South, it is crucial to understand that its system of slavery (a racially based slavery) was not simply a means to supply the planter minority with labor; it was also, and probably more importantly, the means by which the southern states maintained the system of white supremacy — the &uot;peerage of the white man&uot; — which benefited and was supported in varying degrees by even the non-slaveholding majority.

After all, if slavery were to be ended, the rich planter could sell his land and assets and therefore, possibly at least, retain his status, his &uot;superiority.&uot; But with the same scenario, the one and only barrier keeping blacks from sharing the status of poor whites would be eliminated, and so, the non-slaveholding whites would lose their one and only claim to status and &uot;superiority.&uot; In an economic sense, if abolition were to occur, the planter had more to lose. But in a social sense, it was the common man who felt most threatened.

No doubt, some readers are once more cursing the pointy-heads for daring to tread so roughly on their treasured sense of the white majority’s moral immunity on the issue of slavery. &uot;Well, MY people certainly didn’t own any slaves!&uot; I’ve heard from many a self-satisfied descendent of the yeomen plainfolk. Nevertheless, as with southerners’ openness in linking a defense of slavery and secession, likewise, they were very open about their racist reasons for wanting to defend slavery. Probably THE classic statement of this came from the Confederacy’s Vice President, Alexander Stephens of Georgia.

A noted moderate on the issue of secession before the war, he did not moderate his words as to the Confederacy’s reason for being. In a speech given in March, 1861, he stated, &uot;Our new government’s foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition&uot; (as quoted in Thomas, Confederate Nation, p. 10). Though the words are inconveniently blunt for out tastes today, we can only wish that all people spoke with the candor of the Confederacy’s Vice President.

But then, many southerners, and many Mississippians, did speak candidly of the racial justification for slavery in the years and months leading up to secession and war. The Mississippi Baptist was the official publication of the Baptist Church in the state. In November, 1860, its editor wrote &uot;We are the stern uncompromising friends of the slave and slavery. We believe the one is in the position for which God intended him, and the other we believe to be not only a divine permission but a divine appointment&uot; (as quoted in Percy Lee Rainwater, Mississippi Storm Center of Secession, De Capo Press reprint of original published by Otto Claitor, 1938, pp. 174-75 — Rainwater was a professor at Ole Miss).

Compared to these views, Jefferson Davis’ actions and opinions appear almost enlightened. He had the reputation of a &uot;kindly,&uot; and even progressive master. He believed that at least some blacks were capable of substantial &uot;uplift.&uot; However, while still a US Senator, as his biographer, Clement Eaton tells us, Davis had opposed a bill establishing schools for white and black children in the District of Columbia on the grounds that &uot;it would put white children and Negro children on terms of equality, and he maintained that the inferiority of Negroes was fixed by nature and by the law of God&uot; (Clement Eaton, Jefferson Davis, Free Press, 1977, pp. 39-42, 98).

But this confident conviction of &uot;divine right,&uot; was coupled with a deep seated apprehension about the consequences of emancipation, and one particularly acute for the non-slaveholder. To get a firmer grasp on why the common folk would abhor abolition, we can turn to the words of the US Senator from Mississippi, Albert Gallatin Brown. Brown was known as &uot;the poor man’s friend,&uot; and in an article published in the Jackson newspaper, The Mississippian, of October 10, 1860, he sought to buttress his poor friends in their support for slavery. He stated matter of factly that, &uot;slavery equalized white people,&uot; and that the economic well-being of the yeomen was inexorably bound to that of the planter elite.

But he went on to say that the preservation of enforced bondage was even more important to the non-slaveholding majority than to the large slaveholders. Because if abolition were to occur, he predicted, a literal hell on earth would be the result, but one which that elite would be able to escape due to its wealth. Average men would not, of course, be so fortunate. They would then be left to face, he warned in ominous tones, the true consequences of emancipation: &uot;millions of Negroesset at liberty to maraud, and plunder, and steal, The Negro will intrude into his [the nonslaveholder’s] presence — insist on being treated as an equal that his son shall marry the white man’s daughter, and the white man’s daughter his son. The nonslaveholder will of course, reject the terms. Then will commence a war of the races.&uot; (Rainwater, Storm Center of Secession, p. 145-48).

In light of Brown’s raising of the boogeyman of racial &uot;amalgamation,&uot; it is noteworthy that when slave rebellions did occur in the US, instances of black males &uot;violating&uot; white women were extraordinarily rare. On the roots of this belief it might be best to consult psychiatrists as well as historians, but the southern white fantasy of an unquenchable black lust for white women was one widely held, even if dangerously out of touch with reality.

Also, with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, we know that when abolition did come in the mid 1860’s, no race war ensued. That too turned out to be fantasy. Today, the whole idea seems a bit far-fetched. Therefore, it could be argued that the ravings of a proslavery, pro-secession &uot;fire-eater&uot; like Brown should be dismissed as mere demagoguery. But in 1835, the astute French observer of American culture, Alexis de Toqueville (who disliked slavery and thought its demise to be inevitable), also predicted that abolition would nevertheless lead &uot;blacks and whitesto open strife&uot; (Alexis de Toqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 1, Alfred A. Knopf, p. 375). James McPherson of Princeton found quite a few references to just such concerns in the diaries kept and letters written by the common soldiers of the Confederate armies (James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, Oxford, 1997, pp. 108-09). Brown was most assuredly a demagogue, a forefather to make Bilbo proud.

But while a demagogue plays on popular prejudices and fears, he rarely creates them. Make no mistake: these fears were genuine. Genuine enough even for the yeoman masses to justify the risk that secession from the Union entailed. And yes, to risk even a bloody war, since that war with the North to defend slavery, would be less devastating, more &uot;civilized,&uot; it was assumed, than the barbaric descent into rape and race war that was truly believed to be the alternative.

There can little doubt, the great mass of white southerners, from the po’ to the nabobs, some hotly, some coolly, supported the institution of slavery. But still unanswered is the question of why any southern supporters of slavery would have felt threatened by the supposedly racist, non-abolitionist North, and/or by the election of the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, in 1860. Tomorrow.

James Wiggins is a history instructor at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Natchez.