Archive for October, 2012

Slavery: tough on white Americans

Posted on October 30, 2012. Filed under: Civil War, Historians, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 5 of our series on Michael Woods’ article  “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature”, in the latest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians). Here we look at ways today’s historians are approaching the convoluted politics of race and slavery in the U.S. before the Civil War, and the insights into the many reasons why white antislaveryites opposed slavery—many of which were about protecting their own interests.

How was slavery a threat to white Americans, as they saw it? Here are the bullets:

  • Slavery as a threat to white jobs: Remember our distinction between abolitionists, who believed slavery was a moral wrong, and antislaveryites, whose problem with slavery was that it took jobs from white Americans and threatened our democratic political system. Antislaveryites did not want slave labor spreading through the country, taking jobs away from the white laboring classes and giving a fractional minority of white slaveholders far more power than they were due in Washington. This takes us to point 2—
  • Slavery as a threat to republicanism: If a handful of plutocrat southern slaveholders controlled most of the U.S. economy through the labor of their enslaved people, they would become “too big to fail” in Congress, and their demands would dictate U.S. policy. This was a threat to republican liberty that was not fantasy, as the south, though the smaller section, lost very few battles in Washington, and often had the federal government bending over backward to placate it. So slavery was a threat to the poor white worker and the white nation as a whole. Sectional conflicts like Bleeding Kansas can be read as “a struggle to secure the political liberties of whites” —the whites who voted to make Kansas a free state, who were threatened literally and figuratively by proslaveryites who killed settlers and overrode the antislavery constitution of the territory to present their proslavery constitution to the proslavery president James Buchanan, who accepted it. [Woods 432]
  • Slavery as a threat to white liberty: the 1854 Fugitive Slave Law was only the boldest and latest move of the slave power to not only steal liberty from enslaved people who escaped to freedom, but to encroach on white liberty itself. Whites were forced by the law to help slavecatchers, they were fined and jailed for failing to do so, or for helping an escapee, and whites were forced to live with the rescinding of the personal liberty laws they had voted for on a state level. If the Fugitive Slave Law was all about black slaves, why was it fining, jailing, and threatening free whites? Why did it seem to focus on attacking the liberties of northern white citizens as much as it did on preventing black Americans from gaining liberty? It was just another example of the slave power perverting democracy and threatening free government.
  • Slavery as a perverting force on white nature: northerners who read about the inhuman abuses slaveholders inflicted on black Americans, and read proslavery politicians’ own forceful defenses of violence against the enslaved, and read about or saw for themselves the aristocratic lifestyle of major slaveholders, were disgusted at what slaveholding seemed to do to white nature. Slaveholders were not tough, hardworking, honest men, as whites were supposed to be, but lazy and corrupted by power, living lives of ease that made them effeminate and shallow. Slavery had led to the development of a chivalric code that emphasized violence in defense of one’s honor, but no exertions of body or spirit in any other direction. And, as we’ve seen, slaveholding had led wealthy slaveholders to pervert American democracy itself to protect and extend their twisted way of life. Antislavery emotion in the north often called on its followers to counter this perversion of whiteness, and the free soil, free labor ideology (of free, honest, hardworking, muscular farmers) was a direct counterpart to the depraved planter.
  • Slavery as a wedge into the white race: this is directly related to the point above. Rich white slaveholders had long prevented poor southern whites from rising up against their oligarchy by focusing on race instead of class. Don’t focus on how unequal you are to us in every respect, they told poor whites; focus on how superior we all are to blacks. Even the poorest, least educated white man is better than a black man. Focusing the poor white majority on racial solidarity rather than class inequality preserved the unequal social and political system in the south and shored up slavery. Since the vast majority of white southerners did not hold slaves, and had nothing in common with slaveholders, how was it that they were willing to fight a war for slavery? This question has been asked by Confederate apologists for over a century, and had a featured role in Ken Burns’ The Civil War. The answer, that poor white southerners wouldn’t have fought to defend slavery, is used to “prove” the point that the war was not fought over slavery and that southerners were fighting for states’ rights. But the real answer is that poor whites fought the war for many reasons, but one was because rich whites asked them to, and fought alongside them, in a living illustration of the bond of race. Poor southerners, like any human beings, were not about to allow “foreigners” from the north invade their homes and farms without raising a finger to stop them simply because those poor southerners didn’t hold slaves. Poor southerners fought to protect their lands and families. But during and especially after the war, rich southerners put a gloss on that that made the war about whites joining together to fight for white superiority. The horrid backlash against southern blacks after the war sprang in large part from poor whites’ fury at having their racial superiority taken from them, and to prevent blacks from achieving true equality with them. So the white racial “bonding” over slavery was seen by northern whites as another perversion of white identity brought on by slaveholders.

We see from this survey one of the main points of recent scholarship: bringing slavery back to its central role in provoking the Civil War. In the latter part of the 20th century, slavery was de-emphasized as a cause of war, in part because studies focusing on northern racism came to the fore at that time, and the logic ran that if everyone was racist then slavery couldn’t have started the war. This point of view had been popular with southerners since 1865, as they went about the business of recasting the war as a noble fight for states’ rights that had nothing to do with slavery. It caught on with a new generation of non-white scholars who felt white historians gave the north too much credit in saying it fought the war over slavery. This was a necessary correction to the super-noble representation of northern feeling popular in the north since 1863. But as research continues, we begin to see a more complete and complex picture of the truth: slavery was the only issue leading to war, but not just because of its immorality—as Woods points out, “Some forty years ago, Larry Gara urged historians to make a ‘crucial distinction’ between self-interested opposition to slaveholder power and moral opposition to slavery as an oppressive institution.” [Woods 431] But whether you were against slavery because it was cruel or because you felt it robbed you of a job, slavery was your issue going into the war, and, as Woods points out, few people were so black-and-white about the issue. People felt a range of sometimes contradictory emotions about slavery, and those feeling grew and changed during the war. Recognizing human complexity in any field is crucial to truly understanding it.

Next time: still fighting over slavery

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Northern Sectionalism before the Civil War

Posted on October 18, 2012. Filed under: Civil War, Historians, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

In part 4 of our look at trends in 21st-century Civil War scholarship, we look at the new attention being paid to northern sectionalism. This post, like the others in this series, are informed by Michael Woods’ very interesting article in the lastest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians) called “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature.”

We tend to learn that in the years before the Civil War, the south became increasingly divided from the rest of the nation, and that southern sectionalism was basically defined by proslavery politics and devotion to a chivalric social ideal and an agrarian economy. This is presented in contrast to the north, which was simply the United States as it had always been, unchanged before the war, unchanging during the war, and triumphantly reimposed on the south after the war. “The North” and “the Union” are used interchangeably by most texts.

But recent scholarship has focused on the north’s own sectionalism—its departure from traditional United States ideas and practices, which was prompted in large part by and was a reaction to southern sectionalism. As the south defined itself as a region, so the north began to define itself as a region, one that was morally and economically superior to the south [Woods 427]

Here are some facets of northern sectionalism:

Free labor, free soil sentiment: As the south pressed a proslavery agenda, the north began to develop a free labor agenda. Neither agenda was original to the founding of the U.S. or its politics and economy until the rise of sectionalism. The U.S. was founded on a mix of free and slave labor. But the north responded to southern proslavery by developing a cult around free labor—the image of the independent, strong, self-sufficient yeoman laborer, be he farmer or industrial worker, who supports his family by the honest labor of his body. Free labor, the north opined, was wholesome and manly, and invigorated the entire nation. This went beyond opposing slavery; many people who opposed slavery did not buy into this romanticized vision of labor, realizing that factory workers had little control over their wages, worked in unsafe conditions for far too many hours, and were actually made up of women and children as well as men. They also knew that farming did not always repay honest labor, being at the mercy of the weather, and, later, railroad shipping costs. But the romance of free labor was a defining feature of northern sectionalism, opposed as it was to slave labor, of course, but also to lazy, weak, effeminate slaveholders who profited from the labor of others.

Manufacturing: The U.S. was not founded on manufacturing. Like all nations at that time, its economy was predominately agricultural. But in the decades leading up to the Civil War, the north identified itself as a manufacturing economy—a modern, exciting, powerful economy of the future that provided a living for unskilled workers and uneducated immigrants and grew the wealth of society as a whole. Again, the reality of dangerous working conditions, exploitive hours, women and child laborers, and no rights for workers was overlooked by those pushing manufacturing as modern and uniquely northern. Southerners who argued that factory workers were basically slaves were ignored.

Disunionism: Like the south, the north had populations calling for civil war. Radical abolitionists declared that the United States was founded on the sin of slavery and could not be salvaged. It would have to be destroyed, and a new nation started from scratch. Like radical proslaveryites in the south, these northerners believed it was their region alone that could do this important work.

Recasting patriotism in its own image: Southern proslaveryites used U.S. founding documents, the Revolution, and hero-Founders like Jefferson to support their proslavery position, using all three to find quotes that supported their position. Thus proslavery southerners could claim to be the real Americans, fighting malevolent attempts to pervert the Constitution by ending slavery. This we learn early and often. But the north followed the same path, using the same three sources to prove that they were the real Americans. Antislavery northerners crafted a position that balancing slave with free states, and not extending slavery into the west, was the dream and purpose of the founders. Abolitionist northerners said that the War was meant to end slavery forever. Free labor northerners claimed that the south was perverting the principles of the nation by tying the economy to old-fashioned, agriculatural labor and halting the Manifest-Destiny possessing of the west. Whichever group you belonged to, you as a citizen of the northern section were the real American.

Woods sums this up well: “Together, recent studies of northern sectionalism and southern nationalism make a compelling case for why the Civil War broke out when it did. If the South was always a separatist minority, and if the North always defended the American way, secession might well have come long before 1861. It is more helpful to view the sectional conflict as one between equally authentic (not morally equivalent) strands of American nationalism grappling for the power to govern the entire country according to sectionally specific values.” [430]

Next time: slavery hurt white people the most   ?

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The Peculiar Institution of Disunion

Posted on October 12, 2012. Filed under: Civil War, Politics, What History is For | Tags: |

Wlecome to part 3 of our perusal of Michael Woods’ very interesting article in the latest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians) called “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature.” Here we’re looking at how the depiction of disunion changed in the 1850s.

In earlier decades, going right back to 1787, any mention of disunion—of breaking up the United States through the secession of any of its member states—provoked real dismay and even horror. It was the threat of last resort, and anyone talking about breaking up the Union was reproached vehemently for even invoking the spectre of civil war. All sides of the slavery debate, from antislaveryites to aboilitionists to prosleveryites, lambasted any opponent who threatened disunion or accused that side of provoking it. Now, proslaveryites in the south often threatened disunion all the same, saying that northern states or the federal government were trying to kill slavery and thus invalidate the Consitution, and that they would rather leave the Union than remain in an adulterated, ruined version of the nation. Disunion here was still threatened as the ultimate evil, and those claiming they might be forced to leave the Union wasted no adjectives in describing the bloodshed and miscegenation that would follow if disunion were forced on the nation. So even as some southerners threatened disunion, they still painted it as an evil they would never willingly embrace, and predicted dire, dire consequences for all Americans if it ever came to pass.

But by 1850, the language began to change, and proslavery radicals began to shift southern public perception of secession and disunion. To set the stage, remember that Southerners immediately after the Revolution, when attacked for their hypocrisy in enslaving people after they had fought for a free republic, had made the case that of course slavery was evil but there was no way to get rid of it right away—it was a regrettable evil that had to be endured until it died away. But in the early decades of the 1800s, slaveholders began to shift that argument, gradually introducing the idea that slavery was not actually evil in nature, because it provided food and shelter and loving care to inferior peoples who could not function in educated society. It also kept those inferior peoples from making trouble in society. Slavery, over a few decades, changed from an unavoidable evil to a positive good. Slavery, from this new angle, was a terrific benefit to the enslaved that also encouraged slaveholders to be kind and loving protectors of the enslaved.

The same odious logic was now turned on disunion. Over the 1850s, secession was transformed by radicals from the worst nightmare that could befall the nation to a positive good. Disunion would preserve the slavery enabling Constitution. Disunion would create a new,  slaveholding American nation that lived up to the principles of the Founders completely. Disunion would leave the antislavery, abolitionist north a weak, isolated half-nation dangling over the abyss of worldwide scorn and shame—and economic collapse. Disunion would protect white southern homes, families, women, children, and race purity. Disunion, eventually, became one’s civic duty as a southerner/real American. Destroying the Union meant destroying the ties that bound the south to scheming, unAmerican northerners.

By the presidential election of 1860, much of the Deep South’s political leadership was ready for secession should necessity (Lincoln’s election) call for it, and the Upper South would be fairly easily persuadable by spring 1861. While most southern citizens did not want civil war, they too would be convinced that there was no alternative for the patriotic southerner.

Northerners up to the last moment before the war rolled their eyes in disgust at southern “bluffing” on secession. They still believed the south would never try to leave the Union, and used the old reproaches against disunion talk as the ultimate evil right up to First Bull Run. But they were no longer reaching their audience. This disconnect was the result, in part, of northern sectionalism, a phenomenon not often fully appreciated by Americans today, and the focus of our next post.

Next time: the North was a section, too

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The coming of the Civil War: how disunion evolved over the decades

Posted on October 3, 2012. Filed under: Civil War, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

Welcome to part 2 of our perusal of Michael Woods’ very interesting article in the lastest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians) called “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature.” Here we look at Elizabeth Varon’s book Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 and her persusasive argument that cries of disunion evolved in interesting ways between 1789 and 1860.

Disunion, just to be clear, refers to states leaving the United States and, therefore, breaking up the Union. Disunion was a cry heard constantly in the decades in question in the U.S., and was synonymous with civil war.

We should also describe the sides that participated in disunion language. We tend to think there were people for slavery and people who wanted slavery to be abolished, but there were more sides than that. There were proslavery Americans who wanted slavery to remain protected by the Constitution; these split into some who thought slavery should not extend into the west (because this provoked antislavery protests) and those who thought it should. Then there were antislavery Americans who did not support abolishing slavery—slavery could still exist in the U.S.—they just wanted to keep it hemmed in in the southern states where it already existed and keep it out of the west. Antislavery people differed from proslavery Americans in that they did not claim that slavery was a terrific benefit for the enslaved and a mandate from God, as proslavery Americans did. Antislavery Americans would have liked to see slavery disappear but did not want the newly freed black Americans to stay in the country, and since there seemed to be no way to get rid of them all, were content to live with the status quo (which meant stopping the westward expansion of slavery).

Abolitionists wanted to get rid of slavery. They divided into immediatists, who wanted slavery ended immediately, by any means necessary, no matter what, and gradualists who wanted to wait until a good plan to deal with newly freed people could be agreed upon by all. Gradualists would have been happy with a state-by-state progress of states deciding to abolish slavery in their own good time. Immediatists would not accept this, and embraced charges that they would bring about a race war or, even worse in the eyes of proslavery supporters, interracial marriage by immediately freeing black Americans.

In her book Varon describes how each group described disunion over time as, variously,

—a prophecy: proslavery Americans predicted that antislaveryites and abolitionists were bringing about disunion with their attacks on slavery, while antislaveryites foresaw a future where proslaveryites had caused disunion. Prophecy disunion prevailed mostly in the early part of our 1789-1860 time period, when real civil war seemed very unlikely, and was referred to as part of a distant, dystopian future that could never come to pass.

—a threat: proslaveryites were constantly threatening to secede from the Union in response to perceived “attacks” on slavery. If the Constitution was going to be trampled, they said, then there was no valid Union to support. Antislavery Americans swung between fear at these threats and bored eye-rolling at the states who cried secession once too often. On the other hand, immediatist abolitionists in the 1830s began to make their own threats of disunion, saying that any Union that protected slavery was no Union and should be immediately destroyed and a new nation brought forth in true freedom. Angry accusations that they would bring about civil war were happily accepted by these immediatists. Threat disunion came on the scene in the 1820s with the Nullification Crisis and picked up steam after the Mexican Cession in 1848, which brought huge western lands under U.S. control and made the question of spreading slavery into the west the hottest issue of the day. Immediatists threatened disunion if slavery did go west, proslaveryites threatened it if slavery did not go west.

—an accusation: Each of the three sides accused the others of bringing about disunion with their radical talk or stubborn ways. Sometimes the accusation was that one side was unknowingly provoking disunion, sometimes that a side was deliberately and premeditatedly weakening the nation. Accusation, like threat language, picked up after the Mexican Cession as Americans battled fiercely to make the new western states slave or free, and John C. Calhoun’s “Southern Address” is a good example of this language.

—a process: Americans recognized that slavery was an issue carving out factions in the nation, and making the divide of regional sectionism more and more impassable. Whether they supported slavery or wanted it limited or abolished, all Americans saw that the process of debating slavery was creating a deadly us v. them mentality that could only lead to civil war. The process of arguing about slavery had made disunion nearly inevitable, and this was the feeling from the Cession on. Republican Senator William Seward’s “irrespressible conflict” speech is a classic example of process disunion language.

—a program: This was for those Americans, of all sides, who saw the wheels of disunion already in motion because of the evil actions of the other sides. Those who began to favor disunion (the immediatists and proslaveryites) promoted disunion processes as necessary and ultimately for the greater good of the new nation that would be formed once the old Union was torn apart. Program talk was also more common after the Cession and especially in the 1850s.

Next we’ll look at the ways the proslavery stance and its language changed over these decades.

Next time: from unavoidable evil to positive good

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Disunion: the battle over slavery before the Civil War

Posted on October 1, 2012. Filed under: Civil War, Historians |

There’s a great article by Michael Woods in the lastest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians) called “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature.” It is, as it says, a review of current scholarship on disunion and why it happened—why the southern states seceded in 1860-1. We’ll parse what’s in here over a few posts, because this is a topic of evergreen interest to all Americans. All of the quotes in this short series are from Woods’ article (it’s only available online if you’re a member of the OAH so we can’t link you to it).

As Woods says, most scholars agree that slavery caused secession and war, but, as Elizabeth Varon says, “there is still much to be said about why slavery proved so divisive and why sectional compromise ultimately proved elusive.” (Varon’s own book Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 is a valuable read that proves definitively that from ratification of the Constitution to the eve of war there was never a time that slavery was not a difficult, divisive, fiery issue that required constant mediation and provoked constant threats and accusations of disunion.) 

The first trend in scholarship since 2000 has been to extend the period under discussion—“antebellum” can now begin in 1789, 1776, or with the arrival of the first slave ship in Virginia in 1619—and to relate the U.S. experience with slavery and war to those of its neighbors: emancipation in the British West Indies, most particularly Haiti’s revolution (1791-1804) impacted the terms of the slavery debate in the U.S. We usually learn that division over slavery did not really begin in the U.S. until the 1850s, after the Mexican War gave us all that new territory in the west to create as free or slave states, but by the 1850s the nation was already well-seasoned in sectional debate, threats of disunion, an attempt at secession by South Carolina, and a major compromise over slavery (the Missouri Compromise of 1820). As Matthew Mason points out, “there was never a time between the Revolution and the Civil War in which slavery went unchallenged.” The Compromise of 1820 was bitterly fought because, as John Craig Hammond points out, “[of the slavery dispute’s] contentious prehistory, not from its novelty.”

Taking this long view of the slavery debate helps us to see that debate as its contemporaries did; Americans who argued antislavy, abolition, or proslavery knew that they were taking up well-established lines of argument and they knew well what had been said and done before them. Both sides, North and South, blamed each other for causing the war with their activism for or against slavery since the Revolution, since the first Congress, since ratification of the Constitution. And they were right.

In our next post we’ll examine the ways the term “disunion” was used over this long time period—the four-score and six years between the Revolution and the outbreak of the war—by the many different sides involved in the slavery debate.

Next time: disunion as prophecy, threat, accusation, and process

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