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.