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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Consequences of the Mexican War

Posted on January 25, 2011. Filed under: American history | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Part the last of our series on interesting facets of the Mexican War concludes with the 1848 peace Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which gave the United States full ownership of Texas, with its western border at the Rio Grande, and the modern States of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, almost all of Arizona, Colorado, and part of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming (the rest of Arizona and New Mexico would be acquired through the 1853 Gadsden Purchase). In return, Mexico received a little over $18 million in compensation and forgiveness of $3.25 million owed by Mexico to the U.S.

Immense as the territories ceded by Mexico were, there were a number of U.S. Senators who urged Congress to take advantage of Mexico’s internal political chaos and force it to also give up its states of Nuevo León, Coahuila, and Tamaulipas, in today’s northeastern Mexico. This would have extended the U.S. hundreds of miles beyond Texas’ current southern border. Partly because there was growing opposition to the war in the U.S. (Illinois Rep. Abraham Lincoln was opposed), and partly because the parts of Mexico that the U.S. had so long desired, particularly California, were already handed over, Congress declined to pursue the war any longer, and this plan was dropped.

The Mexican Cession was at once a great acquisition for the U.S. and the end of the U.S. as it had been. The new lands made the slavery debate impossible to resolve through political compromise. The 1820 Missouri Compromise would have allowed slavery in New Mexico, Arizona, and the southern half of California, but not in Colorado, Utah, Kansas, or Wyoming. But anti-slavery Americans were not about to let California, the greatest prize of them all, the one that held out the most promise to small farmers and free labor, become a slave state (since a state could not be half-free, half-slave, California ran the risk of becoming a full slave state). Pro-slavery Americans knew that New Mexico and Arizona were not lands that lent themselves to plantation farming, and determined more fiercely than ever to have California, and the farmland that would become Kansas, too.

Free-Soil, free-labor, anti-slavery, and abolitionist Americans said now was the time to contain slavery altogether—to see the new territories not in the context of the north-south line of the Missouri Compromise, but as The West, a new entity that was not bound by the north-south politics or agreements of the eastern states. Keep slavery out of The West, they said, and keep it contained in the southern states until slave states were so outnumbered by free states, and slavery such an anomaly in the country, that slavery itself would die out.

Pro-slavery Americans had been ready for this fight for years. The nation had expanded along the Missouri Compromise line for nearly 30 years, it was the law of the land, there was no reason to change it, and any anti-slavery agitation in The West would be illegal, and punishable by law.

The problems the Mexican Cession caused would have to be quickly hammered out in the Compromise of 1850, a five-part piece of legislation that tried to create true compromise between anti- and pro-slavery Americans, not along purely geographical lines, but more philosophically. Slavery was not banned in the West (1), but California would enter the Union as a free state, end of story (2). Each of the remaining  western territories that wanted to become a state would decide on its own whether to come in as slave or free: popular sovereignty let the people in the territory vote on their status before applying for statehood (3). The Fugitive Slave Act was introduced, which allowed slaveholders to violate the personal liberty laws in free states (4), and slavery would remain a feature in the capital, Washington, DC (5).

This Compromise would be short-lived. As settlers poured into all regions of the Cession, the stakes became higher and higher on both sides of the slavery issue. Pro-slavery Americans needed numbers; they couldn’t allow slavery to be restricted to the existing southern states or their needs would never be met in Congress, where free-state Representatives and Senators would far outnumber slave. Anti-slavery Americans also needed numbers, to reduce slavery to a regional curiosity of a small number of states, rendered economically useless. The battles over how western states would come into the Union led to vote-rigging, where people from outside a territory would pour in when it came time to vote slave or free, making a mockery of the concept of popular sovereignty. The violence that ensued in these situations was made legendary in Bloody Kansas.

In short, the Mexican War was most important both for expanding the U.S. and for hastening the coming of the Civil War. Both events made the nation greater, one geographically, one morally. It was a dress-rehearsal for the Civil War in that so many men who fought together in the Mexican War fought against each other in the Civil War, including both Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee. And it nearly completed the U.S. conquest of the continent between Canada and what was left of Mexico (the last bits settled in the Gadsden Purchase). The discovery of gold in California the year after the war ended spurred not only Californian settlement but the western rush of pioneers that dominated American demographics until the end of the 19th century. It also left the United States as the undisputed great power of the western hemisphere—a great deal of impact for a war that is often skipped over as students of U.S. history move from the Revolutionary War directly to the Civil War.

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