A while ago I took former SCV Virginia Division Commander Brag Bowling to task for his A House Divided essay, which repeated the hoary old trope that the Confederacy had been “forced” to open fire on Fort Sumter. Not surprisingly, he’s still pounding that particular drum. In response to a question about whether the South’s secession came about because of a small number of fire-eaters or was actually a movement with wide popularity, Bowling instead prefers to answer a different question that hadn’t been asked:
On December 20, 1860, South Carolina formally withdrew from the Union and was closely followed by Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas. Certainly an argument could be made that the fire eaters in those states did much to stir up secession sentiment. The “cotton states” seceded primarily for economic reasons and a fear that their economies would be disrupted by the ascension of Lincoln and the Republican Party to national governance.
This is arguably true, if by “economic reasons” Bowling means the perpetuation of the institution of slavery, and its expansion into the territories, the latter proposition which the Republican Party (i.e., the “Black Republicans”) had vowed to block.
But that’s not what Bowling is suggesting, of course. Is he correct, that those first several states secede because of generalized worries about tariffs and their economies? No, they didn’t; Southern political leaders were torqued about the possible loss of their property. More specifically, their property in slaves. How can we know this? Because they effing told us.
For the umpteenth time, South Carolina:
The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.
We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.
For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the *forms* [emphasis in the original] of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.
In the formation of the government of our fathers, the Constitution of 1787, the institution of domestic slavery is recognized and the right of property in slaves is expressly guaranteed. The people of a portion of the States who were parties in the government were early opposed to the institution. The feeling of opposition to it has been cherished and fostered and inflamed until it has taken possession of the public mind at the North to such an extent that it overwhelms every other influence. It has seized the political power, and now threatens annihilation to slavery throughout the Union. At the South and with our people, of course, slavery is the element of all value, and a destruction of that destroys all that is property. This party, now soon to take possession of the powers of government, is sectional, irresponsible to us, and, driven on by an infuriated, fanatical madness that defies all opposition, must inevitably destroy every vestige of right growing out of property in slaves.
The North demanded the application of the principle of prohibition of slavery to all of the territory acquired from Mexico and all other parts of the public domain then and in all future time. It was the announcement of her purpose to appropriate to herself all the public domain then owned and thereafter to be acquired by the United States. The claim itself was less arrogant and insulting than the reason with which she supported it. That reason was her fixed purpose to limit, restrain, and finally abolish slavery in the States where it exists. The South with great unanimity declared her purpose to resist the principle of prohibition to the last extremity. This particular question, in connection with a series of questions affecting the same subject, was finally disposed of by the defeat of prohibitory legislation.
The Presidential election of 1852 resulted in the total overthrow of the advocates of restriction and their party friends. Immediately after this result the anti-slavery portion of the defeated party resolved to unite all the elements in the North opposed to slavery an to stake their future political fortunes upon their hostility to slavery everywhere. This is the party two whom the people of the North have committed the Government. They raised their standard in 1856 and were barely defeated. They entered the Presidential contest again in 1860 and succeeded.
The prohibition of slavery in the Territories, hostility to it everywhere, the equality of the black and white races, disregard of all constitutional guarantees in its favor, were boldly proclaimed by its leaders and applauded by its followers.
With these principles on their banners and these utterances on their lips the majority of the people of the North demand that we shall receive them as our rulers.
The prohibition of slavery in the Territories is the cardinal principle of this organization.
Georgia goes on to argue that “because by [the Republicans'] declared principles and policy they have outlawed $3,000,000,000 of our property in the common territories of the Union.” The phrase, “$3,000,000,000 of our property” refers to slaves.
If pecuniary loss alone were involved in the abolition of slavery, I should hesitate long before I would give the vote I now intend to give. If the destruction of slavery entailed on us poverty alone, I could bear it, for I have seen poverty and felt its sting. But poverty, Mr. President, would be one of the least of the evils that would befall us from the abolition of African slavery. There are now in the slaveholding States over four millions of slaves; dissolve the relation of master and slave, and what, I ask, would become of that race? To remove them from amongst us is impossible. History gives us no account of the exodus of such a number of persons. We neither have a place to which to remove them, nor the means of such removal. They therefore must remain with us; and if the relation of master and slave be dissolved, and our slaves turned loose amongst us without restraint, they would either be destroyed by our own hands– the hands to which they look, and look with confidence, for protection– or we ourselves would become demoralized and degraded. The former result would take place, and we ourselves would become the executioners of our own slaves.
And my own state, Texas:
Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented [in 1845] to become one of the Confederated Union to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people. She was received into the confederacy with her own constitution, under the guarantee of the federal constitution and the compact of annexation, that she should enjoy these blessings. She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery– the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy. Those ties have been strengthened by association. But what has been the course of the government of the United States, and of the people and authorities of the non-slave-holding States, since our connection with them?
The controlling majority of the Federal Government, under various pretences and disguises, has so administered the same as to exclude the citizens of the Southern States, unless under odious and unconstitutional restrictions, from all the immense territory owned in common by all the States on the Pacific Ocean, for the avowed purpose of acquiring sufficient power in the common government to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slaveholding States.
These passages are not the writings of some politically-correct textbook author, or a liberal academic, or a South-hating blogger caught in the trap of “present-ism”; they’re not some modern historian’s opinion, or analysis, or interpretation. They’re the words written and spoken at the time, by the men who voted to take their respective states out of the Union. These are the words they themselves chose to explain and justify their actions, to their peers and to posterity. These words are explicitly how they wanted succeeding generations to understand their actions.
We should take them at their word.
Bowling, of course, continues to play his one-note tin whistle, again (and always) placing full and utter responsibility for the war on the sixteenth president, while admitting no missteps or bad faith on anyone in gray:
Lincoln had made his choice to fight. There had been no casualties at Ft. Sumter. Things might still have been worked out peacefully. One must wonder if Lincoln had met with the peace negotiators and tried to negotiate the contentious issues dividing the country such as slavery and tariffs rather than by using coercion and military force, that the ensuing fratricidal war might have been avoided. It must be noted that Lincoln was still willing to legally permit slavery to exist even several years into the war. The war rightfully should be laid at Lincoln’s feet. Lincoln’s premeditated bad choice set in motion a series of events which would lead to the death of 600,000 American citizens and the total devastation of the South for over 100 years.
An online friend of mine, JimmyD, summed up the secessionists’ situation nicely, saying “first they lost the election, then they lost their minds.” By April 1861 nothing other than complete capitulation on on the part of the Lincoln administration would have avoided a shooting war, and given the indignant lather the fire-eaters had worked the South into, it’s an open question whether even that would have sufficed. “Negotiation,” in those Confederates’ (and Bowling’s) view, meant “give us everything we want.”
A Northern cartoon c. 1862, mocking the terms on which the Confederate states might be persuaded to rejoin the Union. Jeff Davis (left), his coat pockets stuffed with pistols, chides Brother Jonathan, an early representation of the United States: “Well Jonathan, if you agree to bear all the expenses of the war, and on top of that let me impose on you the old burden of slavery, while I hold the chain and the whip, I’ll put up my weapons for a while and we’ll have the ‘Union as it was’ only a great deal more so.” Library of Congress.
Folks committed to the Southron Heritage™ movement are fond of pointing to things like Lincoln’s reluctant support of the Corwin Amendment to demonstrate the the new president was not, at that point, willing to commit to ending the institution of slavery; true enough. But they ignore that his support for that legislation is Exhibit A in his willingness even to go against his own, personal opposition to slavery to ensure what he saw at the time as a more important goal, to preserve the Union intact. That was the one line he would not cross, and the South knew it. As Lincoln himself would later recall, “both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.”
And the war came.
It’s slightly embarrassing to have to continually remind folks of these inconvenient truths; it’s far more embarrassing for the Washington Post, historically one of this country’s great newspapers, to give over electronic real estate to such revisionist foolishness.
A few days ago we posted on the writings of James D. B. DeBow, a publisher and essayist who brought his considerable talents to the denunciation of abolitionism, and the defense of slavery, in the years leading up to the war. In his December 1860 booklet The Interest in Slavery of the Southern Non-Slaveholder, DeBow argued that slavery was not only an economic necessity, but absolutely essential to maintaining an aristocracy of white men that must — always — be above those of African descent, regardless of their economic standing:
The non-slaveholder of the South preserves the status of the white man, and is not regarded as an inferior or a dependant. He is not told that the Declaration of Independence, when it says that all men are born free and equal, refers to the negro equally with himself. It is not proposed to him that the free negro’s vote shall weigh equally with bis own at the ballot-box, and that the little children of both colors shall be mixed in the classes and benches of the school-house, and embrace each other filially in its outside sports. . . . No white man at the South serves another as a body servant, to clean his boots, wait on his table, and perform the menial services of his household. His blood revolts against this, and his necessities never drive him to it. He is a companion and an equal. When in the employ of the slaveholder, or in intercourse with him, he enters his hall, and has a seat at his table. If a distinction exists, it is only that which education and refinement may give, and this is so courteously exhibited as scarcely to strike attention. The poor white laborer at the North is at the bottom of the social ladder, whilst his brother here has ascended several steps and can look down upon those who are beneath him, at an infinite remove.
DeBow was not the only Southern writer to make this argument. At the end of October 1860, South Carolina State Senator John Townsend (1799-1881, right) published a pamphlet, The Doom of Slavery in the Union – Its Safety Out of It. Along with DeBow’s booklet, The Doom of Slavery was one of the most popular secessionist tracts of the day. A few weeks after his pamphlet appeared, Townsend went on to sign of the South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession. Here, Townsend makes explicit that slavery is not just central to the perpetuation of social order in the South, but the maintenance of a uniquely Southern system of caste:
The Effects to the Non-Slaveh0lder.
We forbear to notice the effect of the abolition of slavery upon the Banks, Insurance Companies, Railroads, and all other corporations, depending upon a rich a and flourishing country for their own prosperity. But in noticing its effects upon the different classes and: interests in the South, we should not omit to notice its effects upon the non-slaveholding portion of our citizens.
Accompanied as that measure is to be, by reducing the two races to an equality—or, in other words, in elevating the negro slave to an equality with the white man—it will be to the non-slaveholder, equally with the largest slaveholder, the obliteration of caste and the deprivation of important privileges. The color of the white man is now, in the South, a title of nobility in his relations as to the negro; and although Cuffy or Sambo may be immensely his superior in wealth, may have his thousands deposited in bank, as some of them have, and may be the owner of many slaves, as some of them are, yet the poorest non-slaveholder, being a white man, is his superior in the eye of the law; may serve and command in the militia; may sit upon juries, to decide upon the rights of the wealthiest in the land ; may give his testimony in Court, and may cast his vote, equally with the largest slaveholder, in the choice of his rulers. In no country in the world does—the poor white man, whether slaveholder or non-slaveholder, occupy so enviable a position as in the slaveholding States of the South. His color here admits him to social and civil privileges, which the white man enjoys nowhere else. In countries where negro slavery does not exist, (as in the Northern States of this Union and in Europe,) the most menial and degrading employments in society are filled by the white poor, who are hourly seen drudging in them. Poverty, then, in those countries, becomes the badge of inferiority, and wealth, ordistinction. Hence the arrogant airs which wealth there puts on, in its intercourse with the poor man. But in the Southern slaveholding States, where these menial and degrading offices are turned over to be per formed exclusively by the negro slave, the status and color of the black race becomes the badge of inferiority, and the poorest non-slaveholder may rejoice with the richest of his brethren of the white race, in the distinction of his color. The poorest non-slaveholder, too, except as I have before said, he be debased by his vices or his crimes, thinks and feels and acts as if he was, and always intended to be, superior to the negro. He may be poor, it is true; but there is no point upon which he is so justly proud and sensitive as his privilege of caste; and there is nothing which he would resent with more fierce indignation than the attempt of the Abolitionist to emancipate the slaves and elevate the negros to an equality with himself and his family. The abolitionists have sent their emissaries among that class of our citizens, trying to debauch their minds by persuading them that they have no interest in preventing the abolition of slavery, But they cannot deceive any, except the most ignorant and worthless, the intelligent among them are too well aware of the degrading consequences of abolition upon themselves and their families (such as I have described them), to be entrapped by their arts. They know that, at the North and in Europe, where no slavery exists, where poverty is the mark of inferiority; where the negros have been put upon equality with the whites, and “money makes the man,” although, —that man may be a negro;—they know, I say, that there the white man is seen waiting upon the negro;—there he is seen obeying the negro as his ostler, his coachman, his servant and his bootblack. Knowing, then, these things, and that the abolition of slavery, and the reign of negro equality here, may degrade the white man in the same way as it has done in those countries, there is no non-slaveholder with the spirit of the white race in his bosom, who would not spurn with contempt this scheme of Yankee cunning and malice.
It’s always hard to know whether, and to what extent, essays like DeBow’s and Townsend’s shaped the beliefs and motivations of bot the general public in the South and Confederate soldiers, specifically. They are, in may respects, like highly-politically-partisan cable channels and websites today, in that they (or the ideas they express) form part of the larger rhetorical environment that influences individuals’ views. We can get a better, if imperfect, handle on this today through polling (“Where do you mostly get your news?”), but the exact dynamics of the phenomenon 150 years ago are harder to discern.
Another aspect that bears on this, as well, is that essays like these, or excerpts from them, were picked up and carried in other publications across the South, so they got far more circulation than the actual print run of the original pamphlet would suggest. I came across the Townsend quote, for example, in the Trinity Advocate, published in Palestine in East Texas. Arguments like DeBow’s and Townsend’s went far and wide.
I haven’t worked with large assemblies of contemporary sources, but McPherson addresses the differences in stated motivations between slaveholders and non-slaveholders in Cause & Comrades, and gives a number of examples of non-slaveholders who expressed very much the same ideas Townsend and DeBow both argue, that they saw themselves as defending not an economic institution, but a social order, explicitly based on white supremacy, of which the institution of African slavery was central. “Herrenvolk democracy,” he summarizes (p. 109), “– the equality of all who belonged to the master race — was a powerful motivator for many Confederate soldiers.”
McPherson also touches on something that Chandra Manning is much more explicit about, which is the concept of “liberty,” which was an idea shared widely between slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike. When they spoke of principles like liberty and property rights, there is an implicit belief that those are things that apply to white men (and to a much lesser extent, white women), and to no one else (pp. 29-30):
When Confederate soldiers spoke of liberty, they referred not to a universally applicable ideal, but to a carefully circumscribed possession available to white Southerners. No mere abstraction, liberty had to do with the unobstructed pursuit of material prosperity for white men and their families. As one Virginian put it, liberty consisted of the “good many comforts and privileges” that his family could enjoy without outside interference. While exclusive in terms of race, liberty was inclusive in terms of class. In other words, while liberty applied strictly to whites, it applied to all whites, regardless of present social class or economic condition, because all whites, by virtue of being white, enjoyed the right to individual ambition and aspirations of material betterment through means of their own choosing.
The institution of slavery was so central to daily life across much of the South that it is part of the “home and hearth” that so many Confederate soldiers saw themselves as defending.
So while it’s usually impossible to demonstrate that this Debow essay influenced that Confederate soldier, it seems clear that the ideas they expressed were very much a part of political discourse, and found a receptive audience in the Confederate ranks, both among slaveholders and non-slaveholders. Certainly this line of thinking wasn’t the only one out there — individuals’ motivations to do anything are rarely so simple as that — but scholarship like McPherson’s and Manning’s shows that these arguments were absolutely part of the mix, and the common rationalization that non-slaveholders must, Q.E.D., not have seen any interest in defending the institution is just that — a self-serving rationalization that papers over the cognitive dissonance that inevitably goes with Confederate hagiography.
The latter part of this post, beginning, “it’s always hard to know. . ,” was originally a comment in response to Marc Ferguson. In retrospect, it seems more appropriate as part of the text. Image: “Southern Ass-Stock-Crazy (Southern Aristocracy),” 1861, Library of Congress.
Last week we looked at the prevalence of slaveholding in the South in 1860, on the eve of the Civil War. While many in the Southron Heritage™ movement will argue that a tiny, tiny fraction of Confederate soldiers owned slaves — two percent, three percent, five percent — the actual proportion of Confederate households that included slaveholders was several times higher, upwards of a third of all free households across the eleven states that formed the Confederacy. Most folks associated with Confederate heritage groups will, it seems, very quickly volunteer that their own ancestors didn’t own any slaves, and thus the protection and expansion of that institution, so explicitly central to the secession of South Carolina, Mississippi and other states, must not have factored into said ancestors’ decision to fight for the South. It’s an appealing argument, but the reality is not nearly so simple as that.
While the beliefs and motivations of specific individuals are always varied — and, after the passage of 150 years, are very often unknown — on the eve of the war there were many who argued that protection of slavery was explicitly in the interest of all Southern whites, not only those who owned slaves. Newspaper editorials, pamphlets, speeches, all called on the white population of the South, slaveholder and non-slaveholder alike, to stand together in defense of their shared interest in protecting slavery, for themselves, for their families, and for their children.
As Civil War blogger Allen Gathman pointed out recently at Seven Score and Ten, the most influential advocate of this idea was James D. B. DeBow (right). DeBow was a former superintendent of the U.S. Census who, in the years prior to the war, published extensive tracts justifying the institution of slavery as an economic and moral good. There was, perhaps, no stronger or widely-read advocate in the defense of slavery, nor one whose writings — thanks to his service with the Census Bureau — carried the sheen of academic authority that DeBow held. In December 1860, on the eve of secession, the same month South Carolina seceded, DeBow published a booklet titled The Interest in Slavery of the Southern Non-Slaveholder, in which he argued that non-slaveholding whites were every bit as interested in protecting and preserving the institution as the large plantation owners:
The fact being conceded that there is a very large class of persons in the slaveholding States, who have no direct ownership in slaves; it may be well asked, upon what principle a greater antagonism can be presumed between them and their fellow citizens, than exists among the larger class of non-landholders in the free States and the landed interest there? If a conflict of interest exists in one instance, it does in the other, and if patriotism and public spirit are to be measured upon so low a standard, the social fabric at the North is in far greater danger of dissolution titan it is here.
Though I protest against the false and degrading standard, to which Northern orators and statesmen have reduced the measure of patriotism, which is to be expected from a free and enlightened people, and in the name of the non-slaveholders of the South, fling back the insolent charge that they are only bound to their country by its “loaves and fishes,” and would be found derelict in honor and principle and public virtue in proportion as they are needy in circumstances; I think it but easy to show that the interest of the poorest non-slaveholder among us, is to make common cause with, and die in the last trenches in defence of, the slave property of his more favored neighbor.
The non-slaveholders of the South may be classed as either such as desire and are incapable of purchasing slaves, or such as have the means to purchase and do not because of the absence of the motive, preferring to hire or employ cheaper white labor. A class conscientiously objecting to the ownership of slave property, does not exist at the South, for all such scruples have long since been silenced by the profound and unanswerable arguments to which Yankee controversy has driven our statesmen, popular orators and clergy. Upon the sure testimony of God’s Holy Book, and upon the principles of universal polity, they have defended and justified the institution. The exceptions which embrace recent importations into Virginia, and into some of the Southern cities from the free States of the North, and some of the crazy, socialistic Germans in Texas, are too unimportant to affect the truth of the proposition.
Gotta love that last line about “the crazy, socialistic Germans in Texas.”
DeBow provides a whole range of arguments and carefully-picked data to buttress his position, and goes on to detail ten separate arguments illustrating why the protection of slavery is as much or more in the interest of the non-slaveholder as it is in the man with large numbers of bondsmen. Debow lays out, point by point, explanation of how the continued existence of African slavery protects each white man’s status as an individual, the welfare of his family, the future wealth of his children, and the prosperity of his state and region:
4. The non-slaveholder of the South preserves the status of the white man, and is not regarded as an inferior or a dependant. He is not told that the Declaration of Independence, when it says that all men are born free and equal, refers to the negro equally with himself. It is not proposed to him that the free negro’s vote shall weigh equally with bis own at the ballot-box, and that the little children of both colors shall be mixed in the classes and benches of the school-house, and embrace each other filially in its outside sports. It never occurs to him, that a white man could be degraded enough to boast in a public assembly, as was recently done in New York, of having actually slept with a negro. And his patriotic ire would crush with a blow the free negro who would dare, in his presence, as is done in the free States, to characterize the father of the country as a “scoundrel.” No white man at the South serves another as a body servant, to clean his boots, wait on his table, and perform the menial services of his household. His blood revolts against this, and his necessities never drive him to it. He is a companion and an equal. When in the employ of the slaveholder, or in intercourse with him, he enters his hall, and has a seat at his table. If a distinction exists, it is only that which education and refinement may give, and this is so courteously exhibited as scarcely to strike attention. The poor white laborer at the North is at the bottom of the social ladder, whilst his brother here has ascended several steps and can look down upon those who are beneath him, at an infinite remove.
5. The non-slaveholder knows that as soon as his savings will admit, he can become a slaveholder, and thus relieve his wife from the necessities of the kitchen and the laundry, and his children from the labors of the field. This, with ordinary frugality, can, in general, be accomplished in a few years, and is a process continually going on. Perhaps twice the number of poor men at the South own a slave to what owned a slave ten years ago. The universal disposition is to purchase. It is the first use lor savings, and the negro purchased is the last possession to be parted with. If a woman, her children become heir-looms and make the nucleus of an estate. It is within my knowledge, that a plantation of fifty or sixty persons has been established, from the descendants of a single female, in the course of the lifetime of the original purchaser.
6. The large slaveholders and proprietors of the South begin life in great part as non-slaveholders. It is the nature of property to change hands. Luxury, liberality, extravagance, depreciated land, low prices, debt, distribution among children, and continually breaking up estates. All over the new States of the Southwest enormous estates are in the hands of men who began life as overseers, or city clerks, traders and merchants. Often the overseer marries the widow. Cheap lands, abundant harvests, high prices give the poor man soon a negro. His ten bales of cotton bring him another, a second crop increases his purchases, and so he goes on opening land and adding labor until in a few years his draft for $20,000 upon his merchant becomes a marketable commodity.
7. But should such fortune not be in reserve for the non-slaveholder, he will understand by honesty and industry it may be realized to his children. More than one generation of poverty in a family is scarcely to be expected at the South, and is against the general experience. – It is more unusual here for poverty or wealth to be preserved through several generations in the same family.
8. The sons of the non-slaveholder are and have always been among the leading and ruling spirits of the South; in industry as well as in politics. Every man’s experience in his own neighborhood will evince this. He has but to task his memory. In this class are the McDuffies, Langdon Cheeves, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clays [sic.], and Rusks, of the past; the Hammonds, Yanceys, Ors, Memmingers, Benjamins, Stephens, Soules, Browns, of Mississippi, Simms, Porters, Magraths, Aikens, Maunsel Whites, and an innumerable host of the present, and what is to be noted, these men have not been made demagogues for that reason, as in other quarters, but are among the most conservative among us. Nowhere else in the world have intelligence and virtue disconnected from ancestral estate, the same opportunities for advancement and nowhere else is their triumph more speedy and signal.
9. Without the institution of slavery the great staple products of the South would cease to be grown, and the immense annual results which are distributed among every class of the community and which give life to every branch of industry, would cease. The world furnishes no instances of these products being grown upon a large scale by free labor. The English now acknowledged [sic.] their failure in the East Indies. Brazil, whose slave population nearly equals our own, is the only South American State which has prospered. Cuba, by her slave labor, showers wealth upon old Spain, whilst the British West India Colonies have now ceased to be a source of revenue, and from opulence have been, by emancipation, reduced to beggary. St. Domingo shared the same fate, and the poor whites have been massacred equally with the rich.
One suspects that these arguments convinced a great many white Southerners that, while they might not own slaves now, its was essential to preserve the very fabric of their family and society to protect and defend the “peculiar institution.”
Are you convinced?
Over at Civil War Emancipation, Donald R. Shaffer highlights a table by David C. Hanson of Virginia Western Community College, that compares slaveholding states’ date of secession with their populations of slaves and slaveholders as recorded in the 1860 U.S. Census. Shaffer notes that “David C. Hanson makes a definite connection between the concentration of slaves and slaveholders in a particular southern states and when it seceded from the Union in 1860-61, and whether it seceded at all. Certainly, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence connecting slavery and Civil War causation, but this table also makes a compelling statistical case.”
No shit. It turns out that for the eleven states that actually seceded, the proportion of free persons owning slaves was an excellent predictor of the order in which they seceded, beginning with South Carolina. I plugged the numbers into Excel and found that the percentage of slaves as part of the state’s overall population was equally reliable as a predictor. Assigning each state a number corresponding to its order of secession (South Carolina = 1, Mississippi = 2, etc.), the correlation coefficient for both the percentage of slaveholders among the free population, and for the proportion of slave among the overall population, was in both cases beyond -0.9. In short, each percentage is a nearly perfect predictor of where each state falls in the order of secession. The states with the largest proportions of slaves and slave-holders seceded earliest.
Michael Lynch, blogging at Past in the Present, flags an Associated Press story out of Florida, in which the local SCV camp is pushing to have an extremely minor incident in January 1861 recognized as “the first shot” of the Civil War:
Amid the turmoil [surrounding Florida's secession], about 50 federal troops under the command of Lt. Adam J. Slemmer encamped at Fort Barrancas, at what is now Pensacola Naval Air Station. The fort of arched brick passageways and tunnels overlooks the turquoise waters and white-sand beaches of Pensacola Bay.
On the night of Jan. 8, the men had raised a drawbridge around the fort, which dated to when Spain controlled Florida, because of growing tensions in the surrounding Naval yard, said historian David Ogden, a ranger at Gulf Islands National Seashore.
According to Slemmer’s report, just after midnight, guards heard footsteps outside and challenged the intruders and heard no response, Ogden said. Slemmer made no mention of shots being fired.
It wasn’t until after the war ended in 1865 that one of the would-be intruders, R.L. Sweetman, wrote to Slemmer and later to Slemmer’s widow and made reference to the blank shot fired at Fort Barrancas as the war’s beginning.
“In his letter, Sweetman said something like ‘Your husband can claim that he commanded the post where the first shot was fired,”‘ Ogden said.
This event, such as it was, occurred a few hours before cadets from the Citadel fired on the steamer Star of the West, attempting resupply of Fort Sumter.
Lookit, I understand historical boosterism, and wanting recognition for one’s own community as having played a crucial part in dramatic, national events. And I recognize that Florida, like Texas, is not really thought of as a “Civil War state” in the mind of the public in the same way that, say, Virginia is. That’s unfortunate, because Florida played an important part in the war, both on land and especially with the Federal blockade. (Full disclosure: my g-g-grandfather and his father served in a Florida old-men-and-boys home guard unit late in the war, and another relative served with Captain Dickison‘s cavalry.) But this “first shot” business is silly. A warning round popped off into the darkness, the “first shot” of the Civil War? Based on a claim made in a single letter, years later? Really? Why would one push this event as the “first shot,” as opposed to the Star of the West incident, or the bombardment of Fort Sumter? Is it merely local boosterism?
Dale Cox, the unofficial historian for the Florida Panhandle chapter of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, wrote on his blog that he considers the Pensacola shot the first of the Civil War, saying in an interview that it marked the first time federal troops fired toward Confederate agitators.
Got it. The Yankees started it.
People love superlatives, to be the first, or the last, or the biggest, or the bloodiest, or. . . well, you get the idea. But sometimes the quest for such distinctions get in the way of good history. Tell the story of Fort Barrancas, for sure — but don’t make yourself look desperate in doing it.
Image: “Fort Barrancas, moon-lite cannon,” by Flickr user divemasterking2000. Used under Creative Commons license.
One hundred fifty years ago, Captain George Sholter James of the South Carolina Artillery passed word to his subordinate, Lieutenant Henry Farley, to open fire on Fort Sumter, a half-mile away to the east, with a ten-inch mortar positioned at Fort Johnson. The concussion of that first shell would reverberate for the next four years.
I’m not very good about remembering or observing anniversaries. (My wife will confirm this.) And I probably wouldn’t write anything at all about the bombardment of Fort Sumter, but for a piece that appeared Monday in the Washington Post‘s Civil War sesquicentennial blog, A House Divided. The blog itself is a group blog, which publishes short pieces by a variety of historians, written in response to specific questions. For Monday’s installment, the question was, “by attempting to resupply Ft. Sumter, did President Lincoln purposely provoke the war?” The selected respondents this time were Dennis Frye, Chief Historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park; Craig Symonds, Professor Emeritus at the United States Naval Academy, Mike Musick, former Subject Area Expert for the U.S. Civil War with the National Archives in Washington, D.C.; Brag Bowling, director of the Stephen D. Lee Institute and past Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Sons of Confederate Veterans and past President of the Richmond Civil War Roundtable; John Marszalek, Giles Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history at Mississippi State University; and Lonnie Bunch, Founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Each of the authors has a slightly different take on the question, though most conclude that Lincoln’s efforts to resupply Sumter were explicitly not intended to provoke a shooting war. Bowling disagrees in an essay that is filled with common talking points about the Sumter crisis and Lincoln’s supposed Machiavellian plotting to “force” the Confederate artillerymen into firing the first shot. Bowling’s essay is a trimmed-down version of one he’d written a couple of weeks ago for the Georgia Heritage Council website.
Much has been written about Texas’ secession and the removal of Governor Sam Houston, who adamantly opposed leaving the Union. Houston, a dyed-in-the-wool Jacksonian Democrat, was a flawed man in many ways, but he was dead right on secession, and foresaw better than most the ultimate outcome of the conflict that the fire-eaters so blithely dismissed. But this account of Houston’s final visit to the governor’s office, clearly intended to ridicule the old war-horse, just leaves me sad. From the San Antonio Daily Ledger and Texan, April 15, 1861:
Deposition of Sam Houston.
The circumstances attended the deposition of Sam Houston, as Governor of Texas, were quite dramatic, and in some respects ludicrous and comical. The Convention of Texas, called by the loud voice of the people against the denunciations and opposition of Governor Houston, having passed the act of secession, and accepted and ratified the Constitution of the Confederate States, prescribed a form of oath to be taken by all the State officers. This oath included a renunciation of all allegiance to foreign powers, and especially to the Government of the United States, and a declaration of fidelity to the Constitution of the Confederate States. When the oath was proposed to Governor Houston, he peremptorily refused to take it; whereupon the Convention declared the office of Governor vacant; and Lieutenant Governor Clark, under the Constitution, having taken the prescribed oath, succeeded to the office. Governor Clark was not slow in entering upon the Gubernatorial functions, and proceeding to the Governor’s office, assumed the chair and entered upon the duties of the office. By and by, the deposed Governor came hobbling to his old office — Old Sam’s San Jacinto wound having broken out afresh, as it always does on occasions of political trial. Perceiving Governor Clark occupying the chair, Old Sam addressed him:
“Well, Governor Clark,” giving great emphasis to the title, “you are an early riser.”
“Yes, General,” replied the Governor, with great stress upon the military title of his predecessor, “I am illustrating the old maxim, ‘the early bird gathers the worm.’ “
“Well, Governor Clark, I hope you will find it an easier seat than I have found it.”
“I’ll endeavor to make it so, General, by conforming to the clearly expressed will of the people of Texas.”
The General, having brought a large lunch basket with him, proceeded to put up various little articles of personal property, and to stow them away very carefully. Catching his foot n a hole in the carpet and stumbling, the General suggested to Governor Clark that the new Government ought to afford a new carpet for the Governor’s office, whereupon the Governor remarked that the Executive of Texas could get along very well without a carpet.
Approaching the washstand, the General called the attention of Gov. Clark to two pieces of soap — one, the Castile soap, was his own, private property; and the other, a perfumed article, was the property of the State, and added, “Governor, your hands will require the very frequent use of this cleansing article;” whereupon Gov. Clark, pointing to the washbowl, which was very full of black and dirty water, remarked, “General, I suppose that is the bowl in which you washed your hands before leaving the office.”
Having gathered up all his duds, Old Sam made a little farewell speech, very much in the style of Cardinal Woolsey [sic.], declaring his conviction that, as in the past, the time would soon come when Texas would call him from retirement, and he hoped Gov. Clark would be able to give as good an account of his stewardship as he could now render. Halting at the door, the General made a profound bow, and with a air of elaborate dignity said, “Good day, Governor C-l-a-r-k.” “Good day, General Houston,” was the Governor’s response. And thus the “Hero of San Jacinto” concluded his political career.
Old Sam deserved better. So did Texas.
Image: Senator Sam Houston of Texas, 1859. Library of Congress.
One hundred fifty years ago today, on March 19, 1861, this item appeared in the Galveston Civilian and Gazette Weekly:
New converts are proverbially overzealous and intolerant. A majority of the secessionists in Texas have become such within the past few months. While many of them are puzzling their wits for test oaths and means of punishing the non-conformists and luke-warm, and freely apply the epithet of traitor, and would gladly apply the punishment due to treason, to persons who voted as they themselves would have done a few months since, the Marshall Republican, which was a secession paper in 1859 and has continued so ever since, says:
Now that the election is over, we hope the friends of secession will exercise moderation and good feeling towards those who voted against the Ordinance. It is not only their duty to do so, but the highest considerations of patriotism enjoin it. We want union among ourselves, and we can achieve that desirable end in no other way than by conciliation, and the examples of these fraternal feelings, which one Southern man ought to express for another. It should be borne in mind, that all men cannot think alike. Those who voted against secession, no doubt thought they were doing right; and now that this act has been consummated, will give their [steadfast?] efforts to sustain the rights, honor and interests of the State. To all such as these we tender the right hand of fellowship. Let us bury all past dissensions, forget everything leading to alienation, and stand together as a band of brothers.
Beneath the flowery language of patriotism and allusions to Shakespeare, there’s no tolerance for dissent or remaining loyalty to the Union in this passage. None. Past mistakes can be forgiven — “those who voted against secession, no doubt thought they were doing right” — but there is no room going forward for any such lingering sentiment. The tone of this communication may be loftier than those of the Committees of Safety, but the message is the same: dissent will not be tolerated.
Image: Unidentified member of the Knights of the Golden Circle, Marshall, Texas, c. 1861, Lawrence T. Jones III Texas photography collection at Southern Methodist University. The Knights were a secretive organization created in 1854, proposed to establish a slaveholding empire encompassing the southern United States, the West Indies, Mexico, and parts of Central America.
The Civil War day-by-day blog Seven Score and Ten has another great catch today — they seem to do a lot of that — from the Oxford Mercury [Mississippi] on the significance of Texas’ secession to the prospects for the expansion of the “peculiar institution” into Mexico:
Standing immediately between us and Mexico, her refusal to join us would have retarded the ultimate and inevitable conquest of that country. But now five years will not have elapsed before at least all the north-western States of Mexico will be States of the Confederacy. And the conquest of the whole of that country is only a question of time. The introduction of African slave labor into Mexico is the one thing necessary to make it what nature and nature’s God intended that it should be.
That’s Manifest Destiny, the Slaveholder’s Edition.
But secession was all about tariffs, right?
On January 28, 1861, seventy members of the Texas House of Representatives voted to endorse a convention to determine whether Texas should follow South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana out of the Union. Only nine representatives voted “nay.” Though the vote was nominally just to authorize the convention, the outcome of such a meeting was a forgone conclusion, and the House vote was, to all intents and purposes, a vote on secession itself.
The Texas Senate passed the resolution that same day, by a vote of 25 to 5. Governor Sam Houston, who opposed secession and would soon be removed from office as a result, signed off on the resolution on February 4, with an appended notation cautioning the convention “against the assumption of any powers on the part of said convention, beyond the reference of the question of a longer connection of Texas with the Union to the people.” It was a moot gesture; the Secession Convention had been called to order in the Capitol the same day the Legislature voted to approve it, and had adopted an ordinance of secession on February 1. The following day the convention adopted its Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union. Texas’ secession was already a fait accompli.
My great-great-great-grandfather, Aaron Perry, was one of the men in the House of Representatives who voted in favor of the resolution to authorize a secession convention. He was born in North Carolina around 1804, lived for a time in Alabama, and moved to Texas in 1846. He farmed in Limestone County, near present-day Waco. In the 1850 U.S. Census non-population schedules, Perry is shown as farming 625 acres, most of which was left uncleared for raising hogs. In the previous season he’d produced 1,500 bushels of corn as well, most of which I suspect went to hog feed before killing time in the fall. By the time of the 1860 census, the value of his land holdings (which may have been expanded in the preceding decade) had grown to $3,000, and the value of his personal property had grown to $11,150. Much of this latter number represented the value of seven slaves he held.
He was known as “Colonel” Perry, although I don’t know what military service of his such a title would be based on. He was active in politics, serving as a delegate from Limestone County to the Texas Democratic Convention in 1857. Later that year he began serving the first of two terms (1857-61) in the Texas House of Representatives. By the time his second term ended, Texas had seceded from the Union, Sumter had fallen, and the Battle of Manassas had been fought. Aaron Perry disappears from the historical record at that point, so far as I’ve been able to determine; I don’t know how or when he died. Two of his sons, William and Marcus, went on to serve in the Confederate cavalry. Both survived the war.
There are lots of Confederate soldiers in my family tree. But “Old Colonel Perry,” as he was recalled in the family, is the only direct ancestor I know of who was a civil official, a legislator, who took an affirmative step toward secession. He voted “yay.” I wonder what he thought the ultimate outcome of that would be.
Image: Texas State Capitol, Austin, in the 1870s. Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library.