Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

NYT Disunion: Census of Doom

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on April 6, 2011

On Friday, Adam Goodheart had a great column at the New York Times Disunion blog, called “The Census of Doom.” Leaving aside the tongue-in-cheek (or merely cheeky) title for a moment, Goodheart makes an important point that’s sometimes overlooked. While historians of the period use the data from the 1860 U.S. Census all the time, it’s easy to forget the impact those numbers had on the political debate in the frenetic run-up to secession:

Eighteen-sixty was a federal Census year, and the results had begun coming in early that autumn — with exquisitely poor timing, as far as Southern paranoia and Northern hubris were concerned. At the very moment that the slave states faced the imminent election of a Republican, antislavery president, a candidate who would win without a single vote in the Deep South, came other, equally shocking signs of change.

Preliminary figures that began appearing in the press as early as September 1860 confirmed what many Americans already suspected: immigration and westward expansion were shifting the country’s balance of population and power. Since the last count, in 1850, the North’s population had increased an astonishing 41 percent, while the South’s had grown only 27 percent. (Between 2000 and 2010, by comparison, the entire nation’s population grew just 9.7 percent.) Tellingly, the statistical center of national population had shifted for the first time not only west of the original 13 states, but also from slave territory into free: from Virginia to Ohio.

For Slave Power, the writing was on the wall.

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Image: Map showing the density of slave population in Southern and border states, based on the 1860 U.S. Census.

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5 Responses

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  1. Corey Meyer said, on April 7, 2011 at 8:49 am

    Very interesting indeed.

  2. Dick Stanley said, on April 7, 2011 at 9:10 am

    Thanks for this, Andy. I note the L-shaped figure in black (left center) which is the Mississippi River Delta.

  3. corkingiron said, on April 7, 2011 at 9:38 am

    It’s curious how what amounts to a simple accounting can serve as a touchstone for people’s fears and hopes. Canada’s own “secession crisis” – the rise of a strong separatist movement in Quebec – can be dated to our own 1960 census – which showed that francophone Quebeckers were at the bottom of the economic pyramid – even in Quebec – and that the French language in Quebec was at risk of becoming a minority language.

    Now Quebecois nationalism is nothing new; there has always been a strain of conservative/reactionary thought – called “survivance”. What was remarkable after this census was the birth of a more muscular and -dare I say it? – progressive nationalism that created the modern Separatist parties.

    It sparked a national debate, some remarkable politicians (Pierre Trudeau and Rene Levesque to name but two) and some interesting legislation, including “official” bilingualism, a repatriated Constitution and a Charter of Rights. It also created some fairly odious legislation (Bill 101) and the “language police” in Quebec.

    The wider importance, to my mind, was the debate that the crisis spawned; over the rights of the individual versus the rights of the collective. It has been rancorous at times, and not without some violence and loss of life as Quebec became the first state to try and use the power of government to enforce linguistic dominance (or preservation).

    Canada came very close to breaking apart. I doubt it would have led to a Civil War, tho’ my knowledge of the ACW and the way America stumbled into war did give me pause. I have always been struck by the similarities – and the differences – as your post about the 1860 census reminds me once again.

    • Andy Hall said, on April 7, 2011 at 10:26 am

      What’s interesting is that, when I saw this post at Disunion, I skimmed some contemporary Southern newspapers for reference to the census. (Nothing exhaustive, just clicking on keyword hits.) What I found was that, apart from coverage simply listing the new numbers for various counties and states, the editorial slant was often over how much the population had grown in this Southern state, or how much more cotton/tobacco/cane we’re producing than in 1850. It’s very much rah-rah boosterism at the local level, while more senior political leaders were looking at the big picture as far as political influence.

  4. Margaret D. Blough said, on April 7, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    It’s tied into the whole expansion debate. The slave states, particularly those of the Deep South, were terrified of the day in which free states had sufficient numbers both in terms of population (the House) and the Senate (2 senators per state) to not only pass legislation unacceptable to the slave states but to put through and ratify Constitutional amendments and to elect a President who owed nothing of his victory to the slave states even without a fractured Democratic Party as occurred in 1860. The number of Electoral College votes each state has is its number of members of the House + 2 (for the number of senators). Inevitably, as vacancies occurred on the US Supreme Court, this would affect the makeup of the court. Most of the slave states weren’t all that worried about the federal government until they saw the day looming when they had no control over it.


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