Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Non-Slaveholders’ Stake in Defending the “Peculiar Institution”

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on May 4, 2011

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?



21 Responses

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  1. Nora Carrington said, on May 5, 2011 at 6:23 am

    The similarity of #5 — “you, too, can grow up to be a slaveholder,” and the current utter unwillingness on the part of many to support steeply progressive taxation, whether of income or of inheritance because one will one day be taxed, is, well, disheartening.

    I’ve long known racism makes people crazy; it’s little wonder it also makes us stupid. But I still cannot wrap my brain around the burning stupidity that one and the same movement, let alone one and the same mind, can despise the Eastern / Northern / Richmond / Charleston [pick your decades] elites for their snooty ways and air of superiority, on the one hand (which ways & attitudes are attributed to their great wealth and removal from the concerns and lives of “little people”), and completely identify their interests with one’s own.

    Also, who knew that’s where “heirloom” comes from !?!

    • Andy Hall said, on May 5, 2011 at 10:36 am

      OED traces “heirloom” to the 15th century, and refers to any property passed from one generation to another, including slaves:

      1424 in F. J. Furnivall Fifty Earliest Eng. Wills (1882) 56, I wull he haue my grete maser þe which I call ȝele, for þe terme of his life, and so from heir to heyr lome.

    • Vicki Betts said, on May 6, 2011 at 6:02 pm

      I would suspect that part of the historic support for other people owning slaves as well as the current unwillingness to support steeply progressive taxation is an almost reverential respect for private property, everyone’s private property, as long as it was not gained by criminal acts. It’s the old “if the government (or the big “they”) will do that to him, what will stop it from doing it to me?” argument.

      No, I’m not supporting slavery–just pointing out a common response.

  2. Margaret D. Blough said, on May 5, 2011 at 7:15 am

    Nora-I agree. It was also chilling to see women and their offspring being discussed in the same terms as one would a brood mare & her foals.

    Andy-I also got a strong sense of deja vu on the attack on the German immigrants as socialistic. I wonder if that is the first recorded attack of that nature in the U.S.

  3. Rob in CT said, on May 5, 2011 at 7:38 am

    Interesting. Vile, but interesting. The playing up of the oh-so-impressive social mobility of the Old South is a textbook case of protesting too much.

    So ok, this is essentially ruling class propoganda. The question is how many in the target audience bought into it. I think it’s fairly obvious that many, perhaps most, did. It’s also obvious that not all did – particularly those in the hills of WV, TN, NC. Some of those, in turn, rejected the Confederacy, at least when they could (WV). I guess one could look at enlistment rates and try to use that as something akin to opinion poll data, but that’s going to be clumsy at best.

    • Andy Hall said, on May 5, 2011 at 8:06 am

      How much any if these arguments influenced individual soldiers is open to question. What I find important is that these arguments were circulating widely at the time, and were very much part of the public discussion. Any white Southerner who was following the politics of the day, whether through DeBow’s Review, the local newspaper, or campaign materials, would have heard these arguments repeatedly. It was all part of the mix, and it seems foolish to me to claim that it didn’t have an effect.

    • lunchcountersitin said, on May 10, 2011 at 5:31 pm

      The question is how many in the target audience bought into it.

      Another way to put it is, what evidence is there that the target audience rejected these arguments? Were there any rebuttals to those arguments? Or any outrage about them?

      I don’t get the impression that there was a great hue and cry from non-slaveholders when they heard or read these arguments from people like DeBow.

  4. Allen Gathman said, on May 5, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    The “crazy, socialistic Germans” may not have been entirely gratuitous. I can’t speak for the “crazy” part, but many German immigrants in the 1850s were refugees from the failure of the Revolutions of 1848. Many were in fact socialists, and they were certainly anti-aristocrats, which led them to support the North overwhelmingly. They had a particularly important role in eastern Missouri, where their “Turner Brigades” provided a ready-made militia for Nathaniel Lyon to use in protecting the St. Louis arsenal.

    As for DeBow’s success with actual non-slaveowners, Stephanie McCurry’s “Confederate Reckoning” shows how the initial enthusiasm of poor whites for the Cause faded as the war went on. So I think it’s likely that these arguments were initially successful, at least in wining support for secession and the start of the war. Later, Confederate soldiers began to see it as a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight”.

    • Vicki Betts said, on May 6, 2011 at 6:15 pm

      Probably the most “socialist” group of Germans in Texas were in Comfort. The Online Handbook of Texas says “Townsmen organized the community along cooperative lines and steadfastly opposed formal local government. Comfort opened a school shortly after its founding, but not until 1892 was a church built.”

      DeBow probably also had in mind the “Staats-Saengerfest (State Singers Festival) on May 14 and 15, 1854. Delegates from various local political clubs of German citizens in western Texas met in San Antonio and, following the lead of the Freier Mann Verein (Freeman’s Association) organized by fellow Germans in the northern states, adopted a mildly-worded plank declaring that slavery was an evil and that abolition was the business of the states. The resolution went on to maintain that a state should be able to obtain help from the federal government to effect abolition. By “help” the convention meant that the state would ask the federal government to pay the owners for the freed slaves.. . The hue and cry might have died down had not Douai, editor of the San Antonio Zeitung, taken an even more stridently antislavery stance in his editorials.” (Also from Online Handbook of Texas) That position didn’t make friends among the increasingly hot fire-eaters of the state.

      So, while I would not call the Texas Germans crazy, and only a relative few were socialist, DeBow was also not making the claim up out of whole cloth.

  5. Corey Meyer said, on May 5, 2011 at 8:39 pm

    I am convinced Andy…but I was before I read your post.

  6. JC Wade said, on May 6, 2011 at 10:55 am

    I find all of your postings very interesting, especially this one. I come from a long line of southerner many of whom served as privates in various units of the Army of Tennessee from Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. Many of them later migrated to Texas settling into the black land area south of Dallas along with many other Confederate veterans. I have never found documentation that any of them owned slaves. In Texas, it took several generations to own land – they were tenant farmers.

    Neil Foley in “The White Scourge” documents some of the class/status struggles that occurred in post Civil War Texas. This posting adds to my understanding of that struggle.


  7. Marc Ferguson said, on May 7, 2011 at 8:56 am

    Another aspect of DeBow’s argument is that it betrays insecurity on the part of slaveholding elite about the reliability of poor non-slaveholding whites, and the need to convince them of their interests in supporting the “peculiar institution.” One of the main themes of William Freehling’s work is the tension between paternalistic, slaveholding elite dominated Southern society and the democratizing trends of 19th century America.

  8. Tim from Alabama said, on June 30, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    Winston County Alabama seceded from the state as the Free State of Winston. One of my ggreat grandfathers from the neighboring county must have been a Tory. After going to Vicksburg to be paroled he signed a form with an X not to take up arms against the federal government again.

    He told my grandmother they got so hungry he rode his horse at his own expense back to Mississippi in December 1863 and joined the 1st Middle Tennessee (Union) Cavalry. Their name was later changed to the 1st Alabama Union Cavalry. He was captured and exchanged in West Memphis, Arkansas in early 1864 and discharged at Nashville in July 1865 after fighting into North Carolina during the spring with his company commander, Lieutenant J. H. Hornbacks of Indiana. They were Sherman’s headquarters provost guard on the march through Georgia.

    His widow received a pension from the state and the federal government since he was “galvanized”. The UDC erected a huge monument on his grave in Newsite near Horshoe Bend National Park and may not have know about his later federal service. (Not sure if they knew or not.)

    People fought for their families and neighbors first. Politics was somewhere down the list of priorities no doubt. If your family is starving there is not much point in fighting for their political freedom any longer. You can talk about duty, honor and country all you like. But there is no self interest like home interest in a situation like they faced at that time in history. It becomes an “us against them” mentality. It is not that hard to understand and makes more sense than varied opinions pontificated about by those in positions of political power at the time.

    Slavery was here for thousands of years before the war started. It is only since the 17th Century that it ever came into question by enough people to hope to put a stop to it. The only way to get the crooks out of office is vote them out or throw them out by force. We are still working on that. It is a long process that continues to this day.

  9. Steve Green said, on June 18, 2013 at 8:13 pm

    Hey Andy. I was just reading Governor Joe Brown’s open letter to the people of Georgia, written in December 1860. Brown makes some of these same points to the poor whites. In his letter he also clearly foresees the rise of the tenant farmer system and the diminished prospects of poor whites after abolition.

  10. Tim S said, on December 28, 2016 at 1:05 am

    Interesting debate when you live in the 21st Century since nobody would be silly enough to seriously consider defending slavery. Which of course makes the discussion pointless now. The truth is southern soldiers fought for their wealth and prosperity for their families.

    America was founded on tobacco in the 17th Century a few decades after adventurous seafarers from the old country discovered it. Half the population of England smoked a pipe 50 years later. It was very labor intensive as was mining gold. Which was why America had a standard of living higher than England when indentured servants became a liability even though they only cost a fraction as much as the (whole) life of a slave. The key being they were more valuable than horses and were available perpetually in the same way by breeding. That is why they were outlawed as long as you got to keep the ones already here. It was all gold and all good. Once you got past the evil by spinning misinformation for the sake of riches while avoiding the guilt and inevitable insanity it brings. Treating your British cousins like a slave was unthinkable by most. Unless they were Irish and you needed factory workers in the industrial north.

    The hypocrisy does stop with early America. It continues with bleeding heart white guilt through 21st Century sensibilities that are absolutely irrelevant to the 18th and 19th Century subject at hand.

    Abraham Lincoln was a political genius who was also a bigot and an ignoramus in the area of ethical common decency to other human beings. He believed Africans were sub human because he wanted to be ignorant like most people in early America. He understood how valuable free labor was to America. He also understood it was non negotiable by federal and state law. He was not that stupid. He had better sense than some of our modern human rights apologists today. At least he was being honest Abe about the matter. Even if he happened to be a foolish hypocrite at the same time. He had enough common sense to know how to navigate through the conundrum. Even if it did get him killed in the end.

    Southern soldiers were patriotic just like Abe was.

    I personally do not feel the least bit guilty about what my ancestors did during their illiterate life spans. I am not responsible for the folly of the human race. I was born almost a hundred years after slavery was abolished in the 1860s. Once we get past all that we can stop sounding like we don’t really get the point since there is not one to begin with.

    Unless you want to review the CW during the modern era complete with modern sensibilities and ethics. The sad truth is the soldiers were fighting over horses and mules that cost a lot of money, basically. Civil rights is not a relevant issue in a discussion of the CW unless it involves an abolitionist minority or a political policy position in the church. Regards

  11. Tom Crane said, on December 2, 2017 at 4:55 pm

    Just discovered your blog. It is quite interesting. No, not persuaded. I served 28 years in the Army and Army Reserve and 12 months in Iraq. I find it very doubtful soldiers would endure what they did solely for economic reasons, such as slavery. It always comes down to protecting the homeland on some level.

    Did the average Southerner support slavery, even if they did not own slaves and had no interest in owning slaves? That is a different question. Am sure the answer would be yes. My family did not own slaves for any length of time. My Texas Confederate ancestor was from San Patricio County which had a whopping 100 slaves or so in 1860 and none in 1850. Yet, served for a time and later, it is said, raised his own company of calvary near the end of the war. Am sure he supported slavery more or less, even though it had no real relevance to his ranch in South Texas. Hard to know how much they supported slavery and how much they just resented being lectured by Northern abolitionists.

    My Louisiana ancestor served at Vickbsurg, etc. So many soldiers went barefoot in the snow and all that. No, I cannot believe they would endure all that just for economic reasons. Those of us in Iraq, another questionable war, had our own questions about how hard to work, how much danger to endure, how motivated we should be. And, we had amazing creature comforts compared to the Confederates.

    Regarding the crazy Germans, I saw in a book by McMichael on Texas CW monuments that Comal County has a monument to both Confederate and Union soldiers. One crazy German in Comal County raised a battalion of Germans for the Confederacy. Who knew?

  12. Xavier said, on July 5, 2018 at 8:44 am

    The Civil War, was fought just like the wars today (All for Profit). Why would the Union give a damn about ending slavery when Millions of dollars were getting lost when the south seceded. We don’t fight wars to free a oppressed people, We fight wars to free countries of the resources, just ask the Indians, we freed them from their land, starved, and Massacred them, for trying to get it back. The only Reason Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, is because the south, had the Union almost on their knees Until after the Battle of Antietam when it was voted in to law, now like magic its a war to End Slavery. It was a brilliant strategic move, old Abe knew what he was doing; Now many that didn’t support the war in the beginning, now joined to help end slavery. African Americans are able to serve the Union army in droves to help put down the Rebellion; Now you have a just cause, to completely destroy, and bankrupt, the south for thinking they have a right to become their own country.

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