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?