Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“The color of the white man is now, in the South, a title of nobility.”

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on May 7, 2011

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.