Editors Note: Reader feedback has indicated that I should make it clear that this essay was written in response to this post by the Grump Old Man. In particular, it is a response to this..
My sin in the pongid world is to have asked whether, if the North had let the South go without war, slavery would have long persisted in the South. I can also ask whether, given the blood spilled in the War and the rapid turn away from Reconstruction, Lincoln was far-sighted, bloody-minded, or a bit of both.
To quote Sherman, “War is hell”. And like all things of hell, war does not improve this world. Nonetheless, the fruits of hell are not entirely without their benefits. Just as death can cut short the days of wicked, war can sometimes put a brake on the scope of evil. But we should not pretend that the brake on mankind that we call war improves this world. Keeping things from getting worse is not the same thing as making things better.
To take but one example, it would be foolish to argue that World War II made the world a better place. After all, the war was instrumental in spreading the slavery of communism. But most people would argue that to have failed to opposed Hitler would have been even worse.
It is on this ground that I think the Civil War should be judged. We should not look at the Civil War thinking that we are going to find some signs that it made the world a better place. That would be expecting the fruits of heaven from the spawn of hell. But we should instead consider whether the world would have been worse if the Civil War had not been fought.
This question is rarely considered, however. The history of the Civil War as it is commonly presented is nothing more than war porn. It is the careful study of the violent deaths of men and glorification of those who presided over the carnage. The moral issues that lead to the war are ignored or are deliberately distorted.
If we wanted to deal with the moral issues behind the war we would be as familiar with the names John C. Calhoun, Alexander Stephens, William Lowndes Yancey, Robert Toombs, and Edmund Ruffin as we are with names of Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, Johnston, and Early. After all, the former were the men who laid out the case for secession where as the latter were merely those that had to deal with the results.
But few of us have ever heard of the men whose arguments lead the South out of the union. Even fewer have read the actual words of those men. This lack of knowledge affects more than just our understanding of the South; it also gives us a distorted view of the North.
How can we truly judge Lincoln’s words and actions if we know nothing of his opponents’? How can we judge the course of action that the North took if we don’t understand the South?
If we truly want to consider the moral issues involved in Civil War we must understand why the South left the union. And the only way we can ever do that is to read the words of those who lead the South out of Union. So I must beg of you all to be patient with me, for I am going to quote at length from those men.
I must start with the first Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens. He was one of the most moderate men in the Confederacy. He long argued for the South to stay in the union. In fact, he voted against the secession at Georgia’s convention on the issue. As if this were not enough to differentiate Stephens from men like Yancey and Ruffin, there was also the fact that held friendly feelings for Abraham Lincoln. That was an almost unheard-of emotion in a Southern man.
But Stephens came around to the view that secession was the proper course of action and he was instrumental in drawing up the constitution for his new nation. He was also chosen to be the first Vice President of the Confederacy because it was felt that his reputation as a moderate would help attract the Border States.
In this office he gave a widely reported speech in which he explained the new confederate constitution to the new nation. This speech was latter called “the cornerstone speech” for in it he spelled out the cornerstone for his new nation. This speech ought to be well known by every educated American, but since it is not I must quote at length from Mr. Stephens’s explanation of what the cornerstone of the Confederacy was…
“But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other — though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind — from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics; their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just — but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.
In the conflict thus far, success has been on our side, complete throughout the length and breadth of the Confederate States. It is upon this, as I have stated, our social fabric is firmly planted; and I cannot permit myself to doubt the ultimate success of a full recognition of this principle throughout the civilized and enlightened world.
As I have stated, the truth of this principle may be slow in development, as all truths are and ever have been, in the various branches of science. It was so with the principles announced by Galileo-it was so with Adam Smith and his principles of political economy. It was so with Harvey, and his theory of the circulation of the blood. It is stated that not a single one of the medical profession, living at the time of the announcement of the truths made by him, admitted them. Now, they are universally acknowledged. May we not, therefore, look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgment of the truths upon which our system rests?
It is the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society. Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material-the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of his ordinances, or to question them. For his own purposes, he has made one race to differ from another, as he has made “one star to differ from another star in glory.”
The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to his laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws. This stone which was rejected by the first builders “is become the chief of the corner” — the real “corner-stone” — in our new edifice. [Applause.]
I have been asked, what of the future? It has been apprehended by some that we would have arrayed against us the civilized world. I care not who or how many they may be against us, when we stand upon the eternal principles of truth, if we are true to ourselves and the principles for which we contend, we are obliged to, and must triumph. [Immense applause.]
Thousands of people who begin to understand these truths are not yet completely out of the shell; they do not see them in their length and breadth. We hear much of the civilization and christianization of the barbarous tribes of Africa. In my judgment, those ends will never be attained, but by first teaching them the lesson taught to Adam, that “in the sweat of his brow he should eat his bread,” [applause,] and teaching them to work, and feed, and clothe themselves.”
The process of disintegration in the old Union may be expected to go on with almost absolute certainty if we pursue the right course. We are now the nucleus of a growing power which, if we are true to ourselves, our destiny, and high mission, will become the controlling power on this continent. To what extent accessions will go on in the process of time, or where it will end, the future will determine. So far as it concerns States of the old Union, this process will be upon no such principles of reconstruction as now spoken of, but upon reorganization and new assimilation. [Loud applause.] Such are some of the glimpses of the future as I catch them.
I wish that this quote were sufficient. I wish that no more needed to be said to prove that the South left the union so that it might preserve slavery. But not withstanding the fact that a man who was instrumental in drawing up the Southern Constitution openly proclaimed that slavery was the cornerstone of the southern cause, there are many who would argue that my lengthy quote is misleading. So please bear with me while I flog this horse a little more.
Read this section from the South Carolina declaration of the cause of Secession where it says…
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.
This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.
On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States…..
Or read the Texas Declaration of the Causes of Secession where it says…
We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable…..
Do I really need to belabor this point more? Shall I quote from Mississippi’s declaration on the causes of Secession? Shall I quote from Georgia’s Ordinance of Secession? Shall I quote from the Botetourt Resolution Calling for a Virginia Convention on Secession? Shall I quote from numerous Southern congressmen? Shall I quote from Jefferson Davis?
I wish that I did not have to belabor this point so much. But many libertarians and conservatives will tell you that the South left the union because of Tariffs. In their view, the idea that the Civil War was all about slavery was a northern invention to justify their aggression.
Frankly, I do not know how to debate with such people. Every Southern political leader in the Confederacy openly proclaimed that it was slavery that caused South’s rupture with North. If we are to ignore what the Southern leaders of the time actually said, why don’t we just pretend that South left the union to protect a rare species of butterfly?
Of course, most people do not deny that slavery was one of the factors that lead the South to break with the Union. But most people would also argue that there were many other factors involved. After all, most white men in the south were too poor to own slaves. And didn’t South Carolina almost leave the union in a dispute about tariffs under the Jackson administration?
The problem with this seemingly sophisticated view of the South is that it treats slavery as if it was just one aspect of the South. In reality, slavery is what came to define the South. You don’t come to the position where you have four million people in slavery without structuring your whole society around those things that are necessary to keep those people in slavery. By the time of the Civil War, the support for slavery had become an economic ideology akin to Marxism. The values necessary to sustain slavery were the values that governed the entire South.
If you think that it is unfair of me to compare the ideology that ruled the south to Marxism, just read this portion from John C. Calhoun’s speech entitled “Slavery a Positive Good”…
But I will not dwell on this aspect of the question; I turn to the political; and here I fearlessly assert that the existing relation between the two races in the South, against which these blind fanatics are waging war, forms the most solid and durable foundation on which to rear free and stable political institutions. It is useless to disguise the fact. There is and always has been in an advanced stage of wealth and civilization, a conflict between labor and capital. The condition of society in the South exempts us from the disorders and dangers resulting from this conflict; and which explains why it is that the political condition of the slaveholding States has been so much more stable and quiet than that of the North. . . .
The belief that there must always be a conflict between labor and capital was the foundation of the South’s justfaction for slavery. Crudely put, they argued that it was necessary for every society to have people in positions analogous to slavery. Since this was so, was it not better to have black men in that position than white men?
In reality, most Southern apologists went further than this. Just as a Marxist would argue that capitalism is really inefficient compared to socialism, the South argued that free labor was less efficient than slave labor. Thus, they claimed that the South had a far superior economic system to rest of the western world.
This was the view spelled out in great detail by Edmund Ruffin in his pamphlet SLAVERY AND FREE LABOR DESCRIBED AND COMPARED and his book THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF SLAVERY. This was the view put forward by William Lowndes Yancey in his speech on Texas. This was the view of Robert Barnwell Rhett in The Address of the people of South Carolina, assembled in Convention, to the people of the Slaveholding States of the United States. Do I really need to continue? Must I quote every Southern man of note?
The Southern belief that some people must always be slaves had logical consequences. If someone must always be a slave, then arguing for the liberation of the black man was tantamount to arguing for the enslavement of the white man. For in order to justify slavery, the Southern men convinced themselves that liberty for all was an unworkable economic situation. This belief was general throughout the South, and not limited to those who held slaves.
Once you understand that the values necessary for sustaining slavery were the ruling ideology in the South you come to understand that all of the South’s disputes with the North can be traced right back to the institution of slavery. In other words, even though many poor whites did not own slaves, they were quite enamored of the ideology that sustained slavery. And even though it is possible to argue against tariffs on many grounds, the South was against them because they hindered slavery. Worst of all, the belief in the rightness of slavery necessitated a belief in an imperative to grab all the territory that you could get. So you can rightly say that there were many factors that lead the South to break with the North, but they all lead right back to the institution of slavery.
Unfortunately, those points are controversial even though I think they stem from the plain reading of what the southern men said. So let us consider these points in more detail.
It would seem of all the points that I have made, the idea that the poor whites were enamored of the ideology that supported slavery would be the least controversial. Even today, I know of a couple of working class Anglo-Saxons who have no problem with the justification for slavery put forth by the fire-eaters. But I think the extent to which the ideology that lay behind slavery motivated the poor whites to fight has been often obscured.
For example, it is held as a common truth that the poor Southern whites thought that they were fighting in defense of their homeland. But this statement obscures more than it reveals. When President Andrew Jackson threatened to use force against South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis the poor Southern whites could hardly have cared less. This was true even when Jackson moved gun boats and marshaled federal troops in preparation for action.
Why could Jackson threaten South Carolina without causing the poor Southern whites to rally against him? Conversely, why did they all rally against Lincoln when he threatened to do the same? There was no difference between Lincoln and Jackson on the subject of federal authority. There was no difference between Lincoln and Jackson on the subject of tariffs.
The answer is obvious. Poor whites thought that Lincoln was a threat to the Southern way of life, whereas they thought that Jackson’s dispute with a few rich cotton planters did not concern them.
And why did the poor Southern whites think that Lincoln was a threat but Jackson was not? It was because they were told things like this…
Besides, in Republican minds, the freedom of the negro is inseparably connected with the idea of his right to be clothed with the privileges and immunities of the white man; and hence, wherever Republicanism is firmly established, we see the effort is made to place the two races upon terms of equality. In Massachusetts, which is the embodiment of Republican ideas, negroes may intermarry with whites, may hold office, may send their children to the free schools in common with the whites, may sit on juries in the trial of white persons, and may not only vote at all elections, but are allowed to do so on more favorable terms than the naturalized white man. The same equality exists, I believe, in several other Republican States, and the effort would undoubtedly be made to extend it to all, in the event that party succeeded in establishing itself in power.
Regardless of what the truth of the matter was, poor white Southerners were told over and over again that Republican Party favored the complete equality of the black man. This was simply unacceptable to the average Southerner regardless of whether they had slaves or not. The idea that black men should be equal to white men was a threat to the social fabric of the South. It would have required the complete destruction of their culture as they understood it. It would have done away with their psychological safety net that told them that no matter how low they fell, they still were not as low as the black man. With the Southern obsession with who was on top, this was no small thing.
The hard truth is that Federal aggression by itself was not enough to motivate poor Southern men to fight. They wouldn’t have lifted a finger if Andrew Jackson (who was in any case their hero) had hung every rich man in South Carolina. But they would fight like tigers to maintain their racial position. That is why the arguments for secession that were directed towards poor whites were made on racial grounds.
But what shall we say about tariffs? How does the ideology necessary to sustain slavery come into the South’s objections to tariffs? For surely many men in the South complained about tariffs, right?
Well, not as many men in the South objected to tariffs as some conservative and libertarian historians would have you believe. The tariffs that were inflicted on the South (pre-Lincoln) were signed into law by Presidents who came from the South. And many representatives and senators from the South voted for those tariffs.
Nonetheless, it is true that many men in the South had problems with the tariffs. A good example of the types of arguments that these men used can be found in Robert Toombs’s speech to the Georgia Legislature. You should read the whole speech but this snippet will give you a good taste of what his argument was like…
It is true that this policy has been largely sustained by the South; it is true that the present tariff was sustained by an almost unanimous vote of the South; but it was a reduction – a reduction necessary from the plethora of the revenue; but the policy of the North soon made it inadequate to meet the public expenditure, by an enormous and profligate increase of the public expenditure; and at the last session of Congress they brought in and passed through the House the most atrocious tariff bill that ever was enacted, raising the present duties from twenty to two hundred and fifty per cent above the existing rates of duty. That bill now lies on the table of the Senate. It was a master stroke of abolition policy; it united cupidity to fanaticism, and thereby made a combination which has swept the country. There were thousands of protectionists in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New-York, and in New-England, who were not abolitionists. There were thousands of abolitionists who were free traders. The mongers brought them together upon a mutual surrender of their principles. The free-trade abolitionists became protectionists; the non-abolition protectionists became abolitionists. The result of this coalition was the infamous Morrill bill – the robber and the incendiary struck hands, and united in joint raid against the South.
Toombs’s whole speech was devoted to proving that the South had been oppressed and was in danger of being further oppressed by the North. In the part that I am quoting he was expressing his fear that tariff policy was being used with the express purposes of going after slavery. Indeed, the point to Toomb’s whole speech was threat posed by the North to slavery.
But before he got to talking about this, he argued that all previous tariffs had only served to enrich the North at the expense of the South. His thesis was hampered by the fact that he admitted that many of the policies that he objected to were put in place by Southern politicians. But even though he admitted this fact, albeit indirectly, Toombs’s still argued that all tariffs were an evil plot by the North to enrich themselves.
Why did Toomb’s tie himself up in knots likes this? Why did he insist that tariffs were all an evil plot by the North when he admitted that that Southern politicians had a hand in bringing them about? Why didn’t he just stick to arguing that slavery was in danger?
I believe that the answer to this question can be found in another paradox. Most of those who were at the forefront of arguing against tariffs in the South (Calhoun, Rhett, Yancey, etc) were also at the forefront of arguing that slave labor was superior to free labor. How could these men argue for free trade and then turn around and argue that free labor was superior to slave labor?
From my reading of the writings of Southern men, I believe the answer to this paradox lies in the Southern need to defend its belief in the superiority of slavery to free labor. It was widely known that the South was far inferior to the North in terms of economic development. Many opponents of slavery argued that slavery itself was the cause of this backwardness. In response, those in the South who believed in the superiority of the slavery as an economic system over the Northern system felt the need to provide some other explanation for the greater wealth of the North.
Thus, most Southern anti-tariff arguments were not so much about the wonders of free trade as they were arguments designed to prove that the North was only rich because of tariffs that the South paid. If we left the Union, went the common argument, we would be freed from this oppression and we would soon be richer than the North. That is why the North wants to keep us under their thumb.
To rigorously prove that most Southern opponents of tariffs were against them because they wished to demonstrate that slavery was an economically superior system would require separate essay. But if you read Southern anti-tariff essays and speeches, I think that you will be struck by how often they are also defenses of slavery as an economic system.
But I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the entire South was against tariffs. As Toombs himself admitted, politicians from the South supported most of the tariffs in America’s history up to the Civil War.
And why did politicians from the South support those tariffs if they had no manufacturing in their own states?
Because tariffs were the only way under the Constitution for the federal government to raise money.
And why did politicians from the South want the federal government to raise money?
Because only a strong federal government could acquire more territory.
And why did politicians from the South want the federal government to acquire more territory?
Because at its heart, the ideology that governed the South was imperialistic.
Of all the things that I believe to be plainly true about the South, this is one that I think most people will have the hardest time believing. But I need not argue this point myself; I will let Toombs do it for me. Here is another quote from his speech to the Georgia Legislature…
In 1790 we had less than eight hundred thousand slaves. Under our mild and humane administration of the system they have increased above four millions. The country has expanded to meet this growing want, and Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri, have received this increasing tide of African labor; before the end of this century, at precisely the same rate of increase, the Africans among us in a subordinate condition will amount to eleven millions of persons. What shall be done with them? We must expand or perish. We are constrained by an inexorable necessity to accept expansion or extermination. Those who tell you that the territorial question is an abstraction, that you can never colonize another territory without the African slavetrade, are both deaf and blind to the history of the last sixty years. All just reasoning, all past history, condemn the fallacy.
The ironic thing is that for years many Southern politicians used just this point to argue for staying in the Union. They thought that the union was the best means to get more territory for slavery. It was for this reason that they were willing to support tariffs and other measures to support the federal government. Before he became a convert to the confederate cause Alexander Stephens himself argued this way saying….
Again, gentlemen, look at another act: when we have asked that more territory should be added, that we might spread the institution of slavery, have they not yielded to our demands in giving us Louisiana, Florida, and Texas, out of which four States have been carved, and ample territory for four more to be added in due time, if you by this unwise and impolitic act do not destroy this hope, and, perhaps, by it lose all, and have your last slave wrenched from you by stern military rule, as South America and Mexico were; or by the vindictive decree of a universal emancipation, which may reasonably be expected to follow?
But this line of argument was killed by the Republican insistence that no more slave states would be added. As Toombs said…
The North understand it better – they have told us for twenty years that their object was to pen up slavery within its present limits – surround it with a border of free States, and like the scorpion surrounded with fire, they will make it sting itself to death. One thing at least is certain, that whatever may be the effect of your exclusion from the Territories, there is no dispute but that the North mean it, and adopt it as a measure hostile to slavery upon this point. They all agree, they are all unanimous in Congress, in the States, on the rostrum, in the sanctuary – everywhere they declare that slavery shall not go into the Territories. They took up arms to drive it out of Kansas; and Sharpe’s rifles were put into the hands of assassins by Abolition preachers to do their work. Are they mistaken? No; they are not. The party put it into their platform at Philadelphia – they have it in the corner-stone of their Chicago platform; Lincoln is on it – pledged to it. Hamlin is on it, and pledged to it; every Abolitionist in the Union, in or out of place, is openly pledged, in some manner, to drive us from the common Territories.
It was this matter, above all others, that broke the union. Many moderate Southerners would have tolerated many things from the North that injured slavery. Indeed, the South did tolerate many things from North that injured slavery in spite of the hot heads who argued otherwise. But the one thing that South could not agree to was the idea that slavery should be penned up in the South. Agreeing to that would mean the destruction of the cornerstone of Southern society.
We should remember that Lincoln was only elected because the Democratic Party split. And what split the Democratic Party? It was the Alabama platform. If you read the Alabama platform, you will see that it exclusively deals with the issue of the expansion of slavery. The South’s insistence on this platform broke the Democratic Party and enabled the Republican Party to come to power.
Even at the expense of empowering their enemies the South would not compromise. Slavery had to spread.
Why did the South feel that slavery had to spread? I think that Toombs did a pretty good job of explaining this point already, but I will reiterate. If you have an economic system based on the buying and selling of people, the only way you have to make sure that your children’s standard of living is equal to your own is to acquire more land. Otherwise, your children will be trying to work their slaves on smaller and smaller parcels of land. This would eventually destroy slavery.
If you believe that slavery is good thing; if you believe that slavery is the best possible economic system, you must believe that it is right and proper to seize land from those who are not quite as white as yourself. It is the only way that you can maintain the system. This is why up till the Civil War, politicians from the South were the driving force behind America’s expansion.
We have forgotten the extent of Southern imperial ambitions in the pre-Civil War South. Not only did the South support such things as the expulsion of the Cherokee tribes and the war with Mexico, but many were also quite open about their desire to take territory in the Caribbean and Brazil. Some even wanted more of Mexico. These desires were behind such things as William Walker’s adventures and the Ostend Manifesto. These incidents were reflections of a very real desire on the part of South to expand the territory ruled by their peculiar ideology.
But it is not within the scope of this essay to fully document how widespread the imperial desire to expand was in the South (you can find a book on that subject here). For my purposes I just want to note that such desires were a necessary part of the Southern ideology that supported slavery.
Many people who have followed my argument so far would argue that I am being very unfair to the South. They would say that people in the North were racists, too. They would argue that many people in the North had imperial ambitions as well. They would say that you should not judge people by modern standards.
But my purpose in this essay is not to demonize the South. If I wanted to do that I could have talked about the reality of what slavery was like. I could have talked about how the South used violence and the suppression of free speech to support their ideology and drive out native-born Southern men who did not approve of slavery. There are plenty of better ways of demonizing the South than quoting Southern politicians who were making speeches that they knew would be spread far and wide. On such occasions, they were on their best behavior.
That suited my purposes just fine. I wanted to quote Southern leaders on their best behavior in a public setting, because I wanted to demonstrate that the South as whole made a conscious decision to do whatever it took to preserve slavery. This was not some secret plan that they were hiding. It was the ruling ideology of their culture.
We don’t want to face this fact because we think that man has a natural tendency to get better as time passes. Even conservatives who should know better often act as if man has no where to go but up. But when you look at the pre-Civil War South you see a nation that was becoming more and more committed to the values and actions that slavery required.
When this country was founded, many leading men in the South believed that slavery was wrong. This was the belief of such men as Washington and Jefferson. They felt that in the course of time slavery would be gradually done away with. To speed this process, Washington even went so far as to free all of his slaves in his will.
But when we come to the years leading up to the Civil War, I cannot think of even one Southern politician who had such a view (expect maybe Sam Houston, but he does not count, as he sided with the Union). In fact, many Southern politicians went so far as to publicly repudiate the views of Washington and Jefferson. If I might remind you, the “moderate” Mr. Stephens said…
Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.
This idea the South rejected. As Mr. Stephens said…
This stone which was rejected by the first builders “is become the chief of the corner” — the real “corner-stone” — in our new edifice.
And what of the hope that the founders of this country had that slavery would gradually go away? That did not happen either. In fact, the opposite happened. Slavery grew dramatically in strength. As Jefferson Davis said…
In the meantime, under the mild and genial climate of the Southern States and the increasing care and attention for the well-being and comfort of the laboring class, dictated alike by interest and humanity, the African slaves had augmented in number from about 600,000, at the date of the adoption of the constitutional compact, to upward of 4,000,000.
Nor did the South shrink from the implications of this increase in the numbers of slaves. As Toombs said…
We are constrained by an inexorable necessity to accept expansion or extermination. Those who tell you that the territorial question is an abstraction, that you can never colonize another territory without the African slavetrade, are both deaf and blind to the history of the last sixty years. All just reasoning, all past history, condemn the fallacy.
The whole history of the South up to Civil War is the story of slavery’s expansion. It is the story of how slavery grew in economic importance to the world through the cotton trade. It is the story of how the South developed an ideology dedicated to justifying and promoting slavery. They came to love it as an integral part of their culture and they were willing to do anything to defend it.
What would have brought this trend to an end if the Civil War had not intervened?
I have seen it argued that the South would have followed the example of Brazil and peacefully overturned slavery in their own in good time. But this seems to me to be ignoring some critical differences between the South and Latin America.
You see, Latin America depended on the slave trade for a fresh re-supply of slaves, where as the South could breed their own. As this website says…
Unlike in the United States, the slave population in Latin America had never sustained itself through natural reproduction, so the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade struck a telling blow.
Why should we think that the South would have followed the course of Latin America when main reason for the end of slavery in Latin America was the British clamp down on the slave trade?
If the Civil War had not intervened, who would have stopped the South from breeding new slaves? Who would have stopped the South from seizing new territory on which to practice slavery?
I don’t doubt that slavery would have ended in the South eventually. But I do doubt that slavery would have ended without bloodshed given the road that the South elected to go down. If it didn’t lead to a war between white men like the Civil War, then it would have led to a bloody and genocidal race war.
In their nightmares, the men of the South thought the same thing. They were always haunted by the fear that they would be the victims of a bloody slave revolt. But for the intervention of the North, that might have been their fate.
But it must be admitted that none of us are privy to what could have been. Who knows, maybe if the North had only let the South go it would have turned out for the best. Maybe the South would have decided that they did not want to expand their territory after all. Maybe they would have been happy to let their slaves go free and compete with poor whites for jobs. Maybe a religious revival would have swept the South and they all would have become Quakers.
But we should not kid ourselves. We should not think that there was something intrinsic to Southern culture that would have brought slavery to an end. Something would have had to change the South. Something would have had to happen that would have changed the trend that was working in the South from the time of the American Revolution till it was interrupted by Civil War. Something would have had to stop slavery’s expansion.
As for me, I cannot help but believe that Abraham Lincoln was speaking the truth when he said…
One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope–fervently do we pray–that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”