Slavery Was Essential to Southern Political Theory

As a follow-up to my previous post on Southern heritage, I had thought to provide a sort of annotated bibliography of Civil War sources dealing with slavery, but Ta-Nehesi Coates recently published an essay that surpasses what I would have been able to do. So to complement that, I’d like to highlight a few key personalities and documents, explain some of their main features of the political and economic arguments, and give some reflections on what all of this would have meant historically and politically.

The Early American Republic Was Always Unstable 

Let’s start with John Calhoun. Calhoun represents a bridge between the American founding and the Civil War. He was born after the Revolutionary War and died before the Civil War, and he was actively involved in American politics from 1812-1850. Calhoun was a complicated character. He was a Southern Agrarian, and yet he was also a Unitarian. He was a Jeffersonian “Democratic-Republican” who went on to serve as Andrew Jackson’s Vice-President, feud with him over some central points of political theory, especially states rights, and end his career with some fairly rigid and provocative ideas, namely a very strict notion of states rights, the legitimacy of both nullification and secession, the concept of concurrent-majority and a full-throated defense of slavery. Some of Calhoun’s thought is quite genius, though in that sense also creative rather than traditional, and some of it is morally repugnant. But what he shows us is that the interval between the American Founding and the Civil War was a combustible one. There were no halcyon days which were later assaulted. No, neither the North nor the South represented some invasion of rogue ideology which ruined the American project. The American project was always one with multiple and competing interests which never made explicit some of its most basic transcendental commitments. And so, in that way, it was always unstable.

Slavery was the big issue during Calhoun’s day because it touched all of the other big issues. Slavery accounted for about half of the country’s entire way of existence. It made up an enormous part of the economy, and it was a major player in the world economy. You could compare it to the role that oil plays in today’s world, and you wouldn’t be far off. But it was domestic and so impossible to hide from sight. Slavery was also relevant to westward expansion, since the addition of new states would always raise the question as to whether they would be free states or slave states. And that question was relevant, not only to the new states, but also to the old states, since it would determine the future political influence and power those old states would have. If more slave states were added, then the free states would lose out in Washington, and if more free states were added, then the slave states would lose out in Washington. Thus slavery was not “the only issue,” but it was the issue that touched all other issues and was therefore the main point of contention.

The South’s Contribution to the Slavery Issue: A Positive Good and Political-Economic Necessity  

Now, slavery was not original to the South. It predated the United States as a nation, and so the Southerners would always call out the Northerners as hypocrites on this point. We should also add that a large portion of the North was more or less economically bound up in slavery, even if no slaves were actually present on their own land. Banks, lending, markets, and the rest were not limited to any one “section,” and the clash between Jackson and Calhoun shows how even two Southerners, men largely sharing the same region and culture, could disagree over other political issues. But what does make slavery a distinctively Southern problem is that the founding fathers largely admitted that slavery was an evil which,while not being able to be removed in their own day, would need to be done away with in the future. The leading Southern political thinkers would come to reject this point of view, arguing instead that slavery was a positive good and even a part of the natural law and divine hierarchy of human society.

Calhoun and Slavery

Calhoun, again, is an important representative of this shift. He said this in 1837:

Abolition and the Union cannot coexist. As the friend of the Union I openly proclaim it–and the sooner it is known the better. The former may now be controlled, but in a short time it will be beyond the power of man to arrest the course of events. We of the South will not, cannot, surrender our institutions. To maintain the existing relations between the two races, inhabiting that section of the Union, is indispensable to the peace and happiness of both. It cannot be subverted without drenching the country in blood, and extirpating one or the other of the races. Be it good or bad, [slavery] has grown up with our society and institutions, and is so interwoven with them that to destroy it would be to destroy us as a people. But let me not be understood as admitting, even by implication, that the existing relations between the two races in the slaveholding States is an evil:–far otherwise; I hold it to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be to both, and will continue to prove so if not disturbed by the fell spirit of abolition. I appeal to facts. Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.

In the meantime, the white or European race, has not degenerated. It has kept pace with its brethren in other sections of the Union where slavery does not exist. It is odious to make comparison; but I appeal to all sides whether the South is not equal in virtue, intelligence, patriotism, courage, disinterestedness, and all the high qualities which adorn our nature.

But I take higher ground. I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good–a positive good.

Now, what’s really interesting in this speech is something that no one has yet brought up in the popular conversation. Calhoun makes slavery the solution to the problem of capitalism:

I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other. Broad and general as is this assertion, it is fully borne out by history. This is not the proper occasion, but, if it were, it would not be difficult to trace the various devices by which the wealth of all civilized communities has been so unequally divided, and to show by what means so small a share has been allotted to those by whose labor it was produced, and so large a share given to the non-producing classes. The devices are almost innumerable, from the brute force and gross superstition of ancient times, to the subtle and artful fiscal contrivances of modern. I might well challenge a comparison between them and the more direct, simple, and patriarchal mode by which the labor of the African race is, among us, commanded by the European. I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age. Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe–look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse… 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.

This shows us that the issue was much more than “hate” or “prejudice.” Slavery was a key part in political and economic theory. It was the perceived solution to the problem of the unemployed and those who could not otherwise support themselves. It also helped to support workers’ rights in that it removed the most burdensome labor from free workers and placed it on slaves. The slaves were a sort of property, to be sure, but they also received a sort of full patronage (harsh and brutal as it was) from their masters. Calhoun believed this was an inescapable feature of economics and that slavery was preferable to laissez-faire capitalism.

Jefferson Davis, the Future President

Jefferson Davis, writing 21 years later and on the eve of the Civil War, made this same point about slavery’s relationship to capitalism:

The same dangerously powerful man describes the institution of slavery as degrading to labor, as intolerant and inhuman, and says the white laborer among us is not enslaved only because he cannot yet be reduced to bondage. Where he learned his lesson, I am at a loss to imagine; certainly not by observation, for you all know that by interest, if not by higher motive, slave labor bears to capital as kind a relation as can exist between them anywhere; that it removes from us all that controversy between the laborer and the capitalist, which has filled Europe with starving millions and made their poorhouses an onerous charge. You too know, that among us, white men have an equality resulting form a presence of a lower caste, which cannot exist where white men fill the position here occupied by the servile race. The mechanic who comes among us, employing the less intellectual labor of the African, takes the position which only a master-workman occupies where all the mechanics are white, and therefore it is that our mechanics hold their position of absolute equality among us.

Davis argues that slavery actually creates equality, and it does so by a sort of caste system. Now even the poor whites are ennobled, since they are preserved from servitude.

This shows us that there is a combination of ideas at work in modern American slavery. It was racial, but it was also exploiting race in order to address other systemic problems. Slavery could solve workers” rights, and it could bring unity and equality to all white people. Indeed, an argument could be made that the modern concept of a unified “White” identity was an invention of this period of history. Instead of a hierarchy of whites, there can be an equality of “whiteness” over and against “the servile race.” It’s hard to imagine a late-antique Greek or Roman identifying as “one race” with a Gaul or a Goth, and European history is full of a sort of racism internal to “white” people. America was supposed to overcome such divisions, and the Southern solution was to reduce the matter to black and white.

There was also a sort of old-world aristocratic view of manual labor. Certain occupations were deemed either inappropriate or impossible for gentlemen to engage in, and so slavery would help to supplement this remainder. But this was only partly “old-world.” It was also directly related to the modern issue of labor cost and wages. Large-scale agriculture came with major expenses, as it still does today. Slavery was not, contrary to some popular assumptions, on an inevitable decline in the 19th century. It was being offered up as a great solution to persistent economic dilemmas and competing market forces. This fact will resurface in several of the secession documents.

Alexander Stephens and the Cornerstone of the Confederacy

The last piece of evidence I want to highlight in order to show that slavery in the 19th century was not merely a relic of a common past but a dynamic component of contemporary political theory is Alexander Stephen’s infamous Cornerstone Speech. Stephens was the Vice President of the Confederacy, and this speech was his attempt to explain the causes for Southern secession and also the key features of their new constitution and political theory. He mentions states rights and the role of the tariff, but he is clear that the “cornerstone” of the confederate political philosophy is negro slavery and white supremacy. In addition to this, he also admits that this is an advancement from a past instability, showing that the Confederacy understood itself to be a step forward in historical progress and not simply a preservation of an earlier unified tradition.

Stephens says this:

All the essentials of the old constitution, which have endeared it to the hearts of the American people, have been preserved and perpetuated. Some changes have been made. Some of these I should have preferred not to have seen made; but other important changes do meet my cordial approbation. They form great improvements upon the old constitution. So, taking the whole new constitution, I have no hesitancy in giving it as my judgment that it is decidedly better than the old.

He then goes on to explain what is “new” about the confederate constitution. He begins with the equality of industry, noting how the tariff was used in the past to favor some occupations and economic interests over others. This has been abolished by the new constitution. Stephens next notes that “internal improvements” (the building of roads, the development of land, railways, etc.) would no longer be under the jurisdiction of a central or federal government but rather the individual states. He then moves to the added role of cabinet members in congress and the longer presidential term. But finally he gets to the most important principle and indeed the very cornerstone of the new government: slavery and negro subordination.

Stephens, sounding very much like a believer in manifest-destiny and even the unstoppable march of progress says that the American founders were largely mistaken on slavery and that subsequent historical developments have led to the Southern position:

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. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Now that really is an incredible argument, and it is not very “traditional.” Stephens says that founders were wrong to say that slavery was a necessary evil, and he says that their confusion came from the fact that they believed in the equality of the races. This was “fundamentally” wrong in Stephens’s understanding, and therefore the new Southern political theory would be entirely built upon the the notions of racial inequality and that slavery was “natural and normal.”

Stephens unpacks this argument in some detail. He says that the anti-slavery “fanatics” actually form right conclusions from their premises but that their premises are “fancied or erroneous.” The “principle” which comes to the front of this debate is that of racial inequality:

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.

Stephens is here saying that racial hierarchy is a natural law instituted by God Himself. The Confederacy, then, becomes “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.” Its newness is in its perception that the problem with previous class-systems was that they admitted inequality within the same race. What the Confederacy had discovered was that the equality which classical liberalism was looking for was indeed attainable, but only within a system of racial hierarchy. Stephens explains:

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. 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.

This is civic religion of the grossest variety, and Stephens is clearly making racial hierarchy and negro slavery a matter of divine law. He goes on to show that this was not something which should be limited to the American South, but, being a fact of nature and a divine precept, would eventually spread throughout all the world:

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,” and teaching them to work, and feed, and clothe themselves.

Understood in the context of its own thinkers and statesmen, the Confederacy then was progressive rather than traditional. It was based on economic and racial views which constituted a unique political philosophy. This was a correction to and perfection of the original American founding, and it was thought to be a bold step forward along the historical march of progress. The central principle of it all was racial inequality, and negro slavery was its cornerstone.

Secession Documents and Justifications

In addition to the matter of political theory and grand philosophical ideals, the Southern states also made practical arguments. These are what they would appeal to in order to justify secession. Constitutional and procedural grievances do appear in these statements, but the central topic is consistently slavery.

South Carolina was the first state to secede, and its declaration of secession is long and complex. It certainly does push “states rights” to the forefront, arguing, after the legacy of Calhoun, that the other states of the Union had violated the Constitution and thus broken the political pact, thus leaving the Southern states justified to secede. The specifics of this constitutional breach, however, all had to do with slavery. The declaration begins by arguing that the United States Constitution “established the two great principles asserted by the Colonies, namely: the right of a State to govern itself; and the right of a people to abolish a Government when it becomes destructive of the ends for which it was instituted.” This then leads to the contemporary matter, that the US government has itself become “destructive of the ends for which it was instituted” and thus dissolved the binding nature of the compact:

We hold that the Government thus established is subject to the two great principles asserted in the Declaration of Independence; and we hold further, that the mode of its formation subjects it to a third fundamental principle, namely: the law of compact. We maintain that in every compact between two or more parties, the obligation is mutual; that the failure of one of the contracting parties to perform a material part of the agreement, entirely releases the obligation of the other; and that where no arbiter is provided, each party is remitted to his own judgment to determine the fact of failure, with all its consequences.

In the present case, that fact is established with certainty. We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof.

What have these fourteen states done? They have violated the 4th article of the Constitution by aiding and abetting runaway slaves. They have attacked the property of the Southern states by allowing the slaves to be taken away from their owners (thus a form of theft), and they have overthrown the political logic of the three-fifths compromise, thus violating article 2.1.3 of the Constitution. The final stated offense is that some states have even granted citizenship to slaves, “persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens.” This last issue has thus overturned the balance of political power and created an existential crisis for the South.

Mississippi’s was the second state to secede, and its declaration of secession places slavery and its economic significance at the very beginning:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product, which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

Here we see a combination of global market interests and a supposed natural law which made blacks the only appropriate agricultural workers. Southern slavery is said to be essential for world “commerce and civilization.”

Georgia’s declaration of secession also centers around slavery, and it makes a direct connection to westward expansion:

We had acquired a large territory by successful war with Mexico; Congress had to govern it; how, in relation to slavery, was the question then demanding solution. This state of facts gave form and shape to the anti-slavery sentiment throughout the North and the conflict began. Northern anti-slavery men of all parties asserted the right to exclude slavery from the territory by Congressional legislation and demanded the prompt and efficient exercise of this power to that end. This insulting and unconstitutional demand was met with great moderation and firmness by the South. We had shed our blood and paid our money for its acquisition; we demanded a division of it on the line of the Missouri restriction or an equal participation in the whole of it. These propositions were refused, the agitation became general, and the public danger was great. The case of the South was impregnable. The price of the acquisition was the blood and treasure of both sections – of all, and, therefore, it belonged to all upon the principles of equity and justice.

Notice that the Georgians are not opposed to conquest and the annexation of new territory. To the contrary, they claimed responsibility and joint ownership over this new territory. Thus there was no anti-imperial South. The Georgia declaration concludes with the observation that the South is essentially being robbed of three billion dollars worth of property.

The Texas declaration of secession repeats many of the themes already stated, and it highlights racial inequality as a natural law:

In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color – a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.

The declaration concludes by stating its belief in white supremacy and that the current status of negro slavery was a part of the “revealed will of the Almighty Creator”:

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.

That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.

The Commissioner from the state of Louisiana wrote to the Texas secession convention at around this same time, and he revealed Louisiana’s commitment to negro slavery as an essential feature of their economy and political existence:

Louisiana looks to the formation of a Southern confederacy to preserve the blessings of African slavery, and of the free institutions of the founders of the Federal Union, be­queathed to their posterity. As her neighbor and sister State, she desires the hearty co-operation of Texas in the formation of a Southern Confederacy. She congratulates herself on the recent disposi­tion evinced by your honorable body to meet this wish, by the elec­tion of delegates to the Montgomery convention. Louisiana and Texas have the same language, laws and institutions. They grow the same great staples—sugar and cotton. Between the citizens of each exists the most cordial social and commercial intercourse. The Red river and the Sabine form common highways for the transpor­tation of their produce to the markets of the world. Texas affords to the commerce of Louisiana a large portion of her products, and in exchange the banks of New Orleans furnish Texas with her only paper circulating medium. Louisiana supplies to Texas a market for her surplus wheat, grain and stock; both States have large areas of fer­tile, uncultivated lands, peculiarly adapted to slave labor; and they are both so deeply interested in African slavery that it may be said to be absolutely necessary to their existence, and is the keystone to the arch of their prosperity.

The Commissioner virtually identifies slavery and the Confederacy, speaking about slavery as the primary goal of the new political entity. It also argues the seceding states must not remain independent, but rather band together for one another’s continued existence:

The people of Louisiana would consider it a most fatal blow to African slavery, if Texas either did not secede or having seceded should not join her destinies to theirs in a Southern Confederacy…The people of the slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and deter­mination to preserve African slavery. The isolation of any one of them from the others would make her the theatre for abolition emisa­ries from the North and from Europe. Her existence would be one of constant peril to herself and of imminent danger to other neighboring slave-holding communities…She is unwill­ing that her action should depend on the border States. Her inter­ests are identical with Texas and the seceding States. With them she will at present co-operate, hoping and believing in his own good time God will awaken the people of the border States to the vanity of ask­ing for; or depending upon, guarantees or compromises wrung from a people whose consciences are too sublimated to be bound by that sacred compact, the constitution the of the late United States. That constitution the Southern States have never violated, and taking it as the basis of our new government we hope to form a slave-holding confederacy that will secure to us and our remotest posterity the great blessings its authors designed in the Federal Union. With the social balance wheel of slavery to regulate its machinery, we may fondly indulge the hope that our Southern government will be perpetual.

Slavery is clearly the primary interest, and so the slave-holding states should not make themselves dependent on states which do not share that interest. Slavery is said to be a “social balance wheel,” and thus the hope was for a new “perpetual” government.

Concluding Thoughts 

Civil War history is thick, and there is much more we could say about all of this. I have not presented anything which professional historians have not rehearsed many times before and in better detail. But what I do hope is clear is that the Confederacy really was distinguished by its commitment to slavery. The concept of states rights was certainly relevant to the conversation, but this was never merely an abstract interest in anti-federalism but rather a commitment to preserve the right for states to possess slaves. Therefore when terms like “Southern rights,” “minority rights,” “liberty,” and “tyranny” are used, they are always in direct connection to the debate over slavery. And when leaders of the Confederacy had the opportunity to explain what was new and special about their government, they went right to the question of slavery.

Southern slavery was not a continuation of ancient slavery. Western Europe had done away with that system, and the new system of slavery only came about with the new exploration of the Americas. The institution of slavery in the South was “peculiar,” as they called it, and it was totally bound up in early modern political developments, the emerging agrarian markets, and a new sort of racial theory which the Southerners saw as a new chapter in  history. All of this, taken as a whole, is what makes up the identity of the Confederacy. There was certainly a commitment to chivalrous protocol, Christian orthodoxy, and early American heritage among the peoples and communities of the South. However, none of those things managed to feature in the leading identity markers of the Confederate States of America. They were not unique to the mid-19th century South and were therefore not distinguishing characteristics. The distinguishing marks were racial inequality and an agrarian economy built on slavery.

Having laid all of this out then, the question that usually arises is whether we must then reject the South and Southern heritage as a whole and declaim it as villainous. The answer to this questions depends upon two other questions. “Do you believe that the distinguishing marks of white supremacy and slavery are immoral and worthy of rejection?” and “Are you willing to make efforts to clearly distinguish between the inheritance of Southern culture and the legacy of the Confederacy?”

My own answer to both of those questions is yes.


4 thoughts on “Slavery Was Essential to Southern Political Theory

  1. It seems like it would be complementary to these thoughts to exposit the North’s own commitments to white supremacy in its peculiarly northern form, such as the Free Soilers’ desire to create a West free of blacks (free OR slave). The South tended to fixate on a white supremacy characterized by desire for subjugation, while the North tended to fixate on a white supremacy characterized by fear of black contamination. Lincoln, for instance, unequivocally endorsed an Illinois law forbidding free blacks to take up residence in the state, and publically disclaimed more than once any belief on his part in racial equality. Contemplating these matters might free us from looking for the “right” side of the War so that instead we can focus on what we can learn from the ideologies of both sides.

  2. Hey Steven,

    There’s a lot of good stuff here, but I’d like to suggest that your research is only partially complete. By way of analogy, if you wanted to dig into the field of biblical studies, your conclusions would depend a lot on whether you read Bart Ehrman or F.F. Bruce. In your previous post you made the case that the Southern cause bore little resemblance to the Jeffersonian agrarian philosophy that is claimed for it today. At least since the sixties Southern studies have focused entirely on slavery and slaveholding, and there is obvious political play to this topic. But the bedrock of the South was the great body of independent farmers centered between the planters and the frontier. The classic work arguing this point is Frank Lawrence Owsley’s “Plain Folk of the Old South” (1949), still the most exhaustive research into this topic. There is plenty of truth to your claims for the politics of slavery, but given that these “plain folk” were the most numerous voting and military class of the region, it seems that the picture you paint of the Old South is incomplete.

    The evidence you present from the articles of secession from the various Deep South states is also incomplete because it doesn’t include the Upper South. My own state, for example, did not secede over slavery, but only took that final step as an alternative to complying with Lincoln’s demand for troops (a pure states-rights position). Virginia, Tennessee, and Arkansas seceded on the same provocation. North Carolina and Virginia supplied an enormously disproportionate amount of soldiers and officers to the Confederate army and filled many official posts within the Confederate government. It seems evident the Upper South should be given similar weight to the Deep South when it comes to defining the motives for secession, the causes for which her soldiers fought, and indeed the identity of the Confederacy.

    Your statements here and elsewhere regarding the alleged plans for imperial expansion are also only half of the picture. The “fire-eater” and King Cotton advocates were merely a faction within the South, and a much-decried one at times. A heated minority can always cause agitation and set in motion events disproportionate to their numbers. Nevertheless, almost all Southern Whigs and many Democratic leaders, including not a few Deep South planters, favored restraint and compromise until Lincoln’s actions mooted their position. (William Scarborough’s “Masters of the Big House” (2003) is an illuminating work on the “one percenters” of the planter class and their rather tepid engagement with secession and war.) Even in the economic heyday of the 1850’s, some thoughtful leaders such as William Gilmore Simms were suggesting the end of the plantation system within a few decades. When the issue of re-opening the slave trade was briefly aired in South Carolina, it was quickly shut down by gentry from Charleston and elsewhere on humane and religious grounds; the final nail was put in that coffin by the Confederate constitution itself. And Calhoun himself was a voice of reason, and one of a strong Southern minority in the tradition of Jefferson and Randolph, who uttered many phillipics against US expansion into Mexico and other imperial joyriding. The Yanceys and Rhetts and their fire-eating friends were a distinct minority and their daydreams of Caribbean expansion had no play in the newly formed Confederacy.

    Although you engaged with the political economy of Southern slavery with a great deal of insight, I think a more complete view of the topic can be gained by remembering the American context. Nowhere was straight-up racial equality an option in America. The North dealt with the problem with harsh Black Codes, some states even forbidding blacks to take up permanent residence anywhere within their borders. The South dealt with the issue through a paternalistic slave-holding system. (I don’t mean paternalistic in a sentimental sense.) As they would repeatedly state, they viewed slavery as a “domestic institution”, as a Galatians 4 style bondage that would result in their elevation, civilization, and Christianization over time. George Fitzhugh argued, in view of the horrible plight of free blacks in the inner cities of the North, that, if thrown into direct market competition with white labor, African Americans would have been quickly reduced to utter economic degradation and perhaps even exterminated.

    Travelers such as de Tocqueville and Olmsted would remark (in the case of the latter with some horror) at the relaxed familiarity between the two races (again I don’t mean this in a sentimental way, since the intercourse was strictly on a basis of inequality). Without intending in the slightest to justify or excuse slavery, it seems clear to me that of the two options current in America at the time, the South’s path was the more humane one. Donald Livingstone of Emory University has argued pretty convincingly that of the two sections, the South held out the most promise for improved race relations because of the paternalistic nature of their inequality, versus the hostile and segregationist nature of Northern racial inequality. Indeed, the nadir of Southern race relations did not occur until two to three generations after the War when the Southern states eventually adopted the Jim Crow laws of the North and Midwest.

    Again I don’t mean any of that last paragraph as an attempt to justify Southern slavery in principle, but merely to suggest that if we are judging them by the standards of their time–the first rule of history–then it seems clear that the South’s behavior on the race question was overall less hateful, more humane, and held more promise for future improvement, than the alternative positions existing in the Union.

    Lastly, I believe it’s also misleading to deal with slavery as a stand-alone doctrine in the Southern philosophy. The South of the 1850s (especially South Carolina, most especially Charleston) combined a progressive approach with an orthodox faith that was unique in the western world at the time. While slavery was key to their political economy and their trump card in the capital-labor revolutions then shaking the western world, their political economy itself was part of a more comprehensive philosophy that expressed itself positively in dealing with land-use and conservation questions; calling attention to the role of minorities, including slaves, Indians, and women in shaping history; the political protection of minority institutions within government; the active role of women in policy-making and intellectual leadership; and other progressive solutions that the modern West is only now beginning to grapple with. And remember, they did all this out of orthodox Christianity and a traditional family arrangement. On the negative side, they mounted a vigorous attack on feminism (by these same women leaders), unrestrained individualism, political patronage, elitism, corporatism, capitalism, communism, social Darwinism, and the rest of the -isms of the rapidly secularizing West.

    The point of all that is to say, slavery was only one point in a much larger tradition of Southern thought that stood entirely alone in the Western world in resisting the de-Christianizing tide of the times. Judge them for slavery by all means, but remember how it was tied into the rest of their philosophy, acknowledge what that philosophy represented in the context of Western civilization in the 19th century, and perhaps ponder a little what role an intact South might have played in the 20th century.

  3. Hi Kent,

    This essay was not intended to be a “complete” picture of the South. The point was to hammer home the fact that slavery was in fact essential and inseparable from the Southern cause and that the older “narrative” is still mostly correct (contra the revisionist attempts of our small neck of the woods). This doesn’t mean that there isn’t considerable diversity to be found within the South of the time, but it does mean that the forest is still the forest and the trees are still the trees. As such, I can agree with a lot of what you say, but I’ll interact with a few sections.

    You state:

    “…given that these ‘plain folk’ were the most numerous voting and military class of the region, it seems that the picture you paint of the Old South is incomplete.”

    And: “My own state, for example, did not secede over slavery, but only took that final step as an alternative to complying with Lincoln’s demand for troops (a pure states-rights position). Virginia, Tennessee, and Arkansas seceded on the same provocation. North Carolina and Virginia supplied an enormously disproportionate amount of soldiers and officers to the Confederate army and filled many official posts within the Confederate government. It seems evident the Upper South should be given similar weight to the Deep South when it comes to defining the motives for secession, the causes for which her soldiers fought, and indeed the identity of the Confederacy.”

    There are two different issues here, the causes for which the “plain folks” and average soldier fought and then “the identity of the Confederacy.” .

    The plain folks and average soldier did indeed fight for country and family. I think this is obvious, and it is the case with pretty much every war in human history. As John Fogerty and Ozzy Osbourne both teach us, the rich folk leave the fighting of wars to the poor. There’s certainly an elite class to be found on the officer level, but the rank and file who made up the majority of soldiers were not really connected to the political leadership or the larger political causes. So I don’t think this fact is going to be particularly relevant one way or the other. In fact, many of the rank and file soldiers were unsure about the Confederacy as a political program, and a good many of them deserted and even rebelled themselves. Laws like the “twenty Negro law” only made this situation worse, as it confirmed suspicions that the common folk were being manipulated by a planter elite.

    But to questions of “the identity of the Confederacy,” I think we have to say that the Upper South was following rather than leading. They had no clear unifying vision beyond a sense of “Southernness” and the fear that they would be taken over by a hostile North. You can find strong divisions within both VA and NC about slavery, secession, states rights, etc. With VA, they actually lost their northwestern region due to secession. Had the Confederacy won the war and gone on to develop and mature, then perhaps these states could have made varying contributions, or perhaps they would have themselves developed into more hardline slavery proponents as all the pressure would have pushed them this way. Regardless, such an opportunity never developed. As it is, we have the border states joining a project begun by the Deep South and thus choosing to cast their lot in with that identity.

    Now, on to the “humaneness” issue. You write:

    “The South dealt with the issue through a paternalistic slave-holding system. (I don’t mean paternalistic in a sentimental sense.) As they would repeatedly state, they viewed slavery as a “domestic institution”, as a Galatians 4 style bondage that would result in their elevation, civilization, and Christianization over time. George Fitzhugh argued, in view of the horrible plight of free blacks in the inner cities of the North, that, if thrown into direct market competition with white labor, African Americans would have been quickly reduced to utter economic degradation and perhaps even exterminated.”

    Also: ” if we are judging them by the standards of their time–the first rule of history–then it seems clear that the South’s behavior on the race question was overall less hateful, more humane, and held more promise for future improvement, than the alternative positions existing in the Union.”

    I think there’s a little bit right in this but a lot wrong, and I don’t think we want to say that the South had the best option on the table. Fitzhugh is an interesting character, to be sure. He wanted to enslave even white people! And he saw this as a corrective to both capitalism and socialism, a great “third way” perhaps which would use slavery as the way to provide a social services to those among the lower class. An argument can be made that current progressivist thought on these topics is not wholly different, substituting wage slavery for chattel slavery. But I don’t think that’s a good defense of Fitzhugh.

    Fitzhugh did oppose the racialist definition of slavery, but, as the statements I gave in the post show, his position did not manage to win out (and I can’t imagine that it would have been attractive to those “plain folk” in the hill country!). The leading politicians and key official documents made it clear that the slavery of the Confederacy would be negro slavery, and the philosophy which developed came to espouse the belief that this was a divine hierarchy.

    What about the South having the best option? Well, perhaps some sort of agrarian-socialist-capitalist hybrid could have been crafted in such a way as to maximize humane treatment, but again, that did not happen. What happened was that the Southern philosophy turned in an inhumane direction, arguing that the negro occupied a lower caste and immutably so. He might be “human,” but he was not equal nor capable of being equal.

    As you mention, and as others always say, no one at the time was supportive of total equality. True enough. And the commitment to total equality is itself very complicated and in need of clear definition. However, what both Calhoun and Stephens show us is that the South understood itself as taking a step away from notions of equality which had earlier been held. Stephens makes it explicit that Jefferson and the other fathers were wrong to grant the negro a sort of potential equality stemming from universal human rights. The great new truth of the Confederacy was precisely in racial hierarchy. And so whatever short-term practical advantages the Southern economy may have offered over and against other models, the long-term was one with hard boundary lines.

    And it seems to me that that’s the big point for us. The 19th century South could have been many things, but it became one thing. That one thing was what the Confederacy said about itself and enshrined into law. Any attempt to attach oneself to the names, images, and philosophies of the Old South will have to admit the fact that doing so also attaches oneself to the actual Confederacy. If we want to reclaim the good from the Old South, we cannot do that by trying to ignore or redefine the Confederacy. We must instead demonstrate a critical difference between the retrievable good and what the Confederacy became.

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