Review of Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation

Robert Cook reviews Bruce Levine’s new book, Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the War over at H-South.  Here is the first part:

In an interview with Dan Wakefield of _The Nation_ in January 1960, Karl Betts, executive director of the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission, made it clear that awkward facts would have no part in the upcoming commemoration of America’s greatest trial. When asked if any effort would be made to mark the centenary of emancipation, Betts responded, “We’re not emphasizing Emancipation. You see there’s a bigger theme–the beginning of a new America. There was an entire regiment of Negroes about to be formed to serve in the Confederate Army just before the war ended. The story of the devotion and loyalty of Southern Negroes is one of the outstanding things of the Civil War. A lot of fine Negro people loved life as it was in the old South.”

Half a century ago views like this were unremarkable. What was, for white supremacists, the comforting myth of black loyalty to the Confederacy held firm in spite of growing awareness inside the academythat, given half a chance (or less), enslaved southern blacks were willing to abandon their masters and, in the case of two hundred thousand adult males, enlist in the armed services of the United States to defeat the aspirant proslavery republic whose forces were arrayed against it. Half a century on, it is depressing to report that views akin to those of Karl Betts are still alive and kicking. Visitors to the Georgia Heritage Coalition website will find a recent 32-part series by Bill Vallante (a Confederate battle reenactor currently “living ‘behind enemy lines’” in New York state) attempting to detail the military support given to the Confederacy by southern blacks and to debunk the efforts of “liberal” historians to undermine “the truth.” Like it or not, historians of the American South are in the front line of the modern culture wars. What we need urgently, however, is not crusading history (for that will be dismissed or ignored by those without an attachment to the crusade), but good history that can be diffused effectively across the country. We are fortunate, then, that Bruce Levine is an accomplished historian and that he has fashioned a coherent and accessible analysis of the tortured Confederate debate over the military mobilization of slaves.

I checked out the link provided for Vallante and lo and behold a little exchange that we had a few months ago made it on his website.  Apparently, Vallante was not pleased with the content of my blog.  What a surprise.  Here is Vallante’s commentary.  Notice that he did not provide a link to my site.  Again, what a surprise:

Recently I sparred with a (white) neo-abolitionist blogger who had, in his daily rants, written a tribute to Martin Luther King. Flanking this tribute however were two “pot-shots” at General Lee, whose birthday comes at about the same time as King’s, and several pot-shots at the SCV.

I asked him why it was that he seemed unable to stay in his own little corner and have a good time celebrating something he sees as important without going over to someone else’s corner and poking fun at something that someone else considers important? “What is it”, I asked, “about you people that makes you so inclined to be pests?”

Needless to say, he did not appreciate my sarcasm. His response was as follows:

“First of all it is not “your corner” or anyone’s corner for that matter. It’s called American history and my blog’s theme focuses on the way in which Americans have chosen to remember their past. In large part and in reference to the Civil War this has involved highlighting an idealized Confederate past by ignoring the contributions of African Americans.”

I didn’t really expect the blogger, a transplanted yankee/liberal teacher now living in Virginia, to comprehend the philosophy of “live and let live”, so his failure to comprehend my analogy of staying in his own “corner” didn’t really surprise me. Besides, “Live and Let Live” has never been the liberal way.

What is significant however, is his reference to an “idealized Confederate past” and “ignoring the contributions of African Americans”. Contemporary (liberal) historians often describe this notion with the phrase, “Civil War Memory”, a phrase popularized by Amherst historian/professor David Blight. Blight and those like him maintain that our “memory” of the war is in error, and that the way Americans “remember” the war has left the African American out in the cold. Of course, Mr. Blight and company intend to remedy this situation. Remember the phrase because you’ll be hearing more and more of it as America draws closer to the 150th Anniversary of the “Civil War.

This is a great example of how not to argue about history.  Perhaps I will use it as an example next year in one of my classes.  Thanks Bill.

5 comments… add one

  • James W. King Jul 21, 2006

    THE 10 CAUSES OF THE WAR BETWEEN THE STATES
    Historians have long debated the causes of the war and the Southern perspective differs greatly from the Northern perspective. Based upon the study of original documents of the
    War Between The States (Civil War) era and facts and information published by Confederate Veterans, Confederate Chaplains, Southern writers and Southern Historians before, during, and after the war, I present the facts, opinions, and conclusions stated in the following article.
    I respectfully disagree with those who claim that the War Between the States was fought over slavery or that the abolition of slavery in the Revolutionary Era or early Federal period would have prevented war. It is my opinion that war was inevitable between the North and South due to complex political and personal differences. The famous Englishman Winston Churchill stated that the war between the North and South was one of the most unpreventable wars in history. The Cause that the Confederate States of America fought for (1861-1865) was Southern Independence from the United States of America. Many parallels exist between the War for American Independence ( 1775-1783 ) and the War for Southern Independence.
    There were 10 political causes of the war —one of which was slavery– which was a scapegoat for all the differences that existed between the North and South. The Northern industrialists had wanted a war since about 1830 to get the South’s resources ( land-cotton-coal-timber-minerals ) for pennies on the dollar. All wars are economic and are always between centralists and decentralists.The North would have found an excuse to invade the South even if slavery had never existed.
    A war almost occurred during 1828-1832 over the tariff when South Carolina passed nullification laws. The U.S. congress had increased the tariff rate on imported products to 40% ( known as the tariff of abominations in Southern States ). This crisis had nothing to do with slavery. If slavery had never existed –period–or had been eliminated at the time the Declaration of Independence was written in 1776 or anytime prior to 1860 it is my opinion that there would still have been a war sooner or later.
    On a human level there were 4 causes of the war–New England Greed–New England Fanatics–New England Zealots–and New England Hypocrites. During “So Called Reconstruction” ( 1865-1877 ) the New England Industrialists got what they had really wanted for 40 years–THE SOUTH’S RESOURCES FOR PENNIES ON THE DOLLAR. It was a political coalition between the New England economic interests and the New England fanatics and zealots that caused Southern secession to be necessary for economic survival and safety of the population.

    1. TARIFF–Prior to the war about 75% of the money to operate the Federal Government was derived from the Southern States via an unfair sectional tariff on imported goods and 50% of the total 75% was from just 4 Southern states–Virginia-North Carolina–South Carolina and Georgia. Only 10%–20% of this tax money was being returned to the South. The Southern states were being treated as an agricultural colony of the North and bled dry. John Randolph of Virginia’s remarks in opposition to the tariff of 1820 demonstrates that fact. The North claimed that they fought the war to preserve the Union but the New England Industrialists who were in control of the North were actually supporting preservation of the Union to maintain and increase revenue from the tariff. The industrialists wanted the South to pay for the industrialization of America at no expense to themselves. Revenue bills introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives prior to the War Between the States were biased, unfair and inflammatory to the South. Abraham Lincoln had promised the Northern industrialists that he would increase the tariff rate if he was elected president of the United States. Lincoln increased the rate to a level that exceeded even the “Tariff of Abominations” 40% rate that had so infuriated the South during the 1828-1832 era ( between 50 and 51% on iron goods). The election of a president that was Anti-Southern on all issues and politically associated with the New England industrialists, fanatics, and zealots brought about the Southern secession movement.

    2. CENTRALIZATION VERSUS STATES RIGHTS—The United States of America was founded as a Constitutional Federal Republic in 1789 composed of a Limited Federal Government and Sovereign States. The North wanted to and did alter the form of Government this nation was founded upon. The Confederate States of America fought to preserve Constitutional Limited Federal Government as established by America’s founding fathers who were primarily Southern Gentlemen from Virginia. Thus Confederate soldiers were fighting for rights that had been paid for in blood by their forefathers upon the battlefields of the American Revolution. Abraham Lincoln had a blatant disregard for The Constitution of the United States of America. His War of aggression Against the South changed America from a Constitutional Federal Republic to a Democracy ( with Socialist leanings ) and broke the original Constitution. The infamous Socialist Karl Marx sent Lincoln a letter of congratulations after his reelection in 1864. A considerable number of European Socialists came to America and fought for the Union (North).

    3. CHRISTIANITY VERSUS SECULAR HUMANISM–The South believed in basic Christianity as presented in the Holy Bible.The North had many Secular Humanists ( atheists, transcendentalists and non-Christians ). Southerners were afraid of what kind of country America might become if the North had its way. Secular Humanism is the belief that there is no God and that man,science and government can solve all problems. This philosophy advocates human rather than religious values. Reference : Frank Conner’s book “The South Under Siege 1830-2000.”

    4. CULTURAL DIFFERENCES–Southerners and Northerners were of different Genetic Lineages. Southerners were primarily of Western English (original Britons),Scottish,and Irish linage (Celtic) whereas Northerners tended to be of Anglo-Saxon and Danish (Viking) extraction. The two cultures had been at war and at odds for over 1000 years before they arrived in America. Our ancient ancestors in Western England under King Arthur humbled the Saxon princes at the battle of Baden Hill ( circa 497 AD –516 AD ). The cultural differences that contributed to the War Between the States (1861-1865 ) had existed for 1500 years or more.

    5. CONTROL OF WESTERN TERRITORIES–The North wanted to control Western States and Territories such as Kansas and Nebraska. New England formed Immigrant Aid Societies and sent settlers to these areas that were politically attached to the North. They passed laws against slavery that Southerners considered punitive. These political actions told Southerners they were not welcome in the new states and territories. It was all about control–slavery was a scapegoat.

    6. NORTHERN INDUSTRIALISTS WANTED THE SOUTH’S RESOURCES. The Northern Industrialists wanted a war to use as an excuse to get the South’s resources for pennies on the dollar. They began a campaign about 1830 that would influence the common people of the North and create enmity that would allow them to go to war against the South. These Northern Industrialists brought up a morality claim against the South alleging the evils of slavery. The Northern Hypocrites conveniently neglected to publicize the fact that 5 New England States ( Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and New York ) were primarily responsible for the importation of most of the slaves from Africa to America. These states had both private and state owned fleets of ships.

    7. SLANDER OF THE SOUTH BY NORTHERN NEWSPAPERS. This political cause ties in to the above listed efforts by New England Industrialists. Beginning about 1830 the Northern Newspapers began to slander the South. The Industrialists used this tool to indoctrinate the common people of the North. They used slavery as a scapegoat and brought the morality claim up to a feverish pitch. Southerners became tired of reading in the Northern Newspapers about what bad and evil people they were just because their neighbor down the road had a few slaves. This propaganda campaign created hostility between the ordinary citizens of the two regions and created the animosity necessary for war. The Northern Industrialists worked poor whites in the factories of the North under terrible conditions for 18 hours a day ( including children ). When the workers became old and infirm they were fired. It is a historical fact that during this era there were thousands of old people living homeless on the streets in the cities of the North. In the South a slave was cared for from birth to death. Also the diet and living conditions of Southern slaves was superior to that of most white Northern factory workers. Southerners deeply resented this New England hypocrisy and slander.

    8. NEW ENGLANDERS ATTEMPTED TO INSTIGATE MASSIVE SLAVE REBELLIONS IN THE SOUTH. Abolitionists were a small but vocal and militant group in New England who demanded instant abolition of slavery in the South. These fanatics and zealots were calling for massive slave uprisings that would result in the murder of Southern men, women and children. Southerners were aware that such an uprising had occurred in Santa Domingo in the 1790 era and that the French (white) population had been massacred. The abolitionists published a terrorist manifesto and tried to smuggle 100,000 copies into the South showing slaves how to murder their masters at night. Then when John Brown raided Harpers Ferry,Virginia in 1859 the political situation became inflammatory. Prior to this event there had been five times as many abolition societies in the South as in the North. Lincoln and most of the Republican Party ( 64 members of congress ) had adopted a political platform in support of terrorist acts against the South. Some (allegedly including Lincoln) had contributed monetarily as supporters of John Browns terrorist activities.. Again slavery was used as a scapegoat for all differences that existed between the North and South.

    9. SLAVERY. Indirectly slavery was a cause of the war. Most Southerners did not own slaves and would not have fought for the protection of slavery. However they believed that the North had no Constitutional right to free slaves held by citizens of Sovereign Southern States. Prior to the war there were five times as many abolition societies in the South as in the North. Virtually all educated Southerners were in favor of gradual emancipation of slaves. Gradual emancipation would have allowed the economy and labor system of the South to gradually adjust to a free paid labor system without economic collapse. Furthermore, since the New England States were responsible for the development of slavery in America, Southerners saw the morality claims by the North as blatant hypocrisy. The first state to legalize slavery had been Massachusetts in 1641 and this law was directed primarily at Indians. In colonial times the economic infrastructure of the port cities of the North was dependent upon the slave trade. The first slave ship in America, “THE DESIRE”, was fitted out in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Further proof that Southerners were not fighting to preserve slavery is found in the diary of an officer in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. He stated that “he had never met a man in the Army of Northern Virginia that claimed he was fighting to preserve slavery”. If the war had been over slavery, the composition of the politicians, officers, enlisted men, and even African Americans would have been different. Confederate General Robert E. Lee had freed his slaves (Custis estate) prior to 1863 whereas Union General Grant’s wife Julia did not free her slaves until after the war when forced to do so by the 13th amendment to the constitution and court action. Grant even stated that if the abolitionists claimed he was fighting to free slaves that he would offer his services to the South. Mildred Lewis Rutherford ( 1852-1928 ) was for many years the historian for the United Daughters Of The Confederacy (UDC). In her book Truths Of History she stated that there were more slaveholders in the Union Army ( 315,000 ) than the Confederate Army ( 200,000 ). Statistics also show that about 300,000 blacks supported the Confederacy versus about 200,000 for the Union. Clearly the war would have been fought along different lines if it had been fought over slavery. The famous English author Charles Dickens stated “ the Northern onslaught upon Southern slavery is a specious piece of humbug designed to mask their desire for the economic control of the Southern states.”

    10, NORTHERN AGGRESSION AGAINST SOUTHERN STATES, Proof that Abraham Lincoln wanted war may be found in the manner he handled the Fort Sumter incident. Original correspondence between Lincoln and Naval Captain G.V.Fox shows proof that Lincoln acted with deceit and willfully provoked South Carolina into firing on the fort ( A TARIFF COLLECTION FACILITY ). It was politically important that the South be provoked into firing the first shot so that Lincoln could claim the Confederacy started the war. Additional proof that Lincoln wanted war is the fact that Lincoln refused to meet with a Confederate peace delegation. They remained in Washington for 30 days and returned to Richmond only after it became apparent that Lincoln wanted war and refused to meet and discuss a peace agreement. After setting up the Fort Sumter incident for the purpose of starting a war, Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to put down what he called a rebellion. He intended to march Union troops across Virginia and North Carolina to attack South Carolina. Virginia and North Carolina were not going to allow such an unconstitutional and criminal act of aggression against a sovereign sister Southern State. Lincoln’s act of aggression caused the secession of the upper Southern States.
    On April 17th 1861, Governor Letcher of Virginia sent this message to Washington DC: “ I have only to say that the militia of Virginia will not be furnished to the powers of Washington for any such use or purpose as they have in view. Your object is to subjugate the Southern states and the requisition made upon me for such a object-an object in my judgement not within the purview of the constitution or the act of 1795, will not be complied with. You have chosen to inaugurate civil war; having done so we will meet you in a spirit as determined as the administration has exhibited toward the South.”

    The WAR BETWEEN THE STATES 1861-1865 occurred due to many complex causes and factors as enumerated above. Those who make claims that “the war was over slavery” or that if slavery had been abolished in 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was signed or in 1789 when The Constitution of the United States of America was signed, that war would not have occurred between North and South are being very simplistic in their views and opinions.

    The Union victory in 1865 destroyed the right of secession in America,which had been so cherished by America’s founding fathers as the principle of their revolution. British historian and political philosopher Lord Acton, one of the most intellectual figures in Victorian England, understood the deeper meaning of Southern defeat. In a letter to former Confederate General Robert E. Lee dated November 4,1866, Lord Acton wrote ” I saw in States Rights the only available check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy. I deemed you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization and I mourn for that which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo (defeat of Napoleon). As Illinois Governor Richard Yates stated in a message to his state assembly on January 2,1865, the war had ” tended, more than any other event in the history of the country, to militate against the Jeffersonian Ideal ( Thomas Jefferson ) that the best government is that which governs least.
    Years after the war former Confederate president Jefferson Davis stated ” I Am saddened to Hear Southerners Apologize For Fighting To Preserve Our Inheritance”. Some years later former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt stated ” Those Who Will Not Fight For The Graves Of Their Ancestors Are Beyond Redemption”.

    James W. King
    Commander Camp 141
    Lt. Col. Thomas M. Nelson
    Sons of Confederate Veterans
    PO Box 70577 Albany, Georgia 31708
    229-436-0397
    jkingantiquearms@bellsouth.net

  • Mike Griffith Jul 22, 2006

    In his worthwhile book Confederate Emancipation, Bruce Levine goes out of his way to paint the worst possible picture of the Confederacy’s move toward emancipation. Levine’s book is a gold mine of valuable information, but Levine’s bias blazes through on every page.

    Mike Griffith

    For example, Levine goes so far as to suggest that Robert E. Lee was lying when he said he was glad that slavery had been abolished.

    Levine omits a great deal of evidence that contradicts his negative portrayal of Confederate emancipation.

    Levine’s argument is basically this: The CSA only moved toward emancipation as last-gasp act of desperation. Southern whites planned on keeping freedmen in a state of virtual slavery. Confederate emancipation was essentially going to be an illusion that would satisfy the country’s critics while allowing Southern whites to maintain control. And, oh yes, the Confederacy’s primary reason for fighting was to preserve slavery.

    When Levine does choose to deal with facts that put the Confederacy in any kind of good light, he does all in his power to frame those facts as negatively as possible. For instance, he admits that the majority of Confederate soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia actually voted for emancipation, but he suggests that it was only Lee’s support for the proposal that caused them to do so.

    There is a great deal of context missing in Levine’s book. His argument that the Confederates only considered emancipation in desperation would look much different if the reader were informed that the Union only considered using black soldiers in desperation (as Union casualties continued to mount), that Lincoln himself doggedly opposed the use of blacks as soldiers, and that many Republicans who supported using blacks as troops openly said the reason for their support was that they would rather see blacks killed than whites. Even after the Radicals finally pressured Lincoln into using black soldiers, Lincoln refused to give them equal pay (about a year later Congress made their pay equal to that of white soldiers).

    Another big item of context missing from Levine’s book is with regard to his argument that Southern whites intended to keep blacks in an inferior status. My goodness, what did Northern whites do to Northern blacks for decades before and after the war? They treated them terribly. Anyone who doubts this should read James and Lois Horton’s book In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860. And how many blacks did Northern whites allow into the western territories? Very few, lest blacks compete with whites for manual labor jobs. But Levine never explains any of these facts to his readers.

    Also missing from Levine’s book is any mention of the numerous cases where Southern whites expressed outrage at the charge that the South was fighting primarily or only to preserve slavery. They expressed this anger in private letters, in newspaper editorials, and in conversations.

    Further information missing from Levine’s book is information (1) about the true conditions in which most slaves lived and (2) about how many slaves showed loyalty to their masters and to the Confederacy, in many ways.

    Still, all this being said, Levine’s book is worth reading. As mentioned, it contains a wealth of important information. I would recommend also reading Robert Durden’s book on the subject The Gray and the Black: The Confederate Debate on Emancipation.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 22, 2006

    Hi Mike, — Thanks for writing in. While I disagree with many of your points it is nice to hear from someone who has actually read the book and is willing to deal with Levine’s argument.

    Let me start out by saying that I think it is a mistake to assume that Levine is trying to paint a certain picture of the Confederacy. Unless you have evidence that he set out to do so I think it is important to hold off on those types of judgments. That said, I don’t doubt that our personal backgrounds enter into our work, but we should be able to stick to the argument at hand. In other words, I don’t believe that Levine is trying to vindicate any side. He is trying to understand the evolution of the emancipation debate in the South. Of course blacks were treated poorly in the North both before and after the war. But criticizing Levine for not covering this simply misses the point of his book.

    You said: “Levine’s argument is basically this: The CSA only moved toward emancipation as last-gasp act of desperation. Southern whites planned on keeping freedmen in a state of virtual slavery. Confederate emancipation was essentially going to be an illusion that would satisfy the country’s critics while allowing Southern whites to maintain control. And, oh yes, the Confederacy’s primary reason for fighting was to preserve slavery.”

    You state this but fail to point out the mistakes in the way he handles his evidence. I think Levine’s argument is a bit more sophisticated than what you present here. Levine argues that the debate was more about what would lead to Confederate independence and not how to end slavery. In other words, a limited emancipation bill would perhaps be instrumental to saving the Confederacy. That even this limited idea was controversial is clearly borne out by the evidence. Few professional historians seriously debate the importance of slavery in understanding the secession of the Deep South following Lincoln’s election and I surely am not going to do so here.

    Given the rich histories that have been published in university and other mainstream presses I am also not going to address your final point regarding the “true conditions in which most slaves lived” and the loyalty of slaves. Finally, I’ve read Durden’s book, but unfortunately it sheds little light on the debate. The level of analysis in the book is quite poor. Thanks again for writing in Mike.

  • Mike Griffith Jul 22, 2006

    I’m reposting this because this blog’s software cut out all my quotations, apparently because I placed them inside arrows. This time I’ll use quotation marks and the word QUOTE in capital letters:

    QUOTE: “But criticizing Levine for not covering this simply misses the point of his book.”

    To ignore the evidence that Levine omits is to ignore one of the central problems with his book.

    My point is that Levine’s case is unfairly selective and out of context when one considers all the evidence that Levine ignores.

    QUOTE: “Few professional historians seriously debate the importance of slavery in understanding the secession of the Deep South following Lincoln’s election and I surely am not going to do so here.”

    I’m not talking about the role of slavery in secession. I’m talking about the role of slavery in the war. Secession and the war were two separate events, and the former did not have to lead to the latter–the Republicans chose war over peaceful coexistence.

    There can be no credible doubt that slavery was ultimately the chief cause of the secession of the seven Deep South states.

    But it’s equally clear that the war was not fought over slavery but rather over Southern independence. At no time did the Republicans offer to halt their invasion if the South would abandon slavery. The only condition for halting the invasion was that the South renounce its independence and rejoin the Union.

    QUOTE: “Levine argues that the debate was more about what would lead to Confederate independence and not how to end slavery.”

    This is an interesting, credible inference regarding the Confederate debate itself. Levine never actually makes this argment, however.

    In any case, I agree that the primary concern was how to achieve independence, that independence was the most important goal (not the preservation of slavery). The vast majority of Southerners were prepared to abandon slavery in order to secure the South’s independence.

    QUOTE: “Given the rich histories that have been published in university and other mainstream presses I am also not going to address your final point regarding the ‘true conditions in which most slaves lived’ and the loyalty of slaves.”

    One doesn’t get a uniform picture from mainstream sources on this issue. In my opinion, some authors, such as Stampp, go out of their way to emphasize the negative aspects of slavery to the point of presenting an unfair picture. I think these authors take the minority of cases and present them as if they were the norm.

    I believe some of the most balanced scholarship on the conditions of slavery has been done by Eugene Genovese in Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made.

    Of course, one should also consult what the slaves themselves said. Too many scholars tend to summarily dismiss the accounts in the WPA slave narratives because those accounts don’t fit the terror-filled abolitionist portrayal of the institution.

    The strong majority of the ex-slaves interviewed for the narratives who commented on their treatment indicated they were not abused and expressed respect for their former masters.

    If one argues, as many scholars do, that the narratives can’t be trusted, then how do we account for the fact that 20-30 percent of the ex-slaves were very critical of their former masters in those narratives? It seems weak and biased to argue that only the accounts that agree with the abolitionist claims about slavery are to be trusted.

    Yet, there is other information on how the slaves were treated, and that is the statistical data on such matters as the slaves’ life expectancy, suicide rate, housing, and wealth. Fogel and Engerman’s book Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery shows:

    * that slaves had a life expectancy comparable to that of European whites and Northern workers;

    * that slaves had a lower suicide rate than whites;

    * that slaves were able to keep as much, if not more, of the fruits of their labor than were Northern factory workers;

    * that slave housing was comparable to, if not better than, the housing of Northern factory workers;

    * that slaves were not underfed or undernourished;

    * that “slave breeding” was an abolitionist myth;

    * that most overseers were in fact black;

    * and that the vast majority of slave marriages were not broken up. (Even McPherson concedes, in his book Ordeal By Fire, that 66-80 percent of slave marriages were not broken up.)

    Economist and historian Jeffrey R. Hummel makes a good point about Fogel and Engerman’s book: Historians have generally rejected it, while economists have generally praised it.

    I think this says something about the bias of most modern historians. It seems they can’t grasp the fact that one can strongly condemn the practice of slavery but at the same time concede that in most cases it was administered humanely. If someone kidnaps my child but cares for him well, I can acknowledge the humane treatment without condoning the act of abduction.

    Finally, as to Levine’s bias, I think anyone who would go so far as to argue that Robert E. Lee was simply lying when he said he was glad slavery was abolished is showing that he has an overpowering anti-Southern bias. It is absurd, in my view, to deny that Lee was genuinely glad that slavery was abolished.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 22, 2006

    Mike, — Thanks for clarifying a few points for me. I actually think that Levine does make the argument that the emancipation debate reflects just how committed Confederates were to independence. I would have to go back to pick out the exact pages. You focus on the evidence that Levine doesn’t provide, but still have not cited it. I would be interested to know what the evidence is and how it specifically challenges Levine’s thesis. Of course we can talk about the actual conditions of slavery throughout the nation before the war and in different parts of the South during the last few decades of the antebellum period. That’s fine, but I don’t want to get into a discussion about what it says morally about a society that practices slavery – whether it’s the nation as a whole or just a section. I agree with John Locke that the institution of slavery at its core is an instituiton based on force. And I completely agree that the sources you cite are relevant in uncovering the reality of slavery as practiced in time and place. Remember, however, that much of Genovese’s study utilizes evidence from the 19th century.

    As to Lee’s view of slavery you are going to have to show where he accuses him of “lying.” On p. 92 Levine lays out his analysis of a few of Lee’s letters. Although I am not a fan of Alan Nolan’s book on Lee, I would also look at the sections on Lee and slavery. He has some interesting things to say.

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