It’s always interesting to watch the way the comments evolve in response to specific posts. In a recent post I made the mistake of mentioning Robert E. Lee, which led to a lengthy discussion in the comments section about his relationship to slavery. I was struck by a comment from one reader who characterized men like Lee and other Southerners as "trapped" by slavery. Here is his comment:
We will agree to disagree. It was a complicated relationship. Evil, for certain. But one in which whites felt they were trapped; trapped by their own ancestors’ doing, of course, but nonetheless trapped. Northerners had already built their industrial economy on the capital earned via the slave trade and did not have the same economic interest in slavery by the mid 19th century. It was convenient for them to condemn Southerners since they could do so from the security of an economy built upon the backs of slaves sold to Southerners. I maintain that Lee, like Jefferson and many other Virginians, hated the institution and would have preferred it "go away." Accusing Lee of doing what was "fashionable" reveals, I believe, a lack of understanding of the man’s true character. If reputation and "fashion" were his concerns, he would have chosen to ride to victory at Lincoln’s offer rather than suffer a humiliating defeat. Lee was first, a man of principle, not fashion.
I worry about this characterization of slaveholders. If they were "trapped" or unable to acknowledge an alternative then what are we to make of Southern ambassadors discussed by Charles Dew in Apostles of Disunion or Alexander Stephens’s "Cornerstone Speech"? These are people who have thought carefully about what it would mean if a system of white racial hierarchy were to cease to exist. In that speech he acknowledges that Jefferson and the rest of the boys believed "that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically." [I discussed this speech with my survey classes today.] My point is that to characterize Stephens and others as trapped is to ignore the fact that they were indeed aware of alternatives, but for the obvious reasons believed them to be reflective of Northern "fanaticism."
There is a tension between the scholarship of Gordon Wood who is fond of pointing out that to criticize the Founders for not following through and abolishing slavery is to accuse them of failing to arrive at a conclusion that they could not identify. I think Wood has a point here; we don’t want to engage in presentism, rather we want to identify as much as possible with the limits of their intellectual world. The problem is that there is a growing body of literature that highlights the extent to which white Southerners did voluntarily emancipate their slaves following the Revolution. The best book on this subject is Melvin Ely’s Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom From the 1790’s Through the Civil War. The book won a number of awards, including the Bancroft Prize. From the review in The Washington Post:
Now comes Melvin Patrick Ely’s Israel on the Appomattox, whose dissonances are likely to shake the usual orthodoxies. In colonial Virginia and across the upper South, slavery always had eminent critics, among them George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other great Virginians. Among their intellectual heirs was young Richard Randolph of Prince Edward County, a member of one of the state’s distinguished families who had enjoyed a Northern education at Columbia and Princeton. When he died in 1796, Randolph instructed his executors in a will that Ely calls "a ringing abolitionist manifesto" to free his slaves and settle them on family lands. Some two decades passed before his testamentary wishes were executed, but executed they were, in the face of some difficulty, by his faithful widow, Judith. Former slave families were installed on Randolph properties along the Appomattox River in a settlement called Israel Hill, a promised land. The community endured well into the 20th century until oral memory faded — it was studied late in the 19th century by a young W. E. B. DuBois — and many of its members achieved substantial economic independence. They became boatmen, hauling goods between Farmville and Petersburg, tobacco workers in early packing factories, farmers, woodworkers and other craftsmen.
Along with Ely’s book I also recommend Andrew Levy’s The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves. I am not suggesting that we use Randolph and Carter as our standard by which to judge the actions of all slaveholders, but we need to understand that slaveholders believed in their "peculiar institution" and were willing to fight a war to protect it.
The idea that slaveholders were trapped perhaps makes it easier to distance their actions – especially in the case of Lee, Jackson, and the rest of the Confederate pantheon – from slavery. Referencing Northerners drives home the image of slaveholders as trapped. Of course Northern involvement in slavery is essential to understanding its continued hold on the South and the nation, but that seems to me to have little to do with how white Southerners identified and worked to protect their slave-holding society.