Why Non-Slaveholders Will Fight For Slavery

DeBow's ReviewThe comment thread following the last post reflects the difficulty of coming to terms with the way in which slavery united white slaveholders and non-slaveholders of the South by the end of the antebellum period.  It is commonly assumed that because the majority of white southerners did not own slaves they had no interest in maintaining their “peculiar institution”.  It is therefore a mistake to characterize the Confederate war as a war to defend slavery.

This is an argument that would have been soundly rejected by many white southerners, including Louisianan J.D.B. DeBow, who wrote the following in his Review in January 1861:

The fact being conceded, that there is a very large class of persons in the slaveholding States who have no direct ownership in slaves . . . I think it but easy to show that the interest of the poorest non-slaveholder among us is to make common cause with, and die in the last trenches, in defence of the slave property of his more favored neighbor…

I will proceed to present several general considerations, which must be found powerful enough to influence the non-slaveholder . . .

1. The non-slaveholder of the South is assured that the remuneration afforded by his labor, over and above the expense of living, is larger than that which is afforded by the same labor in the free States. . . .

2. The non-slaveholders, as a class, are not reduced by the necessity of our condition, as is the case in the free States, to find employment in crowded cities, and come into competition in close and sickly workshops and factories, with remorseless and untiring machinery. . . .

3. The non-slaveholder is not subjected to that competition with foreign pauper labor which has degraded the free labor of the North, and demoralized it to an extent which perhaps can never be estimated. . . .

4. The non-slaveholder of the South preserves the status of the white man, and is not regarded as an inferior or a dependant. He is not told that the Declaration of Independence, when it says that all men are born free and equal, refers to the negro equally with himself. It is not proposed to him that the free negro’s vote shall weigh equally with his own at the ballot-box, and that the little children of both colors shall be mixed in the classes and benches of the schoolhouse, and embrace each other filially in its outside sports. It never occurs to him that a white man could be degraded enough to boast in a public assembly, as was recently done in New-York, of having actually slept with a negro. And his patriotic ire would crush with a blow the free negro who would dare, in his presence, as is done in the free States, to characterize the father of the country as a “scoundrel.” No white man at the South serves another as a body-servant, to clean his boots, wait on his table, and perform the menial services of his household! His blood revolts against this, and his necessities never drive him to it. He is a companion and an equal. When in the employ of the slaveholder, or in intercourse with him, he enters his hall, and has a seat at his table. If a distinction exists, it is only that which education and refinement may give, and this is so courteously exhibited as scarcely to strike attention. The poor white laborer at the North is at the bottom of the social ladder, while his brother here has ascended several steps, and can look down upon those who are beneath him at an infinite remove!

5. The non-slaveholder knows that as soon as his savings will admit, he can become a slaveholder, and thus relieve his wife from the necessities of the kitchen and the laundry, and his children from the labors of the field. . . .

6. The large slaveholders and proprietors of the South begin life in great part as non-slaveholders. . . .

7. But, should such fortune not be in reserve for the non-slaveholder, he will understand that by honesty and industry it may be realized to his children. . . .

8. The sons of the non-slaveholder are and have always been among the leading and ruling spirits of the South, in industry as well as in politics. . . .

9. Without the institution of slavery the great staple products of the South would cease to be grown, and the immense annual results which are distributed among every class of the community, and which give life to every branch of industry, would cease.

10. If emancipation be brought about, as will, undoubtedly be the case, unless the encroachments of the fanatical majorities of the North are resisted now, the slaveholders, in the main, will escape the degrading equality which must result, by emigration, for which they have the means, by disposing of their personal chattels, while the non-slaveholders, without these resources, would be compelled to remain and endure the degradation. . . .

It would be a mistake to interpret this narrowly as the sole reason as to why soldiers fought.  As we all know, volunteers were motivated by a wide range of factors.  Rather, we should interpret DeBow and others as suggesting that slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike understood the consequences of defeat.

Civil War Memory has moved to Substack! Don’t miss a single post. Subscribe below.

23 comments… add one
  • Tamiko Davidson Jan 24, 2022 @ 19:15

    All I have to say is that all of those people in both the North and South who owned slaves, or even thought about owning slaves were evil and demonic people. Period. May be Lord have mercy on their sick souls on their Judgement Day.

  • Jerry Martin Jul 11, 2020 @ 12:32

    We are still having this argument because we the people did not solve the slavery issue 155 years ago because slavery was also an economic issue. People with money owned slaves, white, black and Indians owned slaves.
    Slavery is an American problem. Government, Courts, businesses churches , slave owners, non-slave owners, all bear the blame, It is not just a North- South issue.
    If Lincoln was not assassinated at the end of the Civil War, the nation could have instituted a reconstruction of the industry and redistribution of the land in the South to create jobs for the freed black Americans, similar to how we reconstructed Germany and Japan after WWII.
    Better still, if we the people had a Supreme Count and Congress to support Lincoln after the election in 1860, the nation could have taken the $6,000,000,000 the North and South spent on the war, and used those funds to free the slaves, redistribute the land, and expand industry and infrastructure in the South.

  • MC Planck Mar 11, 2017 @ 20:19

    I can’t believe we’re still having this argument, 150 years later.

    But then, people still believe in astrology.

    Thanks for doing hero’s work here.


  • Dr. Nadesan Permaul Nov 27, 2015 @ 22:13

    I am surprised by the resistance to the evidence you have offered. Argument No. 4 from DeBow follows other scholarly analyses of Southern commitment to African slavery, from Samuel Clemen’s in “Huckleberry Finn” to Winthrop Jordan, “White Over Black.” In a society with a fluid social order, the concept that all men are created equal conflicts with the rabid individualism of our peculiar democratic identity; unfettered competition. African slaves prior to the Civil War, and Jim Crow after the Civil War preserved the one deep-seated fear of 3rd Estate white Americans, that they might once again be reduced to the marginal status they had in societies where they were both expendable and surplus.

  • Kevin Levin Jan 26, 2013 @ 12:40

    Wow, somebody is certainly insecure. I have no idea where you are writing from or anything else about your personal background nor do I care. You were the one who referenced Power, but fail to give any indication that you’ve actually read it or much of anything else for that matter. That’s your responsibility. Next time, instead of flying off the handle take some time to read the post in its entirety and compose a comment that actually contributes something meaningful to the discussion. Finally, get over Clyde Wilson. If you have something to contribute to that post I suggest you leave a comment. Take your time. Consider this your last comment for a few days.

    Hope you enjoy my book.

  • TFSmith1 Jan 26, 2013 @ 9:02

    There you go again, using the actual words of the rebels themselves…you eastern establishment reality-based yankee, you!

  • Jimmy Dick Jan 26, 2013 @ 8:17

    I think people today have a very difficult time understanding just how deep slavery was imbedded within the American slave state culture in every aspect in 1860. They have no frame of reference as to how slavery influenced everything or how the concept of racism existed in that era.
    It really stands out when teaching students how big the gulf is between the present and the past. People tend to block the negative stuff and focus on the positive parts. The negative stuff was just as important as the positive and in many cases the element of changing the negatives was responsible for driving the events of the era just like today.

  • Wallace Hettle Jan 26, 2013 @ 8:12

    Kenneth’s point is a good one, even if Brown is an odd duck. and the people he pitched his arguments to were property owners, too. See article by me in The Georgia Historical Quarterly > Vol. 81, No. 3, FALL 1997. Gee, that was written a long time ago I wonder if it’s any good!!

  • Johnny UnReconstructed Jan 26, 2013 @ 8:04

    Seriously? You are attempted to understand the motivations of individual soldiers and utilize this primary source document as a major piece of evidence, along with the Cornerstone Speech. And, with a straight face you criticize the historical methods of Professor Clyde Wilson? If there is clearly not a subjective agenda or deception going on here, then why not research a great majority of individual soldiers’ letters? You guys are very smart. You know those sources exist, so why use these straw men sources? Why not research a wide collection of individual soldiers’ private correspondence like J. Tracey Power did with “Lee’s Miserables: Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox?”

    • Kevin Levin Jan 26, 2013 @ 8:08

      Powers’s book is an incredible study that sheds light on motivation and, more broadly, the experiences of the men in the Army of Northern Virginia.

      You use the phrase “major piece of evidence” not me. I just selected it in light of the comments on the previous post and in response to the popular claim that non-slaveholders had no interest in the maintenance of a slave society. DeBows and plenty of other white southerners at the time disagreed.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 26, 2013 @ 8:23

      Actually, it’s not even clear to me that you’ve read the book. Perhaps it’s time to re-read it. Powers includes quite a bit of evidence, especially toward the end of the war, demonstrating a clear understanding of what the end of slavery would mean to their lives and the region as a whole.

      • Johnny UnReconstructed Jan 26, 2013 @ 8:57

        Seriously? You are arguing J. Tracey Power claims the dominating factor in Southern soldiers fighting in the War proved slavery? What page number? On what page does J. Tracey Power say: “The dominating reasons why Southern soldiers fought in the War proved slavery.” Kevin, you’re not dumb. You know there is quite a difference between: “Powers includes quite a bit of evidence, especially toward the end of the war, demonstrating a clear understanding of what the end of slavery would mean to their lives and the region as a whole” and arguing that slavery was THE dominating factor WHY Southern soldiers fought in the war. Your response is either making that claim directly or by reference. What humors me the most is you present history in the same way you criticize Professor Clyde Wilson for doing in his career.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 26, 2013 @ 9:00

          Where in my post do I say anything about a “dominant factor”? This is what I said following the DeBows passage: “It would be a mistake to interpret this narrowly as the sole reason as to why soldiers fought. As we all know, volunteers were motivated by a wide range of factors. Rather, we should interpret DeBow and others as suggesting that slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike understood the consequences of defeat.” I have no idea what you are referring to here nor did I ever suggest that Powers makes such a claim.

          You need to calm down and take time to compose your comments. Get it together.

      • JohnnyUnReconstructed Jan 26, 2013 @ 9:01

        Apologies. I meant “inference,” not reference. I am suffering from a bad sinus infection.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 26, 2013 @ 9:03

          As for Powers’s commentary on the maintenance of slavery, I suggest you read the sections on the enlistment of blacks into the army.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 26, 2013 @ 9:17

          And while I am at it, do yourself a favor and read Joseph Glatthaar’s General Lee’s Army, which is widely considered to be the best single volume history of this organization. He devotes quite a bit of space to slavery and race.

    • Andy Hall (was AndyinTexas) Jan 26, 2013 @ 9:06

      Power’s book covers the period from mid-1864 through the end of the war; in this thread and the previous one, Kevin has been discussing prevailing attitudes and backgrounds of the period of the start of the war, in 1860-61 — not of individual soldiers, but that were very much part of the environment that led to secession and the war. Did you miss that?


      • Kevin Levin Jan 26, 2013 @ 9:08

        When you come in with both guns blazing you are bound to miss a few crucial key points. 🙂

    • Larry Gwaltney Dec 16, 2019 @ 11:24

      Seriously? You imply that this work has a “subjective agenda or deception…” after you have referenced “… the historical methods of Professor Clyde Wilson?” Seriously?

  • Kenneth Noe Jan 26, 2013 @ 4:45

    Georgia Gov. Joe Brown, who had built his career on being the champion of the common man, expressly told his base in December 1860 that they needed to support secession because abolition would bring “the most misery and ruin” to nonslaveholders who would have to pay higher taxes, compete with freed blacks for land and work, and live in fear of black violence: http://tinyurl.com/ao663m4

    • woodrowfan Jan 26, 2013 @ 6:55

      Thanks Kenneth. I may add the DeBow essay and/or the one by Brown to my class readings..

    • Margaret Blough Jan 26, 2013 @ 23:40

      There is also the “Mudsill” section of the James Hammond’s infamous King Cotton speech

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *