Why Charles Dew’s Secessionist Commissioners Matter 150 Years Later

My abbreviated course on the Civil War has hit the ground running in the last two weeks. This time around I am using Louis Masur’s brief history of the war and Reconstruction and so far it is working out well. I tend to look for a concise narrative that I can supplement in various ways. For their first supplemental reading I had students read an essay by Charles Dew based on his book, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War.

It’s an ideal reading for high school students. The argument is concise, easy to follow, and the subject matter couldn’t be more conducive to a seminar discussion. And we did, indeed, have a dynamite discussion earlier today. Students thought that Dew’s commissioners helped to answer an important question regarding why the Deep South states interpreted Lincoln’s election as an immediate threat. At the same time they struggled with the content of their speeches and editorials. As they discussed the article further I realized that the difficulty has to do with how history students tend to think about the institution of slavery. They think about it primarily in abstract terms with an understanding that life could be incredibly violent and sad. Few survey classes have the time to dig into the complexity of the master-slave relationship or examine the day-to-day lives of slaves. What they miss, unfortunately, is the extent to which slavery was intertwined with assumptions concerning race.

My students were completely unprepared for the language of miscegenation, concern about the raping of white women by free black men, and interracial marriage – all as part of a broader fear of the collapse of civilization into a violent race war. A few students pointed out that the language must have been calculated, in part, to appeal to the widest demographic in the Upper South among slaveowners and nonslaveowners alike.

At the end of the day, however, students still view this language from a distance in both time and especially in place. This is problematic. Toward the end of the class I tried to give them a broader interpretation of where these men fit into our historical narrative. Rather than see the language expressed and the men who voiced it as time and place specific I asked them to think about certain connections.

First, the ideas expressed by these men likely represented the racial assumptions of most Americans North and South. The fears associated with the free interaction of large numbers of white and black Americans animated the members of the American Colonization Society in the early nineteenth century. These were the same concerns and fears that shaped the responses of many white Northerners following the end of slavery in 1865 and through the early twentieth century during the Great Migration. They are the same fears that shaped Chicago’s housing policies through the mid-twentieth century. Finally, closer to home they are the same fears that led to the violence here in Boston in the 1970s surrounding school busing. Need more, check out anything by Thomas Sugrue or even Jason Sokol’s new book on the civil rights struggle in the North.

I suggested that the ideas of the secessionist commissioners have reflected mainstream America’s racial views for well into the twentieth century. They are certainly not the stuff of the distant past.

There is a temptation (perhaps even more so here in New England) to teach the history of the Confederacy apart from the rest of American history. In doing so, however, we miss the opportunity to consider how those very ideas shaped our own backyards.

18 comments… add one
  • Bob Huddleston Jan 14, 2015

    You might want to point out that Alexander Stephens, in his capacity as Vice President of the Confederate States, appeared before the Virginia “secession” convention, making another of his “cornerstone” speeches, advocating Virginia join the CSA.
    He was invited to speak but a Virginian chose the same day (23 April 1861) to accept an offer from the convention: Major General of the state troops. Complements to Robert E. Lee delayed Stephens’ speech, after which, Lee sat and listened to Stephens.

    See George H Reese, editor, Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861, February 13 — May 1; In Four Volumes, Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1966, 4: 361-390.

    I have scanned the relevant pages, if anyone is interested.

  • Christopher Shelley Jan 14, 2015

    Great post. Thanks, Kevin. I would assign Dew to my college survey of U.S. history, 1840-1914, except I’ve already got them reading Twelve Years a Slave, Frederick Douglass, and two other Foner books. I’ll have to go with selected excerpts.

  • Hugh Lawson Jan 14, 2015

    Kevin wrote: “There is a temptation (perhaps even more so here in New England) to teach the history of the Confederacy apart from the rest of American history.” Don’t you think the point of this is to make the South a sort of alien repository for wickedness, and thus not really American? Isn’t basic theme of the Lincoln mythology that Lincoln was everything that was good about the South, and thus the North absorbed the few good things about the south. In this mythical way, the south was left outside America, exotic. Jennifer Rae Greeson has covered much of this in her book _Our South_.

    • msb Jan 14, 2015

      “and thus not really American”

      I agree with Kevin’s statement and generally with you, especially the human desire to want to externalize evil (Orcs!). I’ve always thought Americans tended to blame the South for all our racial woes and try to corral them within it. Not “that’s not American” but “they’re the bad Americans and we’re the good ones”. May be a distinction without a difference, however.

      • Hugh Lawson Jan 23, 2015

        The most profound discussion of this I’ve read is Edward Ayers’s essay, “What we talk about when we talk about the South”, which I recommend.

  • Jimmy Dick Jan 14, 2015

    I use selections from Dew in my American History survey course. Dew’s work pretty much seals the deal on what caused the Civil War. When you place this with secession declarations and then add in the primary sources from newspapers and individuals, there is no room for bringing anything but slavery up as the cause of the conflict. Dew himself explained his own experience being a child of the South and coming into contact with the evidence that refuted what he had been taught as a child.

    The only way to counter the primary sources if by ignoring them. Unfortunately, the flag waving myth believers chose to ignore anything that proves them wrong.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 15, 2015

      Unfortunately, the flag waving myth believers chose to ignore anything that proves them wrong.

      Yes, but for the most part, who really cares.

      • Jimmy Dick Jan 15, 2015

        Apparently the flag waving myth believers who will be on full display tomorrow in Lexington, Virginia.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 15, 2015

          Yes, but there is little to be pre-occupied with their antics.

  • Bryce Hartranft Jan 15, 2015

    Is the Charles Dew essay about the southern secession commisioners accessible for free via the internet?

  • John Kirn Jan 15, 2015

    Kevin,
    I can’t assign Dew’s whole book, but I would like to assign the article you referenced based on it. Can you give the citation? This was a great post which emphasized to me that I do need to lay a better foundation for my discussion of slavery in the Old South by talking explicitly about racial assumptions of the day, in both the North and the South. Thanks!

    • Kevin Levin Jan 15, 2015

      Hi John. Thanks for the kind words. The article is unfortunately from the now defunct North and South Magazine (April 2001).

  • Doug Didier Jan 15, 2015

    In this week’s lecture Foner stated that the word miscegenation was coined in 1864 by two northern Democrats.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 15, 2015

      Democrat, Samuel Cox from Ohio:

      I lay down the proposition that the white and black races thrive best apart; that a commingling of these races is a detriment to both; that it does not elevate the black, and it only depresses the white…. The character of these mixed races is that of brutality, cowardice, and crime, which has no parallel in any age or land. If you permit the dominant and subjugated races to remain upon the same soil, and grant them any approach to social and political equality, amalgamation, more or less, is inevitable….

      Is this the fate to be commended to the Anglo-Saxon-Celtic population of the United States? Tell me not that this amalgamation will not go on in the North. What means the mulattoes in the North, far exceeding, as the census of 1850 shows, the mulattoes of the South? There are more free mulattoes than there are free blacks in the free States….

      The mixture of the races tends to deteriorate both races. Physiology has called our attention to the results of such intermarriages or connections. These results show differences in stature and strength, depending on the parentage, with a corresponding difference in the moral character, mental capacity, and worth of labor…. But how long before the manly, warlike people of Ohio, of fair hair and blue eyes, in a large preponderance, would become, in spite of Bibles and morals, degenerate under the wholesale emancipation and immigration favored by my colleague?

      http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/emancipation-and-its-results-is-ohio-to-be-africanized/

    • Bob Huddleston Jan 15, 2015

      The word was coined in 1863 in a pamphlet title _Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro_. Supposedly written by a pro-black Republican, telling how good the mixing of the races would be when the Confederates were defeated and all the slaves moved north, copies were sent to Republican members of Congress as well as the President, soliciting testimonials. No one responded, to the dismay of the authors, later revealed to be a couple of journalist for the Democratic newspaper, the NY World. A text book political “dirty trick”! There is a copy of the pamphlet in the Lincoln papers, the copy sent to him, but it does not appear anyone read it.

      If my notes are correct, it is reprinted in Bloch, _Miscegenation, Melaleukation, and Mr. Lincoln’s Dog- (NY 1958). You can find a copy at bookfinder.com.

  • Bryce Hartranft Jan 15, 2015

    Was perusing the teaching american history link and stumbled upon the report by Mr. R. B. Rhett, being styled “The Ad-dress of the people of South Carolina, assembled in Convention, to the people of the Slaveholding States of the United States.”

    “…The agitations on the subject of slavery, are the natural results of the consolidation of the Government…The inducements to act upon the subject of slavery, under such circumstances, were so imperious, as to amount almost to a moral necessity. To make, however, their numerical power available to rule the Union, the North must consolidate their power. It would not be united, on any matter common to the whole Union–in other words, on any constitutional subject–for on such subjects divisions are as likely to exist in the North as in the South. Slavery was strictly, a sectional interest. If this could be made the criterion of parties at the North, the North could be united in its power; and thus carry out its measures of sectional ambition, encroachment, and aggrandizement…”

    Southerners fearing a northern conspiratorial plot is not really anything new, but I did think the argument of the North using the anti-slavery movement as a rallying point for the people is quite interesting. As Uncle Tom’s Cabin showed, the general idea of “evil slavery” is an easy one to encapsulate, understand and get people riled up about.

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