The Paternalism of Richard Williams and His Best Friend

Update: Looks like Williams doesn’t like this post either. He seems to believe that what he has written has been distorted. That in and of itself is quite funny given the kinds of things he has written about me. You can read his book for yourself. Sigh. Finally, the timing of Williams’s own update suggests he was eagerly awaiting my response.

My friend from “Old Virginia” is once again disappointed with what I have written on this blog. In recent months he has expressed his displeasure more than once concerning a whole host of issues. A few days ago I offered a vague reference to a body of literature that includes Richard Williams’s book, Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend. I referenced the subtitle of his book, but for some of the specific points made in the post I had, in addition to his book, a few other titles in mind.

Williams decided to write up a detailed response and I guess he expects me to respond. Well, I am not going to do that.

Instead, I offer a taste of Williams’s understanding of slavery, Stonewall Jackson, and the Confederacy from his book.

Of course, I could not help but be drawn to the intrigue surrounding what at first glance would seem to be a contradiction: the Confederacy’s most feared general and his love for the souls of black men. (p. 16)

This intrigue raised questions. How did this orphan child from a slave-owning family on the frontier of western Virginia come to evangelize blacks with such zeal? So much zeal that he sent contributions for these efforts from the battlefield as he was winning laurels for stunning victories against the Union army. Why did he risk criminal prosecution for his ministry efforts on the behalf of blacks? What motivated Jackson? Who influenced this orphan boy along the way? How did two preachers independently come to describe Jackson as “the black man’s friend”? Why were blacks in Lexington drawn to Jackson? Why did they honor and pay tribute to him long after his death and long after they had gained their freedom? Why did many of these blacks who had lived under the curse of slavery help to erect monuments and memorials to Jackson? Why did they weep at his passing? Why do some still honor him today? This book seeks to answer these questions. And all of the answers are centered on Jackson’s active Christian faith–especially his faith in the providence of God. (p. 17)

Slaves and former slaves had no wills of their own. Apparently, we are to believe that these decisions turned almost entirely on Jackson’s faith.

[Thomas Jefferson] Randolph’s legislation, had it been enacted, would have eliminated slavery in the Old Dominion within one hundred years. It is quite certain that, as the nation became more progressive with the passing of time and the industrial age revolutionized agrarian economies, the timetable would have been condensed considerably. It is highly improbable that slavery would not have survived the nineteenth century, even with the War Between the States. Thus many Southerners, with Thomas Jackson’s leading the way, knew that slavery’s days were numbered and sought to address the issue in ways that were politically feasible, given the economic realities of the times. (p. 35)

I guess the 1830s and the development of the ‘slavery as a positive good’ argument (most notably articulated by John Calhoun) escapes Williams. White Southerners did not believe that slavery’s days were numbered. In fact, they embraced quite the opposite view.

As years and generations passed, the strong, proud Africans adapted well. They even came to love their new homes and developed a sincere devotion, patriotism, and attachment to their second country. (p. 39)

No doubt some did, but is this seriously intended to capture how most slaves viewed their masters, local government, and eventually the United States?

But who taught these Africans to pray? And to whom or what did they pray? The religion of their fathers’ was not one that taught them to petition a loving God. The gods of the Africans had been deities to appease out of fear, not a god one beseeched for blessings and deliverance from bondage. (p. 40)

Both races were trapped in a system that neither wanted: the whites by economic realities, the blacks by law. (p. 42)

No, Southern whites wanted slavery and the broad culture of the antebellum South reflects this clearly. It turns out that they even fought a war to defend it.

The success of the missionary work among the slaves was evident by the time South Carolina seceded from the Union. When the first shot of the war was fired in April 1861, there were approximately 417,000 black Christians in the South. This confirms that white Southerners had a sincere desire to see their slaves benefit from the fruits of the gospel. If the economic and political realities of their day prevented white Christians from freeing their slaves, they could nevertheless endeavor to free their souls. Thomas J. Jackson was destined to undertake such an endeavor, for he had tasted this fruit and had reaped the benefits of a free soul. (p. 44).

White Southerners were not prevented from ending slavery. They embraced it as a positive good.

I could go on, but it’s just more of the same. We certainly learn a great deal about Williams’s faith and how he applies that understanding to history, but this book gets us nowhere on the central issues related to religion in the South, slavery, Jackson and the Confederacy. The funny thing is that I am the one who is accused of engaging in presentism by an individual who reads the past through his faith. Now that is hypocrisy in the extreme.

5 comments… add one
  • Ben Allen Mar 18, 2015

    I think a better characterization than your generalization would be that some southern Caucasians disliked slavery and desired its end, some didn’t. There were those like Robert Edward Lee who ideally would have liked the demise of slavery, but believed that the ideal moment to abolish the peculiar institution was invariably in the future. Then there were those poor Caucasians, like Andrew Johnson, who despised those large slaveholding aristocrats, favoring abolition only in so much as it hurt that aristocracy. Like you constantly emphasize, there were far more than fifty shades of grey.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 19, 2015

      You are absolutely right that there was a wide range of opinion on slavery in the antebellum South, but it is still the case that the region as a whole embraced the institution of slavery and believed that without it their “civilization” would cease to exist.

      • Forester Mar 30, 2015

        Yes, slavery was consider a positive good even by people who wanted to see it’s eventual end.

        You might like these excerpts, Kevin. From the diary of William Lamb, in Norfolk, Virginia:

        “In the morning father & I took a walk to the beach. The sabbaoth is sweet in the country, all so quiet, so serene. I had a talk to day with Father upon slavery, he is a strong Colonizationist. I incline that way. With the many happy things connected with this “peculiar institution,” there are some insuperable objections to it.” (July 8, 1855)

        I think the excerpt speaks for itself, honestly. And since Lamb would go on to be a Readjuster (alongside William Mahone), this is coming from one of the more progressive Southerners.

        Another excerpt, months later. William laments the death of a slave in the Yellow Fever epidemic:

        “I went to the wharf today but dear parents did not come. Tom drove me down. Tom, & not uncle Daniel. Why was not his familiar face there? Go ask the Pestilence. … Faithful Daniel staid at his post, he gave his life in his endeavors to serve his Earthly master, I believe his soul he has given to his Heavenly [master]. He was a perfect pattern of a noble Virginia slave, who while he bore the name of a slave, was as happy & far more free than the thousands who call themselves free.” (November 23, 1855)

        Even when owners had affection for their slaves, it was still very condescending and paternalistic. It was the old “Loyal Slave” narrative, where they believed that slaves were actually happier enslaved than free.

  • Christian McWhirter Mar 19, 2015

    “It turns out that they even fought a war to defend it.”

    Well played, sir.

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