The last few posts on the important place that slavery occupied in the Deep South’s secession documents [and here] has been entertaining and informative, but as we all know it quickly gets old as both sides begin to rehash the same arguments. In the end, white southerners made it perfectly clear as to how slavery led them to secession. All too often, however, we lose sight of the fact that many of the official secession documents that were meant to announce to people on the local, state, regional, and even international levels why political ties ties had been severed with the United States also reflect how white southerners viewed themselves in contrast with the North. In other words, the defense of slavery was a catalyst for secession because it occupied such an important place in southern culture.
It’s a crucial step to take, especially in the classroom, since it gets us beyond the old canard of how few southerners actually owned slaves and other distractions. Instead of getting bogged down in the priority of causes or who owned what and how much, the goal is to better understand the meaning that white southerners (slave and non-slaveowner alike as well as those who remained loyal to the Union) attached to the institution. Not surprisingly, they wrote extensively about this on the eve of the Civil War as part of the difficult process of nation building. Consider the following March 14, 1861 editorial from the Richmond Examiner:
Those who suppose the present difficulties of the United States to be the result of an agitation against negro slavery, see only the surface. The true cause of the approaching separation of this country into two parts is the fact that it is inhabited by two peoples, two utterly distinct nations…. It [slavery] has developed our peculiar qualities and peculiar faults, all of them the exact reverses of those created by the system of leveling materialism and of numerical majorities which has attained in the North a logical perfection of application hitherto unknown and unheard of in any part of the whole world. Under the operation of these causes, we repeat the North and the South have come to be inhabited by two nations. They are different in everything that can constitute difference in national character; in their persons, in their pronunciation, in their dress, in their port, in their religious ideas, in their sentiments toward women, in their manners to each other, in their favourite foods, in their houses and domestic arrangements, in their method of doing business, in their national aspirations, in all their tastes, all their principles, in all their pride and in all their shame. The French are not more unlike the English than the Yankees are unlike the Southerners.
Let’s not get all worked up about George Lucas’s recent interview on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show over his comments about the the men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Lucas talked about the difficulties in securing Hollywood financing for his new film, Red Tails, owing to the film’s all-black cast. Lucas told Stewart:
I wanted to make it inspirational for teenaged boys. I wanted to show that they have heroes, they’re real American heroes, they’re patriots that helped to make the country what it is today. And it’s not Glory where you have a lot of white officers running these guys into cannon fodder. It’s like a real, they were real heroes.
Lucas is not suggesting that the men of the 54th were not brave in battle or do not deserve to be remembered. He is commenting on the way in which they are remembered in film and he is right to point out that the story is told largely through the eyes of a white protagonist. Does anyone seriously believe that Glory could have been made any other way?
The Second World War is largely remembered as a white man’s war, so we shall see if Lucas is able to tell a story with no white leading roles. Click here for an extended movie trailer.
I am pleased to share the following comment that was left on the last post by Dwight T. Pitcaithley. Dr. Pitcaithley worked for many years as the chief historian in the National Park Service and now teaches history at New Mexico State University. He is also responsible for uncovering Florida’s unpublished declaration of causes. He has some interesting observations and given that the other thread is impossible to follow I thought it might be helpful to start a new one.
This has been an interesting exchange that points out, yet again, the importance of primary sources in understanding the past.
The Florida declaration of secession has to be placed in a different category from the other four declarations. Not only was it never approved by Florida’s secession cenvention, it is a hand-written draft that, we assume, was not even approved by the comittee charged with developing it. Why the convention aborted the effort mid-way through the process remains — for now — a bit of a mystery.
The other “official” declarations stand as the best and most authorative justifications for secession available to us today. South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas specifically developed their declarations to explain to the people of those states (and to the nation as a whole) why they voted to secede. Having studied them at length, and the convention journals from which they emerged, I see no reason why we should not take them at their word. All of them make clear that the rise of the Republican Party and the election of a Republican president threatened the continued existence of the institution of slavery. As Mississippi declared: There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.
In answer to an earlier question, all four of the declarations make some mention of John Brown’s raid.
For an interesting twist on the tariff issue, look at Georgia’s declaration which takes some pains to argue that while the tariff was an important subject earlier in the nation’s history, it did not play a role the secession movement of the late 1850s and early 1860s.
A reader just posted this comment in response to the last post that featured a crucial section of Florida’s declaration of causes following its secession from the United States. One of things that I’ve learned over the years is that differences in interpretation often have little to do with strictly historical concerns, but with much broader assumptions about the nature of power and the relationship between citizens and government. This is a perfect example:
What do you base your concerns on the Government by? Isn’t it based largely on what has already taken place with a real and present estimation on what might happen? You surely vote. Is not your vote a gamble, on what good or calamity might happen if you choose one candidate vs. another? Consider this has a group, political candidate or party ever threatened your livelihood and well being? Are you so different from being a Confederate, that if a very real threat affected your very livelihood and families well being, that you would not defend them? They did so in accordance with the laws and the Constitution. When their rights were threatened they seceded.
The questions point to a picture of government that I have real trouble identifying with. While I believe a healthy skepticism about federal power and our elected officials is essential to any democracy, this seems to border on paranoia. I live in a democracy and I do my best to ensure that my voice is heard through elections and other forms of political activism. I don’t necessarily view the election of someone I disagree with as a “calamity” since their terms of service are not indefinite. My government is not my enemy. Of course I have strongly disagreed with actions taken by my government in recent years that straddle party lines, but at no point have I ever entertained nullification or secession as a solution. Our system of government is not perfect, but it has served us pretty well so far and I can see no reason to alter it beyond its amendment.
What I now understand is that my disagreement with this individual over how to interpret Florida’s declaration has little to do with whether slavery was or was not central. What do you think?
By the agency of a large proportion of the members from the non slaveholding States books have been published and circulated amongst us the direct tendency and avowed purpose of which is to excite insurrection and servile war with all their attendant horrors. A President has recently been elected, an obscure and illiterate man without experience in public affairs or any general reputation mainly if not exclusively on account of a settled and often proclaimed hostility to our institutions and a fixed purpose to abolish them. It is denied that it is the purpose of the party soon to enter into the possession of the powers of the Federal Government to abolish slavery by any direct legislative act. This has never been charged by any one. But it has been announced by all the leading men and presses of the party that the ultimate accomplishment of this result is its settled purpose and great central principle. That no more slave States shall be admitted into the confederacy and that the slaves from their rapid increase (the highest evidence of the humanity of their owners will become value less. Nothing is more certain than this and at no distant day. What must be the condition of the slaves themselves when their number becomes so large that their labor will be of no value to their owners. Their natural tendency every where shown where the race has existed to idleness vagrancy and crime increased by an inability to procure subsistence. Can any thing be more impudently false than the pretense that this state of things is to be brought about from considerations of humanity to the slaves.
It is in so many words saying to you we will not burn you at the stake but we will torture you to death by a slow fire we will not confiscate your property and consign you to a residence and equality with the african but that destiny certainly awaits your children – and you must quietly submit or we will force you to submission – men who can hesitate to resist such aggressions are slaves already and deserve their destiny. The members of the Republican party has denied that the party will oppose the admission of any new state where slavery shall be tolerated. But on the contrary they declare that on this point they will make no concession or compromise. It is manifest that they will not because to do so would be the dissolution of the party.
I agree with Gordon Rhea that white Southerners in the Deep South made themselves perfectly clear as to why they believed secession was their only recourse following the election of Abraham Lincoln. There is no reason why we shouldn’t take them at their word.