Our Peculiar Qualities and Peculiar Faults

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.

The editorial excerpt was pulled from Paul Quigley’s, Shifting Grounds: Nationalism and the American South, 1848-1865, (p. 144).

Why Florida Seceded From the Union

On this day in 1861 the state of Florida formally seceded from the Union.  A number of the secession conventions issued “declarations of causes” to explain why they decided to sever ties with the United States, though at the time Florida chose not to publish its statement.  The unpublished document was recently discovered in a Florida archives. [h/t to James Epperson]

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.

[Image from Florida Memory Project]

A Good Year For Silas Chandler

I absolutely love this photo.  Pictured below are two generations of the Chandler-Sampson family taking the time over the holidays to learn about their famous ancestor.  The photo conveys the power of history and reinforces my firm belief that what we do as historians matters.  I am sure my co-author, Myra Chandler Sampson, agrees.  There is still time to pick up the most recent issue of Civil War Times at your local newsstand.  I think it is safe to say that 2011 was a good year for Silas Chandler.

North Carolina’s Other Civil War Sesquicentennial

After Virginia no other state has done more to commemorate the American Civil War than North Carolina.  Their state commission has done an excellent job thus far of organizing activities that reflect an incredibly rich and complex past.  They are doing their very best to make the war relevant to the state’s diverse population by focusing on a wide range of themes from the military to race to memory.  I have a number of friends who are directly involved in the commission’s work and I can say with confidene that they are making an impact on a number of levels.

Even with all the work this group has undertaken it appears that not everyone is satisfied.  In fact, there are two Civil War sesquicentennial commemorations taking place in North Carolina.  The other one is being called the North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial and they even have their own website.  The commission is headed by Bernhard Thuersam, who works as a home designer.  So, why an alternative commemoration?

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