Visualizing Secession

The Civil War Trust has posted a nice little graphic that highlights the importance of slavery in the “Declaration of Causes” issued by four states in the Deep South that seceded in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s election. The graphs break down the frequency of references to slavery, states’ rights, Lincoln, etc. in these documents. It will work well in the classroom, but it is somewhat deceiving.

Any proper analysis of the secession of the Deep Southern states must explore the extent to which references to Lincoln, states’ rights and other economic concerns connected to slavery. These are not alternative explanations for secession; rather, they flesh out the importance and place of slavery in these states.

Civil War Trust, Secession

Solomon Northup on “Humane Masters”

Solomon NorthupAt the end of chapter 4 in 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup offers a compelling explanation of how the institution of slavery shaped what he saw clearly as a culture of violence in the Bayou Boeuf region of Louisiana. Northup recalled an incident involving a “gentleman” from Natchez who while inquiring into the purchase of a neighboring plantation was murdered by the owner.

Such occurrences, which would bring upon the parties concerned in them merited and condign punishment in the Northern States, are frequent on the bayou, and pass without notice, and almost without comment. Every man carries his bowie knife, and when two fall out, they set to work hacking and thrusting at each other, more like savages than civilized and enlightened beings.

The existence of Slavery in its most cruel form among them, has a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature. Daily witnesses of human suffering—listening to the agonizing screeches of the slave—beholding him writhing beneath the merciless lash—bitten and torn by dogs—dying without attention, and buried without shroud or coffin—it cannot otherwise be expected, than that they should become brutified and reckless of human life. It is true there are many kind-hearted and good men in the parish of Avoyelles—such men as William Ford—who can look with pity upon the sufferings of a slave, just as there are, over all the world, sensitive and sympathetic spirits, who cannot look with indifference upon the sufferings of any creature which the Almighty has endowed with life. It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him. Taught from earliest childhood, by all that he sees and hears, that the rod is for the slave’s back, he will not be apt to change his opinions in maturer years.

There may be humane masters, as there certainly are inhuman ones—there may be slaves well-clothed, well-fed, and happy, as there surely are those half-clad, half-starved and miserable; nevertheless, the institution that tolerates such wrong and inhumanity as I have witnessed, is a cruel, unjust, and barbarous one. Men may write fictions portraying lowly life as it is, or as it is not—may expatiate with owlish gravity upon the bliss of ignorance—discourse flippantly from arm chairs of the pleasures of slave life; but let them toil with him in the field—sleep with him in the cabin—feed with him on husks; let them behold him scourged, hunted, trampled on, and they will come back with another story in their mouths. Let them know the heart of the poor slave—learn his secret thoughts—thoughts he dare not utter in the hearing of the white man; let them sit by him in the silent watches of the night—converse with him in trustful confidence, of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and they will find that ninety-nine out of every hundred are intelligent enough to understand their situation, and to cherish in their bosoms the love of freedom, as passionately as themselves. (pp. 134-36)

It is striking that after everything Northup went through that he was able to convey a certain amount of emotion for one of his former masters. William Ford may have attempted to alleviate some of the worst aspects of slavery, but in the end, he contributed as much to the violent nature of the “peculiar institution” as did Epps. This is an incredible passage that will likely make it into a collection of primary sources on antebellum slavery for an upcoming unit.

“Southern History is a Custody Battle Still in Litigation”

In March I will co-lead a group of students on a 7-day trip through the South to explore the history and memory of the Civil Rights Movement. It should come as no surprise that Montgomery, Alabama is on our itinerary. In preparation for the trip we are putting together a collection of documents that offer different perspectives on how these communities are coming to terms with their pasts. This New York Times piece about the placement of new historical markers throughout the city will be included in that list.

But Southern history is a custody battle still in litigation. The Alabama Historical Association, which has its name on many of the historical markers around the state, confirmed the accuracy of the research but declined to sponsor the markers, citing “the potential for controversy.” (The markers were eventually sponsored by the state-run Black Heritage Council.) Todd Strange, the mayor of Montgomery, while acknowledging in a newspaper article several years ago that the sign referring to slave markets made him uneasy, gave the project his backing after a meeting with Mr. Stevenson.

I love the fact that the mayor admitted to feeling “uneasy” but still provided the necessary support for the project to move forward. These projects should make us feel uncomfortable. If they didn’t there would be little reason to carry through with it at all.

Sounds like there is a pretty intense backstory to all of this.

The Myth of the Delete Button

Trash IconEarlier today I received an email from a reader who wondered if I had any regret about sharing a blog post whose author intended not to be read. It’s a reasonable question and I would be lying if I didn’t admit to thinking twice before posting. But here’s the deal. If the post in question reminded us of anything it’s that the delete button is a myth.  You can make information published to the Internet more difficult to find, but, with few exceptions, it cannot be permanently erased. All of us who interact on the Internet through various social media platforms must understand this before leaving a comment, posting an image and before blogging. Continue reading “The Myth of the Delete Button”