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).