Here is What You Can Do With Your Interpretation of Slavery & Secession

I understand that the Internet and social media sites can be an empowering place.  It also has a powerful democratizing effect, which I value.  That doesn’t mean that everyone’s voice ought to be given equal weight.  Though it should be utilized with discretion, sometimes the most appropriate response is the back of the hand.  Here is a case where this applies.

This is for those of you who are convinced that the scholarship around the antebellum period, slavery, and secession is fundamentally misguided.  My response to you: I DON’T CARE!  That may seem a bit dismissive, but that is exactly what I mean to say.  I am not interested in what you learned from reading the Dixie Outfitters website, The South Was Right or one of  your other Pelican Press books.  I am also not interested in your assumptions about what motivates academic historians.  Your theories about how some vaguely defined political agenda influences research is of no interest to me.

I’ve read a pretty large chunk of the scholarly literature on slavery and secession and one thing that has been established over the past few decades is that the South’s “peculiar institution” is central to understanding secession and the Civil War.   The post photo includes just a small number of relevant books from my personal library.  It’s not meant to make you feel insecure, but to give you a sense of how I approach the study of history.  My understanding of this subject comes from reading these books, most of them written by professional historians.  I spend a great deal of time reading books and journals, not because I’ve become seduced by the academic world, but because these books constitute my education in this area of history.  You are going to have to do better if you hope to convince me that the broad interpretation that emerges from these studies is fundamentally flawed.

If critical scholarship is not your cup of tea, so be it.  Just please don’t expect me to take you seriously or imagine that I have any interest in your personal beliefs about Civil War history.  We are simply on different pages.  We have divergent ideas of what it means to engage in the study of history.  In the end it’s not a big deal.  You are free to discuss your personal beliefs on your own webpage or Facebook site or wherever you can find like-minded people.

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).

Dwight T. Pitcaithley on Florida and Southern Secession

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.

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]