Were Southern Slaveholders “Trapped”?

It’s always interesting to watch the way the comments evolve in response to specific posts.  In a recent post I made the mistake of mentioning Robert E. Lee, which led to a lengthy discussion in the comments section about his relationship to slavery.  I was struck by a comment from one reader who characterized men like Lee and other Southerners as "trapped" by slavery.  Here is his comment:

We will agree to disagree. It was a complicated relationship. Evil, for certain. But one in which whites felt they were trapped; trapped by their own ancestors’ doing, of course, but nonetheless trapped. Northerners had already built their industrial economy on the capital earned via the slave trade and did not have the same economic interest in slavery by the mid 19th century. It was convenient for them to condemn Southerners since they could do so from the security of an economy built upon the backs of slaves sold to Southerners. I maintain that Lee, like Jefferson and many other Virginians, hated the institution and would have preferred it "go away." Accusing Lee of doing what was "fashionable" reveals, I believe, a lack of understanding of the man’s true character. If reputation and "fashion" were his concerns, he would have chosen to ride to victory at Lincoln’s offer rather than suffer a humiliating defeat. Lee was first, a man of principle, not fashion.

I worry about this characterization of slaveholders.  If they were "trapped" or unable to acknowledge an alternative then what are we to make of Southern ambassadors discussed by Charles Dew in Apostles of Disunion or Alexander Stephens’s "Cornerstone Speech"?  These are people who have thought carefully about what it would mean if a system of white racial hierarchy were to cease to exist.  In that speech he acknowledges that Jefferson and the rest of the boys believed "that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically." [I discussed this speech with my survey classes today.]  My point is that to characterize Stephens and others as trapped is to ignore the fact that they were indeed aware of alternatives, but for the obvious reasons believed them to be reflective of Northern "fanaticism." 

There is a tension between the scholarship of Gordon Wood who is fond of pointing out that to criticize the Founders for not following through and abolishing slavery is to accuse them of failing to arrive at a conclusion that they could not identify.  I think Wood has a point here; we don’t want to engage in presentism, rather we want to identify as much as possible with the limits of their intellectual world.  The problem is that there is a growing body of literature that highlights the extent to which white Southerners did voluntarily emancipate their slaves following the Revolution.  The best book on this subject is Melvin Ely’s Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom From the 1790’s Through the Civil War.  The book won a number of awards, including the Bancroft Prize.  From the review in The Washington Post:

Now comes Melvin Patrick Ely’s Israel on the Appomattox, whose dissonances are likely to shake the usual orthodoxies. In colonial Virginia and across the upper South, slavery always had eminent critics, among them George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other great Virginians. Among their intellectual heirs was young Richard Randolph of Prince Edward County, a member of one of the state’s distinguished families who had enjoyed a Northern education at Columbia and Princeton. When he died in 1796, Randolph instructed his executors in a will that Ely calls "a ringing abolitionist manifesto" to free his slaves and settle them on family lands. Some two decades passed before his testamentary wishes were executed, but executed they were, in the face of some difficulty, by his faithful widow, Judith. Former slave families were installed on Randolph properties along the Appomattox River in a settlement called Israel Hill, a promised land. The community endured well into the 20th century until oral memory faded — it was studied late in the 19th century by a young W. E. B. DuBois — and many of its members achieved substantial economic independence. They became boatmen, hauling goods between Farmville and Petersburg, tobacco workers in early packing factories, farmers, woodworkers and other craftsmen.

Along with Ely’s book I also recommend Andrew Levy’s The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves.  I am not suggesting that we use Randolph and Carter as our standard by which to judge the actions of all slaveholders, but we need to understand that slaveholders believed in their "peculiar institution" and were willing to fight a war to protect it. 

The idea that slaveholders were trapped perhaps makes it easier to distance their actions – especially in the case of Lee, Jackson, and the rest of the Confederate pantheon – from slavery.  Referencing Northerners drives home the image of slaveholders as trapped.  Of course Northern involvement in slavery is essential to understanding its continued hold on the South and the nation, but that seems to me to have little to do with how white Southerners identified and worked to protect their slave-holding society.   

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

15 comments… add one
  • Power Supply Bearing Dec 30, 2006 @ 17:26

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  • Anonymous Dec 19, 2006 @ 18:29

    First of all the comment by Cash is at least more thorough and less emotional than J. Smith’s. But what completely throws me: when will Americans stop justifying slavery! I can’t believe in a serious discussion to say that they were trapped by economics and I don’t care if the South was thriving economically on slavery. Germany was thriving on Jewish labor in Concentration Camps as well and nobody was trapped!!! Enormously brutal and horrific scientific experiments were carried out in Concentration Camps, does that make those doctors TRAPPED as they acted for the good of science?

    I don’t understand even Cash’s comment: Lee was not bad. NO, having slaves and coming up with the idea that the bible sanctions that is WRONG and BAD, especially in 1865. Maybe Lee did not know that all slavery mentioned in the bible was based mostly on the ancient idea of servitude which so MODERNLY allowed slaves to earn their freedom over time. We are way into the Industrial Revolution in Europe in the 1860s, 76 years past the French Revolution, Bismarck is about to install social laws that provide health care for the public and free education in Germany and he is preparingn to restrict child labor. WHERE WERE LEE AND DAVIS AND EVERYBODY ELSE IN AMERICA? How can Americans see themselves so isolated. Yeah, of course compared to child labor in Great Britain slave holders look swell even in 1865, but for some brain activity’s sake how can somebody argue that there is still any justification for slavery in 1865???? I am willing to give Jefferson a small break, but we are past the Enlightement and way into the Romantic notion of individualism and individual rights? Beethoven died in 1827 mourning the fact that not ALL PEOPLE can yet elect their government in Europe. MAYBE just MAYBE Lee might have even heard of Marx (1818-1883) and Engels. How can anybody argue that they were just thinking it is right and were therefore good men nonetheless. Is that what happens today: we don’t listen to what the world thinks because we are right and are good men?

    I am sorry, but I am tired of the notion of “they were good men”. WHO CARES? Why can we not look at history without the emotional baggage? And since when does the notion that your economy suffers if you free slaves make slavery a virtue? Is it me or is it the most disconnected argument I have heard? I guess we should ask all descendants of black Americans to hold their peace because, hey, we would have lost a buck if we had freed your ancestor.

  • Will Keene Dec 19, 2006 @ 17:36

    To say they were trapped is to absolve them of responsibility for their own actions, to make them victims of the circumstances. Its the same with the effort to blame it all on the North, as if the ‘North’ somehow forced them to own slaves.

  • Kevin Levin Dec 19, 2006 @ 16:46

    I agree with the direction of your comment. However, for fear of someone else writing in to suggest that you’ve set up an implicit distinction between the moral qualities of Northerners v. Southerners let me just say that gradual emancipation in the North was a clear reflection of just how important the institution was to that region. If I remember correctly there were still 18 slaves in New Jersey in 1860. In addition, racism was pervasive throughout the North during the antebellum period.

    Your main point is right on; white Southern slaveholders chose to defend their peculiar institution for a whole host of reasons. They were in no way trapped.

  • Cash Dec 19, 2006 @ 16:40


    There were some emancipations after the Revolution, but it dropped off considerably. There were a number of reasons for this, all indicating the slaveholders were not trapped.

    Legislatures in slaveholding states made it more difficult to emancipate slaves. The reason for this is they felt that this would lead to an increased number of free blacks, thus undermining the institution of slavery. Also, there were some who pointed out that more owners emancipating slaves meant fewer owners who would provide the political support to retain slavery.

    Also, the spread of the “slavery as a positive good” philosphy in the 1830s pointed out a huge discrepancy. If slavery were a positive good, then why would one reward a faithful slave with emancipation? If slavery were good for the slave, then emancipation would hardly be a reward since it would, according to this theory, make him worse off.

    These argue for a deliberate choice on the part of slaveowners to keep their slaves in bondage and against their being trapped.

    The economics of slavery being what they were, slavery was a very profitable venture, as numerous studies have shown. To the extent slaveowners were trapped, they were trapped by their own desire for more profit. Otherwise they could have freed their slaves and paid them for their labor.


  • John Smith Dec 19, 2006 @ 16:20


    Thanks, but further discussion is pointless. I question your perspective and sources, you ignore those challenges and make other points, you question mine, I do the same. This format makes these kinds of back and forths terribly frustrating.

    And Lee’s reliance on God certainly was a sincere belief in gradual emancipation. That was a Christain viewpoint and a legitimate one for 19th century Americans. Lee thought it better to allow God to work the matter out than the option of slaughtering 100’s of thousands of young men to accomplish the same thing.

    And I find it mind-boggling that you would accuse me of presentism when you started this whole exchange by criticizing Lee’s view of slavery from a modern perspective!

    Your references regarding the EP are selective to make your point and you will accuse me of the same thing if I were to respond with quotes to make mine. Anyone who argues that the EP was not politically motivated is ignoring the bulk of historical work on the subject.

    You argue that Lincoln had no power to free the slaves in loyal states? You can’t possibly be serious. My God, the man took whatever power he could get away with to accomplish his goal in preserving the Union including suspending Habeas corpus, arresting legislators, and shutting down critical newspapers – were all these acts “within his power?!” He didn’t want to free the slaves in the loyal states because of political opposition, not because he didn’t have the power.

    I suppose you will have the last word as I see no point in further discussion or responses. Thank you though for a respectful, though lively, exchange.

    Best to you,

  • Kevin Levin Dec 19, 2006 @ 15:58

    I am starting to grow tired of this comment thread. The point I was trying to make was not to necessarily demonize or praise anyone, but to suggest that your concept of “trapped” does not help us understand the worldview of white southern slaveholders. This whole business about the North is irrelevant unless you want to argue that they somehow determined the mind of the South. The decision to begin to gradually abolish slavery following the American Revolution was not exclusive to the North. Of course, they were able to for a number of reasons to carry it out while the South gradually grew more dependent on cotton as a staple crop. By the 1830’s they were engaged in combating a strong Federal government that people like Calhoun viewed as a threat to slavery as well as a small number of abolitionists. Again, suggesting that they were trapped sounds more like a distraction than as a way to UNDERSTAND the role of slavery in the antebellum South.

    It would be much appreciated if the comments could address the main point of the post.

  • Cash Dec 19, 2006 @ 15:42

    Just a small revision. I should say that the EP freed all the slaves in the areas it affected, not all the slaves in the United States. That is what I meant by “It freed them all.”


  • Cash Dec 19, 2006 @ 15:39

    Mr. Smith,

    As you know what the rest of the 1856 letter says, then you know Lee was saying they would be freed whenever God decreed it. That’s not gradual emancipation.

    Lincoln was always antislavery. His speeches in the 1850s were filled with his antislavery position. Lincoln laid out the relationship of his position as President with his views on slavery:

    “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath I took that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take the office without taking the oath. Nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using the power. I understood, too, that in ordinary civil administration this oath even forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgment on the moral question of slavery.” [A. Lincoln to A. G. Hodges, 4 Apr 1864]

    The claim that Lincoln issued the EP to prevent Britain from intervening is, I’m sorry to say, presentism.

    Allen Guelzo wrote, “If intervention and morale were Lincoln’s primary concerns, then an Emancipation was probably the worst method, and at the worst time, with which to have met them. Abroad, there was as much danger that an Emancipation Proclamation would trigger foreign intervention as there was that the Proclamation would discourage it.” [Allen C. Guelzo, _Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America,_ p. 9]

    “Seward feared the ‘effect’ on foreign opinion, and the all-important possibility of intervention in the war by France or Britain. The proclamation might provoke ‘foreign nations’ to ‘intervene to prevent the abolition of slavery for the sake of cotton’ or to prevent disruptions in the supply of cotton. Or it might provoke an intervention to head off something far worse. ‘It may be viewed as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help’ to the slaves themselves from an administration that had discovered that it lacked the power to win the war.’ ” [Ibid., p. 123]

    “If anything, Lincoln had to fear more that the British would intervene because of an emancipation proclamation than that yhey would without one. So long as emancipation was seen as a ‘direct encouragement to servile Insurrections,’ the British government was eager to head off anything that might awaken memories of the racial carnage of the Indian Mutiny. It was, in fact, two weeks AFTER [emphasis in original] Lincoln issued the preliminary proclamation that William Ewart Gladstone predicted Southern victory to an enthusiastic crowd in Newcastle, while the foreign secretary, Lord John Russell, was so appalled at the appearance of the Proclamation that he pressed for a diplomatic intervention to head off the ‘acts of plunder, of incendiarism, and of revenge’ he was sure would follow emancipation. But the costs of such an intervention, and the possibility that it might give an opening to French adventurism in Mexico, pulled the British back grom the brink; it was only over the following year that emancipation gradually became the government’s principal rationale for not intervening.” [Ibid., p. 225]

    Lincoln had no power, as President, to free any slaves in loyal states. It was only by using his war power as commander-in-chief that he was able to declare slaves in the areas under rebel control to be free, as a war measure to deny their labor to the enemy.

    And it is inaccurate to say the EP didn’t free any slaves. It freed them all. On the day it was issued, about 20,000 slaves in areas under Union control that were not excepted from the EP were freed. After that, everywhere the Union army marched, it enforced the freedom of the slaves in those areas it touched.


  • John Smith Dec 19, 2006 @ 15:14


    Lee, like Lincoln, also favored gradual emancipation. You know the quote: “Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influences of Christianity than from the storm and tempest of fiery controversy.” (Yes, I know what the rest of the letter says.)

    Lincoln’s “evolution” was politically motivated evidenced in part by his very “timely” penning of the Emancipation Proclamation to prevent Britian from coming to the South’s aid. And it freed no slaves. As a matter of fact, he specifically kept those enslaved over which he DID have the power to free. We all know that. Evolution of thought and action? Please.

    Certainly the fact the book referenced was written by Northern journalists has a direct bearing on its credibility–objectivity.

    And I do agree with you, Lee was a flawed man, as we all are. He is a hero nonetheless. And, of course, Lincoln was acting (at least in part) out of a sincere motive to save the Union, so I do not mean to deprecate him for that. They were both products of a society much different than ours and one in which it takes great effort to understand. Our exchange helps in that effort.

  • Cash Dec 19, 2006 @ 14:42

    Mr. Smith,

    Nobody denies “the North” was involved in slavery. This is not a “North vs. South” match. But “the North” had nothing to do with Lee’s views on slavery, nor did it have anything to do with whether or not Southerners in 1860 were “trapped” in slavery.

    As an aside, whether “Northern” journalists wrote the book or not has no bearing on its credibility.

    Stephens is relevant because he was the vice president of the confederacy and a leading Southern politician contemporaneous with Lee.

    Lee didn’t seek to change the status quo. In his letter to Senator Andrew Hunter, Lee said, “Considering the relation of master and slave, controlled by humane laws and
    influenced by Christianity and an enlightened public sentiment, as the best
    that can exist between the white and black races while intermingled as at
    present in this country, I would deprecate any sudden disturbance of that
    relation unless it be necessary to avert a greater calamity to both.” [R. E. Lee to Andrew Hunter, 11 Jan 1865]

    This was Lee’s letter to Hunter supporting the use of slaves as soldiers very late in the war. As Bruce Levine shows in his book, _Confederate Emancipation,_ the object wasn’t to end slavery but rather to free a small number of slaves so the rest could be preserved in slavery.

    As to Lincoln’s views, they are well known. Lincoln was antislavery but not an immediate abolitionist. He favored gradual, compensated emancipation as his preferred method of eliminating slavery, followed by voluntary colonization of the free slaves. By the summer of 1862 he had come to the conclusion that the war effort required the denial of slave labor to the confederates and the enlisting of black soldiers to help the Union cause, and by July of 1864 he had dropped the idea of colonizing the free slaves.

    Lee, on the other hand, believed up to 1865 that the master/slave relationship was the best that could be had between whites and blacks in the same country.

    On the one hand we see an evolution of thought and action. On the other hand we see very little evolution of thought.

    This is not meant to deprecate Lee. He was a man of his times formed in a slave society in a system he was unable to transcend, unlike Southern abolitionists such as the Grimkés. It doesn’t make him a bad man, just not as perfect as the myth would have us believe.


  • John Smith Dec 19, 2006 @ 14:39

    I thought I did respond Professor. They were trapped by economics. Selfish? Yes, but reality. I also believe they felt the North was hypocritical because they–the North–had become rich via the slave trade and continued to profit from the cotton trade. Its easy to wag your finger and be self-righteous after you’ve gotten what you wanted from the same institution. Its like a drug dealer preaching to an addict about the need to reform. Southerners were damned if they did (free slaves) and damned if they didn’t. But to give the North a pass and belittle great men like Lee solely over the issue of slavery is disingenuous. North and South equally share the blame. The South receives most of the blame because of the war. But, as you have pointed out, we can’t judge a whole society/culture based on just four years, right?

  • Kevin Levin Dec 19, 2006 @ 14:16

    I agree with your points about the North. We do need to be reminded that that Northern states were slaveowning, but that wasn’t the point of my post. I was responding to the tendency to see slaveholders as “trapped.” It would be great if you could respond to those points. Thanks

  • John Smith Dec 19, 2006 @ 14:06

    I did not mention Stephens anywhere in my posts. (Should we quote Lincoln’s comments about slavery prior to his politically expedient “revelation”?) I was referring specifically to Lee. I mentioned Jefferson as being like-minded to make the point. Of course there were Southerners who wanted to keep the status quo. Lee was not one of those. Referencing Northerners drives home the truth. I would recommend “Complicity – How the North Promoted, Prolonged and Profited from Slavery” – written by Northern journalists, by the way. Ignoring the North’s involvement in slavery makes it easier to distance the North’s responsibility for American slavery. The North’s involvement has everything to do with how white Southerners identified and worked to protect their slave-holding society.

  • Kristen Dec 19, 2006 @ 13:00

    I took a class with Mel Ely when I was at William and Mary. Its a great book!

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