The Most Important Primary Source on Secession

My students thoroughly enjoyed reading and discussing the article by Charles Dew along with the letter by Stephen Hale who served as a secessionist commissioner to Kentucky.  Students picked up on a number of points about secession between the Dew article and another piece by James McPherson, which takes a much broader view of the events leading to Lincoln’s election.  One of the things McPherson does is briefly survey how others have answered the question of what caused secession, including those subscribing to the Lost Cause view as well as the Progressive and Revisionist schools of thought.  My students were particularly interested in the Lost Cause view and seemed to understand the need for those like Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens to distance their cause from race and slavery following the end of the war.  The long-term influence of the Lost Cause could easily be identified as we read through Dew’s own brief autobiography in which he admits to growing up in Florida with a glorified view of the cause only to be confronted with a less than pleasant picture through careful study.

Our close analysis of the Stephen Hale letter led to a very engaging and spirited class discussion.  Actually, once I introduced a few questions at the beginning of the class I said very little and instead allowed the students to engage one another.  They commented on the close linking between the states rights argument and the strong desire to preserve slavery.  In other words, they can now answer the question that McPherson posed in his article, which is, “States rights for what?”  Some of the students struggled with the strong racial references and at times questioned whether this apocalyptic vision that Hale was suggesting was a function of real fear or hyperbole.  They also discussed the importance of linking together slave and non-slaveowners:

Who can look upon such a picture without a shudder? What Southern man, be he slave-holder or non-slave-holder, can without indignation and horror contemplate the triumph of negro equality, and see his own sons and daughters, in the not distant future, associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality, and the white man stripped, by the Heaven-daring hand of fanaticism of that title to superiority over the black race which God himself has bestowed? In the Northern States, where free negroes are so few as to form no appreciable part of the community, in spite of all the legislation for their protection, they still remain a degraded caste, excluded by the ban of society from social association with all but the lowest and most degraded of the white race. But in the South, where in many places the African race largely predominates, and, as a consequence, the two races would be continually pressing together, amalgamation, or the extermination of the one or the other, would be inevitable. Can Southern men submit to such degradation and ruin? God forbid that they should.

By far the most difficult parts to consider were where references to God and Christianity were used as justification for the preservation of slavery:

But, it is said, there are many Constitutional, conservative men at the North, who sympathize with and battle for us. That is true; but they are utterly powerless, as the late Presidential election unequivocally shows, to breast the tide of fanaticism that threatens to roll over and crush us. With them it is a question of principle, and we award to them all honor for their loyalty to the Constitution of our Fathers. But their defeat is not their ruin. With us it is a question of self-preservation– our lives, our property, the safety of our homes and our hearthstones– all that men hold dear on earth, is involved in the issue. If we triumph, vindicate our rights and maintain our institutions, a bright and joyous future lies beforeus. We can clothe the world with our staple, give wings to her commerce, and supply with bread the starving operative in other lands, and at the same time preserve an institution that has done more to civilize and Christianize the heathen than all human agencies beside– an institution alike beneficial to both races, ameliorating the moral, physical and intellectual condition of the one, and giving wealth and happiness to the other.  If we fail, the light of our civilization goes down in blood, our wives and our little ones will be driven from their homes by the light of our own dwellings. The dark pall of barbarism must soon gather over our sunny land, and the scenes of West India emancipation, with its attendant horrors and crimes (that monument of British fanaticism and folly), be re-enacted in our own land upon a more gigantic scale.

One of my students noted that the Hale letter makes it is much easier to see why Lost Cause writers chose to ignore the role that slavery played in the decision to secede.  I find that my students do one of two things when grappling with difficult passages such as this.  Either they dismiss the writer as a “moral monster” or question whether the author could have believed such a thing at all.  In the case of both positions I tell my students that there job is not to judge, but to understand; no doubt this takes time and a willingness to consider the perspectives of those with whom we seem to have little in common with, but it is a crucial step in introducing basic historical skills.  What needs to be carefully considered is not that they believed this, but how white southerners came to subscribe to this particular view of their religion or how Christian doctrine come to be used to prop up the institution of slavery and white supremacy?  It is also important to remind students that the analysis of primary sources is not about them.  Moral judgments about the past have their place, but in the hands of students who are being introduced to various topics the net effect is a distancing rather than an intellectual embracing of the historical subject.

Charles Dew contends that the speeches of the secessionist commissioners are the most helpful and insightful sources in trying to better understand what drove whites in the Deep South out of the Union following Lincoln’s election.  At one point he suggests that the speech by Stephen Hale belongs in every classroom and I have to agree with this assessment.

The complete letter by Stephen Hale can be found here.

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3 comments… add one
  • Patrick Lewis Sep 15, 2008 @ 23:05

    I know it’s been a few days since you posted this one, but I just wanted to chime in and say that I really couldn’t agree more on the importance (and usefulness) of the Hale letter. Given that I work on KY during the War and Reconstruction I have always been fascinated by it, and I find myself time and again coming back to Hale’s apocalyptic vision. It really is damning language for proponents of the Lost Cause.

    Hale is a staple in my talks at Chickamauga-Chattanooga, and in my classroom at the University of KY. I even threw him into my thesis for good measure.

  • John Sep 10, 2008 @ 2:09

    Hi Kevin,

    I can understand your students’ consternation. I was once in their shoes and remain a student of history to this day, well into middle age; and I believe taking your class will encourage them to do the same.

    So on to my point. On the one hand, Hale’s letter is morally repugnant. On the other hand and more difficult to grasp, it is historically fascinating. It gives us a bird’s eye view of the mind set that lead to secession. The intelligent reading of history requires the awareness that the people living it didn’t have our sensibilities. They had their own, formed by the culture of which they were a part. Which is not to say that history should not judge the rightness or wrongness of a cause. It is simply to say that the people involved in the cause at the time more than likely believed it to be right.

    Anyway, thanks for the blog. I’d never read the Hale letter before. Here’s to lifelong learning.


  • Greg Rowe Sep 9, 2008 @ 21:52

    Wow! To say this class must be great fun to teach would have to be a huge understatement. I can only imagine. It would seem that seeing these students develop the capacity to dig deeper into the subject is only one of many highlights.

    As a middle school teacher, I find that most students mimic parental ideas on a variety of historical topics, but that is fast changing as I approach topics with my students. That is not to say the logic is always dead-on, but the fact that they are reaching for their own opinions and analysis rather than seeking to simply parrot someone else’s is great. Sure middle schoolers are still developing these concepts and high schoolers have a better grasp of them, I just hope I’m doing the teachers up the pipe a better service by cultivating the critical skills of these students. Can I send a few to St. Anne’s to your class as a test? :^)

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