It’s always entertaining to watch folks get worked up about the pride they feel when defending those brave white Southerners, who in 1860-61 were doing nothing more than standing up against an evil federal government that had stepped beyond its constitutional authority. For many, it’s nothing less than an act of patriotism that may have to be carried out again if we are not careful. In this interpretation of American history, the American Civil War ushered in a new era of corrupt government. Lincoln fits perfectly into the role of arch villain, not simply for ordering the total destruction of the Confederacy, but for his blatant disregard of the Constitution. The act of secession and the war itself constituted the final stand against this blatant disregard for the Constitution.
What is interesting, of course, is that these very same people fail to extend their argument further. Why not continue to defend these salient constitutional issues within the history of the Confederacy itself? After all, a closer look at the historical record may reveal an even more defiant stand against the encroachments on states’ and individual rights in the Confederacy as opposed to the United States between 1861 and 1865. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to add to the argument that the 1860s represented a fundamental shift in our assumptions about the proper relationship between the states and the federal government?
A cursory glance at the historical record suggests that Southern slaveholders are begging to be embraced as defending their rights against what they perceived to be a corrupt government. Throughout the war they stood up against every attempt on the part of the Confederate government to impress their slaves for military purposes. They did so not only because they knew there would be a good chance that their slaves would run away, but that the legislation constituted a direct threat to their individual rights as property holders. Stephanie McCurry does a brilliant job of explaining all of this in her book, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South. If we understand the direct connection between states’ right and slaveholders’ rights we can more easily view the slaveholding class as engaged in a broader struggle to protect their individual rights, first against the United States and, within a short period of time, the Confederate States of America.