“Each Section Preserved White Supremacy Differently”

Aaron AstorSince I don’t use a textbook in my U.S. History survey I am always on the lookout for relatively short excerpts from secondary sources that help me to pinpoint a specific historical question or problem. I’ve said before that one of the more challenging topics to teach is the distinction between race and slavery in nineteenth-century America. For most of my students (Virginia and Massachusetts) the lack of slavery in the North by the late antebellum period makes it difficult for them to appreciate the extent that racism permeated the region. They tend to see racism and slavery as two sides of the same coin, which is reinforced by their limited understanding of chattel slavery in the South.

This excerpt from Aaron Astor’s, Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation, and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri does a brilliant job of teasing out this important distinction. Wish I had come across it last week.

At the heart of Kentuckian and Missourian values was white supremacy, or more specifically, a belief that Western civilization was a product of characteristics unique to the white race and that all interracial relationships must protect the white race from subjugation or degradation by the black race. Failing to hold the line against attempts at racial equality would yield nothing less than complete reversion to barbarism, which whites believed inevitable wherever blacks lived without white authority. Most white northerners and southerners agreed with this racial order, but each section preserved white supremacy differently. Northerners simply excluded African Americans outright–states such as Indiana and Illinois legally banned black people from entering those states in 1860, and many other states placed onerous taxes on blacks who could not prove employment or property ownership–or failing that, segregated blacks and whites in all facets of social and economic life. White northerners protected white supremacy by monopolizing the property, power and labor force of the northern states. White southerners, living amid populations that often included large majorities of African Americans, embraced slavery as the natural system of racial and social control. Without slavery, white southerners feared, blacks would literally overrun and destroy white civilizations, re-creating either Haiti or Africa itself. (pp. 29-30)

I can’t help but think that this paragraph helps to frame – in so many ways –  the problem of race that our nation faced following the Civil War right down to the present day. This is a book that I’ve been wanting to read for some time and I am so glad I am finally getting around to it. Highly recommended.

13 comments… add one
  • Doug didier Feb 20, 2014 @ 7:02

    I would think a lecture from history of the slave south could be a useful teaching aid. Perhaps the segment on Jeffersons thoughts. I don’t have a command of the English language as she. But I find that she will use a word .. I’ll look it up. And it’s fits really good. So probably need the text also. Plus students would have advantage of a teacher in the room to pause video and rephrase in simpler terms

    The first lecture in the age of Jefferson MOOC also points out southern fears of emancipation. Revenge.. In terms of memory, covers the stages in the memory of Jefferson . How used by Lincoln, Roosevelt , etc..

  • Wallace Hettle Feb 16, 2014 @ 8:35

    Living in the predominantly white state of Iowa, even more often, I get the flip side: Lincoln could not have been anti-slavery because he made racist statements.

    The distinction between race and slavery is really hard to teach.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 16, 2014 @ 14:40

      That’s another tough nut to crack. We talk extensively about free labor ideology in class and that usually helps when it comes to Lincoln.

  • Bryce Hartranft Feb 16, 2014 @ 6:40

    Great source.

    I always try to bring up the point that there was racism in the north, but in the past i just did it orally. I think white labor’s fear of losing out to black labor (slave or free) was a powerful motivation for northern racism. I will definitely use this section of text in the future.

  • Brendan Bossard Feb 15, 2014 @ 11:58

    Thank you for covering this topic in your class, Kevin. This was missing in my history education. There were hints here and there of Northern racism, so I was not totally ignorant about this, but I did not learn anything very specific that stuck with me. In particular, I did not learn that Abraham Lincoln was one of those who believed in keeping the two races separate, whites being in the superior class, until I read his speeches and writings last year.

    He was a dinosaur by today’s standards. But I believe that when more young people learn to incorporate complexities like this in their historical understanding with non-judgmental clarity, our current political climate will be less racially-charged and we can actually move forward in some areas in which we remain in our infancy as a culture and a nation.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 15, 2014 @ 12:44

      It’s even more important given that I am teaching in Massachusetts. My final unit on the year focuses on the Boston Bus Boycott so understanding the long history of race in the North becomes even more important.

      • Brendan Bossard Feb 15, 2014 @ 18:54

        Very interesting. I hope you succeed in helping your students not only to gain a greater comprehension of racial attitudes in their home town and the North, but also to take a look at themselves. One of the things my mixed family faced was racial jokes and stereotyping by fellow students in Lebanon, NH. (This was back in the late 1980’s.) My mom, who is a teacher by training, requested and was granted an opportunity to teach a one-time class about racial stereotyping and how harmful it is. Afterwards, some of the students told her that they had not realized what they were doing, and the student body treated my mixed-race siblings with generally greater respect. There is so much positive that you will accomplish just by making your students aware that it won’t do just to point fingers at the South, and I truly appreciate it.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 16, 2014 @ 2:35

          I hope you succeed in helping your students not only to gain a greater comprehension of racial attitudes in their home town and the North, but also to take a look at themselves.

          I teach at a Jewish Academy. Most of these kids have been doing just that to a greater degree than most adults that I know. Thanks for the comment.

    • London John Feb 16, 2014 @ 5:48

      A question about Lincoln’s speeches and writings: did L say what he really thought, or did he say what he needed to say to get what he wanted done in a democracy? When you consider the prevalent racial attitudes in the North, Lincoln’s achievement in abolishing slavery looks all the greater.

      • Brendan Bossard Feb 16, 2014 @ 19:22

        London John, that very question came to my mind as I was reading the material. I am not a Lincoln scholar, so I do not claim to know the answer for sure. But given the fact that he tended to be candid about his points of view in other controversies that posed varying degrees of political risk, i.e. regarding slavery, the Dred Scott decision, and the Mexican War, I see no reason to think that he was not being candid about his point of view in this matter. I also see no necessary conflict between what he said about the incompatibility of the races and what he said about the subjugation of one race to the other.

        But whether I am right or wrong, you are absolutely right to say that his accomplishment abolishing slavery becomes all the greater in light of Northern racism.

  • Victor Mobley Feb 15, 2014 @ 7:45

    Thanks for pointing out this book. I’ve always been interested in the various forms of racism and prejudice in history and will have to read it. Does the author extrapolate too much, though? He studies Missouri and Kentucky, but this were very peculiar blends of northern and southern culture. Obviously racism isn’t a southern trait alone, and other states did have black laws, but I’m not sure it’s fair to point to those two states and say the conclusions can be generalized for the whose north. I’ve never read studies on the black codes, but were they overwhelmingly popular, or were they simply legislative restrictions put in place that a non-civil rights conscious populace didn’t rare about one way or the other. I guess what I’m asking is, were codes put in place by special interests or do we know the extent of popular support for them? Does this book, for one, get us any closer to understanding just how widespread or popular these forms of racism were?

  • Jimmy Dick Feb 15, 2014 @ 7:15

    What book do you use for explaining how slavery developed in the colonies? What primary sources? I use Taylor’s and Morgan’s books and primary sources from colonial legislatures showing where the laws were created in the 17th century making slavery a racial institution.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 15, 2014 @ 7:23

      I’ve used a couple of different sources, but have relied heavily on Edmund Morgan because it is accessible for many of my students. I’ve also used sections from Ira Berlin’s books. When I taught in Virginia I cobbled together a bunch of slave runaway ads for my students to analyze. This year we focused much more on the development of slavery in the North. In our last unit on the Lowell Mills we talked about the connection to slavery.

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