Slavery and State Sovereignty
We speak now of the agitation and propaganda
against and for slavery, and of the right of States to secede
from the Union: hence we speak of the numerous causes
of the Civil War, argued at the time and ever since.
Two points dominate our own explanation of the war.
First, the poor White Southerners were the principal block
to solutions of the slavery crisis other than by civil war.
These had their own representatives in local governments,
in Congress and especially in the State legislatures,
and the plantation class was trapped by the class
logic of racism and pride, a perverted noblesse oblige.
Second, paranoia, masked in piety and legalese,
motivated bothprincipal groupings who brought on the struggle:
the Southern racists - planters as well as poor Whites -
and the Northern abolitionists.
The "other" side was out to get them!
Inasmuch as one must choose between slavers and abolitionists
and both are heavily paranoid,
one chooses the paranoids who are in the right.
This would be the abolitionists.
It doesn't matter whether one would rather be sipping bourbon
on a veranda after being out with the good
ol' boys hunting wild pigs, or, on the other hand,
be sitting stiffly in a lecture hall listening to a harangue
on good causes by a presbyterian minister.
Right is right. History must be judged.
For eight years, the House of Representatives debated whether to
table automatically all petitions proposing the abolition of slavery on
grounds that these were obviously unconstitutional.
Such a gag rule was steadfastly opposed by
former President, now Member of the House, John Quincy Adams,
as an abridgement of the freedoms of speech and petition
guaranteed by the Constitution.
(It wasgenerally accepted that the slaves enjoyed no such rights,
but here white men were to be deprived of them.)
In the end (1844) the proposed rule was voted down.
Politician-lawyers were in charge of the problem
in the State capitals and Washington. They argued,
compromised, from time to time engaged in debates
that generations of schoolteachers since have called great -
the Haynes-Webster Debate, the Lincoln-Douglas Debate, and
so on. No other subject so occupied Congress as slavery and
secession. The idea at first was to resolve the problem of slavery
through giving some of the unlimited national domain
over to slavery and the rest to freeholding.
The last State to be admitted without a furor over slavery
was Alabama, onto whose fertile cotton-growing soil
slave speculators and slave-owners had avidly pounced.
But by the following year, alarm bells had rung in the North:
admission of Maine and Missouri became controversial. The
Missouri compromises of 1820 admitted Maine as free
and Missouri as slave, but fixed "forever" the great balance
of the Louisiana purchase territory to the North of Missouri
(lat.36 degrees, 30 minutes) as free.
We recall that the Texas and Mexican wars raised strong protests
over the advances which slave-owners were making.
In 1846, in a debate on a bill to fund possible purchases of land
from Mexico, Congressman Wilmot tacked on an amendment to the
effect that any territories received from Mexico be barred to slavery.
This stirred up sentiments, but was turned down. Again and again
the "Proviso"came forward; always a bridesmaid, but never a bride.
In 1850 another "Omnibus" compromise bill took care of various
matters and kept the peace for the nonce: California was to be
admitted free; a line at the 37th parallel would separate the
territories of Utah and New Mexico, and their constitutions
(effectively then Congress) would decide whether to permit slavery
or not; $10 millions went to Texas as compensation
for giving up claims it had in New Mexico.
Slave trade in the District of Columbia was to be abolished;
a new fugitive slave act would be passed making it easier to
recapture slaves escaped into free territory.
All orators turned out upon the occasion.
Daniel Webster culminated grandiloquently two decades
of hard selling of the Union. Calhoun asked for equality of South
and North in the territories, approved steps to return fugitive slaves,
and spoke of guarantees of an equilibrium between South and North
so that either section could refuse the demand of the other section,
an equilibrium that came to be known as the theory of the
concurrent majority - an idea of two separate nations on
whatever issue was deemed by either side to be of greatest
importance, like slavery (a century later, political philosophers were
saying, what a clever idea, which it certainly was not -
a clever dialectical quibble, yes).
The Compromise of 1850 was duly enacted.
The Compromise of 1850 lasted until 1854
when Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois
sought to facilitate, not without pocketing the change,
a railroad line between Chicago and the Pacific Coast.
The result of his efforts was the Kansas-Nebraska Act that repealed the
Missouri Compromise, organized the territories of Kansas and
Nebraska and promised to let the principle of popular sovereignty or
"squatter sovereignty" in the territories decide whether to admit
slavery or not. This administered the coup de grace to the
Whig Party that had been struggling along as the
ghost of the old Federalists for many years.
Sam Houston complained from the Senate that the Act would
deprive the Indians of territory promised them for eternity;
no one could deny this or be surprised: if one were
at this time to calculate the number of broken promises
and agreements in Indian and foreign affairs
relative to bargains kept, the ratio might be 50/50.
The Know-Nothing Party and the Republican Party appeared
in the same year of 1856.
The Free Soilers and the Independent Democratic Party
also picked up some of the Whig adherents.
Fear in the North grew that free country might become
surrounded by slavery. Settlers, paid to migrate, poured into
Kansas. The New England Emigrant Aid Society was formed to
outfit abolition enthusiasts, and they came in with "Beecher Bibles,"
that is, gun-toting, named after the New England preacher,
Henry Ward Beecher, who championed abolition.
Pro-slavery settlers, mostly border ruffians from Missouri,
arrived, too, and hundreds of killings and burnings occurred.
Fanatical John Brown appeared with his several sons,
striking at Pottawatomie after slavists had burned Lawrence.
In the middle of this, two governments sprang up,
the first, slavists, tried to get a Constitution written and accepted
by Congress so as to control the territory.
They drew up the Constitution at the town of Lecompton.
Students of referenda voting, who would one day marvel
at how dictators managed such favorable results with referenda,
might begin their studies here. A first referendum,
slavists in charge, voted 6,226 for the slavery constitution,
569 for the constitution without slavery.
The territorial legislature, not at all impressed,
responded to the new acting Governor's wishes and
called another referendum to vote
up or down the Lecompton constitution.
It went down 10,226 against,
138 for the slavery constitution.
Now a third referendum was held, supervised by a
Congressionally designated group of managers, and the Lecompton
Constitution went down for the full count, 11,300 to 1,788.
The date was August 2, 1858.
As if he had not enough troubles, the Democratic Party
administration of President James Buchanan ran into
a financial storm followed by a depression,
a typical affair whereby the common people suffered
in many countries and no one could pinpoint responsibility.
Speculative bubbles bursting,
a reduction in demand abroad for American cereals,
and the chaotic State bank note system
were chief culprits,
at least in the press and halls of Congress.
Southerners trumpeted that agriculture was more stable -
the cotton market happened to be spared -
proving that slavery was the preferable system.
The Presidential elections of 1856 had shown up
the Republicans as the second largest party in the nation;
their candidate had been John Fremont. The American Party
"Know-Nothings" had run Millard Fillmore and came in
far behind Buchanan and Fremont.
Buchanan was a Southerner, a compromiser, who hoped to sit tight
and weather the storm; he barely managed to get out
before the roof blew away.
Consonant with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Congress had enacted a
Fugitive Slave Law that ordered slaves found anywhere to be
returned to their masters. Northerners foresaw horrors of federal
agents entering their closets looking for fugitives.
The Dred Scott decision had added fuel to the flames.
Few slaves escaped the tight system in the South,
notwithstanding heroic efforts on the part of Black and White citizens
to facilitate their escape. But of these some hundreds
per year, ever fewer were caught.
Several riots over attempts to enforce the law persuaded the
authorities that other forms of delinquency
deserved closer attention.
(It is of note that Douglas, consoling Northerners
about his legislation, opined that the local police would
have to cooperate with the federal authorities to
return a slave and they could be counted
upon -heh, heh! - not to cooperate;
but, in the century that followed the Civil War,
a continual protest issued from the North that the
local police in the South were preventing the
Constitution from being enforced.)
Other incidents occurred.
One that shocked the Northern public was
the brutal cane beating and disablement of a helpless Senator,
Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, by a nephew
and member of the House, whose uncle had been berated
by Sumner in a speech. The assailant
was praised for the atrocity, not tried or removed,
and was later re-elected.
Even worse was John Brown's raid of
October 16, 1859, on Harper's Ferry,
where stood a federal arsenal, then in Virginia.
He crossed from Maryland with his gang, including sons
that survivedthe Kansas killings and several African-Americans,
and seized the arsenal and hostages.
He had probably been wanting to incite a riot
of slaves and sympathizers, to spread rebellion.
He was besieged, supporters killed when they came to
dicker under a white flag, and
the next morning a marine detachment came up,
attacked and killed or captured most. Still, several escaped.
Trapped, they were quickly tried by Virginia authorities
for treason against the State and hanged,
including the wounded John Brown. Later,
Union soldiers would sing to the tune of Hallelujah,
a "Battle Hymn of the Republic,"
"John Brown's body lies a-mold'ring in the grave,
but his soul goes marching on..."
Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky in a log cabin,
of a mother for whom he always claimed a tender affection
and a father of typical backwoods irresponsibility.
She died when he was small, and his
father married a firmer and more demanding type.
She taught Abe and imbued him with ambition.
Lincoln's ancestry was sufficiently clouded so that he has
been claimed to have English and German origins,
and was probably of New England ancestors
who crossed the Ohio River border into Southernity
a couple of generations earlier. His swarthy color of
eye and skin might even have signified Indian or
Black genes along the line. He ended up in
Southern Illinois, then and still a country of heavy
Southern cultural influence.
Lest one crow about freedom to rise high from
low circumstances, his antecedents were no more
ignoble than those of Adolph Hitler.
Neither man could now qualify for a credit card.
Hitler was of uncertain Austrian parentage,
hardly schooled, failed as often as Lincoln,
was shell-shocked, suffered from a variety of lifelong
ailments and phobias (among them hypospadia and
spino bifida occulta- whence he had obsessions of
syphilis that he called a "Jewish disease" --,
recurrent war wound and gas traumas,
explosive rages, sexual inhibitions, and paranoia
replete with delusions), painted and sold postcards,
and then, instead of becoming a "mouthpiece" became a
loudmouth agitator and adored monster of the Germans.
As troubled as he was, Lincoln was angelic by comparison.
Lincoln's store went bankrupt. Haled into court, his
few possessions were seized. Several insolvent
years passed. He failed time after time in politics.
He bucked against marriage, leaving his girl standing at
the church door. His relations with women,
beginning with profound sentimentalizing of his true mother,
were stressful. Gore Vidal and Douglas L. Wilson,
mainly by way of Lincoln's law partner, Herndon,
conclude that Lincoln had a problem with syphilis,
and may have been infected in an episode with a
Sangamon whore whom he himself blamed.
He worried over resorting to prostitutes from time to time.
When he did marry, after years of agonizing and
on-again, off-again determinations, his wife,
Mary Todd, brooked no nonsense from him.
Possessed of an earthy sense of humor,
such as backwoods folk enjoyed, he displayed
also a sharp wit, such that, with his melancholy -
sometimes fully neurotic- and his oedipus complex and
his sensitivity to personal obligations (guilt feelings),
he became a most interesting man -
physically, too, with deep brown eyes,
whose pathological (say some) height
and angularity lent him both distinction and absurdity.
He was driven to succeed, worked several jobs as a young man,
and ran and was elected to the Illinois legislature while preparing for
a law practice. He fashioned a decent practice and could probably
have become quite wealthy at it had he not been bitten by the
bug of politics. He had no compunctions about fighting Indians,
and volunteered in the war to put down the Sac and Fox tribes.
He stayed in the state legislature several years,
ran for Congress, served one term. He opposed the
Mexican War, antagonizing his constituents.
He campaigned for U.S. Senator (then chosen by the state legislature),
lost to Stephen Douglas on a respectable showing, and
developed a viewpoint on the slavery issue that did not
lose him too many votes, except in the South, and
did not arouse much hostility in the North.
Generally he was for confining slavery to the South,
but intended no large harm to slaveholders.
This Douglas could not boast of. And with Buchanan happily
quitting, Douglas "the Little Giant" did become the
Democratic choice, but only after a large chunk of the party was
bitten off at a first convention in Charleston, South Carolina - of all
places - because he was not slavish enough, while John C. Breckinridge, a
full Southern sympathizer, came on with an independent
Democratic party. John Bell was the candidate of a new Constitutional
Union party with the merest of "hold-the-fort" slogans for a
platform:" the Constitution of the Country, the Union of the States,
and the Enforcement of the Laws." This still brought him the
electoral votes of Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Breckinridge
got all the rest of the South including Maryland.
Douglas won Missouri and Delaware.
Lincoln, who had been a Whig, became a Republican,
following upon that new Party's remarkable
successes in 1856 and 1858.
Lincoln hardly budged and merely repeated his
prior ideas, which called for reserving the territories for
free men and for holding the Union together,
while reassuring the South that he had no intention of
interfering with its peculiar institution.
(By no means a radical reformer, he inclined to
racism in regard to African-Americans, and nativism
in respect to Irish and German Catholics.)
In the elections of November 1960,
Lincoln captured all the North and West. He received a plurality,
not a majority, of the ballots cast: 1,866,000,
while Douglas won 1,183,000,
Breckinridge 848,000, and Bell 593,000.
But the Electoral College, counting the vote by States,
rather than districts within States, gave the official count
as a majority for Lincoln, 180,
as against only 12 for Douglas, 72 for Breckinridge, and
39 for Bell; so he was elected President.
What would happen now? Lincoln would not
take office until March. Buchanan did as little as possible,
hoping that the problem would go away.
Lincoln passed the buck to Buchanan, justifying himself weakly.
Virginia called a meeting but the delegates could not agree upon
anything but "hold tight." The American constitutional system, the
American party system, the American theory of democracy, the
American leadership, the American people - all failed in the final
analysis. The Union turned out to be a house of cards; the great
spread of symbols of unity and patriotism meant little in the
face of a single grave issue.
One would be quite critical, if the same had not happened to
many countries in the course of history - Athens, Rome,
Florence, England, Ireland, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Brazil,
Mexico, and more to come.
America extricated itself no better than
than any other revolt-wracked country. (It would soon
forget itself, hypocritically, and go after those
weak South American countries who couldn't
hold together internally without revolution,
exhibiting, said the American jingoists, an unfortunate,
severe cultural, probably racial, weakness.)
South Carolina, deeply offended, as always,
called a special convention to consider succession,
which met on December 20 and voted to secede,
declaring that threats to slavery were rife,
that Lincoln had promised its forthcoming extinction,
and that therefore and henceforth South Carolina was resigned
from the Union. (It is fairly certain that South
Carolina secessionists believed Lincoln to be an abolitionist,
which he was not - and a century of contrary propaganda
since then should convince no one otherwise.)
By February six States added their own secessionist declarations.
These were the Deep South and Texas.
Texas was last because the secessionists took up time
in arranging the coup d'état forcing out loyalist
Governor Sam Houston.
The popular votes for secession were fairly close where they were held
( in Georgia and Louisiana, for example). Votes for delegates
to conventions on the issue also evidenced some strong Union feelings.
Secession was opposed in Northern Florida, Southern Louisiana,
Central and Far North Texas, in the back counties of every State from
Virginia to Alabama, also in Northern Arkansas and much of Missouri.
The South was not united: war and defeat unified it.
The secessionists thereupon convened in Montgomery, Alabama,
and in several days - with a bewildering speed that should have put
down all myth about Southerners moving slowly - organized the
Confederate States of America, adopted a Constitution, elected
Jefferson Davis President, and set up the offices of government. By
this time the American political elite, South or North, could
organize new governments blindfolded.
Now then, the federal government -
what had Lincoln been brooding over all this while? -
should have had some sort of plan in
the event of the promised secessions.
One would have been a plan for governments-in-exile.
That is, a joint resolution of Congress could have been readied,
and even publicized, labeling any declaration or act
of secession unconstitutional and illegitimate, stating, too, that a
State which claimed to secede, by that token was un-republican,
and was in violation of its commitments, as
voted by its members in Congress over the years,
and was in contradiction of its ever-continuing consent
to the Federal nation.
The President and Congress must then designate
loyal citizens who should elect Members of Congress
and officers of every such State
(from the abundant citizens of those States opposing secession)
who would constitute the government of the State,
residing as always within the Union and conducting the
business of the State at an appropriate location within the State or in
Washington or another designated location across the State's border
until such time as the State was liberated
and republican government restored.
Under these circumstances, the whole secession movement
would have found it difficult to proceed and
might have collapsed within a year.
Warfare would have been minimal.
No such plan was generated.
Most of the politicians, national and State, were
committed to a derring-do contest.
Bluff and bullets, bullets and bluff.
Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor became famous.
In January, a ship sent with reinforcements and provisions
was driven off by South Carolinian fire.
Both houses of Congress debated compromise schemes
for the containment of slavery, consuming two months, to no avail.
Both houses approved by two-thirds vote
a Constitutional amendment permitting slavery wherever it existed!
President-elect Lincoln was prepared to accept this first
usage of the word "slavery" in the Constitution,
although a terrible setback for the ideals of the republic.
After several misunderstandings and conflicting moves,
eager General Beauregard, with the approval of the Confederate
government, began to cannonade Fort Sumter.
Some 3,000 shots failed to kill anyone, but,
since ammunition was running law, and food, too,
Commander Anderson, after some 30 hours, struck his colors.
In a ceremonial explosion to mark the surrender,
two soldiers were killed - "friendly fire" began
the death toll of the Civil War.
A second wave of secessions followed the violence at Fort Sumter.
Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina quit
the United States and joined the Confederate States.
On the other hand, several slave States remained in the Union,
held by a combination of belief and force.
These were Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri.
Western Virginia seceded from the State of Virginia, was
formed into a regular State, and admitted to the Union promptly.
It possessed a non-slaveholding population, more of mountain than
of tidelands Southern sub-culture, and had coal mines. All along the
borderlands, from Delaware to California,
Union sentiment ran strong, even in very poor areas.
The results would be hardly felt. If no further shots would be fired, the
status quo ante would have survived indefinitely, two nations instead
of one. The Federal presence was not noticeable around the vast
Southlands. The Federal government gave little to the South - land to
individuals by sale or grant, but the States would now have done the
same. The South was practically self-sufficient in foodstuffs and could
be quite so with little extra effort. Customs service and coast guard
could easily be provided by the independent States or confederacy.
The North could continue to sell its goods to the South,
but only when the prices beat out European competition.
The Federal record in handling the common currency was unworthy
of a boast, so that could also be handled or mishandled.
The South would have had to build railroads,
which it had been doing already; but a single balky State
would create problems.
The Southern States were and would be much in the situation and
condition of the sovereign States of Europe that formed the
European Community after World War II. Interstate compacts
would have had to become a common way of governance.
For those who wanted to keep slavery at any price, a
confederacy guaranteeing Southern culture was a negligible
concession of desirable arrangements. Moreover, as the
Confederates and Unionists of perspicacity already knew, another
two decades of rapid industrial and communications
development in the North would have bound the South into the
Union with a crushing embrace.
We might better ask whether it was not the North that needed the
South. In 1842, William Lloyd Garrison called for dis-joining the
Union, letting the South go its own way. The American Anti-Slavery
Society officially adopted the idea of disunionism two years
later. The idea was shocking and it made people see how absolute
was the chasm between slavery and anti-slavery. The solution would
be immediate; an interminable and costly struggle could be avoided.
But most elements of the rapidly burgeoning abolition movement
disapproved. It would put them in a position of fighting against
slavery as external enemies, instead of citizens and therefore
responsible for the institution. It would deprive many of a cause, for
they would no longer feel responsible for slavery in another nation.
Northern industry would lose an army of customers, for, whatever
the weaknesses of the economic determinists, it has to be granted
that Northern financial, trading, transportation, and industrial
interests were exploiting Southern markets. If Northern pressures
against slavery in its neighboring nation became strong, they might
set off a boycott of their manufactured goods.
The abolitionists numbered half a million activists as the showdown
neared. Led by geniuses of the media, like Garrison, agitators like
Weld, preachers like Beecher, and writers like Harriet Stowe, with
stern driving politicians like Charles Sumner, they made up a
tremendous force, second to none, exceeding even the temperance
activists, in their capabilities for applying political pressure.
Never before - not even the pre-Revolution Patriots - nor after -
not even the later Progressive movement, the agitation against
Nazism, the anti-Soviet movement of the fifties and sixties, never
again, was such a large proportion of the American people so
agitated and demanding of change.
A sizeable portion of the energies that had been mobilized
by religious revivals and other reform movements of the time
were drained from them and flowing into abolition.
The human devils - the slaveholders and their protectors -
the human victims, the slaves - presented a human problem
of sin, crusade, liberation of the soul, penance, and
redemption, resounding over the vast country.
Harriet Beecher Stowe's book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, quickly sold
over a million copies and was translated into the major languages
soon after its publication in 1852; it was a soul-wrenching story of
an African-American family endeavoring to survive as decent folk in
the throes of a brutal slave system.
And abolition was a civic problem, which the federal government could do
something about, even though the problem was fundamentally
religious or could be looked upon as such. One could feel superior to
the government for doing nothing, worse than nothing, for thinking of
one way then another of containing, not abolishing, slavery.
Now if the government were so wicked, naturally, as to tolerate the
slave system in the bosom of the god-given republic of the free and
equal, then the government had better be brought down too. It is
extraordinary and indicative of the lack of faith in democratic
politics as developed in America that abolitionists for
many years declined to intervene directly in politics.
The Liberty Party, an abolitionist party, put up candidates in
Presidential elections and won few votes. A single-issue party,
abolitionists recognized, would go nowhere, and if it became a
multi-issue party, it would sell out like the others to diversionary
issues and situations. The movement would have to also become in a
contradictory sense, more responsible. It would have to recognize
that the Southern slavists, for all their faults, were on firm
Constitutional ground. They could declaim until everyone was blue of
face over issues of constitutionality. There appeared to be
nowhere to go to get rid of the hated institution by constitutional and
legal means. Direct, increasing pressure was the only recourse,
and, eventually, if necessary, force.
As the evangelists wanted promptly to reconciliate God,
abolitionists wanted abolition now. Immediacy was Garrison's
main contribution to the ideology of abolition: freedom now.
This suited the chiliastic predispositions of Americans,
the same who had gone into the revivals and camp meetings
hoping to be spiritually transformed here and now.
The elite of the abolitionists were descended from the theocracy and
ideocracy of New England. This class was no longer the richest and
most powerful group; the rising class of manufacturers paid
ever less attention to its pretensions. Foremen, managers,
artisans, the workers - they did not look to the old upper class.
These were attending to the new upper class,
so imperfectly amalgamated with the old.
Abolition could restore the leadership of the older theocrat and
utopian groups. Many of the clergy could find new life. The
Congregational Church had gone down steeply in its number of
adherents and churches.
So too, Presbyterians and Episcopalians.
The mass churches now were of the Baptists, the Methodists, and the
Catholics (pass over these last for the moment, for they were busily
organizing and anyhow could not appeal to their poor Irish immigrant
constituents to take up the cause of the Africans, a
principal competitor for jobs even now -- and imagine how things
would be if they were freed!).
The Baptist and the Methodists began to fight over the issue of
slavery, and by 1845 had split into North and South branches, a
terrible blow to national unity, everyone agreed, just when the
nation so needed agreement and unity. But, you see, it was slavery
that caused them to split, not States rights.
The doctrine of States rights and the right to secede were gigantic
camouflages of the basic issue of slavery. People fooled themselves,
a great many people, and yet the issue had to be used; few would go
to war and risk their lives to free a people of different race who
were universally deemed inferior, presently if not by nature.
Strange it was, therefore, that the true issue was denied,
except by the abolitionists and by those in the North
who tried to avoid the issue and appease the South.
But the issue had an enormous subconscious appeal in the North.
And in the South the same was true: slavery, not
States rights and secession, was the moving force. In the end, over half
a million men would die in war believing that the issue, if any, was the
Union, for the Northerners, and was the right to be free for the
Southerners, whereas the undertow that dragged them along defying
its force was the issue of slavery or emancipation.
Abraham Lincoln himself is a splendid example of the introjection
of the true issue and its denial, with the adamant exclamation of the
false issue, States rights and secession. He was fully determined to
tolerate slavery everywhere it stood but to fight its extension; he
disliked the institution, but had no love for Africans; he had
little personal contact with them.
He was in many ways a typical Kentuckian. (When Kentucky stuck
by the Union, after many difficulties, he was greatly relieved
because of the problems in controlling the Ohio River Valley
otherwise; but he probably also was emotionally gratified.)
The South, we recall, had a poor White population of large
dimensions. It is doubtful that this people shrank in numbers with
the growth and development of the nation. Rather the obverse.
Southern culture throughout its length and breadth probably would
number no less than 80% poor of the White population,
95% poor of the Blacks.
By poor is meant a household or individual who can put all his
household's possessions into a single trunk or cart, but half the time
had no mule to draw the cart or carry the trunk, may have had a
horse to draw a hand plow if the mule could not, who was a tenant,
a sharecropper, or the owner of under 100 acres of improperly
cultivated and deteriorating land, and whose cash income in the
course of the year would not exceed $70.00. His tools would be no
better than his ancestors' from wherever, six centuries earlier.
His household diet would be inadequate, but supplemented by a wild
bird or wild pig or rodent now and then. there was a jug of whiskey
on hand (or hidden if the wife were a teetotaler). There might be
one rifle in the family. The family would dwell in a two-room cabin
with a plank or dirt floor, and heating and cooking would depend
upon a stone fireplace. Clothing would be homemade with
occasional purchases of footwear. The condition of
slaves would be considerably worse.
Expectedly, according to the agglomerative principle, material
conditions would be matched by low levels of education, manners,
medical care and health, and power over other persons. Their
education was meager, hardly better than their
ancestors' of five or ten biological generations earlier.
They were isolated from the news-bearing, object-bearing
immigrants who were everywhere in the North.
The household's social position was low, higher in the eyes of his
society and his ilk than the respect tendered any Indians who might
be still nearby, or foreigners far away, especially the immigrant
workers of the cities up North, but most emphatically higher than
the Africans near or far away, the slaves (He did not like to think of
the free Blacks, who composed a noticeable and progressive group in
the towns and cities South and North of the Mason-Dixon line). The
greatest certainty in the life of the poor White Southern household
was that it was socially superior to the slaves and other Blacks.
Upon breaking with their Northern brethren, their preachers had
preached of this superiority, finding its justification in the Bible
where the descendants of Ham were cursed and supposedly were
Black. The omnipresent preachers gave the poor White Southerners
no trouble on this score. If they had, they would be threatening to
take away from them their most precious social and psychological
possession; the preachers would get short shrift.
In fact, and this may be the key to the lock that could not be found
at the time, the poor White Southerners asked of their rich White
governors, who thought very poorly of them in general, only two
things: that they be let alone and that the Africans be kept in their
place, as deep and broad a servitude as possible. And since there
was absolutely no conception yet, and wouldn't be for a century, of
a central government that could assist the poor of all types, anything
whatsoever that benefitted the Blacks was an insult to the Whites.
The poor White Southerners, respecting the top position of the
planters, fighting for the system of the masters, resented any signs of
kindliness toward the Blacks, any improvements in their standards of
living, any freedoms granted them, and they hated the
abolitionists of the North fervently for threatening to place next to
them a full equivalent class of free people. The people of the poor
White Southern class were disproportionately of Scots-Irish and North
Border English stock and their attitudes, and the way they
tried to cope with these attitudes, trailed back to their origins.
John Calhoun, for instance, was of the border stock, and he was a
nationalist as well as a slavist to begin with, but when he saw that he
would not be let to become President by one of his kindred folk,
Andrew Jackson, he became the principal rationalizer of the slave
system in constitutional and legal terms. The Calhoun and related
families had grown to power in America, but had not lost their
chieftain-and-clan ideas of political and social organization. When the
Army of the Confederate West was organized it fought under the
Cross of St. Andrew, the Scottish saint, and used other clan symbols
of the Anglo-Scottish border and Scots-Irish.
When war broke out, the poor Whites were quick to volunteer for the
confederacy. Hundreds of thousands enlisted. They fought well and for
years against odds. It is impossible to understand the voluntarism and
enthusiasm of the poor Whites for the Southern cause except on
grounds of the devil's bargain they had unconsciously struck with the
ruling class. The ruling class must not concede to any degree an
extension of liberties or of better conditions to the slaves.
Realizing this, albeit often unconsciously, the planters and their
professional and service auxiliaries were not free in dealing with the
Northern politicians and abolitionists. They could not begin to free the
slaves. Their whole system would start to fall apart, not only because
of the freed slaves but because of the demeaned poor Whites. The
planters would lose the respect of their mass following;
to whom could they turn, then, to recognize their claim to "honor?"
It was a classic case of the French Jacobin's cry: "There goes the
crowd; I am their leader; I must follow them!" The planters were
prisoners of their population and had to lead, that is to follow, them
to their own doom.
By this time, the 1840's and onwards, the Southern ruling class knew
full well that the nations whom they had to respect abroad had banned
the slave trade, abolished slavery, and were chasing American
slave-traders on the high seas. (One-sixth of British naval
expenditures were going to hunting for slave-traders,
many of them Americans operating in Latin America and
smuggling illegally to the United States.) The
Southern elite knew that the British upper-middle
classes condemned slavery.
The European nations and even the South American nations were
closing shop on slavery. The Mexican government, as poor and needy
as it was after independence, had abolished slavery and, we
recall, after first inviting Americans in to help populate Texas, tried
to bar further immigration because it would re-introduce the slave
system to Mexico; whereupon the Texans revolted.
The Southern upper classes realized that the world was turning against
them and that they would be more and more isolated if they persisted;
they sometimes concealed the truth from themselves and/or believed
that their client nation had to have their cotton. Still the pull of their
own people, even those they held most in contempt, was undeniable.
A parallel is suggested by the experience of Poland in the eighteenth
century: there the poor farmers had been continuously exploited and
driven mercilessly by the Polish aristocracy, their daughters taken
away, whippings commonly employed, but it wasn't until the
aristocracy had become Frenchified and in the process more
humane, that the peasantry rioted and insurrections became common.
The Southern planter class had to stick by the
poor Whites who laid claim to it.