Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Slavery and the Lost Cause

There is never a single reason behind any important decision any of us make. If we have an important decision to make, we marshal "reasons," plural. The same was true during the Civil War. That is why any historian wishing to cherry pick can find "reasons" for virtually any point of view. But most of them will avoid reductionism.

If we assert that "Slavery" was the single reason the Civil War was fought, we are faced with several problems. One is that the Union never abolished all of slavery, not even with the Emancipation proclamation; so from the North's point of view they were not fighting over the issue of slavery, at least not initially, and given the responses historians have gleaned from mining letters and diaries from the time, not ultimately.

And what about "Slavery" was there to fight over? Did the pro-Slavery advocate believe in Slavery as an end in itself? Did he have a pathological desire to own slaves as things in themselves, just so he could dominate them for perverse reasons. Without ruling out the possibility that such pathological people existed, that was not the "single" reason for owning slaves in the Antebellum South.

A better argument could be made for slavery as "a means rather than an "end". Slaves worked to produce cotton, for example, that could be sold at a profit so that the slave owners could be come rich and successful in the antebellum south.

Well, someone else might say, if it is "merely the economy" then what is the big deal about changing it to something else? Except who would ever say such a thing? Would we be willing to change our economy to Communism to avoid trouble? Years ago it was widely believed that the USSR was more powerful than we in the U.S. were and that to insist on our right to choose our own economy and way of life would result in our destruction. Therefore "it was frequently said, "Better Red and Dead."

But even if that was true, that it would be better to be "Red" (or "Blue" in the case of the Confederacy) "than dead," the transition would never be smooth and without difficulty. We have the example of the South who underwent the extremely painful "Reconstruction," but we also have the example of the USSR which transitioned from "Red" to "Democracy." While the Russian transition did not occur as the result of a war, it was nevertheless a painful, and in the view of many, undesirable process. Many Russians are still suffering from this transition, and many of them long for the good old antebellum (assuming the Cold War was a war) days.

Taking a closer look at who these "slave-holders" were and what they were up to, Charles and Mary Beard, on page 7-8 of Volume II of The Rise of American Civilization wrote, "Seward knew from experience that a political party was no mere platonic society in discussing abstractions. 'A party,' he said, 'is in one sense a joint stock association, in which those who contribute most direct the action and management of the concern. The slaveholders contributing in an overwhelming proportion to the capital strength of the Democratic party, they necessarily dictate and prescribe its policy. The inevitable caucus system enables them to do this with a show of fairness and justice.' This class of slaveholders, consisting of only three hundred and forty-seven thousand persons, Seward went on to say, was spread from the banks of the Delaware to the banks of the Rio Grande; it possessed nearly all the real estate in that section, owned more than three million other 'persons' who were denied all civil and political rights, and inhibited 'freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of the ballot box, freedom of education, freedom of literature, and freedom of popular assemblies. . . . The slaveholding class has become the governing power in each of the slaveholding states and it practically chooses thirty of the sixty-two members of the Senate, ninety of the two hundred and thirty-three members of the House of Representatives, and one hundred and five of the two hundred and ninety-five electors of the President and Vice-President of the United States.' . . ."

On page 9 the Beards write, "This inexorable clash, [Seward said] was not 'accidental, unnecessary, the work of interested or fanatical agitators and therefore ephemeral.' No. 'It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces.' The hopes of those who sought peace by appealing to slave owners to reform themselves were as chaff in a storm. 'How long and with what success have you waited already for that reformation? Did any property class ever so reform itself? Did the patricians in Rome, the noblesse or clergy in France? The landholders in Ireland? The landed aristocracy in England? Does the slaveholding class even seek to beguile you with such a hope? Has it not become rapacious, arrogant, defiant?' All attempts at compromise were 'vain and ephemeral.' There was accordingly but one supreme task before the people of the United States -- the task of confounding and overthrowing 'by one decisive blow the betrayers of the Constitution and freedom forever.'"

The Beards go on to tell us that by these words Seward exceeded the "bounds of cautions politics" and "read himself out of the little group of men who were eligible for the Republican nomination in 1860."

The Beards were controversial historians, brilliant, but with too great an emphasis on economics to suit American taste. Still, it is useful here to see William Seward's presentation of the Right-Wing Republican position of his day. and it is also useful to see the numbers he refers to: 347,000 slaveholders essentially controlling the Democratic Party in 1860. I don't know how accurate Seward's figures are, but we could safely assume that most of those who fought for the South in the Civil War did not own slaves. Even if the Slave-Holders would say that the Civil War was being fought for Slavery (and I doubt that many of them would be so simplistic) what of the rest of them? What of the typical Confederate soldier? What was he fighting for? Historians mining the letters, diaries & memoirs don't find that he was fighting for "slavery." Perhaps these soldiers would agree that they were fighting for the antebellum way of life which in trickle-down fashion was dependent upon a slave-owning economy, but I doubt that many of them would reduce what they were fighting for to 'slavery." The actual term most popular seems to have been "freedom." They didn't like the Yankee dictating how they should run things in the south.

As the Lost Cause myth developed, "slavery" was in the background of the Antebellum way of life. It was only the "Yankee" so the Lost Causers said in disgust, with no conception of the Antebellum South who could voice such an absurdity.

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