Summary: The history of the State-sponsored oppression of Black Americans (1776-1964) is the story about one of our two great national sins. Rather than confess and repent, many Americans prefer to take refuge in lies (the other, our treatment of Native Americans, is resolved by amnesia). However comforting, this both divides us and diminishes our ability to see ourselves clearly — both seriously weakening the Republic. That may be the intent of those propagating these lies. Here we confront one tiny facet: why the South left the Union. This is a follow-up to American faux history: could we have avoided the Civil War?
Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.
— Cicero, Orator Ad M. Brutum (46 B.C.)
History does not belong to us, we belong to it.
— Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, p. 276
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
— George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Vol. 1: Reason in Common Sense (1905)
After their defeat the South created reasons for the war more appealing to a non-slaveowning society, such as over tariffs and economic factors. This myth continues today, propagated by people using the Confederacy to score emotional and theoretical points advancing their political interests.
Before we delve into this, here’s a repeat of yesterday’s introduction: the American civil war is one of the most intensely studied events in US history, so that a layperson can only touch a small part of it. But some aspects of its history are so clear we need not read the whole to find the answer. Such as a reliable guess as to why the South left the Union. As all parents know, “why” is the most difficult of questions. We have no calculus of the mind. No X-rays of the soul.
But we have a guide to the past, better than agressive guessing. Contemporaneous speeches and letters speak to us about their reasons for fighting. They describe slavery as the primary issue that impelled the South to leave the Union. Economic systems have moral foundations, as explained by philosophers from Karl Marx to Barry Goldwater. So slavery had deep roots in Southern society, making resolution difficult (as discussed in yesterday’s post).
Today we look at a four voices from the past, a tiny fragment of the vast record from that era.
(1) The Cornerstone Speech by Alexander H. Stephens on 21 March 1861 at Savannah, Georgia. Excerpt:
But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.
Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away.
This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
(2) “The Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union“, a legal proclamation issued by the South Carolina Secession Convention on 24 December 1860. It set forth the reasons SC seceded from the United States. It did not even mention the secondary issues such as tariffs, and focused on slavery. In the middle it at last states a grievance. The only one stated, the basis for succession.
The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: “No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”
This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made. … The same article of the Constitution stipulates also for rendition by the several States of fugitives from justice from the other States.
The General Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.
… We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in 15 of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection. …
(3) “The Address of the people of South Carolina, assembled in Convention, to the people of the Slaveholding States of the United States“. Written by Robert Rhett, issued by the South Carolina Secession Convention in 1860. Opening:
Citizens of the slaveholding States of the United States, circumstances beyond our control have placed us in the van of the great controversy between the Northern and Southern States. We would have preferred that other States should have assumed the position we now occupy. Independent ourselves, we disclaim any design or desire to lead the councils of the other Southern States. Providence has cast our lot together, by extending over us an identity of pursuits, interests, and institutions.
South Carolina desires no destiny separated from yours. To be one of a great slaveholding confederacy, stretching its arms over a territory larger than any Power in Europe possesses — with population four times greater than that of the whole United States when they achieved their independence of the British Empire — with productions which make our existence more important to the world than that of any other people inhabiting it — with common institutions to defend, and common dangers to encounter — we ask your sympathy and confederation.
(4) Speech by George Williamson (Confederate Commissioner of Louisiana) to the Texas Secession Convention to persuade them to join the Confederacy, at Austin, Texas on 9 March 1861 — Many mentions of slavery; he does not mention tariffs.
Texas affords to the commerce of Louisiana a large portion of her products, and in exchange the banks of New Orleans furnish Texas with her only paper circulating medium. Louisiana supplies to Texas a market for her surplus wheat, grain and stock; both States have large areas of fertile, uncultivated lands, peculiarly adapted to slave labor; and they are both so deeply interested in African slavery that it may be said to be absolutely necessary to their existence, and is the keystone to the arch of their prosperity.
… The people of Louisiana would consider it a most fatal blow to African slavery, if Texas either did not secede or having seceded should not join her destinies to theirs in a Southern Confederacy. If she remains in the union the abolitionists would continue their work of incendiarism and murder. Emigrant aid societies would arm with Sharp’s rifles predatory bands to infest her northern borders.
… As a separate republic, Louisiana remembers too well the whisperings of European diplomacy for the abolition of slavery in the times of annexation not to be apprehensive of bolder demonstrations from the same quarter and the North in this country. The people of the slaveholding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery. The isolation of any one of them from the others would make her a theatre for abolition emissaries from the North and from Europe. Her existence would be one of constant peril to herself and of imminent danger to other neighboring slave-holding communities.
For more information
Other valuable sources about slavery and the South:
- The overthrow of colonial slavery, 1776-1848 By Robin Blackburn (1988)
- The Culture of Defeat – On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery by Wolfgang Schivelbusch (2001)
- The Confederate And Neo-Confederate Reader – The Great Truth about the Lost Cause, Edited by James W. Loewen and Edward H. Sebesta (2010)
- Recommended: “Compensation“, Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, 23 January 2012
Other posts about slavery:
- More propaganda: the eco-fable of Easter Island, 4 February 2010 – Leftists erasing slavery from the record (green fables trump suffering of browns)
- It’s Confederate History Month in Virginia!, 8 April 2010
- Justice for slavers (esp sex traffickers): hang them high!, 20 August 2010 — True today just as it was true in 1860
- Pain and misery builds discipline!, 12 October 2010 — General Lee explains how slavery helps slaves become better people
Other posts about America losing touch with its past
- The introduction: Losing touch with our past weakens us, 12 December 2008
- We have trouble coping with our present because we’ve lost our past, 23 October 2010
- For other posts about this see the History Reference Page