Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Was there ever a moment in which conservative fears led to such decisive and extraordinary action as the debate over secession in 1860-61?  The meaning of secession, and thus the meaning of the Civil War, has been so smothered in deceit that it can come as a shock to return to the clarity of the original debates.  What they perceived, rightly or wrongly, in the election of Lincoln was the death knell of their slave society.  South Carolina, which led the exodus from the Union in December 20, 1860, justified their action by citing "an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery."  Mississippi, which voted to leave the Union January 9, 1861, was even more blunt in its declaration of secession: "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world."

When we approach this moment each year in my history class, I usually ask my students to read Governor Joseph Brown's open letter to the Georgia state convention considering secession in December 1860.  Brown's arguments in favor of secession were almost entirely speculative.  Nonetheless, the letter is remarkably compelling because he directed it towards poor white Georgians who, he argued, had a significant stake in the slave economy despite not owning any slaves themselves.  It is the specter of economic catastrophe that gives the letter its power and its veneer of objectivity.  What did Brown see on the horizon with a Republican in the White House?  "My candid opinion is, that it will be the total abolition of slavery, and the utter ruin of the South, in less than twenty-five years."  And the consequences for poor whites of an inevitable Republican policy of abolition were particularly dire:
There are, in round numbers, 4,500,000 slaves in the Southern States. They are worth, at a low estimate, 500 dollars each. All will agree to this. Multiply the 4,500,000 by 500 and you have twenty-two hundred and fifty millions of dollars, which these slaves are worth. No one would agree that it is right to rob the Southern slaveholders of this vast sum of money without compensation. The Northern States would not agree to pay their proportion of the money, and the people of the South must be taxed to raise the money.... Suppose we had ten years within which to raise the $150,000,000, we should then have to raise, in addition to our present tax, $15,000,000 per annum, or over thirty times as much as we now pay.—The poor man, who now pays one dollar, would then have to pay $30.00. If the sum is to be raised by the tax upon others, the nonslaveholders and poor white men of the South, would have to pay nearly the whole of this enormous sum, out of their labor. This would load them and their children with grievous indebtedness and heavy taxes for a long time to come.
(As it turned out, no taxation was needed to compensate slaveholders for their lost property, since initiating a titanic civil war gave the Union a good excuse to confiscate Confederate property, including slaves, without paying them a dime in exchange.)

One broader point here is that if you were to replace all the references to slavery in the latter half of Brown's paragraph and replace them with, say, contemporary language about health care reform, it would sound pretty familiar.  It has always been an easy political play to predict the horrifying consequences of an opponent's victory, even when that opponent has taken great pains to speak and act moderately.  Lincoln was well aware of the feverish politics of slavery, but even he must have felt bewildered to watch all these states point to him as they seceded, although he had not even taken office yet.  You can almost hear the exasperation in his 1st Inaugural Address when he repeated—and declared that he was repeating—what he had already stated in other speeches:
I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.
But the South was seized in the grip of fear, for their slaves, for their society, for their future.  It makes it all the more ironic that they pursued the course of action that most swiftly destroyed all three.  Why not compromise?  That is always a worthwhile question.  Conservatives have too often used hyperbolic rhetoric to construct a "reality" in which drawing a line in the sand and refusing to step over it appears to be their only political option.  But as Joseph Brown discovered, standing athwart history yelling Stop is all well and good until William Tecumseh Sherman  comes your way with a mind to take Atlanta.  David Frum reminded conservatives of that same wisdom a couple years ago, when Republicans met their Waterloo at the hands of Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama.

It's a hard learned lesson.  I asked my students what they found more convincing, Joseph Brown's open letter or Abraham Lincoln's 1st Inaugural.  Over two-thirds said Joseph Brown.

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