By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
The “Union,” and all that it meant to northerners as a kind of shield for liberal democracy against oligarchy and aristocracy, survived. It was transformed through blood and reimagined for later generations. The first American republic, created out of revolution in the late 18th century, was in effect destroyed. A new, second republic took its place, given a violent birth in the emancipation of four million slaves and the re-crafting of the U. S. Constitution in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Those Amendments—ending legal slavery forever, sanctifying birthright citizenship and establishing “equal protection of the law,” and creating black male suffrage—in effect re-made the United States Constitution. This comprised a second American revolution.
Necessarily, the ruling class of the previous Constitutional order — the “slave power” that sought to survive and thrive as the Confederate States of America — was destroyed, as the master-slave relation on which its rule rested was destroyed when it lost its war of independence. (How that members of that class reconstituted themselves as a truly repellent regional oligarchy is, perhaps, a topic for another time.)
In this post, I’m going to annotate passages from Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese’s The Mind of the Master Class, to remind us what the stakes in the Civil War really were, and to see some of the ways in which the past illuminates the present. I chose the passages for vividness of expression; in no way is this post meant to be a systematic treatment. I should also disclose my priors: I’m mostly Yankee, and partly Canadian.
A Genuine Slave Society
From the “Preface” of The Mind of the Master Class, pp. 1-2:
This book is about white Southerners, and it is not about their “whiteness” — whatever that term may mean — It exlpores the ways in which they reflected on the world they lived in and on the meaning of histroy and Christian faith on their lives as masters in a slaveholding society. We take the ground that the Lower South and large parts of the Upper constituted not merely a society that accepted slavery as part of its social order but a genuine slave society — that is, a society based upon slave labor…..
Much as our own society is based on wage labor, our own ruling class having similar concerns (“Doing God’s work”).
During the first half of the nineteenth century, as today, the richer the family, the better their children’s chances of receiving a good education and enjoying the leisure to express thoughts, whether for publication or privately in letters, diaries, and journals. Since slaves produced the crops that afforded the primary source of wealth, the more slaves a family owned, the more highly educated its members were likely to be and the greater their leisure to read and think and write. … Ruling classes enjoy disproportionate opportunities to shape the values and worldview of their societies, although none does so completely or unilaterally.
Indeed, and indeed.
Today, almost everyone views slavery as an enormity and abolition as a moral imperative. Yet as recently as two or three hundred years ago, the overwhelming majority of civilized, decent people would have have agreed: Indeed, they would have found such notions surprising. Before the eighteenth century, and especially before the dramatic revolutions with which it closed, most Europeans would have viewed the principle of free labor as surprising, if not alarming. Slavery, like other forms of unfree labor, had existed throughout history. Neither Judaism, nor Christianity, nor Islam, nor other religions condemned it at the time. The current recognition of the horror and intolerability of slavery represents a rare example of unambiguous moral progress….
It may be that at some point, human rental (the Genoveses characterize wage labor as “free labor”) will be regarded with the same horror and moral repugnance as human sale (through slavery). Time will tell!
The Role of Religious Practitioners
From “History as the Story of Freedom,” pp. 236-237:
The emancipationists did score modest successes in the South, relying principally on economic and political arguments, but the cogency of these waned as the sectional struggle waxed. Most Southerners remained confident in the scriptural sanction of slavery. Even Robert Breckinridge, an orthodox Old School Presbyterian, W.C. Buck, editor of a Baptist journal, and Alexander Campbell, leader of the Disciples of Christ, denied the inherent sinfulness of slavery, although they questioned whether Southern slavery met biblical standards.
And who’s to say they weren’t right?
After the suppression of the Vesey plot in Charleston [not North Charleston] in 1822, Richard Furman, president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, assured the governor and alll and sundry that his church was sound on slavery. His influential Exposition of the Views of the Baptists (1823) overcame qualms about slavery among the faithful and quieted those who feared abolitionist tendencies among the Baptists. Biblically sanctioned slavery, he explained, constituted a social system within the province of the civil authority. Then an ailing, 68-year-old hellfire preacher who knew he did not have long to live, Furman called upon masters to regard their slaves as a sacred trust to whom they owed kindess and paternal care.
One thinks “wowsers,” but that would be presentist, wouldn’t it?
Repression of antislavery proceeded apace. The Gage brothers of South Carolina took to the road in 1835, Robert to New York and James to Paris. Robert wrote James that Carolinians were alarmed. “The daring and ingenious measures of the abolitionists began to raise a storm in the South.” Secession might be necessary, but he suggested lynch law as a way of avoiding it. Even the Reverend Thomas Witherspoon of Alabama openly approved of the lynching of abolitionists.
Fascinating. I suppose at some point, then, I have to read up on the history of lynching, including the lynching of “outside agitators.”
Slaveholders’ Virtues and Vices
From “Entr’acte,” pp 98 et seq.:
Slaveholders, and more generally, Southerners relied upon a cluster of privileged words to talk about themselves, blending classical and Christian concepts: Duty, fame, honor, courage, frankness, pride, and dignity. …. In a democratic era, the quest for fame and the demand to show courage sometimes ran afoul of the southern predeliction for “frankness.” In the House of Representatives, John Randolph lauded the Southerners’ plainness of speech: “Not only as a Southern man, but emphatically, as aPlanter, it belongs to him as a slaveholder.” …. You can speak frankly to Southerners, the Irish revolutionary John Mitchell told his countrymen: “They are very liberal and affable.” Planters are “men of refined and dignified manners, with that tone of gentle voice and courtesy of demeanor which are characteristic of the South, and which I attribute in great part to Slavery.”
I’m baffled by the causality here, despite having read through these passages several times.
In the eighteenth century, Josiah Quincy of New England and Andrew Burnaby of England charged Virginians with overweening pride born of slave ownership. The recurrent charge cut deep, and the Baptist Reverend Patrick Mell and the Methodist Reverent R.H. Rivers, notable moral philosophers, forcefully defended the slaveholders. Mell called pride “an inordinate self-esteem” and a “conceit of one’s own superiority,” but denied that slavery was guiltier than any other hierarchical system. A slaveholder, Mell argued, respected himself and was more likely than other men to respect others. For Rivers, “Examples of humility as bright as can be found on earth are found among slaveholders.”…
John England, the intellectually gifted Irish-born Catholic Bishop of Charleston, said of its people: “The nature of their institutions impresses a peculiar immobility on their individual opinions and conduct. Landed wealth, descending from sire to sone though a longer series than is usual with the possessions of mercantile communities, while it confers more social stability, imparts, with hereditary refinement of taste and manners, no moderate tenacity on every subject of family pride….
If Jefferson Davis displayed many of the virtures of the best of his class, even his devoted wife testified that he carried his pride to a dangerous extent: He was always sure he was right. The Confederacy paid dearly for the pride of many brave officers and soldiers who lacked the discipline and submission to military and political authority that war requires. Pride easily passed into recklessness, and Southerners, especially slaveholders, could forget the words of the Good Book: “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).
History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes. However, in a sign that I haven’t achieved, as it were, escape velocity from our current ideological dispensation, I’m not able to come up with a parallel set of virtues appropriate to the ruling class of our own day. Capitalists, possibly — “Thrift, thrift, Horatio” — but financiers? I’m drawing a blank. Readers? And they will have virtues, if only in their own minds; they couldn’t rule without them.
“The Purest Sons of Freedom,” pp 69-70:
Until recently, peoples of every race and continent lived in a world in which slavery was an accepted part of the social order. Europeans did not outdo others in enslaving people or in treating slaves viciously. They outdid others by creating a Christian civilization that eventually stirred moral condemnation of slavery and roused mass movements against it. Perception of slavery as morally unacceptable — as sinful — did not become widespread until the second half of the eighteenth century. Slavery, not merely serfdom, existed in Western and Central Europe as late as the Rennaissance and in Russia until the mid-nineteenth century.
Neither slavery nor serfdom was racially determined. From ancient times Europeans had recruited [!] slaves without regard to race, and whites overwhelmingly predominated among the millions of slaves being held within Europe. When European overseas expansion in the fifteenth century made Africa the principa source of slaves, slavery became identified with racial stratification. Muslims and then Christians entered Africa and carried off enormous numbers, largely sold to them by other Africans. Over time Muslims, too, increasingly identified slave status with blackness, although less rigorously than Christians did. During the next four centuries it was in the vast plantation system of the Americas that both the critique as well as the defense of slavery came to focus on racial as well as class stratification.
And here we are. Whatever we might mean by “race,” “class,” and how they intersect as well as stratify.
John C. Calhoun on Slave Labor vs. Wage Labor
From “The Age of Revolution through Slaveholding Eyes,” pp. 62-68:
On Independence Day 1815 in Abbeville [South Carolina] John C. Calhoun offered a toast: “The People — The only source of legitimate power.. May France, acting on that principle, prove invincible, and may its truth and energy disperse the combination of crowned heads.” …. But in 1830, in the midst of the nullification struggle, he filed a caveat: The people could overthrow a tyrant much more easily than it could overthrow a tyrannical majority.
Speaking carefully so as not to ruffle his northern political allies, Calhoun frequently returned to the question of “slavery in the abstract. ” When, during the 1840s, northern Whigs charged him with advocating enslavement of whites, Calhoun reacted angrily. No, he never justified enslavement of whites; he merely predicted that current economic policies, if continued, would reduce white laborers to slavery. He did, however, repeatedly assert that civilized society required some form of servile labor, and he characterized free labor as disguised slavery. His “Rough Draft” for The Exposition rebuked Federal policy for making the rich richer and the poor poorer, and in its final version predicted class war in free labor countries.
Calhoun did his best to keep on racial ground. Southern slavery, he told the Senate in 1836m was not merely a system of property ownership and labor organization bu a system of racial control. Inadvertantly, he surrendered much of his racial argument by insisting that labor alone creates wealth; that war against slavery threatened all propert systems; that civilized societies live off the labor of the masses; and that racial differences give peculiar form to the essential struggle between capital and labor. … Again reassuring the Senate that he rejected slavery in the abstract and supported only racial slavery, he asserted the “fact” of an immutable historical law that necessitated one portion of the community’s dependence on the labor of another: “There is and has always been in an advanced stage of wealth and civlization, a conflict between labor and capital. The condition of society in the State exempts us from the disorders and dangers resulting from this conflict; and which explains why it is that political condition of the slave-holding States has been so much more stable and quiet than that of the North.”
This reminds me of the idea that racism is not so much a psychological condition as a project, and that it never exists without a purpose. (Iago’s “motiveless malignity” is no such thing.)
The deeply conservative Calhoun could never accept a strategic alliance with Northern labor, and by the late 1840s, his hopes for such a tactical alliance with the capitalists had failed. In 1847 he told the Senate: “Sir, the day that the balance between the two sections of the country — the slaveholding States and the non-slaveholding States — is destroyed, is a day that will not be far removed from political revolution, anarchy, civil war, and wide-spread disaster. The balance of this system is in the slaveholding States. They are the conservative portion. They will always be the conservative portion.
On the verge of death, Calhoun made his last stand for southern rights in opposition to the Compromise of 1850 and left to posterity his Disquisition on GovernmentDiscourse on the Constitution. He had just about abandoned his lifelong struggle to save the Union. Was he primarily interested in saving slavery? Of course he was: To him, slavery was not only a labor system but the foundation of republican social order.
As indeed, in Rome, it was.
Calhoun spoke for his own slaveholding class and for a swelling broader southern public opinion: To link political virtue to to universal democracy meant to open the floodgates to anarchy and the tyranny of the mob. Many northern conservatives shared much of this viewpoint, but it was Southerners who constructed a radical critique of society and identified the free-labor sytem — the social relationship of capitalism — as the source of the world’s predicament. And they named slavery as the solution.
Which, when you think about it, is no more crazypants than Ben Bernanke pumping a few squillions into the unreal economy because loanable funds theory. Eh?
From Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, majestic:
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Of course, “wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s [sic] faces” isn’t only done through the master-slave relation; as Calhoun points out!
 Oddly, or not, one does not hear of Northern wage laborers “voting with their feet” and heading South to be enslaved. I wonder why?