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American Slavery Reconsidered

The following commentary regarding past slavery in the United States is excerpted from a recent editorial from the editors of Chronicles Magazine. It is an excellent review and consideration of America’s past with a proper dose of perspective added.

American Slavery Reconsidered

“Some historical perspective may be helpful here. When the United States came into being in the late 18th century, human slavery existed in much of the world, including in the British and French empires, and perhaps most brutally in Africa, from whence most of America’s slave came.

If slavery were a collective sin, it existed everywhere since the dawn of humanity as a desirable form of labor. The American South did not produce a slave system of unsurpassed brutality, but one that allowed the slave population to multiply at an unsurpassed rate for servile labor. We may point this out even when speaking about an institution that we are well rid of.

We’ve never bought the argument that slavery was especially wicked on these shores because of the passage in the Declaration of Independence about all men being equal. The French proclaimed their Declaration of the Rights of Men and Citizens in August 1789 but still maintained a vast slave population in the West Indies. Robert Paquette, a leading historian of slavery in the western hemisphere, raises the rhetorical question:

Does anyone think that a slave in 19th century Virginia would have preferred being relocated to a sugar plantation in Cuba or Brazil, or to becoming a serf in Russia or China? Unlikely.

Paquette also finds it remarkable that the data he learned as a university student from a Jewish Marxist professor, Robert Fogel, about the relatively benign condition of slaves in the American South (relative to other places where slavery was practiced) can no longer be discussed even in supposedly conservative journals.

Jefferson wanted slaves gradually freed and colonized outside the United States. Although Lincoln changed course [in later 1862 to obtain black troops], he too long favored the settlement of manumitted slaves in Haiti or Central America.

There is also no evidence that most of those who died in the Civil War gave their lives specifically to rid this country of slavery. It is also inconceivable that slavery would not have disappeared even without the bloodbath that Lincoln’s invasion of the Southern States brought about. Slavery disappeared elsewhere without the catastrophe that befell the United States in the 1860s.”

(Chronicles Magazine, April/May 2021, pp. 5-6)

The Rebels of New England

In early October 1765 the proposed convention of delegates from Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and South Carolina met in New York. They all agreed upon a declaration of principles and asserted the right of Britain’s colonies to be exempted from all taxes imposed without their consent.

While leading the other colonies into secession from England, Massachusetts began a long tradition of “seceding” from political compacts it had joined. In 1804 the State seriously considered secession rather than accept President Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase; the same in response to Jefferson’s embargo of trade in 1808; and again in 1812 opposing President Madison’s War – and while trading with the enemy. John Quincy Adams and others opposed the annexation of Texas in 1846 and threatened secession. New England abolitionists agitated for secession from the 1830s through 1860 over the South’s labor system for which they were largely responsible with their profitable transatlantic slave trade.

The Rebels of New England

“About this time there arose a society known as the “Sons of Liberty” which took strong ground against the usurpation of Parliament. They exerted great influence as the merchants of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and many other places agreed not to buy or import any British goods until the Stamp Act was repealed.

The British government heard of these proceedings with anger and alarm. The new ministry, at the head of which was the Marquis of Rockingham, saw that the Stamp Act must be repealed or the colonists compelled by force of arms to comply. He preferred the former. After a long and angry debate, the Act was repealed.

In February 1768, the General Court of Massachusetts led the agitation with other colonies to demand a redress of grievances from the Crown, preferred charges against the Royal Governor and petitioned the King for his removal. The Governor then dissolved the Massachusetts Assembly and in early October British troops arrived to overawe the colonists.

In 1769, Parliament censured the treasonous conduct of Massachusetts, approved the employment of additional troops to put down the rebellious, and asked the King to authorize the Governor to arrest the traitors and have them sent to England for trial. The following year came the Boston “massacre” in which three Bostonians were killed and several wounded after confronting British troops. After 1774’s Boston tea party Parliament closed the port of Boston and dissolved the House of Burgesses. The latter formed itself into a committee to agitate the other colonies into rebellion against the British Crown.

In May of 1775, Royal Governor and General Thomas Gage fortified Boston Neck, seized the military stores at Cambridge and Charlestown and conveyed them to Boston.”

(History of the United Statesfrom the Earliest Settlements to 1872. Alexander H. Stephens. E.J. Hales & Son, Publisher. New York, 1872, excerpts pp. 163-167)

Clarifying 19th Century American History

Americans were certainly “Confederates” before the 1789 constitution was ratified as their governing document were the Articles of Confederation. When ratifying the new 1789 constitution, 11 States decided to “secede” from the Articles and voluntarily “accede” to the new federation; North Carolina and Rhode Island held out for the Bill of Rights before they acceded. In the latter document, Article III, Section 3 fixed treason as only waging war against “Them,” the States, or adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” This does raise the question of who waged war against the States forming a more perfect union to the South Below, the author clarifies misconceptions regarding Lincoln’s war.

Clarifying 19th Century American History

“Certainly, there are those of goodwill, and let us call it “invincible ignorance, who have been educated to think the primary issue in 1861 was slavery, and Abraham Lincoln was simply reacting to those “rebels” who wished to destroy “the sacred bonds” of Union, while advancing the great humanitarian cause of “freedom.” So much for the caliber and character of our contemporary educational system, not to mention Hollywood’s ideological tendentious (and mostly successful) attempts to influence us. Yet, that mythology surrounding the Southern Iliad of 1861-1865 will not stand serious cross-examination. Consider these popular myths and shibboleths:

“The War was about slavery!” Not really accurate: the war aims cited repeatedly by Lincoln and northern publicists consistently during the years 1861-1863, even afterwards, were that the war was to “preserve the Union.” Indeed, if the abolition of slavery had been declared a war aim in 1861, most likely a great majority of Union political leaders, not to mention Union soldiers, would have recoiled, and the northern war effort would most likely have collapsed.  It was difficult enough to gain wide support in the north, as it was. Remember, Lincoln was elected with less than 40 percent of the vote in 1860, and barely gained pluralities in most northern States.

“Lincoln freed the slaves.” No so; Lincoln freed not one slave. His proclamation, issued first on September 22, 1862, and formally on January 1, 1863, supposedly “freeing the slaves,” only applied to those areas not under Union military control or occupation, that is, territory of the independent Southern States. Lincoln’s proclamation “freed” slaves where his action had no effect.

And most recently this charge: “Robert E. Lee and other Confederate military leaders who were in the US Army committed treason by violating their oaths to defend the Union, and Confederate leaders were in rebellion against the legitimately elected government of the United States.” Somehow, critics seem to forget to mention that Lee and the other Confederate leaders resigned their commissions in the US Army, and from Congress prior to enlisting in the defense of their home States and in the ranks of the Confederate States army, or assuming positions in the new Confederate government. They did not violate their oaths; their States had formally left the union, and, thus, the claims of the federal government in Washington had ceased to have authority over them.”

(The Land We Love: The South and Its Heritage. Boyd D. Cathey. Scuppernong Press, 2018, pp. 60-61)

The North’s War Against Free Trade

The unbridled pursuit of financial gain in America was no surprise to Englishmen and simply “a distasteful feature of democracy.” The British noted the widespread corruption in American political life and the rise of low men to power, while those better educated and unwilling to play the demagogue were not sought out. The British saw, especially in Northern States, an unwholesome tyranny of the democratic mob which eventually would break apart and replaced with an aristocracy or monarchy of better men.

The North’s War Against Free Trade

“The United States Senate, after fourteen Southern members had withdrawn (as their States had withdrawn from the United States), passed with a majority of eleven votes the almost prohibitive Morrill Tariff; the Confederate States adopted a constitution forbidding any tariff except for revenue – a denial, that is, of the principle of protection (for select industries).

From the economic point of view, which to some students of history is the only point of view, a major issue became perfectly clear. The North stood for protection, the South for free trade.

And for Englishmen . . . certain conclusions were obvious. “This [tariff] was the first use the North made of its victory [in the Senate]”, said one Englishman in a pamphlet . . .” The contrast between North and South was real and unambiguous, and so too were England’s free-trade convictions.

With those convictions and after these events, it was natural that many Englishmen . . . should readily embrace the theory of the South’s seceding because of economic oppression – since there had to be a reason for secession and both sides agreed that slavery was not the reason. As one of the ablest of the “Southern” Englishmen, James Spence, said, the South had long been convinced “that the Union was worked to the profit of the North and their own loss. [And] consider that the immediate cause of the revolt of those 13 colonies from this country was a duty of 3d. per pound on tea . . .”

The Confederate States were well aware of the appeal of economic facts. Their Secretary of State instructed James Mason on his mission to England to stress the free trade commitment of his government, as well as the British people’s “deep political and commercial interest in the establishment of the independence of the Confederate States.”

(The Glittering Illusion: English Sympathy for the Southern Confederacy. Sheldon Vanauken. Regnery Gateway, 1989. pp. 48-49)

British Sympathy for American Independence

Though unofficial Southern support in England was evident through most of the war, by mid-1864 Lincoln’s unofficial alliance with the British-hating Czar along with coming Alabama claims caused postwar British official opinion to take a northward turn. The Russian sale of Alaska in 1867 was to ensure that it did not fall into British hands, and the victorious North threatened an invasion of Canada and seizure of Greenland with its 2-million-man army in blue. This would have been punishment for expressing Southern sympathy.

British Sympathy for American Independence

“But in the course of the war, between 1861 and 1865, James Mason, Confederate States Commissioner to England, wrote confidentially to his Secretary of State in Richmond, Virginia, that “there can be no mistake that with all classes in England which have an opinion, their entire sympathy is with us.”

Captain James Bulloch, C.S.N., wrote that “personal observation, confirmed by the testimony of every other agent of the Confederate States Government whose duties compelled him to reside in England . . . , convinced me that the great majority of the people in Gret Britain – at least among the classes a traveler, or a man of business, or a frequenter of the clubs, would be likely to meet – were on the Southern side.”

Lest this be supposed but Southern optimism, the United States Consul at Liverpool wrote: “It was evident from the commencement [of war] that the South . . . had the sympathy of the people of England . . . I speak now of the great mass of the English people.” Henry Adams, the son and secretary of the United States minister in London, wrote: “As for this country, the simple fact is that it is unanimously against us and becomes more firmly set every day.”

An English partisan of the North wrote to a member of the opposite camp about the Southern supporters: “I fear you do not overstate your constituency when you put it at three-fourths of educated Englishmen.”

After a debate in the House of Commons on recognition of the Confederacy, the Manchester Guardian said that the debate “should not be thought to have anything to do with the sentiments and sympathies of the English people, for these were entirely with the South.” The manager of The Times wrote to a strongly pro-Southern correspondent: “Your views are entirely in accordance with those of this paper & I believe of the majority in this country.” The pro-Northern Spectator said: “The educated million in England, with here and there an exception, have become unmistakably Southern.”

(The Glittering Illusion: English Sympathy for the Southern Confederacy. Sheldon Vanauken. Regnery Gateway, 1989. pp. 1-2)

Lincoln’s Dark Days

Many European observers saw Lincoln’s early proclamation of September 1862 as simply imitating the actions of Virginia’s Royal Governor Lord Dunmore eighty-six years earlier. In the face of “insurrection,” Dunmore demanded loyalty oaths from colonists while proclaiming African slaves “free.” A desperate Lincoln did the same.

Lincoln’s Dark Days

“The war had indeed approached a crisis in late July [1861]. There had been little encouraging news from the Western theater since April, when the victory at Shiloh had been followed by the occupation of New Orleans. These victories were disappointing in that they seemed to be leading nowhere. The high hopes accompanying McClellan’s advance up the peninsula below Richmond had been cruelly dashed.

Waiting for victories, [Lincoln’s] Cabinet received news in late August of the most humiliating defeat of the entire war. General John Pope allowed his army to be trapped at Manassas, Virginia, practically on the doorstep of the Capitol, between the armies of Longstreet and Jackson; it was hurled back toward Washington in a retreat that was actually a rout.

When the full impact of this latest disaster was at last known in the North, a real desperation gripped the public. “That we are in serious danger of being whipped cannot be denied” wrote Edward Atkinson, “and there is scarce a man now in Boston, who would not thank God to hear of a serious insurrection among the slaves, such a change has this disaster wrought.”

Dr. Milton Hawks, perhaps the most fanatical missionary at Port Royal [South Carolina], repeated his belief that, unless emancipation were the goal of the war, the South would establish her independence. “The greatest kindness that a man could do this government today,” he wrote furiously, “would be to assassinate Pres. Lincoln – He stands directly in the way.”

Lincoln’s course was mysterious to the general public [but after the dubious victory at Antietam], the President seized the slim occasion for his [preliminary emancipation] Proclamation . . .”

(Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment. Willie Lee Rose. Oxford University Press, 1964, pp. 184-185)

Conquest, Not Union

On April 12, 1864, Fort Pillow, located north of Memphis on the Mississippi River, was surrounded by some 1,500 troops under Gen’s. Nathan Bedford Forrest and James Chalmers. After sending an ultimatum to surrender or suffer “no quarter” and the enemy rejecting capitulation, Forrest’s men attacked and caused most of the enemy’s 600 soldiers to flee into the river. As northern colored troops were half of the fort’s garrison, they suffered great loss along with their white counterparts, and the usual cries of “massacre” were heard from northern reporters anxious to sell newspapers to a gullible public. The Radical Republicans were also quick to establish a congressional committee to investigate Fort Pillow for political purposes.

This pattern was repeated late in the war as the northern public was fed atrocity stories of Georgia’s Andersonville prison stockade. Missing from the stories were the pleas of President Davis and other Southern leaders for prisoner exchanges, including safe passage for medical supplies and food to sustain the inmates. These were all refused by Grant, with Lincoln’s approval.

Conquest, Not Union

“What exactly did the [Committee on the Conduct of the War] uncover and how objective was its investigation? Critics have assumed that the committee deliberately exaggerated Southern atrocities to smear Forrest’s reputation, inflame public sentiments, and serve its own narrow partisan agenda.

The committee’s most thorough historian, T. Harry Williams, for instance, argues that Benjamin Wade used this investigation, as well as previous atrocity reports, as a means to create a consensus for an even more radical reconstruction. By deliberately exaggerating Rebel brutalities, he would cause the public to support a reconstruction policy that would treat the South as a conquered territory.

There is little doubt that the issue of reconstruction was on the minds of committee members and other Republicans during the Fort Pillow investigation. George Julian, chairman of the House Committee on Public Lands, was already busy sponsoring legislation to confiscate the large holdings of Rebel planters and redistribute them to veterans of the Union armies, both white and black.

In remarks to the House of Representatives shortly after Fort Pillow, Julian castigated the Confederates as “devils” and argued that the [alleged] massacre provided additional reasons to support the program of confiscating [Southern property].

Even before the war, there were many in the North who viewed the South as backward and in need of radical reordering along the outline of Northern free labor institutions. The war accelerated such beliefs. “The war is quickly drawing to an end,” the Continental Monthly predicted in the summer of 1862, “but a greater and nobler task lies before the soldiers and free men of America – the extending of civilization into the South.”

In formulating its Fort Pillow findings, the committee reflected Northern opinion as much as it sought to shape it.”

(“These Devils Are Not Fit to Live on God’s Earth”: War Crimes and the Committee on the Conduct of the War, 1864-1865”. Bruce Tap. Civil War History – A Journal of the Middle Period, John Hubbell, ed. Kent State University Press, June 1996, Vol. XLII, No. 2, pp. 121-122)

Thomas Jefferson’s “Rupture”

Author Roger Lowenstein writes that on Christmas Eve, 1825, “Thomas Jefferson let out an anguished cry. The government of the country he had helped to found, half a century earlier, was causing him great distress. It was assuming vast powers, specifically the right to construct canals and roads, and to effect other improvements. Jefferson thought of the federal government in the most restrictive terms: as a “compact” or a “confederated fabric” – that is, a loose affiliation of practically sovereign States.”

Thomas Jefferson’s “Rupture”

“He was roused at the age of eighty-two to issue a “Solemn Declaration and Protest” against what he termed the “usurpation” of power by the federal branch. Jefferson was so agitated that he declared that the “rupture” of the United States would be, although a calamity, not the greatest calamity. Even worse, reckoned the sage of Monticello, would be “submission to a government of unlimited powers.”

Though Federalists led by Alexander Hamilton had sought to establish a strong central government, Jeffersonians adamantly objected. No fewer than six of President Jefferson’s successors vetoed or thwarted federal legislation to build roads and canals, improve harbors and riverways, maintain a national bank, [and] fund education . . .”

Had Jefferson survived until 1860, the federal government of that day would not have displeased him. Its main vocation was operating the postal service and collecting customs duties at ports, [and] its army consisted of merely sixteen thousand troops scattered mostly among a series of isolated forts west of the Mississippi. The federal payroll was modest . . . the civilian bureaucracy in Washington consisted of a mere two thousand employees.

The modest federal purse was supported by tariff duties and a smattering of land sales. Federal taxes (an unpleasant reminder of the English Parliament) were reflexively scorned. Then came the “rupture.”

The Republicans – [Lincoln elected in November 1860] – vastly enlarged the federal government . . . [and] accomplished a revolution that has been largely overlooked.”

(Ways and Means: Lincoln and His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War. Roger Lowenstein, Penguin Books, 2022. pp. 1-2)

The War Against the States

“[The] fact remains that that the Civil War was a political and constitutional watershed in United States history. Although the Civil War draft was primarily an inducement to volunteering [with ample financial incentives], the arbitrary arrests [of civilians] and first use of [a clearly unconstitutional] national conscription established important precedents. Economically, power shifted toward the industrialized North.  Moreover, at war’s end the very concept of State sovereignty established by the Founders had little meaning.

As Professor William B. Hesseltine said many years later, it was a “war against the States, both North and South. Within half a century after Appomattox, the federal government began to regulate certain businesses and introduced a graduated income tax. These innovations would have been inconceivable prior to 1860.” Larry Gara, Wilmington College.

(Review of “The North Fights the Civil War: The Home Front,” J. Matthew Gallman (Dee Publishing, 1994. Published in Civil War History – A Journal of the Middle Period, Vol. 42, No. 3. September 1996).

Apr 4, 2024 - America Transformed, Historical Accuracy, Myth of Saving the Union    Comments Off on What the Civil War Was Really All About

What the Civil War Was Really All About

What the Civil War Was Really All About

“The national government stopped paying any attention to the Constitution with the election of Lincoln. That’s what the war was really all about. The South wanted the constitutional republic, which strictly limited the powers of the federal government. The North wanted a centralized national government, which would itself define the limits of its powers – or, to put it another way, would have unlimited powers. That was an old argument that had begun at the Constitutional Convention, and it ended at Appomattox.”   Orlando Sentinel Columnist Charley Reese, 1937-2013

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