Sunday, April 28, 2013

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 28: Convincing non-slaveowning whites to fight for the Slave Power

One of the favorite arguments for Lost Cause advocates to promote their pseudohistory that slavery was irrelevant to the Civil War is to point out that many Southerners fought for the Confederacy even though they weren't slaveowners themselves. So how could slavery be the cause of the war? Or how could the war be "about" slavery?

Even without much knowledge of the Confederate mobilization, a moment's thought suggests some obvious problems with that argument. Starting with, what army in the history of the world determined the goal for which it was fighting by taking a vote among privates and corporals and sergeants? In any case, the privates and corporals and sergeants in the Rebel army knew very well what the cause of secession was, because their leaders could scarcely have been more explicit that they were fighting to defend slavery. The Civil War was preceded by an intense decade of controversies: the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska mini-civil war, the Dred Scott decision, John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, all of which had slavery front and center.

De Bow's Review was a leading journal among Southern planters. It also dealt prominently with political questions. Their January 1861 issue came at a time when secession was still being debated among the Southern states and the start of the shooting war had not yet arrived. Lincoln wouldn't assume the Presidency until March, 1861. That number of De Bow's Review (30:2) featured an article titled, "The Non-Slaveholders of the South: Their Interest in the President Sectional Controversy Identical With That of the The Slaveholders."


The title itself gives a picture of what was at the center of the intense discussion about whether the Southern slave states should secede from the Union in the face of the Party the slaveowners called the Black Republicans taking power in Washington. Written in the form of a letter from publisher James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow (1820-1867) to Robert N. Gourdin of South Carolina, a signer of South Carolina's Ordinance of Secession. The largest concentration of slaves were held by wealthy plantations. But many white farmers had one or a few slaves. Owning a slave was sign of social mobility and thus a goal to which other whites could and did aspire. Considerable numbers of whites in the South resented slavery to one degree or another. But there were aspects of the system which many found attractive, like the prospect of one day owning their own slaves. The institution of the slave patrols, to whose existence we owe the Second Amendment to the Constitution, required non-slaveholding white men to participate in patrols to look for escaped slaves. This gave even non-slaveowning white men the chance to directly experience a taste of the power that slaveholders had over their human property. And in practice the slave patrols used their power to abuse free blacks and occasionally indulge their sadistic impulses on a slave or free black they decided deserved a beating or a whipping. The slave patrols were a predecessor to the postwar Ku Klux Klan type vigilante groups.

DeBow's article is directed at encouraging the proslavery sentiment among non-slaveowning whites. A statistician, DeBow first makes an argument about the extent of slaveholding, trying to make it look as widespread as he could. I haven't cross-checked the numbers he uses, though they look exaggerated to me; but the point here is to show the arguments he was formulating to persuade non-slaveholding whites to join a treasonous rebellion against their country:

... it would be safe to put the number of [Southern slaveowning] families at 375,000, and the number of actual slaveholders at about two millions and a quarter [i.e., counting all family members of the slaveowner].

Assuming the published returns [from the Census Bureau that showed a smaller number], however, to be correct, it will appear that one half of the population of South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana, excluding the cities, are slaveholders, and that one third of the population of the entire South are similarly circumstanced. The average number of slaves is nine to each slaveholding family, and one half of the whole number of such holders are in possession of less than five slaves.
This tells us two things: that a considerable number of whites actually did own slaves, and others could aspire to do the same. And that DeBow obviously thought that to persuade nonslaveholding whites to support the rebellion, they needed to be persuaded that the institution of slavery was in their interest. An odd argument if slavery was irrelevant to the causes of the rebellion for which he was agitating in this article. "The poor men of the South are the holders of one to five slaves, and it would he equally consistent with truth and justice to say that they represent, in reality, its slaveholding interest." We'll lead aside here whether there anything involving "truth and justice" about the vile cause of treason in defense of slavery.

DeBow does express the core of the Southern cause in the rebellion straightforwardly here, though he clearly wants to minimize any opposition to slavery among those white Southerners who did hate it, like the hill people of East Tennessee:

... I think it but easy to show that the interest of the poorest non-slaveholder among us is to make common cause with, and die in the last trenches, in defence of the slave property of his more favored neighbor.

The non-slaveholders of the South may be classed as either such as desire and are incapable of purchasing slaves, or such as have the means to purchase and do not, because of the absence of the motive - preferring to hire or employ cheaper
white labor. A class conscientiously objecting to the ownership of slave property does not exist at the South: for all such scruples have long since been silenced by the profound and unanswerable arguments to which Yankee controversy has driven our statesmen, popular orators, and clergy. Upon the sure testimony of God's Holy Book, and upon the principles of universal polity, they have defended and justified the institution! The exceptions, which embrace recent importations in Virginia, and in some of the Southern cities, from the free States of the North, and some of the crazy, socialistic Germans in Texas, are too unimportant to affect the truth of the proposition.
Those "scruples" had more directly been silenced by violence and threats of violence against white Southerners who opposed slavery. Free speech over the slavery issue not longer existed among whites in much of the future Confederacy, though in border states like Viriginia, Missouri and Kentucky there continued to be active debate over the institution of slavery itself up until this point. De Bow prefers to write Southern opponents of slavery off as Yankee-fied city folks and "the crazy, socialistic Germans in Texas."

DeBow proceeds to make a dubious case that slave labor actually increases the wages of white workers - this dubious:

If the poor mechanic could have ever complained of the competition in the cities, of slave labor with his, the cause of that complaint, in the enormous increase of value of slave property, has failed, since such increase has been exhausting the cities and towns of slave labor, or making it so valuable that he can work in competition with it, and receive a rate of remuneration greatly higher than in any of the non-slaveholding towns or cities at the North!
As in the rest of this post, I don't assume the accuracy of his vague claim that there were some places in the South where a free mechanic could earn more than in some places in the North, which in itself doesn't say much.

But DeBow's argument here is, slave prices have been going up, and so in cities where there aren't as many slaves, free mechanics don't have to compete with them, i.e., the slaves that aren't there. And, anyway, the free workers can cut their wages to make themselves competitive. The people in Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain are living with policies based on similar arguments today in 2013. De Bow neglects to mention efforts to extend slavery into industrial undertakings.

DeBow also makes this argument, which comes down to, well, white workers won't readily agree to work themselves into an early grave which slaveowners routinely force their slaves to do:

The competition and conflict, if such exist at the South, between slave labor and free labor, is reduced to the single case of such labor being employed, side by side, in the production of the same commodities, and could be felt only in the cane, cotton, tobacco, and rice fields, where almost the entire agricultural slave labor is exhausted. Now, any one cognisant of the actual facts, will admit that the free labor which is employed upon these crops, disconnected with, and in actual independence of, the slaveholder, is a very significant item in the account, and whether in accord or in conflict, would affect nothing, the permanency and security of the institution. It is a competition from which the non-slaveholder cheerfully retires when the occasion offers, his physical organization refusing to endure that exposure to tropical suns and fatal miasmas which are alone the condition of profitable culture, and any attempt to reverse the laws which God has ordained, is attended with disease and death. This the poor white foreign laborer upon our river-swamps and in our Southern cities, especially in Mobile and New-Orleans, and upon the public works of the South, is a daily witness of. [my emphasis]
It's dubious as an argument for why whites should admire slavery and betray their country to defend it. I suppose he's trying to say, look, white boy: if we don't have slaves you'd have to do this. But in the process, he gives an unintentionally revealing description of the reality of slavery.

Here are some of the additional arguments De Bow presents for convincing non-slaveowning whites to defend the institution slavery and to support treason and rebellion on behalf of it:

The non-slaveholders, as a class, are not reduced by the necessity of our condition, as is the case in the free States, to find employment in crowded cities, and come into cvmpetition in close and sickly workshops and factories, with remorseless and untiring machinery. They have but to compare their condition, in this particular, with the mining and manufacturing operatives of the North and Europe, to be thankful that God has reserved them for a better fate. Tender women, aged men, delicate children, toil and labor there from early dawn until after candle-light, from one year to another, for a miserable pittance, scarcely above the starvation point, and without hope of amelioration. [italics in original]
Polemicists both North and South could and did point to the evils of the predominant system of labor in the other sections. DeBow's particular point here, though, is another way of saying that the South was less industrialized than the North.

The non-slaveholder of the South preserves the status of the white man, and is not regarded as an inferior or a dependant. ...

The non-slaveholder knows that as soon as his savings will admit, he can become a slaveholder, and thus relieve his wife from the necessities of the kitchen and the laundry, and his children from the labors of the field. This, with ordinary frugality, can in general be accomplished in a few years, and is a process continually going on. Perhaps twice the number of poor men at the South own a slave, to what owned a slave ten years ago. ...

The sons of the non-slaveholder are and have always been among the leading and ruling spirits of the South, in industry as well as in politics. [italics in original]
Near the end, he makes this appeal on the basis of the white racism endlessly fomented by the pulpit, the press and the politicians of the slave states:

If emancipation be brought about, as will, undoubtedly be the case; unless the encroachments of the fanatical majorities of the North are resisted now, the slaveholders, in the main, will escape the degrading equality which must result, by emigration, for which they have the means, by disposing of their personal chattels [slaves], while the non-slaveholders, without these resources, would be compelled to remain and endure the degradation. This is a startling consideration. In Northern communities, where the free negro is one in a hundred of the total population, he is reoogized and acknowledged often as a pest, and in many cases even his presence is prohibited by law. What would be the case in many of our States, where every other inhabitant is a negro, or in many of our communities, as, for example, the parishes around and about Charleston, and in the vicinity of New-Orleans, where there are from
twenty to one hundred negroes to each white inhabitant? Low as would this class of people sink by emancipation in idleness, superstition, and vice, the white man compelled to live among them would, by the power exerted over him, sink even lower, unless, as is to be supposed, he would prefer to suffer death instead. [italics in original]
That argument comes down to, the scary black people are gone git yuh! Pretty much the same argument the NRA's Wayne LaPierre makes today on behalf of unlimited gun proliferation.

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