Thursday, April 14, 2016

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 14: the slave system's political dynamics

Lacy Ford in Democracy, Despotism, and Disunion: A Review Essay Journal of Southern History 76:1 (Feb 2010) gives a useful summary of William Freehling's work on the varying approaches to defending slavery among the various slave states in his book The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854:1990ol 1 (1990):

The most important of those points, in my view, are that the political radical ism of the lower South enhanced political moderation in the upper South and that the upper South's moderation drove lower South politicians toward bolder and more extreme defenses of southern interests, precisely because they feared that upper South politicians were not reliable on the subject. Upper South moderation fueled lower South extremism. The lower South's extremism strengthened upper South moderation.
This means that, in the context of Lost Cause myth-making, you can find quotes from people like Robert E. Lee of Virginia who just before the Civil War made statements to the effect that they thought slavery would fade away peacefully. While defenders of the Peculiar Institution in the lower South were trumpeting it as the greatest benefit to human civilization God every created.

A second lesson from Volume 1 is that these tensions between upper South moderation and lower South extremism grew out of underlying differences in political economy. The upper South, with little involvement in the cotton booms of the nineteenth century, depended less on slaves for economic success as the region's tobacco economy stagnated. Hence the upper South looked to reduce the proportion of slaves in its population. Lower South whites experienced cotton booms and busts during the antebellum era, but, on balance, they saw cotton and slaves as paths to both economic competence and wealth. Yet lower South whites nonetheless worried much about slavery, especially about how to make a slaveholding society safe for whites. Still, they could scarcely imagine a lower South economy that did not depend heavily on slave labor. [my emphasis]
This is a good way of stating it. There were tensions between free whites and the slaveowners, between free whites and the slave system. Because in a very basic sense, the slavery system did work against the vital interests of the big majority of Southern whites.

And those tensions including tensions over the very real threat the slavery system was to (white male) democracy:

Finally, Freehling's first volume posited a strong tension between democracy and despotism in the hearts and minds of white southerners. Democracy, both in its political forms and as genuine egalitarian sentiment, increasingly flourished in southern state constitutions and in the region's electoral politics. Yet much despotism grew from the power of slaveholders to own and govern slaves with only minimal restrictions from civil authority. At times, the spirit of this slaveholders' despotism escaped the confines of master-slave relations and influenced the entire white democracy, producing vigilance committees and lynch mobs that intimidated marginal individuals and squashed dissent in an especially ugly form of majoritarian tyranny. [my emphasis]

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