Saturday, April 09, 2016

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 8: William Freehling on slavery debates in Viriginia

Today I'm linking to a 2010 lecture by historian William Freehling on Pre-Civil War Virginia Showdowns C-Span 09/30/2010. The full lecture available at the C-Span link is not available for embedding here.

Their YouTube channel has a brief clip, Virginia Showdowns and Secession 10/18/2010, also not available for embedding here. They also provide this descriptive comments there:

The most populous slave state in the south prior to the Civil War was Virginia. The debate to abolish slavery in 1832 and the 1861 secession debate became critical showdowns as the Old Dominion struggled to decide whether to stay with the Union or join the Confederacy. Author William Freehling explores both topics at a recent talk given at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond.
He gives a good sense here of the complexity of the slavery question in Virginia politics between the American Revolution and the Civil War. He reminds us that the debate over slavery was prompted by Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831 was the occasion for the two-week debate in the legislature.

One of Freehling's important insights is useful for people to day who may struggle to understand that white Americans could be both antislavery and racist against black people. Racist ideas were already in the air and developing rapidly from a variety of sources. But the experience of the voluntary abolition of slavery by Northern states showed a pattern of opposition to slavery being associated with a low percentage of black in the population.

It actually makes sense, though it seems counter-intuitive today. If there were a lot of black people in areas like eastern Virginia, it meant in practice there were a lot of slaves. And with a lot of slaves came a class of wealthy slaveowners who defended the institution of slavery and worked hard to convince other whites to do the same. Areas where there were fewer slaves were areas with a less powerful slaveowning group had less proximate defenses of slavery. And he describes in the case of what became West Virginia when it split off to remain with the Union after Virginia's secession, the whites in those areas resented the disproportionate representation that the eastern Viriginia slaveowners had under the state Constitution. The US Constitution itself in its infamous "three-fifths" clause awarded representation to states based on their slave population, but the slaves themselves weren't allowed to vote. This created an electoral bonus for the slave states that became a major source of regional resentment in the North.

This phenomenon also meant that white Americans in the "whiter" parts of the country came to associate slavery with the presence of black people, including free black people. And vice-versa. Which meant that whites could be bitterly antislavery and also bitterly hostile to black people. That's by no means the whole story of white racism in the pre-Civil War US. But it's an important part of it.

And it speaks specifically to the claim by present-day defenders of the Confederacy that the Civil War couldn't have been about slavery because Northern whites hated black people, too.

It's worth recalling in this regard that one of the most famous prewar antislavery books was Hinton Helper's The Impending Crisis of the South (1857). I discussed Helper's book in a blog post even before I started doing these Confederate "Heritage" Month posts every year. John Brown's body lies a-mold'ring in the grave 11/02/2003:

I was glad to see the reference to Hinton Helper, an antislavery Southerner who published a book in 1857 (the year of the infamous Dred Scott decision) called The Impending Crisis of the South. His book goes into a great deal of detail comparing the Northern and Southern economies, relying heavily on contemporary economic statistics. He argues that the Northern industrial/commercial economy was far more efficient and prosperous, and refutes some of the most prominent arguments of pro-slavery propagandists.

He also emphasizes how slavery damaged the interests of non-slaveholding whites in the South. In a weird sort of way, Helper's argument is made even stronger by the fact that the guy was a white supremacist. That comes out at places in the book. After the Civil War, he published books advocating the explusion of African-Americans from the United States (which we would call "ethnic cleansing" today).

Helper was no saintly prophet of multiculturalism, in other words. But he was dead-on in his analysis of slavery. And The Impending Crisis of the South still makes fascinating reading to get an idea of the terms in which slavery was debated by contemporaries prior to the Civil War.
Freehling in the linked lecture argues that the "antislavery" debates in the Virginia Legislature in 1832 were actually about how to "whiten" Virginia. Since slavery was associated with the presence of black people, the white Virginians assumed that ending slavery would necessarily entail getting rid of most of the black people in Virginia.

This was the idea behind the notion of "returning" African-Americans to Africa, favored by white leaders of the stature of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. (And revived in radically different context by white supremacist Sen. Theodore Bilbo after the Second World War.) The American Colonization Society was established for that purpose, as reported in the linked article from KQED's Africans in America resources (article not dated):

The American Colonization Society, founded in 1816 to assist free black people in emigrating to Africa, was the brainchild of the Reverend Robert Finley, a Presbyterian minister from Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Finley believed that blacks would never be fully integrated into American society and that they would only be able to fulfill their potential as human beings in Africa, the "land of their fathers." He saw colonization as a charitable work, one that would benefit American blacks and Africans alike through the spreading of Christianity to Africa. He also thought that it would prompt a gradual end to slavery.

In keeping with the popular thought of the day, Finley saw the presence of blacks in America as a threat to the national well-being and the quality of life for whites. He said that free blacks were "unfavorable to our industry and morals" and that removing them would save Americans from difficulties such as interracial marriage and having to provide for poor blacks. ...

In a series of meetings [at the end of 1816], the group adopted a constitution, chose officers, and decided to call themselves the "American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color in the United States." Bushrod Washington, the nephew of George Washington, was chosen as president of the society. Vice presidents included Finley, Henry Clay, and Richard Rush, the son of Benjamin Rush. Andrew Jackson was included on the list without his consent; in reality he was a staunch anti-colonizationist. Caldwell was the organization's secretary, and Key was on the board of managers.

The motives of the ACS members varied considerably. Some were genuine allies of free blacks, and were concerned for their welfare. Some hoped that colonization would eradicate slavery. Others wanted to maintain the institution of slavery but to rid the country of free blacks, who they believed posed a serious threat as potential fomenters of slave rebellion. [my emphasis]
In reality, whatever the motives, it was an impractical idea that was fundamentally cruel. The idea never found more than a small number of supporters among African-Americans, including those like Frederick Douglass who became important Abolitionist leaders.

Although there was enough practicality in the idea that the American Colonization Society was able to establish settlement areas in what became the nation of Liberia in 1947 and a small number of blacks from America were settled there under the auspices of the Society.

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