Saturday, April 14, 2018

Confederate "Heritage" Month, August 13: Ulrich Phillips on white racism among nonslaveholders in the South

Still catching up on the Confederate "Heritage" Month posts

I'm continuing here with discussing the essay by slavery historian Ulrich Phillips, The Central Theme of Southern History (American Historical Review 34:1; Oct 1928). Phillips' friendly view of slavery was very much in line with the Lost Cause/neo-Confederate historical narrative supporting segregation and Jim Crow laws. In the last post, we saw how in his view of Southern history it was not slavery that caused the Civil War, but argued that slavery was rather only a means to the end of protecting "white supremacy and civilization."

He also offers a version of the favorite neo-Confederate argument that the Civil War couldn't have been about slavery because the Confederate soldiers were mostly not slaveowners. As a historical position, that doesn't rate as much more than a throwaway talking point. But people hearing it for the first time may be thrown off, because it doesn't occur to most people at most times that the goals or originating causes of a war can somehow be measured by the the personal opinions or ordinary foot soldiers or their personal economic backgrounds. And both the Union and the Confederacy relied on conscription. Both of them offered exemptions to wealthier men who could pay a personal bounty. The Confederacy's version also exempted slaveowners with 20 or more slaves. So the largest slaveowners were exempted from compulsory military service. But even though the ownership of slaves was heavily concentrated, there were whites - and sometimes Indians and even occasionally free blacks - who owned one or a few slaves. So not only was slave ownership not confined to large planters, that also meant that ordinary farmers could aspire to become successful enough to own one or a few slaves. So even ordinary Confederate soldiers could aspire to become slaveowners.

Phillips does at least allude to "militia musters," the slave patrols in which nonslaveowning white citizens were required to participate. Their role was to patrol for slaves away from their plantations without proper papers. It also gave the white men on the patrol the chance to bully both slaves and free blacks with impunity. It was a key institution in giving nonslaveowning whites a psychological stake in the slave system.

Phillips tries to argue that nonslaveowners were the main source of white racism and anger against Northern Abolitionists:
The reason for this apparent anomaly lay doubtless in the two facts, that men of wealth had more to lose in any cataclysm, and that masters had less antipathy to negroes than non-slaveholders did. In daily contact with blacks from birth, and often on a friendly basis of patron and retainer, the planters were in a sort of partnership with their slaves, reckoning upon their good-will or at least possessing a sense of security as a fruit of long habituation to fairly serene conditions. But the white toilers lived outside this partnership and suffered somewhat from its competition. [my emphasis]
The concept of a "partnership" in which one party literally and legally owns the other is an, uh, intriguing concept.

Phillips in that essay pretty much breezes by the fact that hostility against slavery generally coexisted with hostility to the presence of black people, because black people were associated with slavery. That's not said to excuse the attitude, but rather to say that without recognizing that connection the dynamics of the politics of slavery among whites is more difficult to understand.

It was also the fact that Abolitionist advocacy was suppressed in the slave states with increasing intensity in the decades before the Civil War.

But it's also the case that Southern whites were very aware of the central role of slavery in the politics leading up to the Civil War. And, of course, the advocates for secession put the defense of slavery front and center in their demands. Phillips even notes that in the 1850s, "legal sanction for the spread of slaveholding, regardless of geographical potentialities, became the touchstone of Southern rights."

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