Healing, Heritage and History:
"Slavery and the Coming of the Civil War: A Matter for Interpretation"
What caused the Civil War? Was it the institution of slavery? Was it states rights? Or, was it something else? Professor James Oliver Horton looks at what contemporaries had to say on the subject. He quotes from soldiers--officers and enlisted men--from political leaders, and from African Americans. His evidence is convincing, and should leave absolutely no doubt what caused the Civil War.
Introduced by Dwight Pitcaithley,
This morning I want to talk about the centrality of the institution of slavery to the interpretation of battle sites and the Civil War. In the late 1980s, I taught at the University of Munich and I found teaching in Germany very, very instructive. Sometimes when you teach abroad you learn much more than you teach. Last fall, I published a book entitled Van Benin nach Baltimore: Geschichte der African Americans. I say that so you can appreciate my accent and multi-lingual abilities. This is a book on African American history, written in German, and published in Hamburg, Germany. As you may have guessed, the book is co-authored and one of the authors is a German native speaker, a professor of American history from Hamburg.
We published this book to address the intense interest in African American history that we observed all over Europe. My German students were interested in all kinds of things about African Americans in the United States, but they were really interested in the institution of slavery. What was it? Why was it? How could it be? What did it do? What did it mean? What is its legacy? They were so interested, that I began to wonder why. Obviously, slavery was not particularly important in Germany. After much discussion it became clear. As one student explained, "this is one of the evils we were not responsible for." Growing up in this generation, one can understand the difficulty many German young people have talking about their own national history. There is an attractiveness of a history of another country, which, in many ways, they find as shameful as they find parts of their own. So, I want to talk about the institution of slavery, as it is central to American society and to American culture.
The centrality of this institution to America and to American identity is older than the nation itself. Even today, in debates about flying the Confederate flag over the state house in Columbia, South Carolina, or at football games at the University of Mississippi, or as we discuss Virginia's official celebration of Confederate History during the month of April, we cannot escape the meaning and the consequences of slavery, that great contradiction to our most sacred national principles.
First, I want to remind you of just how important that institution of slavery was to our national history in the years before 1860. By 1815, slavery was the most important labor system that produced the most valuable export--cotton--of the entire nation. And by 1840, cotton was more valuable than all other U.S. exports combined. By 1860, the value of southern slaves was greater that that of all of America's factories, railroads, and banks put together. Sometimes we talk about slavery as if it were a side show to American history. It wasn't. It very decidedly was the main event. Do this: look through the Congressional Globe (the Congressional Record of the early 1800s). There, you will find more debates about slavery than any other single issue in our national Congress in the years before the Civil War.
I want to set this institution of slavery at the center of the war. And, I want to argue that--here it is straight and as plainly as I can say it--slavery was the central cause of the Civil War. Others have said it and I want to say it very plainly. I want to be clear because when you say things like that, people hear all kinds of other things. So, let me tell you some things I am not saying. I am not saying that slavery was the only cause of the Civil War. I am not saying that slavery was the stated reason for Abraham Lincoln declaring war. And, I am not saying that slavery provided the personal reasons for every individual in the United States or the Confederate armies for taking up arms, although James McPherson has clearly shown that many soldiers on both sides of the battle line left no doubt that they were in this fight because of this institution of slavery. What I am saying is this: the protection of slavery was the foundation that moved the South toward secession, and it was the underlying reason that the Confederacy was formed. Confederates were willing to take up arms against the United States of America in order to preserve the institution of slavery. More importantly, from the standpoint of many slaveholders and non-slaveholders--especially non-slaveholders in the South--they were passionate to preserve the way of life that slavery made possible.
Almost all academic historians and many public historians have long accepted the fact that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War. But, as National Park Service historians and historical interpreters go about their duties of teaching about the Civil War, and you really do a great deal of teaching about the Civil War, you know better than I, that you are likely to encounter strong opinions to the contrary. National Park Service historians and historical interpreters have faced notable reaction when they have attempted to place slavery at the center of the war. John Latschar, the Superintendent at Gettysburg National Military Park, can tell you about the reaction that he received when he, as an aside, mentioned that slavery was one of the causes of the war. Eleven hundred people wrote to the Secretary of the Interior demanding his resignation. We, in the academy, almost never have to face this kind of reaction. Clearly, to discuss slavery in this context is to strike at a raw nerve among many who seek to celebrate the bravery of their ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. It is obviously easier in the twenty-first century to celebrate the southern cause of states rights or to focus on the tension of two opposing economic systems, than it is to focus on slavery as the war's central cause. But, whatever the reasons we debate in the twenty-first century, the fact remains that in the middle of the nineteenth century it was clear to most Americans that the Confederacy was formed and warred against the United States of America over the question of slavery. It was just that simple; and it is not simple at all.
Today, we talk about revisionist history as if it were a new and dangerous thing. In reality, every generation revises its history. We should feel no more threatened by revisionist history than we would by revisionist medicine. The practice of medicine during the time of the Civil War did not understand, treat, or guard against infection. Is that the kind of medicine we want to provide for our loved ones at the beginning of the twenty-first century? Of course it is not. The fact is that revising history is what historians are supposed to do. Historians who are not constantly trying to revise history are not doing their jobs, and can be replaced by a simple tape recorder. In some ways, the move away from the notion of slavery as the central cause of the Civil War was itself a kind of irresponsible revisionist history. Nineteenth century people recognized that slavery was very much a central cause of the conflict. There are plenty of primary sources that make this claim irrefutable. Let me quote from some of this plentiful evidence this morning. I think it is important to use primary source of material, because standing out in a battlefield in the middle of a hot summer day, with kids screaming, tourists in shorts and fanny-packs, you are on the spot and need to know a great deal about what you are telling the public. You need to have evidence. The only defense you have is knowledge. So, if you want to feel as comfortable talking about slavery as a part of the Civil War as you are talking about the maneuvers on the battlefields or the furnishings in the historic houses, you need solid evidence.
Let me give you some examples of the kinds of evidence that will make your argument persuasive to people--even to people who do not want to hear it. As I said earlier, in the middle of the nineteenth century, almost all Americans agreed that slavery was the central cause of the war. Certainly, African Americans believed from the beginning that if the United States won this Civil War, slavery would be destroyed. "From the first," said Frederick Douglass, "I, for one, saw this war as the end of slavery, and truth requires me to say that my interests in the success of the North was largely due to this belief." Blacks understood that slavery could not be abolished within the framework of the United States Constitution as long as the Southern states remained a major force in the federal government. Slaveholders could block any potential amendment that could end slavery. Since the Constitution protected private property, Congress was virtually powerless to pass any legislation that might cripple or ultimately abolish the institution of slavery. War was the surest, and perhaps the only way to destroy the institution of slavery at that moment.
There was great optimism among African Americans on hearing of the South's intention to secede. In his message to the South, black abolitionist Charles Lenox Remond left no doubt as to his feelings about secession. "Stand not on ceremony, go at once," he said. African American men had formed military units throughout the northern states during the 1850s. They had been training, they had been waiting for the opportunity, as one put it, "to strike a final blow for freedom." They saw the Civil War as the continuation, and hopefully the completion of the American Revolution. They hoped that the Civil War would give them access to the freedom promised during revolutionary times.
But, Abraham Lincoln initially refused to enlist blacks in the federal army. In an effort to hold the loyalty of the Border States, which were also slaveholding states, Lincoln announced that the war aim was the salvation of the Union, not the destruction of slavery. It was clear at the start of the war that the United States did not intend to abolish slavery in the South. Lincoln did not intend to interfere with slavery in places where it existed. In fact, he even offered to support a constitutional amendment, which ironically would have been the Thirteenth Amendment, to guarantee the right of slaveholders to hold slaves forever. As Eric Foner told us thirty years ago, the Republican Party's call for free soil, free labor, and free men focused on the western territories, not on the slaveholding South. In 1861, the abolition of slavery was not an issue that most white Americans in the northern states were willing to go to war over.
Yet, most northerners were concerned about slavery. They were interested in restricting slavery's expansion to the West--the place of America's future. They wanted to reserve America's future for free white labor. Said differently, at the beginning, this war was about slavery, but not simply a struggle between the abolitionist North and the pro-slavery South. In the South, things were quite different. From the very beginning, most southern leaders saw the coming of the war as one important means of protecting and preserving the institution of slavery. Let me tell you what they said. Alexander Stephens of Georgia, future Vice-President of the Confederacy understood what the South was fighting for long before the war came. A decade before secession in reaction to the debate over the Compromise of 1850, he wrote to his brother Linton. "The great question of the permanence of slavery in the southern states," he said, "was critical to maintaining the union." Then, as if to anticipate William Seward's irrepressible conflict speech eight years later, Stephens predicted "that the crisis of that question [that is the slavery question] is not far ahead." He said this in 1850. The Compromise of 1850, especially the Fugitive Slave Law which was part of the Compromise, was designed to assute the South, but it was not enough to allay southern fears. As abolitionists continued to resist, the South remained skeptical of federal resolve to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. Despite his guarantees, after Lincoln was elected to the Presidency in 1860, most southern whites agreed with whites from South Carolina, that when he came into power, he would "foment a war that would be waged against slavery until that institution shall cease throughout the United States."
South Carolina's fears for the safety of its peculiar institution, which is what slavery was often called, led its leaders to call for a convention in Charleston just before Christmas in 1860. At this convention, they declared that the "Union heretofore, existing between the State of South Carolina and the other states of North America is dissolved." The reason for this drastic action, South Carolina delegates explained in their declaration of causes for the secession, was what they termed a broken compact between the federal government and slaveholding states. The non-slaveholding states had refused to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law.
Let me pause here for a moment. Southerners were saying that part of the reason that South Carolina was seceding from the United States was because the federal government was not enforcing federal law--the Fugitive Slave Law. Think about this for a second. How does this concern comport with the argument that the southern effort to protect states rights was the cause of the Civil War? In the late 1840s and the 1850s, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, other northern states passed laws called personal liberty laws. These personal liberty laws made it illegal for state representatives and state facilities to be used for the capture and return of fugitive slaves. The Fugitive Slave Law, a national law, overrode these state laws. Therefore, South Carolina should have stood solidly in opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law, for it violated the principle of states rights.
The Fugitive Slave Law was the immediate cause of the Civil War according to a number of southern states. Georgia seceded less than a month after South Carolina. Its governor, Joseph Brown, explained why Georgia seceded. He said that Lincoln was "a mere instrument of the great triumphant party [the Republican party], the principles of which are deadly hostile," not to states rights, not to tariffs, not to internal taxes, but "deadly hostile to the institution of slavery." One Georgia editorial confirmed what most white Georgians and most white southerners believed: "Negro slavery is the South and the South is Negro slavery." This is what they meant when they talked about the southern way of life. Editorial opinion in the Augusta Daily Constitution agreed: "our ideal is a pro-slavery republic," it said. When Alabama seceded, it sent Robert Hardy Smith to the provisional Confederate States Congress. In that body, Representative Smith set out the reasons why his state was leaving the United States. "The question of Negro slavery," he made clear, "has been the apple of discord in the government of the United States since its foundation." On this point, I agree completely with Representative Smith. Slavery was indeed the central divisive issue over which the Union had been broken, and I quote him again: "we have dissolved the late Union chiefly because of the Negro quarrel."
These quotes are pretty straightforward. But to leave no doubt about the link between secession and the institution of slavery, on March 21, 1861 in Savannah, Alexander Stephens, then Vice President of the Confederacy drew applause when he proclaimed: "our new government was founded, its foundations are laid, [and] its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man. That slavery, submission to a superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This is our new government," Alexander Stephens said. "It is the first in the history of the world based on this great physical, philosophical and moral truth." I find these statements convincing. Those in power in the South understood that their withdrawal from the United States was directly connected to the protection and preservation of their institution of slavery.
But, you may have questions. These quotes certainly raise questions for me. Only 25% of the people in South owned slaves. How about the other 75%? Why did 75% of the people in the South, who held no slaves, go to war to protect slavery? Again, let's turn to the record. Let the South speak for itself. The Kentucky Statesman, a newspaper in Lexington, warned its readers about the dangers of allowing any split between slave owners and non-slave holders. The newspaper contended that this was "the great lever by which the abolitionists hope to extirpate slavery in the states. Southerners must be careful not to fall victim to the propaganda that sought to raise suspicions that the non-slave holders would not stand for slavery." In reality, the newspaper argued, "the strongest pro-slavery men in this state are those who do not own one dollar in slave profit." The editors encouraged those who doubted this to "travel to the mountainous regions of the state," where one would find "thousands of as true southern men as tread the soil of cotton states with comparatively few slave owners among them." Significantly, pro-slavery men were equated with true southern men, for slavery was the essence of southern society. The newspaper contended that slave owners and non-slave owners alike "believe slavery to be right and socially beneficial." "The interest felt by non-slaveholders of the South in this question is not prompted by dollars and cents," the newspaper said, "but by a loyalty to the southern way of life."
There was a special issue of the Louisville Daily Courier with an even more direct message to non-slaveholders. The abolition of slavery, it argued, would elevate African Americans "to the level of the white race and the poorest whites would be closest to the former slaves in both social and physical distance." Then came the most penetrating question that cut to the core of southern racial fears. "Do they [non-slaveholders] wish to send their children to schools in which Negro children in the vicinity are taught? Do they wish to give the Negro the right to appear in the witness box and testify against them?" Finally, the article moved to the most emotionally charged question of all. Would the non-slaveholders of the South be content to live with what the writer contended in bold, upper case letters, was the ultimate end of abolition, "TO AMALGAMATE TOGETHER THE TWO RACES IN VIOLATION OF GOD'S WILL." The conclusion was inevitable the article argued. Non-slaveholders had a real stake in the maintenance of slavery. Everything that they could do, they should do, to maintain its presence. African American slaves were the only things that stood between the poorest whites and the bottom of southern society. And if they fell to the bottom of southern society, they would share that space with black people.
These arguments were extremely effective--even the poorest white southerners got the message. Their interest in slavery was more important than simple economics. As one Southern prisoner explained to his Wisconsin-born Union guard, "you Yankees want us to marry our daughters to niggers." This fear of the loss of racial status was common. A poor white farmer from North Carolina explained that he would never stop fighting because what he considered to be an abolitionist federal government was trying "to force us to live as a colored race." And, although, he had grown tired of fighting, a Confederate artilleryman from Louisiana agreed that he must continue to fight because he would "never want to see the day when a Negro was placed on an equality with a white person." These non-slaveholders surely recognized their stake in the institution of slavery and thus their stake in this war.
Most Confederates would have agreed with the assessment of the southern cause set forth by a Union soldier in 1863. Shortly after the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, he wrote, "I know enough about the southern spirit that I think they would fight for the institution of slavery even to extermination." Lincoln's issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 transformed this war into a holy crusade against slavery, but there was never complete agreement among federal troops about outright abolition. Yet, increasingly after 1863, as James McPherson tells us, pro-emancipation conviction did predominate among the leaders and the fighting soldiers of the United States army. Nevertheless, United States soldiers, whether they were fighting to limit slavery or fighting to abolish slavery, the focus was on the institution of slavery, as it was in the South.
A half-century after serving in the Confederate cause, John Singleton Mosby, leader of Mosby's Rangers--the Gray Ghost--offered no apologies for his southern loyalties and he was quite candid about what he was fighting for. "The South went to war on account of slavery," he said. "South Carolina went to war as she said in her secession proclamation, because slavery would not be secure under Lincoln," he continued. Then he added as if to dispel all doubt, and as if speaking directly to us today, "don't you think South Carolina ought to know why it went to war?" Of course, Mosby was right. South Carolina did know why it went to war. South Carolina knew exactly why it seceded. South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and the other southern states, one by one, at the time of their secession and all through that war told us over and over again it was about slavery. Why don't we believe them?
It is hard for us at the beginning of the twenty-first century to think about secession or slavery as a cause of the Civil War, not because of what happened then, but because of how we view what happened then. There should be no confusion, based on the fact that a wide variety of southerners, from private citizens to top governmental officials, from low ranking enlisted men to Confederate military leaders of the highest ranks, and from local politicians to regional newspaper editors, all agreed that slavery was the central cause of the Civil War. Perhaps the denial of that fact has something to do with race. Slavery has been over since 1865, but the legacy of slavery remains very much with us today. This is the context within which we have to function.
David Blight writes in his forthcoming book Race and Reunion, that national reconciliation after the Civil War was brought about in large part bra kind of unwritten agreement between the northern states and southern states. The North was willing to let the South handle the issue of race and even supported the system of Jim Crow in exchange for getting on with the Union and the industrial revolution. I would argue that the North and the South both paid a price for that agreement, but it is obvious that African American people in the North and the South paid the greatest price. They continue to pay that price today in order that the nation can imagine itself as a place united in a commitment to freedom and equality. This is the context within which your conversations in battlefields take place. This is part of the reason why conversations on these issues are so tough.
Last weekend I attended a conference New York City held in conjunction with an exhibit at the New York Historical Society entitled "Without Sanctuary." The exhibit focused on lynching, and its impact was stunning. I have studied many horrifying moments and events in American history including slavery, the middle passage, and some of the bloodiest race riots imaginable, but nothing prepared me for the sobering effect of confronting the reality of lynching. The exhibit was based on a collection of post cards. People took pictures of lynchings, put them on postcards, and sent them to their friends through the mail. The images of black bodies hanging from trees or engulfed in flames were unspeakably horrible, but what affected me most were the white faces in the crowd. We tend to think of lynching as something that happens in the deep dark woods, hidden away from public view, but obviously this was not always true. Some of these lynchings were announced in advance in local newspapers and attracted thousands of people--10,000 came to a lynching in Memphis. They came by chartered train, from out-of-state, with picnic lunches. Some brought their children. And yes, there is a connection between that exhibit and what we are talking about today; The symbols of the Confederacy were prominent in the crowd. The faces of the children and the adults showed that they were enjoying the spectacle as they waved Confederate flags and wore rebel caps. There was a pathology there, a pathology shaped over generations as a significant aspect of American culture.
When you approach the notion of slavery as a cause of a war a hundred or more years ago, keep in mind that that part of our past is not totally past. The Civil War was about slavery and as we discuss the Civil War we do so in a time that is all about race. Again, your job in talking to the public about these uncomfortable issues is not an enviable one. Yet, your job is critically important. National Park Service historians and interpreters will educate more people in the course of a month than I will in a lifetime. That makes what you do both difficult and vital. I have always been amazed to watch interpreters do what they do under the most inhospitable of circumstances. What you do is central to education in this country. As Thomas Jefferson believed, an educated electorate is democracy's best safeguard. You are democracy's "safeguarders." You do the critical work of educating the nation's future generations. I take some heart because I have always been impressed with the seriousness with which you approach your work. We need that seriousness, and we need for you to educate yourselves so that you feel comfortable enough to say the tough things that need to be said in the places where most people come to learn American history.
Questions and Answers
Question: Most interpreters are, perhaps, not opposed to the incorporation of slavery into their interpretations of Civil War battles on its face. However, the question is how to do so without making that incorporation seem out of place, or cheesy, as it were, to the specific battle, rather than to the war as a whole?
Answer: That is a very good question. Again, the more you know the easier it is to do this. It becomes obvious if you are interpreting Antietam. Antietam, of course, is intimately attached to the institution of slavery in that it was the vehicle for the announcement of the preliminary and final Emancipation Proclamation. So, there are places where slavery is closely attached to the site and the war. But, it is hard to think of some place where slavery could not be interpreted, although there are places where slavery is more central than other places. One of the things that maybe I should have said is this: I am not saying that slavery is of equal import in every single situation, of course not. But there are important situations throughout the war in which slavery was essential, and those are the places where you can use your interpretive skills to make the visitor aware of that.
Let me give you an example of what I am saying. A couple of years ago, I was talking to a person who had a plantation to interpret, with slave quarters out in back. But, he wanted to focus on the house. He did some interpretation of slave quarters out in back, but, since people really wanted to come into the house, how, he wondered, could he interpret slavery in the house. The question I asked was very simple. Who built the house? Further, there were only a few white people living in the big house, but on a day-to-day basis on a large plantation black people would have been most in evidence. An unknowing stranger visiting Monticello in 1790 might well have believed himself to be in a black neighborhood. It makes about as much sense to interpret a plantation simply from the point of view of the slaveholding family, as it does to interpret Harlem simply from the standpoint of the area's white business owners. In both cases the vast majority of the people were people of African ancestry. Therefore, if you heard a person singing, if you saw a person walking, if you saw a person wearing clothes in a particular way, if you saw a cultural celebration going on, it was likely to have been influenced by the majority of the people in that place.
Keeping these simple and obvious things in mind, makes your job a lot easier. Interpreting slavery means more than just looking at the place of particular slaves, at this spot, at this time, doing this thing. Southern society, in fact much of American society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was built around and shaped by the presence of that institution. People generally do not think about how widespread the impact of slavery was, and not only in the South. Go north to Brown University in Rhode Island for example. You may think you've escaped slavery's influence, but you have not. Rhode Island was one of those places in the North that had some of the region's largest plantations--called estates--but really they were plantations. The Browns were slaveholders, but more importantly, from an economic standpoint, they also were large-scale slave traders. It is very difficult to go any place in this country, especially in the eastern part of this country, and not run face to face with the impact of slavery. Again, the more you know the easier it is for you to do that.
Question: While southern secession was unquestionably about preserving slavery, was the war? Since the burden of prosecuting the war was to restore the Union as the United States Government's and Lincoln's stated aim, rather than to abolish slavery, it seems clear that while the political crises that led to the war was slavery, the actual shooting and killing was about something very different, federal supremacy. In truly understanding the war isn't it necessary to separate the two?
Answer: Let me tell you a story. There were some drug dealers and they had the drugs in a house. Before the police came, they were focused on the drugs. When the police came, they lost focus on the drugs and started shooting at the police. Am I telling a story about anti-police action or am I telling you a story about the protection of drugs? The fact is that the political situation that led to the war would not have occurred in that way if there had been no institution of slavery.
It would be interesting to do a poll asking this question to the people in South Carolina in 1860. If you were absolutely certain that the federal government would in a constitutional amendment protect the institution of slavery, would you be willing to sacrifice your young men to fight against the federal government to lower the tariff? I think they would not answer in the affirmative, especially given the economic importance of cotton as the raw material purchased in large quantity by northern dealers for textile manufacturing. If you remove the South's perceived need to protect slavery from this equation you don't have a Civil War at this point. I cannot imagine people saying well, I think I'll just get up and take up arms against my country because of some vague economic abstraction like the tariff. And remember, when South Carolina threatened nullification over the tariff in the early 1830s, not a single other southern state was willing to follow its lead. The fact is that slavery was the central issue of the politics that led to the military conflict. If you remove that central issue from the politics, you remove that which leads to the war. So I am not sure I can answer that question except to say no, I don't think so.
Question: What would you say to a visitor who would contradict the issue of slavery as the cause of the war?
Answer: I would ask what was the cause. What do you think the cause was? It does seem to me that it is your responsibility to be able to take on those kinds of questions. I always say this to students, if you have an opinion and you present your evidence and someone presents counter evidence that you can't explain or overcome, then you have to reassess your opinion. A good historian can never ignore counter evidence. That is the difference between history and propaganda.
So, you have to listen to what they have to say, you have to take their argument seriously, and theoretically, you should be able to explain why, despite what their argument might be. Now the problem as I understand it is when and how to do this. I, as a professor, have less of a problem because I can say "Okay, fine. Let's sit down and talk about this. Let's break up into groups in the room." Or we can talk individually, or we will talk about this next time we are together, or we'll read some things and come back and talk about it. You don't have that luxury. In some ways that makes the job harder and it makes the job more important. You need to be able to talk about their arguments directly, so if they give you some of the most common issues--it's about states rights, it's about different economic systems, it's about tariff control--you can be prepared and answer their questions. Now there is always a possibility that somebody is going to come up with an argument that you have never heard before in your life. I can't tell you what to do there. The best you can do to draw on the knowledge that you have to answer the argument the best you can, or just say you don't know. But, as I say to my students who are studying for graduate oral exams, if you have read widely and thought carefully about your subject, only on rare occasions will you encounter a question for which you are totally unprepared. But there is real pressure to do your homework in great detail.
The last thing, and this is something you already know, and this is the most important thing about what you do, which is as you talk to one person, you know there are many other people listening. Many of those people listening are going to be or maybe have been in situations where they were asked that exact question and they didn't have an answer. They are looking to you to provide them with an answer for the next time they're asked that question. That really puts on the pressure. But again, take the question seriously enough to construct an answer. I would try to take the argument straight-on and answer the question. That is part of the reason why in my talk I wanted to answer some of the issues that are generally raised, states rights, and so on. Because I know those are the kinds of issues that you will be faced with and it's hard to do this with all those people watching you and time pressure. But of course that's why they pay you the big bucks!
Question: Didn't the authors of this country's constitution see the hypocrisy in the phrase "all men are created equal?" Is it because they did not recognize people in bondage as human beings but property/chattel?
Answer: Well, it is certainly true that some people did recognize the hypocrisy. Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John, saying it was confusing and hypocritical that "we are daily denying from others that which we are demanding for ourselves." Benjamin Rush, thought slavery and liberty in one society were hypocritical. Incidentally, lots of slaves thought it was hypocrisy too, and they said so in petitions to the federal government and to state governments. They called on America to do what America said it was about. "We expect great things," they said, "from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow men to enslave them." I generally get this question when talking about Thomas Jefferson because people say he was just a man of his time, when everybody believed as he did that slavery was justifiable. The fact is that everybody did not. Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay were among those who led antislavery societies during that time. It is certainly true that the argument that justified slavery placed emphasis on the inferiority of black people. In fact, in some ways, the argument that justified slavery is our greatest nemesis in the twenty-first century.
We were a society coming into being on the slogans of freedom and liberty. In some ways it might have been better for slaves had we not been a society based on the ideal of freedom. Suppose we had made the argument that we were holding people in slavery because we had the power to do it. We have the guns, the whips, and the chains, and we will hold people in slavery as long as we have power and they do not. In some ways that would have been better because when those in power no longer had the guns, whips and chains, the burden of slavery would have been over for the former slaves. But, because we were a society that wanted to think of itself as a freedom-loving society, as a society committed to human rights, as a society committed to morality, as a Christian society, we had to find some justification for holding people in bondage that didn't contradict this image. But because we wanted to see ourselves in those terms, we had to invent theories about black people being racially fit for slavery. It's not us, it's not that we would use power in inhumane ways, it's that they, those Africans, have something about them that makes it okay for us to enslave them. In fact, white Americans argued that black people were better off in slavery. Slaveholding, some whites claimed, was their Christian duty. America was developing the theory of white supremacy, and Thomas Jefferson was very much a part of this. Things that we now think of under the term racism were used constantly to defend the institution of slavery. Now here is the big problem for our society today. Slavery was ended in 1865, but the racism that rationalized it is still with us. The hypocrisy of rationalization remained through the 20th century. It was used to justify Jim Crow, to justify lynching, to justify a variety of things that happen in today's society--things that may be more obscure but have the same racial rationalization.
Foundations for our views that justified racism certainly were there before the American Revolution. But there was an important change that took place. There was a time in the eighteenth century when--although race was always important--class played a much more important role than we would think, when comparing it to the middle of the nineteenth century. For example, in 1740-41 in the slave conspiracy to burn New York City, whites and Native Americans were executed for their roles. When seamen rioted against impressment in the 1750s and 60s, these were black seamen and white seamen. When crowds rioted against British taxation and the Stamp Act in the 1760s there were blacks as well as whites. It was no accident that, Crispus Attucks, a free black man, led the mob at the Boston Massacre in 1770. John Adams defended the British soldiers who killed Crispus Attucks and others in that mob. When he recounted the event he explained that the Americans were led by a fugitive slave of Native American and African parentage. But John Adams was not shocked that this was an interracial mob. He wasn't because it was not surprising. Many, if not most of those pre-revolutionary mobs were interracial. It is significant that the revolution itself was fought on both sides with interracial units, the last time the American armed forces fought in integrated units until the Korean War. Race was becoming the central divider of Americans at the end of the eighteenth and into the early years of the nineteenth century while slavery was being justified to a greater and greater extent on issues of race. That is the background for the coming of the Civil War and for what Civil War soldiers referred to as the southern way of life.
Question: Do you think the Civil War was an irrepressible conflict?
Answer: What if Nat Turner had been successful? What if John Brown had been successful? What if the railroad had not been established? What if the canals had not been built? What if the major economic relationships had remained in the Midwest between the North and the South? What if the Midwest and the South had been united economically against the Northeast? Under those conditions, would there have been a Civil War, or, if there had been a Civil War, what would have been the sides? Nothing is ever inevitable. But you can see at particular points, looking back from this vantage point, that if that had happened a little differently things might have been different. I would never argue for the inevitability of the Civil War, because even up to the very end when John Crittenden was trying for a big compromise that Lincoln was willing to support, the war might have been forestalled. The war could have occurred at a variety of points before. What if South Carolina had not stood alone in the nullification crises of the early 1830s? I suppose I would argue that it is not possible to answer that question. I guess I would ask what is the value of posing the question, because ostensibly what you are saying is that you can isolate this single thing in history. I don't think that you can. Certainly, by the 1850s, if I were betting person, I would be betting on the Civil War. By the 1850s I think you have a good shot at winning your money because I think as you go farther along your odds get better and better and better, that there is going to be a Civil War. Alexander Stephens predicted it in 1850. I think he would have been really safe in predicting war after Kansas-Nebraska and probably a foregone conclusion after John Brown. Stranger things have happened. Here's one. Suppose Henry Clay had been alive in 1860-1861. Would he have been able to craft a new, binding compromise? I don't know.
Question: Without the Civil War [and if the war had ended within the first twelve to sixteen months] might slavery have lasted into the 20th century?
Answer: That is an excellent question. I actually have done a lot thinking about this and talking to students about this. Slavery was never a static institution. It was constantly changing. Look at slavery in the seventeenth century, look at slavery again in the middle of the eighteenth century, and look at slavery again in the middle of nineteenth century. You see different institutions. Look at slavery in the northern part of the South, in Virginia or in Maryland and compare it to slavery in Mississippi, Louisiana--the Delta area--you see very important differences in the institution. Perhaps slavery would have remained, but it would have changed. The Tredegar Iron Works used slave labor in manufacturing. People said slaves would never work in those kinds of factory situations. Either they did not have enough mental capacity to handle the complicated machines, or they would sabotage all those machines and blow the factory up. Well they were trying it very successfully in the Tredegar Iron Works. So what does that tell us? Maybe you would have a kind of evolution of slavery toward manufacturing. Don't forget that 10% of the slaves were working in non-agricultural work--lumber and sea trades--as well as in small factories.
They were doing a variety of things. So, since there are many possibilities for changing slavery you could say slavery would have existed but it would have changed. At what point does change become so great that slavery no longer exists? I do not have the answer to that question either. But again, when you pose these kinds of questions you have to be aware of their complexity. The former slaves probably would not have stood for the country returning to business as usual when the war was over. There were many slaves who walked off the plantation and officially or unofficially found sanctuary behind federal lines. Some African American abolitionists speculated that maybe we should not have fought a Civil War in the first place. If the South formed its own nation with four million captives, without the protection of the full force of the United States Government to hold those captives in place, they thought that John Brown's raid would not have been the last. The fact is that there were many possibilities for the way things might have been different had the war either not come or not moved as it did. But again, whenever you ask these kinds of questions always be aware of the complexity of the question that may not be readily apparent unless you think a great deal about the context. Thus context, in reference to the battlefields, is so important because it does help you to think in a more complex manner and more deeply about the possibilities.
Question: How do we incorporate broadly fashioned interpretive programs on the issue of slavery into our battlefield parks?
Answer: The obvious answer to that is that we need to talk about the reason that the battlefield existed in the first place. Let's face it; that piece of land was there long before the battle, and it would still be there, but you would not be there. And so, one straightforward thing you can say is that the reason we are here is because this battle took place within this context. When you say that, of course, people have a right to know why people would be willing to give their lives in this place. The answer to that leads directly to this issue of slavery. Again, I would not say that slavery could be equally interpreted in every place. But when you're talking about the Civil War, it is hard to think of places where slavery has no place. The other thing I think you can do is to give the visitor a sense of the time, not of this time, but of that time. What was life like? Why did it make sense for this particular person, this soldier, to be at this particular place? What was the world of this soldier like--the world that would bring him to this spot? Now, I think you will find that visitors will really appreciate trying to imagine what life was like at some distant point in the past. And as you do that, for the middle nineteenth century, slavery becomes an important issue.
The point is not that you should talk about slavery simply to talk about slavery. You want to talk about the things that help you to understand the historical significance of a particular time and place. It just so happens that when we are talking about the Civil War and the central issues of that war, we are talking about a time when slavery was so very influential. That is the reason, not because it is politically correct to do so. But, it is historically correct to talk about the institution of slavery when you're talking about the Civil War. Beyond that, I think, if you use the basic philosophy that these are the issues that set this place into context, it allows us to understand the historical significance of a particular place. So long as you approach the subject that way, I don't think you will have very much trouble finding ways to fit the institution of slavery into your basic interpretation. This is not a matter of whether we want slavery to be important in the Civil War; it was.
It is hot and humid in Washington, D. C. in the summertime. Regardless of how we feel about it, uncomfortable summers are reality in the nation's capital. By the same token, it doesn't matter what we think, it doesn't matter what we want, and the fact is that slavery was a central part of the Civil War. Now, we can make several decisions. We can say okay, it was but I am not talking about it. You can do that but you can't wish it away. It was there. If you accept that fact, it becomes easier for you to understand that since the institution of slavery was an important part of these historical events, it fits naturally into your interpretation. I think it is harder to rationalize not including the entire story, because sooner or later somebody is going to ask you a really embarrassing question. The fact is that slavery was there. Slavery was important. You have the responsibility of interpreting the history, and since slavery is so much an important part of that history, it becomes part of your responsibility.
Suggestions for further reading:
Barney, William L. Flawed Victory: A New Perspective on the Civil War. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1980.
Boritt, Gabor S., ed. Why the Civil War Came. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Davis, William C. The Cause Lost: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996.
Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Faust, Drew Gilpin. The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.
Freehling, William W. Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816-1836. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
______. and Craig M. Simpson, eds. Secession Debated: Georgia's Showdown in 1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Horton, James Oliver and Lois E. Horton. In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community, and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Levine, Bruce. Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of Civil War. New York: The Noonday Press, 1992.
McPherson, James M. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
_____. "The Heart of the Matter," New York Review of Books (October, 23, 1997), 35-36, 46-47.
Rozwenc, Edwin C. and Wayne A. Frederick. Slavery and the Breakdown of the American Consensus. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1964.
Wakelyn, Jon L. ed. Southern Pamphlets on Secession, November 1860-April 1861. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.