Saturday, April 9, 2005

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 9: Racism in the antebellum South

(I originally posted this in several parts in January 2004.) 

I'm not sure how the word "antebellum" became exclusively associated with the Civil War in popular usage in the United States. But I'm assuming that most American readers anyone would automatically recognize a post about something "antebellum" as meaning pre-Civil War.

The Web site for Reconstruction: The Second Civil War has a page called "White Men Unite" (!?) that contain a mini-documentary called "White Southerners." It's actually referring to "postbellum" days (I don't know that I've ever heard anyone use that word), but the narrator opens:

In the spring of 1865, hundreds of thousands of defeated Southerners returned home after four years of bitter fighting.

Although the Confederacy had come to stand for the principles of the plantation South, many in its ranks had only reluctantly fought to defend that way of life.

In fact, before the war, only one-third of Southern whites had owned slaves.

This is a fact that sometimes comes up in the context of attempts by "Southern heritage" groups to claim that slavery had "nothing to do" with the Civil War, or some variation on that notion. That would have been an astonishing claim to any citizen in the Union or the Confederacy in 1861-65.

Because the fact that most white Southerners didn't own slaves does not mean that they didn't support the institution of slavery, or that they were unaware that the Confederacy was a slave power.

Certainly even the most isolated among white Southerners were aware of common argument like those made by William Harris, Mississippi's secession "commissioner," when he addressed the Georgia legislature in Dec. 1860, urging them to join Mississippi and South Carolina in armed rebellion against the American government:

Our fathers made this a government for the white man, rejecting the negro, as an ignorant, inferior, barbarian race, incapable of self-government, and not, therefore, entitled to be associated with the white man upon terms of civil, political or social equality.

But racism and support for slavery werenot the same thing. With varying degrees of intensity, most white Northerners would have agree with the white supremacist sentiments Harris expressed. But there was no doubt for Harris that slavery was the core of the secessionist cause:

Mississippi is firmly convinced that there is but one alternative (emphasis in original):

This new union with Lincoln Black Republicans and free negroes, without slavery; or, slavery under our old constitutional bond of union, without Lincoln Black Republicans, or free negroes either, to molest us. ...

[Mississippi] had rather see the last of her race, men, women and children, immolated in one common funeral pile, than see them subjected to the degradation of civil, political and social equality with the negro race. (Speech reproduced in full in Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion (2001) and also on p. 14 of the Appendix at this link)

Georgia formally responded to Mississippi's appeal with a declaration whose first list of "whereas"-es was:

WHEREAS, A large portion of the people of the non-slave-holding States, have for many years past, shown in many ways a fanatical spirit bitterly hostile to the Southern States, and have through the instrumentality of incendiary publications, the pulpit and the newspaper press, finally organized a political party for the avowed purpose of destroying the institution of slavery, and consequently spreading ruin and desolation among the people in every portion of the States where it exists ...  (See page 11 of Appendix at the link above)

So, the climate for non-slaveowning whites was not only heavily white supremacist, but highly supportive of slavery as well. There was certainly no illusion on the part of white Southerners about slavery being the reason the Confederacy began its armed revolt.

And, not to beat the point into the ground here, but on p. 24 of that same link is a statement made by Mississippi secession commissioner Fulton Anderson to the secession convention in Virginia in Feb. 1861, in which he says of the alleged intentions of the Republican Party:

Underthe  false pretence of restoring the government to the original principles of its founders, but in defiance and contempt of those principles, it avowed its purpose to take possession of every department of power, executive, legislative and judicial, to employ them in hostility to our institutions. By a corrupt exercise of the power of appointment to office, it proposed to pervert the judicial power from its true end and purpose, that of defending and preserving the Constitution, to be the willing instrument of its purposes of wrong and oppression. In the meantime it proposed to disregard the decisions of that august tribunal [i.e., the Dred Scott decision], and by the exertion of barefaced power, to exclude slavery from the public Territory, the common property of all the States, and to abolish the internal slave trade between the States acknowledging the legality of that institution.

It proposed further to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, and in all places within the Territory of the several States, subject under the Constitution to the jurisdiction of Congress, and to refuse hereafter under all circumstances, admission into the Union of any State with a Constitution recognizing the institution of slavery.

Having thus placed the institution of slavery, upon which rests not only the whole wealth of the Southern people, but their very social and political existence, under the condemnation of a government established for the common benefit, it proposed in the future, to encourage immigration into the public Territory, by giving the public land to immigrant settlers, so as, within a brief time, to bring into the Union free States enough to enable it to abolish slavery within the States themselves.

While only 1/3 of white Southerners may have owned slaves, and only a tiny minority were among the wealthy plantation owners who dominated Southern society, there was widespread support of slavery among free whites - though not universal. But, beginning in the early 1830s with the formation of abolitionist societies, Southern states began active repression of any discussion of abolishing slavery in the South.

Some of the leading white abolitionists, like James Birney and the Grimké sisters, were Southerners themselves, familiar with the South's "peculiar institution" from close acquaintance. But active abolitionists were effectively driven out of the South, and free speech among whites was effectively banned on the subject of slavery for the thirty years preceding secession. This not only prevented many whites from hearing abolitionist arguments. In the South, this led to a spirit of fanaticism and a political and intellectual isolation that made it easier for the pro-secession Fire Eaters to demonize abolitionists and Republicans.

In his 1939 Antislavery Origins of the Civil War in the United States, historian Dwight Lowell Dumond gave an excellent description of the factors that led many non-slaveowning Southern whites to support the institution of slavery. Noting also that fewer than one third of Southerners had any "direct connection with slavery" (as mentioned in the opening quotation in Part 1 of this series of posts), free white Southerners nevertheless on the whole supported the institution, a compliance which the lords of the lash achieved achived among their fellow whites "partially by a paralysis of public morality, partially by tolerance on the part of the non-slaveholder, and partially by repression."

Continuing with the quotation from Dwight Lowell Dumond on white attitudes toward slavery in the South before the war:

Even a passive attitude toward slavery placed the aspiring young under suspicion, and less than commendation [of slavery] was a certain bar to public service, social approbation, or professional attainment. Hope of someday owning slaves, the patronizing attitude of slaveholders, satisfaction arising from one's ability to look down on others, and that undefinable something known as race prejudice caused those who owned no slaves to tolerate the system and indirectly to lend it their support.

There was also a specific institution by which non-slaveowning whites provided very direct support to slavery: the slave patrol. Whites were deputized to patrol for escaped slaves, or free blacks who didn't have the proper papers. Although legally their ability to physically injure human property was restricted, in practice they were granted wide latitude to bully and threaten both slaves and free blacks. During the many insurrections panics that swept the paranoid slaveholders from time to time, the role of the slave patrols became more prominent and more brutal. (Some of the insurrectionary panics were based in reality; as the saying goes, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you.)

Normally, the patrols were manned by non-slaveowning white men. Many of them resented the obligation to do this duty. But they were far more likely to vent their resentment on blacks who fell into their path than on slaveowners. Even for free whites who hated slavery, often at least in part because they considered it a threat to white labor, the slave patrols provided an opportunity for them to act out their hostility  - on slaves or free blacks.

Slave patrols were an important way in which free whites learned to identify their interests with slavery. And in which they practiced violence in its defense.

Historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown in Southern Honor (1982) gives a good description of how the slave patrols, especially in the context of slave-insurrection scares, served to bind poor whites practically and psychologically to the slave system, even though it was emphatically not in their interests, as anti-slavery Southerners like Hinton Helper forcefully pointed out at the time. Wyatt Brown:

These periodic, seemingly irrational explosions [insurrectionary panics] enabled masters and their families, and nonslaveholders and theirs, to express and then master their dread. Moreover, the scares offered a cheap means of public enforcement, one designed for a rural people underpoliced and fearful of taxation. After such an exhibition of white power there was no need to mount expensive guards, constabularies, and standing armies. Policing, like the legal system as a whole, remained rooted in the community. Thus the panics were "fire-bells in the night," as Jefferson once said of antislavery agitation. They were drills to test the whites' mettle and dedication. At the height of the scare, everyone became civic-minded - or else. Patrol captains meticulously followed regulations. Militamen mustered without straggling. Even the county arsenal, for a while, was stocked with working muskets and shining sabers. It was all very reassuring and impressive to the unsophisticated. Once more the voice of inner terror was stilled.

We just can't understand the political situation in the South at the time of secession withoutrealizingthe extent to which slavery permeated daily life, even for whites who were not slaveowners, much less wealthy planters. And that community rituals like the insurrectionary scare were part of the life of ordinary people in the South.

In Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860) by escaped slaves Willaim and Ellen Craft, William desribes something of the power such slave patrols enjoyed in Georgia in his experience, even in routine times:

[T]he lowest villain in the country, should he be a white man, has the legal power to arrest, and question, in the most inquisitorial and insulting manner, any coloured person, male or female, that he may find at larege, particularly at night and on Sundays, without a written pass, signed by the master or some one in authority; or stamped free papers, certifying that the person is the rightful owner of himself.

If the coloured person refuses to answer questions put to him, he may be beaten, and his defending himself against this attack makes him an outlaw, and he be killed on the spot, the murderer will be exempted from all blame ...

Another escaped slave, Harriet Jacobs, in her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) described what she witnessed in the panic following the Nat Turner insurrection of 1831:

It was a grand opportunity for the low whites, who had no negroes of their own to scourge. They exulted in such a chance to exercise a little brief authority, and show their subserviency to the slaveholders; not reflecting that the power which trampled on the colored people also kept themselves in poverty, ignorance, and moral degradation. ... At night, they formed themselves into patrol bands, and went wherever they chose among the colored people, acting out their brutal will. ...

The next day, the town patrols were commissioned to search colored people that lived out of the city; and the most shocking outrages were committed with perfect impunity. Every day for a fortnight, if I looked out, I saw horsemen with some poor panting negro tied to their saddles, and compelled by the lash to keep up with their speed, till they arrived at the jail yard. Those who had been whipped too unmercifully to walk were washed with brine, tossed into a cart, and carried to jail.

It's not hard to see the continuity between participation by nonslaveowning whites in such activities before the Civil War to participatingin a war that was openly declared to be in the defense of slavery to postwar participation in violent vigilante and terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

This background of the role of nonslaveholding whites in the South prior to the Civil War is not only important for understanding the Civil War itself. It's vital for understanding the failure of post-war Reconstruction. Many whites actively tried to work with the freedman during Reconstruction. It was a promising, hopeful experiment in democracy.

But the combination of Northern indifference, the hostility of the old planter class in the South, and the white supremacist notions - and the willingness to use criminal violence to enforce it - that had become widespread among Southern whites during slavery eventually destroyed the experiment.

As the "White Southerners" segment at the Reconstruction: The Second Civil War site puts it:

NARRATOR: Even as they struggled to define their role in this new world, poor white Southerners felt they had lost their skin privilege -- and now had to compete with African-Americans for jobs, social position, and political power.

[CLARENCE] WALKER [ HISTORIAN]: In this context, race did trump class. For the most part, poor whites did not reach out readily to their black peers. And the reason for that, there had grown up a culture in which any association with blackness was deemed to be socially unacceptable in Southern society ...

The civil rights movement of the 20th century was very much a continuation of the unfinished business of Reconstruction.

(See the Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month post 2005 for links to all this year's posts.)

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