Saturday, April 14, 2007

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 14: the "Slave Power"

The historian Richard Hofstadter is probably best known for his writing on the history of what we might call organized intolerance in America, of movements and parties like the Anti-Masonic Party of pre-Civil War days that practiced what he called "the paranoid style", a phrase which has long since become a normal part of the American political vocabulary.

Unfortunately, Hofstadter used the notion of the "Slave Power", a phrase that became increasingly common in Northern politics leading up to the Civil War, as an example of the "paranoid style", thus implying that it was creating an imaginary conspiracy.

But that's not how the concept of the Slave Power was used in politics. It referred to the organized block of Southern states and their representatives in Congress, as well as to the larger and undoubtedly real power of the slaveowners. A power which icnreasingly infringed on the freedom of white Americans, particularly in the South but increasingly all over the country.

The historian David Brion Davis, who is one of the leading historians of slavery, edited a collection published in 1971 called, The Fear of Conspiracy: Images of Un-American Subversion From the Revolution to the Present. In his commentary, Davis puts the notion of the Slave Power into a more realistic context than simply regarding it as an example of the paranoid style in politics:

As we have already suggested, the tangible conflict over slavery in the territories, which led to an escalation in southern demands and expectations, gave increasing substance to the northern view of a Slave Power conspiracy. It is significant that a northern newspaper editor like James Watson Webb, who in the 1830's denounced abolitionism as a subversive plot to amalgamate the races, eventually became a Free-Soiler and an avowed enemy of the Slave Power. Resistance to southern expansionism, especially if the expansionism resulted from a carefully conceived plot, had far more popular appeal than did social justice or racial equality. Yet in a deeper sense, the threat of a Slave Power may have been the only way to overcome the traditional conviction that Negro slavery was an "unfortunate necessity" which would hopefully disappear some day but which could never be openly discussed or tampered with. It can at least be argued that the conspiratorial mode of thought helped counteract public inertia and focus attention on the anomaly of slavery in a democratic society. In this respect the paranoid style was at least as "realistic" as were the earlier rationalizations which disguised a fundamental conflict in values. The image of the Slave Power was a hypothetical construct that provided a way of conceptualizing and responding to a genuine problem.
Davis' description clarifies the concept. But it's an inadequate description unless we understand "hypothetical construct" to mean the use of a collective concept, like "big business" or "aristocracy" or "farmers" or "abolitionists", that describe a social reality. It's hard to see how we could discuss the history of slavery meaningfully without using some such descriptions. The fact that the democratic antislavery voters and leaders referred to the Slave Power as a collective entity makes it a useful phrase even now, which is why it's not unusual to see historians employing it. "Slaveocracy" or slaveowners or the planter class are similar concepts that are used in valid ways to describe the era of slavery.

Maybe this is a case where the saying applies, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you."

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