Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 18: Differentiating the slaveowners and the slave states

Historian Eric Foner has done a review of William Freehling's new book, The Road to Disunion, Vol. 2, Secessionists Triumphant: 1854-1861, The Three Souths New York Times Book Review 04/08/07. (Hat tip to Kevin Levin at his Civil War Memory blog, Eric Foner Reviews Freehlings Road To Disunion 04/17/07.)

Kevin's post deals with some issues that Foner raises in criticism to Freehling's book. Here I'll mention a couple of the things Foner did better on. I confess to a bit of a bias here: Foner dissed Mississippi's Reconstruction era Governor Adelbert Ames in his book on Reconstruction. Ames was a democrat in the best Jacksonian sense and one of the most serious white leaders of that time about equal rights for black citizens.  He was the best governor the State of Mississippi even had, will the possible exception of William Winter.  Ames is one of the few Republicans I would admit to holding as a hero.  Trust me, he would not be part of today's Republican Party.

But Foner gets this right:

Since the publication four decades ago of "Prelude to Civil War," a study of the nullification crisis of the early 1830s, Freehling has been among the foremost students of 19th-century Southern history. If one theme unites his scholarship it is thatthe Old South cannot be viewed as a monolith. It contained distinct regions with divergent economic structures and degrees of commitment to slavery. In the seven states of the Lower South, cotton was king and slaves comprised nearly half the population. The Middle South (Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas) contained large regions of nonslaveholding whites. In the Border South (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri) slavery seemed to be in decline. By 1860, 90 percent of Delaware’s black population and half of Maryland’s were already free.

Time and again, Freehling writes, the three Souths collided. In the three months following Lincoln’s election, the entire Lower South seceded. The Middle South waited, hoping for compromise; it joined the Confederacy only after the firing on Fort Sumter. The four border states not only remained in the Union but furnished thousands of troops to help defeat their Southern brethren.
That differentiation between the three sections of the South helps explain some of the seemingly contradictory attitudes toward slavery that we see cited, whenever someone bothers to actually find the prewar statements about slavery - something Lost Cause advocates are loathe to do, for good reason.

Freehling also describes how the slaveocracy saw three major groups threatening or potentially threatening their sacred institution: Northern abolitionists, the slaves themselves and white nonslaveowning Southerners.

Foner also writes:

Freehling examines how, in the 1850s, the Lower South became more and more committed to defending slavery as a positive good. At the same time, he tells us, the Middle and Border Souths persisted in the dream of eventually removing all slaves (and free blacks) from the region and reorienting its economy toward the North. Secessionists were not wrong, he writes, to see these states as slavery’s Achilles’ heel.

The movements in the 1850s to acquire new slave territories for the United States, reopen the African slave trade and re-enslave free blacks also revealed Southern disunity. Freehling offers fascinating accounts of each. But his main point is that because of opposition within the South, all failed. Even South Carolina, he shows, was divided. In his account of the aftermath of Lincoln’s election, Freehling overturns the conventional picture of a state rushing headlong into disunion. South Carolina secessionists emerge instead as a beleaguered minority, fearful that their state would stand alone (as it had during the nullification crisis).
As I mentioned in a comment at Kevin's post, one of the challenges that Freehling's history presents is that he's focusing on the conflicts within the South over slavery and disunion. After all, it was the South that seceeded and therefore the dynamics of Southern politics that eventually produced that result.

His discussions of the differing perspectives in slave states like Missouri and Kentucky with lower percentages of slaves compared to those like South Carolina and Mississippi with high concentrations is very helpful; this is part of his "three Souths" analysis, as Foner calls it. But it's a "Southern viewpoint" though definitely not a pro-Confederate or Lost Cause viewpoint, which sometimes makes me do double-takes. In analyzing the viewpoints of proslavery advocates, many of whom where nasty characters, he has to "learn to love his monster", which he mostly succeeds in doing without losing his perspective.

One of Freehling's goals in the second volume is to recount something that has much bearing on one of the favorite arguments of Lost Cause advocates: how the slaveowners undertook to gain the support of nonslaveowning whites in the South for the Peculiar Institution.

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