Friday, October 13, 2006

The Causes of Secession in the Lower South

Wow! After all these years of neglect, the blog is still here. Well, I'm going to take advantage. The following post discusses three great regional studies of areas of the American south in the period leading up to the Civil War, focusing on what they tell us about the causes of secession. This entry is shamelessly stolen from a thread I posted at Civil War Talk.

Setting the Stage

Arguments about why the southern states decided to secede from the Union in the winter of 1860-61 are typically unsatisfying because they so often reduce themselves to two possibilities: (1) it was all about slavery; and (2) it had nothing to do with slavery. Missing from the discussion is recognition of the fact that even the most mundane event is rarely the result of a single cause – the ice on the sidewalk, my inattention and those treadless slippers all contributed to my falling when I went to get that newspaper last winter. Why is it reasonable to think that an event as momentous as secession should be the exception?

Historians, too, sometimes fall into this trap. Pushing particular theories, some minimize competing considerations. The best, however, offer an alternate way of conceptualizing the tensions that arose between the sections. Collectively, they suggest that there are many different ways, not inconsistent with one another, to understand why secession came to pass.

That said, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that slavery was at the center of the secessionist impulse in the lower south in 1860-61. To begin with, any explanation must account for the fact that the great division in the country became that between the north and the south, rather than, say, between the east and the trans-Allegheny west. All things being equal, the latter division would seem at least as likely, with the interests of urbanizing seacoast eastern elites increasingly diverging from those of rural Mississippi River-oriented westerners. The status of slavery in the sections would seem to be the obvious answer.

In addition, slavery permeates the story of the increasing tensions between the North and the South. Yes, South Carolina got excited about the tariff back in 1832-33, but the tariff issue died down after that. There were some complaints about the tariff now and again, but nothing that seems to have come close to generating the vehemence necessary to serve as a spark for so radical an act as disunion. Other than that, virtually the entire standard story line – from the Mexican War to the Wilmot Proviso and the Compromise of 1850, from Kansas to Harpers Ferry and the election of Lincoln – concerns slavery in one form or another.

Finally, I must say that proponents of the “anything but slavery” view do their case great harm by their categorical denials. It may well be that factors other than slavery figured into secession, but arguments that slavery was utterly irrelevant to the issue just do not pass the smell test. Southerners presenting the case for secession highlighted scenarios of race war and white degradation. Is it really credible to argue that all that was irrelevant?

And Yet . . .

And yet . . . doubts remain. For one thing, at least at the beginning (1860-61), secession seems to have been wildly popular throughout the lower south, and throughout all segments of the lower south. Planters did not have to drag farmers along. To the contrary, in many instances yeomen were in the vanguard. To modern readers, this phenomenon seems to violate all received wisdom about the importance of class-based self-interest. Why would non-slaveholders be inspired to defend property they didn’t own? Why did yeomen so enthusiastically back (or lead) a rich man’s crusade? Were they dolts? Or does it suggest that something else was going on?

Second, the south’s decision to secede in 1860-61 strikes me (and many others) as major-league crazy. What had poor old Abe Lincoln done, for goodness sake? The people elected him president in a fair election, Jacksonian democracy in action. Sure, he had made clear that he wouldn’t permit further expansion of slavery in the territories if he could help it, but he’d made equally clear that he didn’t believe he had the power to touch slavery in the states and had no intention of doing so. Given his reassurances, why on Earth would otherwise normal people (presumably) go so bonkers just because they lost an election, without even giving the poor guy a chance? Does it suggest that even the possibility, however slight, of forced emancipation, was so unthinkable as to drive southerners over the edge? Or does it, again, suggest that something else was going on?

Three books I have recently read shed valuable light on that “something else” and put the pieces in place in ways that make sense.

The Books

J. Mills Thornton’s Politics and Power in a Slave Society: Alabama 1800-1860 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press 1978) relates the political history of a single lower south state from initial settlement through the decision to secede. In many ways, it is a frustrating book. Portions are extremely detailed, going on, for example, at length about the positions of minor politicians whose names I have already forgotten. Conversely, Professor Thornton (University of Michigan) assumes basic knowledge that I, at least, lack. Where are the “wiregrass counties” – and what is wiregrass anyway? If you refer repeatedly to the “Black Belt”, please tell me which counties you are including in the definition. And if you’re going to refer to towns I’ve never heard of, it would be nice to have a map showing me where they are. Frequent excursions to the internet for maps and other information were necessary. More importantly, I would have liked more economic background. The book makes clear, for example, that there was a substantial economic upturn in the 1850s that had significant impact on the landscape leading to the decision to secede, but I wanted more detail than Professor Thornton provides.

In these respects, Lacy K. Ford’s Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry 1800-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press 1988) has better balance. Professor Ford (University of South Carolina) tells the corresponding political history of the upcountry of South Carolina (which necessarily involves a good deal of discussion about the low country as well). The book does not make unreasonable assumptions about reader knowledge; it is detailed but not to excess; and it successfully interweaves a good deal of economic history that explains and illuminates the political positions taken and battles fought.

Finally, in Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country (New York: Oxford University Press 1995), Stephanie McCurry (currently at the University of Pennsylvania) conducts a similar study of the South Carolina Low Country. In particular, she sets out to identify the invisible yeomanry of the Low Country and to explore their conditions and values. She identifies, among other things, gender – in particular, the power that yeomen exercised over their wives – as an important, overlooked factor in understanding that world.

Power and Politics in a Slave Society

Despite its faults, Professor Thornton’s book is a revelation. The buildup of detail in fact serves a purpose, supporting the author’s thesis as to why a southern state dominated by yeoman farmers seceded. The key lies in Alabamans’ understanding of freedom and the purposes of government. Freedom was the ability not to be dependent on any other person or group, an atomistic, indeed anti-social vision of society in which every white male citizen was equal to every other. The paradigm was the yeoman on his farm, acting as his own master and, in theory, utterly free from outside influence. “The society was structured so as to demand, and to appear to allow, the achievement of individual autonomy. Therefore, each man’s self-respect was absolutely essential to his existence as a part of the social organism.” (p.219)

This conception of freedom saw any accumulation of power, however benign we might think it, as tyranny. The role of government and politicians was to identify and destroy any potential threats to individual autonomy and equality. It was for this reason, for example, that in the 1840s Alabama had virtually no railroads and no banks. They were perceived as dangerous combinations by which men were trying to become tyrannical masters over others. Even in the prosperous 1850s, when railroads and banks finally began to expand, the most popular politician in the state became so by waging war against them.

Alabamans were obsessed with liberty and equality because they saw every day the state to which they would be reduced if they ever relaxed their vigilance: slavery, the absence of autonomy. An Alabaman’s entire sense of self-worth and self-respect depended on his being free and equal as he understood it. To lose autonomy and self-government was “to abandon the substance of liberty – to slip screaming down towards the bestial black mass which formed the sum of all hatred and fear.” (p. 444)

The free soil movement thus attacked the Alabaman at precisely his most vulnerable point: his sense of dignity and self-worth. Even Alabamans who owned no slaves viewed barring slavery from the territories as limiting their freedom. The Alabaman atomistic vision of liberty depended on the existence of a society based on slavery. Without chattel slavery, the territories would resemble the north, a society based on dependence where tyrannical combinations and forces ruled and white men were enslaved by other white men. As the south grew weaker, the rich and the landless might be able to flee, but the Alabaman yeoman would be trapped, overwhelmed and ultimately annihilated in a race war. In the alternative – because “slavery promotes equality among the free by dispensing with grades and castes among them, and thereby preserves republican institutions” – the white yeoman would himself become a slave. As the Montgomery Advertiser argued as early as 1851 (pp. 206-07, emphasis in original):

“The total abolition of slavery would affect more injuriously the condition of the poor white man in the slaveholding States than that of the rich slaveholder; for the slaveholder, having the means which attends upon the possession of slaves, would be able to maintain his position, whilst the poor man would have to doff that native, free-born and independent spirit which he now possesses, and which he prizes above all wealth, and would have to become a virtual slave (barring color) of the rich man.”

But far more important was the fact that the free soil movement represented a direct threat to the core value of equality, which defined the farmer’s very existence. Northerners insulted and exhibited contempt for Alabamans, their institutions, even their churches. They made clear that they believed they were morally superior to Alabamans. This perceived degrading contempt was, perhaps, the most intolerable of all, for it showed that northerners believed that Alabamans were inferior, less than citizens. But if Alabamans were not equal citizens, they were slaves. Were northerners not treating Alabamans as such? And if Alabamans accepted this state of affairs were they not confirming their slavehood?

The election of Lincoln – not any acts he took – was the straw that broke the camel’s back because it represented the final confirmation, the proof, of all of these suspicions. The prosperity of the 1850s had, paradoxically, disoriented and shaken many Alabamans. For the first time, many entered the market economy; railroads, banks and some industry began to appear; towns were growing. These phenomena contradicted most Alabamans’ atomistic understanding of freedom. Even in their home state, tyranny seemed to threaten. At the same time, and related to these developments, there was increased intercourse with, and awareness of, the north. Now northerners were about to impose on Alabamans as master a man who had not even appeared on their ballot. The north was determined to enslave Alabama and the rest of the south; the shackles were already on, and they were about to snap shut. Although the December 1860 Alabama Convention included both “cooperationists” as well as “immediatists”, former Whigs as well as Democrats, there were no unionists. The citizenry – yeoman and planter, the Black Belt resident and the hill country denizen – uniformly believed that there was no choice but to secede. The alternative was slavery.

Origins of Southern Radicalism

Professor Ford reaches similar conclusions about the decision of the South Carolina hill country to secede. He emphasizes even more than Professor Thornton the unnerving contradiction between the new economic forces sweeping the state in the 1850s and the atomistic view of freedom. He also emphasizes somewhat more the fear that “abolitionism” would drown the yeoman in a sea of blood. But he, too, insists that South Carolinians’ understanding of freedom as based on absolute autonomy and equality was the crucial factor. Yeomen were freemen and expected and demanded to be treated as such. They were voters who exercised their franchise, they expected and demanded that they would be courted, and they punished candidates who failed to do so.

In the end, it was these values, Professor Ford argues, that compelled South Carolinian upcountry yeomen to secede (p. 372):

“Almost literally, Upcountrymen saw secession as the required defense of basic republican values. The republican citizen’s most cherished possession, his own independence and that of his household, was threatened by powerful external forces. One set of those forces [increasing economic activity and market participation during the 1850s] threatened to force him into slavery and degradation through the loss of his economic independence. The other set of forces threatened to free the entire black slave population to violate his home and family. Secession offered the independent citizen a chance to meet this challenge at the threshold, to defend the autonomy of his household by literally throwing himself across the doorway in defiance. This was the secessionist appeal that reached not just planters and slaveholders, but all whites who considered themselves entitled to liberty, and personal independence.

“In the final analysis, a unified South Carolina could secede because the dominant ideal in her society was not the planter ideal or the slaveholding ideal, but the old ‘country-republican’ ideal of personal independence, given peculiar fortification by the use of black slaves as a mud-sill class. Yeoman rose with planter to defend this ideal because it was not merely the planter’s ideal, but his as well.”

Masters of Small Worlds

Stephanie McCurry finds many similar phenomena in the South Carolina Low Country. Even there, property ownership was broadly distributed, and yeomen constituted a majority of the voters. “By current definition, the Low Country was as much a Republican society as any other area of the slave South.” Planter politicians had to court yeomen votes, and yeomen demanded that planters treat them as equals. Like their counterparts in Alabama, Low Country “[y]eomen were independent men and masters, entitled to the respect and public rights accorded such men in slave society, and they insisted on that identity in every exchange with planters.”

Nonetheless, the Low County was different in important respects. Although land and slave ownership were widely spread, there was a far greater concentration of wealth and political power than elsewhere in the south. The top decile of propertyholders controlled some 70% of the wealth, and planters occupied about 70% of the Low Country seats in the state house – and that figure is misleadingly low, because professionals and sons of planters occupied virtually all the remainder. Professor McCurry argues that these gross disparities did create tensions, suggesting that there were other factors at work reinforcing farmer-planter solidarity.

The key, Professor McCurry believes, lies in the hierarchical nature of Low Country society. Farmers embraced the rules and values that allowed planters to dominate the economic and political life of the Low Country because those rules also conveyed great benefits on farmers. Those same rules authorized yeomen, as “freemen”, to exercise virtually limitless masterly authority over their fenced homesteads and their households, including wives, minor children and, in some cases, slaves. This power extended into the common sphere, where yeomen had equal political rights and were entitled, by law and custom, to enforce these rules even against planters.

In the final crisis of 1860, pro-secession forces skillfully managed their campaign by emphasizing themes that touched on these core values. “The free white man here stands above and superior belonging to the master ruling class,” the Charleston Mercury proclaimed. Images of freedom or slavery, manly resistance versus slavish submission, repelling the invader at the threshold abounded. Men should manfully resist, not slavishly submit to, the abolitionists. The fact that much of the campaigning took place in militia settings increased white male solidarity and seems to have had a significant impact on voting patterns. Religion also played a significant role (“virtually every prominent minister . . . stood squarely for disunion”), and increasingly violent vigilante squads played a part as well.

Still, for all it insights, Masters is not perfect. First, while one of Professor McCurry’s major theses is that there was substantial tension between planters and yeomen, the evidence is not fully convincing. She does a good job documenting planter resentment toward and concern about the loyalty of yeomen; but the proposition that yeomen resented planters is based largely upon the assertion that yeoman must have been dissatisfied given planter economic and political dominance. While it may well be true that yeomen were aware of these gross disparities, Professor McCurry’s own evidence suggests that they reacted by insisting all the more adamantly that that they were, and that they be treated as, “freemen” who were absolute political equals of planters.

Second, and more subtlely, the book’s emphasis on white-white and male-female relationships may inadvertently downplay the effects on whites of the black majority. Professor McCurry carefully records that blacks constituted a large majority of the Low Country population (over 66% in 1860), and she notes (p. 47) that “the demographic predominance of black slaves is the crucial context for every other calculation and inquiry,” but the importance of that conclusion tends to get lost. It would certainly seem logical that the presence of a large slave population encouraged white male solidarity and provided a powerful incentive to yeomen to embrace a system that identified them as freemen and sharply distinguished them from slaves, however planter-dominated that system might be as a practical matter. Indeed, Professor McCurry herself notes that planter appeals to yeomen, such as those by John Townsend in two 1860 pamphlets, included pointed warnings that the consequences of emancipation would include loss of political rights, home invasion and rapine (p. 283):

“[In both pamphlets, Townsend] went to great lengths to elaborate the effects of emancipation on ‘the non-slaveholding portion of our citizens’ and the loss ‘to the non-slaveholder equally with the largest slaveholder’ of the ‘important privileges’ conferred by slavery. Among those privileges he listed political ones prominently: the right to militia duty, to serve on juries, to testify in court, and ‘to cast his vote equally with the largest slaveholder in the choice of his rulers.’ ‘In no country in the world,’ Townsend concluded, ‘does the poor white man whether slaveholder or non-slaveholder occupy so enviable a position as in the slaveholding states of the South.’ These propertied poor men, these yeoman farmers, could be counted on, if only to preserve their own privilege. In calling on all freemen to defend ‘an injured South . . . the peace and prosperity of their homes . . . the security of their property . . . and the cherished safety of their wives and daughters and sons,’ Townsend and many others nurtured the unity of the body politic.”


There is no doubt that the three works find differences. Professor McCurry in particular identifies gender as a powerful unifying force among white male freemen. So, too, does she contend that economic and political inequality created potential divisions and that secession required corresponding powerful additional forces to bridge those gaps. Professors Thornton and Ford suggest that increasing economic activity and market entanglements in the 1850s made yeomen more nervous and inclined to see enslavement around the corner. Professor McCurry downplays this factor in the Low Country but suggests that increasing economic disparity during that period, if anything, created increased tensions between the groups.

Nonetheless, the most striking thing about the three works is how similar their conclusions are. All three identify the white yeoman’s perception of himself as a freeman as central to his sense of self-worth and the foundation of his worldview. Both Professors Thornton and Ford see chattel slavery as the fundamental paradigm that shaped this view by making painfully apparent what slavery – the opposite of freedom – was. Professor McCurry might, at first blush, appear to differ, since she contends that mastery over homestead and subordinate household members was a principal reason that yeomen valued and supported the system. But the difference is more apparent than real, for, as suggested above, she too contends that slavery was crucial and encouraged the development of the rules that yeomen valued so much (p. 16):

“There can be no doubt that slavery gave shape to plantation households. Its reach, however, did not end there. For notwithstanding the fact that planters desired, in part, to repel the intrusions of other classes of free men, they could not simultaneously establish the requisite legal and customary basis of household integrity and masters’ authority without making more general claims. Rooted in notions of property rights, those claims extended inexorably to the household of every free and propertied man. Slavery thereby gave shape to yeoman households as well, to their legal boundaries, and, most important, to the gender and class relations that prevailed within them.”

So where does that leave us? At least in the regions covered by these three books, did chattel slavery “cause” secession or not? In one sense, these three works suggest that the answer is, “Not exactly.” Yeoman did not enthusiastically embrace secession in order to defend or support slavery per se. Rather, they did so to defend a system that gave them rights and status as freemen against outsiders who were threatening to deprive them of freedom and equality – their rights as citizens – and enslave them.

At the same time, however, all three books demonstrate that slavery was a crucial factor. Professors Thornton and Ford would assert that slavery directly shaped and gave meaning to white yeoman existence and values and that the perceived threat to the institution thus constituted an immediate threat to those values. Professor Thornton sums up the connection as follows (p. 449):

“The fear was general in Alabama that the Republicans intended, at least eventually, to adopt such a policy [of forced emancipation] for the South. And emancipation would rob equality of the substance which made equality worth having: the pride and self-assurance that flow from a sense of one’s political and social worth. Who would attribute dignity to, and seek to maintain, a position to which even a Negro could aspire? An equality with former slaves, far from generating pride, would be a source of shame – would become itself a form of slavery for whites.”

While Professor McCurry might place slavery one step further removed, she too recognizes that slavery generated the society and social rules that yeoman valued. In addition, she emphasizes that Low Country planters, who were directly motivated by fears about the threat to the institution, worked very hard – and successfully – to make yeoman understand that forced emancipation would destroy their status as well.

For those interested, all three books are available through Amazon (I purchased all three used through Amazon). There is also a fine joint review of the Ford and McCurry books at H-South.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails