Thursday, September 17, 2009

Deliver Us from Evil

Long-time readers of this blog – and there may be one or two of you – may know that I'm a huge fan of Lacy K. Ford's Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry, 1800-1860 (Oxford University Press 1988). That study of why and how the South Carolina "upcountry" – that portion of the state above the fall line – joined the South Carolina asylum is, in my view, one of the great studies of secession in the lower south, up there with J. Mills Thornton's Politics and Power in a Slave Society: Alabama, 1800-1860. Although I did not list Prof. Ford's book as one of my "top ten" favorite pre-Civil War books in my survey entitled The Road to the Road to Gettysburg, that was only because I feared it was too specialized for the general reader, and even so I went out of my way to give it a nod in the postscript to that post.

At all events, you may imagine my delight when I stumbled across a reference to Prof. Ford's newly-published volume, Deliver Us from Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South (Oxford University Press 2009), his first book-length work (as far as I know) in over twenty years. Detailed studies of slavery are not exactly my cup of tea, but I ordered the book immediately nonetheless based on the author.

Upon receipt, my initial reaction was, "Uh oh, I've bit off more than I can chew": 536 pages of text in fairly small type (no maps, no photos, no charts), plus over 100 pages of endnotes on a subject I wasn't sure about.

Although I'm only 100+ pages in, I'm delighted to report that the book is wonderful. I invite you to read the overviews at Amazon to get a more detailed description of the general subject matter, but in brief it contains a detailed description and analysis of attempts by white southerners to understand, rationalize and formulate political reactions to slavery. The book explores these issues both over time – from roughly the founding (1780s) to the mid-1830s (when northern assaults caused southerners to close ranks and made their internal discussions more opaque) – and over space (exploring the different interests, attitudes, rationalizations, responses and solutions of the upper and lower south).

To give you a better feel for the book, I thought I'd provide a brief overview of the portion I've just finished, an examination of the lower old south, exemplified by South Carolina, from the founding era until 1808, when the international slave trade was abolished at the national level.

What Prof. Ford provides in this chapter is a fascinating – for me at any rate – exploration of South Carolina's concerns about and legislative enactments concerning slavery during the period. After noting that South Carolina and her sister deep south state, Georgia, had insisted during the Constitutional Convention of mid-1787 that the federal government not be permitted to outlaw the international slave trade for twenty years, Prof. Ford notes and explores what appears to be a profound irony: earlier that very year (in March 1787) the South Carolina legislature had "prohibit[ed] not only the foreign slave trade but also the interstate slave trade."
Moreover, every member of South Carolina's distinguished delegation to the Philadelphia convention had served in the 1787 legislature and only one of the four future founders, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, voted to keep the state's slave trade open. The other three, John Rutledge, Charles Pinckney, and Pierce Butler, all voted to close the state's foreign slave trade.

Although South Carolina legislature reopened the domestic slave trade the very next year (1788), it "agreed to keep the foreign trade closed." In 1792, the state again closed the interstate slave trade "ever hereafter." For the next eleven years South Carolina – incredibly, it would seem – prohibited the importation of slaves from overseas and from other states (with an exception for masters entering the state to reside there with their slaves). As late as 1802, the South Carolina house of representatives defeated an attempt to reopen the foreign slave trade by an overwhelming margin, 86-11. The state's senate agreed by voice vote. And yet one year later (1803) both houses of the legislature dramatically reversed themselves, "vot[ing] to reopen both the foreign and domestic slave trades." Why?

I won't give away the answers, but Prof. Ford accounts for and explains these apparently wild gyrations in detail – Saint-Domingue, the Louisiana Purchase, white safety, profits and the desire to attract new settlers feature prominently.

This is clearly a specialized and detailed volume that is not for everyone. It is not a book that can be read quickly or superficially. But if the sorts of issues that I have described fascinate you, as they do me, after only 100+ pages I recommend it highly. Prof. Ford's writing is clear and cogent. He both conveys the drama inherent in particular episodes (Gabriel's Rebellion of 1800, for example) and provides closely-argued and subtle yet well laid out and easily followed (if read carefully and methodically) analyses of those events and their consequences (the reactions, proposals and legislative responses of white Virginians to the Rebellion). For the right reader, this book will be a joy and a revelation.


  1. Anonymous4:05 PM

    Thanks. This summer I picked up Freehling's Nullification Controversy at our State Library book sale and it went through great detail of the Upcountry vs Low Country aspect of So Carolina politics (and Road to Disunion v2 which I bought early this year seems to reprise much of Freehling's prior book). I can see taking a look at this treatment as well.

    scott s.

  2. Scott,

    Prof. Freehling's book on the Nullification Crisis is indeed excellent. I included it as one of my 10 favorites in my "Road to the Road to Gettysburg" roundup. It's also worth pointing out that Prof. Freehling supplies a very positive back cover blurb for Prof. Ford's new book.

    The relationship between the Upcountry and Low Country does seem to be a key to South Carolina's antebellum development. Ironically, Prof. Ford identifies that relationship as an important factor in South Carolina's decision to re-legalize the African slave trade in 1803.

    Thanks for your comment. Please stop by and comment again!


Related Posts with Thumbnails