Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"I must look to my own interest"

The few pro-secession tracts specifically addressed to non-slaveholders that I have seen are not subtle affairs. The central message is generally race war. Lincoln's ascension to the presidency will spark a slave uprising. Wealthy planters and merchants will use their resources to escape. But you, the yeoman farmer, will be trapped with your family – you wife and your children – in a blood-drenched orgy of rapine and murder.

So measured, what is most remarkable about Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown's December l860 public letter in favor of immediate secession (which may be found in Secession Debated: Georgia's Showdown in 1860) is its restraint. Bloodshed is not entirely absent – thousands of slaves, Brown warned his north Georgia neighbors, would flee the cotton and rice fields of the Black Belt
and make their way to the healthier climate in the mountain region. We should have them plundering and stealing, robbing and killing, in all the lovely vallies of the mountains . . . [that] contain the place of my nativity, the home of my manhood, and the theatre of most of the acts of my life . . ..
But most of Gov. Brown's argument is far more sophisticated. The end of slavery, Brown predicted, would drive poor whites into tenancy. Wealthy masters, no longer able to invest in slaves, would instead “soon buy all the lands of the South worth cultivating.” The result would be a Dickensian nightmare:
Then what? The poor would all become tenants, as they are in England, the New England States, and all old countries where slavery does not exist.
But that was not the end of the governor's analysis. Landless whites, he pointed out, would have to compete with millions of former slaves for work and tenancy – former slaves who would work for a pittance, forcing whites to work for slave wages. Brown spelled out the consequences:
In this capacity [as laborers] they [former slaves] would at once come in competition with the poor white laborers. Men of capital would see this, and fix the price of labor accordingly. The negro has only been accustomed to receive his victuals and clothes for his labor. Few of them, if free, would expect anything more. It would therefore be easy to employ them at a sum sufficient to supply only the actual necessaries of life.
Although a lawyer by profession (did you know that Brown attended Yale Law School?), the governor sketched a hypothetical transaction in terms worthy of an economics professor:
The poor white man would then go to the wealthy land-owner and say, I wish employment. Hire me to work. I have a wife and children who must have bread. The land-owner would offer probably twenty cents per day. The laborer would say, I cannot support my family on that sum. The landlord replies, That is not my business. I am sorry for you, but I must look to my own interest. The black man who lives on my land has as strong an arm, and as heavy muscles as you have, and can do as much labor. He works for me at that rate, you must work for the same price, or I cannot employ you. The negro comes into competition with the white man and fixes the price of his labor, and he must take it or get no employment.
The same scenario would play out, Brown explained, when “the poor white man” sought to rent land or find shelter for his family.
The negro therefore [Brown summed up], comes into competition with the poor white man, when he seeks to rent land on which to make his bread, or a shelter to protect his wife and his little ones, from the cold and from the rain; and when he seeks employment as a day laborer. In every such case if the negro will do the work the cheapest, he must be preferred.
I find this passage fascinating. First, ironically, Brown sounds very much like a Free Soiler, except that he is using Free Soil-ish arguments to justify the continuation of slavery where it already existed. Free labor cannot compete with slave-ish labor – and therefore the two types of labor must remain distinct and in their own spheres.

Second, his characterization of the “land-owner” is striking. While Brown apparently assumed that his “land-owner” was merely acting in accordance with what we would now refer to as the law of supply and demand, how many of his wary mountain audience would have seen nothing more than a confirmation of their suspicions about haughty, selfish planters?

About the illustration, entitled The Dis-United States, Or the Southern Confederacy:
The Confederate leaders are portrayed as a band of competing opportunists led by South Carolina governor and secessionist Francis Pickens (far left). The artist criticizes the January 1861 secession of five states from the lower South, following the lead of South Carolina, which had formally declared its independence a month before. Armed with a whip and a pistol, Pickens sits on the back of a young slave, pronouncing, "South Carolina claims to be file leader and general whipper in of the new Confederacy, a special edict! Obey and tremble!" The other leaders are also armed. Pickens's tyranny is met by expressions of self-interest from the other confederates. The nature of these individual interests are conveyed pictorially and in the text. Leaders from Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia sit on bales of cotton, while Florida and Louisiana sit on a wrecked ship's hull and a barrel of sugar respectively. Florida (represented by a bearded man, possibly Stephen R. Mallory, senator and later secretary of the Confederate navy ): "We want it distinctly understood that all the lights on the Coast will be put out, in order to facilitate wrecking business." Alabama (William L. Yancey): "Alabama proclaims that C̀otton is King,' and the rest of the Confederacy "must obey" that Sovereign. Mississippi (Jefferson Davis): "We came in, with the understanding that we shall issue bonds to an unlimited extent, with our ancient right of repudiation when they became due." Georgia (Governor Joseph E. Brown): "Georgia must have half the honors, and all the profits, or back she goes to old Pluribus Unum.'" Louisiana (a mustachioed man): "A heavy duty must be levied on foreign sweetening in order to make up for what we have sacrificed in leaving the Union, otherwise we shall be like a P̀elican in the wilderness!'" Although Texas, which seceded on February 1, is not represented here, the print probably appeared at the time of the Montgomery convention in early February when the Confederate States of America was formed, but before Jefferson Davis assumed its presidency. Texas did not attend that convention.

1 comment:

  1. Question since I am sure you know the answer. What was the poltical party situation like in the South? I know it would differ drom Border South to Upper South annd Deep South

    However as to Depp South were Democrats in effect one party control pre Civil War .

    I am just not familar with the Southern Politcal party situation. Were there still Whigs?


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