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Politics, Slavery, and the Civil War ~ The Imaginative Conservative

No episode in the American past is more susceptible to such manipulation—manipulation rather than debate—than the Civil War. On the historical question permit me to be blunt and unequivocal. There can be no doubt that slavery was central to all that divided the northern and the southern states, and that slavery was ultimately responsible for secession and civil war.


Indifference to truth encourages feelings of unreality, which permeates an understanding of the past as much as it does efforts to make sense of the present. Many Americans entertain false hopes that history cannot only be altered but that the historical record can also be corrected. Events can be set aright, made to turn out as they should have in the first place. These men and women often seek to impose their views on the teaching of history in the schools as well as on public discussions of our national past. Such attitudes differ from and are, in fact, inimical to the the conviction that nothing in the past was inevitable, that events could have happened differently than they did. The intent of historical contingency is to gain a deeper understanding of the past by contemplating what might have taken place but did not, and then by explaining why this and not that. The intent of fabrication is to influence contemporary opinion. Disagreeable, repulsive, horrid, or merely inconvenient developments ought to be ignored, minimized, or denied, the historical record be damned.

To be fair, those engaged in such misrepresentations do not for the most part believe that they are distorting the past or propagating untruth. They are convinced, on the contrary, that they have resurrected evidence dishonestly suppressed. Their version of history was what really happened and their rearrangement of information is thus altogether warranted. The respect for truth demands nothing less. The mistrust of sources and experts, they conclude, makes it next to impossible to verify the facts. Disagreements at the very least produce uncertainty, which can give rise both to genuine skepticism and to vile deceit. Since no fact seems ever to be fully proven or disproven, since no statement ever seems conclusive, all facts can plausibly be denied and all statements can plausibly be questioned whenever it is expedient or satisfying to do so. The purpose of such an exercise is too often not to correct error or to illuminate reality, but to embarrass and rebuke an enemy.

As the controversy that erupted about Governor Nikki Haley’s failure to emphasize slavery makes clear, no episode in the American past is more susceptible to such manipulation—manipulation rather than debate—than the Civil War. On the historical question permit me to be blunt and unequivocal. There can be no doubt that slavery was central to all that divided the northern and the southern states, and that slavery was ultimately responsible for secession and civil war. However serious and protracted, disagreements about the tariff and state rights were by themselves unlikely to foment such a monumental conflict without the slavery question looming in the background.

Yet, historical reality is more complicated than we, Governor Haley, or any of the presidential hopefuls in either party, are wont to think or eager to admit. Although the majority of Americans regard slavery as abhorrent, it was the dispute about the spread of slavery into the western territories, rather than objections to its morality, that at last destroyed the Union. By the mid-1850s, southerners were no longer content to preserve slavery only in the states where it existed. They demanded repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which preemptively eliminated slavery from territories north of the 36ᵒ 30′ parallel. Because slavery was legal in some states, they argued, it ought to be legal everywhere. The storm broke over the Kansas-Nebraska bill of 1854.

On January 4, 1854, Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois introduced a bill to organize the Nebraska territory. In it, Douglas made no mention of slavery. Rather the language of the bill duplicated the language that the Compromise of 1850, the passage of which Douglas had engineered, applied to Utah and New Mexico. “When admitted as a State or States, the said territory, or any portion of the same, shall be received into the Union, with or without slavery, as their constitution may prescribe at the time of their admission.” [i] Douglas’s concession to his southern colleagues, whose legislative support he needed, proved inadequate, as he quickly discovered. Prominent senators David Atchison of Missouri, James M. Mason and Robert M. T. Hunter of Virginia, and Andrew Pickens Butler of South Carolina, known collectively as the “F Street Mess” because they roomed at the same boarding house, objected. Each vowed to support no bill that did not endorse the clear right to introduce slavery into the western territories.

Following the lead of Atchison, Mason, Hunter, and Butler, other southern senators pointed out that Douglas’s Nebraska bill only enabled the citizens of a territory to adopt a constitution permitting slavery upon admission to the Union. While still a territory, the Missouri Compromise remained in force. Under the provisions of the bill, slaveholders could in theory adopt a proslavery constitution but in reality could not establish a presence in the territory in time to assert their influence. Southerners in Congress pressured Douglas to repudiate the Missouri Compromise, and were unmollified by the lesser concessions that he proffered. Senator Archibald Dixon, a Kentucky Whig, and Representative Phillip Phillips, a Democrat from Alabama, presented separate amendments to the Nebraska bill that repealed the Missouri Compromise and opened the western territories to slavery. Realizing that the fate of the bill lay in southern hands, Douglas yielded to unpalatable necessity, accepted the amendments, and sought the approval of President Franklin Pierce. [ii]

Although he believed the Missouri Compromise to be unconstitutional, and expected the Supreme Count in the future to declare it so, Pierce was reluctant to support Dixon’s and Phillips’s amendments. Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan and Secretary of State William L. March had separately advised Pierce that repeal of the Missouri Compromise would discredit the administration with northern Democrats and imperil the already fragile unity of the Democratic Party. But, like Douglas, Pierce found it impossible to resist southern pressure to annul the Missouri Compromise, which had gathered a momentum of its own.

At a special meeting of the cabinet convened on January 21, only Secretary of the Navy James C. Dobbin of North Carolina and Secretary of War Jefferson Davis of Mississippi favored rescinding the Missouri Compromise. At this juncture, Pierce instructed his cabinet to compose an alternative to the amended bill that would avoid direct repeal. As awkward and vague as the revisions were, Douglas accepted them. Once again, the southerners did not. Time was now of the essence since on Monday, January 23, Douglas proposed to introduce a revised version of the bill to meet southern objections. In the meantime, he continued to seek the president’s endorsement. Knowing that Pierce disliked to conduct business on Sundays, Douglas approached Jefferson Davis to arrange an interview. Pierce agreed and, accompanied by Davis, Atchison, Mason, Butler, Phillips, and Representative John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, Douglas called on him at the White House.

At the meeting, Pierce reluctantly agreed to support a bill that disposed of the Missouri Compromise. To prevent later equivocation or denial, Douglas insisted that Pierce commit his assent to paper. Pierce acquiesced, drafting statement in which he explained that the Compromise of 1850, which permitted residents of the western territories to decide for themselves whether to accept or reject slavery, had already superseded the Missouri Compromise. Armed with Pierce’s tepid declaration of support, Douglas reported to the Senate an entirely new bill for the organization of the Nebraska territory. The bill not only called for the repeal of the Missouri Compromise but also for the creation of two territories, Kansas and Nebraska, instead of one. The latter provision angered the opponents of slavery in the Senate, who assumed that Douglas at once sought to maintain the sectional balance of power and to placate the southerners by creating one slave and one free territory. Before Douglas could initiate debate, Salmon P. Chase, the free-soil and abolitionist senator from Ohio, requested a delay so that he could more carefully study the bill. Douglas agreed. It was a fateful decision.

Before the bill reached the floor of the Senate, the National Era, an abolitionist newspaper in Washington. D.C., published a scathing denunciation under the headline “The Appeal of the Independent Democrats in Congress to the People of the United States.” The first salvo in what remains perhaps the most vicious congressional debate in American history, “The Appeal” was the work of six men: Senator Chase, Representatives Joshua Giddings and Edward Wade of Ohio, Representative Gerrit Smith of New York, and Representative Alexander De Witt and Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Renowned for their opposition to slavery, the Independent Democrats assailed both Douglas’s arguments and his character. They portrayed him as a dishonest and vicious man. In its crass interference with settled law, his bill was irresponsible. He was an ambitious, immoral traitor who had forsaken his country in exchange for political favors. They arraigned the bill itself

as a gross violation of a sacred pledge; as a criminal betrayal of previous rights; as part and parcel of an atrocious plot to exclude from a vast unoccupied region immigrants from the Old World, and free laborers from our own States, and convert it into a dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves. [iii]

Only the most imperturbable of political warriors could have kept their heads and their nerve amid such furious criticism. Douglas was such a man.

In defense of the Kansas-Nebraska bill, Douglas waged a battle on the floor of the Senate such as few had ever witnessed. Against the brutal assault from fellow senators, the press, and many citizens, Douglas fought back with a remarkable array of resources: an astonishing memory for the details of political transactions that had taken place during the course of thirty years; an ability to marshal volumes of evidence to substantiate his assertions; a cogency in argument; a virtuosity in parliamentary debate. For five weeks Douglas commanded the Senate. In an address that lasted for more than three hours, which he began near midnight on March 3, Douglas cornered his adversaries and compelled them to admit the flaws in their reasoning. At the conclusion of his speech, the Senate voted 37 to 14 to enact the Kansas-Nebraska bill. Pierce signed it into law on May 30, 1854. Few pieces of legislation have so suddenly and dramatically altered the course of American history.[iv]

With passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, southerners got what they wanted: the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the right to take slaves into territory that lay north of the 36° 30′ parallel. Douglas was willing to compromise because he did not think that the repeal of the Missouri Compromise surrendered either Kansas or Nebraska to slavery. From Douglas’s perspective, the Kansas-Nebraska Act did no more than to remove the congressional prohibition against slavery in the territories, which, in any event, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford in 1857. But to replace the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act substituted popular sovereignty by which Douglas was convinced the citizens of the territories would render both Kansas and Nebraska free. If politics somehow failed to resolve the matter, nature would do so. As Douglas had repeatedly pointed out, climate and geography unsuited both Kansas and Nebraska to plantation agriculture.

Douglas was satisfied to contain slavery without abolishing it. He cared more about preserving the Union than he did about eradicating slavery. But in his willingness to accede to southerner demands, Douglas weakened the Democratic Party in the free states. Since the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, the Democratic Party had been a powerful force for national unity. The bitter reaction to the Kansas-Nebraska Act devastated Northern Democrats in the congressional elections of 1854 and 1855. They retained all but four of sixty-seven seats in the slave states but salvaged only twenty-five of ninety-one seats in the free states. The party survived and remained the only party to command national support. The Democrats even won another presidential election in 1856, in addition to regaining control of the House of Representatives. But James Buchanan carried only five of the sixteen free states. He owed his election to southern votes. Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act disrupted sectional equilibrium within the party. The effect was circular. The susceptibility of the Democratic Party to southern control diminished the influence of the party in the North. The frailty of the party in the North increased its receptivity to southern control.

Among the most damaging consequences of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was to discredit popular sovereignty by applying it as a political mechanism to open free territory to slavery. Before 1854, popular sovereignty had the potential to curtail or halt the expansion of slavery without creating political convulsions in Congress. It may have been the best hope for prohibiting the expansion of slavery into the western territories while at the same time avoiding sectional confrontation. When Douglas invited southerners to vote for popular sovereignty as a means of overturning the guarantees embodied in the Missouri Compromise, he permanently tainted it for many northerners. The Kansas-Nebraska Act went a long way toward closing off moderate solutions to the problem of slavery and justifying violence against slaveholders. To what end? Southerners had won a pyrrhic victory, gaining the right to carry slaves into two territories where no one dreamed of taking them. No triumph ever proved more costly or more barren.[v]


The southern insistence that the territory open to slavery be permitted to grow arose not merely from principle, conceit, or obstinance. The political economy of slavery had long encouraged southerners to consider secession, even if leaving the Union provoked civil war, should the westward expansion of slavery be impeded or halted.[vi] Slavery generated substantial profits under three conditions. First and foremost among them was the continued availability of fertile land. (The other two conditions were a consistent supply of cheap labor and a sustained demand on the world market for the commodities that slave labor produced.) Since planation agriculture was notoriously wasteful and inefficient, invariably exhausting the soil, slavery had to be permitted to spread beyond the confines of the southern states. +By 1860, sixty-seven percent of Americans with estates valued at or more than $100,000 lived in South. During the antebellum period, seventy-five percent of southern-grown cotton was exported, and cotton accounted for more than fifty percent of the value of all American exports. The plantation economy thus paid for the major share of American imports while at the same time funding the development of northern commerce and industry. But the profits that slavery generated disguised structural weaknesses which condemned the South to economic underdevelopment, stagnation, and eventually, to political disaster and military defeat.

Southerners, of course, believed that cotton was king. In reality, cotton was a pawn on the world market. Since the demand for cotton fluctuated, southern prosperity remained forever precarious. Until the late 1850s, the market for raw cotton and cotton textiles grew at phenomenal rates despite periodically severe depressions. This sustained growth mistakenly led southern planters and statesmen to believe that the market was limitless. They were mistaken.

The antebellum southern economy was backward, underdeveloped, and dependent. Like the other slave societies in the Western Hemisphere, the South exhibited impressive rates of economic growth for long periods of time. But the South failed test of economic development, which alone could have guaranteed the political independence and viability of the regime. The southern economy may have prospered and even grown. It never developed or diversified and was, therefore, destined in time to whither on the vine.

In any slave economy, even one as robust as that of antebellum South, capital investment took, and could take, only two meaningful forms: the purchase of additional land and slaves. Herein lay the paradox of economic growth without economic development that bedeviled the southern economy. In the South, capital investment brought more acres planted in cotton and more slaves to work the fields. It did not encourage economic diversification as it did in North. At issue was the flexibility of slave system, its ability to reallocate resources and capital when faced with a decline in vital sectors of economy. Could southern planters shift capital away from land and slaves when the cotton economy fell into depression and profitable opportunities awaited elsewhere? The short answer is that they could not. But their inability or unwillingness to do so requires further explanation.

Southern slaveholders as a class were not fools. Neither did they operate like ordinary capitalists. Their status rested on the assertion of absolute power, albeit more theoretical than real, over other human beings. They could not blithely sacrifice the foundations of their social, political, psychological, and moral lives to a mere balance sheet of profit and loss. The slaveholders had to lived in the burgeoning capitalist world of the nineteenth century. But their economic interests, political ideology, and moral values were increasingly at odds those of what they called free-market society. Under circumstances likely to produce deepening hostility, economic questions merged with questions of political and military power. In a political crisis the southern economy was neither productive nor diverse enough to secure and sustain southern independence. Under those exigent conditions, a long economic slump would not, at least it did not, bring economic reform. Instead, it exerted mounting pressure for territorial expansion, and for secession without or without a war should expansion be forestalled.

To illustrate the point further we need consider but a single example: the different responses to soil exhaustion in the North and the South. When soil exhaustion and agricultural depression struck the New England states, capital shifted easily into commerce and manufacturing as well as into other, less destructive forms of agriculture. In the South, it proved impossible to adjust investment patterns to compensate for soil exhaustion. Big planters began to cultivate marginal land, using every available acre to maintain profits by increasing the volume of production. At the same time, many small farmers abandoned commercial agriculture and returned to a more primitive subsistence economy. In older plantation regions, such as Maryland and Virginia, the sale of slaves in the domestic slave trade enabled slaveholders to carry on even though the agricultural base of their economy had virtually disappeared. Slaveholders in these states did not reinvest in commerce, manufacturing, or other forms of agriculture, nor did they abandon slavery. Instead, they reduced their slave populations by selling excess slaves to the cotton states of the Deep South.Throughout the South, soil exhaustion and agricultural depression did not result in a significant internal shift of resources into other sectors of economy. What flexibility there was in southern labor markets through the sale of slaves had unintended but ominous political consequences. The mechanism for ridding themselves of unwanted slaves gravely weakened the social prestige and political power of slaveholding planters in slave-exporting states.

Maryland, in particular, constituted a nightmare scenario for the secessionists. The pronounced sale of slaves to the Cotton Belt, and the inability of Maryland planters to find a substitute for tobacco, steadily transformed Maryland into a free state. Virginia was experiencing a similar change, although more slowly. To make matters worse, the renewed demand for cotton during 1850s threatened to speed up the dissolution of slavery in Upper South. With cotton prices once again soaring to ten cents per pound, planters in the southeast began to shift land previously withdrawn from cultivation back into production. Planters in South Carolina, for example, who had been exporting slaves further South since the 1820s, now faced a severe labor shortage and themselves began to purchase slaves from Maryland and Virginia. This situation for a time even stimulated interest in reopening the African slave trade, a proposal that occasioned bitter quarrels not only with the opponents of slavery but also among its advocates.

How well, then, did the southern economy perform in relation to the northern economy before the Civil War? Such a question answers itself. In one way or another, all the slave societies of the New World met the same fate and left economic ruin in their wake. The slave economy of the antebellum South failed to lay the foundations for continued development. No slave regime advanced science and technology, created home markets adequate to encourage domestic manufacturing and commerce, promoted economic diversification, or fostered entrepreneurship. The economy of the antebellum South may have yielded spectacular profits in response to the demand for staple commodities but slavery guaranteed economic stagnation and decline once that demand receded, condemning the the South to a political fate that renders irrelevant all appeals to long-term economic stability and independence.

Among the slaveholding regimes of the Western Hemisphere, the South displayed special characteristics. Southern slaveholders felt themselves increasingly threatened by, and isolated from, the outside world during the last three decades before the Civil War. Although they may have found themselves on the defensive, in marked contrast to the slaveholders of the West Indies and Latin America, the slaveholders of the South enjoyed regional power and deeply influenced national politics for more than fifty years. The structural deficiencies that troubled the southern economy required more than painful adjustments when the world demand for cotton slackened. Any economic crisis confronted the powerful slaveholding class with the prospect of political and military ruin if they did not act decisively to save the world they had made.

Abraham Lincoln’s pledge not to interfere with slavery in the states but to prevent its spread thus offered slaveholders no comfort. If they were not utterly incredulous, they interpreted Lincoln’s concession as nothing less than a portent of their long, slow demise. In his “Speech on the Dred Scott Decision,” delivered at Springfield, Illinois on June 26, 1857, Lincoln seemed to reveal both his true sentiments and his future intentions. He told his audience that Americans had betrayed their history by permitting the continued expansion of slavery. “The assertion that `all men are created equal,’” Lincoln said, “was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration, not for that, but for future use. Its authors meant it to be, thank God, it is now proving itself, a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism.”[vii] Losing control of the national government to such a party as the Republicans and to such a man as Lincoln prompted southerners to take desperate action. Many reasoned that it was better to withdraw from the Union sooner rather than to wait for the Republican Party to consolidate its political strength and for the southern states to begin the struggle for independence under less favorable circumstances.


Southerners not only marked the immediate threat that Lincoln and the Republicans posed, they also redoubled their condemnation of free society itself for promoting a cruel, immoral, and irresponsible wage-slavery in which the masters of capital exploited workers without assuming personal responsibility for their welfare. The system of free labor, southerners alleged, left the vast majority of human beings helpless and cowering before those who exercised power, suffering them to be abused and degraded without recourse to government or the courts. In a world haunted by sin, southerners argued that slavery alone ensured progress without social disturbance, political upheaval, and moral chaos. For men who took seriously the biblical injunction to be their brothers’ keepers, slavery was the best, if not the only, means to preserve a Christian social order in the modern world.

Confronted with abolitionist pronouncements that slavery defied the spirit of Christianity, southerners introduce abundant evidence that God Himself had sanctioned it. In Slavery Ordained of God, published in 1857 to discredit the abolitionists’ scriptural rejoinder, the Reverend Frederick A. Ross of Huntsville, Alabama explained that God had enjoined the Israelites to become slaveholders. “He made it the law of their social state,” Ross maintained. He made it one form of his ordained government among many.”[viii] Ross went on to remind the abolitionists that those who called themselves Christian had to accept scripture as the revealed word of God and had to concede that God, not man, determined sin and virtue.

Like numerous other southern clergymen, Ross attested that slaves, as the children of God, as human beings with immortal souls, had rights that masters dared not abridge. Slaveholders and their spokesmen evinced a tendency to regard slaves as members of an extended family. No passing sentimentality to quiet uneasy consciences, no mere rationalization for the exercise of despotic power, the expression “my family, black and white” offered the assurance that the South was a community of Christian families and households into which the slaves had been incorporated, not as equals to be sure but as members worthy of every consideration. In mounting a theological defense of slavery, Ross contended that “every Southern planter is no more truly a slaveholder than Abraham. And the Southern master, by divine authority, may today consider his slaves part of his social and religious family, just as Abraham did.”[ix] The head of the family and household, the patriarch, had to exercise benevolent sway over the dependents, whether women, children, or slaves, whom God had entrusted to his care. Slaveholders neglected their Christian duties at the peril of their immortal souls.

As patriarch, the master discharged the responsibilities that otherwise would have fallen to the state. These included the administration of justice and the management of property. Yet, southerners expressly denied the bourgeois concepts of individualism and property that, in theory, gave owners absolute right to do as they pleased. The Bible, after all, imparted the necessity of restraint, moderation, and forbearance. Religious and well as secular law required that masters protect, nurture, and govern all household dependents for the good of everyone, including the slaves, and in the interest of serving God and keeping public order. They did not have license to abuse their prerogatives. Perhaps, as many proslavery ideologues asserted, it had always and everywhere been necessary for one class of persons to labor for the benefit of another. Christian slavery of the sort practiced in the South, they hastened to add, had institutionalized that inequality and exploitation to correspond to the ethical canons of scripture. Fed, clothed, sheltered, cared for in sickness and in health, and shielded from the anarchy of the market, the slaves were better off than northern factory workers, who were free in name only. According to this way of thinking, slavery alone made possible material progress without the terrible economic, social, political, and moral crises that were plaguing the North and Europe.

Despite its many blessings, slavery had no future in the Western world. The iron laws of political economy indicated that, sooner or later, the costs of slave labor would exceed the costs of free labor. Less expensive free labor would inspire a retreat from slavery, which would become a casualty of the very economic progress that it had made possible. Political economists and historians such as Thomas Roderick Dew of Virginia were far from sanguine about the consequences of this general emancipation. With the abolition of slavery, brought on by the decreasing costs of free labor, the standard of living for workers and their families would decline to mere subsistence. In times of economic hardship, it would fall below that level. Dew predicted that the end of slavery would compel the mass of humanity to live amid unremitting squalor, to endure pitiless exploitation, and to enjoy the liberty to starve. “No one,” observed the historian Paul Conkin, “ever offered a gloomier reason for eventual emancipation.”[x]

Mindful of their Christian obligations, southerners recoiled at the prospect of this human wreckage. Could any people who believed themselves to be Christian accept the torment of the masses left to sink into a despair so complete and unremitting that it robbed them of their souls and deprived them of their chance to attain salvation? Could any people who thought of themselves as civilized acquiesce in the revolutionary violence that such hopeless men and women were sure to perpetuate? Free workers in the United States would not forever submit to these wretched conditions. They would fight back, as had their European counterparts, destroying themselves in a fierce class struggle, but perhaps not before exacting vengeance on their oppressors.

Antebellum southern thinkers took the measure of the dangerous radical movements that the French Revolution and the Revolutions of 1848 had spawned, and anticipated insurrection, anarchy, and the subsequent imposition of despotism to restore social and political order. The history of European revolutions conditioned southerners’ interpretation of the present and future of the American Republic. Although Dew condemned the Reign of Terror, he hailed the French Revolution itself as among “the grandest epochs in the history of man.” The ancien regime, he suggested, had been socially, politically, and economically oppressive. In its initial stages the revolution marked the uprising of respectable but subjugated property owners against a ruling elite of the clergy, aristocracy, and monarchy that had outlived its usefulness. Members of the rebellious bourgeoisie had wealth, but, as Dew noted, lacked the social prestige and political strength comparable to their economic status. These dynamic and ambitious men sought to remove the impediments that limited their advancement, for, as Dew inferred, they resented a social system that valued and rewarded birth rather than merit. “It became necessary,” Dew wrote, “either to roll back the tide of civilization or else fit the government, by timely changes, to the constant revolutions which were taking place in the several organizations. France… was no longer fitted for the institutions of feudalism, and change or revolution became absolutely necessary.” [xi]

Enthralled by the possibility of remaking society, the Parisian mob had diverted the revolution from its original course and forced events to move in a more radical direction than the propertied revolutionaries of the bourgeoisie had wanted to take them. The demands of the sans culottes for economic security, social equality, and political democracy first turned violent and then monstrous. Similar calls in the United States provoked Dew to sobering and melancholy reflections. The quest for security, equality, and democracy, he lamented, afforded demagogues an opportunity to pander to the lower classes and, in effect, to engage in a politics of envy and resentment that might at any moment explode. Writing in 1836, Dew already considered that:

The tumults and riots at the elections in our great cities–the lawless mobs of the north which have already set civil authority at defiance, and have pulled down the property of the citizen–all are but the premonitory symptoms of the approaching calamity–they are but the rumbling sound of the terrible earthquake. If these things happen now, what may we expect hereafter?[xii]

Circumstances had thus far muted emerging class tensions, for during the 1820s and 1830s upward social mobility remained a viable prospect for most Americans. But Dew feared that such opportunities would not last.

For Dew, the United States was a land of neither unlimited opportunity nor inevitable progress. Eventually territorial expansion would cease, population density would increase, and Dew’s question “what may we expect hereafter?”would reassert itself. Dew entertained no illusions about how free workers would react to the dismal prospects that confronted them. They would demand protection from the state, or else would carry out retribution. Pondering this desperate future, Dew imagined that the time must come

When millions shall be crowded into our manufactories and commercial cities–then will come the great and fearful pressure upon the engine–then will the line of demarkation [sic] stand most palpably drawn, between the rich and the poor, the capitalist and the laborer–then will thousands, yea millions arise, whose hard lot it may be to labor from morn till eve through a long life, without the cheering hope of passing from that toilsome condition in which the first years of their manhood found them, or even of accumulating in advance that small fund which may release the old and infirm from labor and toil, and mitigate the sorrow of declining years.

Slavery, the social system best “calculated to ward off [these] evils,” and to ensure steadfast resistance to such “dangerous vices,” would by then have disappeared as economic conditions favored its extinction.[xiii]

In his expectation that slavery would inevitably vanish, Dew anticipated a catastrophe not only for the South but also for the United States, if not for the modern world. He did not envision a socialist future for America that rested on the dictatorship of the proletariat. “Power,” he thought, “can never be dislodged from the hands of the intelligent, the wealthy, and the courageous, by any plans formed by the poor, the ignorant, and the habitually subservient.”[xiv] More plausibly, Dew concluded, the ruling class as a whole, or certain debauched and unscrupulous elements within it, would impose a vulgar and remorseless tyranny to safeguard private property and to arrest the descent into lawlessness that the intensifying class struggle had unleashed. Frightened property owners would have no choice but to submit.

Slavery, Dew and a host of other southern thinkers assumed, was the one sure and durable basis of ordered liberty. By limiting the influence of the propertyless masses who carried within them the germs of insurrection and anarchy, slavery curtailed the turbulence that lingered just below the surface of democratic social and political life. In addition, slavery eliminated poverty by incorporating the disfranchised poor into families and providing them with a level of security that free society did not, and could not, furnish. The defense of slavery reached its apogee in the conviction that slavery was integral to eliminating widespread poverty and class conflict, and thereby negating the peril of revolution and the specter of tyranny already stirring across the land.


However cogent their arguments may have been, the southern apology for slavery was self-serving, as are the arguments that have justified the power of every ruling class. In any event, the outcome of the Civil War deprived southerners of the opportunity to clarify and elaborate their world view. That southerners fought to defend slavery there can be no doubt. “In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part,” announced the delegates to the Mississippi Secession Convention:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery–the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largestand most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products… have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.[xv]

The delegates to secession conventions throughout the South issued similar affirmations.

Lincoln, by contrast, concerned primarily with northern unity, was careful at the outset of the conflict not to associate it with the eradication of slavery. The war was being waged to preserve the Union, not to free the slaves. As he had on numerous other occasions, in his “First Inaugural Address,” which he delivered on March 4, 1861, Lincoln reaffirmed that he had “no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” He reminded his audience that the platform of the Republican Party also resolved to maintain “inviolate… the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions, according to its own judgment exclusively.” [xvi] The Constitution protected slavery in the states, and Lincoln reassured all Americans, not only southerners but also and especially moderate northerners and slaveholders in the border states, that as president he would abide by the Constitution. He was content to restore the Union, even if it slavery remained intact. Congress agreed. On July 22 and July 25, the House of Representatives and the Senate passed similar resolutions confirming that the United States had no intention “of overthrowing or interfering with the rights or established institutions of [the southern] States” but only “to defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution and to preserve the Union with all the dignity, equality, and rights of the several States unimpaired.”[xvii]

As late as August 1862, Lincoln reiterated that his principal war aim, indeed, his foremost duty as president, was to save the Union. His administration pursued no other policy. Lincoln hoped to confine secession to the Deep South, to end the war quickly, and to restore the Union with as little disruption as possible. In his famous letter to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, he wrote that “I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution.” Lincoln was forthright and unambiguous when he told Greeley that his:

paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forebear, I forebear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. [xviii]

Lincoln had not yet acknowledged the opportunity the war presented to a statesmen of his capacity to reconstruct the nation. He could not avoid doing so for long. The war at last obliged him to contemplate the future of slavery in the United States.

Southerners, of course, demurred, rejecting even the moderate approach that Lincoln followed at the outset of the conflict. From their point of view northern radicals, among whom they counted Lincoln, had long seemed willing to destroy civilization in order to eliminate slavery or at least to contain its advance, which was tantamount to the same purpose.[xix] Secession became for them as much a moral as a political imperative. Southerners found it impossible to live in peace and freedom under a government contemptuous of their rights and hostile to their way of life. They indicted northern leaders for violating their portion of the mutual agreement that alone buttressed the Union. Northern statesmen, southerners charged, had imposed unlawful tariffs to the advantage of their constituents but to the detriment of the commonwealth. They had endangered southern property by refusing to enforce legislation, such as the Fugitive Slave Law, that they found objectionable. They had condoned violence against the white people of the South by extolling the terrorism of John Brown and inciting rebellion among the slaves. They had deprived the states of their sovereign rights and had dispossessed free men of their historic liberties. These transgressions released southerners from their commitments; in their minds, northern actions had already dissolved the bonds of Union. Secession was a mere formality.

Envisioning themselves neither as traitors nor rebels, southerners instead believed that with secession they were deflecting the worst consequences of a revolution that they could no longer prevent. By crafting a new nation, they were doing their utmost to preserve what remained of the original Republic. They continued to espouse a government of limited powers, and tried to shield themselves from the revolution that the “Black Republicans” were fomenting. Unlike the Puritans in seventeenth-century England or the Jacobins in eighteenth-century France, southerners emphasized that they had no designs to seize power. They simply wanted to leave the Union that their forebears had helped to establish, taking with them the traditions, the code of law, and the constitutional form of government that they had inherited and that they hoped to reconstitute in a more congenial environment. “I am a secessionist, and not a revolutionist,” confessed William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama. “We are resisting revolution,” Jefferson Davis announced. “We are conservative.”[xx]

As southerners made clear, they were also determined to protect slavery. By 1863, as the nature and conduct of the war changed, emancipation became the focus of the Union effort to defeat the Confederate armies and to alter the southern way of life. For such New England intellectuals as Ralph Waldo Emerson the struggle by then assumed the character of a holy war in which southerners got what they deserved. Even if excessive, the ordeal of the South was inconsequential when balanced against the purifying birth of freedom and justice that the crusade had stimulated. At the end of the war, Emerson confided in his journal that it was “far the best that the rebels had been pounded instead of negociated [sic] into a peace,” for “any & every arrangement short of forcible subjugation” was incomprehensible, dishonest, and immoral. [xxi]

Before the Civil War, southerners had displayed every confidence that theirs was a Christian society standing against the infidelities and perversions of the modern age. Slavery was the divinely-ordained foundation of that society. But even by their own moral standards southerners failed to sustain this vision of the South. When tragedy struck in 1865, many attributed the wreckage of their world to their persistent sinfulness and to the betrayal of the solemn trust that God had reposed in them. Throughout the antebellum period, southerners repeatedly lamented that the conditions of slave life departed significantly from biblical precepts. To attribute these complaints to an emerging opposition to slavery is misleading. Southern religious and secular leaders, on the contrary, sought to reinforce and strengthen slavery by reforming it to align with laws of Moses and the teachings of Jesus. Southern proslavery theorists, and especially southern divines, hoped to establish a humane form of slavery that was grounded in and regulated by Christian ethics. In this hope they were sadly disappointed.

The unwillingness to acknowledge the legitimacy of slave marriages, the sexual abuse of slave women, the dissolution of slave families through sale, and the prohibition against slave literacy combined to render meaningless all pretensions to the existence of a Christian society in the antebellum South. Southerners had tried to establish a social order that hemmed in the evil inevitable in a world haunted by sin. The Christian stewardship that slavery was supposed to engender contrasted favorably with the wanton materialism of free society. For unlike their northern and European counterparts, whom they insisted cared for nothing save profits, southerners saw themselves as having accepted the costly and taxing responsibility for the human beings whom God had placed in their custody and delivered to their care. Few, therefore, found it easy to ignore or tolerate the many outrages and atrocities that made slavery, in the words of the Reverend Robert J. Breckinridge of Kentucky, “a hell upon earth.” [xxii]

Slavery was among the worst enormities of the nineteenth century. Notwithstanding their noble sentiments and valiant efforts, southerners could do little to mitigate its evil even when opportunities presented themselves to do so. The most able proponents of slavery boasted that the exigencies of the market required that people uphold either their Christian values or their material interests. The organic social relations on which slavery rested demanded no such choice. But the slaveholders of the South could never have countenanced the kind of reforms that their ministers and their own consciences urged upon them. To have made slavery compatible with biblical standards would have effected not as much a program of reform as a revolution that fundamentally transformed master-slave relations, diminished the power of the slaveholders as a class, and, even had the Confederacy won the war, reduced the South to an economic client of northern capital.

Had slaves, like the serfs of medieval Europe, become bound to the land with the ability to appeal violations of their rights to an authority higher than that of the master (i.e. the agents of the state), had masters adhered strictly to the letter of Mosaic law, which prohibited the sale of slaves, and had they fully embraced the Sermon on the Mount, which offered solace and hope to the downtrodden and the suffering, the change would have imperiled the economic welfare of the South in the transatlantic world and the political security of the South at home. Is it any wonder that under these circumstances southerners, like the capitalists for whom the professed such disdain, advanced their worldly concerns at the expense of their Christian sensibilities and obligations?

Even a Confederate victory would not have resolved, and in a brief time would have intensified, the crisis. To compete economically with the modernizing nation-states of Europe and to bolster its political and military position in relation to the hostile United States along its northern border, an independent southern regime would have had to engage in rapid industrial and capitalist development. Defeat, by contrast, exposed the South to the very heresies, whether political, economic, social, moral, or theological, that southerners had long decried as unchristian and that the Confederacy had supposedly come into existence to oppose.

Most important in this regard was the abandonment of Christian orthodoxy and the advent of theological liberalism in the Protestant churches of the South. Unable to reconcile the commitment to white supremacy and racial segregation with the teachings of the New Testament, postbellum southern clergymen subordinated the Word to secular arguments for racial purity. It was the pervasive acceptance of theological liberalism that facilitated the advance of polygenesis and scientific racism among the southern churches and that represented not merely an alternative to but also a betrayal of the Christian orthodoxy that, however inhibited and deficient, underlay the proslavery argument and the antebellum world view. The traditional South may have been the last bastion against the revolutionary fervor that southerners believed had engulfed the North, challenging what the Reverend James Henley Thornwell described as “the mad speculations of philosophers” that threatened to undo Christian civilization.[xxiii] But it seems the aftermath of the Civil War, even in the event of a Confederate victory, would have brought momentous changes to the South that precluded the dream of fashioning a Christian social order and establishing a pious nation that might better have resisted the many afflictions which convulsed the modern world.

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[i] The Compromise of 1850, National Archives.

[ii] Douglas initially tried to counter southern opposition on January 10 by arranging to have a version of the bill with an additional section reprinted in the Washington Union. The editor explained that the new section had been omitted from the original bill as the result of a “clerical error.” The addendum stipulated that “all questions pertaining to slavery in the Territories, and in the new states to be formed therefore are to be left to the people residing therein, through their appropriate representatives.” Douglas’s shrewd gambit failed to placate his southern colleagues. On Douglas’s life and career, see Robert W. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas (New York, 1973) and The Frontier, the Union, and Stephen A. Douglas (Champaign-Urbana, IL, 1989).

[iii]Appeal of the Independent Democrats in Congress to the People of the United States,” Salmon P. Chase Papers: Speeches and Writings, 1849-1868, Speeches, 1854 (January 19, 1854), National Era, 1, Library of Congress

[iv] In the House of Representatives, the revolt of anti-slavery and free-soil congressmen was more extensive than had been opposition in the Senate. On March 21, 1854, House members refused to refer the bill to the Committee on Territories and instead sent it to the Committee of the Whole, where it lay buried beneath fifty other bills. With Douglas managing the campaign behind the scenes, his lieutenants in the House got to work, moving to table all the bills in the legislative docket that were ahead of the Kansas-Nebraska bill. The debate lasted for fifteen days but at last, on May 22, Alexander Stephens of Georgia succeeded in bringing the measure to a vote. It narrowly passed the House with 113 votes in favor and 100 opposed.

[v] See Alice Elizabeth Malavasic, The F Street Mess: How Southern Senators Rewrote the Kansas-Nebraska Act (Chapel Hill, NC, 2017).

[vi] See Eugene D. Genovese, The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South (Hanover, NH, 1989), 13-39, 85-105, 124-79, 243-74, 289-320.

[vii] Abraham Lincoln, “Speech on the Dred Scott Decision at Springfield, Illinois,” in Selected Speeches and Writings (New York, 1992), 121.

[viii] Frederick A. Ross, Slavery Ordained of God (Miami, FL, 1970; originally published in 1857), 149. Italics in the original.

[ix] Ibid., 151.

[x] Paul K. Conkin, Prophets of Prosperity: America’s First Political Economists (Bloomington, IN, 1980), 161.

[xi] Thomas Roderick Dew, A Digest of the Laws, Customs, Manners, and Institutions of the Ancient and Modern Nations (New York, 1854), 572. See also Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ World View (New York, 2005), 17-20, 39-40, 706-708.

[xii] Thomas Roderick Dew, “Republicanism and Literature,” in Michael O’Brien, ed., All Clever Men Who Make Their Way: Critical Discourse in the Old South (Fayetteville, AK, 1982), 164.

[xiii] Ibid., 165.

[xiv] The Pro-Slavery Argument, as Maintained by the Most Distinguished Writers of the Southern States: Containing Several Essays, on the Subject, of Chancellor Harper, Governor Hammond, Dr. Simms, and Professor Dew (Philadelphia, 1852), footnote, 444.

[xv] “Mississippi Declaration of Secession,” January 9, 1861, reprinted in Reid Mitchell, The American Civil War, 1816-1865 (Harlow, England, 2001), 83.

[xvi] Abraham Lincoln, “First Inaugural Address,” in Selected Speeches and Writings, 284.

[xvii] The [John J.] Crittendon-[Andrew] Johnson Resolutions on the Objects of War, 1861, Congressional Globe, 37 Congress, 1st Session, 222-23, 258-62.

[xviii] Abraham Lincoln to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862, in Selected Speeches and Writings, 343. Italics in the original.

[xix] In his letter to Greeley, Lincoln, in fact, rejected all extreme positions on the slavery question. He wrote: “If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them.” Ibid.

[xx] Yancey is quoted in Eric H. Walther, The Fire-Eaters (Baton Rouge, LA, 1992), 71; for the statement from Davis, see Dunbar Rowland, ed., Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers, and Speeches (Jackson, MS, 1923), Vol. VI, 357.

[xxi] William H. Gilman, et al., eds., The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Cambridge, MA, 1960-1982), Vol. VX, 301.

[xxii] Quoted in Victor B. Howard, “Robert J. Breckinridge and the Slavery Controversy in Kentucky in 1849,” Filson Club Quarterly 53 (1979), 336.

[xxiii] James Henley Thornwell, “The Christian Doctrine of Slavery,” in John B. Adger and John F. Girardeau, eds., The Collected Works of James Henley Thornwell, Vol. IV (Carlisle, PA, 1974; originally published in 1871-1873), 404.

The featured image is “Recognition: North and South” (1865) by Constant Mayer, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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