The Shrinking South

Edmund Ruffin of Virginia, firer of one of the first shots on Fort Sumter and the first Confederate to enter it, was a prominent fire-eater. He shot himself three months after Appomattox.

The division of 1860 and the resulting Secession Winter did not come ex nihilo. In the decade before the war, radical disunionist voices gained increasing sway in the Southern political class and their position that any restriction on slavery in the territories both unconstitutionally violated the property rights of Southern planters and posed an existential threat to the Southern way of life became received wisdom. The North’s supposedly moderate compromises could only then mask abolitionist fervor. To countenance them would allow a kind of backdoor abolition that would reduce the white South to poverty or even destroy it in a race war.

The South’s shrinking clout, at its nadir in 1860, gave this defensiveness at least a patina of reasonability in itself, but the decade prior to the war fueled the fire-eating disunionists’ bellies with more than trend lines:

  • A free state extending south of the Missouri Compromise line
  • Outlawing the slave trade, if not slavery, in the District of Columbia
  • Seeking in part to redress the Senate imbalance that California’s statehood created, Southerners flocked into Kansas to ensure it became a slave state. Antislavery Northerners responded in kind and guerrilla war erupted.
  • While militias and governments dueled in Kansas, Minnesota and Oregon came in as free states and balance in the Senate became officially a thing of the past.
  • A Yankee abolitionist and veteran of Bleeding Kansas went south to seize arms and stage an insurrection.
  • A political party grew with the express purpose of limiting slavery and, in 1856, nearly won the presidency. In 1860, that party elected Lincoln.

It would be very hard to look at all of these events and dismiss the fire-eaters’ case even as a disinterested observer. The Southern elite, by definition, could not be disinterested. Even leaving aside how deeply slavery informed their culture, personal identities, and their hierarchical concept of freedom, their literal investment in slave property boggles the mind. David Blight explains:

But in 1860 American slaves, as a financial asset, were worth approximately three and a half billion dollars–that’s just as property. Three and a half billion dollars was the net worth, roughly, of slaves in 1860. In today’s dollars that would be approximately seventy-five billion dollars. In 1860 slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together. Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy. The only thing worth more than the slaves in the American economy of the 1850s was the land itself, and no one can really put a dollar value on all of the land of North America.

All of that value, especially when held by the political class itself, could not go undefended. In the lead-up to the war, the Southern political class came to fear what they called the Shrinking South: The slave population would continue to increase. At present, they had lands in the West open to use those surplus slaves so demand could keep up with supply. But were the West closed to slavery, the natural increase of the slave population would not stop. More slaves in the face of static or declining demand would erode the value of those slaves already held, bringing financial ruin on a scale many of them probably could not imagine.

Lincoln’s firm campaign promises, his party platform, and his steadfast insistence on not compromising on slavery in the territories meant the arrival of that nightmare. They had to go or be ruined. They got to go and be ruined.

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