Trying to Understand the Fears

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Where could the South go from the Armistice? They had reason to fear their future in the Union. For months radicals primed their people for disunion. For four years they had promoted secession as a potential, sometimes even preferred, remedy. A fire-eating rump of the Nashville Convention met and condemned the Compromise. But their protests aside, few Southerners leaped eagerly to breaking the Union. David Potter describes the situation in The Impending Crisis:

As late as 1846, southerners generally associated disunion with treason. Whatever attraction it may have had as an abstraction, they shrank from secession with patriotic revulsion. Only under the stress of strong emotion did they mention it as a contingency-usually with a disclaimer of some kind by which they crossed themselves, so to speak, to atone for possible sin.

Four years of those high emotions had done some of Calhoun’s work in building a more solid South. When under stress, with a great deal of genuine fear in the mix for a prolonged period one must expect that remedies that once seemed extreme through familiarity grow more and more reasonable.

Probably everyone has lived through a situation something like their own. Most of us do not go around contemplating violence against those who hurt us. But anger trumps our better judgment and in unworthy moments we think about ending our suffering by ending our tormentors. Everyone gets angry. But if we got hurt and so got angry every day, we remain trapped in that stressful state and our thoughts from those times become more and more a part of our daily existence, until we not only think the previously unthinkable but find ourselves far more willing to turn thought into action than in the past.

Do I describe the white owners or their black slaves? Not every owner treated his or her slaves horribly. Nor did they always treat each slave the same way as another. However horrific we consider slavery qua slavery, owners and overseers no more came off some assembly line from Hell than slaves came off one from Heaven. Whatever their legal condition, each population shared in the full diversity of human nature. That does not, I hasten to add, mean we ought to simply pass of less abusive slaveowners as harmless. Nor does it mean we ought to condemn slavery in general but then hold it in reserve for some bad seeds who really have it coming. Rather I think we need to understand, and I know I struggle with it every time I think about the institution and its practitioners and victims, that one of the reasons we should abhor slavery is the way it twists and corrupts normal human ties into a perverse, intimate, brutal shade of their healthy selves.

Nat Turner's Revolt of August 1831 claimed the lives of no more than 70 whites, including the infant who held legal title to him in 48 hours. Virginia executed 55, including Turner, and vigilante violence claimed the lives of up to 200 black people not involved.

Nat Turner’s Revolt of August 1831 claimed the lives of about seventy whites, including children.

For the white South, abolition meant dispossession, torture, and death at the hands of their former slaves. However otherwise happy and secure, they had to know the deep fragility of their system. They had genuine horrors not just from the Haitian Revolution but from genuine occasions of slaves rising up and massacring whites as Nat Turner had. To them, only slavery could control black people and make white people safe among them. Worse still, many measures short of outright abolition could imperil that control. Slaves reading abolitionist literature could get ideas. Slaves seeing accounts of debates over slavery in Southern newspapers might get the same ideas. If they knew they had friends in the North ready to help, why not rise up?

Of course, the white South could look North and see that free and very unequal black populations did not imperil the existence of white rule. They could look to the history of any number of Northern states and see that abolition did not bring calamity. But they could also look and see that they had far more black people to manage than any Northern state and many of those Northern states that relieved themselves of slavery did so in part by selling their slaves into the South.

We know that no race war ensued, but they did not. When they talk about fearing their future security they do mean in part their economic security, but they also mean their lives and those of their loved ones. That kind of fear can and often does prompt radical courses of action.

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