Imagining Historical Southerners Complexly

Thanks to author John Green for the phrase to which this post owes its title. He also teaches US history (and has taught World History and English Lit) over on Youtube where he also finds time to vlog one half of the vlogbrothers.

Union prevailed. The fire-eaters’ conspiracy failed. The Armistice of 1850 became the final settlement thanks to the tireless work of Southern Unionists who commanded the support of most of the region’s whites when the votes came in. However ill-omened, the compromise worked. So how did the nation come to new sectional controversies that ultimately culminated in the fire-eaters getting their way in the Secession Winter of 1860-1?

To understand that, we must also understand that Southern Unionists, like people everywhere, had diverse political interests, ideological imperatives, and loyalties. When those align, they appear united and indivisible. We need know no more about Cobb, Stephens, and Toombs than that they opposed secession when things came down to the wire. They had the chance to strike for disunion and chose Union instead, but their lives do not reduce to Union Uber Alles.

Reality, with characteristic lack of consideration, gives us complexities instead of simplicity. Men like the three Georgians did not lack loyalty to slavery. Nor did they have a paramount loyalty to the Union which trumped loyalty to slavery. Rather so long as the two did not conflict, they need not choose between them. The Georgian trio could live with the Armistice, despite any fears, and so saw no conflict between it and their loyalty to slavery. Disunion or Union, to them neither state threatened slavery and so they saw no need to secede. They could have slavery as they liked within or without the Union, so why dispense with the Union in the name of slavery?

The Confederate Cabinet in 1861. Vice-President Stephens sits in the front row, third from left. Toombs sits at far right.

The Confederate Cabinet in 1861. Vice-President Stephens sits in the front row, third from left. Secretary of State Toombs sits at far right.

Despite everyone’s protestations of finality, times can change. If the same men saw no future for slavery within the Union, their two loyalties came into conflict and they must choose. Between the formation of the Confederacy and its appointment of Jefferson Davis as provisional president, Howell Cobb served as its de facto head of state. He resigned to join the Confederate military. Alexander Stephens served as Davis’s Vice-President. Toombs served the Confederacy as a Secretary of State and a general.

We can make too much of the political class, equating them perfectly with the people they represent. But they people they represented did choose them for their roles and their actions do illustrate the broad dynamics at work in historical situations. Though secession proved a broad, popular movement in 1860-1, it never commanded the hearts of every single Southerner. Nor did it occupy them all to the same degree or in the same ways. They had loyalty to their section and to slavery as a means of racial control, but even when undertaking disunion they did not cease to hold more broadly American affections as well.

These men, and the men they represented, still had American bonds of affection. Mystic chords of memory still stretched from every battlefield and patriot’s grave. But they also, just as their Northern counterparts did, had other bonds of affection and other mystic chords of memory that attached to their sections, to their states, and to their social and economic systems.

Looking South, one could imagine when Seabrook’s secession conspiracy fell before the Georgian trio and the voters, collapsing into delay, in action, and electoral defeat, that across the South most white people cleaved the Union first, section and slavery second. But allowing them human complexity reveals they cleaved to Union in a certain way and subject to certain conditions. They told the North as much. That story tomorrow.

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