The Army of Northern Virginia and Slavery: By the Numbers

The Confederacy’s latter-day partisans have no shortage of arguments, making up for the dearth of quality with a surfeit of quantity. One must use the tools one has. I’ve taken a swipe or two before at the idea that ordinary soldiers had no stake in slavery and therefore the Civil War and the Confederacy had nothing to do with it, as well as its slightly more plausible variant that we should not operate under a presumption of proslavery intent in understanding military service with the Confederacy. I think the case against the proposition that the average men and occasional woman in a gray or “gray” uniform doesn’t require much further development and planned to leave it be.

Robert E. Lee, Virginia aristocrat, military officer, and future confederate general

Robert E. Lee

Plans changed this week when I remembered Joseph Glatthaar’s statistical study, Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia. It concerns the Confederacy’s principal field army. For most of its existence, Robert E. Lee had command of the force. The ANV fought in all of the battles most laypeople have heard of, against the familiar rotating cast of United States generals that ended with Ulysses S. Grant. I took an interest in Glathaar’s study when it first came out, but flinched at the price tag and its distance from my usual interests. I don’t mind straight military history, but have a much stronger interest in the politics that produce it. Likewise my interests have skewed rather more than I anticipated when I started this blog toward the Antebellum. When it fell off my radar, I hadn’t read an ebook and didn’t own a Kindle. Now I do and the digital version comes with a very reasonable price.

Before I get into the findings themselves, Glatthaar’s method deserves some explanation. Using existing records, he developed a random sample of 600 soldiers. The sample took in infantry, cavalry, and artillery in proportion to their numbers in the army and represents officers and enlisted men similarly. It does not attempt to achieve the same balance with regard to the home states of the soldiers, though it does include men from all eleven Confederate states plus Kentucky and Maryland. The most in the sample hailed from Virginia (239), followed by North Carolina (96) and Georgia (86). Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, and Texas tied for last at four each.

According to Glatthaar,

Just under half (46.7%) of all soldiers in Lee’s army were born in Virginia or North Carolina. With South Carolina and Georgia added, 3 of every 4 (75.1%) troops came from those Southern coastal states. One in every 13 (7.8%) was born in the North (a state that remained in the Union) or in a foreign country. Those numbers included young Private Bishop, the son of a fisherman, who originally hailed from New York and moved with his family to South Carolina.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. (2011-06-15). Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee (Civil War America) (p. 4). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.

I cannot claim any special knowledge of statistics, but this sounds like about what one would expect for a fair, random sample from which we can confidently generalize about the ANV. Glatthaar also notes that 55.0% of the men resided in the Upper South, so one can’t claim he cherry picked a sample from the Cotton Kingdom’s black belts and then shockingly found them especially involved with slavery.

Right then, we’ve got a decent enough sample. What did Glatthaar find out about the men of the Confederacy’s preeminent army?

Soldiers were more likely to come from heavier slaveholding counties than the recruiting states as a whole. […] Their home counties on average had 16.6% more slaves to whites than the average of all the counties in those states.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. (2011-06-15). Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee (Civil War America) (pp. 5-6). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.

One would expect more enslaved counties to show up more prominently in the rolls of an army defending slavery in a nation created for that purpose. A persistent person might argue that residence in a highly-enslaved county doesn’t necessarily make you more likely to favor slavery. The argument doesn’t make much sense considering the centrality of slavery in the South as a whole, let alone in its more enslaved than average counties where human property would have a more prominent and pervasive role still.

We could stop here and content ourselves with a data point in favor of an already well-supported position, but Glatthaar had more data still. Here we get into the real meat of things. It turns out that not only did men from unusually enslaved counties, by the standards of their own states, appear more frequently in Lee’s army. Men from slaveholding households did as well:

According to the 1860 census, 1 in every 20 (4.9%) adults owned slaves and 1 in every 4 (24.9%) households had slaves. In Lee’s army, more than 1 in every 8 (13.0%) soldiers owned slaves, and for those who lived with family members, approximately 3 in every 8 (37.2%) had slaves. Four of every 9 (44.4%) troops resided in a slaveholding household, some 78.0% greater than the South as a whole.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. (2011-06-15). Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee (Civil War America) (p. 9). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.

Near to half of all men in Lee’s army lived in a slaveholding household. They grew up intimately acquainted with and materially benefiting from the stolen labor of black Americans. Furthermore, that number far exceeds the typical proportion of slaveholding families in the South.

Glatthaar doesn’t provide breakdowns by state for context, but I have them from my past work with the 1860 census. If recast as a state, Lee’s army would have had a greater percentage of enslaver households than any state of the Border or Upper South by a large margin. North Carolina, the most slaveholding among those states, topped out with 27.71% of households owning at least one person. It would even beat the Lower South’s average (37.01%), coming in between South Carolina’s 45.53% and Georgia’s 37.38%. This would make the State of Lee the South’s fourth most enslaving.

The Deep South in the 1860 census. (Click to enlarge.)

The Deep South in the 1860 census. (Click to enlarge.)

I’ve seen the complaint that Glatthaar went through a tremendous geneology project, pinning the slaveholding of fifth cousins, twice removed and essentially a strangers on some poor solider out of pure malice. Those who want to believe such things can, but Glatthaar used the United States census. It lacks any such remote information. The census takers organized their data by household. The parlance of the time called everyone who lived under the same roof or on the same property a family, even inmates at insane asylums and boarding houses where everyone understood no blood relation need exist.

Nor did Glatthaar cherry pick the wealthiest soldiers about, counting on the fact that wealth meant slaves in the antebellum South to make his point. Slaveholders, including the wealthy ones, do appear somewhat more prominently, but in measures of personal and family wealth the plurality of soldiers still could claim no more than $400 (35.8%). Another 5.9% came in below $800. By period terms, this made them poor. The middle class, between there and $4,000 accounted for another 22.8% of the ANV. The wealthy made up the remaining 35.4%. This creates a substantial gap in the middle, but the very wealthy would include large slaveholders who one would expect to have a stronger enthusiasm for the cause:

Approximately 92% of all soldiers’ households with a minimum total wealth of $ 4,000 possessed slaves. More than 1 in every 15 soldiers or his family (6.9%) achieved planter status— owning 20 or more slaves— and 1 in 11 soldiers (9.3%) resided in planter households. By contrast, 1 in 32 (3.2%) households in the South qualified as a planter. This was not, therefore, a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. Slaveholders, who also happened to be rich, served in disproportionately high numbers in Lee’s army. It was a rich, moderate, and poor man’s fight.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. (2011-06-15). Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee (Civil War America) (pp. 9-10). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.

I know none of this can persuade those who have convinced themselves that the ordinary soldier had no interest in slavery. If the documentary record and bare census figures can’t do the job, then one more study never would. But for the rest of us, the numbers clearly show not just an increased interest in slavery for Lee’s army, in every way one would think to look, but one radically higher than coincidence or mere statistical noise could ever account for. They also, I must add, exceeded my own already generous expectations. I imagined thirty to forty percent more slaveholding households than the Southern norm, not nigh eighty.


Thomas Fleming’s Evidence, by the Numbers

Yesterday, I looked into Thomas Fleming’s theory that white Americans embraced slavery not out of white supremacy or greed, but rather fear of slave revolts and to spite abolitionists. He argues that therefore the nation might have avoided a civil war and the ensuing decades of racial hatred by a plan of compensated emancipation or by spreading slavery across the continent. If only those wicked abolitionists had not forced white southerners to keep pillaging the lives of black Americans to fill their own pockets, we might have avoided racism. To add to the already lengthy catalog of absurdities we must believe in order to take Fleming seriously, he asks us to believe white supremacy developed not in the 1600s, but rather circa 1865. The reasons to reject Fleming’s theory only constitute the entire history and historiography of American slavery, which one cannot ask him to sully his eyes with before opining on the subject. What reasonable person would expect him to behave like a historian?

But Fleming does present two pieces of evidence for his proposition:

Two thirds of the plantations in the South had black overseers – talented black men to whom the plantation owners gave the responsibility of raising and selling their crops. Numerous other plantation jobs that required skilled labor were also performed by black men.

Fleming still asks us to ignore how black skin made one a presumed slave who must prove otherwise, while white skin made one inherently free. This alone would make the system clearly one of white supremacy even if the rest holds true. One the point of slaves performing skilled labor, Fleming found a stopped clock moment. Enslavers did have many slaves trained in skilled trades, which reduced their slave labor camps’ reliance on the cash-driven commercial market in the perpetually cash-poor South. By doing so, they made their plantations more efficient and profitable than they would be if the enslavers had to instead pay for the skill and labor of white craftsmen. Furthermore, a slave so trained could fetch a significantly higher price in resale than an ordinary field hand. Thus we cannot understand the presence of skilled enslaved people, always a minority of enslaved labor regardless, as a challenge to slavery or a departure from racist norms. Rather the enslavers reinforced and improved their pillage of black lives by seeing some of their human property trained. Even in Nazi Germany, where the regime literally planned the extermination of people deemed subhuman, the typical concentration camp had attached factories where the state would enslave laborers for its own purposes before murdering them. Yet nobody argues that the Nazis had no particular animus against their victims except cranks and the regime’s admirers. I don’t think even Fleming would do that.

If skilled slaves gave Fleming a point of fact, albeit one he can only have misunderstood by never cracking a book on the subject, then his count of black overseers raises further questions. Fleming seems almost perfectly innocent of any Civil War or slavery historiography produced later than the 1920s. He doesn’t know, doesn’t care, or chooses to mislead his readers. Yet suddenly we have a number: two-thirds. He doesn’t cite his source on it, but the comments over at HNN suggest that he got his count from Time on the Cross. That seems very likely. Here, at last, Fleming clearly read something written after he turned four. That he chose a book full of questionable methodology and generally discredited a mere forty-six years ago constitutes remarkable progress. I don’t have Time on the Cross on hand to check directly, but I acquired its book-length refutation, Herbert G. Gutman’s Slavery and the Numbers Game, last year for its own merits. A quick trip to the index brought me to Gutman’s section on the number of black overseers.

There I learned that Fogel and Engerman, ToC’s authors, did find a healthy majority of plantations where “the top nonownership management was black.” In slave labor camps where sixteen to fifty slaves labored, they found only one in six used a white overseer. In large camps, only a quarter of plantations used a white overseer. Very large camps, with over a hundred enslaved, white overseers came to just thirty percent. If they didn’t use white overseers, then they must have used black overseers and it certainly looks like a majority did so.

However, Gutman looked at the methodology and found a few problems:

this statistic is just an inference. No empirical data exist to support it. David and Temin properly point out: “[Q]uite obviously, there are two unstated premises underlying the inference that the authors draw form these census observations: (1) they assume a large plantation could not be properly run without an overseer in addition to the resident owner, and (2) they suppose the large plantations must have been well run – because they were so efficient. Once the latter presumption is withdrawn, however, this piece of inference unravels along with the rest of the fabric of Fogel and Engerman’s argument.”

In other words ToC sees the absence of a white overseer as proof of a black overseer. By this same method, my ignorance of the winner of the lottery last week proves I won it. Can I have my billion dollars now? I promise to do ridiculous amounts of history with it.

It gets worse. ToC complains that scholars have overestimated the number of white overseers because they treat everyone who put that job down on the census as an overseer of slaves when the term also applied to supervisors in other sectors of the economy. That might make linguistic sense, and it pays to stay mindful of the shifting meaning of words in historical sources, but the very census figures that ToC relies upon prove them wrong:

How many white overseers were listed in the 1860 federal census? No fewer than 37,883. If their residence patterns had not changed greatly since 1850, about 10 percent lived outside the South. That leaves about 34,000 free white southern overseers in 1860. If we assume (and this surely is greatly exaggerated) that one in three managed free southern farms, free southern factories, and slave southern factories, that still leaves about 22,000 white overseers available to supervise southern plantations. Is that a large or small number? Once more, it depends. Scarborough’s study helps answer this question. In the sugar, rice, and cotton regions, “most planters employed an overseer when the total number of working field hands approached thirty.”

Scarborough’s study goes on to distinguish between field hands, who the overseer would directly manage, and various household slaves who he probably did not. About fifty slaves would work out to thirty field hands, who would likely have an overseer.

How many slave-owners in 1860 owned fifty or more slaves? About ten thousand. After making the above generous allowances, about twenty-two thousand free white plantation overseers lived in the South in 1860, more than twice the number needed to manage these large plantations. So far, no allowance has been made for slave overseers. It is now assumed that F+E are correct, but that two thousand […] slaves labored as overseers. That would mean that eight thousand white overseers labored for the owners of fifty or more slaves. And what of the other fourteen thousand? Did they labor for owners of fewer than fifty slaves, and, therefore, fewer than thirty field hands? Were many unemployed in 1860? Or had large numbers of whites misrepresented their occupations to the census enumerators.  The inference that 0.5 percent of adult male slaves labored as overseers rests on F+E’s assumption that “most” planters did not employ white overseers and, therefore, had to employ slave overseers. If that was so, what did most white overseers in the South do for a living in 1860? Rather than answer that question, we also need to put the 0.5 percent aside. The antebellum South had slave overseers, but their number was insignificant. They deserve study, but their place in the southern slave occupational structure and plantation managerial system needs to be measured more carefully first. It is not possible that “within the agricultural sector, about 7.0 percent of the [slave] men held managerial posts.” That percentage is much closer to 3.0 percent, and nearly all were drivers.

A slave driver did occupy a sort of managerial position, but had a different job from overseers. Rather they reported to the overseer or the enslaver himself and could hope for better treatment, but remained enslaved. They tried to appease the overseer by enforcing some discipline in the fields and so moderate his treatment of the enslaved. This makes them neither angels nor demons. A good driver could serve for years, in large part due to his own ability rather than the color of his skin. He might manage the labor camp better than a white overseer. But driver and overseer remained separate roles, the first by definition black and enslaved, the second almost always white and free.

By Fleming’s standards, I have no doubt that Time on the Cross constitutes cutting-edge scholarship. He doesn’t seem to have availed himself of much else written in the past century, if he bothered at all. He has the training to know better. (Please see the correction below.) His readers have every right to expect better of someone who presents himself as a historian. Yet he still wrote what he did. I can’t explain errors of this magnitude and consistency as a simple matter of differing interpretation or inattention to detail. Fleming did not make mistakes, but rather knew full well what he wrote. He either set out to deceive or doesn’t care. I don’t know which reflects worse upon him.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Fleming closes with a homily that tells rather more than he probably thinks:

If enough Americans – white and black – understand how we created this perfect storm of opposing good intentions, perhaps we can begin the struggle to achieve mutual forgiveness.

Everybody knows why white Americans should want forgiveness, even though few of us consider how we might earn it. Rather we usually seem most concerned with not earning it as studiously as possible. But what have black Americans done to white Americans that requires our forgiveness? What similar sin adheres to black skin, prosecuted with violence and cruelty down four centuries? Does Fleming mean that they dared darken the white man’s continent with their presence and so disturbed the peace of white minds? That they produced the true villain of his piece, the abolitionists? That those miscreants through their ceaseless, fanatical agitation turned the reaping of lives from a thing done by white Americans to black Americans into a thing done by white Americans to one another? Is that where the tragedy begins, not at Jamestown but Sumter? Nineteenth century white Americans might agree with all that. I don’t know why we should.

Update: I previously wrote here that Fleming had a historian’s training, but down in the comments Jimmy Dick told me otherwise. I rechecked Fleming’s biography and found that I misread his Fordham degree as a doctorate. Sorry that I messed up, Gentle Readers. While one doesn’t necessarily need a terminal degree, or even graduate work, to do good history it does provide training in the task. By presenting himself as a historian, as Fleming has done for decades, he asks his audience to assume that he either has the training or has worked out something equivalent on his own. With regard to slavery and the Civil War, Fleming has instead demonstrated what one can accomplish without the benefit of such training.

The Slave State of Illinois, Part Four

Edward Coles

Edward Coles

(Previous parts: 12, 3)

Aged Thomas Jefferson (seventy-one, with twelve years yet to live) let young Edward Coles (twenty-eight) down in 1814. Dolly Madison’s cousin and her husband’s personal secretary did not take the disappointment well. The Sage of Monticello pleaded that a man of his age simply could not get involved in new political movements, but Coles pointed out that the other revolutionary polymath, Ben Franklin, stirred himself easily at that age. Franklin turned seventy-one in 1777, while ambassador to France. The next year he secured the French alliance that Jefferson had celebrated. He stayed in France until 1785, then returned home the year he turned seventy-nine. Two years later, the gouty octogenarian attended the constitutional convention. Once home in Pennsylvania, he took up the causes of abolition and integration, freeing the two slaves he owned. Franklin published abolitionist essays the very year he died. And Thomas Jefferson, with his plantation and his slaves, begged off on account of his advanced years? Not everyone ages with equal grace, but Coles did not ask much more of Jefferson than some writing. His correspondence proved that much still within the Sage of Monticello’s powers.

Jefferson always found the time not quite ripe for emancipation and, just coincidentally, also preferred that any effort to build a movement for it spread very slowly and secretly. He probably did mean for them to eventually succeed, but he treasured the gifts slavery gave him in the form of his life and respectability as a Virginia planter more than his principles about liberty. Coles had enough of those excuses, as modern readers do. Jefferson could and did write eloquently, if anonymously, about the evils of slavery. He at least implicitly indicted himself in those writings. But Jefferson would make only the most timid attempts at reducing slavery where it already existed, and retreated swiftly from those. His personal sentiment rarely translated into real policy, but often led him to oppose limits on slavery.

Coles fretted far less about all that and turned mostly idle sentiment into constructive action. He and his seventeen slaves decamped for Illinois in 1819, the year after it attained statehood. He toured the area twice previously with an eye to good areas to buy land. While going down the Ohio, Coles gathered up his slaves, freed them, and promised each family 160 acres of good land on the Mississippi. Furthermore, Coles settled down nearby and helped them establish themselves. He freed more slaves by the time he turned thirty-three than Jefferson would in all his eighty-three years.

Coles, as a man of property known to the powerful in Washington, rose quickly in Illinois and stood for governor in 1822. The four-way race included two openly proslavery candidates. Had slavery’s supporters united behind one of them, Coles would have lost handily. Their division let him slip through with 2,845 votes to 2,687 for the runner-up, a margin of only 158 votes of 8,606 cast. Coles’ foes swept the southern, and southern-settled, part of the state while he carried the north. A few years earlier, Coles probably would have lost handily, even if his opponents failed to unite. After the War of 1812, vigorous Yankee immigrants finally flooded into the state as everyone expected them to do back in 1787. We should not, however, consider them all abolitionists of Coles’ stripe. Far more wanted the land for themselves and saw slavery as something that would disgust black-hating whites and keep them away, leaving it all to a bunch of white slaveholders who would lord it over their poorer white neighbors.

The victory of 1822 came, as silver linings often do, with a cloud attached. The same election that made Coles Illinois’ second governor gave him a proslavery majority in the legislature. When he came up with plans to revise the slave code and reduce kidnappings of free blacks, they rejected each notion in turn and moved for a referendum to authorize a new constitution where they could excise Illinois ban on slavery. That vote required a two-thirds majority, which they got in the state Senate but lost in the House by a single vote. The proslavery men promptly ousted the holdout, replaced him with one of their own, and carried the motion and began their celebrations.

The referendum came in 1824 and drew a crowd. Only 4,532 Illinoisans voted for president that year, but 11,612 voted on whether or not to rewrite their constitution to permit slavery. The final tally came in 6,640 for the status quo, still quite far from freedom, and 4,972 for slavery. Illinois squeaked by. Slaveholders learned their lesson. The rush of slaves that came into Illinois between 1810 and 1820 reversed, slowly. The apprenticeship system remained for decades yet and restrictions on free blacks endured still longer, but the state narrowly avoided becoming another Kentucky or Missouri. As most immigrants to new territories and states came from the territories and states immediately adjacent, an enslaved Illinois might have meant an enslaved Iowa and Wisconsin and a very different nineteenth century America.

The Slave State of Illinois, Part Three

Edward Coles

Edward Coles

(Parts One and Two.)

Land speculators could not get Congress to enslave Illinois, but Southern settlers brought some slaves anyway. The territorial legislature obliged them by allowing slavery in all but name in an apprentice system, by allowing almost free import of slaves, and by adopting laws to make life difficult for free black people in the name of keeping enslaved black people as property and the territory otherwise as white as possible. With Missouri’s successes, and the riches they brought, just across the river, why not turn Illinois into a slave state in name as well as fact?

After 1818, statehood freed Illinois from the Northwest Ordinance that required the old pretenses. The local slaveholders could enslave Illinois and no one would gainsay them…except other Illinoisans. Not all of them wanted slavery in their new state and they had a leader in Edward Coles, an antislavery man from Virginia. Coles does not loom large in histories of the early Republic, but the man had connections. He served as James Madison’s personal secretary. His brother Isaac had done the same for Madison, and for Jefferson before him. While working in Washington, Coles decided to write to another Virginia antislavery man, Thomas Jefferson.

Coles learned his antislavery politics at William and Mary, but like Jefferson he spent some time hiding them. He knew he stood to inherit slaves if he said nothing and those whom Coles inherited, he could free. His father’s death in 1808 brought him a large plantation and twelve slaves. Coles promptly told his family of his intentions and found them not best pleased by the notion. Freeing slaves in Virginia would also require considerable legal effort, so Coles delayed. He put his plantation up for sale but kept the slaves and kept his plan for them secret. In 1810, Coles joined the Madison administration. But Coles did not give up his dream. He finally wrote to the Sage of Monticello on July 31, 1814.

Coles opened by apologizing for taking up the great man’s time, especially with such a thorny issue as gradual emancipation, but

My object is to entreat and beseech you to exert your knowledge and influence, in devising, and getting into operation, some plan for the gradual emancipation of Slavery. This difficult task could be less exceptionably, and more successfully performed by the revered Fathers of all our political and social blessings, than by any succeeding statesmen; and would seem to come with peculiar propriety and force from those whose valor wisdom and virtue have done so much in meliorating the condition of mankind. And it is a duty, as I conceive, that devolves particularly on you, from your known philosophical and enlarged view of subjects, and from the principles you have professed and practiced through a long and useful life, preeminently distinguished, as well by being foremost in establishing on the broadest basis the rights of man, and the liberty and independence of your Country, as in being throughout honored with the most important trusts by your fellow-citizens, whose confidence and love you have carried with you into the shades of old age and retirement. In the calm of this retirement you might, most beneficially to society, and with much addition to your own fame, avail yourself of that love and confidence to put into complete practice those hallowed principles contained in that renowned Declaration, of which you were the immortal author, and on which we bottomed our right to resist oppression, and establish our freedom and independence.

We can free the slaves. We need only a sainted founding father, now retired and so immune to the political dangers such a plan would present to the career of a younger Virginian. The genius of Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, can make it so. People trust Thomas Jefferson. They know he’s a rock-solid American patriot. If he led, others would follow.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Still, Coles understood how much he asked of a member of Virginia society. He told Jefferson that his convictions against slavery ran so deep that he aimed to leave quit Virginia for good, leaving behind friends and family, and free all slaves who came into his possession. But if Edward Coles could do that, surely Thomas Jefferson, secure in his retirement, could risk some social ostracism?

Jefferson answered back, on August 25, with a history of his own antislavery efforts and how the Revolution and then politics kept him too busy to gauge if opinion had changed in abolition’s favor since then. Since his retirement, no one has reached out to him about ending slavery so he thought the time not yet ripe. But now he had such a person at hand. Would he help?

This enterprise is for the young; for those who can follow it up, and bear it through to its consummation. It shall have all my prayers, & these are the only weapons of an old man.

And what should Coles, a slaveholder, do until the time finally did prove right?

But in the mean time are you right in abandoning this property, and your country with it? I think not. My opinion has ever been that, until more can be done for them, we should endeavor, with those whom fortune has thrown on our hands, to feed and clothe them well, protect them from all ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as is performed voluntarily by freemen, & be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them. The laws do not permit us to turn them loose, if that were for their good: and to commute them for other property is to commit them to those whose usage of them we cannot control. I hope then, my dear sir, you will reconcile yourself to your country and its unfortunate condition; that you will not lessen its stock of sound disposition by withdrawing your portion from the mass. That, on the contrary you will come forward in the public councils, become the missionary of this doctrine truly Christian; insinuate & inculcate it softly but steadily, through the medium of writing and conversation; associate others in your labors, and when the phalanx is formed, bring on and press the proposition perseveringly until its accomplishment.

Stay in Virginia, young Coles. Keep your slaves too. Treat them well and whisper abolition in secret. Then, someday, it will surely come. Old Jefferson will remember you in his prayers, but he has only those to give. Coles thought better in his September 26 response:

Your time of life I had not considered as an obstacle to the undertaking. Doctor Franklin, to whom, by the way, Pennsylvania owes her early riddance of the evils of Slavery, was as actively and as usefully employed on as arduous duties after he had past your age as he had ever been at any period of his life.

With, one presumes, all the help Jefferson’s prayers could give, Edward Coles took his slaves west to Illinois.

The Slave State of Illinois, Part Two

Despite the pleas of land speculators, Congress would not budge on opening the Northwest Territory to slavery. Neither would Congress stir itself to pass laws seizing and freeing slaves already present. The territorial legislatures did not have the power to introduce it, so far as this non-lawyer can tell. They owed their existence to the same law which prohibited it and could not violate their own organic laws. They might, however, have the power to throw it out.

While slaveholders did not flood into Illinois in a great deluge, creating a South Carolina on the Mississippi, the ambiguity of the situation created enough of a window for the more adventurous ones to come just as they came to similar terrain and climes just across the Ohio and Mississippi. The census found them and their human property in 1800 and every ten years thereafter through 1840.

Illinois by the Numbers, 1800-1860 (Click image for a larger version)

Illinois by the Numbers, 1800-1860 (Click image for a larger version)

The owners of 107 slaves took the chance on Illinois before it had a territorial legislature. Their slaves amounted to 4.25% of the total population, right between New York’s 3.52% and New Jersey’s 5.88% in the same census. From that, one might conclude that Illinois had an embryonic, but healthy slave society. Maybe some sections of the state did, but a decade more brought only 61 more slaves into the territory. The small numbers made that into a 63.69% increase, but at the same time the free black population came in at more than eight times the previous total. The white population, not limited by the heavy social and legal constraints placed on all black people, grew even faster.

But then 1820 shows the slave population ballooning out to 917. The greater increase in the white population meant that they constituted a smaller proportion of the states’ totals, but in just a decade Illinois blacks went from 78.49% free to 66.74% enslaved. What happened?

Popular sovereignty, not yet called that and never explicitly adopted, rode into the gap left by Congressional indifference. The slaveholders willing to risk Illinois wanted some security and the legislature gave it in the form of an apprenticeship system that amounted to slavery in all but name. The legislature followed the example of Ohio and Indiana in passing laws that forbade the immigration of free blacks. In December, 1813, the territory gave free blacks fifteen days’ notice to vacate the state or suffer 39 lashes. Other laws required them to hold certificates proving their freedom. Unfortunates who did not register and get their certificate, and have it on them when stopped, the law declared runaways. The sheriff would hold them and advertise their presence. If no owner appeared, the “runaway” would go on up for auction as an indentured servant for a year.

So far as slaves went, the territory permitted non-residents to rent their slaves out to residents in Illinois for up to a year without the slave receiving freedom at the end of the term. This the territory justified under the claim that, among other things, white men could not make salt. It amounted to virtually open importation of slaves, so long as a resident could find a convenient slaveholder with a few to spare and, if necessary, a willingness to rotate them out of the territory every year or so.

Statehood came in 1818, with the apprentice system of slave codes in place. Illinois outlawed slavery in its constitution and kept right on practicing it with the serial numbers filed off. That year freed the state from the Northwest Ordinance for good and soon after the Missouri Compromise opened that state to slavery, making Illinois a stop on the road to slavery’s new west. Some Illinoisans wished that more would stay and settle their own state. More wished they could get in on the riches that slavery brought to Missouri and so a movement grew to establish slavery outright and openly in the Land of Lincoln.

Two Kinds of Missouri for Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

Looking at Missouri’s 1850 census returns down to the county level yesterday got me wondering just how many different Missouris lurked behind the numbers. I decided to cut a few out and see what appeared.

It would not do to take this too far. I made no effort to geographically consolidate these states within a state, ensure they had sensible borders, or had anything else in common save for their demographics. Listing here should not imply some kind of secessionist, or even merely dissenting, movement from establishment Missouri or Southern politics. The point of the exercise is to tease out contours in the state’s demographics and liken them to peers and other, similar situations in a broader context.

Delaware in Missouri, 1850

Delaware in Missouri, 1850 (Click for a larger version.)

I began with the most obvious sectioning: the Missouri counties that had about the same number of slaves or fewer, proportionately, as Delaware in 1850. The first state’s three counties together held 2,290 slaves in that census, for 2.50% of the state population of 91,532. Delaware in Missouri includes twenty counties with a total population of 40,428 people and 603 slaves. That works out to 5.91% of the state’s total population, 6.72% of its white population, and 0.71% of its black population. It has less than half the population of the real Delaware and while 11.25% of Delaware’s black population lived as slaves, 93.93% of Delaware in Missouri’s black population did. To white eyes, Delaware in Missouri must have looked pretty free. Its 39 free blacks knew otherwise.

Still, one could read Delaware in Missouri’s demographics as an omen of the future. Few people lived there, but in 1850 Missouri still had frontiers left in it just waiting for free white settlement to drive the enslaved percentage down, form an indifferent and vaguely antislavery bloc, and grow the state to freedom. Thomas Hart Benton certainly thought so, and he had thirty years of statewide politics under his belt to back him up.

1790 New York in Missouri in 1850

1790 New York in Missouri in 1850 (Click for a larger version.)

Delaware would not take compensated emancipation even when Lincoln offered it, so perhaps we should not look there for demographic signs of incipient emancipation even if the state is such an oddity in the South. The last two states to emancipate before the Civil War, New York and New Jersey, might make for better benchmarks. In 1790, both still had slave codes on the books. New York held 21,193 slaves (6.23%) and New Jersey held 11,423 (6.20%). If they could emancipate with so few, then in principle Missouri could too. James Tallmadge certainly thought so in 1820 when he ignited the Missouri controversy by putting an amendment for gradual emancipation into the act admitting Missouri as a state.

Taking New York’s 1790 benchmark of 6.23% enslaved, we come up with more than forty counties. Together, they have 36.49% of the state’s population, 40.00% of its white population, 62.18% of its free black population, and 12.34% of its slave population. Once more, a vast majority (86.88%) of its black population live as slaves. New York enslaved 81.91% of its black population in 1790 and still managed to emancipate in 1799. More than a third of the Show Me State’s residents live in New York in Missouri and 1790 New York proved that a state with its degree of slavery could emancipate. Benton’s vision of a free Missouri does seem near at hand here, and in a section of the state with enough people that we can’t dismiss it as a remote aberration like we could Delaware in Missouri.

Missouri in 1850

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton thought his Missouri home a Western state, not a Southern state. Nor did he count his preferred transcontinental railroad route from St. Louis as a Southern route. Roughly midway between Chicago and New Orleans, Benton needed only show a map to support the claim. Missouri had slavery and so belongs in the South, but not quite in the same part of the South as the Carolina Lowcountry, Mississippi Delta, or Alabama river bottoms. Like the rest of the Border States, its demography ran somewhere between North and South.

I have previously looked at demographics on the level of states and sections, but Benton’s position seems like as good a chance as any to narrow the focus and look just within a particular state. The University of Virgina’s historical census browser supplied the raw data, down to the level of individual counties. It differs somewhere from the state aggregates I took directly from Census Department summaries, but across the whole state that adds up to less than a one percent discrepancy. That could come from human error on my part, especially considering the amount of numbers typed into a spreadsheet in quick succession, but I think it’s close enough to make fair comparisons in any event.

For context, the Sixth Census found the United States 13.82% enslaved, with a typical variance of up to 29.67% enslaved. Taking out the almost absolutely free North and just counting the South puts those numbers at 33.15% enslaved, with a typical range from 19.35% to 46.95%. How does Missouri measure up? It enslaved 12.88% of its population, including some of Benton’s own human property. That brings it in well below Southern norms. That low percent enslaved still meant bondage for 97.09% of its black population, though. One does not find another Delaware (2.50% enslaved and that amounting to only 11.25% of its black population) or Maryland (15.50% enslaved, 54.74% of its black population) beside the Mississippi and astride the Missouri. But nor does one find another South Carolina (57.59% enslaved, 97.73% of its black population) or Mississippi (51.09% and 99.70%, respectively).

But a place as big as Missouri, until the admission of Texas the biggest state in the Union, can hide a lot of diversity inside it. Fortunately the census has breakdowns by county. A county in most states probably does not seem like a big deal to most modern Americans. But in 1850 the telegraph didn’t even reach California from the East Coast. Nor, of course, did rail link the two. Most people moved by foot or by horse over roads we might barely recognize as such. Poorer, slower communication and transportation made for a much bigger world where the nature of small numbers and isolated populations could generate a lot of heterogeneous areas in a space we would call quite confined.

Due to the large size of the spreadsheet, I had to split it in two. Sorry about that.


Missouri in 1850, counties Adair to Knox


Missouri in 1850, counties Laclede to Wright and state totals.

Missouri’s hundred counties do not disappoint. The most enslaved, Howard, weighs in at 35.01% enslaved. While that makes Howard nearly thrice as enslaved as the state average, it hardly casts a shadow over South Carolina and Mississippi. It would hardly stand out in Virginia (33.24%) or North Carolina (33.20%). If we call a black belt county a county where half or more of the population live as slaves, Howard doesn’t fit even after it exceeds the national norms. Lafayette and Saline counties join it in enslaving more than 30% of their populations, but all three have more Upper South than black belt in their demographics. Only fourteen other counties exceed South’s lower bound of 19.35% and qualify as typically enslaved.

But Missouri at least includes a kind of Upper South. Did it also have a sort of Lower North? Not quite, as in 1850 the North had 262 slaves total, mostly in New Jersey, but all of those states outlawed slavery decades earlier even if gradual emancipation meant they still had residual slaves waiting for freedom and the occasional superannuated slaves born too early to benefit from the laws. As Missouri still had legal slavery, Delaware makes for a better benchmark. The first state had 2,290 slaves in 1850, just 2.50% of its population. Of its black population, 88.75% lived free. Twenty of Missouri’s counties came in below Delaware’s benchmark.

It appears then that we have two Missouris. One, including the Delawares and other very lightly enslaved places, looks very much like Benton’s vision. It includes much of the state’s land and its demographics do not differ all that much from states on the edge of emancipation decades earlier and a few degrees further North. But the other Missouri looks more like the Upper South. Down the Missouri valley, profitable plantations grew hemp and tobacco like those in Virginia and North Carolina. Standing there in 1850, with Indian country on the edge of organization and opening to white settlement so near, both measures Benton favored, the future must have looked very promising for slavery indeed.

The Sections by Race

My past census and longitudinal posts have focused on slavery, but I’ve also alluded to the racial mix of the sections. Most black Americans lived in the South, mostly as slaves. I largely assumed the corollary that the North had a pretty incredibly white population. Partly I don’t think of it very much because I live in a very white part of the North. Partly the reality of slavery draws the eye. I probably have some unconscious or partly conscious desire not to think about what the extreme whiteness of the section implies about it, even after grappling with some examples of period racism. Even when black Americans arrived in the North, they found plenty of white Americans eager to get rid of them and keep them away.

Black American in the nation and the sections (Click for a larger version.)

Black Americans in the nation and the sections. (Click for a larger version.)

As all the numbers have agreed, the vast majority of black people living in America during its first seven decades lived in the South. But seeing it on the chart makes it clear that as early as 1790, the North and South are both almost similarly removed from the mix that the national aggregate would expect of around 19.27% black, if in opposite directions. One can’t really blame that early split on waves of immigration. Their story comes, at least in part, through the relatively gentle downward trend in the national line as they swell the white population at a rate greater than the native-born black population can grow naturally. The only black immigrants reaching America in substantial numbers, of course, arrived in the bellies of slave ships.

White Americans as Percent of National and Sectional

White Americans in the Nation and the Sections. (Click for a larger version.)

And white Americans give the inverted version of the same story. In absolute numbers, both sections have more white people than black people, but except for the 1820 census the North always had a substantially greater white population than the national figures would suggest, its surplus also constituting the South’s deficit and to a large degree its slave population. I think it would overstate the case to call the sections worlds apart, but they certainly had substantial differences despite their shared language, history, and other cultural ties.

All of this reminds me of the perennial immigrant story: People come to America and find it full not of opportunity but rather locals who would prefer to throw them back in the sea. (My own town did this, if with Lake Huron instead of the Atlantic Ocean.) The first generation or so faces serious hostility, ends up in an ethnic ghetto, and has limited opportunities. But a few generations later, that ghetto is home to entirely different immigrants except for an aging population of grandparents. The hard realities that forced the immigrants into the ghetto fade out of the national memory, except as a vague gloss on the cultural narrative common to all immigrants. In fact, the children and great-grandchildren of the ghetto often become part of the next generation of nativists insisting on throwing the new immigrants back into the sea. You could almost set your watch to it.

Most black Americans have ancestors on this continent going back more generations than many, perhaps most, white Americans. I know I can’t trace any ancestors back prior to 1808, or even 1898, without crossing the Atlantic. Their concentrations, then and now, tell a different story. Generations of white Americans insisted on White America, period and so perpetuated the vicious patterns of first generation immigration and far worse for long after slavery ended. I don’t know how finished they are yet.

Of course, that spills back over the other way too. The hated immigrants, the Irish, provided a handy population to recruit to fight to keep local born black people in slavery and, if less willingly, to destroy it. Irish New Yorkers rioted against a draft that they feared would put free black labor in competition with their own for the better part of a week in 1863. It took the Army to restore order.

We have to treat history as sets of topics to have any sensible order to it at all, but the past had all the messy interconenctedness of the present. Slavery, immigration, social justice, labor, and numerous other topics all intertwine deeply.

Longitudes and Weirdness by the Numbers

I said way back when I started posting up data from older censuses than 1860 that I wanted to do some longitudinal analysis. The subsequent census-by-census posts form the groundwork for that, including my ill-considered use of standard deviations. Enough data entry and scene-setting, let’s look at the United States over seven decades.

Slaves as percents of the total population. (Click for a larger version.)

Slaves as percent of the total population. (Click for a larger version.)

The basic lines for North, South, and National are the percentages drawn straight from the aggregate data for the sections and the nation as a whole. I also included minimum and maximum average deviations for the nation as a whole to show the statistical limits before demographic weirdness kicks in. Past those lines amounts to a statistically significant difference from the national norm. Above the National Max line comes an unusually high level of slavery. Below comes just the opposite, an unusual lack. The North Max and South Min mark out the boundaries of deviation from the expected sectional norms, meaning high slavery for the North and low slavery for the South.

Plotted out on the y-axis, the separation between the sections really stands out. So does the distance between their norms, with Northern maximum slavery hitting zero quite early on. The Southern minimum level of deviation from the slavery norms roughly parallels the national slavery statistics, but always at a higher level.

That said, the math has some kinks in it. The large number of practically free places first appearing in the 1860 census drives the national norm down very hard, but represents very few people. The peak where the national maximum slavery deviation exceeds the Southern aggregate comes in the first census after heavily enslaved Louisiana joined the nation.

Overall, the lines trend toward freedom. But they do not do so uniformly. Rare slavery vanished in the North, but ubiquitous slavery spread through the South, peaking around 1830. After that, the Southern population very slowly and slightly moves more in the direction of freedom. I don’t read much into that, however. Such a small change, especially absent a serious political move away from slavery, (quite the opposite happened) looks very much like the white population, free by definition, growing at just a bit faster rate than the slave population did. However, the movement in the Southern minimum tells the other side of that story: the less enslaved parts of the south progressively enslaved fewer and fewer of their people, dragging the minimum down even as on the other end states pulled the maximum higher and higher. The section pulled apart as the years went by, giving evidence to support Deep South fears about the Upper South turning Yankee.

This data largely repeats what I’ve said in past census-by-census posts, but those got long and wordy and didn’t put the entire trend together. All in all, these lines show the story of a demographically divided nation which spent seventy years growing further apart before the war erupted. By national norms, the South got weird fast. By Southern norms, parts of it got weirder still. At least for innumerates like me, the chart makes much more apparent the trends silently lurking in the raw numbers.

America in 1860

The events of 1860 hardly require an introduction. The election of Lincoln in November and subsequent secession of South Carolina that December speak for themselves. Events quite overtook the census, but the data did reach Washington and see use in Union war plans. The text apologizes for not having all the tabulations and analysis intended, but the war got in the way.

The sixth census found the nation on the edge of war. Though Lincoln did not win a landslide, except in the Electoral College, his opponents had three candidates to divide their votes and so his election only stood to reason. At the heart of the conflict, of course, lay the nation’s 3,953,757 slaves and the future of their condition. Would the alchemy that transformed blood and misery into plantation profits endure or would the victories the Slave Power won over the previous decade prove its last hurrah?

The North in the seventh census. (Click for a larger version.)

The North in the seventh census. (Click for a larger version.)

The nation’s slaves accounted for 12.58% of its population in 1860. Only sixty-one (0.0015%) of those lived in the North and only eighteen in a Northern state: New Jersey. Most of the North’s slaves actually lived in the Utah territory (26, 0.06% of its population.) The Dakota Territory, listed as South Dakota but including the land of that state and modern North Dakota, stands out on another extreme: not a single black person lived there, free or slave. A state or territory could enslave no more than 0.01% of its population and count as normal by Northern standards. After a long run, New Jersey leaves that club. Utah takes its place.

The South in the seventh census. (Click for a larger version.)

The South in the seventh census. (Click for a larger version.)

In the South, as usual, just the opposite story played out. By Southern lights, the North remained bizarrely free. The rest of the nation reverse the comparison. Anything above 15% enslaved counted as significantly far from the national mean. Delaware (1.60%), the District of Columbia (4.24%), Maryland (12.69%), and Missouri (9.72%) come in under that bar, but no other Southern state could. Of the remainder, only Kentucky’s 19.51% even comes close.

But as usual the South could flip things around again and say that by Southern norms, none of those states with a nationally “normal” level of slavery fit inside the South. They would need at least 17.87% enslaved for that, excluding even runner-up Kentucky. Also by Southern lights, anything up to 46.34% enslaved fit into the normal range. Louisiana (46.86%), Mississippi (55.18%), and South Carolina (57.18%) break that demographic ceiling.

I know I’ve said this before, but the numbers really put things in sharp relief. One can easily say the South stood apart from the rest of the United States, distinctly its own place, but every region and every locale within it would claim that status for itself. We all have our own distinctiveness. But demographically, the places closest to the national means do not belong in North or South. Delaware in 1860 would fit within the 1790 North, but even its less than two thousand slaves amount to almost thirty time times the entire Northern slave population.

Of course local distinctiveness comes in hierarchies. Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina form a South within the South. The Deep South in general does much the same. The Upper South and Border States do as well. Setting aside the demographics for a moment, it makes perfect sense to view a region as a containing associated sub-regions that differ from the norms in varying degrees and varying ways. The South and North respectively had more in common with their sectional neighbors than one another, but that does not mean their differences melt away. The real world gave, and continues to give us, many Souths and many Norths, which form parts of many Americas from which people draw and to which they hold multiple, coexisting loyalties. The statistics illuminate some of that messiness and give us measures to judge it by.