What did ordinary Confederate soldiers fight for?

A Reunion of Cherokee Confederates

A Reunion of Cherokee Confederates

When speaking of the Confederacy, laypeople and those with a cripplingly narrow focus on matters military often make two related claims. First they will say that the Confederacy cared only incidentally about slavery, but really got worked up over states rights. This mangling of history remains far too common, but I think that most increasingly see it more as a declaration of the speaker’s sympathy with the Confederacy’s actual aims than a judgment earned under the sometimes cruel tutelage of facts. Furthermore, I doubt one would have to go far in any part of the country to find plenty of laypeople and military history enthusiasts who would contest it fiercely.

The second claim has more life in it, coming in at least two variations. The first insists that the Confederacy used slavery as a kind of manufactured issue, a hot button to marshal popular support for more esoteric policies that nobody would have gone to war over. Usually the speaker claims the tariff. I’ve even seen renditions that specify it down to a few cents on the tariff. While cents counted for a great deal more in the nineteenth century, this still seems to cut very close to the bone. The second variant holds that the Confederate political leadership absolutely fought for slavery, the common soldier never. He had no stake in the institution but the smooth operators in the state capitals convinced him that he did. In either case, the speaker usually trots out Robert E. Lee as proof positive that antislavery Confederates existed.

Whatever version of the argument one makes, it holds that essentially the common Confederate soldier lacked the intelligence, education, or sophistication to make sound political judgments in his own interest. In doing so on the part of the vast majority of Confederate soldiery and a large portion of the slave states’ male population of military age, the speaker condemns a large part of the South’s white population. If this takes a form slightly more polite than calling the lot of them a bunch of lack-wit fools, than it does not differ meaningfully in substance. As one would expect, many of the same people take great offense to the very unfair stereotypes which depict the South as a land of backwards, lack-wit fools.

The foolish and unsophisticated exist in every time and place, of course. One could make an argument that Southern indifference to Yankee innovations like public education played a part in giving the South more than its share, but this rarely comes up. Instead we must take it as given, even obvious, that a poor white farmer could not possibly have any interest in saving slavery and would not have allowed racism to irrationally dictate his actions. This requires that his racism, from his perspective, actually entail irrationality. Usually that works the other way around. From the perspective of the racist, racism seems entirely rational and sensible.

Leaving the question of rationality aside we do have some facts to consider. On first blush, these may seem to support the proposition that ordinary Confederate soldiers, and other pro-confederacy whites, had little personal interest in preserving slavery. Further consideration will reveal otherwise.

One must grant that a vast majority of Confederate soldiers did not themselves own slaves. Slaves cost a great deal and the average soldier hardly counted as a man of wealth and property. However, a vast majority of American soldiers who enlisted after 9/11 neither owned property threatened in New York, Virginia, or Pennsylvania, nor had loved ones injured or imperiled in the attacks that day. Did the American government manufacture a grievance for them, which they in their innocence could not see through? Must we believe that they forgot that none of their loved ones died that day? I suspect that any questioned on the point would find the argument risible. Just as they could have an interest in and commitment to the United States and its nebulously defined “way of life” independent of the immediate details of their personal lives, so could white Southerners have a commitment to the South and its own distinctive way of life. This way of life, to the degree it differed from that of other sections, largely revolved around the prosecution and maintenance of slavery.

In this light, a soldier could hope to own slaves in the future as his share of the Dixie-flavored American Dream. He might have slaveholding relatives. He probably, except in the most rugged and remote sections of the South, at least knew one slaveholder by sight. He might have, either personally or through close family, more substantial connections still. Eugene Genovese sketches out a web of such connections, a “conjecture of […] economic, political and cultural forces, incuding intense racism” between poor whites and planters which “made secession and sustained warfare possible” in his 1975 article Yeoman Farmers in a Slaveholder’s Democracy (JSTOR paywall, article accessible through a free account)taking Joshua Venable “dirt farmer of of Hinds County, Mississippi” as a case study:

Josh owned no slaves, worked forty acres of so-so land more or less competently, and struggled to keep his head above water. Fortunately for him, he was kin to Jefferson Venable, owner of the district’s finest Big House, Ole Massa to a hundred slaves, and patron to the local judge as well as the sheriff. Moreover, Josh Venable’s wife was kin to John Mercer, himself “massa” to only ten or twelve slaves but decidedly a man on the make.  […]

Now, poor Josh Venable himself rarely got invited to Cousin Jeff’s home and virtually never to the dining room table. Rather, he was usually invited to an outdoor affair-a barbecue to which many of the nonslaveholders of the neighborhood were also invited to celebrate lay-by or the Fourth of July. Josh also had to notice that he was only invited when many neighboring slaveholders were urged not only to come but to bring all their “niggers.” Still, kin was kin, and Josh got an ostentatious welcome as a member of the family. Ole Massa Jefferson, his own self, once took him by the arm to the barbecue pit to meet the new state senator, whom Ole Jeff had just bought and who might come in handy.

Here we have personal ties to planters. Joshua and Jefferson hardly seem like the best of friends, but Jefferson still had him over and treated him well on the occasion. This sort of behavior naturally creates a kind of sentimental alignment, even among the unrelated.

Josh resented his cousin-so much that he continued to hope that he would someday own even more slaves himself and maybe even reach the pinnacle of success-some day he might be able to make Cousin Jeff a low-interest loan to cover his famous gambling debts, not to mention those debts for somewhat unclear expenditures in New Orleans.

New Orleans served as the antebellum South’s Las Vegas, for those who want to read between the lines.

Josh’s resentment shades into aspiration. He doesn’t loathe Jeff for his success. He wants to become like Jeff, but better, and valuable to him. Ambition can account for plenty of that desire, but more went into it. Josh wanted to help Jeff out with money, just as Jeff helped out others:

Everyone, including Josh, knew that his cousin may have been a little stuffy, may have put on airs, but that he always had a helping hand for anyone in the neighborhood, lack or white. Josh raised some extra corn and a few hogs. What was he supposed to do, hand-carry them to Cincinatti? Wait to sell them to unreliable drovers, who specialized in hard bargains? Cousin Jeff was already ready to pay a fair price even though he could just as easily have increased the orders through his factors and not bothered with such local trivia.

Josh also knew any number of local farmers who raised two or three bales of cotton. If they had to spend $125 each for a cotton gin and then pay the costs of individual marketing, they could not have covered costs. Yet, there was good Ole Jefferson Venable, and the two or three other such worthies, ready to gin the cotton for a fair service charge of 9 or 10 per cent and market it with his own large crop to insure a fair price for his poorer neighors. No one ever accused Ole Jeff of trying to make a dollar off his neighbors. On the contrary, he was quick to send food and supplies to help someone down-and-out. And everyone saw how he sent a few of his hands to help a sick neighbor get in his small crop when everything hung in the balance. If it were not for Ole Jeff and a few others like him, how many of the poorer farmers could make it?

Jefferson and others like him would even hire on the sons of neighbors, giving them odd jobs that might lead to more. One could become an overseer, often a stepping stone to one’s own plantation. If a yeoman had a good year or two and found a deal, he might buy a slave. Should that slave not have immediate work, then the planter would “rent him for a year.” If a farmer ended up with a bumper crop and needed extra labor at a cash-poor time, one of the Jefferson Venables of the area would send a slave over to rent.

And everyone remembered how the local planters sent their slaves to throw up houses for new settlers and did everything possible to get them started.

Put yourself in the shoes of a Joshua Venable. The area’s Jeffersons might not make you feel like quite an equal, but they’ve gone out of their way to help you out and support you. Why would you see them as enemies? Furthermore, since so much of what they did involved using slave labor directly, or indirectly, on your behalf wouldn’t you associate their patronage closely with their slavery?

Even without the planters to serve as patrons, protectors, and role models, it made perfect sense to tie one’s aspirations to future slaveholding. White hands might decide to try somewhere else in a year. They could hare off to Texas or Arkansas. They would demand treatment that slaves could not. Should one find white labor that would not go off to greener pastures and would work as hard as a slave, then even after winning the labor lottery you still needed more hands than the local white population could supply. One would inevitably look to slavery, a fixed fact of life for as long as anyone could remember, as the way to get ahead. Thus one would stand ready, if perhaps not always eager

to ride patrol, to help discipline the slaves, and to take part in the political and police aspects of the slave regime-in short, to think and act life slaveholders even before becoming one. That many were motivated by racism, sadism, or a penchant for putting-on-dog is undeniable. But even without those pleasantries, the path of social duty emerged as the path of self-interest.

It doesn’t take false consciousness or foolishness to arrive at that conclusion and consequently stand ready to fight to save slavery. It would even, necessarily, require ubiquitous racism. The advantages of the system in itself would make converts and produce the racism to order. A poor farmer did not have precisely the same stake in the system as a great enslaver did, but their social, cultural, political, and economic interests all closely aligned.

Genovese’s example concerned poor farmers in the plantation belt. They could hold in the upcountry with fewer slaves. Raw racism may play a larger role, as the undeveloped upcountry with its mostly white populations often understood that the presence of planters meant also the presence of slaves. They’d rather have neither than both, a position not that far from that of some Kansas free state men. If the upcountry men disliked having planters, a species of outsider, dictate to them then they disliked Yankee dictation all the more and might understand further integration with the nation by internal improvements and the resulting commercial intercourse. That could bring the slaves in, and had helped bring them to former upcountry tracts in the past.

But the upcountry white belts did, ultimately, have weaker ties to the Confederate cause because of their smaller investment in and immersion with slavery. The more upcountry-style Border States did not secede. West Virginia bolted Virginia to come back. Sometimes fierce resistance erupted in Eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, and elsewhere beyond slavery’s easy reach. If the South had men with little investment in the slave system, then they lived in those places. If such men fought routinely for the Confederacy, we would expect them to exhibit a high degree of loyalty to it. Yet instead we observe districts ranging from divided to actively rebellious just where we would expect the slavery-indifferent, easily fooled Confederate soldiers to appear most often.

A South Carolina artilleryman at Petersburg.

A South Carolina artilleryman at Petersburg.

I understand the desire to see one’s ancestors, personal or figurative, in only the best light, but it doesn’t make for good history. In the absence of clear evidence to the contrary, it seems far more reasonable to operate under the assumption that people of a time and place act within the general norms rather than against them. This holds true even before we consider the clear fact that the Confederacy made no secret of its purpose, but rather trumpeted it loudly. That alone ought to make it clear that men who signed on knew they fought for slavery and accepted the fact, but even if the Confederate leadership managed a remarkable conspiracy of silence and dissembling, as apologists imagine, the social, economic, and political patterns one sees in Genovese and elsewhere would make a powerful, if somewhat less quotable, case that most Confederates both knew they would and chose to fight and die for slavery.

Examining the new AP US History standards

Last year, the standards published for the AP US History program aroused ire from people who believe they did not sufficiently flatter students, inculcate patriotism, and introduced them to notions that American history involved at least as much conflict between groups as it did consensus. These standards threatened to teach history, a discipline that does not propose to make one feel good. Proposals to review or ban the program in turn drew protests from students in Denver. States considered dropping the program entirely. The Republican National Committee declared the standards

a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects

The RNC went on to complain that the standards left out various named individuals and did include

a biased and inaccurate view of many important events in American history, including the motivations and actions of 17th -19th -century settlers, American involvement in World War II, and the development of and victory in the Cold War

With states threatening the College Board’s profits, the non-profit made the business decision one would expect and produced standards (PDF) more in line with the whitewashing that the RNC, et al, demanded. I could write another post about how we should not look to history with the expectation that it will make us feel good or the costs of doing so to our understanding of the past. Those who demand feel-good national myths rarely concern themselves with such trifles as all that, especially when the costs fall on those they dislike.

I’ve written that post already, so instead I dug up the standards to compare the two. I can’t say that I’ve undertaken a thorough examination of the hundred-plus pages of each, but I dug into the specific content material as that appears to have caused the most controversy and I feel most competent to comment upon it.

In discussing the three-sided contact between European explorers and imperialists, African slaves, and Native Americans, the 2014 standards require students to learn that

Many Europeans developed a belief in white superiority to justify their subjugation of Africans and American Indians, using several different rationales 

From a strictly historical perspective, I don’t see anything at all objectionable about this statement. Europeans developed a belief in white superiority. They subjugated, however imperfectly and often with far more difficulty than traditional accounts admit, Africans and Indians. The College Board gave a direct, clear, precise standard for AP teachers to use.

The equivalent section of the 2015 standards runs in this vein:

Extended contact with Native Americans and Africans fostered a debate among European religious and political leaders about how non-Europeans should be treated, as well as evolving religious, cultural, and racial justifications for the subjugation of Africans and Native Americans.

One comes away with the impression that this debate never reached any clear conclusion. From this a student could take gather that white supremacy, while present, did not form a decisive influence. A competent, well-informed teacher would, of course, expand on standards. A standard can only express a generality, not replace the person at the front of the room. But the expansion demanded by the new standard would involve essentially restating the 2014 standard. How would this constitute an improvement?

By hiding white supremacy under the vagueness of “racial justifications” the College Board only makes it easier to miss and at least implies to teachers that their students do not really need to know it. “Racial justifications” could mean anything, up to and including the exact things that proslavery. The new standards replace precision and clarity with a generality apparently designed to conceal what it should instead reveal. Call me eccentric, but I think students would benefit immensely from hearing the words “white supremacy” in a history class instead of “racial justifications”.

From 2014:

The abundance of land, a shortage of indentured servants, the lack of an effective means to enslave native peoples, and the growing European demand for colonial goods led to the emergence of the Atlantic slave trade.

Reinforced by a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority, the British system enslaved black people in perpetuity, altered African gender and kinship relationships in the colonies, and was one factor that led the British colonists into violent confrontations with native peoples.

And 2015:

As chattel slavery became the dominant labor system in many southern colonies, new laws created a strict racial system that prohibited interracial relationships and defined the descendants of African American mothers as black and enslaved in perpetuity.

The 2015 standard has one thing to recommend for it: it tells exactly how slavery operated. But this hardly redeems the rest of the sentence. Neither standard would win prizes for directness. The “British system” did not enslave anybody; British people did that. The new standard, however, hides the actors and obscure their reasons. Slavery “became the dominant labor system” and “new laws created a strict racial system”. These things apparently just happen. New laws come to us like the wind and rain. Labor systems thrive or fail like the tides. Far be it for us to imagine that people chose to enact and enforce new laws or preferred one system of labor over another.

Here we have 2014 again:


By supplying American Indian allies with deadlier weapons and alcohol and by rewarding Indian military actions, Europeans helped increase the intensity and destructiveness of American Indian warfare.


Interactions between European rivals and American Indian populations fostered both accommodation and conflict. French, Dutch, British, and Spanish colonies allied with and armed American Indian groups, who frequently sought alliances with Europeans against other Indian groups.

Looking closely, one can see the same content. However, the new standard makes it sound much more like the Indians brought conflict upon themselves. Reference to increasing conflict, to say nothing of its intensity and destructiveness, ends up buried under reference to accommodation. One doesn’t write like this when one can help it; the College Board could do so as recently as last year.

The presence of slavery and the impact of colonial wars stimulated the growth of ideas on race in this Atlantic system, leading to the emergence of racial stereotyping and the development of strict racial categories among British colonists, which contrasted with Spanish and French acceptance of racial gradations.

Perhaps I missed it, but I find no equivalent of this statement in the 2015 standards.

In 2014, the College Board said:

Many white Americans in the South asserted their regional identity through pride in the institution of slavery, insisting that the federal government should defend that institution

In 2015?

Regional interests often trumped national concerns as the basis for many political leaders’ positions on slavery and economic policy.

They must have hired a fair number of Futurama fans at the College Board in the past year, as they clearly see technical correctness as the best sort. We lost reference to regional identity, substituting instead “interests”. One could take a position on slavery as an expression of regional interest, but it seems we must think it one of many rather than the defining regional interest of the white South. By writing the South out of the standard, the Board obscures both the most powerful regionalism in the land and sweeps the cause for it under the carpet. Furthermore, the new standard reads like an implicit indictment of anybody who got excited about slavery, for or against.

In 2014, students should have learned

Resistance to initiatives for democracy and inclusion included proslavery arguments, rising xenophobia, antiblack sentiments in political and popular culture, and restrictive anti-Indian policies

In 2015, they should instead learn nothing of this. I found no reference to rising xenophobia, anti-Indian policy, or racism appears in the section on how the nation struggled to practice the ideals it preached.

Moving on to economics, the 2014 standards require students learn that

Southern cotton furnished the raw material for manufacturing in the Northeast, while the growth in cotton production and trade promoted the development of national economic ties, shaped the international economy, and fueled the internal slave trade

But this year:

Increasing Southern cotton production and the related growth of Northern manufacturing, banking, and shipping industries promoted the development of national and international commercial ties.

It would not do to mention the workers in a discussion of economic development. The new section on regional economic development, despite emphasizing distinctiveness of the regions, writes the slaves out. Mighty white of them.

I could probably go in this vein at still more tedious length. The new standards technically include much of the relevant and supposedly “divisive” material in the old. I found a few isolated places where the 2015 standards did a better job, most conspicuously where they improved on 2014 in characterizing Southern resistance to Reconstruction as violence, but overall the College Board did a much better job last year.

In the new standards, the authors obscure the much of the content. This serves teachers and students alike very poorly. If the exams will still expect the same degree of mastery, then teachers don’t know it from the new standards and so can’t prepare students as well as they with the old. If the exams expect less, or themselves talk in bowdlerizing circumlocutions, then students remain poorly served. Universities will, and ought to, expect much more of them. Given that the AP program justifies itself and the College Board’s status as a non-profit as a preparatory endeavor, this should have settled things decisively in favor of 2014-style standards.

A good teacher can and will do better than this. Every standard must include some degree of generality and none can replace the person in front of the kids. In theory, the more general standards could open up flexibility for the best-equipped teachers. We don’t have quite the dearth of excellent instructors that some would have you believe. However, not every class or every district ends up with the best teachers in the best places doing the best they can. Exceptional individuals get that way by exceeding norms, not conforming to them. Thus we have standards to begin with, rather than simply trust the judgment of every teacher absolutely. They establish, at the very least, a common baseline below which instruction should not sink. In putting dollars before students, the College Board has measurably lowered that floor this year.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

The end of the world has not come. People all around the world believe comforting lies instead of hard truths about their national pasts. No set of standards will change that. But good historical education should play its part in fighting against that tendency. It should challenge and engage with all the energy that the past has to offer. It should draw attention to nuance and complexity, the animating passions past and present. It should help children become adults who can imagine themselves in different stations, understand the perspectives of others, and recognize both welcome change and horrifying persistence in life. If they, and the adults intervening on their theoretical behalf, want instead to just feel good about themselves then they might find that in any number of endeavors. Should loved ones, hobbies, and the myriad species of entertainment available to us do not themselves satisfy on that front, then I don’t know how history could even if we accepted that it should.

But having gone this far, we should ask what the insistence that history should make us feel good suggests. We all know that history comes oversupplied with things we’d rather not have around. I’d rather live in a world that never heard of slavery, genocide, all the injustices and all the Hitlers and Calhouns who happily practiced, endorsed, and defended the lot. I suspect that some of the College Board’s critics would like the same. The inevitable collision between empathy and atrocity takes its toll, even for those of us spared by long decades, skin color, and other unearned advantages from the pain of dismembered families, broken bodies, and stolen lives. Our ancestors did not leave us a world where these things just didn’t happen. Pretending to such a past, or that all the things we’d rather not have to know about constitute odd quirks safely consigned to the past serves none of us who condemn them. Rather facilitating ignorance abets those who look at past horrors and see in them something to resurrect.

For more than we’d probably like to think, I suspect the “only the good parts” version of history has that as an intended feature rather than an unfortunate consequence. How else could they call discussion slavery and white supremacy “divisive”? What about them divides people today? To have division, we must have at least two parties deeply committed to irreconcilable positions. If these issues do divide, they only separate people who support, defend, and excuse all the beatings, rape, mutilations, and theft from those who do not. We all have our crosses to bear, but we have the great luxury at this remove to easily choose division from proslavery Americans. Even with that light a burden, some of us can’t go so far.

Like so many things, that speaks volumes about us all, the culture we inherited, and the one we continue to make.



Unpacking States Rights

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

One often hears that nineteenth century Americans believed in states rights. With these two words we answer a multitude of questions: What policy position characterized white Southern opinion in the antebellum era? States rights. Why did white Southerners object to bans on slavery in the territories? States rights. Why did white Southern states secede in 1860-1? States rights. Why did white Southerners fight the Union? States rights. Uttering the two words absolves one from any obligation to further inquiry. States rights simply constitute an end unto themselves. They slice; they dice; they explain all American history for however many payments of $19.95.

One can find nineteenth century Americans making all of those claims and if one settles for a superficial reading, then they suffice. Looking at them in light of their authors, their times, their circumstances, and the broader history of the nation tells a rather different story. Only the rights to institute, expand, and defend slavery excited much interest in the antebellum South. Attempts to exercise state sovereignty against the federal government otherwise garnered this answer:

The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia.

Thus, South Carolina declared the ends of the Union frustrated and its obligations therefore void. The Carolina secessionists pointed to the Constitution, chapter and verse. The free states had undertaken obligations that yielded their sovereignty to the Union on the matter of slaves who dared steal lives from their rightful owners. One can’t argue otherwise, as the Constitution says so right here:

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

The free states dared nullify federal law. They did so not in some vague or ambiguous area, but where the Constitution explicitly denied them any such power just as it stripped from the states the power to set tariff rates. By breaking faith with their constitutional promises, in this and other matters, the free states had dishonored themselves and forced South Carolina from the Union.

One could go on with this hypocrisy. It would take an arduous search to find an invocation of states rights free from it, if one exists at all. Northern states did claim they had rights to nullify this law or that, most famously Wisconsin when it nullified the Fugitive Slave Act, but they also asserted that they lacked the any such power. Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. recounted many such examples in his essay The States Rights FetishNearly a century has come and gone since he wrote and that makes his history downright antique. One should read it with considerable caution. But that said, I don’t think one can argue with the facts he cites.

Beginning with the wellspring of states rights rhetoric, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798-9, Schlesinger points out that Jefferson and Madison drew them up as works of political protest. The Federalists in Congress had trampled what we would call civil liberties with the Alien and Sedition Acts. This trampling applied rather selectively to people of Jefferson’s and Madison’s political party. From New England, where the Federalists had control of the legislatures, condemnations rained down. The Constitution vested the power to judge a statute’s constitutionality in the federal courts, not the state houses. That we might agree with Jefferson that the Federalists had gone so far should not blind us to the partisan concern.

Then Jefferson’s party gained control of the government in 1800. Jefferson’s and Madison’s policies harmed the New England shipping industry. The New England legislatures then discovered that they did, in fact, have the power to judge the constitutionality of federal laws:

In February, 1809, the Massachusetts legislature resolved that the embargo measures were, “in many respects, unjust, oppressive and unconstitutional, and not legally binding on the citizens of this state,” though the citizens were counselled “to abstain from forcible resistance, and to apply for their remedy in a peaceable manner to the laws of the commonwealth.” The Connecticut legislature resolved in a similar spirit that it would not “assist or concur in giving effect to the … unconstitutional act, passed to enforce the Embargo.”

The War of 1812 brought the notion that state militias should come into federal service, under the command of federal officers. Connecticut put on its best South Carolina act in response, declaring

the state of Connecticut is a FREE SOVEREIGN and INDEPENDENT state; that the United States are a confederacy of states; that we are a confederated and not a consolidated republic

James Madison

James Madison

The issue of the Bank of the United States brought such talk to Pennsylvania and back down to Virginia. Who took the other side?

The federal government found an outspoken friend in South Carolina and a somewhat unexpected defender in Massachusetts. In resolutions of 1821 and 1822 both states asserted the full right of Congress to enact laws establishing a national bank with branches in the several states, and Massachusetts, with an odor of self-righteousness, explicitly championed the right of the United States Supreme Court to settle all questions involving the constitutionality of legislation.

The same South Carolina would discover that states had the right to nullify federal laws after all, aiming the power at the tariff. With all of this talk about sovereign states and nullification, one would assume that other states rushed to the Palmetto State’s banner but

they sought in vain for friends and defenders where they had every right to expect them. In the first stages of the controversy, Ohio and Pennsylvania, both former expounders of the state rights position, expressed their belief that the tariff was entirely constitutional. Event hose states of the South which had earlier declared a belief in the unconstitutionality of the tariff system were not willing to follow the logic of South Carolina into nullification. […] Mississippi adding, with myopic vision into the future, “we stand firmly resolved … in all events and at every hazard, to sustain” the president in “preserving the integrity of the Union-that Union, whose value we will never stop to calculate-holding it, as our fathers held it, precious above all price.”

Easy enough to say with an enslaver in the White House.

Schlesinger goes on: Massachusetts condemned the annexation of Texas and resolved to ignore the resolution that carried it into force. Vermont, Ohio, and Connecticut agreed. Schlesinger then moves on to Wisconsin’s aforementioned nullification. Not taking the Supreme Court decision as binding, the state

resolved in 1859, on the verge of the war to preserve the Union, that the several states which had formed the federal compact, being “sovereign and independent,” had “the unquestionable right to judge of its infractions” and to resort to “positive defiance” of all unauthorized acts of the general government.

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

What does all of this amount to? One can read the various proclamations as evidence of a robust antebellum conviction that the states had the rightful power to judge federal laws unconstitutional and nullify them on their own authority. States both North and South claimed it. But states of both sections, the same states often enough, also condemned it and declared it treasonous. It seems, to judge from consistent patterns of behavior rather than isolated rhetoric, states had the right only when and only to the extent that they lost the most recent round of elections and resolved not to accept that verdict nor to wait for their redress in the next canvass.

Stripping away the constitutional rhetoric and high theory, states rights boil down to just that. Even in the most generous reading, a consistent states rights sentiment would amount to the conviction that state governments have greater propensity to enact policies that one prefers than the federal government. Nothing about the state or federal governments makes one or the other inherently more virtuous. We can find in the past actions equally praiseworthy and horrifying from both. For every abolition of slavery and segregation, we have a Trail of Tears or Japanese-American Internment.

In this light, the regular changes in position on supposedly bedrock constitutionalism become entirely comprehensible. Whether Massachusetts in 1809 or South Carolina in 1860, the cry of states rights expresses no more than the partisanship of the losing party to an election. Its universality likewise comes as no surprise, given that everyone who prevails in an election requires another who did not.

The victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

The victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

This brings one back around at length to one of the standard answers to neo-Confederates: states rights for what? Nobody wants any kind of abstract, unspecified states right or state sovereignty in itself. Rather one seeks them in order to achieve various ends which appear then impossible at the national level. Stripping all context from assertions of state power and rendered them into constitutional esoterica does nothing but impede our understanding of the past.

I suspect the authors of such arguments intend as much. By taking the politics out of political arguments, we hide from ourselves and others the information necessary to make informed judgments. So blinded, we inevitably come to the conclusion that past Americans simply had some kind of good faith dispute over the letter of the law which, thanks to some irresponsible actors, turned into a war. It would not do to pay attention to the main behind the curtain, whatever he does to his slaves. We must instead comment only the color of the drapes and the manly vigor he demonstrated in choosing it.

This policy or that, before the Civil War or after, violates states rights. Anti-lynching laws? States rights. Integration? States rights. Civil Rights? States rights. Obamacare? States rights. Same-sex marriage? States rights. If we can give it a name, we can invent some right of a state to block it. Curiously, the rights of the people never seem to get much airtime in these discussions.

Those who propose to argue for states rights as a good in themselves ask us to believe that they would change their position entirely if only a state did the work instead. In this fantasy, South Carolina would have abolished slavery in 1860, if only Lincoln had lost. The South would have integrated, but then the Supreme Court and Lyndon Baines Johnson made a federal case out of it.

Out in the real world, people do violence to others and their victims feel the pain and pay the cost more dearly than any rarefied constitutional doctrines. Whether malefactors draw pay from Washington or Lansing or Columbia, their prey suffer the same. Yet the latter-day speakers of the high-class rebel yell would have us always pay no mind to the man behind the curtain or to those he afflicts. We must say nothing about any of that, confining ourselves to commentary on the color of drapery he chose and the manly virtue he displayed in the choice.

Americans did not embrace states rights in the Secession Winter to defend themselves from tyranny. Winning an election does not make a tyrant any more than losing it does not make one virtuous. The white South flocked to the banner then to save themselves from the consequences that losing the election posed to the institution of slavery, going so far as to assail in their Dear John letters to the Union exercise of the very rights they simultaneously claimed. They did not rediscover their ancient faith in the late 1940s, but rather raised up the old banner in the name of white supremacy once again. By pretending otherwise we might make things more comfortable for ourselves, but in doing so we only outsource the costs to others and so make ourselves accessories to and accomplices in their deprivations, great and small.

What did the founders think of secession?

James Madison

James Madison

The conventional story goes something like this: The founders donned their powdered wigs, put their knee breeches on, and cheered as George Washington applied the requisite amount of boot leather to the necessary number of British posteriors. Thirteen colonies turned into thirteen free and independent states. They did not constitute, in any meaningful sense, a nation. The founders shared with the people of the several nations an abiding suspicion of central authority. Only the Revolution had united them and with it done they could all go back to those nations and have nothing more to do with one another. They never intended to create a consolidated republic and always imagined association between their states as strictly voluntary and subject to unilateral termination, secession in a word, at any time. To the degree the former colonies associated, they associated like you might associate with someone you met once at a party. Having a good time together did not make them married. This vision persisted through the Antebellum until the Tyrant Abraham I, the Hammer of Dixie, enslaved us all. Thus they said “the United States are” before the war and “the United States is” after, or even if they didn’t then they held sentiments largely along those lines. Shelby Foote said so.

I cannot improve on Andy Hall’s demolition of the argument from phrasing. Americans did not primarily or exclusively say “the United States are” until the Civil War and take up the singular verb after. The transition happened decades earlier. But that still leaves the meat of the story. Did antebellum Americans, most especially the founders whom the secessionists claimed as their own, consistently understand the Union as inherently voluntary, with states free to depart at will or, failing that, when they felt things sufficiently dire to justify an extreme step? In short: no.

By that I don’t mean to say that secession never crossed the minds of anybody prior to the late antebellum, nor that talk of disunion only arose late in the age. Threats of it go back to the Constitutional Convention. But those threats did not necessarily indicate general approval of the concept. Rather the convention, twelve of thirteen states strong, came together to curb state sovereignty. The Articles of Confederation had proved insufficient to the task of governing the nation because the states had much greater power than the national government, even if that government constituted a permanent union. One needn’t interpret the text to drive that conclusion, incidentally, the Articles call themselves perpetual:

Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union between the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts-bay Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

A perpetual union hardly incorporates in itself any right to secession. Finding the power of the central state insufficient, must we think that the founders got together in Philadelphia to remedy that and then undermined their own work so comprehensively as to nullify it at the whim of any given state? The requirement that all states agree on legislation proved a critical weakness in the Articles, so would they really write it back into the Constitution? People in the past can do things that seem to us perverse and understand themselves instead as consistent with sound principles, but that suggestion would not have made any sense at the time.

The Philadelphia debates bear this out. Just a few days ago I noticed that Robert Middlekauf’s The Glorious Cause the Oxford History of the United States volume on the revolutionary era, sold by Amazon as an ebook for all of three dollars. I have not taken much interest in revolutionary history due to all the patriotic myth making. I know that historians do good work there, but the flag waving enthusiasm put me off long ago. All the same, I wanted to check something I’d heard in Mike Duncan’s wonderful Revolutions podcast. So I winced at the title and got my file. I have only read the chapters on the Constitutional Convention and ratification, but they proved a gold mine of information about what the founders thought on the issue. As much of the Philadelphia deliberations concerned representation in the Congress, they naturally dwell upon what states deserve in the way of power. It also made for a really good read. I intend to go back and finish the rest at some point.

I already knew that James Madison came to Philadelphia with a plan to grant the national government a sweeping veto over any state legislation, but the account I got back in high school painted the advocates for equality of the states in the Congress and those who argued for apportionment by population as roughly equal. In fact, only New Jersey and New York favored the former’s equal representation plan when it came down to voting. If a broad consensus existed in Independence Hall, it did not view the states in themselves as the principal components of the new nation. Otherwise one would expect much stronger votes in favor of state equality. What does this have to do with secession? A weak government could hardly prevent it. A strong one could coerce recalcitrant states and wake them from any dreams they had of disunion and nullification alike.

The advocates for state equality touched on the connection themselves. As Middlekauf has it:

Ellsworth, Sherman, and Johnson, all from Connecticut, made the heart of the case for equality of representation with minor, though longwinded, aid from Luther Martin. The essential weakness in the argument for proportional representation, they insisted, was that it rested on a misunderstanding of the Confederacy. The states in reality were joined together by an agreement much like a treaty; they were free and sovereign. Now they were asked to give up their equal voices in the Union, in effect to be consolidated out of existence

James Wilson

James Wilson

Ellsworth further insisted that every confederacy in history had equality among its members, a point of history more convenient than correct. Madison and his fellow Virginian James Wilson would have none of this. Middlekauf continues:

Both rejected the small-state contention that a treaty bound the Confederation together. Far from a union of equals, the Confederation possessed some-but not enough-authority over the states. […] Wilson agreed and rejected the Connecticut proposal for a compromise -the lower house to be apportioned according to population, the upper according to state equality-and cited statistics which purported to show that such an arrangement would permit the minority to control the majority. Seven states, Wilson noted, might control six; seven with one-third of the country’s population would control six with two-thirds of the population. “Can we forget,” he asked, “for whom we are forming a Government? Is it for men, or for the imaginary beings called States?”

That argument sounds downright twentieth century. Earl Warren’s Supreme Court rejected malapportionment of state legislatures in the 1960s on the grounds that “Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests.” I have heard that decision, which articulated the “one person, one vote” standard, damned as a grievous offense against state sovereignty. This sovereignty forms a necessary prerequisite for unilateral secession as practiced by the Confederates and admired by their various descendant movements today. Madison, back when the states had a far better claim to sovereignty in matters save for secession,

denied flatly the states were sovereign-“in fact they are only political societies. There is a graduation of power in all societies, from the lowest corporation to the highest sovereign. The states never possessed the essential rights of sovereignty. These were always vested in Congress.” The states, Madison argued, “are only great corporations, having the power of making by-laws, and these are effectual only if they are not contradictory to the general consideration. The states ought to be placed under the control of the general government-at least as much as they formerly were under the King and British Parliament.” And from these propositions about the character of the states-devoid of sovereignty, mere corporations, properly under the thumb of the national government-it followed that since America was a republic, representation must be based on the people.

A state which does not have final sovereignty, which constitutes a mere corporation and with laws that hold only as by-laws of its particular interests rather than paramount legislation, could hardly secede on its own initiative alone.

Madison further opined, implicitly, on the nature of state governments in The Federalist, Number 10:

The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.

A state government must, by definition, constitute a smaller society than the general government. A local government would constitute one still smaller. Madison considered the smaller a far greater risk to the rights of others, a position often born out in twentieth century Supreme Court cases. One could also reach further back and look at the sort of oppression and outright persecution that the slave states indulged in to protect slavery. If one counts up state-level emancipations and exempts states built out of territories which had nationally imposed bans on slavery in their bounds prior to statehood, we have to stop counting states that ended slavery on their own and without war forcing matters at the Mason-Dixon Line and Pennsylvania-Ohio border. This gives us only Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

From these nine we could subtract Maine as it had a Massachusetts-imposed slavery ban before it became a state, and Vermont, where slavery had never been practiced and so eliminating it took little exertion. This leaves us with seven states to live up to the laboratory of democracy reputation. Against them, we could count both the fifteen slave states of 1860 and the two slave territories of Utah and New Mexico. I would not say that states necessarily and always take the low road, and some have gotten out in front of the national government often enough, but the overall example does not give much encouragement when concerns go beyond simple things like traffic laws and into questions of minority rights.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

We know how the dispute worked out in Madison’s day, just as we know how it did in the case of Lee v. Grant. Adherents to other theories of national composition certainly existed. They had enough strength, when the advocates of state equality made it into a make-or-break issue, to force compromises. But the notion that the founders acted with one mind, however always borderline absurd, and that this mind fixed on the sovereignty of states simply doesn’t have a leg to stand on. National supremacy flowed not from Lincoln in Washington, but from the convention Washington chaired in Philadelphia.

But, the conventional story then goes, whatever happened at Philadelphia ratification came contingent upon various undertakings. Most famously, the states only ratified with the promise that the Congress would pass a Bill of Rights and with some kind of tacit understanding that if this did not work out, the states could quit the union and resume their independent sovereignties.

This point came lately to my attention via a video Al Mackey posted over at Student of the Civil War. It begins with Akhil Reed Amar, a constitutional law scholar who teaches at Yale, discussing the legality of secession. The secession discussion only consumes the first portion of the run time, but in it Amar makes some important points.

Madison did not get his global veto of state enactments for the Congress, but he did get the Supremacy Clause:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Roger Taney

By definition, sovereignty rests with whoever has the final say. The Constitution did not grant that power to the states, nor hazily delegate it to them by not granting it to the nation. It instead strips them of any such power to make laws, even state constitutions, contrary to the laws of the United States. Note that the provision does not limit itself to the national Constitution or treaties, but reaches to any federal legislation whatsoever. Even if the states had sovereignty before ratification, they ceded it then. This leaves no room for nullification either of one law or, in its ultimate form, the nullification of all federal laws by secession. A state could pass a law nullifying the tariff or the Fugitive Slave Act, as respectively South Carolina and Wisconsin did, but such laws existed only on paper and until a federal court declared them void at the latest. Roger Taney’s Supreme Court agreed on the second point when it tossed Wisconsin’s act of nullification, to the thunderous silence of most of the usual states rights enthusiasts. What part of this did South Carolina miss? Presumably the part where its nullification must meet with general approval as such a nullification would strengthen and preserve slavery whereas Wisconsin’s would not.

Amar further argues that if the founders intended the Constitution to come with a free trial period and sovereignty-back guarantee, then they did not act it. During the ratification debates in New York, with the vote very close and Alexander Hamilton not sure he had the votes, the anti-federalists suggested that they would give way for the promise of a Bill of Rights. Failing delivery on that front, New York would secede. Hamilton asked Madison for his opinion of such a deal. Even at this critical juncture when New York’s refusal would bisect the Union, possibly fatally, Madison declined to endorse compromise:

I am sorry that your situation obliges you to listen to propositions of the nature you describe. My opinion is that a reservation of a right to withdraw if amendments be not decided on under the form of the Constitution within a certain time, is a conditional ratification, that it does not make N. York a member of the New Union, and consequently that she could not be received on that plan. Compacts must be reciprocal, this principle would not in such a case be preserved. The Constitution requires an adoption in toto, and for ever. It has been so adopted by the other States. An adoption for a limited time would be as defective as an adoption of some of the articles only. In short any condition whatever must viciate the ratification.


This idea of reserving right to withdraw was started at Richmd. & considered as a conditional ratification which was itself considered as worse than a rejection

If Madison would have broken principle in the name of pragmatism, one must imagine he would have done it then. The Constitution already had the nine states it needed to go into effect, plus an extra, but the loss of New York would have meant a great blow. Unlike Delaware, South Carolina, or other states which desperately needed a union to sustain themselves, New York with its great port and generous hinterland might have been able to go it alone. Its bad example would weaken the new union from the start, hence his, Hamilton’s, and Jay’s writing of The Federalist to begin with.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

Lest one think Madison and Wilson alone, or necessarily extreme, in looking into the future and cursing the names of John C. Calhoun and his unruly brood of nullifiers and disunionists, despite the votes at the convention and final Constitution arguing very much otherwise, Hamilton himself got into the act in The Federalist, Number 11:

Let the thirteen States, bound together in a strict and indissoluble Union, concur in erecting one great American system, superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world!

Strict and indissoluble, not loose and easily broken.

The framers did not envision anything like what Lincoln called the dreams of the Confederates:

In their view, the Union, as a family relation, would not be anything like a regular marriage at all, but only as a sort of free-love arrangement,—[laughter,]—to be maintained on what that sect calls passionate attraction. [Continued laughter.]

I don’t know how the founders chose to organize their private time save for the evidence given by their progeny, acknowledged and otherwise. In their political acts they present a clear record favoring not states, with the national government as a kind of necessary evil, but rather saw it as a necessary and positive good and, moreover, as a clear way to suppress contrary movements in the states. That doesn’t mean we would necessarily find all their motives for doing so appealing or in line with those who favor a stronger national state today, but they did what they did and wrote what they wrote.

This myth, like the myth of the antislavery Lee, will endure this and many other blog posts. It will survive the scorn of historians. The supposed advocates of original intent will read it, as they do all other inconvenient facts, as irrelevant rather than persuasive. They and their more radical compatriots, latter-day secessionists who ask us to believe that just this once the rhetoric they employ lacks the white supremacy which has so consistently informed it in the past, must wrap themselves in a pretend history of original intent. The real one doesn’t have much to offer them.

The framers envisioned the possibility of unilateral secession, as attempted in 1860-1, and nullification as attempted by South Carolina and Wisconsin alike, and foreclosed each in Philadelphia and at ratification. Antebellum Americans knew as much and needn’t live in the cold heart of Yankeedom or on the Illinois prairie to notice it. The Confederates at the time understood their movement as revolutionary, only deciding that they really did have a clear legal right after losing the war. Why should we pretend otherwise, unless we aspire to rehabilitate the some of the same politics that they did? Secession for what? States rights for what? If one can get a straight answer from the Confederacy’s latter-day partisans, in itself a major achievement, and they have cleverness enough to not simply say “slavery” with one of the usual codes, then I usually hear preserving the founders’ vision of the Union. It didn’t take a deep look into the founding era to find out what that vision entailed. One can and should note that it included slavery for at least the foreseeable future. But it did not include secession or nullification at all.

The Proslavery Politics of Robert E. Lee

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

Robert E. Lee

If you ask many Americans about the Confederacy, they will begin by expressing their admiration for Robert Edward Lee, the valiant, dignified, and grandfatherly commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Even if they have a fair idea of what the Confederacy sought to accomplish, they still love Lee. He embodied the concept of a southern gentleman so thoroughly that one suspects his ghost would only eschew Antarctica because he could not part with his beloved Virginia. Any he chose to haunt would compliment him on the act, happily agreeing that they had it coming and benefited immeasurably from the experience. Lee, as remembered in Civil War popular culture, toiled his whole life in relative obscurity. The son of a founder, he married the step-granddaughter of no less a founder than George Washington. If he did not die for our sins, as we might imagine Lincoln did, then Lee had his own long, dark night of the soul. At Gethsemane on the Potomac, he weighed his love of the Union with his love of Virginia. In the end, Lee went South. He could, like a rebel of older days dear to many Americans, do no other. His love of Virginia prevailed not just over his love of Union and scorn for disunion, but also his loathing of slavery.

Respectable historians agree. When someone asks me for a single book to read about the American Civil War, I point them to James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. McPherson introduces Lee as “perhaps the greatest asset that Virginia brought to the cause of southern independence,” an assessment with which few could argue:

General-in-Chief Winfield Scott considered Lee the best officer in the army. In April, Scott urged Lincoln to offer Lee field command of the newly levied Union army. As a fellow Virginian Scott hoped that Lee, like himself, would remain loyal to the service to which he he had devoted his life. Lee had made clear his dislike of slavery, which he described in 1856 as “a moral and political evil.”

Lee expressed the same idea when called to testify before Congress after the war, declaring himself in favor of gradual emancipation. One could almost mistake him for Lincoln.

Lee must have had a truly powerful devotion to Virginia to fight for it when the state nailed its colors to the mast of slavery, but that just makes him into a yet more tragic and noble figure. If Lincoln gave his life, albeit without his consultation in the matter, then Lee gave his love of Union and other dear principles. This Lee comes down to us as more a statue than a man, a platonic ideal cloaked in gray lest it blind us in all its glory. How could one not admire him? Anything less seems the height of perversity. To dissent simply shows proof of one’s own fallen nature.

I, Gentle Readers, have fallen and do not want to get up. Some of this comes down to personal taste and individual values. I don’t find myself much moved by the mode of gentlemanly conduct that Lee upheld. Nor does this pacifist feel a profound admiration for Lee’s more military virtues. But in approaching Lee’s position on slavery as a matter of history, those concerns do not hold the same relevance. We can never step outside ourselves and achieve perfect objectivity, but understanding the past does require us to do more than rehearse our biases. In that pursuit, I fell the same way that historian Gary Gallagher did, through the dark art of reading.

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

McPherson derives his Lee quote from the man’s most celebrated biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman. Alan T. Nolan didn’t leave matters there, but went for the quote’s full context in his book Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee & Civil War History. Lee wrote the line to his wife while serving in Texas, just a month after James Buchanan defeated the first avowed antislavery candidate for the presidency who had a realistic chance of winning, John C. Frémont. The passage, as quoted in Nolan, deserves a close examination:

In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially, & physically. the painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things.

Often when people claim that one quotes out of context, the context doesn’t really change things. Here it really does. Lee has written that however much slavery harmed black people, it also did them good. They benefited more from the whipping, raping, torture, and dismemberment of families than they would have from freedom in Africa. But doesn’t that make Lee just like David Wilmot with his breezy “no squeamish sensitiveness upon the subject of slavery, no morbid sympathy for the slave”?

Had Lee stopped there, one could make that case. Wilmot and men like him literally did not want to share the continent with black Americans and Lee’s position so far would put him into the antislavery mainstream of Kansas, where many preferred no black Americans, but if they must have such neighbors then those neighbors must come enslaved. But Lee did not stop there.

How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. There emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy. … While we see the Course of the final abolition of human Slavery is onward, & we give it all the aid of our prayers & all justifiable means in our power, we must leave the progress as well as the result in his hands who sees the end; who Chooses to work by slow influence; & with whom two thousand years are but as a Single day.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Slavery must end, someday, but Lee ceded the decision on that to the Almighty alone. I don’t propose to argue that doing so made Lee insincere. Genuinely religious people do believe that their god or gods work in the world and order things in their own ways. Presumably if Lee’s god descended from Heaven and told him to free all the slaves, Lee would have done it. But all the same, one doesn’t hold one’s breath waiting for such things. Until that time, Lee here commits himself to an unqualified and indefinite preservation of slavery. Controversy clearly did not signal divine will to him, or he would have associated it with the influence of Christianity rather than contrasted the two.

Nolan goes further with Lee. The future general knew very well that another group of Americans, who also claimed the influence of Christianity for their politics, came down rather differently on slavery. Discussing a recent condemnation of antislavery politics by Franklin Pierce, Lee writes

the Systematic & progressive efforts of certain people of the North, to interfere with & change the domestic institutions of the South, are truthfully & faithfully expressed. The Consequences of their plans & purposes are also clearly set forth, & they must also be aware, that their object is both unlawful & entirely foreign to them & their duty; for which they are irresponsible & unaccountable; & Can only be accomplished by them through the agency of a Civil & Servile war.

Lee’s emphasis. Here he neatly cuts any but white Southerners out of the decision on slavery, so eliminating the section of the nation where antislavery beliefs might find airing without extreme danger to their exponents. Obviously, Lee’s god would not work through a Yankee.

Although the Abolitionist must know this, & must See that he has neither the right or power of operating except by moral means & suasion, & if he means well to the slave, he must not Create angry feelings in the Master; that although he may not approve the mode by which it pleases Providence to accomplish its purposes, the result will nevertheless be the same; that the reasons he gives for interference in what he had no Concern, holds good for every kind of interference without neighbors when we disapprove their Conduct. … Is it not strange that the descendants of those pilgrim fathers who Crossed the Atlantic to preserve their own freedom of opinion, have always proved themselves intolerant of the Spiritual liberty of others?

The abolitionist could ask nicely and the enslaver would say no nicely. Only when they could politely convince southerners who built their fortunes on stolen lives, their own hands on the lash, could the abolitionist expect slavery to end. Never should the abolitionist anger the enslaver. Such angry feelings might, after all, provoke retaliation. Furthermore, the abolitionists should respect the religious liberty of Southern enslavers. They decided what the Bible said about their slavery and would change their minds when their god ordained, not one second earlier.

Here we have not an antislavery Lee, troubled by the system but a captive to it by his upbringing. Nor do we have a Lee bound to Virginia and thus to slavery as a consequence. Instead we have a Lee who prefers and advocates for the indefinite preservation of slavery. Gradual emancipation, in Lee’s own lifetime, meant not the preservation of slavery until all the scales fell from white eyes in a new revelation but rather a progressive advance ordained by law which would in a known period of time convert enslaved people into freedpeople. It might take decades, but it would likely happen within the lifetimes of people alive when the laws passed rather than in some vague and hoped-for millennium to come. Unless Lee had no interest at all in political matters, and his writing suggests otherwise, it beggars belief that he would have missed the distinction between the gradual emancipation actually practiced in eighteenth and nineteenth century America and the “gradual” emancipation he insisted after the war that he had always preferred.

The Lee who swore to tell the truth and then testified to Congress said “I have always been in favor of emancipation – gradual emancipation.” At the very least, Lee deliberately misled Congress. More likely the paragon of gentlemanly virtue consciously simply lied.

None of what I have shared today comes from newly uncovered sources. How does this myth live on? Not every scholar of the Civil War will take an interest in Lee’s personal life and politics, and McPherson’s book predates Nolan’s, but I’ve heard people make much the same claims about Lee and slavery as recently as a few weeks ago. Do people not read the sources? Some don’t, and ignorance will get one a long way, but I think a larger issue than that comes into play.

Confederate Battle FlagEven if one can’t deny or obscure the Confederacy’s avowed purpose, though people do try with remarkable industry, then in Lee they can have a proxy for the Confederacy. Whatever the official documents say, in Lee they have a man they claim did not care for slavery but fought for it all the same, at great hazards and against in some ways his own best judgment. By making Lee antislavery, they can excuse the Confederacy. He signed on, so it must have a good side.

Since Lee would never fight for it, except reluctantly and entirely due to Virginia’s choice, slavery vanishes from consideration. Its absence invites other explanations for the war. If the Confederacy fought not for slavery, despite the nigh-endless stream of documents arguing just that produced by the Confederacy’s leaders, then it did for states’ rights. It fought against an oppressive government. It fought to defend its way of life. Don’t ask just what rights, what form the oppression took, or what the way of life entailed. The politicians of the seceding South used fear of abolition to gin up a war over some arcane constitutional point, or a few cents on the tariff, but nothing more. Trust them. At any rate, their however many times great-grandfathers wouldn’t have fought for slavery. We all have only righteous ancestors who strangely chose just the right causes for us to admire, just as we all have above-average children. We would not choose ancestors who disregarded future standards and shamefully misbehaved, after all.

That this rehabilitation of the southern cause happens to involve the simultaneous rehabilitation of the people, doctrines, and symbols used by avowedly white supremacist groups to suppress the advancement and destroy the gains of black Americans toward equality more than once seems, to this random person on the internet, rather more coincidental than one would expect of a genuine coincidence. The ghost of Lee lives on, imagined perfection and real politics alike.

Gone off the Map for a Day

Gentle Readers,

There will be no news hot off the presses from Kansas, in 1855 or otherwise, today. If you want some Civil war-related content, then you may find the breathtaking stupidity of certain self-appointed Southern Heritage Advocates amusing. It transpires that they looked up Abraham Lincoln in the returns for the 1860 census and discovered a woman unrelated to him or to Mary living in their home. Could this Mary Johnson have been a slave?

Well no. As it clearly says on the very page they produced, it tabulated only free people. The schedule of free persons thus clearly proves, by listing this free person in Lincoln’s household, that Abraham Lincoln was secretly a slaveholder and this fact has been suppressed for fifteen decades. I am not making this up. Al Mackey offers a reasonable interpretation of the affair here. Stupidity or malice? I lean more toward the former, but the two come together often enough.

Happier tidings, then.

Your author spent the time that he would have devoted to writing another Kansas post with a friend back from Oregon for the week. It’s only the third time since 2000 that we’ve seen each other. We spent the time in this foreign place, an uncharted, howling wild lit by an alien, unnatural ball of flame that floated in the sky. I think that its hateful light burned my tender flesh. Tiny creatures feasted upon my blood.

Slithering, loathsome things undulated in the grass. Signs warned us of them in lurid detail. I can only presume that some forgotten generation of explorers posted them. We saw none, but I have no doubt that for all our strange ordeal they lurked nearby. I suspect that my friend had dire intentions toward me, as she lured me off the marked trail -surely the remains of some ancient, lost civilization- to point out the odd flora.

Pitcher Plants

Pitcher Plants

This plant eats meat. Their petals form little cups that fill up with a substance that smells delicious to insects. The insects fly in and get stuck, where the plant happily digests them. Fascinating organisms, I must say. I apologize for my questionable photographic skills, but with thoughts of the slithering things in the grass I did not care to crouch down and get a really good picture. I fed the wildlife sufficiently upon my precious blood, thank you.

About Fort Pillow

I think that I’ve said here before that, with a few exceptions, I’m not very good about observing anniversaries. Perhaps I should improve on that. I knew that Fort Pillow’s sesquicentennial came and went last weekend and said nothing about it. My reasons at the time involved a considerable investment in 1854, not wanting to break the day to day flow of the narrative, and the fact that I don’t know all that much about the subject itself. But others don’t have those shortcomings and I’ve read some really excellent content that I ought to have shared earlier.

Over at the New York TimesDisunion, you can read a basic overview of events. Confederate troops under the command of former slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked and overwhelmed the garrison of Fort Pillow in western Tennessee. The Union forces holding the fort included a unit of Unionist Tennesseans and freedmen of the United States Colored Troops. They won the fight and

Chaos ensued. With few officers left alive to direct them, some defenders dropped their weapons in surrender, while others scrambled down the steep hillside. But discipline also broke down among the rebels. Forrest’s men had never faced black troops in battle before. In the Confederate mind, opposition from armed black men — in this case, black men who had recently taunted them — was tantamount to a slave insurrection, and few things were likelier to enrage a white Southerner.

“The sight of negro soldiers,” a Confederate witness said, “stirred the bosoms of our soldiers with courageous madness.” Nor was that all: These black men were fighting alongside local white Unionists, whom the rebels despised as “homemade Yankees” and “Tennessee Tories.”

Those Tennessee Tories and latter-day Nat Turners represented an existential threat. Left unchecked, they would flow over the South in a genocidal race war. Fort Pillow rapidly became the most notorious one, but many such massacres involving black soldiers took place during the war and, it must be said, continued after on a smaller scale. Through such violence, and the threat of more, Southern whites successfully instituted Jim Crow laws that would take another century to uproot.

Over at Dead Confederates, Andy Hall has context for the Confederate actions. On the latter count, the massacre of black troops and their white officers actually amounted to Confederate policy. You can read the entire proclamation over there, but two selections:

Sec. 4. That every white person, being a commissioned officer, or acting as such, who, during the present war, shall command nergroes or mulattoes in arms against the Confederate States, or who shall arm, train, organize or prepare negroes or mulattoes for military service against the Confederate States, or who shall voluntarily aid negroes or mulattoes in any military enterprize, attack or conflict in such service, shall be deemed as inciting servile insurrection, and shall, if captured, by put to death, or be otherwise punished at the discretion of the court.


Sec. 7. All negroes and mulattoes who shall be engaged in war, or be taken in arms against the Confederate States, or shall give aid or comfort to the enemies of the Confederate States, shall, when captured in the Confederate States, be delivered to the authorities of the State or States in which they shall be captured, and dealt with according to the present or future laws of such State or States.

The then-present laws of such states, of course, would mean death for blacks as well as whites.

In a separate post, Andy also has firsthand accounts of the aftermath of the massacre:

All the wounded who had strength enough to speak agreed that after the fort was taken an indiscriminate slaughter of our troops was carried on by the enemy with a furious and vindictive savageness which was never equaled by the most merciless of the Indian tribes. Around on every side horrible testimony to the truth of this statement could be seen. Bodies with gaping wounds, some bayoneted through the eyes, some with skulls beaten through, others with hideous wounds as if their bowels had been ripped open with bowie-knives, plainly told that but little quarter was shown to our troops. Strewn from the fort to the river bank, in the ravines and hollows, behind logs and under the brush where they had crept for protection from the assassins who pursued them, we found bodies bayoneted, beaten, and shot to death, showing how cold-blooded and persistent was the slaughter of our unfortunate troops.


We then landed at the fort, and I was sent out with a burial party to bury our dead. I found many of the dead lying close along by the water’s edge, where they had evidently sought safety; they could not offer any resistance from the places where they were, in holes and cavities along the banks; most of them had two wounds. I saw several colored soldiers of the Sixth United States Artillery, with their eyes punched out with bayonets; many of them were shot twice and bayonetted also. All those along the bank of the river were colored. The number of the colored near the river was about seventy. Going up into the fort, I saw there bodies partially consumed by fire. Whether burned before or after death I cannot say, anyway, there were several companies of rebels in the fort while these bodies were burning, and they could have pulled them out of the fire had they chosen to do so. One of the wounded negroes told me that “he hadn’t done a thing,” and when the rebels drove our men out of the fort, they (our men) threw away their guns and cried out that they surrendered, but they kept on shooting them down until they had shot all but a few. This is what they all say.

We should not take this as a one-off act. The Confederate soldiers doing the killing understood themselves as engaged in the maintenance of racial control, a tradition that went back as far as slavery in the New World. If a black man could rise up and kill a white, then others might learn that they too could and, being united in rejecting their status as slaves, go off and kill all the whites. How could a white person sleep at night unless he or she knew that the resentful black people all around had the threat of violence to keep them in line?

Incidents like Fort Pillow naturally generate a certain degree of controversy, some legitimate and some from the usual quarters that see Forrest as a folk hero and, though many shrink from saying it, think he gave to the garrison precisely what it deserved. The latter have been with us for a long time. They’re not all gone off into the sunset just yet, despite all the progress we’ve made in the hundred and fifty years since.

Racially Biased Juries and the Confederacy

Via Kevin Levin, I’ve learned that Ed Sebesta worries about racial bias in juries. That’s a fair concern which I share. I think minorities, especially black men, have a much harder time getting a fair trial than a white person would in comparable circumstances. That’s probably just as true at the courthouse a mile away from me in Northern Michigan as it is down in Texas or South Carolina. Screening for racial bias makes perfectly good sense and I imagine that the methods used might stand improvement.

Sebesta and his coauthor suggest using these questions to screen jurors:

  1. Are you a member of the League of the South, Council of Conservative Citizens, Sons of Confederate Veterans, United Daughters of the Confederacy or any other pro-Confederate organization?
  2. Do you identify with the Confederacy or the Union?
  3. Do you think it is appropriate for public officials to praise Confederate leaders?
  4. Do you think it is appropriate when states, counties, cities and other municipalities adopt Confederate symbols in their logos, flags, seals, or other symbols they might adopt?
  5. Do you think it would have been better if the Confederacy had succeeded in seceding?
  6. Do you display Confederate symbols such as flags, flag decals, bumper stickers, tattoos or other visual representations of the Confederacy.

Kevin does not care for the questions and I mostly agree.

I recognize Sebesta’s name from way back in the Nineties, when his website introduced me to the term neo-confederate but I have not really followed his career and can’t actually remember anything I read on it back then in any detail. I will thus defer to Kevin on the rest of his work and limit myself to the questions on hand.

Having such a list, instead of just asking something like “are you a racist?” or “do you belong to any white supremacist organization?” makes perfectly good sense. Probably almost no white person in America today will answer yes to either in mixed company. Overt racism  does not fly like it used to. Instead modern American white supremacy usually finds expression through code words and dog whistles that appear innocent and unrelated to race to the casual observer but which those with serious racial animus understand quite differently. Including in that list specific organizations with known racist politics or histories also makes sense. American history simply does not offer any organization with a more thoroughgoing racist pedigree than the Confederate States of America. (The United States of America comes fairly close, though.)

This list does its job poorly, though. I’ll take them one at a time.

1) If these organizations promote Lost Cause-style interpretations of the war, slavery, and Reconstruction I think it’s perfectly fair to treat membership in them as evidence of white supremacy. I don’t know enough about all of them to say that they do and as such whether they even belong on the same list with those which do. However, any list of such organizations will never cover them all. The racists, covert and overt alike, can form new organizations as fast or faster than the rest of us could add them to the list.

2) On the face of it, this seems fair. But what does it mean to identify with the Confederacy or Union? Certainly we know from history that the same men often did both. But even if we rewrite it the question to ask which one predominantly or preferentially identifies with an answer does not tell us much. I loathe almost everything to do with the Confederacy and slavery on a pretty deep, visceral level. But if in the course of my reading I come on some biographical detail from a Confederate’s life that remind me of my own, which I have done, then on some level I do identify with that figure. That doesn’t mean I agree with him or his politics, only that we have some other things in common. Identifying with something or someone does not, in itself, tell you much.

3) Which Confederate leaders? For what? When? I would look askance at a politician who constantly brought up how great some Confederate was in random, unrelated circumstances. I would certainly look askance at one who said he or she admired their politics. But if someone praises Jackson’s Valley Campaign or Lee’s ability to hold the Army of Northern Virginia together and prevail so consistently against superior numbers and resources, that hardly implicates them in any racism in itself. This kind of admiration stands a world apart from praising Alexander Stephens for the vision of government he articulated in the Cornerstone Speech.

4) This one seems fair all the way down. With very few exceptions, and only historical sites where the display is period-appropriate come immediately to mind, I do think government facilities adopting Confederate symbols is extremely problematic and generally a good diagnostic criteria for racism. Confederate symbols largely vanished from government after the war and only returned for the cause of white supremacy.

5) I know fellow leftists who have said that, including some pretty consistently anti-racist people. They’re wrong because a victorious Confederacy would hardly have abolished slavery in 1865. So far as slavery goes, we’d have done better if George Washington’s head decorated a pike in London instead of rested in a tomb in Virginia. The British Empire abolished slavery in the 1830s. In a bizarre world where the rest of the nation let the Confederacy go and it somehow became a stable nation of its own, it likely would have had the wherewithal to maintain slavery essentially indefinitely. But not thinking things through and being blinded by contemporary political frustrations do not in themselves make one a racist.

The Stars and Bars. The saltire flags (with the blue X) are different.

The Stars and Bars. The saltire flags (with the blue X) differ.

6) If I write a post about the history of the various Confederate flags, I would include them in the post. How else would the reader know what I’m talking about? I can describe the things, but the images do better than paragraphs of vexillological exposition. Wanting my readers to easily understand and keep straight various symbols hardly makes me a racist, but I would undoubtedly display the flags in the course of so doing. I would do the same if I posted period photos or illustrations which included them. For that matter, I think reenactors have a goofy hobby but that doesn’t make them necessarily racist either. (Full disclosure: My own goofy hobbies include pretending to be an elf and a superhero.) Context matters.

Sebesta has a great idea but gave it a great beating with ill-considered, blunt object questions.