George Washington and Robert Lee: Some Thoughts

George Washington and William Lee, whom he enslaved

Gentle Readers, here we go again. The President employs a lawyer, as most officeholders do, to see to his affairs. This president requires one more than most. He has chosen John Dowd. I know nothing about Dowd except for his most famous client and what this New York Times story reports. Many lawyers study history as undergraduates and the skills one picks up in law school have substantial overlap with those of historians. That doesn’t make lawyers into historians, but one would hope they help to some degree. Dowd got an email which purported to vindicate Trump’s late claims about the removal of Confederate statues and forwarded it among his circle of journalists, officials, and friends. The email claims

LEE IS NO DIFFERENT THAN WASHINGTON

Both owned slaves.

Both rebelled against the ruling government.

Both men’s battle tactics are still taught at West point.

Both saved America.

Both were great men, great Americans, and great commanders.

Neither man is any different than Napolean [sic], Shaka Zulu, Alexander the Great, Ramses II, etc.

You cannot be against General Lee and be for General Washington, there is literally no difference between the two men.

Where to start? I will pass over Lee’s and Washington’s military virtues as irrelevant. Good generalship accrues to causes infamous and praiseworthy just as easily and so says nothing about the overall worth of the people and causes involved.

Both men rebelled against the ruling government. I don’t feel a great urge to defend the American Revolution, which had at best mixed blessings for anyone who had the wrong skin color, but Washington and the rest fought for more than the simple, bloody-minded desire to preserve slavery against all hazards. Lee can claim no such thing. Nor should we endorse anyone who rebels against a ruling government, unless we endorse Lee, Washington, Lenin, Gandhi, and Hitler as essentially the same. People rebel for causes good and bad, against governments good and bad, with such regularity that smiling on the lot of them requires staggering ignorance or staggering recklessness.

The notion that Lee, who fought for four years to destroy the United States, somehow saved it barely deserves an answer. He fought against everything Washington fought for. He Lee won, the nation Washington helped build would have ended at the point of Lee’s bayonets. If fighting to destroy the United States in the name of slavery makes you a great American, only white supremacists could cheerfully claim the title and the rest of us owe it to ourselves and their victims to be the worst of Americans.

Robert E. Lee

Lee and Washington both owned people, fair enough. Neither treated those people they enslaved well, though both might flatter themselves by thinking so. Both zealously pursued runaways and ordered violent punishments for those who defied them. Both sundered families, though Washington eventually stopped. He also freed those who he enslaved of his own free will, albeit only in his last will and testament. Lee kept the slaves he had as part of his father-in-law’s estate until the last possible minute, and went to court to get that time extended. Washington, for all his numerous faults, kept more slaves at Mount Vernon than he could profitably use in order to preserve families. Lee spent his time as executor of the estate hiring slaves out in Richmond and elsewhere, so shattering family bonds, specifically to increase his profits. None of this makes Washington a good man, despite owning people. He far more than Lee ever did and did so for longer, but it surely counts as a difference.

In myth, Lee refused to bear arms against Virginia and so almost accidentally fell into the Confederacy. In reality, he chose to fight on behalf of slavery and expressed his support for the institution regardless of Virginia’s other political circumstances. Washington thought this about the Union:

To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a government for the whole is indispensable. No alliance, however strict, between the parts can be an adequate substitute; they must inevitably experience the infractions and interruptions which all alliances in all times have experienced. Sensible of this momentous truth, you have improved upon your first essay, by the adoption of a constitution of government better calculated than your former for an intimate union, and for the efficacious management of your common concerns. This government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.

Neither Virginia nor any other Southern state sought a constitutional amendment, or even ordinary legislation, to part from the United states. By Washington’s logic they had a duty to obey the government, whoever the president and whatever the policy toward slavery. The first president lived up to that principle through his public career. All the way back to the Revolutionary War, he complained about petty state jealousies and national impotence which left his army short of funds and supplies.

One might argue that Washington did not face the question as Lee did, poised between Virginia and Slavery on one side and the United States on the other. We can’t argue that he actually did, as no secession crisis took place in Washington’s lifetime. However, Washington Edmund Randolph that he had thought about the issue and came to a decision. Randolph later told Thomas Jefferson, who noted the fact in his papers:

the P. speaking with R. on the hypothesis of a separation of the Union into Northern and Southern said he had made up his mind to remove and be of the Northern

Washington might have chosen differently when the occasion came. Few of us demur from bold talk when not expected to deliver at once. But we have the evidence we have and what Washington said to Randolph matches the consistent tenor of his public life and other declared principles.

John Dowd might not know of the Randolph conversation. It took me more than the usual amount of effort to chase the quote down to a source, so I can’t fault him for that. But given the other howlers in his forward, facts clearly don’t enter into it. Like many of us, Donald Trump likes to surround himself with people he finds easy to relate to.

 

The Proslavery Politics of Robert E. Lee: The Testimony of Wesley Norris

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

Robert E. Lee

Gentle Readers, we previously talked about Robert E. Lee’s proslavery views some time back. In revisiting the subject, I want to emphasize that even if Lee preached abolitionism to his dying day he did not make Confederate policy. Nor did his views inform the choice to secede, whether for Virginia or anywhere else, or prove influential when the Confederacy wrote its constitution. Lee gained influence over the Confederacy during the war, serving as its ex officio head of state, but reducing the Confederacy to a creature of his mind and wishes profoundly misunderstands the Civil War.

As people do see the Marble Man as the essence of the Confederate States of America, his views on its cause will keep coming up. Tradition, which routinely trumps history, holds that Lee did not own any slaves himself. This may hold true for Lee at some point in the 1850s, but we know he owned people in his own right as late as 1852 and considered buying more in 1860. He also had control over the slaves he inherited from his father-in-law along with Arlington, whose will required their freedom within five years. Lee took almost all that time to get around to it. In the meantime, he functioned as a slaveholder. For most of it, he also lived at Arlington and managed slaves directly. Tradition paints Lee as a generous, lenient enslaver.

Tradition has not met the acquaintance of R.E. Lee. For the most part, Lee’s arrival at Arlington represented a significant decrease in the quality of life for those that he now enslaved. The future general abandoned the Custis and Washington tradition of respecting slave families, hiring slaves out to distant parts of Virginia. Lee chose to interpret Custis’ will so as to require funding the bequests his father-in-law proscribed in advance of releasing any slaves. He ignored the part where Custis said the bequests should come out of sales of land, rather than the labor or lives of slaves. Fairness demands we note that Custis also made a bit of a mess with his will, referring in it to land he might not have owned and not considering how its provisions might interact with Virginia law. But no force of nature made Lee act as he did, even within its confines. He had five years to keep the Custis slaves and what he did to them or, in the case of freedom, declined to do for them in those five years rightly falls on his shoulders.

Lee’s treatment of the slaves, many of whom seem to have believed with some reason that Custis intended them freed at once upon his death, drove some to steal their bodies from the estate. One of them left behind testimony of the affair. I quote it in full:

My name is Wesley Norris; I was born a slave on the plantation of George Parke Custis; after the death of Mr. Custis, Gen. Lee, who had been made executor of the estate, assumed control of the slaves, in number about seventy; it was the general impression among the slaves of Mr. Custis that on his death they should be forever free; in fact this statement had been made to them by Mr. C. years before; at his death we were informed by Gen. Lee that by the conditions of the will we must remain slaves for five years; I remained with Gen. Lee for about seventeen months, when my sister Mary, a cousin of ours, and I determined to run away, which we did in the year 1859; we had already reached Westminster, in Maryland, on our way to the North, when we were apprehended and thrown into prison, and Gen. Lee notified of our arrest; we remained in prison fifteen days, when we were sent back to Arlington; we were immediately taken before Gen. Lee, who demanded the reason why we ran away; we frankly told him that we considered ourselves free; he then told us he would teach us a lesson we never would forget; he then ordered us to the barn, where, in his presence, we were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty; we were accordingly stripped to the skin by the overseer, who, however, had sufficient humanity to decline whipping us; accordingly Dick Williams, a county constable, was called in, who gave us the number of lashes ordered; Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams to lay it on well, an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done. After this my cousin and myself were sent to Hanover Court-House jail, my sister being sent to Richmond to an agent to be hired; we remained in jail about a week, when we were sent to Nelson county, where we were hired out by Gen. Lee’s agent to work on the Orange and Alexander railroad; we remained thus employed for about seven months, and were then sent to Alabama, and put to work on what is known as the Northeastern railroad; in January, 1863, we were sent to Richmond, from which place I finally made my escape through the rebel lines to freedom; I have nothing further to say; what I have stated is true in every particular, and I can at any time bring at least a dozen witnesses, both white and black, to substantiate my statements: I am at present employed by the Government; and am at work in the National Cemetary on Arlington Heights, where I can be found by those who desire further particulars; my sister referred to is at present employed by the French Minister at Washington, and will confirm my statement.

Lee partisans have insisted that Norris invented all of this. They call him an embittered ex-slave trying to libel the reputation of a great and good man, or else a simpleton used by the abolitionist press to do the same. Norris’ words do come to us through a white reporter and appear in an abolitionist newspaper. However, Elizabeth Brown Pryor looked into the case while researching Reading the Man. As she puts it, “all of its facts are verifiable.”

Let’s walk through that. No one contests Norris’ status as a Custis slave. Lee hired him out, away from friends and family. Shortly before Norris, his sister, and their cousin fled Arlington, Lee answered resistant slaves by “overpower[ing]” them. Lee could have a heavy hand with people he believed of similar worth to his own, as he demonstrated in his years as West Point’s martinet commander. With slaves, he quickly exhausted any tolerance he might have had for challenges to his authority.

While some papers ran exaggerated stories that had Lee seize the whip and lash a girl himself, Norris’ version lacks that detail. Nor does he depart from straight, matter of fact recounting of events. They left Arlington after seventeen months, just as Norris says. He has the right number of slaves at Arlington and correctly names his jailer and place of capture. He probably has the overseer right too, naming him Mr. Gwin when the man rendered it himself as McQuinn. The two names sound similar enough and Norris probably only ever heard it spoken. He similarly omits the Washington from George Washington Parke Custis’ name. we know that Arlington had a whipping post and an eyewitness confirms the use of brine to salt the sounds of Lee’s victims.

Norris even has the constable’s name right. A Dick Williams appears in Lee’s account book, where the general-to-be notes “to Richard Williams, arrest, &c of fugitive slaves-$321.14”. Pryor puts that number in context:

The sum, which did not include transport of the slaves to Hanover County-Lee paid another $50.53 for that-is exceptionally large. We know that Lee’s standard reward for returning runaways was ten dollars per slave. The previous year, Lee’s accounts show that he paid Williams only $57.25 to arrest and detain three other fugitives, and another $37.12 to transport them to Richmond. The costs for the earlier capture had also been inflated by the need to keep them in jail two months. The services rendered by Williams in relation to the Norris party must have been extraordinary to command a fee nearly six times as high as those paid the year before.

Lee’s father-in-law spent his money freely. Lee did not and, given his intense interest in the estate’s finances, likely would not have made an exception here. Williams did something to get all that extra cash. The local constabulary did hire out its services for slave discipline, so the “&c” would reasonably include it. The sort of harsh punishment that a slave overseer refused to apply sounds like the kind of thing one would charge more for. Whether the number of lashes, the brine, or the trouble of having Lee watch as he worked might have inspired Williams to charge more, or Lee to give more in expectation of it. Any other explanation seems less probable and more out of character for Lee.

By the time Norris talked to the paper, he had little to fear from Lee or gain from unfairly tarring him. Slavery, for himself and four million other black Americans, had gone. As he has so many particulars right, I see no fair reason to doubt him except a prior commitment, facts be damned, to Lee’s virtue or the singular perfidy of black Americans.

Lee denied it anyway, albeit in vague and summary terms. He declined to over more than a blanket dismissal. Given Lee knew just what had happened, and what he wrote in his ledger, and what he had in fact done, we can’t credit his denial as we can Norris’ story. He might simply have lied. Pryor relates elsewhere that after the war he undertook an effort to rehabilitate the Confederacy, though it came to little, and encouraged others to do the same with more success. He also told a Congressional committee that he believed in gradual emancipation and always had. The Lee of the 1850s would hardly have agreed, unless we consider upon divine intervention as gradual as the twenty or so years typical of actual, enacted plans of emancipation.

Or Lee might have objected to some small part of the content. Pryor speculates that the version of the story where Lee loses control of himself, seizes the whip, and goes to town himself might have crossed a line. Lee prided himself on self-control. For the word to get out that he had lost his temper, true or not, would demean Lee in his own eyes. Gentlemen did not throw decorum to the winds and take bloody vengeance on inferiors. They employed people of a lower class for that work. Even if he had, and I stress that the part where Lee takes the whip for himself has the least credibility and it makes no sense for Norris to include all he had and omit that one element, Lee would likely have understood the claim as a singular, egregious attack upon himself. The rest might easily have fallen out of mind as an ordinary part of his day, as normal and unremarkable we find putting our shoes on or the daily commute.

Either way, by the ordinary standards of historical inquiry we can’t credit Lee’s denial more than Norris’ testimony. The evidence firmly supports the enslaved, not his enslaver. We do no injustice to Lee to believe it so. Rather, knowing all we do, we would wrong Wesley Norris to think otherwise.

Kansas, Boston, and Treason in the Nineteenth Century, Part Two

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

In October, 1851, Samuel Curtis gave his federal grand jury a definition of treason (PDF). He expected, in a Boston where antislavery Americans had lately rescued a few fugitive slaves from those who aimed to steal them back to slavery, that the jury might need to know. Curtis laid out a three point test: The accused must conspire. That conspiracy must involve obstructing the enforcement of a law of the United States. The conspiracy must then use force to that end. All of these applied to Bostonians who had saved enslaved Americans from recapture. Together, these things constituted levying war against the United States. They might, depending on how one read them, apply to the free state movement in Kansas as well.

Curtis did better than nineteenth century bullet points. He wanted his jurors to understand the law thoroughly and so gave a further explanation that runs to about a page of printed text. That section opened with an important qualifier:

It is not enough that the purpose of the combination is to oppose the execution of a law in some particular case, and in that only. If a person against whom process has issued from a court of the United States, should assemble and arm his friends forcibly to prevent an arrest, and in pursuance of such design, resistance should be made by those thus assembled, they would be guilty of a very high crime, but it would not be treason

In a Bostonian context, this means one could throw together to rescue Shadrach Minkins or Anthony Burns and not commit treason. Over in Kansas, Samuel Jones had a warrant to arrest Jacob Branson. He had that warrant under the authority of the federally-constituted territorial government. I don’t know if a territorial court operating under that law counts as a court of the United States rather than one of Kansas Territory, but even granting Jones the point Branson and his rescuers might fall short of Curtis’ definition of treason. They opposed the execution of the law, by force, in one particular case.

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Newitt Wood

However, if the individuals combined

forcibly to prevent any person from being arrested under that law, and with such intent, force is used by them for that purpose, they are guilty of treason.

Here Samuel Newitt Wood and company get into deeper trouble. They as much as told Jones that they would rescue anybody he came after with a warrant. Though the people of Lawrence tried to disavow the rescue of Branson, they had made rhetorical pledges to resist Kansas’ laws too. Their resistance didn’t extent to force, yet. They took pains to emphasize they resisted the laws of Kansas, not the United States. Charles Robinson, at least, understood resisting Wilson Shannon by force as resisting federal authority. Whether he meant that as a precise legal judgment or just a recognition of how Shannon might treat things, the ambiguity remains.

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

Robert E. Lee, slave catcher

One might argue that the resistance to one law doesn’t really count, just as resisting on behalf of one person doesn’t count. Curtis anticipated the argument and would have nothing of it:

The law does not distinguish between a purpose to prevent the execution of one, or several, or all laws. Indeed, such a distinction would be found impracticable, if it were attempted. If this crime could not be committed by forcibly resisting one law, how many laws should be thus resisted to constitute it? Should it be two, or three, or what particular number short of all? And if all, how easy would it be for the worst of treason to escape punishment, simply by excepting out of the treasonable design, some one law.

The judge has a point. If the Army of Northern Virginia scrupulously held to the fugitive slave law, and they did so enthusiastically when they had the chance in Pennsylvania, then that hardly made them innocent of treason. Robert E. Lee commanded, among other things, the largest slave patrol in American history.

Donald Trump has a past

Klan for AmericansGentle Readers, by now you must all know about Donald Trump and the Ku Klux Klan. Trump, frontrunner for the Republican party’s presidential nomination, has the endorsement of the nation’s most famous Klansman, David Duke. Duke infamously ran for Governor of Louisiana back in the early Nineties. Had only whites voted, he would have won. The Grand Wizard joins a veritable klavern of white supremacists on Team Trump. Many politicians court that kind of endorsement, if not necessarily as many words, but few appreciate having the fact noticed. The United States magically ended racism in 2008, 1965, 1865, or some other past date. Failing that, racism didn’t really hurt anyone, or racists’ victims had it coming. White innocence runs from cradle to someone else’s grave. Sunday last, CNN confronted Trump about the endorsement.

The Donald claimed the birthright of every white American and declared that he knew nothing about David Duke or the Ku Klux Klan. The CNN anchor pressed him first on white supremacist groups in general. Trump pleaded ignorance. Even when narrowed down to the Klan, who Trump mentions by name, he dodged the question. I mention this because Trump later complained that he couldn’t hear the anchor. He did very well at naming names for a guy who couldn’t make out the other half of the conversation. In the course of all that, he claimed he needed to research the groups.

Let’s play the sucker for a moment and pretend that Donald Trump needs an education about the Ku Klux Klan. Back in 1872, the Congress published a thirteen-volume report on the work of the Klan and its allies. I must confess that I have not read all, nor even a fair portion of it. I didn’t know it existed until Joshua Rothman tweeted about it. In the course of writing this post, I’ll read more of the report than anybody in the Trump campaign ever will. Should you like to join me in this distinction, you’ve made it if you can get through the title.

After the usual preliminaries, the committee got down to business:

The proceedings and debates in Congress show that, whatever other causes were assigned for disorders in the late insurrectionary States, the execution of the laws and the security of life and property were alleged to be most seriously threatened by the existence and acts of organized bands of armed and disguised men, known as Ku-Klux.

CNN meant the descendants of these people, Donald. One might ask from whence such bands came. The committee found, based on testimony from officers of the United States military

that secret organizations were formed in the insurrectionary States soon after the close of the war, hostile to, and intended to embarrass the Government of the United States and of the States in proper administration of the affairs of the country.

George H. Thomas, son of Virginian planters disowned for his Unionism.

George H. Thomas

The witnesses here included George Gordon Meade and George Thomas, generals both. Thomas, if we believe the traditional story about Robert Lee, had the superpower of political alignment independent of his native state. Some white Virginians could think for themselves after all. Who knew?

Having lost their war to save slavery, the secret organizations latched on to other grievances. According to Nathan Bedford Forrest,

There was a great deal of insecurity felt by the southern people. […] The negroes were holding night meetings; were going about; were becoming very insolent; and the southern people all over the State were very much alarmed. […] Ladies were ravished by some of these negroes

The wanton, roving rapist of minority extraction ought to sound familiar. If he has ever left the American mind fully, I don’t know it. He had a starring turn just last summer:

You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go

Dylann Roof said those words just before he opened fire at the African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof committed his murders, assassinations really, on June 17. On June 16, the day before Roof walked into that church, Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign. He had to run, you understand, because America had problems he could fix. Among those problems:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.

Trump can, and belatedly did, disavow the Klan. You don’t do these things right in the moment, or the Klan might think you mean them.  Should Trump really want to disavow the Klan and its allied white supremacists, he must begin with something far harder than statements to the media. He must commence with looking in the mirror and denouncing himself. I doubt that Trump would have a formal affiliation to a white power group, or that he would admit to one if he did. He probably doesn’t pay them dues. -He doesn’t even pay into his own charity these days.- But it scarcely takes a sartorial fondness for bedsheets and conical headgear to make you the Klan candidate. Trump, for all his pretense to the contrary, has what it really takes.

The Klan knows it. I don’t know how many Americans have voted for Donald Trump yet, but I doubt they’re all fools. They know the score. We ought to consider that before congratulating ourselves on the waning of white supremacy. Neither law of nature nor moral arc of history, however long, ensures that it will continue to wane. It may have a comeback in mind, as it has before. Trump might not win the nomination, though that seems unlikely now. He might lose in November. Win or lose, his supporters will not courteously evaporate. If any had forgotten, Donald Trump reminded a generation of politicians and aspirant politicians that you could ride brutish white supremacy to fame and considerable success. They will not soon forget. Expect them for as long as people who imagine themselves white understand that they can steal blood and treasure from people they deem black. They’ve won elections on that platform before, and not just in the nineteenth century.

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.

 

Horseshoes, History, and Violence

Gentle Readers, if you spend any length of time arguing about politics you will soon encounter the horseshoe theory. This notion holds that ideological extremes, despite their ostensible opposition, tend to blur together. Thus a left-right spectrum actually bends along another dimension and we should understand all of those horrid radicals as essentially equivalent: violent, dogmatic, and authoritarian. This has the appeal of making the speaker, always situated at the horseshoe’s peak, into a font of sensible moderation. Neither political scientists nor political philosophers take the horseshoe very seriously, as they have committed the grievous sin from which the it grants salvation: Actually reading and thinking about politics.

Horseshoe theory came to mind this week when I thought, briefly, about Thomas Fleming’s catalog of errors. Fleming holds that abolitionists and proslavery Americans had one another caught in a vicious cycle of mutual alienation and states-raising that eventually led to the Civil War. In doing so, he largely follows the outlines of blundering generation and needless war historiography in vogue at about the time of his birth. These scholars, like Fleming, put on a show of blaming both sides for what they consider a tragic and hysteria-fueled war of choice. In practice, however, they reliably cast the abolitionists as the true villains of the piece. Fleming would have us believe that white Southerners practically begged for abolition, but stumbled into a war due to vicious abolitionist onslaughts.

Setting aside for a moment the outright falsity of Fleming’s suggestion, purely for the sake of argument, the thesis of mutually reinforcing radicalisms has a lot of horseshoe in it. It assumes that a virtuous, non-violent, tolerant center exists. This might sound like a simple, common sense proposition. In the real world things work out rather differently. Extremists, for whatever limited value that category has, do sometimes engage in violence and authoritarianism. But so do moderates. Not all moderates do so, but then not all extremists do either.

That all sounds very abstract, so let’s get some nineteenth century on the case. A moderate, in Fleming’s view and the view of an assortment of early twentieth century historians, does not have a strong opinion one way or the other on slavery. He, or rarely she, lives in a country where slavery exists. Enslavers might not ply their trade just outside the door, but the moderate knows and accepts that they do it somewhere within a polity of which the moderate considers himself or herself a part. The moderate lacks decades of forgetting to obscure the reality of enslavement:

As Frederick Law Olmstead described “the severest corporeal punishment I witnessed at the South, “a slave girl named Sall was ordered to pull up her clothes and lie on her back, private parts exposed. The overseer flogged her “with the rawhide, across her naked loins and thighs.” Sall “shrunk away from him, not rising, but writhing, groveling, and screaming, “‘Oh don’t sir! Oh plerase stop, master! please sir! oh, that’s enough master! oh Lord! oh master, master, of God, master, do stop! oh God, master, oh God, master!”

After “strokes had ceased” and “choking, sobbing, spasmodic groans only were heard, “Olmstead asked if it was “necessary to punish her so severely.’ … ‘O yes sir,” answered the lasher, laughing at the Yankee’s innocence. Northerners ‘have no idea how lazy these niggers are …” They’d never do any work at all if they were not afraid of being whipped.”

The moderate might dismiss the writings of abolitionists on the point. The moderate might even do so while engaged as a member of a mob attacking an abolitionist troublemaker of some sort. But the moderate could look at the writings of the enslavers and see much the same sort of thing. They made no bones about all the whipping they did as a “necessary” part of managing their human property. Nor could they, as it constituted such a normal, everyday part of life in the slave states. If you didn’t care to whip your slaves yourself, you could pay someone else to do the job. You could contract with the local constabulary for the task, or employ an overseer.

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

Robert E. Lee

One especially famous enslaver did the both in turn, a fact remembered very well by one of his chattels, Wesley Norris. Norris, his sister, and their cousin had run away, believing the famous man who inherited them had no right to their lives. Their prior owner, they thought, promised them freedom on his death. With the new boss proved less than forthcoming with it, they stole themselves. They got into Maryland before recapture

we were apprehended and thrown into prison, and Gen. Lee notified of our arrest; we remained in prison fifteen days, when we were sent back to Arlington; we were immediately taken before Gen. Lee, who demanded the reason why we ran away; we frankly told him that we considered ourselves free; he then told us he would teach us a lesson we never would forget; he then ordered us to the barn, where, in his presence, we were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty; we were accordingly stripped to the skin by the overseer, who, however, had sufficient humanity to decline whipping us; accordingly Dick Williams, a county constable, was called in, who gave us the number of lashes ordered; Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams to lay it on well, an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

The General Lee who owned Norris went on just a few years later to his fame, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia in the Slaveholder’s Insurrection. A moderate of the time wouldn’t have read Norris either, not in the least because his account didn’t reach publication until 1866, but one would have to work very hard to miss that things like this went on in the South every day. Nor, when pressed, did enslavers even deny sexual exploitation. Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow considered the rape of enslaved women a praiseworthy feature of the system:

Negro slavery has a further effect on the character of the white woman, which should commend the institution to all who love the white race more than they do the negro. It is a shield to the virtue of the white woman.

So long as man is lewd, woman will be his victim. Those who are forced to occupy a menial position have ever been, will ever be most tempted, least protected: this is one of the evils of slavery; it attends all who are in that abject condition from the beautiful Circassian to the sable daughter of Africa. While we admit the selfishness of the sentiment, we are free to declare, we love the white woman so much, we would save her even at the sacrifice of the negro: would throw around her every shield, keep her out of the way of temptation.

While moderates might not think much of these things, they happened all the same. Whatever its cause, violence leaves broken bodies and lives just the same. The strokes of the lash do not turn into a lover’s kiss any more than bullets become a warm caress because their issuers deem the cause noble. Even misunderstandings and accidents, where human agency plays a confused role or none at all, grant no such considerations.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Yet the moderate, who protests the violence of the extremes to the point of imagining them as identical and treats violence as the characteristic in particular for which extremists deserve condemnation, has at best nothing to say about the precise violence that happens every day. More often, the moderate exerted, and in many cases still exerts, great effort to legitimate just that violence. The moderate argument against violent extremism comes down not to a principled stand against violence, nor even to a conviction that it ought to be minimized. Rather the moderate wants violence to continue along exactly as it has, afflicting those it has, likely in perpetuity.

I raise this issue in part because one hears horseshoe arguments so frequently, but also to make this point: The war only began at Sumter if only believes that army-scale intersectional violence between whites counts as violence. If we omit consideration of scale, then white Americans attacked one another in clashes either over slavery or deeply involved with it on at least a steady basis back through 1855. If we omit the intersectional qualification, then we find that Southern whites violently policed dissent against slavery going back decades before. If we remove the word “white” and admit lives are lives, bodies bodies, and violence violence, then we have a longer war yet. It might not have proceeded in every era at a fever pitch, but the war of those Americans and English colonists before them upon those they deemed black stretches back through the whole history of slavery in Anglophone North America. From that perspective, we must accept the Civil War as a true revolution. For four years, the violent energies of white Americans so eagerly directed, often with pride, at black Americans found themselves wrenched from their customary frame and applied elsewhere.

I can’t know the hearts of Thomas Fleming or the historians that preceded them, but in looking at a fuller picture than they offer I find it hard to resist the conclusion that their objection to the war lies chiefly in that temporary departure from our most ancient customs. With the possible exception of Avery Craven, who I understand held generally to pacifism, they don’t mind the violence. They mind that white people suffered it.

Monuments and Compromise

Liberty Place monument original location

The obelisk at its original location

New Orleans has four monuments to white supremacy now slated for removal. Two of these monuments fall into the run of generic Confederate celebration. Neither Robert E. Lee nor Jefferson Davis had all that much to do with New Orleans or Louisiana, but if you can’t put up a statue or Lee or Davis as an icon of white power then what else is there? In the case of New Orleans, one could plausibly argue that Andrew Jackson does the job and has an obvious local history connection. New Orleans has a Jackson statue and, while I understand it has rightly drawn criticism, the proposed removal doesn’t include it. It does include a statue of Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard, a genuine native son.

This leaves us with the fourth monument to consider. It commemorates not the familiar war, but its less famous continuation. On September 14, 1874, five thousand members of the White League battled the state militia and local police. It took the arrival of the United States military to suppress their insurrection. People don’t just get together thousands strong and pick a fight with the state for the pure joy of battle. The obelisk celebrating the struggle did not originally come with an explanation, but the city added one in the 1930s:

United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.

In the Thirties, whites didn’t feel as obligated to talk around the issues as they often do now. The rioters in 1874 fought for white supremacy against a Reconstruction state government and they would have had it if not for the Army getting in the way. If the Confederate veterans in the White League didn’t get what they wanted at the time, their perseverance eventually won through. The obelisk generated the sort of criticism one would expect, eventually leading the city to add a new plaque contextualizing the monument. This pleased no one, and really could please no one. The city moved the obelisk, leaving it out of view until former Grand Wizard David Duke sued for its return. New Orleans relocated the it to a less conspicuous place. Now it may at last go for good. This also fails to please.

The inscription

The inscription

We have a natural tendency to look for compromises. This often means not a settlement, but rather that a sufficient number of us agree to call things settled, as it did for Henry Clay’s famous compromises. Compromising makes one feel high-minded, reasonable, and generally better than the partisans of either side. They consider only their interests. We, the compromising, nobly work to for everyone’s. It all sounds very good on paper. It might even work out that way when differences come down to small details or similar means to achieve generally agreed-upon ends. Now and then, one does find situations where the narcissism of small differences plays a large role.

More often, though, one encounters real differences in values. Our shared humanity, though it ought to move us toward large circles of compassion and empathy, only goes so far. People have different and frequently irreconcilable values. We can hide that fact under platitudes about how we all love our families and want to lead peaceful, happy lives. Some of us, given the general human proficiency for self-deception, successfully hide it even from ourselves. Sufficiently blinded, we can push for peace and comity that amount less to mutual contentedness and more to often brute enforcement of the very circumstances which render those alleged goals impossible.

The white people of New Orleans once thought the White League right to fight for white power and the preservation of as much of slavery as possible. Perhaps many still do. White Americans frequently preach egalitarianism, but just as frequently lose interest when the time comes to turn sermons into policy. That might cost us some of our capital, social and otherwise. White power didn’t require justification. It did not constitute a new or radical change, like racial egalitarianism, but rather the normal order of events. This makes it peaceful. Everybody knows his or her place and we all go along, ignoring slavery, lynching, and other perfidies. One can ignore them entirely or pretend these things just happen and have nothing to do with us, but the more honest might admit that we prefer them. They happen to the right kind of people, deserving of such treatment for whatever reasons we care to invent.

Where can one find a middle ground between those who view such things as right and those who view them as wrong? If we view white Americans’ depredations against black Americans as right, then anything that ameliorates or halts them constitutes a loss. If we take them as wrong, then anything that doesn’t constitutes a loss. For either side to claim satisfaction, the other must lose. A true compromise solution, where no one loses and everyone walks away somewhat satisfied does not, and cannot logically, exist. In this case, should we understand compromise as ideal even in principle? Or should we understand it as an expression of less overt partisanship?

Appeals for compromise, like any other appeal, might arise from cynical motives. A party that expects to lose might suggest compromise in order to preserve an implicit victory against the threat of explicit defeat. Without positive action against it, a preferred status quo will usually prevail. It has, and in order to function most anywhere short of a police state, must have the at least passive assent of those with the power to change it. To that, we can add delays, procedural complaints, and maliciously scrupulous compliance with formalities. All can do much to gum up the works while appearing neutral and disinterested enough to avoid obvious partisanship.

All of this applies to the the forest of white supremacist memorials, but I think the point more generally applicable. In reading Robert Pierce Forbes’ excellent The Missouri Compromise and its Aftermath a few days back, I came on this telling point:

The second reason for slaveholders’ fear of federal revenues is at once the simplest and the most profound: they dreaded the disruption that change would bring to a closed system. The report of South Carolina’s Nullification Convention rendered a stunning judgment on the inflexibility of its slave society when it denounced the application of the American system of protection and internal improvements to “the great Southern section of the Union” on the grounds that “local circumstances” rendered the region “altogether incapable of change” (emphasis added). Nothing could better illustrate the brittleness of the slave system than this sweeping statement.[1]

South Carolina’s nullifiers might have spoken for their own especially ossified state, and surely appreciated the perceived fragility of their system, but other Southerners had a sunnier view of their section’s potential. Later generations of historians have taken a more positive (for white enslavers) one yet, noting the remarkable durability and adaptability of slave systems. That said, this still has some truth to it. Humans have a great ability to change and innovate when we absolutely must, but it takes works and might raise questions about the fundamental order of things that we find uncomfortable or intolerable. Even if we don’t consciously accept the premise that white must control black and black lives exist for the convenience of white looting, we live in a culture that does so. This holds true for Americans who have snow outside their windows right now as for those who have none. By fixating on allegedly unconnected factors, we can pretend that we have not imbibed those doctrines whilst simultaneously serving as partisans for them. We all do so often enough.

Those now protesting the removal of the Liberty Place monument and other markers of white power don’t always follow that script. I encourage you to click through and read the remarkable things that Amanda Jennings wrote in Kevin’s comments, but read them knowing that she likes her “goverment” without any n in it. I presume that her accent, like my own, doesn’t stress the letter. Jennings insists she means nuts. Should she convince you of that, you may also find her strange world where men like Alexander Stephens and Jefferson Davis wrote anti-Southern lies about the South in the service of “the government” quite persuasive. You may also find yourself interested in various real estate ventures and compelled to assist Nigerian dignitaries who have lost access to their bank accounts. I would advise against such endeavors, but per Jennings you should take all I write as the product of a brainwashed stooge of the government.

[1]Forbes, Robert Pierce (2009-01-05). The Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath: Slavery and the Meaning of America (p. 168). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.

Unpacking Secession

The Charleston Mercury's extra announcing South Carolina's secession.

The Charleston Mercury’s extra announcing South Carolina’s secession.

It doesn’t take very long talking about the Civil War with people or reading about it online before one encounters the argument that the southern states had a right to secede. Thus we should not ask why secession took place, but rather why the rest of the nation objected and sought to suppress it. That question has value itself. We should ask it often and intently. It informs a great deal of recent scholarship about the war, in particular the continuing debate over to what extent, how, and when, northern whites understood themselves to fight the war to destroy slavery. The consensus holds that most came to emancipation only reluctantly, only after repeated defeats, and only as a measure necessary to win the war. But giving the question of why the rest of the nation fought the South its due attention should not distract us, as the bad faith debater wishes, from the more important fact that the South seceded to preserve slavery.

All that said, the supposed right of secession deserves some investigation in itself. In Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1859, Elizabeth Varon distinguishes secession from disunion. The latter carried overlapping meanings:

Disunion was invoked by Americans, across the political spectrum, in five registers: as a prophecy of national ruin, a threat of withdrawal from the federal compact, an accusation of treasonous plotting, a process of sectional alienation, and a program for regional independence.

We usually, laypeople and historian alike, call all of those secession. Varon thinks we do so wrongly. To her,

Secession referred to a specific mechanism whereby states could leave the Union, and it reflected complex constitutional theories on the boundaries of state and federal power.

Secession, in Varon’s usage, thus describes how one goes about enacting the program of disunion. For the purposes of this post, I intend to broaden the term just slightly to also include how secession’s advocates understood it. One need not go far to find references to succession in antebellum political works, which plays into the notion that everybody in antebellum America agreed that states had a right to secede. Richard Ellis makes this point in The Union At Risk, and points to an important shift in the constitutional thinking along the way:

Prior to the espousal of the doctrine by the South Carolina nullifiers, most assertions of secession had taken the form of rhetorical flourishes, political ploys, and logical extensions of arguments not fully understood or thought out. Moreover, secession before 1828-1833 was not a doctrine that was associated with a particular interest group or section of the country. A number of the more vociferous New England opponents of the War of 1812 had spoken of it, but the moderates who controlled the Hartford Convention rejected the doctrine, and the entire movement was soon disgraced and lost in the nationalist fervor that swept the country after 1815.

New Englanders also floated secession much less famously, and in fewer numbers, against Jefferson’s embargo. A simplistic reading of that would suggest a national consensus that one could secede, just as a similar reading would find a consensus on states’ rights, but note Ellis’ qualifications. Rhetoric, ploy, and arguments taken to their logical extreme do not a program make. Nor does it follow that if they did, they necessarily further amounted to the assertion of secession as a legal process to which a state had a conventional right. If secession did mean those things, then suppressing it should at the very least come only through a conflict between its exercise and other, similarly compelling rights. One can make a very good argument that in 1860-1 other rights did conflict with any such exercise, but unless one takes secession as the ultimate of all rights then such a conflict seems inherent and inevitable. We come back around to calling out the army and the familiar narrative of 1861-5.

This doesn’t render consideration of methods and understandings moot. Antebellum Americans could understand secession as a different kind of right which they understood themselves as entitled to and yet suppress its exercise by another without contradiction. Though that might seem like a stretch, it relied only upon acceptance of the logic of the American founding. The United States arose through an act of treason against the United Kingdom. The founders levied war against the legally constituted government of the land, precisely the act which they would later declare treason in the Constitution. They claimed as their justification the right of revolution, a decidedly unconventional right.

We understand ordinary rights as involving our ability to do something without interference. What we consider interference depends heavily upon our political convictions, usually with a distinction between a right to do something free from government obstruction against a right to engage in the act in and of itself. The right of revolution doesn’t fit easily into either construction. Those who revolt must expect opposition and at least very likely that they will settle the issue by a contest of arms. Thus one doesn’t have an unhindered right to rise up at will, but rather a right that exists only in retrospect. If you win your war, you have the right. Otherwise, you had the right to hang. In this light, we must consider revolution not as a right like speech where suppression in itself would violate expected norms, but rather one its lack would do so.

The understanding secession as not revolution, but rather an orderly constitutional process, came into American discourse through the innovations of the nullifiers. It did not achieve the status of an accepted dogma even in the South until after Nullification came and went, as one can see here (PDF):

The South, in my opinion, has been aggrieved by the acts of the North, as you say. I feel the aggression, and am willing to take every proper step for redress. It is the principle I contend for, not individual or private benefit. As an American citizen, I take great pride in my country, her prosperity and institutions, and would defend any State if her rights were invaded. But I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation. I hope, therefore, that all constitutional means will be exhausted before there is a resort to force. Secession is nothing but revolution.

Here we have an impressive collection of statements. The author deems the South an “aggrieved” victim of Yankee “aggression.” He wants redress. But he loathes the thought of disunion. He distinguishes between constitutional means of the redress he hopes for and secession, which he calls revolution. He doesn’t leave matters there, though. He further writes:

The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It was intended for “perpetual union,” so expressed in the preamble, and for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution, or the consent of all the people in convention assembled.

That, if not the earlier statements about the South’s suffering, sounds like something Lincoln would say. Robert E. Lee wrote it all to his son in late January, 1861. One can argue that Lee doesn’t make for much of a constitutional thinker. Whatever their abilities, military men have other priorities. Nor does his embrace of the Confederacy later on involve a clear contradiction. Lee would have noticed his fighting the war and in doing so he acted consistently with his understanding of secession as revolution.

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

Robert E. Lee

At least rhetorically, however, many secessionists did claim they had a legal process. Some might have believed it. During the Secession Winter, they did rather more than make the traditional threats. They employed a method along the general lines that Calhoun laid down in Nullification times. The states, through special conventions, had ratified the Constitution. To Calhoun, this meant that a state convention exercised ultimate sovereignty and could thus un-ratify the Constitution. The Union consisted only and entirely of the Constitution, legally speaking, so by exercising its sovereignty in this way, a state could take itself out of the Union. Other thinkers held that states could do this through ordinary legislation, but Calhoun’s state convention method generally prevailed. Calhoun only had to ignore where the Constitution located sovereignty to manage all this. One can’t blame him for missing it, though. Who reads the first sentence of a document?

Secessionists also differed, even in South Carolina, over whether they should secede unilaterally or not. Many held that secession would come more easily and more defensibly from a convention of the southern states acting in concert. Opponents damned them as secret unionists, pointing to the failure of the Nashville Convention to achieve secession a decade prior. Why would one adopt a method known to fail, unless one wanted the effort to fail too? Some might have done just that, but as a practical matter even while considering unilateral secession South Carolina’s leadership took a very keen interest in what other states planned to do. They had gone out on a limb before and learned that the rest of the South would not follow. That didn’t quite make the first secession a cooperative affair in the mode that the advocates of it wanted, with the whole South going out together, but they both expected and had some informal assurances that other states would follow.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

All the secession methods suggested in the antebellum agreed on one point: secession must proceed unilaterally in another way. A state had the power, either through revolution or constitutional process, to secede on its own. The consent of other states or the national government did not enter into it. They might engage in consultation. It might make for better politics for states to go out in a group. But when a state wanted to go, it had gone. This would always invoke the familiar storm of controversy. However, an uncontroversial process for secession exists in principle: the Constitution allows for amendments. If a state could secure the passage of an amendment authorizing secession, either for itself alone or for states in general, that would almost certainly meet constitutional muster. (The Reconstruction Amendments offer a clear case where the text of the Constitution did not, but such direct and obvious counterexamples don’t come up very often.) Somewhat more remotely, states could convene to write an entirely new constitution which would permit secession. Those legal roads exist, but the advocates of secession never seem very interested in them. Rather they want to leave, take the real estate with them, and demand that everyone else smile and wave as they depart.

Good Intentions and Antislavery

"Am I Not a Man and a Brother?"

“Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”

I write this inspired by the controversy historian Sean Wilentz caused with his editorial in the New York Times declaring slavery always a state, not a national institution. I cannot improve upon the many responses he has received, not even to say that he should know better. But arguing over whether the Constitution, the founders, or the country itself had some species of antislavery character raises the question of what one means to call something or someone antislavery.

Most often, the question probably comes down to whether or not a person expressed antislavery opinions or a policy arose from antislavery intentions. Thomas Jefferson expressed antislavery opinions; we count him as antislavery just as we would a random farmer in Massachusetts. This makes intuitive sense. We should take people at their words, at least as a starting point. Antislavery of this species, concerning itself with thought and intention as passed down to us in writing, makes for a big tent. We can include everyone who expressed a negative opinion about slavery at all, making for an appealing past where most everyone save a few degenerates knew deep down that they tolerated a great wrong. Abolition thus seems inevitable, a natural consequence of the general agreement of the white community upon it. We needed a few decades and seven hundred thousand lives to work out the logistics, but these things happen.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

The intentional understanding of antislavery politics works, at least in a limited sense, for unraveling the positions of private individuals of little influence. If someone in Kansas, Illinois, or Virginia confides to his or her diary opposition to slavery then that can settle things. Most people always lack the power to greatly influence their societies one way or another and we can’t blame them for it. But we would do right to look askance at someone who preaches such doctrines, whether in public or private, whilst owning, acquiring, and exploiting slaves. Words can cost us, but actions come dearer still. When the two come into conflict, we can reasonably see the choice of action as expressing the actor’s paramount values. Thomas Jefferson freed only a small number of his slaves. Robert E. Lee freed the five slaves for which he gets undue credit because the terms of his father-in-law’s will required it and got all the work out of them that he could before doing so.

Focusing on intention alone allows us to ignore the details and frees us to bask in the joys of feel good history for white Americans. We need not inquire much about what happened to the slaves, who we implicitly deem marginal and unimportant. Instead we focus on our favorite subject: the agreed-upon virtues of white people. Here we have written ourselves a happy fable which only requires us to dismiss the lives and ordeals of black Americans as meaningless, something which we receive encouragement in every day.

We have also rendered the entire antebellum era incomprehensible. If Americans white enough to matter generally agreed on the evil of slavery and that it must end, then how did white Americans with their absolute control of the American government and all the state and local governments, preside over an era not simply where slavery endured but also thrived and expanded with the frontiers of the nation? How do we account for those decades and the remarkable sacrifice and harvest of lives that finally ended it? If such an antislavery consensus existed, surely it would not have taken decades and seven hundred thousand lives to free the slaves. Nor can such a concord explain how near half the nation spent its share of those lives not to end slavery, as if some foreign foe imposed it upon the land, but rather to preserve it.

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

Robert E. Lee

To dismiss the limits of the intentions-only approach to antislavery, we must disregard the reality of slavery as experienced by the slaves and prosecuted by the enslavers with the aid of the state the latter ordained, established, and operated. To advocate it requires tacit acceptance of all the previous. That in mind, we should consider such an approach not only dangerously misleading historiography but also inherently white supremacist. No law of nature requires us to assent to such judgments, so if we must accept them then we should give them their proper name.

Admitting the complexities and shortcomings of white Americans, rather than treating them as entombed saints, does not make for us the most comforting and celebratory history. It requires us to look at how our national ancestors stepped on others, stole their lives and labor, destroyed their families, and built an empire not of liberty or some high-toned Enlightenment virtues but rather from flesh and blood drawn by the lash. That unflattering picture ought to cause revulsion, but can also call upon us to do better and offer suggestions for roads forward.

Or we may go on as we always have, stolen lives in hand and supremely convinced of our white virtue. We don’t have to do that. If we cannot begin the world anew, then we still have the power to make it better. If we fail at that, then we can at least acknowledge our failure and admit that we chose it, contenting ourselves with the plunder we have assigned to our skin. We have done so often before, graciously allowing ourselves to forget each time. This exquisite virtue must tragically go unheralded; accepting a pardon admits to a wrong done. We took the flags and statues, among many other things, for granted for long enough that continuation seems far more in our “racial” character than doing otherwise.

One Day in July with White Supremacist Jack Kelly

Seven score and ten years ago, almost the entire white South fought a war to save slavery. Only four slave states declined the crusade in the end, for the most part with significant internal divisions and a number of their white residents taking up the cause anyway. For generations thereafter, many of those white southerners mourned their dead and bitterly resented their loss. They might admire the tragic sacrifices of their friends, family, and hallowed ancestors. They might celebrate the valor of those men. They did both with the full knowledge that those same men fought to win rather than courageously lose. Like people the world over, they could cast themselves in the same place as those hallowed ancestors. Surely if they could help, then things would have gone differently.

Shelby Foote almost says it in Ken Burns documentary, in the course of quoting Faulkner:

William Faulkner, in Intruder in the Dust, says that for every Southern boy, it’s always in his reach to imagine it being 1:00 on an early July day in 1863. The guns are laid. The troops are lined up. The flags are already out of their cases and ready to be unfurled. But it hasn’t happened yet. And he can go back to the time before the war was going to be lost. And he can always have that moment for himself.

One must understand that Foote means every white Southern boy. In that moment, with all things in the balance, all things seem possible. Maybe a single time traveling boy couldn’t change the outcome. Maybe legions of them would fare no better. To put oneself there makes one part of something grand, a participant in the noble struggle. He imagines a world that could have been. If his struggle fails, then he falls as a hero. He proves his manhood, his pride, and writes his own elegy in dreamed blood -his own, someone else’s, but never a slave’s- to the tragic passing of a noble age. At least by the twentieth century, and probably before, that white Southern boy would have had some white Yankee boys for company.

Foote doesn’t say all that goes into the dream. He knew, of course, but one no longer says such things openly. Now more of us imagine ourselves in blue. We have the luxury of pretending that if we lived then we would have the same values we do now and so of course we would fight to free the slaves. If we have traded one form of cheap virtue for another, then at least we traded up.

Or we hope we have. Some of us refuse to. Probably more of us lie about it, to others and to ourselves. Take, for example, Jack Kelly of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He declares himself, in the customary ritual of those about to prove otherwise, a proud Union partisan happy to hop in the time machine and go back to destroy slavery:

if I had to live in an earlier period, I’d want to be a soldier in the Union Army. I can think of no greater cause than to fight to eradicate America’s original sin.

Good for him. But as these things do, he goes downhill from here.

Slavery isn’t America’s original sin because it was unique, or uniquely horrible here. If prostitution is “the world’s oldest profession,” slave trading is second. Since the dawn of recorded history, slavery has been practiced in nearly every society known to man.

Kelly can only acknowledge the evil of slavery if he can share the blame around. On the heels of admission, he reaches for exculpation. We all know the horrors of slavery, or so we imagine. Few receive much education on the subject, fewer still inquire on our own. We know we will find nothing pleasing there, but decline to test the proposition. Jack Kelly certainly didn’t. He wants to acknowledge slavery, but immediately move past it as though Americans enslaved in a brief, transient, incidental way rather than building a continental order centered on the deprivation of people they declared black for the exaltation of those deemed white.

He has some superficial facts. Other cultures did practice slavery, though race-based slavery seems to have developed specifically in the context of the Early Modern Atlantic. This at least distinguishes New World slavery from ancient slavery or Arabian slavery. Slavery in the United States has other distinguishing traits. Less involved with the dangerous processing of sugar and operating largely north of the favored habitats of tropical diseases, the United States developed a self-sustaining slave population. We usually did not kill slaves faster than births could replace them. Does that make white Americans virtuous, or should recognize that this achievement only appears ostensibly benign as it renders bondage all the more durable? Enslavers would reap lives for profit either way. The source of the harvest does matter and we should acknowledge how it differently shaped the Caribbean and the United states, but I don’t know that we should pat ourselves on the backs for coming out one way or the other on it.

Even if we might make such a decision, we would praise not the determination of people but geography. If one could turn a profit growing sugarcane in Virginia, Americans would have done it just as much as the British did in the West Indies. We know from the example of the Carolina lowcountry that American enslavers had no qualms about forcing slaves to toil in areas they understood as replete with lethal diseases.

Kelly will have none of that. He spreads the blame to everyone, parceling it out so finely that not enough adheres to any particular group for us to really notice.

The words “slavery” and “benign” ought never to appear in the same sentence, but slaves in the American South and the British Caribbean (usually) were treated less harshly than in most other places where slavery has been practiced — especially in ancient times.

He says it in so many words: slaves in the United States and the United Kingdom’s Caribbean colonies had it comparably good. This might or might not withstand careful examination, but he clearly implies that we should take the mote of blame he has left we virtuous whites with and place it elsewhere. Kelly has suggestions:

Our word “slave” is derived from “Slav,” the peoples most frequently enslaved during Roman times. Throughout history, only a relatively few slaves have been black. And for every African brought to North America on (mostly British) slave ships, dozens and possibly hundreds more were taken east by Arab slave traders.

This makes for a nice distraction: those bastard Romans might have enslaved my own ancestors. I don’t know that they did. The Italians and Spaniards in particular who enslaved Slavs generally collected them from the north shore of the Black Sea, while my Polish antecedents run closer to the Baltic. I lose track of them in the 1820s, so some remote relative might have lived further south and ended up in the belly of a slave ship. Kelly thinks this deeply significant, even though his column addresses American slavery. He still has blame to spread around, so as a good American he places it on the British. They must have somehow, by dark arts known only in the perfidious heart of Albion, forced innocent white Americans to buy the slaves off the ships to grow the tobacco and cotton and thereby reap profits from reaping lives.

By the way, Arabs also traded slaves. Those slaves even often had white skin, just as the Slavs did, which renders them especially significant. They constitute, we decided, an us rather than a them. We should consequently feel their suffering most keenly in our natural solipsism. We should remember it in our discussion of slavery in the United States. We should not draw any inferences from an American abandoning our customary parochialism to discuss the misdeeds of others in a piece that concerns itself, allegedly, with our own.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens

Once Kelly declares for the Union and abolition and shines the spotlight on any slaves save those the United States military emancipated, he comes at last to a unique trait of American slavery which makes it especially egregious. Even he cannot deny that

What made slavery America’s original sin was its violent conflict with our founding principles. If “all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” what gives some men the right to own others?

Kelly can only acknowledge white America’s great sin to highlight white America’s great nobility. Our white skin and our American residence made us so virtuous as to transmute slavery from lives stolen and children bought and sold, into a kind of heroic flaw. He would do to read how eighteenth and nineteenth century Americans squared the circle between whites-only freedom and slavery, but then he would have to learn how the latter shaped the former. Some Americans acknowledged the conflict, including the slave-owning, slave raping author of that famous line. Others, like the slave-owning Vice-President of the Confederacy, saw it and rejected Jefferson. Still more understood what many of the founding generation actually practiced, when not speaking idle words about universal rights: freedom flowed from slavery. By making the black man (women rarely entered into it, unless the slaveholder felt like coerced company that night) permanently and nigh-infinitely inferior to the white, the very contrast made whites feel freer. White skin established a floor on which one could sit and never sink, at least in pride. It put whites, no matter how poor, in solidarity together against blacks. We see the conflict now, with slavery gone, but the two merge easily enough again when one starts talking about the continued plunder of black America.

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

Robert E. Lee

Jack Kelly gives us a perfect illustration of just that in himself. Lest one think that I unfairly dredge up the past to damn him, consider this:

Slavery was horrible, but no black American living today has suffered from it. Most are better off than if their ancestors had remained in Africa.

Kelly wrote these words just a few days ago, in a 2015 with the internet and Civil Rights legislation, Black History Month and obscure blogs. Robert E. Lee wrote these in 1856:

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.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, though hardly as famous as the then-obscure Virginian, made much the same argument two years prior. Where Lee adhered to a mix of Positive Good and Necessary Evil ideas to defend slavery, reaching the same end either way, Stringfellow had no time for such solipsistic fretting:

Slavery is no evil to the negro. If we look at the condition of the negro in Africa, the land of his nativity, we find the most pitiable victim of a cruel master, the most wretched slave in America, when contrasted with a prince of his tribe in the deserts of Africa, is as a man contrasted with a beast! The mightiest of the negro race, in his native land, not only sacrifices his human victims to his Gods of stone, but is so loathsome in his filth and nakedness, that Giddings, or Gerrit Smith, would fly from his presence

Kelly doesn’t say that slavery did no wrong to black Americans, but he made the argument that they came out better for it. Break a few lives, sell some children, rape some women, but it all works out in the end. After all, slavery brought Africans to America where they could bask in the glory of white virtue and have whatever scraps we in our magnanimity deigned to concede to them.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

Don’t take my word for it. Have the argument straight from John C. Calhoun:

Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually. It came among us in a low, degraded, and savage condition, and in the course of a few generations it has grown up under the fostering care of our institutions, reviled as they have been, to its present compara­tively civilized condition. This, with the rapid increase of numbers, is conclusive proof of the general happiness of the race, in spite of all the exaggerated tales to the contrary.

We give and we give, our white nobility so staggering that it blinds even us to the fact:

It says something good about today’s white Americans that so many feel guilty for a sin neither they nor most of their ancestors ever committed. But white guilt has a pernicious effect on our politics.

We must, in fact, admit that we have become too noble for our own good. We must harden our hearts and take a good, long look at black America. There we see not the results of our plunder, but only the inherent vice of black skin:

The black community is uniquely troubled, in large part because white racism is blamed for social dysfunction that has other causes. To address those causes, white Americans must abandon an undeserved guilt, and black racists who blame all their problems on white racism must stop preying upon it.

We ended slavery and that instant everything magically became equal. It’s all done now and has been done for so long we might as well forget it, just as we forget our possibly-enslaved Slavic ancestors. No amount of difference can come down to white malice, as white skin makes you innocent. Only our great nobility leads us to think otherwise. Kelly asks us to believe that white and black Americans live on different planets, entirely devoid of interaction, so therefore any pathology exhibited by the latter cannot have come from the depredations of the former, or reasonable reaction to the same.

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

Kelly would have us direct our attention not at white racism, which he seems to understand as nothing more than a kind of personal dislike rather than a vast system of theft, rape, and murder, but to the fact that black Americans in their perfidy hate white Americans. They prey upon us, like the cunning slaves of old preyed on the consciences of their enslavers to escape whippings. I don’t know a word of Kelly’s piece that could not have easily come from the pen of a nineteenth century proslavery theorist, save only those that an enslaver would not know and the endorsement of the United States war effort alone. By implication, Kelly at least opposes new efforts to reduce the effects of structural racism upon black America. In referring to this predation upon the white conscience in continuous terms, Kelly further indicts not just new efforts or recent efforts at redress, but also those which white Americans have after agonizing struggle accepted with hesitance, halfheartedly and full of what he must construe as noble resentment.

I can only think of Samuel Cartwright:

When sulky and dissatisfied without cause, the experience of those on the line and elsewhere, was decidedly in favor of whipping them out of it, as a preventative measure against absconding, or other bad conduct. It was called whipping the devil out of them.

Freedmen's Bureau cartoonKelly paints black Americans as sulky and dissatisfied. If they have a cause, it cannot come from white America. Therefore we must embark upon a new plan of discipline. They have taken advantage and we apparently show them what for. Black Americans have only themselves to blame, enriched in idleness by our too-keen consciences. If black American cannot feel the natural gratitude it owes to white America for the tremendous services rendered unto it, good and hard, then we can give them reminders. We can imagine they will learn no other way. Flesh, blood, and screams torn away by the lash only prove they never stop trying to turn our consciences in their favor.

I don’t know any way to say this except to say it outright: Jack Kelly is a white supremacist. If he doesn’t agree entirely with their methods of securing the power of the white race over then black, then he agrees wholeheartedly with their goals and endorses the chief thrust of their arguments. He sees African-Americans as fundamentally shiftless and conniving. Such faults somehow do not afflict white Americans, even though we speak the same language and have shared the same nation for centuries. What immunizes us, if not the same thing that afflicts them? We find virtue in whiteness by finding vice in blackness. White skin frees us because black skin enslaves them.

Jack Kelly has an editor at the Post-Gazette. He writes for them regularly, so I imagine he received pay for this column. His editor read the piece and signed off on its contents, deeming it fit to print and worthy of his readers’ attention. So have multitudes of other white Americans down the centuries. Their number has declined only through great struggle accompanied by numerous reverses as one means of plunder gives way to another, slightly more sophisticated means. We should take no pride in the fact that some people born with the same hue of skin as our own helped achieve the gains, unless we place great moral stock in our whiteness. We should remember that more took part in fighting, sabotaging, and ultimately rolling them back.

Whatever parts they cast themselves in, whatever uniforms they imagine wearing, Jack Kelly and the multitude like him put themselves into something far different from the armies of abolition. By word and deed they cloaked themselves in what passes for gray and imagine still that hot July day, a bit before one in the afternoon, when it all held in the balance. They know if they can get there, as they keep trying to do, they can make it all turn out differently this time. We make excuses, avoid the uncomfortable arguments, and let the old proslavery line go unchallenged. I’ve done it myself. But the path of least resistance does not lead to a blue uniform on top of Cemetery Ridge with Jeff Daniels for company. We have carefully arranged it so that white Americans find it easier to march across the field under fire. If our past deeds say something about us, then that one speaks most eloquently.