The United States Was Not Inching Towards Emancipation by 1860

John Daniel Davidson’s recent essay in The Federalist defending writer Shelby Foote while offering an explanation about Civil War causation is unfortunate on several accounts. The essay contains excessive hagiography towards Foote’s career and buys into a popular but false belief about U.S. slavery: the idea that slavery in America was on its way out by 1860 and that the Civil War could have been avoided if not for the radical abolitionists of the north, whose continual agitation on the slavery question hampered further compromise efforts and drove the country to Civil War.

Davidson points out that “compromising on slavery had been part of how America stayed together,” which all historians would agree with. But he errs in asserting that these compromises were leading the country towards the end of slavery in the United States:

The entire history of the United States prior to outbreak of war in 1861 was full of compromises on the question of slavery. It began with the Three-Fifths Compromise written into the U.S. Constitution and was followed by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which prohibited slavery north of the 36°30’ parallel, excluding Missouri), the Compromise of 1850, then the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and eventually led to the election of Abraham Lincoln and the subsequent secession of the southern states. Through all this, we inched toward emancipation, albeit slowly . . . such compromises limited slavery’s spread and put it on the path to extinction.

This argument is simply untrue.

When the Missouri Compromise was passed, many proslavery southerners were delighted with the act because it meant that the federal government acknowledged slavery’s legitimacy and allowed its western expansion into some parts of the territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase south of the 36-30 parallel. Anti-slavery northern politicians like James Talmage who hoped to ban slavery in Missouri and the entire Louisiana territory failed in their efforts to stop slavery’s westward expansion outright.

When the U.S. conquered a huge swath of western territory in present-day Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and elsewhere through the Mexican-American War in 1848, the Compromise of 1850 ensured that slavery would potentially spread into even more western territories acquired in that war. It also allowed for a new, harsher Fugitive Slave Law that required northerners to help in the capture of runways slaves and guaranteed federal protection of the slave trade in Washington, D.C. Equally important, the Compromise of 1850 explicitly repudiated the failed Wilmot Proviso, an alternative proposal that would have banned slavery in all territories acquired in the Mexican-American war. As historian Michael Landis argues, the Compromise of 1850 was so blatantly pro-southern that he suggests calling it the “Appeasement of 1850” since it “more accurately describes the uneven nature of the agreement.”

Finally, when some proslavery southerners argued that they should have the right to bring their slave property to Kansas territory–land where slavery was outlawed through the Missouri Compromise–they worked with northern Democrats to overturn the Missouri Compromise through the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. This act essentially took the slavery question out of Congress’s hands and allowed the settlers of Kansas to determine through their elected leaders whether or not they wanted slavery, thus leaving open the possibility of slavery expanding to new areas where at one time it was banned by federal law. Chief Justice Roger Taney further excoriated the Missouri Compromise by declaring it unconstitutional in 1857 through the Dred Scott case. Taney’s argument also made any further compromise on slavery all the more difficult since in his opinion Congress could not ban it in any new western territory.

Davidson also leaves out part of the story by omitting any discussion of failed efforts to compromise on slavery in 1860. Although he argues that a successful compromise at that time would have “put [slavery] on the path to extinction,” the two most popular compromise proposals would have actually allowed for slavery to exist in perpetuity. The “first” proposed 13th Amendment of 1860-1861, which I wrote about here, would have protected slavery in perpetuity in the states where it already existed. It failed to gain enough support in the requisite number of states because proslavery secessionists demanded increased federal protection for slavery’s expansion into the western territories, which President-elect Lincoln and most Republicans opposed. And among the six proposed amendments and four Congressional resolutions of the failed Crittenden Compromise included the extension of the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Ocean–thus guaranteeing slavery’s protection in the west–and the banning of any future amendment that would interfere with slavery in any slave state in the country.

None of these compromises–both successful and failed–indicate that slavery was on its way out by 1860.

Historian and economist Roger L. Ransom’s scholarship on the economic aspects of slavery is also useful for this discussion. According to Ransom, by 1860 “the $3 billion that [white] Southerners invested in slaves accounted for somewhere between 12% and 15% of all real wealth in the entire United States . . . Far from dying out, slavery was expanding at an increasing rate right up to the eve of the Civil War.” He attributes this growth to the development of the cotton gin, the emergence of the cotton textile industry in Great Britain (creating a new, expansive market for cotton grown by enslaved labor), and Congress’s efforts to allow slavery’s expansion in the south through the aforementioned compromise measures, which provided stability to the value of enslaved labor. As can be seen in the below chart, the value of the south’s enslaved property was about seven times higher in 1860 than in 1805.

Photo Credit: Taken from Roger L. Ransom, “Causes, Costs and Consequences: The Economics of the American Civil War.”

Regarding Shelby Foote, I direct readers to Bill Black’s essay at the Society for U.S. Intellectual History about Foote’s scholarship and unfortunate racism. Foote was an endearing character on Ken Burns’s famous documentary of the Civil War twenty-five years ago, but his presence on the documentary was oversized to the point that some would argue that it was a detriment to the series. Although Davidson finds this sort of critique shocking, historians have taken a critical view of Foote’s work for a while now. In fact, there was an entire book dedicated to historians “responding” to the documentary and offering pointed critiques of it that was published in 1996. Conversely, Davidson’s potshots towards writer Ta-Nehisi Coates are devoid of substance and not really worth engaging here.

Were decades of compromise over slavery before the Civil War worth the effort to preserve the Union? For Davidson, the answer is an undeniable ‘yes.’ That the nation’s deadliest conflict came anyway, despite these compromise efforts, is a more complex problem that he fails to address. In the end, Davidson’s screed is really about denigrating Coates and his followers rather than trying to understand his perspective on the Civil War, which is much closer to what Civil War historians now believe than Davidson’s idealistic perspective of an innocent nation moving in a natural progression towards emancipation, liberty, and freedom for all by 1860.


6 thoughts on “The United States Was Not Inching Towards Emancipation by 1860

  1. Thanks for your discussion of Davidson’s article. A friend brought this article up on the Civil War Talk message board and it was quickly dispatched, but a lot of less well-versed folks could read it and fall for its argument.

  2. A good post, but I do have one issue with this line: “Conversely, Davidson’s potshots towards writer Ta-Nehisi Coates are devoid of substance and not really worth engaging here.”
    Actually, I find that they are quite full of substance. Sadly, they are the only things of substance in that Federalist article. And Coates is an insatiable hater of the USA, which is tied to his own racism. Let me put it to you in a way that you can understand:
    Robert E. Lee wrote a hateful letter to his son telling him that black people were his enemies:
    “You will never prosper with the blacks, and it is abhorrent to a reflecting mind to be supporting and cherishing those who are plotting and working for your injury, and all of whose sympathies and associations are antagonistic to yours.”

    Take that letter, add nearly 150 years, switch the skin colors of the people involved, and you get Ta-Nehisi Coates:
    “If there is such a thing as hate speech, this is it. It is more eloquent and erudite that the typical anti-black rants on Chimpmania, but that makes it worse, and more dangerous. A bunch of diseased white racists telling each other how inferior blacks are will produce an occasional Dylan Roof, but the equally irrational hate of a published author and regular contributor to a self-styled “intellectual” cultural magazine with a storied past does far more harm to the culture. It is also reckless harm. I’ll concede that the essay has value: now I know more about the deterioration of race relations in the U.S. and the kinds of toxic thinking that are accelerating it. The same can be said of reading the virulent racism on Chimpmania, too. Would The Atlantic ever publish an equivalent, white supremacy, anti-black essay, even one as full of literary pretensions as “Letter to My Son”?

    No. It wouldn’t dare.

    Yet civicly and ethically,they are indistinguishable. Both are cultural poison, and Coates’ article is worse.”

    1. Hi Kristoffer,

      I am glad to hear that you enjoyed my post, but the link you provide to the supposed “take down” of Coates is an absolute hot garbage mess. It would help if you cited actual comments from Coates that prove what you’re suggesting rather than linking to a random blog screed.

      I am not interested in debating contemporary politics with you, but your attempt to compare Coates with Robert E. Lee–a man who was a central leader in an effort by eleven states to break up the Union to create a white republic with the protection of slavery as its central governing principle–is simply absurd. I suppose we’ll have to disagree on this matter.

      1. If you had bothered to read the link, and not just fling ad hominems at it, you would have found that the author cited Coates enough times to prove his bigotry. Since when it is absurd to point out that Coates is practically no different than Lee in bigotry, especially when I actually bothered to cite sources? Are you telling me that you are so non-color-blind and so dazzled by literary pretension that you cannot see the parallels between:
        “I would like to tell you that such a day approaches when the people who believe themselves to be white, renounce this demon religion, and began to think of themselves as human. But I can see no real promise of such a day. We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America.”

        “You will never prosper with the blacks, and it is abhorrent to a reflecting mind to be supporting and cherishing those who are plotting and working for your injury, and all of whose sympathies and associations are antagonistic to yours.”

        Finally, it’s not a “random blog screed.” It is the assessment of a professional ethicist, which you are not, by the way,

        1. I do not have to be a professional ethicist to have a sense of ethics and morality. I read the article several times and found it an unpersuasive rant that did not at all convince me that Coates is racist or un-American. It said more about the writer than Coates.

          Let’s go through the Coates quote you cite here:

          “I would like to tell you that such a day approaches when the people who believe themselves to be white, renounce this demon religion, and began to think of themselves as human.”

          Coates is arguing that the creation of the concept of race hundreds of years ago when the first African slaves were forcibly shipped to the American colonies perpetuates a social, political, and economic hierarchy in which people are divided based on the color of their skin. That hierarchy continues in some form today, although that form’s shape is debatable. Historically the definition of what constitutes a “race” has been in flux, but various groups of people have attempted to define themselves as “white,” usually the ones with power. Irish immigrants to America at one point were considered non-white, but became “white” over time, oftentimes by actively participating in racist discrimination and violence against black Americans (see the 1863 New York City Draft Riots for the 1866 Memphis Massacre for examples) and subsequently being welcomed into a new place within American society. Coates suggests that those who have been seduced by racial theories of white superiority have engaged in wanton discrimination and plunder of dark-skinned people. It is not that these people have light skin, but that they believe their light skin gives them full license to hurt others who don’t look like them. If these people considered themselves and others as “humans” first and foremost rather than as “white,” they could begin the process of promoting racial equality and the fair treatment of all regardless of skin color. Coates isn’t speaking against white people as a whole, but those in the past and the present–Jefferson Davis, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, George Wallace, and Richard Spencer–who use their supposed whiteness to hurt others. What you’ve cited doesn’t indicate any sort of racism against whites as a whole.

          “But I can see no real promise of such a day. We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America.”

          Coates is notoriously pessimistic about the possibility of a solution to America’s racial friction. This is debatable, and we could talk all day about whether or not there is a tangible solution to this particular problem. Coates feels that the “majoritarian bandits” of America have created a police and carceral state that has damaged people of color and their communities. Again, we can debate the fine details here, but we can all agree that racism exists in some way today, and that it’s worth discussing further. Coates is not a racist or un-American for pointing it out.

          Happy Holidays and have a great new year.

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