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north of the 36°30’ parallel, excluding Missouri), the Compromise of 1850, then the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and eventually led to the election of Abraham Lincoln and the subsequent secession of the southern states.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.” http://essentialcivilwarcurriculum.com/the-economics-of-the-civil-war.html

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.

Cheers

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On Compromise and the Coming of the Civil War

The essence of all politics is the art of compromise. The success or failure of a nation-state’s policy goals lies in the ability of its political actors–some of which may have vastly different interests–to negotiate and sometimes compromise on preferred ideals in the interest of crafting intelligent policy that promotes the greater good. Compromise, of course, doesn’t always lead to positive outcomes. As the philosopher Avishai Margalit beautifully argues in On Compromise and Rotten Compromises:

We very rarely attain what is first on our list of priorities, either as individuals or as collectives. We are forced by circumstances to settle for much less than what we aspire to. We compromise. We should, I believe, be judged by our compromises more than by our ideals and norms. Ideals may tell us something important about what we would like to be. But compromises tell us who we are. (5)

Superficially, it sounds silly to ask whether compromises are good or bad, much like asking whether bacteria are good or bad: we cannot live without bacteria, though sometimes we die because of bacteria. Yet that asymmetry makes the question about the goodness and the badness of bacteria, as well as those of compromise, worth asking. We have ten times as many bacteria in our bodies as we have cells, and many of those are vital for our existence. A small number of bacteria are pathologic and cause disease, and and with the proper treatment, we may get rid of them. Similarly, compromises are vital for social life, even though some compromises are pathogenic. We need antibiotics to resist pathogenic bacteria, and we need to actively resist rotten compromises that are lethal for the moral life of a body politic. (7)

This description captures one of the most fundamental quandaries of human existence: when should individuals and groups make compromises on ideals to accomplish an objective, and when is refusing to compromise the better option of the two? Studying history is a worthwhile endeavor for considering the ramifications of political compromise on the health of a nation-state and its people.

It was with this conception of compromise on my mind when I read historian Carole Emberton’s fine essay in the Washington Post and Caleb McDaniel’s in The Atlantic today on the breakdown of compromise efforts leading up to the Civil War. White northerners and southerners forged successful compromise efforts (at least in the minds of those seeking political union between the sections) on the issue of slavery from the beginning of the nation’s founding. As the country acquired new western territory through conquest and purchase in the years before the Civil War, debates continually sprang up about whether the institution of slavery would accompany the white American settlers moving westward. In hindsight, various compromise efforts like the 1820 Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, and others were really measures to appease the proslavery south, but they nonetheless allowed the Union to be maintained for nearly eighty years after its founding.

It’s worth asking students of the Civil War to consider how compromise over slavery was possible in 1850 but not in 1860. My answer would be that the Republican Party’s successful entrance into electoral politics changed the game. The Republicans explicitly organized as a party in 1854 on the principle that slavery should be banned in the western territories and left open for free labor (for some Republicans, this meant only free white labor). Although Abraham Lincoln acknowledged that Constitutionally speaking slavery could not be touched where it already existed in the south, his personal hatred of slavery was well-know and feared by proslavery fire-eaters who saw his election as a step towards federal governance dominated by northern anti-slavery convictions. In other words, an administration that was hostile to the south’s economic, political, and social interest in keeping African Americans enslaved.

President-elect Lincoln was willing to compromise to the extent that he offered support to the first proposed 13th Amendment guaranteeing the federal government’s protection of slavery in the states where it already existed, but he refused to compromise on the question of slavery’s westward expansion, drawing a line in the sand and arguing that he had been elected on the belief that the west should be for free labor. Compromising on this question would sacrifice the Republican Party’s core principle of existence. Likewise, many white Southern Democrats argued that talk of disunion could be mollified if the federal government passed legislation guaranteeing the right to bring their slave property west with them. They refused, however, to make any further compromises short of these new guarantees from the federal government. As Emberton argues, “it was slavery, and the refusal of Southern slaveholders to compromise on slavery, that launched the Civil War.”

Cheers

A Response to James C. Cobb’s Article on Renaming College Campus Buildings

Forrest Hall

I made a personal vow to myself at the beginning of this year to scale back the amount of blog posts I wrote about the ongoing Confederate iconography discussion now taking place throughout the United States. While I find the discussion fascinating in some regards, it has also been frustrating to see it turned into a series of fearmongering, reactionary claims about the “destruction of history” that could come along with the removal of any particular icon. Alex Beam’s screed in the Boston Globe in which he felt compelled to compare the takedown of Confederate icons to ISIS-led destruction of historical artifacts in the Middle East is a particularly harrowing example of this fearmongering in action. But last month’s NCPH roundtable on Confederate monuments and an ongoing controversy at Middle Tennessee State University about an ROTC hall named after Nathan Bedford Forrest have me fired up again, and I’m ready to jump back into the fray for a least a little while longer.

The root of these “destruction of history” claims lie partly in what I consider a basic misunderstanding of the reasons why honorific monuments, statues, memorials, and other icons are erected in the first place. Historical icons are established to designate a place of honor for people, causes, events, and ideas that political and cultural elites consider worthy of recognition by the rest of society. For some people, however, they are viewed only as artifacts that tell a pure, objective story about the facts of history and nothing else. In this line of thinking public iconography is devoid of politics, interpretation, and myths, so therefore any effort to remove an icon that is now seen by many people as offensive and historically inaccurate is a threat to our nation’s history and ultimately a flawed effort that will do nothing to change the politics of the present. The idea that a monument to the Confederacy erected in 1914 might be more reflective of the politics of 1914 and the ways rich elites understood their history at that time rather than the history that actually occurred in 1864 is often unappreciated in this discussion. Historians have sometimes missed these points as well. The latest example comes to us in Time from James C. Cobb, a retired history professor from the University of Georgia.

I find Dr. Cobb’s essay very odd. His overall argument is that “slavery was far more integral to America’s development as a nation than we have chosen thus far to acknowledge,” but because slavery’s influence colors the legacies of so many historical figures and institutions that we choose to venerate today, any effort to rename a building or remove an icon related to slavery and slaveholding is futile and a path towards the eventual destruction of All Historical Things That Make Us Feel Bad. Removing a few names doesn’t give society “a definitive resolution of so intricate and complex a historical dilemma,” so why bother?

This is akin to arguing that it’s futile for me to clean my room because its dirtiness is simply too overwhelming for me to deal with in an effective manner.

Cobb assumes that people advocating for removing the names of figures like Forrest, John Calhoun, and Jefferson Davis at college campuses are doing so because they don’t want to talk about slavery and in fact want to “cleanse American culture of ties to slavery.” On the contrary, the arguments in favor of renaming these halls are rooted in a belief that the legacy of slavery and its connections to the present aren’t talked about enough in college classrooms and society as a whole, and that a more critical approach to understanding U.S. slavery that removes its most vocal advocates from their places of honor is necessary for a better historical understanding of slavery that doesn’t casually gloss over past and present inequities, be they social, economic, or political. It’s not apparent to me that removing Nathan Bedford Forrest’s name from MTSU is going to end all classroom discussions of his legacy as a slaveholder, Confederate General, and founder a member of the Ku Klux Klan*, but I do see how removing his name would demonstrate MTSU’s willingness to acknowledge its history of supporting racial segregation in public education (Forrest Hall was named in 1954 for those ends) and advance its commitment to fostering a campus culture that’s more welcoming to people of all colors and backgrounds today.

Cobb also makes a mistake in my opinion by lumping George Washington into this discussion. As I have previously argued here, the discussion about Confederate iconography is also about the merits of honoring the cause of disunion. Washington was a slaveholder but also an ardent Union-loving nationalist who was obviously long dead by the time of the Civil War, so lumping him with people like Robert E. Lee indicates to me that Cobb thinks these campus renaming discussions solely revolve around questions of slaveholding and slavery and not also patriotism, federalism vs. nationalism, unionism, and disunionism.

Finally, Cobb’s rundown of Northern support for slavery in the years before the Civil War does little to advance the discussion besides essentially arguing that “Northerners were bad people too.” It is well known, of course, that the economic engines of cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston used slave-produced goods in the South as fuel for their factories, commerce, and trade. New York City during the Civil War Era in both politics and finance was run by conservative Democrats who understood and profited from the economic benefits of slavery, and who were alarmed by the rise of the Republican party and its opposition to the future westward expansion of slavery. But Cobb seems to ignore the fact that the North was not a monolithic political entity and that a range of views towards slavery existed in that region. Many white Northerners by the time of the Civil War felt that slave labor was inferior and less productive than free labor and that slavery was incompatible with the ideals of republicanism and popular government. This is not to suggest that white Northerners were advocates for racial equality and black rights – the vast majority were not. But it suggests that Cobb’s interpretation of Northern perspectives towards slavery is inadequate and not truly representative of the full spectrum of political beliefs leading up to the Civil War, and therefore not very convincing for his larger argument about Confederate icons.

It bears repeating once again that the best approach going forward for addressing these Confederate iconography discussions is to look at each case individually on its own merits. A one-size-fits-all approach such as the one pushed by Cobb (and currently being written into law in some states) lacks the necessary historical context for understanding individual cases and runs the risk of paralyzing any future efforts to rename campus halls or remove offensive icons and simply bad history from our commemorative landscape.

Cheers

*Addendum: It’s been brought to my attention several times that Nathan Bedford Forrest was not the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, although he was an active member of the group during its early years after the Civil War. I did some fact-checking to verify the claim and it looks like I screwed up in saying he was the founder of the organization. I regret the mistake on my part and have amended this essay to correct it. The factual error, however, does not change the arguments I make in this essay one bit.

 

What’s in a Name? “Slavery” vs. “Slaving” in Historical Interpretation

As a public historian working at a historic site with intimate connections to U.S. antebellum culture, I am tasked with discussing American slavery and interpreting the perspectives of the enslaved people who worked at the White Haven estate. I relish the opportunity to discuss a complex and difficult topic and believe it is my duty to keep slavery at the forefront of my interpretive presentations, even though I can clearly tell (eye-rolls, exasperated breaths, etc.) that some people don’t want to hear about slavery.

When discussing slavery, it’s important to use precise language that clearly conveys the fact that it was a form of submission, oppression, and control masquerading as a form of legitimate “property” in human flesh. For example, I never refer to slaves as “servants” in my interpretations. In the English colonies, Virginia law clearly distinguished between servitude and slavery by the mid-seventeenth century. Indentured servitude stipulated that both parties–the servant and his/her benefactor–voluntarily engaged in a labor agreement. Most indentured servants by that time agreed to sell their labor for a number years (but not a lifetime) for passage and housing in the New World. Even though indentured servants’ labor agreements were sometimes violated, extended, and abused in ways that made it look like slavery, the two were not mutually exclusive. Virginia laws after 1661 stipulated that slavery meant lifetime servitude based on race and ancestry, and that it could be hereditary depending on the mother’s prior status as either free or slave upon the child’s birth. What constituted a temporary (and mostly) voluntary agreement under indentured servitude eventually became lifetime involuntary enslavement passed down through heredity.

Another difficulty with conflating “slaves” as “servants” lies in the ways Confederate apologists downplayed slavery in the years after the Civil War, an effort still continued by certain interest groups today (who will remain unnamed). Examples abound of former masters who suggested after the war that their slaves were happy, contented servants who were well taken care of and uninterested in gaining their freedom. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, facing temporary imprisonment in Boston following the end of the Civil War in 1865, sadly remarked as he left his home that “leave-takings were hurried and confused. The servants all wept. My grief at leaving them and home was too burning, withering, scorching for tears. At the depot was an immense crowd, old friends, black and white, who came in great numbers and shook hands” (109). If one were to read this pitiful story without any other context, he or she would probably think Stephens was a beloved racial egalitarian and benevolent employer, not a slaveholder and author of the “Cornerstone Speech” of March 21, 1861, in which he argued that the Confederacy’s “corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

Therefore, when I talk about slavery, I always make sure to explicitly use the words “slavery” and “enslavement” so that no one leaves thinking that the African Americans who worked at White Haven before the war were servants who voluntarily sold their labors to their owner, Frederick Dent.

Some history scholars, however, are now challenging the use of the term “slavery.” Joseph Miller, a history professor at the University of Virginia, finds the term “slavery” to be too passive:

In order better to understand slavery’s march across history and into our time, Miller challenges historians to radically revise some basic assumptions. We can best comprehend how human bondage actually worked and still works today, he argues, if we abandon the noun “slavery” and our attempts to describe “the institution of slavery.” These, Miller argues, are static characterizations that convey none of the dynamism of slavery’s durability, variability and evolution across the centuries… Instead, Miller insists, the best way to describe human bondage is by using the active voice. Employ the dynamic gerund “slaving,” he recommends, and dispense with the use of “slavery” with its connotations of static model building. The gerund, Miller argues, forces us to recognize that human bondage is above all a historical process carried forward by slavers in response to discrete and ever-changing historical contingencies.

I like the idea of bringing enslavement into the present and using active verbs and language to highlight the “historical process” of slavery. As a public historian, however, I question the practicality of incorporating the concept of “slaving” into my interpretations. I get ten minutes to spark my audience’s imagination and illuminate the complex intersection between Ulysses S. Grant, his wife Julia Dent’s family, and her family’s use of slave labor at their St. Louis home. Visitors of all ages are sometimes confused about the realities of slavery in the United States, challenging me to neatly define slavery without turning my entire interpretation into a history of the institution. It seems like this “slavery vs. slaving” debate needs to be played out first at the academic level before public historians introduce a concept like “slaving” to their audiences. Or maybe the National Park Service or a similar organization can find ways to collaborate with academic scholars to encourage a better understanding of the term.

What do you think? Should historians start using the term “slaving” instead of slavery?

Cheers