Civic leaders in Glynn County, Georgia, are proposing a sculpture trail to commemorate that county’s history and promote tourism to the area. One of the sculptures being proposed highlights Neptune Small, an enslaved man on the Retreat Plantation. When the Civil War broke out Small’s enslaver, Henry King, brought Small with him to Confederate military lines. When King died on the battlefield, Small picked up King’s body and eventually brought it back home. The Sculptor, Kevin Pullen, explained that “What I tell people is it’s a love story. Because these two grew up together. They were love buds when they were little people. The whole slavery and Civil War piece was the backdrop for their lives. They lived on the same property, and they grew up in the same place.”
Historian James De Wolfe Perry pointed out that “As an enslaved person, [Small] had incentives other than loyalty or devotion” for returning King’s body. Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory added that “This is an interpretive weakness of the entire Lost Cause narrative that it makes little attempt to engage former slaves as to motivation and how they viewed their participation in the war.” He followed up with a blog post, commenting that “The basic outline of Pullen’s account accords with the available evidence, but to depict Small in his role as the loyal slave feeds into an insidious myth that has long been used to justify legal segregation, white supremacy, and the Lost Cause narrative of the war.”
I tend to agree with these sentiments. My initial response to this proposed sculpture is great discomfort. To me it seems to romanticize slavery and the master-slave relationship, which in Pullen’s telling of Small and King’s relationship is a “love story.” It also downplays the fact that the “loyal” Neptune Small and enslaved camp servants like him were not there voluntarily in service to the Confederate military, but due to impressment. In reality, we don’t know what Small’s motivations were for returning King’s body to Georgia. It is not a stretch to suggest, for example, that perhaps Small returned King to his old plantation in the hopes of gaining his freedom for this action. And as the article points out, the Kings did give Small an 8-acre tract of land for returning his enslaver’s body. The murky details of this story make me skeptical about the wisdom of commemorating it through a sculpture.
The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, and every year on social media there seems to be a renewed debate about the effectiveness of the proclamation, Lincoln’s motivations in issuing it, and how the act shaped the overall war effort. The strangest thing in this debate is the weird convergence of neo-Confederates and some historians who profess (incorrectly) that the EP didn’t free any slaves; that Lincoln didn’t do enough to try and end slavery during the war (although some of those same folks would be the first to claim that Lincoln was a tyrant who abused his presidential powers); and that the act was borderline meaningless. And so it was interesting to read a couple Twitter comments after historian Kevin Levin posted a picture on Twitter of areas throughout the south where the Emancipation Proclamation took effect and immediately free thousands of slaves. One academic complained that Lincoln’s proclamation was “public diplomacy” that didn’t go far enough in freeing the enslaved.
(In reality, the real act of “public diplomacy” was Lincoln’s famous letter to Horace Greeley on August 22, 1862, in which he proclaimed that his “paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery” while having already completed the writing of his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation).
True, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves of the South, it did not apply to slave states still in the Union, and would it not have had any legal standing once the war ended. But it fundamentally changed the nature of the Civil War and made the abolition of slavery a war aim. More specifically, the act would spread and apply to more enslaved people as the U.S. Army reacquired control of areas within the Confederacy and essentially became an army of liberation. It also encouraged African Americans to enlist in the United States military, and it set the table for future legal actions to abolish slavery, most notably the 13th Amendment, which would make slavery’s abolition permanent after the end of the war. Finally, it also garnered support for the U.S. war effort internationally.
To appreciate the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation, therefore, means fitting it within a broader context of the larger legal process undertaken during the Civil War to abolish slavery within the United States. It was not an overly radical act that freed all slaves in both loyal states and the Confederate states, but conversely it was not a meaningless piece of paper that did nothing to effect a change in slavery’s future in the country. It was radical in a sense and extremely significant within the context of the American Civil War.
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.
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.
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 inOn 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.”
As a public historian who discusses the history of U.S. slavery on a daily basis with a wide range of audiences, I accept that some of the visitors I interact with are ambivalent about the topic. Online reviews sometimes complain of “political correctness” in our interpretations, which I view as a politically correct way of saying we spend too much time discussing slavery and African American history. A few rare times visitors have approached me minutes after my tour introduction to tell me that, well, slavery was bad and all, but this whole Civil War thing was really about [insert reference to states’ rights, “economics,” or “money”] and it really had little to do with slavery.
I am used to these sorts of comments now and am usually ready to gently push back against them in a respectful way. I have the support of vast amounts of historical evidence and institutional backing to justify my basic claim that debates over slavery–particularly its westward expansion into new territories and states–became increasingly heated and played a huge role in the outbreak of hostilities between the United States and the Confederacy in 1861. Slavery and opposition to it are worthwhile topics of study because they speak to larger values that shaped the country’s governing documents and its history. They show us that the white residents of the freest country in the world couldn’t agree on what it actually meant to be free. Who would be allowed to participate in the process of “government of the people, by the people, for the people” or enjoy the benefits of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? The end of slavery partially addressed the problem of freedom’s definition, and we should strive to end it wherever it exists today.
It has become increasingly troubling to me, therefore, to experience an increasing number of visitors who aggressively assert that because slavery had long existed before the United States became a country, its existence here during the country’s first eighty years should not be condemned or judged. Today a man in his 60s or 70s raised his voice to tell me, more or less, that:
Slavery existed all over the world before it came here! The Romans owned slaves! SLAVES OWNED SLAVES! It wasn’t evil and we can’t judge it – slavery was a normal practice and a way of life for many cultures throughout history. We don’t really teach our students history anymore, just politics.
I wondered to myself during this moment that if slavery wasn’t that bad, certainly this person would be the first one to volunteer himself onto the auction block to be sold into chains.
Some Americans believe that the United States was given a divine mission from God to promote and spread freedom and liberty here and abroad; that we are a unique people who have transcended human history and made the world a better place; that a republican form of government that ensures equality, opportunity, and freedom of body and mind is ultimately more powerful and enduring than a government based on dictators, monarchs, arbitrary power, hierarchy, and the enslavement of any part of its populace. I don’t believe we’ve always lived up to these basic ideals, nor do I believe we are God’s uniquely chosen people, but admire much of the spirit of our republican ideals.
Abraham Lincoln didn’t necessarily believe that white and black Americans were equal or that they could even live together in harmony, but he boldly declared slavery an evil when other Americans said that slavery was natural, historical (“the Romans owned slaves!”), and not that bad:
I can not but hate [the declared indifference for slavery’s spread]. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world — enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites — causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty — criticising [sic] the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.
Lincoln and the Republicans of the 1850s believed that freedom–not slavery–was the natural state of humanity, and that all people were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, regardless of their station in life.
It’s worth thinking about the state of contemporary society when this moral equivalence about slavery is expressed by self-professed lovers of freedom in such a casual way – when the spirit of Stephen Douglas and not Abraham Lincoln is the moral compass of contemporary American politics. I hate the indifference, the injustice, and the moral equivalency of such rhetoric. I’ve gotten used to hearing stuff about how slavery existed long before it arrived in America and that we should stop making such a big deal about it, but I will never be comfortable with it.
When historians collect primary source documents during research, they must determine which of these sources can be relied upon when crafting an accurate interpretation of the past. This challenge is harder than it might seem at first blush. Most historians would agree that finding primary sources that are contemporary to the historic event or person being researched is more ideal than something produced years later. For example, an official report, letter, or diary entry created during the Battle of Gettysburg is most likely a more reliable source for understanding what occurred during the battle than an interview conducted fifty years later with an aged veteran.
There are some benefits to hindsight, of course, and mistakes in recollection can be made at any time during the event itself. Knowing how the Battle of Gettysburg turned out and having a general understanding of that battle’s consequences has its benefits. Hindsight offers time for personal reflection and can help inform one’s understanding of their role in a historic event. But memories are fickle and finite. Fine details and particulars of an event fade with time and can be overwhelmed by the creation of new memories during subsequent moments of importance. A veteran’s recollections of Gettysburg fifty years after the fact straddle the line between history and memory, and between a reliable source and an unreliable one. They must be used with caution and taken with a grain of salt.
I think about this challenge all the time within the scope of my work interpreting the life of Ulysses S. Grant. While there is an abundance of primary source documentation from Grant himself and others chronicling his experiences as a Civil War general and Reconstruction era president, hardly any documentation exists about Grant’s life before the Civil War that was created at that time. The number of letters in Grant’s hand from his five years in St. Louis at the White Haven plantation (1854-1859) numbers around a dozen. The number of documents created by other family members around Grant at that time is close to zero. And nothing from the perspective of the enslaved people owned by Grant’s father-in-law was created during that time. How can a reliable interpretation of these experiences be crafted with such a paucity of documentation?
The imperfect solution offered by historians, Grant biographers, and public historians alike has been to look at Grant’s actions in the absence of his words. More imperfectly, they also look at the words of people who claimed to know Grant at the time and reflected on his life forty or fifty years after the fact. With regards to the latter there are a number of resources to rely on: Grant’s 1885 Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant barely discussed his St. Louis experiences, but his wife Julia Dent Grant wrote her own Personal Memoirs in the 1890s and dedicated a good portion of her book to the family’s experiences at White Haven; likewise, writers Hamlin Garland and William Conant Church both conducted interviews with people who claimed to know Grant and wrote biographies of him based on those interviews in 1898 and 1899, respectively. In the absence of primary source documents from the 1850s, these latter documents are frequently used by contemporary historians to provide insights into Grant’s life before the Civil War. These sources, however, sometimes contradict each other and are frequently ambiguous or outright wrong.
One such example of an ambiguous document is an interview with Mary Robinson, an African American woman in St. Louis who was enslaved at White Haven by Grant’s Father-in-law, Colonel Frederick Dent, at the time that the Grant family lived there. The interview was conducted by the St. Louis Republican on July 24, 1885, the day after Grant died of throat cancer. In it, Robinson recalls her interactions with Grant and makes the following claim about his views on slavery:
Grant was a very kind man to those who worked for him, and he always said that he wanted to give his wife’s slaves their freedom as soon as he was able.
This line has been used more than once by historians to argue that Grant opposed slavery before the war. As I pointed out in this essay, Julia Dent Grant did not actually have legal title to any of the enslaved people at White Haven, but her father did loan her four slaves to attend to her needs while at White Haven. One historian in particular has recently claimed, on the basis of the Robinson interview, that the reason Julia did not have legal title to those enslaved people was because her father feared that Grant would free them. Is that a reliable interpretation to make?
What little we have of the record from the 1850s is far more complex. Grant himself never espoused antislavery views in his letters before the Civil War. He made the decision to move to a slave plantation in 1854 and at one point even owned a slave of his own, William Jones, that he later freed in 1859 (see the above link for more info). Furthermore, when Grant made his views on slavery publicly know in an August 1863 letter to Congressman Elihu Washburne during the Civil War, he argued that “early in the rebellion” he had come around to believe that slavery had to be abolished, but that “I never was an abolitionist, not even what could be called anti-slavery” before the Civil War.
An important factor in determining the reliability of Robinson’s recollection is the context in which it was produced. Grant had died the day before. The white interviewer had no interest in learning about Robinson’s own experiences in slavery and probably edited her comments to paint Grant in a positive light. Would the article really be edited to point out that Grant had been a slaveholder? I doubt it. If one were to read this interview and know nothing else about Grant’s life in St. Louis, they’d have no idea that he owned William Jones. Can it be trusted as a reliable source in uncovering Grant’s views on slavery before the war? Many historians have cited it, but I’m not so sure.
The point here is not to determine whether Grant was truly antislavery or proslavery before the war. As we can see, the evidence is mixed, and in any case I think it’s far safer to argue that there was an evolution in Grant’s thinking over time. The bigger challenge here and in so many other instances during historical research is that the absence of definitive primary source documentation from the time in which an event took place makes the task of painting an accurate portrait of the past all the more difficult. When historians are faced with interpreting the recollections of people long after the fact, they must exercise caution and sharp judgement in determining that source’s reliability.
In my last post I excerpted a Letter to the Editor in the August 4th, 1860 edition of the proslavery Missouri Republican from “Slaveholder.” The letter explained why voting for Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas for President was the only way for both the Union and slavery to continue peacefully in the United States. It was a fascinating plea against secession as a form of protecting enslaved property, and it highlighted the thoughts of many proslavery Missourians as the country spiraled towards war less than a year later.
In that very same issue of the Missouri Republican–on the front page, no less–the paper posted a comprehensive of listing of auctions and items for sale in St. Louis. And if you look closely enough, you’ll see a listing about a runaway slave and a couple listings from Bernard M. Lynch, the city’s most prosperous slave trader. One of those ads is for an enslaved boy “between ten and twelve years of age,” conveniently placed right next to ads for furnaces, steam engines, and other pieces of property.
I’ve been reading Historian Jelani Cobb’s essay on the four New Orleans Confederate monuments that have either come down or are slated to come down soon. I think we have to be careful about who we generalize as opposing the removal of these monuments and why they do so, but he makes the point that many protestors–some of which are making death threats against the city’s Mayor and/or using racist language and Confederate flags to intimidate the city’s African American population–are enamored with a glorified “a-la-carte relationship with history”:
the protesters who lined up to defend the monument wish to maintain an à-la-carte relationship with history. They have cloaked their defense of the monuments by presenting it as a recognition of the valor of the men who fought for the Confederate cause. But that excuse falls flat when recognizing, for instance, that there is no monument in New Orleans to the mass slave revolt that took place in 1811, when some two hundred men who had endured the brutality of bondage marched on the city, killing two white men and burning plantations as they went. This is not the version of valor recognized by the crowd before the Lee memorial, or those phoning in death threats to Landrieu’s office.
I feel like we have a tendency in the United States to glorify and valorize the nation’s soldiers, past and present, without assessing why they went to war in the first place. The exceptions to that theory are probably the Revolutionary War and World War II.
As long as we commemorate the Confederacy’s legacy purely in terms of its soldiers’ military service and frame the erection of Confederate monuments as an apolitical extension of that commemoration and nothing else, we will downplay the politics of why the Civil War occurred in the first place. And we will minimize the stories, experiences, and legacy of thousands of ten-year-old enslaved boys and girls who were sold out of slave pens in the Land of the Free while Lee and Beauregard marched to Dixie.