Whilst doing a bit of reading-up for upcoming lectures on 19th Century America I came across the book The American Civil War: A Hands-On History by Christopher J. Olsen. It provides a clear, in-depth overview of the reasons leading to the American Civil War in 1861, as well as an overview of key events and the aftermath. It’s the build-up that I’m most interested in; how does a nation descend into war is a worthwhile enough question for students of history to study (more so than who won the war, which usually equates to who has the most money or weaponry). Being a “Hands-On History”, the book provides several usual primary sources. They relate to the Abolitionist arguments, as well as pro-slavery arguments. Its the second of these that are of high interest: how did a whole group of people defend the indefensible?

The position of slavery itself was well entrenched by the time of the American Revolution, and even if certain members of the Founding Fathers had a distaste for the institution nobody had the desire to attempt a full-scale settlement. Such a course of action – in the 1780s – could have ruined the American project before it had even began. So, instead, they did what most politicians do: they avoided the issue, and hoped for a solution in a future generation. The arguments put forward at the time was that slavery was a ‘necessary evil’: the United States had inherited a ‘race problem’, and white Americans could not simply free the slaves or send them back to Africa. If the slaves were to be released it could lead to violence, with vengeful attacks, and therefore maintaining the system was the best workable option.

The pro-slavery arguments changed in the lead-up to the Civil War, due to the issue itself becoming much more prevalent in American society. Certain factors propelled it to the forefront of politics: the actions of Abolitionists, such as Garrison; the Nat Turner Rebellion that highlighted the fear of the plantation owning South; as well as the rise in numbers of slaves (which boomed into the millions in the 19th century). The pro-slavery arguments changed shape, moving from the idea of a ‘necessary evil’ to that of being a ‘positive good’.

The main strands of this argument include:

  • Logistical: there were now 4 million slaves, and they could not simply be freed – it could result in racial violence, and would place a drain on the economy.
  • Economic: the South had proven the strength of its slave-based economy by weathering the storm of the 1857 financial crash.
  • Comparisons with the North: workers in the North were bonded to a form of ‘wage-slavery’, and the conditions of many in the North was poor when compared to slaves in Southern plantations.
  • Religious: extracts were taken from the Bible to prove that the African-Americans were a shamed race and needed to be placed in slavery.
  • Natural/Racist: some went as far to say that the natural state of society, as in nature, was inequality rather than equality. A class of workers was needed to do the menial tasks to free up others to do the more enlightened thinking.

Not all arguments were believed or promoted by all Southerners; some clearly had more weight than others. But it is interesting to trace the change in the position of many Southerners, to combat the more militant attitude of Abolitionists in the North.

Olsen selects a source to help illustrate the so-called natural argument: that inequality was not something to detest or shy away from. He uses a section of a speech from 1858 by James Henry Hammond (a plantation owner and senator from South Carolina). This was spoken aloud to the U.S. Senate:

‘In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill. Fortunately for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes. We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves…

… Your whole hireling class of manual laborers and “operatives,” as you call them, are essentially slaves. The difference between us is, that our slaves are hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our people, and not too much employment either. Yours are hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most painful manner, at any hour in any street in any of your large towns. Why, you meet more beggars in one day, in any single street of the city of New York, than you would meet in a lifetime in the whole South. We do not think that whites should be slaves either by law or necessity. Our slaves are black, of another and inferior race. The status in which we have placed them is an elevation. They are elevated from the condition in which God first created them, by being made our slaves. None of that race on the whole face of the globe can be compared with the slaves of the South. They are happy, content, unaspiring, and utterly incapable, from intellectual weakness, ever to give us any trouble by their aspirations. Yours are white, of your own race; you are brothers of one blood. They are your equals in natural endowment of intellect, and they feel galled by their degradation. Our slaves do not vote. We give them no political power. Yours do vote, and, being the majority, they are the depositories of all your political power.’

The speech is a useful one for any person engaging in this period of history. It captures the pro-slavery position of the South before the outbreak of the war. In many ways it brings various strands of the arguments posed above into one place: the economic need, the moral imperative, along with plenty of pot-shots at the North’s own system. But the clear thread throughout all of this is the idea that civilisation requires a master race and a slave race. Many are shocked to find that these sentiments were voiced on the floor of such a high an institution as the American Senate, but the views themselves – of white solidarity – were commonplace in both North and South in this time period. Even Lincoln himself discussed his position as that of a white America, with the slaves not being spread across the continent due to the need to protect land for the white man (as was much of the Free Soil platform in the 1850s).

Interestingly, even though the Civil War resolves the issue in terms of the abolishment of slavery, this racist argument does not simply vanish. It is prevalent – in terms of views and the legal system – for a further century until the 20th century American civil rights movement. But further more, it also finds parallels with other western countries in the 19th-20th centuries; there are clear links to the idea of Social Darwinism (“survival of the fittest”) and eugenics which finds its devastating end in the Nazis in the 1930s-40s.

[Apologies on ending with Godwin’s Law]