US Civil War and the South: 5 Myths

Vermont Professor James Loewen, author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me”, gives an interesting look at common myths regarding why the South seceded:

He says the South did not fight for states’ rights; they were opposed to them:

The South’s opposition to states’ rights is not surprising. Until the Civil War, Southern presidents and lawmakers had dominated the federal government. The people in power in Washington always oppose states’ rights. Doing so preserves their own.

He also says the South was not opposed to taxes:

Tariffs were not an issue in 1860, and Southern states said nothing about them. Why would they? Southerners had written the tariff of 1857, under which the nation was functioning. Its rates were lower than at any point since 1816.

He points out even whites who did not own slaves still supported slavery:

…belief in white supremacy provided a rationale for slavery. As the French political theorist Montesquieu observed wryly in 1748: “It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures [enslaved Africans] to be men; because allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christians.” Given this belief, most white Southerners — and many Northerners, too — could not envision life in black-majority states such as South Carolina and Mississippi unless blacks were in chains.

He quotes Lincoln to show that the President went to war to save the Union, not to end slavery:

On Aug. 22, 1862, President Lincoln wrote a letter to the New York Tribune that included the following passage: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”

In conclusion, he says it is unlikely the US would have ended slavery if it had not been for the war:

To claim that slavery would have ended of its own accord by the mid-20th century is impossible to disprove but difficult to accept. In 1860, slavery was growing more entrenched in the South. Unpaid labor makes for big profits, and the Southern elite was growing ever richer.

In other words, it is fair to describe the South as pro-federalist and pro-tax as well as pro-slavery.

The reason for secession was slavery alone, as presented by the Southern states at the time. Take, for example, South Carolina’s Declaration of Causes of Secession, December 24, 1860:

Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government.

In other words, anyone who did not support a definition of people as property was characterized by the South as an unacceptable threat to slavery practices. Everything from the failure to arrest and return escaped slaves to the “books and pictures” that did not support slavery were cited as forms of incitement to revolution and agitation. The Editor of the New York Evening Post wrote (Cincinnati Gazette, May 24, 1856; New York Evening Post, May 23, 1856, quoted. in “Battle cry of freedom: the Civil War era” by James McPherson, pg 150):

[The South] cannot tolerate free speech anywhere, and would stifle it in Washington with the bludgeon and the bowie-knife, as they are now trying to stifle it in Kansas by massacre, rapine, and murder.

Has it come to this, that we must speak with bated breath in the presence of our Southern masters? … Are we to be chastised as they chastise their slaves? Are we too, slaves, slaves for life, a target for their brutal blows, when we do not comport ourselves to please them?

The South declared themselves victims to justify armed dissent against their own country; they believed disintegration of the Union was their righteous path to maintain slavery. What they did not calculate was the new President’s resolve to keep the country in a Union. Had they not seceded they probably would have continued slavery in America, and continued Southern influence over federal rule, for many more years.

4 thoughts on “US Civil War and the South: 5 Myths”

  1. Yeah, those eevil Southerners invented slavery, went over to Africa and captured those slaves, brought them to the South in Southern ships, and put ’em to chopping cotton, which would never have been a profitable crop if Southerner Eli Whitney hadn’t invented the cotton gin and those evil Southerners in the textile mills of England and Massachusetts weren’t paying $0.32/lb in Yankee gold.

    Why didn’t the few Yankees who wanted the slaves freed buy them and transport them someplace where they could be set free?

  2. Interesting questions you raise, but none seem in the least bit related to my post:
    1) who invented slavery
    2) who captured slaves
    3) who brought slaves to America
    4) who invented the cotton gin
    5) who paid for textiles

    We could add to the list, but perhaps instead you would like to try and respond to what I wrote about. Try to answer this:

    Why did the South secede? Why did they resort to an armed rebellion against their own country?

  3. You are wrong about tariffs. South Carolina refused to pay taxes. It was Lincoln who invaded. He was an attacker to get our money.

  4. Rebel, it was Loewen’s point about the tariffs not mine, but I will do my best to explain what I think he was trying to say.

    First, even if you disagree with his view on tariffs, the Southern states themselves emphasize the utmost importance of slavery. They did not make the same point about tariffs, despite every opportunity. Compare that to today, where those opposed to tariffs complain loudly about it and even try to impose their views upon history. I would have to see evidence of a Southern state declaring “we will go to war over tariffs” before I believe that they did so.

    I sometimes hear people try to claim that Lincoln made veiled threats about tariffs in his inauguration speech. That appears to me to be a big misinterpretation. Here is the exact text:

    I therefore consider that in view of the Constitution and the laws the Union is unbroken, and to the extent of my ability, I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States. Doing this I deem to be only a simple duty on my part, and I shall perform it so far as practicable unless my rightful masters, the American people, shall withhold the requisite means or in some authoritative manner direct the contrary. I trust this will not be regarded as a menace, but only as the declared purpose of the Union that it will constitutionally defend and maintain itself.

    In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority. The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere. Where hostility to the United States in any interior locality shall be so great and universal as to prevent competent resident citizens from holding the Federal offices, there will be no attempt to force obnoxious strangers among the people for that object. While the strict legal right may exist in the Government to enforce the exercise of these offices, the attempt to do so would be so irritating and so nearly impracticable withal that I deem it better to forego for the time the uses of such offices.

    That is the President of the United States saying he will uphold the duties of his job, which include defense of government properties. In modern terms this is like saying he will ensure police and firemen can do their job as expected and perform without interference.

    Critics try to turn this into something about corruption or big government, but there is no such thing in his words. I actually see the opposite. He says he will not make government an imposition. “None unless it be forced” means he will not initiate hostilities. The context of his words should make it very clear.

    Second, when the South Carolina congressmen were unhappy with the debate in congress they beat a man with a cane and pulled a pistol. That violent outburst was very popular among South Carolina citizens. Tensions ran high, but in contrast to these men Lincoln was known to be a calm and persuasive orator; he was not a man with a habit of initiating violence or aggression. The South Carolina men, however, already had blood on their hands and popular support for more by the time Lincoln came to office.

    It thus seems to be no coincidence that South Carolina’s elected representatives took a violent and hot-headed approach to the dispute — secession. After their declaration, seven more Southern states followed their lead. Then in December 1860 South Carolina took the initiative to demand the U.S. Army immediately abandon its properties in Charleston Harbor. The state sent armed men to force them out. They, like the other states, overran and seized Federal property such as buildings, military arsenals, and forts.

    Note: Lincoln was not yet President.

    Even more to the point, Lincoln’s inaugural speech, which I quoted above, came several months later in March of 1861. It was in *response* to the violent aggression that had already been initiated by the South before he was even in office. Lincoln thus was elected to office as the Battle of Fort Sumter was staged and ready to start.

    In April 1861 U.S. Army men that had refused to surrender to the encroaching Southern troops found support in their new President. He said he would defend them from aggression as I expect any President would be expected to do when his federal troops are under attack.

    Hope that clarifies why 1) conflict and tension over slavery led the Southern states to openly declare it their reason to secede (whereas tariffs were not declared a reason) and 2) Lincoln’s inauguration speech can not be blamed for tariff threats that led to secession since he was not yet President when the states declared secession.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.