Book Review A History of the South

Philip Leigh

formerly Harvey Johnson
Oct 22, 2014
William B. Hesseltine, Ph.D.
A History of the South
New York: Prentice-Hall, 1936
778 pages
Free at Internet Archive

This Post Covers 1790-1860

After reading Dr. Hesseltine’s Ulysses Grant: The Politician a couple of years ago, yesterday I completed his one-volume synopsis of Southern history. Although he died in 1963, he taught many years at the University of Wisconsin and was the Socialist Party’s Vice-Presidential candidate in 1948. Thus, he was neither a politically conservative historian, nor among those of the presently dominant school. He wrote as an expert mostly free of today’s polarities that often generate more heat than light.

Sectional differences emerged almost immediately after the Constitution was ratified in 1789. New York’s Alexander Hamilton, “who had no respect for the intelligence and or honesty of the masses,” issued four reports as Treasury Secretary during 1790-91 that yielded Northern advantages at Southern expense. Among them was Federal assumption of the Continental and state debts notwithstanding that North Carolina and Virginia had already ceded sizable land grants that would go far toward paying off such debt. Hamilton also won approval for a national bank. Northern money traders benefitted from both initiatives that linked the commercial classes with the Federal Government at the expense of farmers. Hamilton warned that the Northern “creditor” states would secede if he did not get his way.


Import tariffs became another contention. Even though Virginia Congressman James Madison sponsored a 1789 tariff giving importers a 90% discount when shipping goods in American hulls, thereby benefitting New England’s maritime industry, Northerners wanted more. After getting the Federal Government to assume the debts noted above, Hamilton put through a new tariff in 1790 to help repay the debts. It included a comprehensive list of dutiable items targeted at protecting Northern industries. He even got still higher tariffs in 1792. Finally, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson pushed back by developing a States’ Right Doctrine intended to enable the states to check the growing power of the Federal Government.

Slavery also quickly became an issue. After selling one of his runaway slaves and making plans to free two more upon his death, in 1790 Benjamin Franklin asked Congress to suppress slavery. Pennsylvania also asked for an act that would prevent slave catchers from kidnapping free blacks. Congress responded with the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act designed to protect free blacks coupled with a resolution declaring that it had no power to interfere with slavery in states where the practice was legal.

When John Adams of Massachusetts succeeded Washington as President he further increased Federal Government powers. “To prevent the Jeffersonian rabble from criticizing the government,” Adams and “the commercial interests” pushed through the Alien and Sedition Acts. The latter rendered it illegal to “maliciously criticize the Congress or the President.” Consequently, Jefferson worried that the courts might become the agencies of oppression by destroying the liberties of the people. He argued that Adams’ Federalist Party would transform the President into a Monarch and the Senate into a House of Lords. The results were the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions that averred the rights of the states to interpose in instances of unconstitutional Federal acts.

As a result, Jefferson became the third President. When he bought the Louisiana Territory in 1803 New England again threated to secede out of fear of losing power to the future western states. When Jefferson tried to avert war with Great Britain a second time by declaring a trade embargo with Britain and France, New England refused to comply and again threatened secession. When Jefferson’s successor, James Madison, successfully urged Congress to declare war in 1812, some New England states refused to provide troops beyond their borders and again threatened secession.

After the war, Northerners became more interested in protective tariffs. Ironically, the embargo that they had opposed enriched them as the Northeast became a manufacturing center. By 1828, under the Presidency of John Quincy Adams, the average tariff on dutiable items climbed to about 60%. As a result, South Carolina employed Jefferson’s “interposition” principle—as refined by John C. Calhoun—to nullify an unsatisfactory 1832 tariff adjustment. Then-President Andrew Jackson of Tennessee formulated a dual response. First, he obtained a compromise tariff from Congress that would gradually reduce rates over the next ten years. Second, he won Congressional authority to intervene with South Carolina militarily, if necessary. South Carolina repealed its Nullification Ordinance but affirmed its legitimacy in principle.

Earlier, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay had avoided a slavery crisis with the Compromise of 1820, which admitted Missouri as a slave state balanced by Maine as a free state. It also stipulated that slavery would be prohibited in the existing territories north of Missouri’s southern border. Along with former President J. Q. Adams, who became a congressman after leaving office, Clay defended protective tariffs. Unlike Adams, however, he would compromise on slavery in order to keep the Union intact. When an abolitionist asked Clay publicly why the senator would not free his slaves, Clay answered with a point that modern historians often minimize. Specifically, Clay asked the questioner if he would pay Clay $15,000 to buy the slaves. Clay further asked if he would provide them farmland in a free state where they could earn a living.

Although Clay conceded that slavery was a great evil, his answer reminds us that most slaveholders were born into a society they did not choose. How was it to end abruptly without bankruptcy, or even white genocide—as happened in Haiti in 1803? Northern abolitionists mostly ignored the question because they could personally avoid the consequences. As a result, they falsely believed themselves to be morally superior and increasingly hated white Southerners. As Thomas Fleming has argued, their fanatical hatred led to the Civil War as much as anything. Congressman J. Q. Adams argued abolition as effectively as anyone, but he failed to use his prestige to mediate between North and South. AFAIK, he never offered compensated emancipation although Lincoln later would, and the British used it to end slavery throughout their empire in 1833.

When America annexed Texas in 1845, Northerners again threatened secession. They did not want the region to become a source of more slave states, whereas it was authorized to divide-up into as many as five states. Already dominating the House of Representatives, Northerners wanted to control the rest of the Federal Government. As shall be seen, even a balance of power in the Senate was unacceptable. When the United States acquired even more territory after the Mexican War, Northerners again threatened secession.

This time, however, they sought other ways to keep blacks out of the new territories. In 1846 Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot attached a rider to the funding bill that would pay for the Mexican Cession. The rider was intended to keep any blacks, free or slave, out of the future states to be formed from the new territories. Although the rider was defeated, 1848 Democrat presidential candidate Lewis Cass of Michigan proposed to supersede the 1820 Compromise to reflect the new circumstances. Specifically, he proposed that the new states formed from the Mexican Cession, Oregon Territory and Texas decide for themselves whether they wanted to be free, or slave.

In 1850, Clay proposed a compromise to admit California as a free state thereby giving the free states a balance-of-power in the Senate. In exchange he offered the South a new Fugitive Slave Act to replace the 1793 Act that had lost its effectiveness in an 1842 Supreme Court ruling that enabled free states to avoid enforcement. When Democrat President Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act mandating popular sovereignty in the territories west of Missouri River, many Northerners gravitated toward the Republican Party, which proposed to forbid slavery in those territories. The Party argued that Popular Sovereignty abrogated the 1820 Compromise, notwithstanding that Oregon and Minnesota would soon tip the senate balance-of-power even more steeply into their favor. Consequently, many Northern states circumvented their obligations under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.

After John Brown’s attempt to incite a slave rebellion in 1859 and the Federal Government’s neglect to investigate the “secret six” suspected of financing the revolt, Southerners—particularly in South Carolina and the Gulf States—increasingly concluded that they could not safely stay in the Union. The free states had long ago taken control of the House of Representatives and got a decisive edge in the Senate during the 1850s. If blacks were not permitted to diffuse into other parts of America, their higher birth rates would cause them to eventually become dominant in the South thereby making the region vulnerable to massacres much like the one in Haiti. When Lincoln became President-elect, the free states had taken control of the House and the Senate, while Lincoln would soon reveal that he would ignore adverse federal courts rulings.

In his “End of the Union” chapter, Hesseltine summarizes Southern reasoning on the eve of the secession crisis:

With the elevation of the Republicans a process would begin by which no more slave states could enter the Union. The multiplication of free states from the Western territories would eventually make possible a majority sufficient to amend the Constitution to abolish slavery [without compensation. . . Southerners] generally agreed that the election of a Republican would be cause for dissolving the Union.​

Deeper observers saw more than the abolition of slavery. . .The economic ideas of the Northerner—[Federally funded public works], homesteads and a protective tariff—were as obnoxious as abolitionism . . . and would promote the industry of the New England states at the expense of the South and their industry.​
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