James Longstreet's Uncle Augustus and the Academic Defense of Slavery

Pat Young

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While all of us know about the Civil War career of James Longstreet, you may not know that before the war, the future general's uncle Augustus Longstreet was quite well known. A professor, college president, and humorist, Augustus was later described as a predecessor of Mark Twain.

During the Antebellum period, Augustus was known for developing the academic defense of slavery and proposing secession.

Here is a brief sketch of his career:

Born in 1790 in Georgia, he graduated from Yale in 1813 and was educated for a year at Tapping Reeve’s law school in Litchfield, Connecticut. He was admitted to the bar in 1815. Longstreet’s career after that involved practicing law, serving briefly in the Georgia legislature beginning in 1821, and then as a superior court judge from 1823 to 1825. For more than dozen years after that, his career was practicing law and farming; in 1838 he became a Methodist minister, and in 1840 he became president of Emory College. For eight years he was president of Emory, during which time he wrote two pro-slavery pamphlets, the obscure Letters on the Epistle of Paul to Philemon published in 1845, and a series of letters A Voice from the South: Letters from Georgia to Massachusetts published in 1847. Longstreet was, with William A. Smith, of Randolph Macon College, central to the split of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which occurred because of the slavery controversy. Longstreet’s first set of letters, on Paul’s letter to Philemon, was designed to show that slaveholding is not sinful and there is no moral evil in slavery.

But at the time he wrote it, Longstreet already realized that the gap between Northerners and Southerners was enormous. Southerners thought of Northerners as “a tribe of self-infuriated mad-men, rushing through the country with the Bible in one hand and a torch in the other— preaching peace, arousing to butchery— lauding liberty, and firing liberty’s last temple.” That work was aimed at other Southerners. His more widely read work, Voice from the South, was written in the form of letters from the state of Georgia to her “sister,” the state of Massachusetts. The nine letters review common tropes about slavery— that it was imposed on the South by northern merchants, that the South supported the North during the Revolution (and was owed support in return now), that emancipation was impractical, that the North would not even support the American Colonization Society, and that abolitionists violated the Constitution and incited slaves to rebellion. Longstreet predicted that abolitionists would lead to the destruction of the Union. He was already in 1847 boasting about how secession would be successful, in part because of the economic importance of cotton. Central among Longstreet’s complaints was the Wilmot Proviso, which would have barred slavery from territory acquired from Mexico during the Mexican-American War. He thought— in common with many at the time— that the Wilmot Proviso was unconstitutional and, further, that abolitionists, even though they admitted the Constitution was pro-slavery, attacked it by urging people to break their oaths to the Constitution, by trying to limit slavery in the territories, and by proposing that free states leave the Union and thus separate themselves from the South.
[Brophy, Alfred L.. University, Court, and Slave: Pro-Slavery Thought in Southern Colleges and Courts and the Coming of Civil War (pp. 79-80). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.]
 
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Pat Young

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In 1848, Augustus left Emory and became president of Centenary College. The following year he became president of the University of Mississippi. In 1857 he became president of the College of South Carolina, now the University of South Carolina. He served in that role until most of his students left for the war in 1861. He moved back to Oxford, Mississippi where his house was burned by Union troops in 1862. He died in 1870.

In 2000 he was inducted as a charter member of the Georgia Writers' Hall of Fame.

http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/augustus-baldwin-longstreet-1790-1870
 

Pat Young

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I thought it might be interesting to examine Augustus Longstreet's political thought in some depth. Although he is largely forgotten today, he was an important figure in the education of the sons of the elite in the deep South. He was also important in the transformation of Southern colleges from places where slavery was discussed into places where its ideological underpinnings were promoted.

His 1847 Letters to Massachusetts and Letters to the Southern States was written in response to the proposed Wilmont Proviso. This would have barred slavery from being introduced into the territories taken following the Mexican War. He writes them in the persons of "Georgia."
 
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Pat Young

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Longstreet, speaking as "Georgia," writes that she never wanted slavery, but the poverty of her children (the people of Georgia) led to the introduction of slavery. The slaves were brought to Georgia by the British and New Englanders and the Georgians, in purchasing the slaves, were in fact rescuing them from their oppressors.

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In his second letter, Longstreet excoriates Massachusetts for insisting that the lands taken from Mexico not be admitted as states unless their Constitutions renounce slavery. He then deploys a mocking critique of Massachusetts's self-righteousness. He particularly dislikes the state's "freedom suits" brought on behalf of blacks from Mass. who were taken to the South and sold as slaves. He writes with the biting humor that made him a literary figure:

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Longstreet does not concede that slavery is morally wrong, bu he introduces several arguments against abolition on practical grounds. I won't go through them all, but a few are very interesting. One argument he makes is that ending slavery would lead to great harm to young, old, and disabled blacks.

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Longstreet said that the Northerners twisted the meaning of the Constitution when they said that Congress could prohibit the extension of slavery into the territories. He believed that preventing the expansion of slavery into new states was designed to put the institution on the road to extinction. This, he said, would have dire consequences for the whites and blacks alike:

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With all due respect to the late Mr. Longstreet, slavery as practiced on sugar plantations in Louisiana, on the new cotton lands in Mississippi, Texas and southern Arkansas, was indefensible. Whatever it was in Georgia and Virginia, it was something else in the old southwest.
Slavery men gang work, it meant forcing the women to work in the field, forcing children to pick cotton. It meant bad food, ring worm and infant mortality.
Slavery and slave trade were absolutely inseparable. The illegal slave trade was accelerating during the cotton boom.
https://archive.org/stream/suppressionofafr01dubouoft#page/n9/mode/2up
Modern slavery was the same as ancient slavery. People were willing to die to attempt to escape it.
 



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