Why Non-Slave Owners - Southern Were fighting - Part II

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NH Civil War Gal

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Feb 5, 2017
Sorry - had to break it up.


What were the South’s politicians saying? In late 1860 and early 1861, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Louisiana appointed commissioners to travel to the other slave states and persuade them to secede. The commissioners addressed state legislatures, conventions, made public addresses, and wrote letters. Their speeches were printed in newspapers and pamphlets. These contemporaneous documents make fascinating reading and have recently been collected in a book by the historian Charles Dew.

William Harris, Mississippi’s commissioner to Georgia, explained that Lincoln’s election had made the North more defiant than ever. “They have demanded, and now demand equality between the white and negro races, under our constitution; equality in representation, equality in right of suffrage, equality in the honors and emoluments of office, equality in the social circle, equality in the rights of matrimony,” he cautioned, adding that the new administration wanted “freedom to the slave, but eternal degradation for you and me.”


'The Miscegenation Ball'
Library of Congress

As Harris saw things, “Our fathers made this a government for the white man, rejecting the negro as an ignorant, inferior, barbarian race, incapable of self-government, and not, therefore, entitled to be associated with the white man upon terms of civil, political, or social equality.” Lincoln and his followers, he stated, aimed to “overturn and strike down this great feature of our union and to substitute in its stead their new theory of the universal equality of the black and white races.” For Harris, the choice was clear. Mississippi would “rather see the last of her race, men, women, and children, immolated in one common funeral pyre than see them subjugated to the degradation of civil, political and social equality with the negro race.” The Georgia legislature ordered the printing of a thousand copies of his speech.

Two days before South Carolina seceded, Judge Alexander Hamilton Handy, Mississippi’s commissioner to Maryland, warned that “the first act of the black republican party will be to exclude slavery from all the territories, from the District of Columbia, the arsenals and the forts, by the action of the general government. That would be a recognition that slavery is a sin, and confine the institution to its present limits. The moment that slavery is pronounced a moral evil – a sin – by the general government, that moment the safety of the rights of the south will be entirely gone.”

The next day, two commissioners addressed the North Carolina legislature and warned that Lincoln’s election meant “utter ruin and degradation” for the south. “The white children now born will be compelled to flee from the land of their birth, and from the slaves their parents have toiled to acquire as an inheritance for them, or to submit to the degradation of being reduced to an equality with them, and all its attendant horrors.”

Former South Carolina Congressman John McQueen was crystal clear about where things stood when he wrote to a group of Richmond civic leaders. Lincoln’s program was based upon the “single idea that the African is equal to the Anglo-Saxon, and with the purpose of placing our slaves on a position of equality with ourselves and our friends of every condition. We, of South Carolina, hope soon to greet you in a Southern Confederacy, where white men shall rule our destinies, and from which we may transmit to our posterity the rights, privileges, and honor left us by our ancestors.”

Typical of the commissioner letters is that written by Stephen Hale, an Alabama commissioner, to the Governor of Kentucky, in December 1860. Lincoln’s election, he observed, was “nothing less than an open declaration of war, for the triumph of this new theory of government destroys the property of the south, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans. The slave holder and non-slaveholder must ultimately share the same fate; all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes, stand side by side with them at the polls, and fraternize in all the social relations of life, or else there will be an eternal war of races, desolating the land with blood, and utterly wasting all the resources of the country.”


Henry Benning
Library of Congress
What Southerner, Hale asked, “can without indignation and horror contemplate the triumph of negro equality, and see his own sons and daughters in the not distant future associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality?” Abolition would surely mean that “the two races would be continually pressing together,” and “amalgamation or the extermination of the one or the other would be inevitable.” Secession, argued Hale, was the only means by which the “heaven ordained superiority of the white over the black race” could be sustained. The abolition of slavery would either plunge the South into a race war or so stain the blood of the white race that it would be contaminated for all time.” Could southern men “submit to such degradation and ruin,” he asked, and responded to his own question, “God forbid that they should.”

Congressman Curry, another of Alabama’s commissioner’s, similarly warned his fellow Alabamans that “the subjugation of the south to an abolition dynasty would result in a saturnalia of blood.” Emancipation meant “the abhorrent degradation of social and political equality, the probability of a war of extermination between the races or the necessity of flying the country to avoid the association.” Typical also was the message from Henry Benning of Georgia – later one of General Lee’s most talented brigade commanders – to the Virginia legislature. “If things are allowed to go on as they are, it is certain that slavery is to be abolished,” he predicted. “By the time the north shall have attained the power, the black race will be in a large majority, and then we will have black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything. Is it to be supposed that the white race will stand for that? It is not a supposable case.”

What did Benning predict would happen? “War will break out everywhere like hidden fire from the earth. We will be overpowered and our men will be compelled to wander like vagabonds all over the earth, and as for our women, the horrors of their state we cannot contemplate in imagination. We will be completely exterminated,” he announced, “and the land will be left in the possession of the blacks, and then it will go back to a wilderness and become another Africa or Saint Domingo.”

“Join the north and what will become of you” he asked. “They will hate you and your institutions as much as they do now, and treat you accordingly. Suppose they elevate Charles Sumner to the presidency? Suppose they elevate Frederick Douglas, your escaped slave, to the presidency? What would be your position in such an event? I say give me pestilence and famine sooner than that.”

In sum, the commissioners described one apocalyptic vision after another – emancipation, race war, miscegenation. The collapse of white supremacy would be so cataclysmic that no self-respecting Southerner could fail to rally to the secessionist cause, they argued. Secession was necessary to preserve the purity and survival of the white race. This was the unvarnished, near universal message of southern political leaders to their constituencies.

Southerners heard the identical message from their community leaders. In the fall of 1860, John Townsend, owner of a cotton plantation on Edisto Island, authored a pamphlet delineating the consequences of Lincoln’s elevation to presidency. The abolition of slavery would be inevitable, he warned, which would mean “the annihilation and end of all Negro labor (agricultural especially) over the whole South. It means a loss to the planters of the South of, at least, FOUR BILLION dollars, by having this labor taken from them; and a loss, in addition, of FIVE BILLION dollars more, in lands, mills, machinery, and other great interests, which will be rendered valueless by the want of slave labor to cultivate the lands, and the loss of the crops which give to those interests life and prosperity.”


Slaves work in Sea Islands, South Carolina.
Library of Congress

More to the point, he noted, abolition meant “the turning loose upon society, without the salutary restraints to which they are now accustomed, more than four millions of a very poor and ignorant population, to ramble in idleness over the country until their wants should drive most of them, first to petty thefts, and afterwards to the bolder crimes of robbery and murder.” The planter and his family would “not only to be reduced to poverty and want, by the robbery of his property, but to complete the refinement of the indignity, they are to be degraded to the level of an inferior race, be jostled by them in their paths, and intruded upon, and insulted over by rude and vulgar upstarts. Who can describe the loathsomeness of such an intercourse;—the constrained intercourse between refinement reduced to poverty, and swaggering vulgarity suddenly elevated to a position which it is not prepared for?”

Non-slaveholders, he predicted, were also in danger. “It will be to the non-slaveholder, equally with the largest slaveholder, the obliteration of caste and the deprivation of important privileges,” he cautioned. “The color of the white man is now, in the South, a title of nobility in his relations as to the negro,” he reminded his readers. “In the Southern slaveholding States, where menial and degrading offices are turned over to be per formed exclusively by the Negro slave, the status and color of the black race becomes the badge of inferiority, and the poorest non-slaveholder may rejoice with the richest of his brethren of the white race, in the distinction of his color. He may be poor, it is true; but there is no point upon which he is so justly proud and sensitive as his privilege of caste; and there is nothing which he would resent with more fierce indignation than the attempt of the Abolitionist to emancipate the slaves and elevate the Negroes to an equality with himself and his family.”



Slavery in the United States


©2017 Civil War Trust


Apr 15, 2016
Yep, all of that is in Apostles of Disunion by Charles Dew, a Southerner himself, who investigated what the comissioners of secession said and came away convinced that slavery was the ultimate reason for secession and thus the war.
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