Why Southern Whites, who didn't own slaves fought - Part 1

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NH Civil War Gal

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Feb 5, 2017
I hope this is allowed. I found this article over on Civil War Trust and it answered a lot of questions I had. I like how he puts into categories, "What The Church Was Saying," "What The Politicians Were Saying," "What the Community Leaders Were Saying."

Basically it is about how a whole population with their on in-grown and gnawing fears, allowed themselves to be whipped up by fear. And how they (population as a whole, but especially middle-class and above) were looking for a justification of their "peculiar institution." Sadly, the sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind.


Why Non-Slaveholding Southerners Fought
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Address to the Charleston Library Society, January 25, 2011
Gordon Rhea

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Gordon Rhea
This year initiates the commemoration of the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War. This is an occasion for serious reflection on a war that killed some 600,000 of our citizens and left many hundreds of thousands emotionally and physically scarred. Translated into today’s terms – our country is ten times more populous than it was then -- the dead would number some 6 million, with tens of millions more wounded, maimed, and psychologically damaged. The price was indeed catastrophic.

As a Southerner with ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, I have been intrigued with the question of why my ancestors felt compelled to leave the United States and set up their own country. What brought the American experiment to that extreme juncture?

The short answer, of course, is Abraham Lincoln’s election as president of the United States. What concerned Southerners most about Lincoln’s election was his opposition to the expansion of slavery into the territories; Southern politicians were clear about that. If new states could not be slave states, went the argument, then it was only a matter of time before the South’s clout in Congress would fade, abolitionists would be ascendant, and the South’s “peculiar institution” – the right to own human beings as property – would be in peril.

It is easy to understand why slave owners would be concerned about the threat, real or imagined, that Lincoln posed to slavery. But what about those Southerners who did not own slaves? Why would they risk their livelihoods by leaving the United States and pledging allegiance to a new nation grounded in the proposition that all men are not created equal, a nation established to preserve a type of property that they did not own?

In order to find an answer to this question, please travel back with me to the South of 1860. Let’s put ourselves into the skin of Southerners who lived there then. That’s what being an historian is about: putting yourself into the minds of people who lived in another time to understand things from their perspective, from their point of view. Let’s set aside what people said and wrote later, after the dust had settled. Let’s wipe the historic slate clean and visit the South of 150 years ago through the documents that survive from that time. What were Southerners saying to other Southerners about why they had to secede?

There is, of course, a historical backdrop that formed the foundation of experience for Southerners in 1860. More than 4 million enslaved human beings lived in the south, and they touched every aspect of the region’s social, political, and economic life. Slaves did not just work on plantations. In cities such as Charleston, they cleaned the streets, toiled as bricklayers, carpenters, blacksmiths, bakers, and laborers. They worked as dockhands and stevedores, grew and sold produce, purchased goods and carted them back to their masters’ homes where they cooked the meals, cleaned, raised the children, and tended to the daily chores. “Charleston looks more like a Negro country than a country settled by white people,” a visitor remarked.

Fear of a slave rebellion was palpable. The establishment of a black republic in Haiti and the insurrections, threatened and real, of Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner stoked the fires. John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry sent shock waves through the south. Throughout the decades leading up to 1860, slavery was a burning national issue, and political battles raged over the admission of new states as slave or free. Compromises were struck – the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850 – but the controversy could not be laid to rest.

The South felt increasingly beleaguered as the North increased its criticism of slavery. Abolitionist societies sprang up, Northern publications demanded the immediate end of slavery, politicians waxed shrill about the immorality of human bondage, and overseas, the British parliament terminated slavery in the British West Indies. A prominent historian accurately noted that “by the late 1850’s most white Southerners viewed themselves as prisoners in their own country, condemned by what they saw as a hysterical abolition movement.”

As Southerners became increasingly isolated, they reacted by becoming more strident in defending slavery. The institution was not just a necessary evil: it was a positive good, a practical and moral necessity. Controlling the slave population was a matter of concern for all Whites, whether they owned slaves or not. Curfews governed the movement of slaves at night, and vigilante committees patrolled the roads, dispensing summary justice to wayward slaves and whites suspected of harboring abolitionist views. Laws were passed against the dissemination of abolitionist literature, and the South increasingly resembled a police state. A prominent Charleston lawyer described the city’s citizens as living under a “reign of terror.”

WHAT THE CHURCHES WERE SAYING
With that backdrop, let’s take our trip back in time to hear what Southerners were hearing. What were they being told by their pastors, by their politicians, and their community leaders about slavery, Lincoln, and secession?

Churches were the center of social and intellectual life in the south. That was where people congregated, where they learned about the world and their place in it, and where they received moral guidance. The clergy comprised the community’s cultural leaders and educators and carried tremendous influence with slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike. What were Southern pastors, preachers, and religious leaders telling their flock?

Southern clergy defended the morality of slavery through an elaborate scriptural defense built on the infallibility of the Bible, which they held up as the universal and objective standard for moral issues. Religious messages from pulpit and from a growing religious press accounted in large part for the extreme, uncompromising, ideological atmosphere of the time.

As Northern opposition to slavery grew, the three major protestant churches split into northern and southern factions. The Presbyterians divided in1837, the Methodists in 1844, and the Baptists in 1845. The segregation of the clergy into Northern and Southern camps was profound. It spelt an end to meaningful dialogue, leaving Southern preachers to talk to Southern audiences without contradiction.

What were their arguments? The Presbyterian theologian Robert Lewis Dabney reminded his fellow Southern clergymen that the Bible was the best way to explain slavery to the masses. “We must go before the nation with the Bible as the text, and ‘thus sayeth the lord’ as the answer,” he wrote. “We know that on the Bible argument the abolition party will be driven to unveil their true infidel tendencies. The Bible being bound to stand on our side, they have to come out and array themselves against the Bible.”

Reverend Furman of South Carolina insisted that the right to hold slaves was clearly sanctioned by the Holy Scriptures. He emphasized a practical side as well, warning that if Lincoln were elected, “every Negro in South Carolina and every other Southern state will be his own master; nay, more than that, will be the equal of every one of you. If you are tame enough to submit, abolition preachers will be at hand to consummate the marriage of your daughters to black husbands.”

A fellow reverend from Virginia agreed that on no other subject “are [the Bible’s] instructions more explicit, or their salutary tendency and influence more thoroughly tested and corroborated by experience than on the subject of slavery.” The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, asserted that slavery “has received the sanction of Jehova.” As a South Carolina Presbyterian concluded: “If the scriptures do not justify slavery, I know not what they do justify.”

The Biblical argument started with Noah’s curse on Ham, the father of Canaan, which was used to demonstrate that God had ordained slavery and had expressly applied it to Blacks. Commonly cited were passages in Leviticus that authorized the buying, selling, holding and bequeathing of slaves as property. Methodist Samuel Dunwody from South Carolina documented that Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, and Job owned slaves, arguing that “some of the most eminent of the Old Testament saints were slave holders.” The Methodist Quarterly Review noted further that “the teachings of the new testament in regard to bodily servitude accord with the old.” While slavery was not expressly sanctioned in the New Testament, Southern clergymen argued that the absence of condemnation signified approval. They cited Paul’s return of a runaway slave to his master as Biblical authority for the Fugitive Slave Act, which required the return of runaway slaves.

As Pastor Dunwody of South Carolina summed up the case: “Thus, God, as he is infinitely wise, just and holy, never could authorize the practice of a moral evil. But god has authorized the practice of slavery, not only by the bare permission of his Providence, but the express provision of his word. Therefore, slavery is not a moral evil.” Since the Bible was the source for moral authority, the case was closed. “Man may err,” said the southern theologian James Thornwell, “but God can never lie.”

It was a corollary that to attack slavery was to attack the Bible and the word of God. If the Bible expressly ordained slave holding, to oppose the practice was a sin and an insult to God’s word. As the Baptist minister and author Thornton Stringfellow noted in his influential Biblical Defense of Slavery, “men from the north” demonstrated “palpable ignorance of the divine will.”

The Southern Presbyterian of S.C observed that there was a “religious character to the present struggle. Anti-slavery is essentially infidel. It wars upon the Bible, on the Church of Christ, on the truth of God, on the souls of men.” A Georgia preacher denounced abolitionists as “diametrically opposed to the letter and spirit of the Bible, and as subversive of all sound morality, as the worst ravings of infidelity.” The prominent South Carolina Presbyterian theologian James Henley Thornwell did not mince his words. “The parties in the conflict are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders. They are atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, Jacobins on the one side, and friends of order and regulated freedom on the other. In one word, the world is the battleground – Christianity and Atheism the combatants; and the progress of humanity at stake.”

During the 1850’s, pro-slavery arguments from the pulpit became especially strident. A preacher in Richmond exalted slavery as “the most blessed and beautiful form of social government known; the only one that solves the problem, how rich and poor may dwell together; a beneficent patriarchate.” The Central Presbyterian affirmed that slavery was “a relation essential to the existence of civilized society.” By 1860, Southern preachers felt comfortable advising their parishioners that “both Christianity and Slavery are from heaven; both are blessings to humanity; both are to be perpetuated to the end of time.”

By 1860, Southern churches were denouncing the North as decadent and sinful because it had turned from God and rejected the Bible. Since the North was sinful and degenerate, went their reasoning, the South must purify itself by seceding. As a South Carolina preacher noted on the eve of secession, “We cannot coalesce with men whose society will eventually corrupt our own, and bring down upon us the awful doom which awaits them.” The consequence was a pointedly religious bent to rising Southern nationalism. As the Southern Presbyterian wrote, “It would be a glorious sight to see this Southern Confederacy of ours stepping forth amid the nations of the world animated with a Christian spirit, guided by Christian principles, administered by Christian men, and adhering faithfully to Christian precepts,” ie., the slavery of fellow human beings.

Shortly after Lincoln’s election, Presbyterian minister Benjamin Morgan Palmer, originally from Charleston, gave a sermon entitled, “The South Her Peril and Her Duty.” He announced that the election had brought to the forefront one issue – slavery – that required him to speak out. Slavery, he explained, was a question of morals and religion, and was now the central question in the crisis of the Union. The South, he went on, had a “providential trust to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of slavery as now existing.” The South was defined by slavery, he observed. “It has fashioned our modes of life, and determined all of our habits of thought and feeling, and molded the very type of our civilization.” Abolition, said Palmer, was “undeniably atheistic.” The South “defended the cause of God and religion,” and nothing “is now left but secession.” Some 90,000 copies of a pamphlet incorporating the sermon were distributed.

Preachers were prominent at ceremonies held as troops marched off to war. In Petersburg, Virginia for example, Methodist minister R. N. Sledd railed against Northerners, an “infidel and fanatical foe” who embodied “the barbarity of an Atilla more than the civilization of the 19th Century” and who showed “contempt for virtue and religion according to their savage purpose.” Northerners, he warned, wanted to “undermine the authority of my Bible. You go to contribute to the salvation of your country from such a curse,” he told the departing soldiers. “You go to aid in the glorious enterprise of rearing in our sunny south a temple to constitutional liberty and Bible Christianity. You go to fight for your people and for the cities of your God.”
 

demiurge

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Apr 15, 2016
Excellent article, thank you.

The role of the church in the civil war, especially as its method of control in the Southern states, I believe to be understated on this board.

In both the Civil War and the Revolutionary War the rhetoric of church leaders was incredibly important to start the war drums. And in the 1820s-1830s, the Southern Presbytarian and Baptist churches in particular were complicit in indoctrination of slaves via religious conversion in order to enforce the social order.

But then, we see that as the major role of the church since the dark ages.
 
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NH Civil War Gal

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I didn't realize the importance of the role of the church in the South, until I started reading war diaries from Confederate women. Not many of the soldier's diaries mention anything much in-depth - they tend to only mention something like, "being Sunday, the chaplain had a service...." The women's diaries, when they mention it, pretty much get right to the point of what the sermon was about.

I'm discovering that using my Kindle for all this reading hasn't been the wisest because I've archived the books and just isn't the same as marking a book and then going back to pick it up. So I don't have any specific references for you. And sometimes these diaries aren't available unless it is $$$ vs .99 on Amazon for digital.
 
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AshleyMel

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Oct 26, 2016
I didn't realize the importance of the role of the church in the South, until I started reading war diaries from Confederate women. Not many of the soldier's diaries mention anything much in-depth - they tend to only mention something like, "being Sunday, the chaplain had a service...." The women's diaries, when they mention it, pretty much get right to the point of what the sermon was about.
Oh my goodness, yes! SO much to learn!
 
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