During the first two decades of the slavery controversy, 1835–54, the huge majority of Southerners believed that the William L. Yanceys counterproductively exaggerated the South’s peril. Then, in the mid- and late 1850s, a more respectable minority of Southerners believed that the secessionists offered a productive escape from imminent danger. Yet at the very time more Southerners saw themselves as disastrously afflicted politically, their economic afflictions largely lifted. Why should a sunnier economic outlook have coincided with a stormier political mood?
In part because the South’s stormiest disunionists, the South Carolina aristocrats, enjoyed less of the brighter economic prospects. In part because southern prosperity elsewhere widened the section’s provoking divisions: not only between contracting South Carolinians and expanding Southwesterners but also between slaveholders and nonslaveholders, between black belt and white belt areas, between the Lower South and the Border South. Meanwhile, at the very time that southern divisions widened, northern antagonism swelled. Never had the minority of masters in the South, or the minority of Southerners in the Union, or the minority of South Carolinians in the master class felt so vulnerable, defending an unrepublican institution inside republican government.
As in Road to Disunion, Volume I, let us focus on the immersion of the world’s most powerful slaveholders in the world’s most advanced republic, for that phenomenon most paved the southern road to disunion.1 From the moment that road began amidst the American Revolution, republican ideology and government posed special threats to despotism’s antirepublican essence. Yet the American republican system also lent special protections to an aggressively defensive slavocracy. The dialectic between extra threats and extra protection tipped toward slaveholder safety until the mid-1850s. Then the balance shifted, at the very time the slavocracy’s internal divisions widened.
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Where republican rule over whites required free speech and the consent to be governed, dominion over blacks invited dictatorial compulsions and the coercion of the nonconsenting. The slaveholders needed an All-Mighty Color Line to keep such irreconcilable regimes severed. But the color line leaked. Whites freed some blacks. Some citizens became so-called poor white trash—trashier than slaves. Some masters used supposedly inferior blacks to direct their slaves. Many enslavers inhibited white antislavery debate, lest the enslaved—or the citizens—challenge despotism’s compatibility with democracy. At their most undemocratic, white censors deployed lynch mobs, anticipating the most savage postwar South’s terrorizing.
Yet the democrat in the slaveholder resisted physical violence against white citizens. Rather than impose lynch law, the establishment preferred nonviolent pressure to conform, especially the accusation that hesitation about proslavery tactics revealed softness on slavery. Every four years in presidential campaigns and whenever agitation about slavery threatened, southern politics featured loyalty finger pointing. Accusations of “traitor” became rife and politically lethal.2
The slaveholding democrat found the relentless brutalizer of slaves as repulsive as the relentless lyncher of citizens. Masters preferred to control their slaves with familial kindness, Christmas presents, and soothing concessions (especially the granting of private garden plots). Slaves, mastering their job of wrenching maximum concessions from would-be paternalists, often played the role that slaveholders desired. They pretended to love their patriarch and to consent, just like citizens, to his supposedly fatherly dominion.
Sometimes, pretense edged toward reality, among both the charade’s would-be “fathers” and its would-be “boys.” The ideal master’s most revealing word for the ideal servile was not “boy,” not even “Sambo,” but “Cuffee.” Just cuff a childish black, declared the condescending word, and he will become that alleged impossibility, the consenting slave.
But most often, Cuffee’s and Massa’s role slipped, belied by duplicity on both sides of the color line. Dubious paternalists regularly faced exasperating slaves’ lies, misunderstood orders, slovenly work, and dark glances. Occasionally pretenses altogether disappeared. In the nineteenth century, massive slave revolts almost never ripped apart the Massa-Cuffee charade. The last slave revolt, Nat Turner’s in 1831, came to seem ages ago. But individual slaves who ambushed masters were not as rare. Individual slave runaways were not rare at all, especially in the South closest to the North.
Thus Massa faced the impossible, indispensable task of discovering whether Cuffee’s act of consent was true blue. The underling here taught the superior that life was a charade, that professions of loyalty must be scrutinized, and that affectations of friendship must be doubted. Cuffee’s lessons bore painfully on loyalty politics among whites. Southern politicians’ extravagant professions of love for slavery might be a charade. As for northern declarations of true-blue friendship, who could trust a Yankee con man after experiencing Cuffee, the ultimate pretender? To live with Cuffee was to disbelieve the world out there. Thus did the master form the slave and the slave form the master, and the two together generate a hothouse culture, too dictatorial to be comfortably democratic.
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The discomforts of 1860 took centuries to become consuming. Early English migrants to future United States areas comfortably planted slavery inside the most republican (for white men) New World society, for almost no one yet considered slavery a problem. Seventeenth-century British republicans, the most advanced in the Old World, came in far larger numbers, compared to nonwhite native or imported peoples, than did white European colonists to other New World slavocracies. With their late eighteenth-century Declaration of Independence, and especially its announcement that all men are created equal, this most republican concentration of ex-Europeans theoretically gave equal rights to all humans, whatever their race, sex, or economic position. Then the compatibility of despotism and democracy became a widely perceived problem.
Black slavery pockmarked all thirteen of England’s revolting colonies in 1776. Indeed slavery’s contagion spread in an odd New World direction: away from North America’s most tropical habitats. True, in 1776, slavery already massed thickest in the constricted Georgia and especially South Carolina coastal swampland. Here, dense concentrations of slaves tilled rice and a rare, silklike fleece called Sea Island cotton. Here, an especially top-heavy social structure lent an especially intractable aristocratic mentality to the slaveholder as republican.
But rice and Sea Island cotton only flourished within a few dozen miles of the Atlantic Ocean. Few eighteenth-century entrepreneurs could envision a staple to grow in the thousands of miles west of the coastal swamps. At first, capitalists considered the Lower South too far north to grow the lush South American money crops, coffee and sugar. The Lower South also seemed too far south to grow the Upper South’s crucial cash crop, tobacco.
With white capitalists considering the Lower South’s western expanse relatively unpromising in 1776, three times more slaves grew tobacco and grains in the Middle South’s Virginia and in the Border South’s Maryland than toiled in Georgia and South Carolina. Furthermore, many more slaves grew grains in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York than inhabited all Lower South areas west of the U.S. coastal jungles. With slavery also a New England legality and reality, the institution was as national as the American Revolution. Slavery also posed the greatest national embarrassment to those who would build a nation atop the Declaration’s foundations.
The more northern of the original thirteen states, by striking against the embarrassment, first indicated slavery’s special peril in republican America. But the qualified nature of the first strike also indicated slavery’s special strength in this especially republican (for white men) culture. Pennsylvania scored the (auspiciously blunted) first strike. The state’s legislature passed the New World’s first antislavery law in 1780. This pathbreaking edict, however, liberated only blacks born after the enactment and only after the afterborn reached twenty-eight years of age. The law indirectly consigned all slaves born before 1780 to permanent thralldom. The edict also freed no slave until a third of a century after the American Revolution.
Blacks’ prospects in the largest northern slave state, New York, remained still bleaker. New York’s legislature, acting two decades after Pennsylvania’s, also freed only the afterborn and only after they reached adulthood. This legislation, intended to liberate no one until a half century after the American Revolution, ultimately failed to free a third of its intended belated beneficiaries. Many New York masters sold slaves down South, into permanent enslavement, before emancipating birthdays. In 1827, New Yorkers freed their last remaining slave. Then New Jersey still had 2200 and Pennsylvania 400 slaves.
Northern slavery persisted partly because natural rights to property countered natural rights to liberty. Northern slaveholders fought to delay or to circumvent seizure of their (human) property. Their persistence helped delay an uncompromising northern attack on southern slavery. Finally in 1831, a whopping fifty-five years after the Declaration of Independence and four years after New York became altogether free soil, Massachusetts’s William Lloyd Garrison used his new Liberator to pledge all-out attack on U.S. slavery. True to Garrison’s pledge, the growth rate of northern abolition led the New World for a decade. But after this auspicious beginning, U.S. abolitionists hit a wall around 1840. No more than 2 percent of prewar Yankee voters ever demanded that slavery be wiped out of southern states.
Once again, republican ideology proved to be a two-edged antislavery sword. While slaves’ natural right to liberty sharpened thrusts for emancipation, slaveholders’ natural right to property blunted emancipators’ parries. Furthermore, the Garrisonian army, where white women and blacks fought alongside white men, violated the no-trespass sign of American republicanism: Only white men shall govern. Garrisonians’ female agitators enraged male chauvinists, who believed that women must only speak in the home. Black agitators also infuriated white supremacists, who believed that the supposedly inferior race must only assume menial positions.
Worse still for U.S. abolitionists, most Northerners equated American republicanism with (white men’s) Union. Thus Southerners, by threatening to break up the Union, aroused Northerners against abolitionists’ pleas for liberty. Furthermore, few Yankees wanted liberated blacks in their neighborhood. They hoped to deport freedmen to Africa, just as Native Americans had been exiled to western reservations. Then all Americans would be liberated—and lily-white. This pervasive racism heaped crushing burdens atop the Garrisonians’ drive to liberate all humans.
The burden afflicted the national Congress as much as state legislatures. The first generation of national congressmen, impelled in part by the Declaration’s ideology, helped ease the national institution into a southern peculiarity. The congressional Northwest Ordinance of 1787 barred future slaves from five future midwestern states. Then the national government abolished the African slave trade in 1807. Slaveholders stood proscribed from taking or importing new slaves into half the nation’s territory and from importing overseas slaves.
Yet if the first national leaders helped corner an underpopulated slavocracy, they also helped arm slaveholder defenses. While the congressmen of 1787 banned new slaves from entering the northwestern territories, they emancipated no slave already on the ground. The result: Persisting Illinois slaveholders led an ominous, albeit failed, drive to perpetuate the system in the 1820s. The Founders also expanded the white men’s republic southward, without ensuring that only free republicans could enter. The result: Slaveholders enslaved the national republic’s vast new tropical empire. President Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and President James Monroe’s Florida purchase added a Slave Power colossus to the United States: the future states of Louisiana, Florida, Arkansas, Missouri, and parts of Mississippi and Alabama.
A late eighteenth-century invention enabled the Founding Fathers’ new Lower South empire to become the nineteenth-century slavocracy’s new core. In the 1790s, Eli Whitney and others invented cotton gins to process a more common, crude product than Sea Island cotton: short-staple cotton fiber. Slave labor then became profitable in the previously apparently useless Lower South areas west of the Atlantic coast swamps, including upcountry South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, and after annexation in 1845, Texas. Meanwhile, short-staple cotton cultivation also triumphed in the Middle South’s western Tennessee and Arkansas. Furthermore, a lush sugar empire belatedly flourished in the Lower South’s Louisiana. No longer did slavery’s base swell northward, in Virginia and Maryland tobacco belts. No longer did only the Georgia and South Carolina coastal swamps nurture a Lower South core of slaveholders.
The slaveholding establishment had to become thinner northward to become thicker southward. After the federal government closed the overseas slave trade, Lower South slaveholders could not legally import Africans. Instead, black laborers, some 875,000 of them from 1800 to 1860, drained to the newer South from the older South: from South Carolina, from Virginia, and especially from the Border South.3 While slaves had been 25 percent of the Border South population in 1790, they comprised only 13 percent in 1860, compared to 32 percent in the Middle South and to 47 percent in the Lower South. While in 1790, 21 percent of southern slaves had lived in the Lower South, 59 percent resided in the area in 1860. After this sea change in the slaveholders’ geographical base, could the Slave Power’s expanding power in new tropical habitats sufficiently offset its shrinking power in old northern bastions? It was a classic question in human affairs: whether a shrinking, unconsolidated periphery could do in an expanding, consolidated core.4 In this case, much depended on whether Border South slaveholders, now located at North American slavery’s most northern outposts, could cling to their regime more interminably than had the hard-fighting, belatedly extinguished New York and Illinois slavocracies. Few questions better defined the road to disunion—or the path to Appomattox.
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In the most northern South, no Border South state emulated Pennsylvania’s or New York’s emancipation edicts, although Delaware came close and every border state legislature debated the possibility. More often, border masters manumitted some slaves. Slaveholder expediency augmented antislavery principle. Borderland blacks, compared to blacks deeper in the South, could more easily dash onto northern free soil. That reality led some border masters to grant eventual freedom, if slaves accepted temporary enslavement.
In this “semislavery” system, owners bribed slaves against gambling on flight by promising to grant manumission after a term (usually seven years) of loyal labor. The advantage for the slave: certain eventual freedom rather than the uncertainties of flight, perhaps capture, and then assuredly awful punishment. The advantage for the master: profitable interim labor rather than the peril of an investment tomorrow vanished.5 The disadvantage for the whole South: partial erosion of slavery in the borderlands.
By 1850, erosion had proceeded furthest in the eastern borderlands. At midcentury, 89 percent of Delaware blacks and 45 percent of Maryland blacks were free. Manumission occurred far less often in the western borderlands. At midcentury, only 3 percent of Missouri blacks and 5 percent of Kentucky blacks enjoyed freedom. Still, Kentucky contained five times more white nonslaveholding than slaveholding families, and Missouri six times more. Borderland slavery’s erosion could deepen if Border South investors more swiftly cashed in their exposed human property in Lower South auctions, as had so many New Yorkers.
Nothing would sour borderland slave investors faster than a rash of slave runaways. The peril again showed how blacks conditioned whites. Just as Cuffees turned slaveholders into highly suspicious agitators, so runaways turned proslavery politicians into champions of an iron curtain between the most exposed South and the more libertarian North. From 1836 through 1854, the increasingly demanding southern minority won many border consolidations, over the protests of an increasingly awakened northern majority.
Majoritarian government often yields minority control, especially when committed minorities face sleepy majorities. But U.S. republicanism handed the slaveholders extra power to combat any Yankee majority. Since the racist northern majority cared more about white men’s Union than about republicanism for nonwhites, slaveholders’ threat of disunion could secure national protections for slavery. The National Democratic Party lent slaveholders’ threats added leverage. Democrats usually won national elections. They almost always ran strongest in the South, especially in the deepest South. So the minority section wielded the power base of the majority party. When Southern Democrats threatened to quit the party unless northern allies supported a proslavery law, enough Northern Democrats tended to give in, not only to save their republic but also to save their party.
The U.S. Constitution augmented the minority’s leverage. The Constitution’s so-called three-fifths clause added three out of every five nonvoting slaves to a state’s number of voting citizens, when determining the state’s proportion of members in the House of Representatives. So the South in 1860, with 29 percent of the nation’s voting citizens, elected 38 percent of the House. Moreover, each state elected two senators. Since northern states outnumbered southern states by only two, the southern 29 percent of the American white population elected 47 percent of the U.S. Senate in 1860. In addition, each state received one member of the Electoral College, the body electing the president, for each senator and congressman. So the South’s three in ten white Americans elected four of ten Electoral College voters. As an added bonus, disproportionate southern control over the White House and Congress yielded disproportionate control over the Supreme Court. All this extra power, beyond one citizen, one vote, inspired the North’s most loaded political term, Slave Power, meaning that slaveholders possessed arguably unrepublican power over whites as well as over blacks.
The U.S. constitutional amendment process guarded the Slave Power’s power. As William Lloyd Garrison conceded, the federal government would need a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. Three-fourths of existing states had to approve constitutional amendments. In 1860, the nation contained seventeen free labor states and fifteen slave states. If all fifteen slave states perpetually rejected antislavery, only a Union swollen to sixty states, forty-five of them free labor states, could have forced abolition upon the South. In some future century, the Union might balloon to sixty states. No such gargantuan swelling could be imagined in the mid-nineteenth century.
Thus an antislavery constitutional amendment required some southern consent. If the four Border South states had consented to emancipation, slaveholders would have been sliced to eleven states and free laborers boosted to twenty-one. Subsequently, if twelve more free labor states had been admitted to the Union, the free labor states’ three-fourths majority of a forty-four-state Union could have imposed emancipation on the minority. The forty-fourth state would be admitted to the Union in 1890, two years after Brazil, the last New World slaveholding nation, abolished the institution. That possible road to an emancipating constitutional amendment could be imagined in 1860.
If the slaveholders had lost the four Border South states, they would have lost control of Congress long before they lost the power to kill constitutional amendments. Several key antebellum slaveholder victories, especially the annexation of Texas in 1845, required an almost unanimous southern congressional contingent. That necessity left U.S. slaveholders only as politically strong as their weakest link—their Border South hinterland area, where more slaves ran toward the North, where more slaveholders sold slaves toward the deepest South, and where by 1850 the percentage of slaveowning families had sunk to under 12 percent of total white families.
Nonslaveholding majorities commanded not just the Border South but also most southern areas. Only one-third of all citizens, Southwide, owned slaves. But wherever whites extensively owned blacks, in a so-called black belt area, the regime locally, like the slaveholders nationally, exerted far more power than its minority of numbers indicated.
In black belt neighborhoods, defined here as communities with populations 25 percent or more enslaved, rich and poor whites worshipped at the same churches, cherished the same family circles, relished the same political parties, and nurtured the same crops (with a squire often helping rednecks by ginning their cotton or buying their foodstuffs or loaning them small sums). Here, all whites helped control blacks, whether by voting for orthodox candidates or by expelling abolitionist meddlers or by lashing disobedient slaves when serving on nightly patrols. Here, all whites who helped enchain blacks stormed at Yankees who damned slavery perpetuators. Rednecks and neighboring squires also shared responsibility to perpetuate paternalism in their homes, whether by directing supposedly inferior blacks or by governing supposedly inferior wives and children. In plantation neighborhoods, slaveless whites, while only aspiring to be slaveholders, already savored some of slaveholders’ sexist and racist power.
Whites’ nineteenth-century egalitarian republican ideology also fused rich and poor in a black belt area. The poorest citizen relished his white skin, which allegedly made him the equal of all white males and superior to all blacks. Proudly equal plebeians could not bear holier-than-thou Yankees, with their posture of moral superiority to all who helped enslave blacks. Nor could rednecks tolerate any abolitionist effort to raise black slaves to the level of white citizens. Egalitarianism, the great reason why some colorblind Yankees opposed slavery, was also the great reason why racist whites massed to keep blacks ground under.
The most superficial question about the Old South is why nonslaveholders in black belts supported slaveholders. The better question is why any nonslaveholder who lived among numerous blacks would want the despised other lower class freed. The psychological wages of being a white man were too treasured among poor whites, and the sting of abolitionists’ lordly presumption too wounding, and the fear of competing with free blacks too rife, for a turn against the slaveholders to be inviting in the black belt.
Possibilities of a yeoman resistance to slaveholders increased wherever few slaveholders or slaves or blacks resided. The section’s areas with 5 percent or less slaves, here called the white belt South, stretched past its Border South core to cover the most mountainous sections of the Middle South, including western Virginia and eastern Tennessee, and of the Lower South, including northern Georgia and northern Alabama. Here, white belt nonslaveholders lacked black belt nonslaveholders’ reasons for proslavery zealotry. Here, few rednecks knew blacks to loathe and to police. Here, few yeomen encountered slaveholders to visit and to emulate. Here, whites usually cared more about preserving the Union than about preserving slavery. Here, most citizens, like most Northerners, would have preferred to rid the nation of slavery, if they could also rid America of blacks and retain the Union of whites. And in this white belt borderland between the black belt South and the free labor North, few whites lamented that the slave drain continued to thin blacks out of their area and to thicken the institution in the most southern South, repeating the turtle-slow erosion of slavery in the most southern North between 1776 and 1830.
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Concern about pressure on the most exposed parts of the South precipitated every successful southern deployment of national leverage, always aimed at shutting down democratic agitation where yeomen and Cuffees might wish to be free of the Slave Power. In the gag rule debates, 1835–44, Southerners sought to silence congressional discussion of slavery in Washington, D.C., itself neighboring the Border South. When Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur first precipitated the Texas annexation issue, the Virginian sought to seal off English agitators from the relatively lightly enslaved (for a Lower South region) Texas Republic and thus from the U.S. slavocracy’s southwest border. When Senator James Mason of Virginia precipitated the Fugitive Slave Controversy in 1850, he sought to stop the hemorrhage of slaves from his state’s (and the South’s) northwestern extremity. When Senator David R. Atchinson of Missouri precipitated the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he sought to solidify the institution on his Border South state’s western flank.
After each proposal to fortify hinterland slaveholders against democratic agitation, some southern leaders doubted that the proposed remedy could shore up the slavocracy’s peripheral areas. Other leaders saw more hope. But always disagreement over the practicality of the proposed undemocratic consolidation gave way to fury that some Yankees called the proposal—and the proposing slavocracy—barbaric. So what always began as a Southerner’s calculated (if arguably futile) strategy to protect the hinterlands always turned into a touchy civilization’s enraged spree of self-justification.
Then few black belt Southerners dared turn away from the border’s call to the colors; the deserter would be labeled a traitor during the next election campaign. In their competition to prove that their professions of loyalty to slavery were true blue, both Southern Democrats and Southern Whigs demanded that northern party allies support border fortifications. Northern Whigs, with their party’s base in the North, always labeled such demands undemocratic blackmail. In contrast, most Northern Democrats, with their party’s base in the South, usually appeased the slaveholders.
The National Democratic Party’s proslavery laws, protecting slavery in the Union, kept restless disunionists at bay in the South. The Democracy’s proslavery laws also weakened Southern Whigs. Southern Democrats derided their partisan foes as traitors to slavery, allied with Yankee defamers who rejected national protections of slavery. After the Democracy’s midcentury proslavery laws, first Lower South Whigs, then Upper South Whigs, could no longer risk their political vulnerability. The Whigs were finished as one of the two great national parties.
The surviving National Democratic Party faced severe northern trouble. Yankee appeasers of the slavocracy had been willing to protect slavery, in order to save the Union and the party. But the minority’s demands for protection increasingly endangered majoritarian Union. Majority acquiescence in minority demands prevented white men from debating in Congress, then forced white men to return alleged fugitive slaves to slavery without the protection of jury trials, and then led to an antirepublican government in Kansas. So the South’s prime appeasers, the Northern Democrats, faced murderous political charges that they had helped white Southerners to enslave white Northerners. Thus did the issue of republicanism swerve from liberty for blacks, where Yankee abolitionists successfully awakened only so many whites to a colorblind consciousness, to liberty for whites, where no Yankee racist needed a raised conscious.
With Yankees ever more determined to save white republicanism by containing Slave Power aggressiveness, ever more Southerners looked more favorably at disunion. Here again, American republicanism lent the slaveholders extra potency and extra trouble. The Declaration of Independence’s basis—a people’s right to withdraw their consent to be governed—seemed to make secession theoretically legitimate. But another of republicanism’s foundations—that the losers must obey ballot box winners—ill supported a minority’s attempt to withdraw consent from an electoral verdict.
If Lower South states opted for disunion, especially after the slaveholders lost a national election, Middle and Border South states would have to decide between protecting the elected majority’s right to rule and protecting the departing minority’s right to withdraw consent. Their decision would be critical, for as in Congress, southern unity would be mandatory. If a third or more of the South stayed with the North, disunionists’ chances in a civil war would plummet. So whether in or out of the Union, the southern core in tropical climes remained dependent on the southern periphery in northern climes. And southern border folk continued to insist on protecting slavery only in the Union, not in a seceded southern republic.
But could slavery, particularly at the South’s exposed edges, be forever protected inside the national government? That question pressed harder after the Kansas-Nebraska Act, when many more Northern Democrats disavowed any further Slave Power demand for protection. And at this very moment when the slaveholders’ national leverage narrowed, a changing southern economy widened the slavocracy’s internal divisions, and especially augmented the split between Border and Lower Souths.