AUG 26, 2001

The Enduring Legacy of the South's Civil War Victory


THE United States is only now beginning to recover from the Confederacy's ideological victory following the Civil War. Though the South lost the battles, for more than a century it attained its goal: that the role of slavery in America's history be thoroughly diminished, even somehow removed as a cause of the war. The reconciliation of North and South required a national repudiation of Reconstruction as "a disastrous mistake"; a wide-ranging white acceptance of "Negro inferiority" and of white supremacy in the South; and a distorted view of slavery as an unfortunate but benign institution that was damaging for whites morally but helped civilize and Christianize "African savages." 

The current national debate about slavery and its role in American history is finally forcing not only a discussion of reparations, but, more important, a re- examination of the long-accepted message conveyed by respected white scholars whose textbooks on slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction were still being assigned to college students in the 1950's and even later. It was the message reinforced at countless Memorial Day celebrations, where white Union and Confederate veterans shook hands and recalled their collective heroism, while survivors of the 200,000 black Union soldiers and sailors crucial in helping win the war were not welcome. It was the message bestowed on the white veterans by Woodrow Wilson, the first Southerner elected president after the Civil War, during the huge 50th reunion at Gettysburg in 1913.

Consider that Wilson's most beloved film was the popular "The Birth of a Nation," of 1915, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and depicted freed male slaves as beasts lusting after white women; and that the later big commercial success about the South was the 1936 novel and 1939 film "Gone With the Wind," which romanticized the region as a victim of an unjust war. (Of course, the relatively few black historians had a different view.)

Partly as a result of this denial of slavery's centrality in American history, few Americans today know that black bondage had long been legal in all 13 colonies when the American Revolution began. Indeed, black slavery also flourished in 16th-century Mexico, Peru and Brazil. In the 17th century, it made possible factorylike plantations in the British, French, Danish and Dutch Caribbean the center of wealth in the Western Hemisphere, as slave-grown sugar and tobacco became the first luxury goods for an international mass market. In fact, in 1688, Governor Denonville of French Canada wrote to King Louis XIV, begging him to end the manpower shortage by authorizing shipments of African slaves. Though France granted permission, Canada could not afford the high prices of prized African slaves paid in the South. In 1716, a high Canadian official attributed the success of New York and New England to black slave labor, and insisted Canada could vie for the profitable West Indies markets if given credit to buy more slaves. 

While no New World colony began with a blueprint for becoming a slave society, the entire Western Hemisphere had become implicated by the paradox of trying to reconcile racial slavery with aspirations to escape the sins of the Old World. If some Africans abetted this by enslaving and making available millions of cheap laborers, it was Western European and then American entrepreneurs who exploited it. From the 1440's, when the Portuguese began transporting black slaves to Iberia, to the 1860's, when the illegal slave trade to Cuba finally came to an end, Africa exported an estimated 11 million slaves. 

AFTER decades of research, historians are only now beginning to grasp the complex interdependencies of a society enmeshed in slavery. There were shifting interactions among West African enslavers, sellers and European buyers; European investors in the slave trade, who ranged from small-town merchants to well-known figures like the philosophers John Locke and Voltaire; wealthy Virginian and Brazilian middlemen who purchased large numbers of Africans off the slave ships to sell to planters; New Englanders who shipped foodstuffs, timber, shoes and clothing as supplies for slaves in the South and the West Indies; and, finally, the European and American consumers of slave-produced sugar, rum, rice, cotton, tobacco, indigo (for dyes), hemp (for rope- making) and other goods.

Today, it is difficult to understand why slavery was accepted from prebiblical times in virtually every culture and not seriously challenged until the late 1700's. But the institution was so basic that genuine antislavery attitudes required a profound shift in moral perception. This meant fundamental religious and philosophic changes in views of human abilities, responsibilities and rights. By the time of the American Revolution, the isolated critiques of slavery by early Quakers and philosophers like Montesquieu had begun to win public support in Britain, France and even some bastions of slavery, like Virginia. Yet, though the American Revolution catalyzed the first antislavery movements around the world, slavery in America was a far stronger institution in 1800 than in 1770 largely because of the invention of the cotton gin.

Even most history books fail to convey the extent that the American government was dominated by slaveholders and proslavery interests between the inaugurations of Presidents Washington and Lincoln. Partly because of the clause in the Constitution that gave the South added political representation for three-fifths of its slave population, Southern slaveholding presidents governed the nation for roughly 50 of those 72 years. And four of the six Northern presidents in that span catered to Southern proslavery policies. For example, Martin Van Buren, who came from a New York slaveholding family, sought to undermine the nation's judicial process and send the captives from the slave ship Amistad back to Cuba and certain death. Millard Fillmore, also from New York, signed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which enforced return of escaped slaves even from free states.

From the start, America's foreign policy favored slaveholding interests, and administrations refused to cooperate with efforts by Britain to suppress the international slave trade, even though the United States had defined the African slave trade in 1820 as piracy, a capital crime. The one exception to this proslavery stand was the support John Adams's administration gave to Toussaint Louverture during the Haitian Revolution both to help the slaves gain freedom and to expel the French.

There were strong economic reasons for the broad national reach of American slavery. Though Northerners gradually eliminated slavery in their states, Southern slave-grown cotton was the nation's leading export. It powered textile-manufacturing revolutions in both New England and Europe, and paid for American imports of everything from steel to capital. In addition, the demand for slave labor in southwestern states like Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas drove up slave prices and land values throughout the South. In the 19th century, slave values more than tripled. By 1860, a young "prime field hand" in New Orleans would sell for the equivalent of an expensive car, say a Mercedes-Benz, today. American slaves represented more capital than any other asset in the nation, with the exception of land. In 1860, the value of Southern slaves was about three times the amount invested in manufacturing or railroads nationwide.

Not surprisingly, the richest Americans were concentrated in the South, which, in turn, attracted many Northern college graduates and ministers, who often married into prosperous Southern families. Rich Southern planters also summered in cooler locales like Boston, Newport, R.I., and Saratoga, N.Y., where marriages and other relationships between wealthy Southerners and Northerners reinforced business alliances based on cotton.

The fortunes of New England manufacturers and New York merchants increasingly depended on a northward flow of cotton, a fact that carried the deepest implications for politics as well as banking, insurance and shipping. The Southern "lords of the lash" forged ever closer ties with Northern "lords of the loom." For example, as the owners of major textile mills in Lowell and Lawrence, Mass., established cordial relations with Southern planters, it became increasingly necessary to reassure slaveholders that abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison represented a lunatic fringe, and that Northerners generally agreed that the Constitution prevented any interference with slavery. 

Such reassurances became more difficult, however, after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which was extremely unpopular in the North. Under its terms, any citizen could be drafted into a posse and any free black person seized without a jury trial. Then the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 seemed to open all the Western territories to slavery. 

Before the Mexican War and the resulting acquisition of a vast Western territory raised the possibility of an expanding slave empire, the abolitionist movement appealed to a small minority of Northern whites, who along with free black abolitionists faced violent mobs from Ohio to Rhode Island. In the 1830's, it took real courage to speak out against slavery in the North. Abolitionist speakers were shunned by "respectable society," even disowned by family members.

THOUGH these reformers faced rejection at home, they had a disproportionate influence on the South. Nat Turner's insurrection in Virginia in 1831 was blamed on abolitionist propaganda. Southerners grew convinced that slaves only became dangerous if incited by abolitionists. It was the South's extreme reaction to this fear, evident in escalating demands to nationalize slavery, that led to the creation of the North's Republican Party in the 1850's and to President-elect Lincoln's stand against any expansion of "the peculiar institution." 

The Confederacy's ideological victory, which the nation is still struggling with, would not have been possible without the North's deeply embedded racism and complicity in repudiating Reconstruction as an embarrassing failure. This was cited regularly, despite Reconstruction's many achievements in promoting black suffrage, education and civil rights. Because most of the Northern white public was unprepared to face the consequences of slave emancipation in 1865, it was easy to popularize a new history of America, in which slavery occupied a far less central role. Beginning in the 1870's, as the price of reconciliation, the North accepted the demands of Southern whites that they manage "Negroes" as they pleased an acquiescence to an era of lynching and Jim Crow.

Nonetheless, considering that slavery had been globally accepted for millennia, it is encouraging that people were able to make such a major shift in their moral view, especially when a cause like abolition conflicted with strong national economic interests. As the nation tries in this cynical age to avoid "generational chauvinism" the assumption that the current generation is morally superior to all past generations we can still learn from history the invaluable lesson that an enormously powerful and profitable evil can be overcome.

Future historians will need to explain the remarkable recent upsurge of public interest in slavery and the Civil War. Professors who confront the hundreds of new scholarly and popular books each year, to say nothing of the re-enactments of Civil War battles and slave sales, can only speculate. Certainly the growing black middle class sees little shame in the old stigma of slave origins and instead uses it as an opportunity to clarify its own identity.

In this era of relativism, an interest in the debates over slavery and America's most destructive war can reflect a discontent with the present, on the part of both blacks and whites, and a longing for an era when moral issues seemed clear cut. Like World War II, the Civil War was deemed a "good war," when people fought for what they believed in. While the slavery era may serve as a screen on which current conflicts are acted out, the nation is now freeing itself from the old Confederate-dominated paradigm, and can finally see the period from 1790 to 1865 as a deeply stained but defining era in the history of this strange nation.
David Brion Davis is the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University.

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