Southern Nationalism

Exploring the roots of the Civil War


When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession, by Charles Adams, New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 255 pages, $24.95

The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina, by Manisha Sinha, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 362 pages, $19.95

Apart from the American Revolution itself, the Civil War is the event that has most defined the United States. More than 130 years later, we still argue over its causes, effects, and meaning. Some argue that the main, though not only, cause of the war was slavery. Others insist that the war was provoked by an overreaching federal government that refused to recognize the Southern states' rights.

This debate isn't merely historical. As could be gleaned from the flaps surrounding statements by Attorney General John Ashcroft and Interior Secretary Gale Norton during their confirmation periods, issues stemming from the Civil War go to the heart of many current political debates: What is the proper role of the federal government? Is a strong national government the best guarantor of rights against local despots? Or do state governments stand as a bulwark against federal tyranny? And just what rights are these governments to protect? Those of the individual or those of society? Such matters are far from settled.

So why was the Civil War fought? That seems a simple enough question to answer: Just look at what those fighting the war had to say. If we do that, the lines are clear. Southern leaders said they were fighting to preserve slavery. Abraham Lincoln said the North fought to preserve the Union, and later, to end slavery.

Some can't accept such simple answers. Among them is Charles Adams. Given Adams' other books, which include For Good and Evil: The Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization and Those Dirty Rotten Taxes: The Tax Revolts that Built America, it isn't surprising that he sees the Civil War as a fight about taxes, specifically tariffs.

In When in the Course of Human Events, he argues that the war had nothing to do with slavery or union. Rather, it was entirely about tariffs, which the South hated. The tariff not only drove up the price of the manufactured goods that agrarian Southerners bought, it invited other countries to enact their own levies on Southern cotton. In this telling, Lincoln, and the North, wanted more than anything to raise tariffs, both to support a public works agenda and to protect Northern goods from competition with imports.

Openly partisan to the South, Adams believes that the Civil War truly was one of Northern aggression. He believes that the Southern states had the right to secede and he believes that the war's true legacy is the centralization of power in Washington and the deification of the "tyrant" Abraham Lincoln. To this end, he collects all the damaging evidence he can find against Lincoln and the North. And he omits things that might tarnish his image of the South as a small-government wonderland.

Thus, we hear of Lincoln's use of federal troops to make sure that Maryland didn't secede. We don't learn that Confederate troops occupied eastern Tennessee to keep it from splitting from the rest of the state. Adams tells us of Union Gen. William Sherman's actions against civilians, which he persuasively argues were war crimes. But he doesn't tell us of Confederate troops capturing free blacks in Pennsylvania and sending them south to slavery. Nor does he mention the Confederate policy of killing captured black Union soldiers. He tells us that Lincoln suspended habeas corpus; he doesn't mention that the Confederacy did also.

Adams argues that Lincoln's call to maintain the Union was at root a call to keep tariff revenues coming in from Southern ports. Lincoln, he notes, had vowed repeatedly during the 1860 presidential campaign that he would act to limit the spread of slavery to the West, but he would not move to end it in the South. Lincoln was firmly committed to an economic program of internal improvements—building infrastructure, in modern terms—that would be paid for through higher tariffs. When the first Southern states seceded just after Lincoln's election, Adams argues, it was to escape these higher taxes. Indeed, even before Lincoln took office, Congress—minus representatives from rebel Southern states—raised tariffs to an average of almost 47 percent, more than doubling the levy on most goods.

Lincoln was determined to collect the tariff on goods flowing into Southern ports, even if locals dragged their heels on collections. That's why the conflict began at South Carolina's Fort Sumter. If the Union kept Sumter, it could control shipping into the key port of Charleston.

Regardless of Northern motives, however, Adams never offers a convincing argument for why the first Southern states left the Union. After all, tariffs were still moderate when they left. And if they'd stayed, their representatives in Congress likely could have blocked the higher tariffs. More to the point, what about slavery? Before and during the war, almost every Southern political leader explicitly said the Southern states seceded to protect slavery.

Perhaps the most famous statement came from Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens. In 1861, in Savannah, Georgia, Stephens bluntly declared that slavery was "the immediate cause of the late rupture and the present revolution." He said the United States had been founded on the false belief that all men are created equal. The Confederacy, in contrast, had been "founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural moral condition."

Well, Adams says in effect, Stephens was lying. Southern leaders knew that people couldn't be roused to fight over something so unappealing as tariffs. So they whipped up a fear that slavery was at stake. "Men will not willingly, and with zeal, die for an economic purpose, but they will die for some 'cause' that has a noble purpose," writes Adams, neglecting to lay out precisely why slavery was so noble. Indeed, Adams' thesis is a completely unsatisfying one. Even if true, he can't answer an important question: Given that most Southerners didn't own slaves, why was this a more attractive issue for raising fighting passions than tariffs? Why would so many die with "zeal" for a "noble" purpose from which they were excluded? After all, less than one third of Southerners owned slaves.

Manisha Sinha, a historian at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, shows how slavery did in fact became the rallying cry for the South. In The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina, Sinha traces the growth of Southern "nationalism"—that is, a sense of the South as a distinct region with a common culture and set of political priorities that were in conflict with the rest of the U.S.—in the decades leading up to the Civil War. At the heart of that nationalism was slavery. Earlier Southerners such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington had seen slavery as an evil, albeit one they could not or would not abolish. Their descendants, Sinha writes, articulated defenses of "slavery as a benevolent and harmonious system that allayed the conflict between capital and labor, as a guarantor of social and political stability, as the engine of economic prosperity, as a result of the allegedly natural racial differences, and as a divinely sanctioned institution."

This "Southern thought" was antagonistic to classical liberalism, capitalism, industrialism, and democracy. Indeed, it saw itself in opposition to the very ideals of the American Revolution. Hence, Southern apologist George Fitzhugh said the "Southern Revolution of 1861" was a "solemn protest against the doctrines of natural liberty, human equality and the social contracts as taught by Locke and the American sages of 1776, and an equally solemn protest against the doctrines of Adam Smith, Franklin, Say and Tom Paine and the rest of the infidel, political economists, who maintain that the world is too much governed." Fitzhugh was hardly alone: Journalists, ministers, politicians, and academics from across the South contributed to this body of thought.

Southern thinkers savaged the Declaration of Independence. All men are not created equal, they said. And natural rights were just a myth. "Nothing can be more unfounded and false," said John C. Calhoun. Southern nationalists didn't just believe that blacks were unequal to whites. Many Southern ideologues argued for a hierarchical polity—with the big plantation owners at the top, slaves at the bottom and other whites in between. Society is superior to the individual, they said. Sinha doesn't say much about how Southerners who weren't at the top of the ladder felt about the system. But clearly, they jealously guarded their rank and privileges against those below them, even if they chafed at the dominance of those above .

As its subtitle suggests, The Counterrevolution of Slavery shows how and why South Carolinians took the lead in creating this Southern identity based on slavery. South Carolina differed from many other slave states in two key ways: The majority of its white citizens owned slaves, and by the 1820s, slaves outnumbered whites. Sinha notes that no one, North or South, was surprised that South Carolina was the first to secede. "No human being ever was, now is, or ever will be born free," said South Carolinian Thomas Cooper. Individuals, he argued, only have such rights and liberties as society wishes to give them. And in a healthy society, true liberty will be restricted to a relative few.

Some Southern ideologues wanted to establish a hereditary aristocracy. And antebellum South Carolina came closest to that ideal. By the time of the war, most white men could vote, but most political offices had large property requirements. Indeed, slave ownership was a prerequisite for holding some offices. And many key offices, such as governor, were not elected at all, but appointed by the legislature. In fact, political power in the state was highly centralized in the legislature, and political districts were drawn to maximize the power of the big plantation owners. Sinha quotes one observer who noted in 1861 the irony that those who claimed to want to limit the centralization of power in Washington "have been at the same time strongly inclined toward centralization and consolidation of power within their respective States."

To be sure, Southern ideologues sometimes disagreed among themselves, but these differences were rarely large. For instance, many wanted to reopen the Atlantic slave trade. Others opposed this move, but not on moral grounds. Those who opposed reopening the trade feared that a flood of new slaves would reduce the value of their own property. Opponents also argued that bringing in large numbers of Africans not conditioned to slavery could provoke slave rebellions or even provoke a war with Great Britain, which had ended its slave trade in 1807. (When the Confederacy was formed, it did refuse to reopen the slave trade for that latter reason. That wasn't enough to bring an alliance between the two nations, though the British remained on better terms with the South than with the North.)

Most intriguingly, Sinha convincingly argues that Southern "states' rights" ideology was formed with the express purpose of defending slavery. Indeed, antebellum Southerners were quick to use national power, at the expense of states' rights, to defend slavery. From 1789 to 1860, the South dominated the national government, and the "Slave Power," as critics called it, readily used the federal government to protect and advance its interests.

The most obvious example of those efforts was the Fugitive Slave Act. Historian James McPherson calls that 1850 law the strongest manifestation of national power to that point in U.S. history. It extended the long arm of the federal government into Northern states—through marshals and the army—to recover alleged escaped slaves for their owners. The national government advanced slave interests in other ways, too. The Slave Power was among the most hawkish elements of the national government, and every war that America fought between the Revolution and the Civil War was waged, at least in part, to expand slave territory or to deprive escaped slaves of places to flee.

Sinha shows that even as Southerners came to see slavery as a moral good, they felt increasingly embattled and fearful. And with good reason: European nations had abolished slavery and British ships prowled the seas enforcing a ban on the slave trade. In the North, the abolitionist movement was growing in popularity and power. The successful slave revolt in Haiti in 1791, the attempted slave uprising led by Nat Turner (1831), and John Brown's raid (1859) reminded them just how tenuous their hold on power could be.

Charles Adams says that Southern fears that Lincoln's election foreshadowed the end of slavery were "irrational" because tariffs and slavery were separate issues. After all, Lincoln vowed not to move against slavery in the South, and many Northerners didn't wish to press the issue. But Sinha shows how slavery and the tariff were closely intertwined in the minds of most Southerners. Southerners saw high tariffs as a Northern plot against Southern agriculture and therefore against slavery. Southern fears, she argues, may have been exaggerated, but they were far from irrational.

Secession, then, was an attempt by the slave-owning class to preserve its regional hegemony. At the very least, Lincoln's election meant the Slave Power could no longer use the national government to advance its interests. Further, having a president who firmly stated that slavery was immoral would embolden Northern abolitionists. If the South remained in the U.S., Northerners might feel more free to defy the Fugitive Slave Act, despite Lincoln's vow to enforce it. And more John Browns might come South to provoke slave uprisings.

Further, a thriving Republican Party might attract non-slaveholding Southerners—who were coming to resent the power wielded by slave owners, if not slavery itself. Slave owners thought they could keep the Republicans from playing on those conflicts by leaving the Union. In fact, those tensions exploded during the Civil War.

In western Virginia, the mostly non-slaveholding population had long resented a political system that favored slave owners. When Virginia seceded, the western counties refused to join, eventually forming the state of West Virginia. And in western North Carolina, east Tennessee, and parts of north Georgia, initial enthusiasm for secession quickly soured. These were areas in which few slaves were owned, and they became dangerous places for Confederate forces and their sympathizers to tread. Union sympathizers waged guerrilla war there, fighting a civil war within the Civil War.

"Slave society," Sinha writes, "could not withstand even a mildly antislavery president, who could effectively challenge the regional mastery of southern planters and slaveholders without ever abolishing slavery." The actions the slave-holding class took to defend its privilege ended up hastening its demise.