Race and Slavery, North and South: Some Logical Fallacies

I have suggested that one of the reasons that the issue of Civil War causation ignites such heated discussions in some quarters is because people take it personally.  At least some descendants of Confederates do not like to hear that secessionists seceded to protect slavery (regardless of what advocates of secession said); all too often you hear that since someone’s ancestors did not own slaves, the war was not about slavery (which confuses the issues of the reasons for secession and the reasons for fighting, and well as muddling the concepts of why nations fight with why people fight).

Another favorite arguing tactic is to argue that since most white northerners held racist prejudices to a greater or lesser degree, neither secession nor the war could have been about slavery.  Sometimes you hear that Ulysses S. Grant owned a slave (he did, although he freed the slave prior to the events of 1860-61) or that he owned slaves during the war (he did not) who were not freed until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment (factually wrong on several levels, but mistakenly given credence in a piece of sloppy scholarship by the editor of Julia Dent Grant’s memoirs), while Robert E. Lee hated slavery (he did not) and he freed his slaves (Lee was the executor of a will that called upon him to set several slaves freed, and he missed the five-year deadline for doing so).  Besides, whether Grant or Lee owned slaves and their connection with slavery is besides the point, because neither one of them played a prominent role in the debates over secession.  I’ll deal with some of the usual canards about Grant and Lee later, but it is frankly bizarre that some people need to distort the historical record so badly in support of the illogical argument that says that because the circumstances of Grant and Lee explain why the war came and what it was about.

And then, of course, there is Abraham Lincoln.  I’m going to address the Lincoln case separately in more detail in a future post, but the present indictment of Lincoln rests primarily on four counts: his remarks during the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate at Charleston, Illinois; his support for the proposed Corwin Amendment; his advocacy of colonization; and his August 22, 1862 letter to Horace Greeley.

Folks who pursue these arguments simply miss the point.  Of course Lincoln harbored racial prejudices.  Of course he saw his primary goal as preserving the Union.  However, one could rather easily oppose slavery as immoral while continuing to embrace the notion of black inferiority.  Moreover, white southerners saw Lincoln as antislavery and his election as a direct threat to the survival of the peculiar institution.  Are you going to tell me that they were stupid or deluded?  Is that any way for white southerners to honor their ancestors, by ridiculing their intelligence?  Indeed, Stephen Douglas’s decision to accuse Lincoln of embracing racial equality tells us that playing the race (or racism) card in the 1850s was alive and well, because Douglas believed that he would gain political traction among racist Illinois voters (who were white, after all) by associating Lincoln with the cause of black equality.  Lincoln’s response was thus also an issue of political survival.  So was his decision not to publicize his support for limited black suffrage in Louisiana in 1864.  He advanced the idea in a private letter, but waited thirteen months until he made his sentiment public … and three days after he made that sentiment public, he fell victim to an assassin’s bullet because that assassin could not bear the thought of black equality.  Lincoln knew he lived in a racist America, North and South.

Responsible scholars recognize the persistence and depth of racism among white northerners during the Civil War period.  It’s a key component in constructing the narrative of the sectional crisis, the war, and Reconstruction.  One of the reasons Lincoln hesitated in issuing a proclamation of emancipation was because he knew it would arouse opposition in the free North among Democrats.  None of that, however, has anything to do with the centrality of slavery in southern society or the reasons why secessionists advocated separation and independence: to protect slavery from the threat posed by Lincoln’s election and the long term implications of the Republican triumph in 1860.  Moreover, pointing to the existence of northern racism does not make it disappear from southern society.  Nor does it necessarily follow that because in 1861 most white northerners did not support going to war to destroy slavery (let alone to secure black equality) that white southerners did not go to war to protect a society and a way of life that was ultimately grounded upon and supported by the enslavement of several million human beings.  To deny that is to deny historical reality.

It’s time to move past the “you, too” and “I know you are, but what am I?” modes of discussion about these issues.  Indicting the North does not absolve the South, if one must insist upon viewing this debate in terms of a morality play.  To say that secession was not at heart somehow about slavery is to say that millions of Americans in 1860-61 were simply stupid and didn’t know what was going on, including those ancestors white southerners want to honor and celebrate.  I doubt they want to do that.

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36 thoughts on “Race and Slavery, North and South: Some Logical Fallacies

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  2. “stupid or deluded” No, it was just their economy had become dependent on cotton and slavery to the point they were in fear of the anti-slavery platform. Keep in mind most planters had grown up around slavery and so did their fathers , grandfathers ect ect. It had become multi-generational and an institution that had been around dating back to the 1500’s in the Americas. So they were use to it and they didn’t have the same view of slavery as someone that had never been exposed to it on the level they had been. My position still is, the Fire Eaters were to ones that tipped the secession scales in the direction of secession.

      • I would say it was more the way things were. A prime example of a single market economy. Cotton to the south is like the coal and mining industry is to West Virginia or oil is to several middle eastern countries. It seemed to be a prevailing thought that for cotton to be profitable slavery had to exist. And I’m sure if you or I had been raised in the south during the 19th century and were planters we both would have not wanted to see slavery’s end in 1860.

      • Yes, one can see how a planter might hold on to slavery for all sorts of reasons. But most white southerners (even other slaveholders) were not planters. Now, I think slavery played into their concerns, one way or another, and without those particular concerns you don’t have anything that would have moved people to support secession, let alone war.

  3. “Besides, whether Grant or Lee owned slaves and their connection with slavery is besides the point, because neither one of them played a prominent role in the debates over secession.”

    Excellent point Brooks.

  4. “To say that secession was not at heart somehow about slavery is to say that millions of Americans in 1860-61 were simply stupid and didn’t know what was going on.”

    I think what causes much of the debate is the “somehow”. When one says that the war was about slavery, the common connotation is that it was simply to preserve or destroy it, a simple moral high ground and low ground. But the issue is more about why slavery was so important to the South. Did Southerners simply abhor blacks? Or did they want the economic advantages of slave labor? Maybe they just wanted to preserve the aristocratic society and slavery was necessary to that. Or do you think that they simply feared for their lives when considering that millions of people who had been treated so poorly would suddenly freely walk in their midst while possibly harboring vengeful attitudes? I would say that secession was indeed “about” slavery more than any other issue, or perhaps the best way to say it is that the other sectional grievances, even combined, would not have caused secession by themselves; but I think we really need start being more particular when we discuss slavery as the cause of the war. In my opinion, the oversimplification about it has led to the current arguments over whose great-grandfather did or thought what; knowing that the public presentation and teaching of secession is rarely anything more than that it was about the protection of slavery, it is easy to understand why descendants of Confederates feel it necessary to indict to the North, as they are not accustomed to the opportunity to defend themselves on the depths of what slavery really meant and what Southerners were actually fearing from the abolitionists. I think it imperative for those who defend their Southern ancestors to start doing so in this much more logical way instead of taking shots at the North of the time, although some of the shots are correct, and I think it just as imperative for those who defend their Union ancestors to understand the truth in the complexity of the slavery issue instead of dismissing the South of the time as in the wrong because they were racists, although it obvious that slavery in itself is not defensible. Part of the reason so many people study this era is because it is so complex, and that the passions of the participants were so high yet not easily put into boxes; it is a human story that draws us in because of all the twists and turns, and not because it is in any way easy to fully understand.

    • I don’t think we need to attack or defend anyone. After all, the idea here is to understand the past, and in my mind these exercises in sectional baiting simply get in the way of that. The term “slavery” covers so many concerns for whites — an economic system, a basis of social order, a means of race control, a fear about the consequences of emancipation — and so many of those “other” sectional grievances can be traced back, one way or another, to slavery and the plantation economy (thus the tariff) that we must look at how white southerners viewed the system, agree that there were many different perspectives present, and that the connection between slavery and secession is complex. This is best done, in my opinion, by taking the white southerners of the time seriously on their own merits and through their own words as expressed at the time; it fails utterly when the discussion devolves into a finger-pointing exercise that tells us far more about ourselves and how we want/need to remember history than anything else.

  5. You say: “The term ‘slavery’ covers so many concerns for whites — an economic system, a basis of social order, a means of race control, a fear about the consequences of emancipation — and so many of those “other” sectional grievances can be traced back, one way or another, to slavery and the plantation economy”

    I agree, and I agree in your solution to understand the different perspectives. However, my point is that the prevailing discourse is very surface-level, and we must remember this when analyzing the same. Most Americans are not searching the blogs, reading the history books, engaging in scholarly research, etc, etc, and to them, like it was to me growing up in the Land of Lincoln until I chose to read on my own, “the war was about slavery” is a very cut-and-dry concept. With that in mind, it’s natural for Confederate defenders to attack the Unionists of the time rather than defend their own first, because they want their arguments heard and they, not stupid themselves, fully understand the national frame of the debate. Counter-attacking by saying they’re calling their own ancestors stupid, rather than discussing the complexity of the issue, is not going to accomplish anything. If only we could inspire those who work within that national debate frame to “[take] the white southerners of the time seriously on their own merits and through their own words as expressed at the time,” and to do the exact same for all the parties involved at the time.

    • Unfortunately, when people claim that it was not about slavery, they challenge what was said at the time. So, if the folks at the time say it was about slavery, and people today say that it was not, they are the ones commenting on the intelligence of that generation. Maybe they should be brought to understand that. History is not therapy for those who don’t want to look the past square in the face.

  6. All of this excellent, but this deserves a comment:

    Are you going to tell me that they were stupid or deluded? Is that any way for white southerners to honor their ancestors, by ridiculing their intelligence?

    That seems to be exactly the assumption, though it’s not usually articulated that way. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read that Lincoln “tricked” or “forced” the South into various affirmative acts leading to armed conflict (secession, firing on Sumter, and so on). Such an assertion may be comforting to the speaker in removing from the South the moral responsibility for all that followed, but it hardly speaks well for intelligence or agency of Southern leaders in 1860-61. Do they really believe they were that stupid and/or helpless? Really?

    • Some people do not find my bluntness on this point attractive. Maybe if I slipped it in by the side door … :)
      I happen to think secessionists were rational people who operated under a certain set of assumptions. I also find them equally blunt in expressing them at the time.

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  8. Since facts and logic are not on their side, they must make a choice–show intellectual integrity or take things out of context, fabricate, and eschew logic. As we see all too often, it’s usually too tough for them to show intellectual integrity.

  9. We’re getting too narrowly focused again. It is almost impossible to characterize anything as complicated as the CW in one word but if we must, the closest one might be “power”. With the colonies, lawmakers were almost evenly devided between the two sections of the counrty. The opening of the West blew that out of the water. Now only one side could be self-serving ( and was, quite frankly) to the absolute terror of the other. Hence all the rhetoric and excuses for war. Grant made a great point when he stated the cause of the CW was the ( he thought, unfair) Mexican War which gave us so much new territory- and that countries, like individuals, have to pay for their sins. We did.

    • Could you detail for me the “power” issues at stake that were in no way related to slavery? Would those issues have led to secession and a sectional civil war? If there’s one thing that’s remarkable about the political system of the United States during the period 1789-1860, it is its ability to reach some sort of settlement on any issue but slavery. And which side was “self-serving” to the “absolute terror” of the other? After all, northerners complained about a “slave power conspiracy,” and southerners enjoyed disproportionate political power through the 1850s.

  10. In response to this post, one reader (who apparently is allergic to contributing to the comments space) offers the following:

    [this is me, being quoted]: “all too often you hear… the war was not about slavery (which confuses the issues of the reasons for secession and the reasons for fighting)”

    [to which the critic responds]

    The only point in common; connecting point; fulcrum; between these three 1. slavery 2. secession 3. war is SECESSION. Without secession, there would have been no war. Secession is the ISSUE; the cause of war. War is the MANIFESTATION. The south’s reasons, the north’s reasons, apart from SECESSION, existed as parallel but equally-weighted, equally self-interested regional concerns: pro-Slavery/free-soil anti-slavery; both secondary issues in common. If the Confederates hadn’t seceded who knows how long the slavery would have gone on, but it would have, and comparatively that’s not much of a cause.

    Let’s treat this as an exercise in reading comprehension.

    First, what did I say? Let’s produce the passage as a complete sentence.

    “At least some descendants of Confederates do not like to hear that secessionists seceded to protect slavery (regardless of what advocates of secession said); all too often you hear that since someone’s ancestors did not own slaves, the war was not about slavery (which confuses the issues of the reasons for secession and the reasons for fighting, and well as muddling the concepts of why nations fight with why people fight).”

    It’s useful to see that right off the bat, the critic offers her own version of what I said in order to respond. Reread what I actually said, and the critic’s confusion becomes evident.

    But let’s review the logic of her response. In her mind, secession caused the war. How so? After all, if Buchanan and Lincoln decided to let the seceded states go, would there have been a war? Had Jefferson Davis not authorized the firing upon Fort Sumter (which was not his only aggressive response, as one sees when one looks at events at Fort Pickens), would there have been a war? Who knows? But the mere fact of the secession of seven southern states does not in itself guarantee the outbreak of war.

    Moreover, states seceded, then formed the Confederacy. By definition “Confederates” didn’t secede, because the initial wave of secession came prior to the existence of the Confederacy., and secession was an act undertaken by states, not individuals.

    Now, why did white southerners support secession? Well, as they explained, it was to protect slavery. I have no idea what the critic means when she said that “comparatively that’s not much of a cause.” Protecting slavery was the primary cause of secession: the decision to resist secession (Lincoln) and to defend it (Davis) together led to war. But to separate secession and the subsequent decisions to resist/sustain it by force if necessary seems to me to be odd, akin to saying that when it comes to indicting someone for murder, one indicts the weapon, not the person who wields it, and never inquires into the motives for why the person resorted to using the weapon. But I’m sure that observation is ripe for distortion, too.

    I suspect that the real problem here is that in her rush to raise an objection, the critic did not actually read this post (or other posts) very carefully.

  11. This is very helpful. The worst tragedy, to me, is that after all that horrific bloodshed of the CW, which ultimately could not end but with the end to slavery, particularly given the extraordinary contributions of black soldiers to the Union cause, the North ceded power to the Southern elite again after the war. Reinstating their property despite their status as traitors (if John Brown had been similarly treated for taking over a military garrison before the war, how would Democrats North and South have howled?), we let these elites and local bullies gradually re-institute slavery in the form of forced labor camps–particularly in the prison mines of Alabama but also on all the cotton plantations and turpentine farms as well as in the quarries and other industries. These were concentration camps for black men (mostly), places of such unspeakable cruelty, disease, death, and dank poverty, and most of the “prisoners” had committed absolutely no crime, except that of being black and deliberately kept impoverished. If you haven’t read Wall Street Journal reporter David Blackmon’s book Slavery By Another Name, you should.

    And Northern companies like US Steel profited massively from that slavery and used it to break up unionization efforts of free miners–particularly efforts to form unions with black and white workers. And every time people in the North lynched another black man, Southern newspapers would gleefully report it, as further cover to continue the genocidal campaign against black people their elites were actively engaged in, and which multitudes of average whites, South and North, both benefited from (in the short term) and were harmed by.

    This later history is what makes me all the more outraged when so much effort is made to deny the centrality of slavery to the Confederate cause, and the way my own Northern education swallowed the Southron revision of history, hook line and sinker–it was basically Gone With The Wind in my US history class in Iowa in the ’80s. Shameful.

    • lori,

      FWIW, aroung 1972 my middle-school history class in Bettendorf, Iowa, was all about states-rights and different economic systems, with slavery as all but a footnote. Even then it struck me as odd to claim that the cause was the “different” economic systems without acknowledging that the single biggest difference was that one required slavery and the other did not.

      Best,
      Jim Bales

  12. Prof. Simpson,
    First, let me extend my thanks to you for your biography of Grant (I’ve progressed as far as the Fall of 1862 so far).

    Second, let me extend my thanks to you for this blog, and your earlier contributions to blogs and the old soc.history.war.us-civil-war newsgroup.

    Finally, it’s hard to consider Lincoln’s letter to Greely as being a clear window into Lincoln’s beliefs when (viewed in historical context), it is a rather clear attempt to prepare the public for the emancipation proclamation Lincoln had already decided upon. (Today we would say Lincoln was framing the issue to his advantage.)

    Best,
    Jim Bales

  13. Pingback: Ulysses S. Grant and William Jones | Yesterday…and Today

  14. Long before our civil war most western countries had already outlawed slavery. America itself outlawed the importation of new slaves in 1807. Even Mexico had outlawed slavery. Internationally slavery was generally understood to be an abomination. In this context it is clear that the continuation of any form of state sponsored slavery anywhere in the world was under scrutiny and disdained.

    Yet in the south of America the economy had maximized the integrated application of slave labor and sought not only its continued acceptance but its expansion into newly acquired western states. In an international context this view on slavery was a clear exception. If it had continued, in due time, American slavery would have presented serious issues between countries.

    Is there agreement that even without the civil war that American slavery would have ended? Can we see the civil war as just the worst manner to have approached this conundrum? Did the brutality of the civil war hamstring the best end of American slavery resulting eventually in our current era of disenfranchised blacks?

    • There is no agreement on that score. Surely white southerners in 1860 would have disagreed with you … so if anyone is to be indicted for waging an unnecessary war given your stipulations, it would be white southerners.

  15. The fallacy that needs attention most is the fatuous idea, so pertinaciously asserted by Union apologists, that white northerners were selfless and altruistic warriors who went to war to liberate the African-American agricultural laborers in the South. This unfounded fantasy ignores the fact that the virulent and deadly brand of racism practiced by white northerners reduced its own population of African-Americans to wandering vagabonds and pitiful impoverished beggars. It also quite conveniently ignores the fact the northern whites were major consumers of the cotton, sugar and tobacco produced by the southern “slaves”, thus creating a firm economic partnership between white northerners and southern “slaves”. Once this fallacy is dismissed for the worthless propaganda it is, a more meaningful dialogue can be had.

    • Actually, the fallacy that is easy to address is the fatuous idea that Union “apologists” offer the explanation of the Civil War that you posit. This assertion is always offered without supporting evidence. I wonder why that is.

  16. “This assertion is always offered without supporting evidence. I wonder why that is.”

    We are in agreement then, that the northern whites could not have cared less about slaves and slavery?

  17. “Your views are, to be kind, simplistic.”

    I think the same of yours. And I am still waiting for evidence that northern whites were not major consumers of slave produce.

    • As you don’t know what my views are (in part because you seem to be unable to read the very post to which your comments are attached), you have no basis for your assumptions. I don’t think anyone cares what you think about things you don’t know about in the first place.

      You’ve advanced assertions without any supporting claims. The burden of proof rests on you. As you don’t seem to understand that, it’s a waste of time to continue these exchanges.

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