Gordon Rhea on Nonslaveholding Confederates

Many of us are familiar with the logic that argues that since a majority of white southerners did not own slaves, secession (and the Confederacy) must have been about something other than slavery.  After all, why would a non-slaveholder fight to preserve slavery?

Gordon Rhea offers one answer worth considering.  And, as he reminds us:

As a Southerner, a historian, and a descendant of former slave-owners, I sincerely hope that we use the opportunity of the Sesquicentennial  to open a frank and civil dialogue about what happened 150 years ago.  Our ancestors were unapologetic about why they wanted to secede; it is up to us to take them at their word and to dispassionately form our own judgments about their actions.  It is time for Southerners to squarely face this era in our history so that we can finally understand it for what it was and move on.

Georgia governor Joseph E. Brown made his own case to non-slaveholders on December 7, 1860.  You can read it here.  As he said:

I know that some contemptible demagogues have attempted to deceive them by appealing to their prejudices, and asking them what interest they have in maintaining the rights of the wealthy slaveholder. They cannot be deceived in this way. They know that the government of our State protects their lives, their families and their property; and that every dollar the wealthy slaveholder has, may be taken by the government of the State, if need be, to protect the rights and liberties of all. One man, in a large neighborhood, has a mill. Not one in fifty has a mill. What would be thought of the public speaker who would appeal to the fifty, and ask them what interest they have in defending their neighbor’s mill, if an abolition mob were trying to burn it down? Another has a store. Not one in fifty has a store. Who would say the fifty should not help the one if an invader is about to burn his store? Another has a blacksmith shop. Not one in fifty has a blacksmith shop. Shall the shop be destroyed by the common enemy and no one protect the owner because no one near, has the same peculiar kind of property? It may be that I have no horse, and you have a horse; or that I have a cow, and you have no cow. In such case, if our rights of property are assailed by a common enemy, shall we not help each other? Or I have a wife and children, and a house, and another has neither wife and children, nor house. Will he, therefore, stand by and see my house burned and my wife and children butchered, because he has none? The slaveholder has honestly invested the money, which it has cost him years of toil to make, in slaves, which are guaranteed to him by the laws of our State. The common enemy of the South seeks to take the property from him. Shall all who do not own slaves, stand by and permit it to be done? If so, they have no right to call on the slaveholder, by taxation, or otherwise, to help protect their property or their liberties. Such a doctrine is monstrous; and he who would advocate it, deserves to be rode upon the sharpest edge of one of Lincoln’s rails. The doctrine strikes at the very foundation of society, and if carried out, would destroy all property, and all protection to life, liberty and happiness.

Somehow I suspect that Thomas DiLorenzo never read this speech.

7 thoughts on “Gordon Rhea on Nonslaveholding Confederates

  1. Allen Gathman March 12, 2011 / 5:20 pm

    There is also the possibility that a large proportion of the non-slaveholders aspired someday to own slaves, and didn’t want their future chances sabotaged.

  2. Corey Meyer March 12, 2011 / 7:32 pm

    There is a big discussion going on at Facebook’s Southern Heritage Preservation Group’s site about something similar. It is interesting to see some try and discount the stats from Joseph Glatthaar’s 2008 General Lee’s Army from Triumph to Collapse book one member posted.

  3. Chuck Brown March 13, 2011 / 7:16 pm

    I recommend reading Charles Dew’s APOSTLES OF DISUNION to get a sense of what southern whites believed was at stake if the slaveholding states did not secede: racial equality, race mixing and the rape of southern white women by black “bucks,” and race war.

  4. Rational Thought July 21, 2011 / 7:11 pm

    I think the basic point is that the issue was defending property rights and unfortunately slaves were property. It becomes confusing and subject to various interpretations when viewing issues from a distance and especially when property rights included slaves. We are looking at things from a different perspective, one that no longer cherishes property rights the way our founders did. I would agree that humans should not be others property, and it is unfortunate that slavery existed; however, one should not demean or downplay the Southerners’ proper defense of the concept of property rights…..I do not recall reading about any efforts to compensate them (not that that would have necessarily changed the outcome) for their property. In considering today’s socioeconomic environment, the government’s taxation system has replaced the peculiar institution as the new slave-owner….we all work too long and pay too much to a new overseer (the government) that has intruded into our lives far too deeply and exerts far too much control over everyday life. Sadly, though the past evil has been crushed, the new one now seems past our ability to limit or control. That same evil power of today worked the same excessive power to eliminate the evil of slavery. The ends do not justify the means, we must find better ways.

  5. Ray O'Hara July 22, 2011 / 5:06 am

    What property was being threatened? no one was confiscation land nor advocating it.

    No it was slavery and hiding it in “property rights” is a dodge.

    as for your not reading anything on compensated emancipation. that merely highlights a hole in your reading.
    Compensation was an issue brought up by many and rejected by the Slave-o-crats.
    the South wasn’t looking to emancipate peacefully or gradually or in any other way.
    They were fully committed to the preservation and expansion of slavery.

    your post rather than “rational thought” is an attempt at rationalizing and whitewashing slavery by downplaying it and hiding it in a blind called “property rights”.

  6. Andrew Dodenhoff September 6, 2012 / 3:59 pm

    If I’m not wrong each of the Acts of Secession of the States of the Confedracy had statements to the effect of preserving slavery. For over one hundred years people defending the Confederacy have used sophisticated words to justify the secession for “States Rights” and “to end the abusive influence over the agricultural centered souther states by the industrial states of the north.” Lincoln himself didn’t mention slavery in his first inaugural address, but the imperative to preserve the Union. So there seems to me to be a grain of truth to both sides of the argument about what the war was fought over.

  7. PalmettoPatriot September 7, 2012 / 2:32 pm

    I don’t understand this effort by the Rainbows to downplay the role of slavery in the Old South. Do Italians downplay the role of slavery in the Roman Empire? I think we are the only people who did this and it’s unfortunate. It’s a weakness we should discard. Obviously slavery was an important part of Southern society. Slavery made the South much wealthier than the North and was the basis for the Southern social order, from which many unique aspects of our culture grew. All White Southerners had a stake in the system, even if they didn’t own slaves. Charles B Dew (a self-hating White Southerner, unfortunately) quotes Leonidas Spratt (SC secession commissioner to Florida) in his book ‘Apostles of Disunion’ on page 43:

    “Within this government two societies have become developed,” he told the Florida convention on January 7. “The one is the society of one race, the other of two races. The one is based on free labor, the other on slave labor. The one is braced together by but the two great relations in life – the relations of husband and wife, and parent and child; the other by the three relations of husband and wife, parent and child, and master and slave. The one embodies the social principle that equality is the right of man; the other, the social principle that equality is not the right of man, but the right of equals only.” Two distinct and profoundly different civilizations had thus emerged in the United States, “and the contest was inevitable,” Spratt claimed. “There is and must be an irrepressible conflict between them, and it were best to realize the truth.”

    Stephen Hale (also a secession commissioner, a signer of the CSA Constitution and a Lt Colonel in the Confederate Army) was more direct on this point that all White Southerners shared a stake in slavery as a fundamental part of the Southern social order. In his letter of 27 December 1860 to the Governor of Kentucky he wrote:

    “What Southern man, be he slaver-holder or non-slave-holder, can without indignation and horror contemplate the triumph of negro equality, and see his own sons and daughters in the not distant future associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality, and the white man stripped by the heaven-daring hand of fanaticism of that title to superiority over the black race which God himself has bestowed?”

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