Slaveholding and Secession

In some corners there continues to be a debate over how to assess the influence of slavery upon white southerners. There are people who cite the percentage of slaveholders among all white southerners; those who argue that we should look instead to slaveholding families (only one person may own a house, but the entire family benefits from it, and many in the house hope to own houses of their own in the future). In either case, one sees that the lower South (also known as the Deep South) was far more invested in slavery (and slaves formed a higher percentage of their entire population) than the upper South.

Not all slaveholders supported secession, of course, although in many cases they explained their opposition to secession in terms of their concern about what a possible war might do to slavery. That’s a sign that concerns about slavery were critical in southern politics while reminding us that the relation between slavery and secession might be a little more complex than some would like to believe. We also know that the political leadership of the South was far more invested in slavery than the public at large, although that should come as no surprise. What might be interesting to explore is how many voters (adult white makes) were slaveholders (this recognizes that children and most women were not slaveholders, period). In short, what was the impact of slavery at the ballot box? To what extent were the politics of the South the politics of slavery, as several historians have suggested? After all, both Whigs and Democrats campaigned on the grounds that their party would do a better job of protecting slavery than their opponents. What motivated voters to vote as they did? What role did slavery play in their allegiances? What percentage of voters were slaveholders?

(Note: we talk a great deal about political allegiance and the Union rank and file as well as the officer corps … wonder why we don’t explore the political allegiances of Confederate soldiers and officers with the same intensity.)

Of course, these questions offer at best a point of departure. One could ask many more. For example, someone might not own a single slave, yet their economic activity or political prospects may have been closely aligned with the fortunes of the peculiar institution. Moreover, how many white southern voters opposed slavery and hoped for its eradication? How many would meet the criteria used to define an abolitionist? Precious few, I’d wager. But it would be interesting to learn more about how many southern voters were vested in slavery as management and how views on slavery, secession,and union were recast (if at all) by the onset of war.