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Prof. Escott notes that there were proponents of slavery in the North, among them New Yorker J. H. Van Everie, who published a book in 1861 called Negroes and Negro “Slavery”: The First an Inferior Race; The Latter its Normal Condition. Democrats circulated his work widely during the 1864 campaign. In Van Everie’s view, “the strongest affection” a slave “is capable of feeling is love for his master.” Free blacks, he argued, were unnatural and “destined to extinction.”|
Anti-black campaigning was effective. Only after Atlanta fell to Sherman’s armies in September did voter sentiment shift back towards Lincoln and to further prosecution of the war.
Prof. Escott gives us another indication of the state of northern thinking about blacks. In the months just after the war, Connecticut, Minnesota, and Wisconsin took popular votes on whether to extend the franchise to blacks. All three voted not to. This result was especially significant for Wisconsin. In 1849, the state had voted for black suffrage but the measure had not taken effect because of a technicality. By 1865, the majority had turned against giving blacks the vote. At about the same time, Colorado joined the union, voting itself a constitution that denied blacks the vote.
The Southern view
Prof. Escott notes that there was never unanimity about slavery even in the South. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Patrick Henry all worried about its consequences, and did not want it extended into the territories. In the upper South there had been active anti-slavery societies in the 1820s and 1830s, but as the sectional controversy sharpened, southerners grew intolerant and it became dangerous to criticize slavery. In private, however, even Robert E. Lee wrote in 1856 that “slavery as an institution is a moral & political evil in this country.”
The most common defense of slavery was that it was part of the divine plan. Even some northern churchmen — Alexander T. McGill of Princeton Theological Seminary, for example — took this view. Ironically, it was after secession, and after slavery had been written into the constitution of the Confederacy, that southerners felt freer to criticize slaveholders. Preachers, in particular, tried to reform the system so as to recognize slave marriage, stop the separation of families, and to consider slaves “a sacred trust” rather than mere property. There was also a strong push to ensure religious instruction for slaves.
It was not long, though, before massive slave defections to Union lines began to disabuse whites of the myth that slaves were loyal by nature. “Those we loved best, and who loved us best — as we thought — were the first to leave us,” was not an uncommon complaint.
As the war ground on and victory seemed less likely, many southerners began to consider the unthinkable: Arm the slaves. As the Jackson Mississippian wrote in 1863, “We must either employ the negroes ourselves, or the enemy will employ them against us.”
Late in the war, Jefferson Davis came around to this view. He had always been a very lenient slaveholder who believed in educating slaves and punishing them only when a jury of older, respected slaves believed it was deserved. By the end of 1864, he was quietly promoting the idea of freeing and arming slaves. At about that time he sent a delegation to France and Britain offering to abolish slavery in return for recognition, but those countries rejected his offer.
By 1864, however, Davis’s prestige was at low ebb, so he recruited the best-loved man in the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee, to be the public voice for arming blacks. Lee believed that without more manpower the South would surely lose the war and that freedmen could be loyal southerners. Lee found that support for black troops was strongest among white soldiers still in the field; they knew better than anyone how thinly they were stretched and welcomed any measure that might bring victory and justify their terrible sacrifices.
On March 13, 1865, by a slim majority, the Confederate Congress passed a law authorizing black troops but not emancipation. Davis wanted to offer emancipation as well, but in any case, the war ended before black Confederates saw action. Prof. Escott notes that most southerners thought that even if black soldiers would have to be freed, they could be kept in a state of “serfage or peonage” that would not be much different from slavery.
“Serfage or peonage” is a partial answer to the question raised by Confederate emancipation: If the South left the Union to preserve slavery, what was the point of independence if slavery had to be sacrificed to achieve it? Southerners expected to be able to control blacks — even if they had served as soldiers — and by 1864 or 1865, after years of war and hundreds of thousands of casualties, the South was determined to go its own way.
Similar questions can be raised about the South’s earlier decisions. If maintaining slavery was the main reason for secession, why were Southerners not reassured by Lincoln’s support for the Corwin Amendment and his promise that he had no desire to interfere with slavery where it already existed? Why did not Southern states reenter the Union and help ratify the Corwin Amendment? While it was still in the Union, the South had at least some northern cooperation in returning fugitive slaves. Outside the Union it would have none. Within the Union, it had some possibility of extending slavery into the territories; outside the Union it had none.
The Southern answer is that independence was always more important than slavery. The 20 years that led up to the secession crisis — 20 years of insult and interference — convinced the South that real protection would come only with independence.
Lincoln always overestimated Union sentiment in the South. If he believed that Southern states would take the bait of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and reenter the Union he was wrong. By then, his armies had invaded the South, and southerners were committed to repelling invasion, not striking deals. One could argue in retrospect that the South should have taken the bait and, later, should have accepted Lincoln’s terms at Hampton Roads. Compensated emancipation or readmission to the Union in time to block passage of the 13th Amendment would have been much better than defeat, occupation, and uncompensated emancipation. Of course, there is no guarantee a Republican Congress would have approved those terms.
In hindsight, Confederate political calculations were disastrous. At the start of the war, the South could have demanded very strong assurances in return for rejoining the Union, but it felt its destiny was outside the Union. The longer the fighting went on, the dimmer the South’s prospects became, yet it fought until it could fight no more, and got the worst possible peace — forcible reunion on terms set by Republicans.
Ultimately, however, which section — North or South — had the more sensible race policy? The Confederate constitution continued the ban on the slave trade, but an independent South would have entrenched slavery and the presence of blacks. If any territories had joined the Confederacy they would have been slave states. The North had a different policy: free the slaves and encourage them to leave the country; reserve the territories for free white labor. The subsequent history of the United States would have been vastly different if the South had made an early peace and adopted Lincoln’s plan of gradual, federally-funded emancipation and colonization.
Prof. Escott’s book does not draw this conclusion, of course, but it points the reader in that direction. It would have been far better if the country had never had to ask itself, “What shall we do with the negro?” but the North’s answer was wiser and more far-sighted than that of the South.