Growing up in both the North and the South, I was exposed to a lot subtle and not-so subtle views about the Civil War, but about the South’s side in particular. One recurring theme I picked up from adults, at an almost subconscious level, was a sort of dismissive view of the moral and ethical standards of Southern whites and reasons why the Civil War and slavery were not REALLY their fault.
The idea I absorbed was that they should all be forgiven because they did not know any better. Slavery was just part of their world. They inherited it and took it for granted for the most part.
Either that, or they were actually benevolent altruists who were taking hell-bound savages from Africa and teaching them the gospel alongside employment skills all while and feeding and clothing them and keeping them out of trouble.
To be honest, I think many of the adults I picked this up from did not really know any better themselves. My schools did a pretty lousy job of teaching anything about life in the south beyond that of the wealthy landowners. Everything possible was done to make live in the 19th century South happen in the passive voice. There were slaves and there were plantation owners but the fact that people owned slaves was incidental… “James Smith owned and operated a large cotton plantation in Mississippi… and oh yeah, he also owned some slaves. “
My schools taught me little or nothing about the scale of slavery in the South. We never learned how many slaves were needed to produce the kind of wealth enjoyed by the Southern aristocracy. The way I was taught made it easy for me to accept the narrative that slavery was on its way out and that the South was not really fighting for the right to own slaves in the Civil War.
Diving into primary sources from the mid-19th century changed all that. There is plenty of evidence that there were concerted efforts in place designed solely to bolster the slave-owning status quo. The article below penned by a judge in Mobile, Alabama provides an excellent example of the mindset held by some in the South at the time.
It proposes a way to increase support for the institution of slavery among non-slave owning whites by legislating a mandatory class division between blacks and whites by ensuring that black labor is only used for farm work (and presumably domestic work) so mechanical or trade work would be open exclusively to lower classes of white citizens.
Judge Hopkins is very clear in his proposal that creating this divide should win support for slave-ownership by giving white people in the trades a position in society firmly above that held by black workers.
An article in a late number of DeBow’s Review, from the pen of Judge Hopkins, of Mobile, directs attention to the injury which the writer thinks is likely to be inflicted on the South by the system of instructing negroes in the mechanical arts, and employing them as mechanics. He says:
If it be desirable to preserve the patriarchal system of negro slavery now existing at the South, as the very best basis of social order and of moral and domestic integrity which none may doubt, who as evoked wisdom and virtual in pursuing the question, slaveholders should allay this antagonism in their midst, by agreeing through legislative action, to confine the negro to the soil, thus to elevate and open the mechanic trades to the non-slave holding people around them.
Dignify the trades to the level with the professions, in common acceptation, and idling, loafing, lounging, fox-hunting, or in other words, general dissipation of health, energy and time, among the young men of the South would almost cease, and in their place be substituted general busy industry.
By confining the negro to the soil, the mechanic would be at once converted from an open or secret enemy of negro slavery, into its firm advocate and supporter, because he would then feel himself lifted up in the scale of social respectability, and maintained in that position by the subordinated negro, confined exclusively to menial service.
Before the law and community, all white citizens would stand strictly on a footing of equality, and be alone distinguished by courtesy and mental superiority.
The Southern Cultivator was a twice monthly journal started by J. W. Jones and W. S. Jones in Augusta, Georgia in 1843. The Southern Cultivator was considered “the Confederacy’s oldest, strongest, and intellectually most impressive agricultural journal.”
It’s byline was “Devoted to Southern Agriculture, Designed to improve the Mind, and Elevate the Characters of the Tillers of the Soil, and to Introduce a More Enlightened System of Culture.”
Duke University Libraries have scanned and made available nearly 900 pages of this publication from 1861 and 1862. During the years leading up to the Civil War the journal contained a lot of social and political news and commentary all in support of the Southern way of life – including the owning of slaves.
Wading through some of that material left me feeling like I needed a shower.