It was late in the day when I stopped by the university library’s book clearance, so I was able to nab a whole sack of titles for less than I paid for lunch. Among them was The Slave States by Frederick Law Olmsted, originally published in segments between 1856-1861—my copy was a 1959 edition. For two years the book has been sitting on my shelf, waiting for last week, when this neglected little book forever changed the way I look at the pre-Civil War South. The Slave States documents the observations, conservations and other experiences of Mr. Olmsted as he travelled through the south just prior to secession. If you can manage to get your hands on a copy I highly recommend it.
“History,” they say, “is told by the winners.” The more I understand about the Civil War and the events preceding it the more I come to understand this phrase. The popular narrative—the one we’re taught in schools and through television—goes something like this: America imported and enslaved negroes to work in cotton fields, where they would be worked, whipped and beaten on a regular basis. The North despised slavery, but the South was getting rich off of it, so eventually the conflict pushed us into a Civil War over whether or not to allow slavery in the United States. Thanks to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, all of the slaves in America were set free for good.
Corrections to this story have been occurring in my mind for the last several years. First, upon reading The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara’s prequel to Gods and Generals, I encountered a humble and well-respected General Lee, who had inherited several slaves and hoped that someday they’d be free. However, he sincerely felt that doing so too soon would put the negroes in much worse conditions (This, I found to be congruent with the attitudes of average southerners). White and black shared a generally friendly relationship, and most slaves depended on the food, shelter and security provided by their owners. The conversations between Lee and his slaves (and former slaves) was warm and casual, the way old friends—or even family—speak to one another. Granted, this was a novel, not a textbook, but the author took great care that his portrayal of these famous people and events would retain historical integrity. This version of the South looked quite different from what I was accustomed to.
As I studied the concept of Federalism in school and began to view the United States constitution through the eyes of the founders, I began to make sense of why millions of southerners died fighting for the Confederacy. There’s no doubt the issue of slavery was central in the debate, but the real fight was over the right to state sovereignty. Power in the Federal Government had become so concentrated in the North that Abraham Lincoln won the presidency without a single southern vote. His name didn’t even appear on the ballot in many states. Republicans, as the South saw it, were overstepping Constitutional powers by trying to interfere with state laws, and the interests of the South—including but not limited to slavery—were being ignored. The southerners merely acknowledged the differences from their northern brethren and decided it was time to go their separate ways.
It was Lincoln who decided to pursue the route of war, but not to abolish slavery—that was never his intention. Rather, he desired to keep the Union together at all costs, and to prevent slavery from extending into new territories. However, when the crisis of war presented a unique opportunity he took it and issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which only applied to slaves living in rebelling states. This strategic move proved disastrous to the southern states, but as it stood, any slave living in a state under Union control was still a slave. Further, Lincoln knew that since his proclamation was a mere executive order, it was not legally binding long-term, and that it was not constitutional for the Federal Government to outlaw slavery. Thus, he later pursued the much more democratic passage of the 13th Amendment.
Reading Olmsted’s book shed new light on the slave industry and culture. I was surprised to find that, just as there were many slaves in the North, it was not uncommon to meet a free negro in the South; that, in fact, some southern blacks were wealthy enough to operate their own plantations, and they too would own negro slaves, and that white overseers were preferred over French or black ones, because the latter two were much harsher. I learned that while there was much segregation in the North, in the South it was typical for whites to grow up with blacks in their own home, knowing and caring for them like relatives, and that beating a slave, rather than being the norm, was quite socially unacceptable in most of the South. Rather than beat his slaves, it was far more common that the slaveholder would try to treat them fairly. They would even be given time off for Christmas—something we would not generally expect from the whip-bearing slavedriver in our minds. They would typically use this time to work in another field and make some money, which they could use to purchase alcohol, as this time “off” usually involved late night partying. It was also common for a portion of the field work to be done by hired workers, most of which were white immigrants.
Now, there was definitely a general view toward blacks that they were an inferior and uncivilized race, who had been evicted from their own lands by their own people, few of which could be trusted with responsibility. Some believed that providence had placed these people into the hands of a prosperous and educated people to the betterment of the negro race—though poor whites were often regarded with less esteem. Others saw it as an inherited burden that only corrupted humanity, which they hoped would end. And yes, there were those who saw them as mere animals, to be trained, bred and traded, and who felt little remorse for disciplining the field hands in whatsoever manner as could result in the highest profit. However, this attitude was not common, but in certain pockets.
In the context of the times, slaves in the pre-war South seem to have lived relatively average lives, much like a worker in any other job, with a single exception: they didn’t have the choice. They typically had respect for their masters and lived in modest discomfort in a close family environment, but they would never enjoy the control over their own lives that other races did, and would be forever subjugated as the lesser race. Children—both white and black—would grow up learning what their proper roles were, and developing ideas about race that would limit them from questioning the status quo.
Having said all of this, I am in no way suggesting that the extreme oppression and suffering that fill our history books did not occur, only that it was far less prevalent than we are led to believe. The images and stories we are exposed to are almost entirely pulled from the most vivid and horrendous. They fit a certain narrative, but do not show the whole picture.
Slavery, wherever it has reared its head throughout history, and all over the globe, is an inexcusable evil. The idea that one man should completely control the actions of another should not be tolerated outside of the Law. I wish our early colonists would have resisted participation in the global African slave trade, or that our founders could have ended it with the Constitution. But it took 70 years for our nation to deal with that great injustice. Yet, it does not do justice to our children today if we twist the facts of history and the motives behind the most shaping events. As a result of the distortions around the Civil War and slavery, southern states have endured a broken and hateful mischaracterization in the minds of Americans. Perhaps more dangerous are the ideas which many modern Americans have developed about themselves and their history, believing that our forefathers were a brutal people, and that our social and political institutions were faulty from the start.
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, and citizen of Virginia—a southern state—argued against the slave trade in his initial draft. Most northern colonies had outlawed it by the time of the Constitution, and it was outlawed throughout the U.S. in 1808.