Tag Archives: secession

Research isn’t his strong suit

Richard Rapaport shows us why hard-hitting journalists make the big bucks:

At the start of the Revolution, South Carolina informed the Continental Congress that it would refuse to sign the Declaration of Independence unless slavery was recognized. South Carolina even demanded the right to disregard an embargo on trade with Great Britain agreed to by the 12 other colonies. It was an exemption that allowed South Carolina to maintain its lucrative rice trade and remain among the richest colonies throughout the Revolution, which it largely sat out, happily occupied by the British army.

Um, South Carolina didn’t exactly sit that one out, dude.  The Palmetto State possibly played host to more Rev War engagements than any of the thirteen.  By one estimate, almost one-fifth of all combat deaths in the entire war took place in South Carolina during the last two years of fighting.  “Happily occupied” is a most inappropriate description of a state riven by bloody partisan warfare for much of 1780 and 1781.

Granted, this has little bearing on his larger point, which is that South Carolina has been and continues to be a state which is off its collective rocker.  Personally, I’ve always been of the opinion that this reputation for extremism has been overstated.  The evidence Rapaport presents—a restriction of the right of manumission in the colonial period, rampant secessionism in the mid-1800′s, and so on—doesn’t really indicate a greater degree of lunacy than that found in any other state’s history.  I’m not sure how a social scientist would account for centuries of sustained kookery on such a scale.  Some heretofore unidentified Lamarckian process—an inheritance of acquired political characteristics? Something in the water?

Oh, well.  Not being a South Carolinian myself, I suppose I don’t have much at stake in the matter.  I do travel to the Palmetto State on a fairly regular basis, and wouldn’t at all mind taking up residence there, so that probably explains why the article irked me.  That, and one other thing: Rapaport’s byline describes him as a “Bay Area writer.”  Surely San Franciscans above all people should hesitate before diagnosing an entire population with psychosis?  People who live in glass houses, etc.

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Who really disrespects the architects of secession?

Is it those who try to impose tortuous and convoluted rationalizations onto their behavior, thereby implying that they were either too stupid or too deceitful to explain why they were doing what they were doing?  Or is it those who take them at their word?

I’m with Andy Hall on this one.  Let’s at least give the secessionist leaders the courtesy of acknowledging that they were intelligent enough to know what they were about.  To do otherwise is to suggest that they were liars, fools, or both.

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Secession on display in the Tar Heel State

Here’s an item I just received from the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources:

RALEIGH – For North Carolina, the Civil War officially began in the State Capitol. On May 20, 1861, delegates from across the state adopted the Ordinance of Secession in the House of Commons, officially withdrawing the state from the Union. This event followed months of tense debate between Unionists and Secessionists, slavery advocates and abolitionists.

 A new exhibit, Crisis at the Capitol: North Carolina on the Eve of War, explores what the State Capitol was like on the eve of the conflict and introduces visitors to many of the individuals working and living here in a time before secession and before the war. The exhibit opens Sept. 17 and will remain on display through May 13, 2011. Admission is free.

 The exhibit is based on documents left behind by 11 different people, each with a different perspective on the impending crisis. Visitors will learn the stories of John Copeland, a Raleigh native who participated in John Brown’s infamous raid on Harpers Ferry, Va.; Harriet Jacobs, once enslaved in Edenton, who escaped and became active in the abolition movement; and John Thomas Jones, a student at the University of North Carolina who supported secession and enlisted in the army despite of his father’s Unionist views. The viewpoints of President Abraham Lincoln, N.C. Governor John Ellis, and famed abolitionist author and Mocksville native Hinton Rowan Helper are also highlighted.

 The State Capitol’s mission is to preserve and interpret the history, architecture and functions of the 1840 building and Union Square. The State Capitol is at One Edenton Street, Raleigh, NC 27601. Visit www.nchistoricsites.org/capitol/default.htm or call (919) 733-4994 for more information.

Administered by the Division of State Historic Sites, the State Capitol is part of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, the state agency with the mission to enrich lives and communities, and the vision to harness the state’s cultural resources to build North Carolina’s social, cultural and economic future. Information is available 24/7 at http://www.ncdcr.gov/.

Looks pretty nifty!

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Did the Civil War cause itself?

A recent guest post by Douglas Harper at Old Virginia Blog challenges the notions “that the Southern Confederacy was a nation based on, and fighting for, slavery,” and that “the Civil War was ‘about’ slavery.”  The Upper South, as he notes, “was willing to stay, till it saw the course of the Lincoln Administration with regard to force, not to slavery.”  In other words, Union coercion of the Deep South is what drove the Upper South out of the Union, so slavery wasn’t the only factor.  The Upper South left after Ft. Sumter and Lincoln’s call for troops.

It seems to me that this argument is missing something.  Harper quite rightly draws our attention to the role of Lincoln’s call for troops in convincing the Upper South to secede.  He reminds us that there were different periods of secession—before the outbreak of war, and then again after.  And therein lies the problem.  When Lincoln called up volunteers to defeat the rebellion, it marked the outbreak of war.  If the war had already started, then we’re no longer talking about causes of the war.  We’re talking about the Upper South’s decision to secede, which came after the war was already a going concern.  This line of thought adds another layer to the issue of secession, but not to the causes of the war, which came about as a result of previous secession movements that had already taken place.

It’s sort of like the case of a woman who spends too much time in the tanning bed and develops skin cancer as a result.  The cancer spreads to her internal organs, and the doctor tells her, “Well, Mrs. Jones, your tanning habit has finally caused you to develop cancer inside your body.” 

She replies, “Don’t give me that nonsense.  It was the skin cancer spreading that did that.”  In the same way, explaining secession and the war by looking at the Upper South’s withdrawal seems to be an argument that secession and the war caused themselves.

The original Confederate states in the Deep South didn’t need Ft. Sumter or Lincoln’s call for volunteers to convince them to leave the Union.  They seceded on the election of Abraham Lincoln—the first president from a party made up of a coalition to stop the spread of slavery.  The issue of the Upper South’s secession still leaves this matter of the Deep South open, and therefore it doesn’t really address the causes of the actual shooting war.  We’re still left with the original Confederacy and the role of slavery in their decision to secede.

Mr. Harper offers what looks like a persuasive challenge to the role of slavery in decision-making: “And if you insist that every slave-holder, or slave-holding state, must make choices solely on the basis of interest in slavery, then I will argue that the Border State [sic] that remained in the Union did so to protect their slaves. Why else would slaveholders fight for the Union?”

But who’s arguing that every slave-holder, or slave-holding state, made every decision solely on the basis of an interest in slavery?  We’re talking about a single (but momentous) decision on the part of the original Confederate States to withdraw from the U.S., and the contention of most historians is that a desire to safeguard the institution of slavery was the primary cause. 

Mr. Harper also argues that, from a rational point of view, the Upper South’s slaves should have led these states to remain in the Union, not secede from it:

Virginia, Tennessee, even North Carolina, with a hostile anti-slavery United States on their frontier, could never hope to maintain slavery as a viable economic and social institution. Their pre-war complaints about fugitives prove they knew it. The mere presence of ‘free’ states nearby in the 1850s exerted an economic pressure that was rapidly draining slavery out of the Border States.

All excellent points, all reasonably argued.  But, as historians like Bernard Bailyn and Richard Hofstadter have demonstrated, political decisions aren’t made solely on the basis of reason.  Mr. Harper draws an analogy to the American colonies: “What moved the colonists to break the ties with the ‘mother country?’ Taxes? Tea?”  In a sense, yes.  These were the issues at hand.  And on the face of it, they seem minor.  But they’re not as minor when your prevailing political rhetoric leads you to see them as conspiracies by government officials who are bent on expanding their own power and enslaving you.  This was, in fact, what American colonists thought was happening.  The problem wasn’t the nature of the immediate issue at hand, but the colonists’ interpretation of the issue, and England’s response.

In the same way, there was more than cold, rational, political calculation at work when the Deep South seceded.  And so even while Lincoln was repeatedly assuring the Deep South that he had no intention to take away their human property, many southerners argued that Lincoln was out to do exactly that, and to implement racial equality in the bargain.  Reams of secession-era speeches, letters, essays, editorials, articles, and other material invoke these convictions.  Mr. Harper isn’t very fond of this sort of evidence, arguing that it denotes laziness in research.  It allows the historian to assemble “a hatful of quotes and you’re done. The Confederate leaders and documents supply them in abundance.”  This strikes me as a little odd.  If you can’t use contemporary sentiments to get a sense of what people were thinking, what in the world can you use?  Harper, in fact, employs a number of quotes in the post, and also cites Republicans’ “private correspondence.”

Drawing attention to the role of the war’s outbreak in convincing the Upper South to secede is a worthwhile endeavor.  But it still leaves an important question unanswered.  Why was there a Confederacy in place for the Upper South to join?

(Broadside from Armed Forces History, Division of History of Technology, National Museum of American History)

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