The Civil War: Southern and Northern World Views
Surgeons of the 3rd Division before hospital tent in Petersburg, Va., Aug. 1864. / Library of Congress
Lecture by Dr. David Blight / 01.22.2008
Professor of American History
Director, Gilder Lehrman Center
A Southern World View: The Old South and Proslavery Ideology
Photo of Alexander H. Stephens, by Julian Vannerson, 1859 / Library of Congress
In a speech before the Virginia Secession Convention, in 1861, in late April, in the wake of the firing on Fort Sumter, the newly elected — sort of appointed — Vice-President of the Confederacy, Alexander H. Stephens, gave a speech that became quickly known to history as his “Cornerstone Speech.” This is Spring, 1861. Alexander H. Stephens, a Georgian, a slaveholder, an old friend and colleague of Abraham Lincoln’s, ironically, said the cornerstone of the Confederacy, the cornerstone of their political movement, was what he called “American Negro slavery.” It was the cornerstone on which they had founded their revolution. The quote goes on: “As a race, the African is inferior to the white man. Subordination to the white man is his normal condition. He is not his equal by nature and cannot be made so by human laws or human institutions. Our system, therefore, so far as regards this inferior race, rests upon this great immutable law of nature.” You always have to get worried in history when people start talking about how human beings or human behavior is rooted in nature.
But how do we get to 1861 and that secession crisis with Alexander H. Stephens delivering this Cornerstone Speech, declaring that, “Hey folks, it’s all about slavery and its preservation?” How did we get there? Today I want to talk about, we’re going to dwell on, ultimately, the Southern defense of slavery — the arguments over time that they developed, layer upon layer, drawing upon earlier arguments and building them into new ones — sometimes quite original — toward ultimately a virtually utopian defense of slavery as a perfecting, perfectible, if not perfected system.
Now, I want to say one other quick thing before we get to the substance. A thousand times in a thousand ways anybody who studies the American Civil War period is inevitably asked, “so what caused this war?” It’s, of course, the question of the first third of this course. So what caused it? Yesterday, on M.L. King Day, I had the privilege of being on at least four radio programs about this new book I have out called A Slave No More, some of them quite terrific. Minnesota Public Radio does a fabulous hour-long program. But one of them was on a Nashville, Tennessee radio station, on a program at 5:30 p.m. called “Drive Time.” And the host was Harry or Pete or whoever he was — I’ve been on too many of these. The first question was, “So Professor, what was the Civil War about?” Now do that in a sound byte on a national radio station when you got two minutes to answer. “Well Pete, you see, there was this free labor system and this slave labor system,” blah-blah blah-blah. I tried to sound byte this and I ended up saying something silly like, “You know Pete, I’m teaching a whole course on this.” And I finally just ended that particular little exchange before he went on to rant at me about all that’s wrong with American education by saying, “Pete, it was slavery.” [laughs]
In Alexis de Tocqueville’s great Democracy in America, which he published in 1831, or published in 1837, after his famous nine-month tour of the United States [in 1831] — the most famous book, travel book, ever written about America, by a foreigner. In Democracy in America there’s that famous passage, or passages, when Tocqueville crosses the Ohio River, from Ohio into Kentucky, from free soil into slave soil, free state into a slave state. Tocqueville, you may know, didn’t spend a great deal of time in the South though he traveled all across the South. He spent at least two-thirds of his — more than, about three-quarters of his time — in the northern states. But when he crossed into Kentucky, he wrote this letter to his father. “For the first time” — this was, of course, the French aristocrat de Tocqueville — “For the first time we have had the chance to examine the effect that slavery produces on a society. On the right bank of the Ohio everything is activity, industry, labor is honored, there are no slaves. Pass to the left bank and the scene changes so suddenly that you think yourself on the other side of the world. The enterprising spirit seems gone. There work is not only painful, it’s shameful, and you degrade yourself in submitting yourself to it. To ride, to hunt, to smoke like a Turk in the sunshine, there’s the destiny of the white man. To do any other kind of manual labor is to act like a slave.”
Now, Tocqueville was of course responding from his own kind of French aristocratic heart, to some extent. He was drawn in a bit to certain kinds of Southern charm. “The whites,” he said, “of the South, form a veritable aristocracy which combines many prejudices with high sentiments and instincts.” He probably over-judged the scale of that aristocracy. “They say, and I am much inclined to believe,” said Tocqueville, “that in the matter of honor these men practice delicacies and refinements unknown in the North. They are frank, hospitable and put many things before money.” Well, they’d have loved that. When we start hearing from our pro-slavery advocates and writers — they would’ve loved that. Because one of the critiques that slavery allowed pro-slavery writers, ultimately, to make, was a critique of a certain kind of capitalism, the greedy, grinding, aggressive, malicious kind of capitalism they believed the North embodied. But charm alone didn’t seem to make a great society, according to Tocqueville. “You see few churches and no schools here in the south,” he observed. “Society, like the individual, seems to provide nothing.” The South would end, he said, by being dominated by the North. “Every day the latter grows more wealthy and densely populated while the South is stationary and growing poor.” Not entirely accurate about that either, from what we now know about the profitability of slavery and the profitability of the cotton crop. But he ends that famous section with this passage. It is kind of haunting when you think it’s only 1831 when he writes this, and that Civil War is still 30 years away: “Slavery brutalizes the black population and debilitates the white. Man is not made for servitude.”
The American South as Slave Society – From the Foreign Slave Trade to the Slave Jail
The United States in 1819 (the light orange and light green areas were not then part of the United States). The Missouri Compromise prohibited slavery in the unorganized territory of the Great Plains (upper dark green) and permitted it in Missouri (yellow) and the Arkansas Territory (lower blue area). / Wikimedia Commons (Click Image to Enlarge)
Now, in the South what developed — and let’s define it at least quickly — what developed was one of the world’s handful of true slave societies. What is a slave society? What do we mean when we use that phrase ‘slave society’? Essentially, it means any society where slave labor — where the definition of labor, where the definition of the relationship between ownership and labor — is defined by slavery. By a cradle to grave — and some would’ve even said a cradle to grave and beyond — human bondage. Where slavery affected everything about society. Where whites and blacks, in this case — in America in a racialized slavery system — grew up, were socialized by, married, reared children, worked, invested in, and conceived of the idea of property, and honed their most basic habits and values under the influence of a system that said it was just to own people as property.
The other slave societies in human history — and you can get up a real debate over this, especially among Africanists, Brazilianists, Asianists and others, and it’s why slavery is such a hot field in international history — but the other great slave societies in history where the whole social structure of those societies was rooted in slavery, were Ancient Greece and Rome; certainly Brazil by the eighteenth and nineteenth century; the whole of Caribbean — the Great West Indies sugar-producing empires of the French, the British, the Dutch, the Spanish, and a few others — and the American South. Now, there were other localized slave societies, surely; certainly within Africa, to a certain degree even before Europeans arrived and certainly after Europeans arrived, particularly after the regularization of the Atlantic slave trade. There were certain localized slave societies in East Africa, out of Zanzibar by the eighteenth and nineteenth century. There were certain localized slave societies in the vast Arab world, in the Muslim world, well before there was even an Atlantic slave trade to the Americas. But the five great slave societies were those five. All were highly profitable in their primes. All tended to hinder technological innovation in those societies. All tended to have a high slave-to-free ratio of population. All of those slave societies had a population of slaves that was from one-quarter to one-half, and sometimes more, of the total population. In those slave societies, slaves — as an interest, as an interest — were both a political and a great economic institution that defined ways of life.
Now, when exactly did the American South become a slave society? Is it 1820 — the Missouri Crisis — in that settlement, and at least the beginnings now of a clarity of its expansion? Or was it more the 1830s when you’ve got this booming cotton production happening finally in Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana? Or was it 1840? Or was it really in the wake of the Mexican War when you get this massive expansion into the great southwest and the Mexican Session — which we’ll take up actually next week? That’s always open to debate, exactly when the South became a slave society. But I think it became, in most ways and in most definitions, a slave society surely by the 1820s or the 1830s.
Now, one aspect of that slave society then — and I’ll focus on it just at least briefly — is that as Americans ended the foreign slave trade — and we did in 1808 — this is, this month is the bi-centennial of the legal end of America’s — the United State’ — participation in the foreign slave trade. Now it didn’t entirely end, and there were some South Carolinians and Georgians who wanted to re-open it, and a few folks out in Louisiana, who wanted to re-open it at numerous times in the antebellum period, especially in the late 1850s. They were the same people who were always trying to annex Cuba; about four times over they tried to annex Cuba, and it’s still a bit of mystery how it never happened. But as the foreign slave trade was closed off, for a whole variety of reasons, only one of which was that there was this passage, sort of a vow, in the original Constitution that the question would be re-visited in 20 years, and 1808 was 20 years. But as the foreign slave trade was cut off the domestic American slave trade absolutely boomed. And one of the reasons that the American South could become such a profitable slave society, one of the reasons that the cotton boom could be the cotton boom is because one of the unique features of North American slavery, U.S. slavery, is or was, that it was the only slave population in the entire New World — Brazil managed it now and then but not in the long run — it’s the only slave society in the New World where the slaves naturally reproduced themselves. And it has to do with climate, it has to do with sex ratio — male to female — it has to do with diet, and it has to do with movement. If Frederick Jackson Turner had anything right in “The Frontier Thesis,” although he didn’t pay hardly any attention to the South, this idea of a safety valve of a West to move to was surely there for slavery.
Richmond, Virginia, during the Civil War, photo by Mathew Brady / Library of Congress
Between 1810 and 1820 alone — this is the decade of the War of 1812, which caused all kinds of chaos on the Western frontier — 137,000 American slaves were forced to move from North Carolina or the Chesapeake states to Alabama, Mississippi, and other western regions. That’s in the one decade of the teens. Then from 1820 to 1860, the forty years before the war, an estimated roughly two million American slaves were sold to satisfy the need of slave labor in the great cotton kingdom of the growing Southwest. Now, about roughly two-thirds of those two million slaves moved from the Eastern seaboard or the Upper South to Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, et cetera. About two-thirds of those went by outright sale, by financial speculation, in now a growing huge American business of the domestic slave trade. By the 1830s, 1840s, there were over 100 men in Charleston, South Carolina alone, making their livings full-time as slave traders. Their ads were in the newspapers every day. Many of them owned their own shops and their own — in effect — jails where they housed people. Other cities became major ports or places of deportation, for the domestic slave trade.
Richmond, Virginia, for example, became a huge slave-trading center by the 1840s and 1850s. It had two — depending on when you look — to three dozen major full-time slave traders. One of the richest was a man named Hector Davis. Hector Davis owned a two-story slave auction house and jail on 14th and Franklin Streets, just two blocks down the hill from Thomas Jefferson’s glorious capitol building of the State of Virginia. Just two blocks down the hill from that great equestrian statue of George Washington, the Founder, you could find a huge slave jail owned by Hector Davis. Hector Davis kept tremendous records, he kept account books, huge account books. And one of those account books ended up in the Chicago Historical Society after the Civil War because it was confiscated by an Illinois regiment that took it home. And I worked with that account book, because one of the two slaves I write about in this new book called A Slave No More — I publish their two narratives — was indeed a young 14-year-old teenager, sold out of North Carolina — from Snow Hill, North Carolina, he was sold in 1860 to Hector Davis in Richmond. Hector Davis purchased him for $900.00. For about six months Wallace Turnage worked in Hector Davis’s slave auction house helping organize the auctions every day. And one day, Wallace was told, “Today, boy, you’re in the auction.” And he was sold for $1000.00 to an Alabama cotton planter who came up to Richmond twice a year to buy slaves. And 72 hours by train he found himself on a huge cotton plantation, near Pickensville, Alabama, on the — in west central Alabama, on the Mississippi border, at 14-years-old. More on Wallace Turnage later in the course. He’ll be sold again, by the way, a third time, for $2000.00, in Mobile, Alabama, at the Mobile Slave Jail.
I calculated in Hector Davis’s account book that the biggest week he had — and he had some big weeks — but he had a week in 1859 where he made a cool, approximately, $120,000.00 in profit, just from selling slaves. I mean, the equivalent of a healthy teenage male slave, if you could sell him for $1000.00 in 1860 — it’s about the same price of a good Toyota Camry today. And when I go to the A-1 Toyota for my service or to buy my new Camry, which I’ve done every four years for the last two decades, I don’t always think of a slave market but it does occur to me that — . [laughter] They just sell those Toyotas, they tell you, “Here’s the price, we don’t bargain.”
The South was part of the westward movement. For slave children — one other little point about this, so we can get a sense of this system that is now about to be justified and defended — for slave children, between 1820 and 1860, living in the Upper South or the Eastern Seaboard, they had approximately a thirty percent chance of being sold outright away from their parents before they were ten. Now, just to give you a sense of how cold and calculated this business was, and how in many ways the first defense or justification of slavery in America is of course — it certainly is by the late Antebellum Period — it is an unabashed economic defense, as we’ll see. Ads in newspapers, like this one in Charleston, would read, “Negroes wanted. I am paying the highest cash prices for young and likely Negroes, those having good front teeth and being otherwise sound.” It’s all about market forces and the health and the condition of your product. Probably the best book written on this, particularly on the language of the domestic slave trade, is Walter Johnson’s book called Soul by Soul, a book — I highly recommend you read it sometime in your reading lives.
But it’s amazing to read the letters and the language of slave traders when they write to each other, the complacency, the mixture of just pure racism on the one hand and just business language on the other. “I refused a girl 20-years-old at $700.00 yesterday,” one trader wrote to another in 1853. “If you think best to take her at 700, I can still get her. She is very badly whipped but has good teeth.” “Bought a cook yesterday,” wrote another trader, “Bought a cook yesterday that was to go out of the state. She just made the people mad, that was all.” “I have bought a boy named Isaac,” wrote another trader, “for $1100.00.” He writes this in 1854 to his partner. “Bought a boy named Isaac. I think him very prime. He is a house-servant, first-rate cook, and splendid carriage driver. He is also a fine painter and varnisher, and says he can make a fine panel door. Also, he performs well on the violin. He is a genius. And strange to say, I think he’s smarter than I am.” Truth always creeps through all of our language — it doesn’t always but sometimes — creeps through our language, doesn’t it?
Slavery for the Sake of Social Stability
Portrait of Edmund Burke, by Joshua Reynolds, 1767 / National Portrait Gallery, London
Now, how is slavery defended? In many ways, to say the least. But I want to give you at least some sense of the development of the pro-slavery argument, the kinds of arguments that were used, how they changed over time, who made the arguments. Now, the best way to begin to understand pro-slavery ideology, whether we’re in the early period of its defense in the 1820s — actually, a quite virulent defense of slavery begins early, it isn’t something that just sprung from Southern pens in the 1850s during all this expansion, it comes very early. But a framework in which to understand it is that pro-slavery ideology was, at its heart, a kind of deeply conservative, organic worldview. And by that I mean a Burkean conservatism, a set of beliefs that says the world is ordered as it is, for reasons, and that human beings ought not tinker with that order, very much. It was a set of beliefs in the sustenance of a social order as it is. It was a belief in a hierarchical conception of not only society, but of people. That people were conceived, whether by nature or by God or even by evolution, with a certain order to them; some born to do this and some born to do that and some born to do that. It’s an organic conception of the world. It just is the way it is. It’s natural. Remember back to Alexander H. Steven’s cornerstone quote — he uses the word “natural” twice in that passage.
This worldview had, of course, an obsession with stability. It’s one of the reasons white Southerners didn’t like reformers. It’s one of the reasons Abolitionists are dangerous. What are Abolitionists calling for? Upsetting the social order. They’re offering a critique of the social order, and they even have the audacity to talk about good and evil. It’s a worldview often obsessed, as we said last time, with notions of honor and duty. And it’s a worldview deeply rooted in the idea or respect for tradition; tradition and social control. In this worldview, institutions — human institutions — evolve only slowly over time and cannot be altered by abrupt human interventions. It’s dangerous to abruptly intervene in the evolution of human institutions.
Now, think what’s at stake here in this worldview, especially as we transition next Thursday to a developing — though by no means unanimous or homogenous — northern worldview in which reform impulses get embedded. White Southern defenders of slavery were — to some extent — like other Americans — products of the Enlightenment. Some of them come to really believe in intellect. They really do come to believe in the power of reason, of human beings to figure out the universe. But to figure it out in different ways. You can be a product of the Enlightenment and still be deeply conservative. You can be a product of the Enlightenment, with a faith in reason, and not become a Romantic who begins to believe in the possibilities of man, or even the perfectibility of man. Conservativism — deep organic forms of Conservativism — is not antithetical to the Enlightenment, at least not entirely. Although pro-slavery writers will become deeply contemptuous of Natural Law — of Natural Law doctrine as it can be applied to the possibilities of man.
Many of them will argue, therefore, that ideas like freedom — and that idea of liberty, so much at stake in the age of the American Revolution and falling off everybody’s tongue, and eventually falling off their tongues and off their pens as well, what they’re fighting for by 1861 were their liberties, they said, over and over and over and over again. But in their worldview, the pro-slavery worldview, ideas like freedom and liberty were simply never absolutes, and many of them will directly reverse Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and simply say, “Nobody is born equal.” They will argue over and over and over again — some of them almost in a feudalistic way — that freedom must always be balanced with order, and that order is rooted in certain kinds of prescribed stations in life, for the various statuses of humans. Or freedom, they will argue, must be balanced with tradition. The possibilities of freedom must always, in their view, be balanced with the world as it as — not as it ought to be. They are, therefore, going to have an extremely different point of view — from at least Abolitionists in the North — on this concept of equality. Although a lot of Abolitionists had their struggles with this one too. Southern pro-slavery defenders are much more likely to stress a human’s duty, than they’re ever to stress a human’s rights. They believed the world was made up of a struggle between human autonomy, on the one hand, and human dependency on the other, and you should never give up on that dependency.
As early as 1826 an important pro-slavery writer named Edward Brown argued that “Slavery,” he said, quote: “had ever been the stepping ladder by which nations have passed from barbarism to civilization.” There you have the roots and the kernel of the so-called “positive good thesis” about slavery. That slavery was a way in which you sustained a social order, a way in which you built an economy, a way in which you maximized the possibilities of those who deserved it, by using those who did not deserve the same fruits.
Pro-slavery writers, you have to understand, had also a really often a fundamentally different conception of history itself, or of how history happens, than will many eventually northern anti-slavery writers — even, eventually, the political anti-slavery folks like an Abraham Lincoln, who was never a real abolitionist but did at least grow up with anti-slavery in his heart. Thomas R. Dew, a very important pro-slavery writer, who wrote a whole book in the wake of the state of Virginia’s debates in 1831 and ’32 over whether to re-write its Constitution. And they squarely faced the question of a gradual abolition plan for the state of Virginia in 1831 and ’32. They had been planning to rewrite their Constitution — an extraordinary turning point in Southern history. The problem was, of course, Nat Turner’s Insurrection; it had just occurred in October of 1831 and they held these debates in the wake of it. And Dew wrote a forceful defense of slavery in the wake of this, which became kind of a seminal text for all future pro-slavery writers. Among the many things he said, and that was the simple sense of how history happens. “There is a time for all things,” wrote Dew, “and nothing in this world should be done before its time.” Now, what would you do if your parents told you that? They probably have. What would you do if your professors told you that all the time? “Stop trying to change things. Nothing will change before its time.” You’d probably get bored, or angry. Or who knows? Maybe you would just agree. I don’t know. Youth are supposed to be impatient.
Biblical, Historical, Amoral, Economic, and Utopian Arguments for Slavery
Confederate soldier’s Bible, 1861 / Smithsonian
Now, there are many ways to look at pro-slavery. Deep, deep in the pro-slavery argument — I’m going to give you categories here to hang your hats on — deep in the pro-slavery argument is a biblical argument. Almost all pro-slavery writers at one point or another will dip into the Old Testament, or dip into the New Testament — they especially would dip to the Old — to show how slavery is an ancient and venerable institution. Its venerability was its own argument, some said. It’s always been around. Every civilization has had it. All those biblical societies had it. You can read Jeremiah and Isaiah and some of the great Old Testament prophets in some ways as defenders of slavery. You can therefore assume it was divinely sanctioned. You can also look in the New Testament for examples of it, justifications of it. “Slaves, be honorable, be dutiful” — be obedient is usually the word in the King James — “Slaves, be obedient to your masters.” Slavery is all over the Bible, in one way or another. The Bible, of course, can breathe anti-slavery into a situation and it can breathe pro-slavery into a situation.
A second kind of set of arguments, I’ve already referred to, are the historical ones. Here it is not just the venerability of slavery, how old it is, but it’s the idea that it has been crucial to the development of all great civilizations. That slavery may have its bad aspects but it has been the engine of good, it has been the engine of empires, the engine of wealth, the engine of greatness. How would you have had Cicero? How would you have had the great Roman philosophers and thinkers? How would you have had the great Greek playwrights, they would argue, without the system, the world the Greeks were able to create with the Helots? That at the base of all societies there has to be a labor system that will support the possibility of Plato.
Pro-slavery ideology is also part of — at the same time it’s resistant to — the greatest product arguably of the Enlightenment, and that is the idea of natural rights; natural law, natural rights, rights by birth, rights from God, being born with certain capacities. Now pro-slavery writers were inspired by this to some extent, but many of them will simply convert it. They will convert it — they’ll take portions of John Locke that they like, and not the others — and they’ll say the real rule of the world is not natural equality, but it is natural inequality. Humans are not all born the same, with the same capacities, abilities.
Now, then there’s a whole array of economic arguments, and the cynic, the economic determinist, simply goes to the economic conclusions of pro-slavery and nowhere else. One of the greatest of these writers was James Henry Hammond, a South Carolina planter who had plenty of mixed-race children. He was in some ways the epitome of the kind of cynical pro-slavery. In the end of the day, he wasn’t bothered by morality. His argument for slavery was that ultimately it was amoral. But at the end of the day, he also essentially made a property argument or a property defense of slavery. He wrote, among other things, “The means therefore, whatever they may have been, by which the African race, now in this county, have been reduced to slavery, cannot affect us since they are our property, as your land is your property, by inheritance or purchase and prescriptive right. You will say that man cannot hold property in man. The answer is that he can, and actually does, hold property in his fellow, all over the world, in a variety of forms, and has always done so.” Thank you very much, said Henry Hammond, don’t talk to me about property in man.
Oh, some would get guilty. Indeed they did. Some would get worried and they would discuss slavery as a necessary evil — this system entailed upon them. God, they wished they were without it. And some of them, frankly folks, were deeply sincere in that. One of the most famous and one of the most prolific was a man named Charles Colcott Jones who owned a huge rice and partly cotton plantation system in low-country Georgia, just south of Savannah. He and his family wrote literally thousands upon thousands of letters. those family letters have been published in a book called The Children of Pride, and a brilliant book has been written about Colcott Jones and his extended family by Erskine Clarke called Dwelling Place. But one of the fascinating things about Charles Colcott Jones — born in the late eighteenth century, rises to adulthood by the teens, 1820s — is he’s a classic example of a highly educated Southern planter. He came North. He was educated in Theology at Yale for awhile. He was really affected by it. And then he went up to Andover Theological Academy and he taught there and he was affected even more, by New England theologians. And he began to write back, first to his fiancée who quickly became his wife, Mary, and he was really worried about all the slaves he owned. And he writes, for example, to Mary: “I am moreover undecided whether I ought to continue to hold slaves.” He underlines hold slaves. “As to the principle of slavery it is wrong. It is unjust, contrary to nature and religion, to hold men enslaved. But the question is, in my present circumstances, with evil on my hands, entailed from my father, would the general interest of the slaves and community at large, with reference to the slaves, be promoted best by emancipation? Could I do more for the ultimate good of the slave population by holding or emancipating what I own? I know not very particularly how you feel on this point.” And there are many letters like that. He and his wife Mary write back and forth about how evil slavery is. But in the end Colcott Jones becomes a classic example of the guilty pro-slavery slaveholder. He doesn’t know how to free them. He doesn’t know how to go to emancipation. Instead he develops a highly intricate theory of how he’s going to use slavery to save black people. He’s going to ameliorate their conditions, he’s going to make their slavery on his plantations so effective, so good, such a even joyous form of labor, that he will be doing God’s work by improving slavery. It’s a genuinely tragic sort of story in his case.
There are plenty of pro-slavery writers who also, to some extent, whether out of guilt or out of awareness, saw slavery as wrong, but they saw it as a problem more for white people than for black people. Their concern was not the conditions of blacks but what slavery did to whites; and usually they ended up in the same situation as Colcott Jones.
James Henry Hammond / Wikimedia Commons
There are many pro-slavery writers who developed, like James Henry Hammond, what I would call the cynical or amoral form of pro-slavery argument; and this is a potent form of argument when you think about it. One of them was a writer named William Harper who wrote a book called Memoir [On] Slavery in 1837 or ’38. It’s an oft quoted work of pro-slavery writing. This is just one little passage. This is this kind of cynical, if you want, defense of slavery. It is what it is, deal with it. He wrote, “Man is born to subjection. The condition of our whole existence is but to struggle with evil, to compare them, to choose between them, evils that is, and so far as we can to mitigate them. To say that there is evil in any institution is only to say that it is a human institution.” And Harper’s writing in the thir — James Henry Hammond starts writing in the forties and into the fifties and he takes it much further, and he writes over and over and over again that, “The only problem with slavery in America,” said James Henry Hammond, is that too damn many northerners didn’t understand it is the way of the world as it is, and they ought to stop talking about the world as it ought to be.
And Hammond even aggressively, directly, took on Thomas Jefferson. I’m sorry, Harper did, even before him. Here’s Harper on Jefferson: “It is not the first time that I have had occasion to observe that men may repeat with the utmost confidence some maxim or sentimental phrase as ‘self-evident‘ or ‘admitted truth‘, which is either palpably false or to which upon examination it will be found that they attach no definite idea. Notwithstanding our respect for the important document which declared our independence, yet if anything be found in it, and especially in what may be regarded rather as its ornament than its substance, false, sophistical and unmeaning, that respect should not screen it from the freest examination. All men are born free and equal?” — he says with a question mark. “Is it not palpably nearer the truth to say that no man was ever born free and that no two men were ever born equal? Man is born in a state of the most helpless dependence on other people.”
And then there’s the whole vast category of racial defense and justification of slavery. At the end of the day that’s where Alexander H. Stephens went, with his Cornerstone Speech in 1861. That’s where all of them went at one point or another, some less than others. Probably the most prominent pro-slavery writer to make the racial case — and they all did — but probably the most prominent was George Fitzhugh. In a book called Sociology of the South — he’s also the same George Fitzhugh who wrote a book called Cannibals All — but in Sociology of the South, his famous pro-slavery tract in 1854, he wrote this: “The Negro,” he said, “is but a grownup child and must be governed as a child. The master occupies toward him the place of parent or guardian. Like a wild horse he must be caught, tamed and domesticated. We find slavery repeatedly instituted by God or by men acting under his immediate care and direction, as in the instance of Moses and Joshua. Nowhere in the Old or New Testament do we find the institution condemned, but frequently recognized and enforced.” And probably his most famous line, “Men are not born entitled to equal rights. It would be far nearer the truth to say that some are born with saddles on their backs and others booted and spurred to ride them.”
And lastly, there was a kind of utopian pro-slavery. It was best exemplified by a writer in Mississippi named Henry Hughes. Henry Hughes was one strange duck. He lived in New Orleans, he was eccentric as hell. He wrote an amazing diary. He was a loner. He urged revival of the slave-trade in the late 1850s, and he developed a theory of what he called warranteeism — w-a-r-r-a-n-t-e-e-i-s-m. He said slaves were not slaves they were warranties. What he meant was they were the charges put in the world for slaveholders to care for, and if possible, even to protect and perfect. He believed in a strong central state, which was a real departure for him from the rest of the pro-slavery writers. He wanted a strong central government to regulate everything. He wanted huge taxation. He wanted to build institutions that would be used for the sole purpose of perfecting the slave into the perfect worker. He was a bit of a mad scientist. And he was especially obsessed with racial purity. His writings are just replete with his fears about hygiene, that if white and black people touched or if they came together the whites would be soiled, and that any kind of intermixing of the races was to destroy ultimately the intellect, the ability, the capacity of a master race. He wasn’t that widely read, I must admit, but it shows us how far pro-slavery could ultimately go. In Hughes’s vision and Hughes’s worldview slavery was not only a positive good — it was the possibility of man finding a perfected society, with the perfect landowners fulfilling their obligations, supported by a government that taxed the hell out of them to do it, and perfect workers, would make the South into the agricultural utopian civilization of history.
All of that is a way of simply saying it was a deep and abiding and well-rehearsed — indeed thousands of pages were written in defense of slavery. It wasn’t just a profitable financial institution. And if you want to understand why so many white Southerners, especially in the Deep South, went to such great extents to save their slave society, remember the kinds of arguments and language used by its defenders.
A Northern World View: Yankee Society, Antislavery Ideology and the Abolition Movement
George Fitzhugh / Wikimedia Commons
So I laid a list of pro-slavery arguments on you, and a lot of quotations to give you a sense of the depth and breadth of pro-slavery ideology, and I didn’t want to leave that entirely without tying up a knot or two. Just consider this as a sense of the scale of pro-slavery writing. [I don’t want anybody to think that] when slave-holding politicians — when the planter elite of the American South — begins to organize toward, at least toward, some kind of separation and secession over this slave society they want to protect, they are reading hundreds and hundreds of pages about their system. In 1855 an anthology of pro-slavery writings was published in the South. It was about 450 pages long. In 1860, that anthology was updated, particularly with the works of George Fitzhugh, into a 900-page volume, which was really in most ways only excerpts of pro-slavery writing. And it was a work on the desks of most secessionists.
And I also didn’t want to leave you thinking this was all about abstract ideology. One of the best descriptions I’ve ever read of why slavery persisted, of why people defended it, and why people went to war for it, came before the war, in 1857, in a speech by the African-American woman, novelist, writer, poet, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. In an 1850s anti-slavery speech she said, among other things, this conclusion — in effect, she’s answer the question now, “why has slavery boomed and persisted and grows still?” And this is in the wake of the Dred Scott decision. “Ask Maryland,” she says, “with her tens of thousands of slaves if she is not prepared for freedom, and hear her answer. I helped supply the coffles, gangs to the South. Ask Virginia with her hundreds of thousands of slaves if she is not weary with her merchandise of blood and anxious to shake the gory traffic from her hands and hear her reply, ‘Though fertility has covered my soul,'” — this is Virginia speaking — “‘though I hold in my hand a wealth of water power enough to turn the spindles to clothe the world, yet one of my chief staples has been the sons and daughters I send to the human markets.’ Ask farther south and all the cotton growing states chime in, ‘We have need of fresh supplies to fill the ranks of those whose lives have gone out in unrequited toil on our distant plantations.’ A hundred-thousand newborn babies are annually added to the victims of slavery,” said Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. “Twenty-thousand lives are annually sacrificed on the plantations of the South. Such a sight should send a thrill of horror through the nerves of civilization and impel the heart of humanity to lofty deeds. So it might, if men had not found out” — and here’s her phrase worth remembering — “a fearful alchemy by which this blood can be transformed into gold. Instead of listening to the cry of agony they listen to the ring of dollars and stoop down and pick up the coins.” A fearful alchemy — that’s a useful definition of slavery. Why did an inhumane institution — of course not everybody who defended it thought it was inhumane — but why did that system survive, persist and grow? Because it was so damned profitable.
Uriah Parmelee, the Yalie
Uriah Parmelee / Wikimedia Commons
Last time I began with Alexander H. Stephens’s famous Cornerstone Speech in 1861, the famous passage by the Vice-President of the Confederacy declaring slavery the cornerstone of the Confederate Movement. We go north today. We’re going to look largely at the nature of Northern society. We’re going to look to some extent today and mostly next Tuesday at the roots and origins of an anti-slavery ideology, a growing anti-slavery ideology in its many layered forms. But I want to begin today with another passage, from the war years, and ask now from a Northern point of view, how do we get to Uriah Parmelee? Now there’s a nineteenth century name for you. Nobody’s named Uriah anymore. You know any Uriah’s? Uriah Parmelee was a kid who grew up on a Connecticut farm, and the best I’ve been able to determine his family was part of this market revolution. They ended up moving to a small town and no longer engaged in subsistence agriculture, if his parents had, or his grandparents. And by means I don’t entirely understand, Uriah Parmelee, in the spring of 1861, was an Abolitionist. He was a Junior at Yale College. He’d gotten caught up in Abolitionism and anti-slavery, as young people get caught up in political fervor and movements of their times, sometimes.
As soon as the Civil War broke out and Lincoln called for volunteers in late April 1861, Uriah Parmelee dropped out of his Junior year at Yale and he joined the first regiment he could get into. There wasn’t one organizing yet around New Haven or nearby in Connecticut so he went to New York and he joined the Sixth New York Cavalry. To his brother Parmelee confided, “I am more of an abolitionist than ever now, right up to the handle. If I had money enough to raise a few hundred contrabands and arm them I’d get up an insurrection among the slaves; told the captain I’d desert to do it.” Nah. A lot of chutzpah in that passage; he hasn’t seen any real war yet. He wants to be John Brown, at that point. He’s going to get himself a band of insurrectionists and go down there and kill some slaveholders, he says.
Parmelee, in letters back home to his parents, his brothers, his sisters — and he wrote lots of them — he at first denounced Lincoln’s government for its failure in 1861 and even into early 1862 to come out against slavery, to make it a war against slavery. He denounces the government he’s serving. In a letter in late 1861 from the front, “The present contest,” he says, “will indeed settle the question, for some years at least, as to whether union or secession, the Constitution or rebellion, shall triumph. But the great heart wound, slavery, will not be reached.” He’s angry, he’s pissed off, he wants the war to be against slavery, and it’s not. He goes on in a letter in spring 1862 — the war still isn’t a war against slavery in any official sense — and he writes home to his brother saying he wishes he had the, quote, “moral courage to desert,” because he no longer wants to serve this cause. But he doesn’t desert. By March 1863, he had concluded that emancipation would indeed be achieved — this is now in the wake of Congress’s Confiscation Acts in ’62, Lincoln’s preliminary proclamation, the ultimate Emancipation Proclamation as of January 1863 — and by March of that spring he’s convinced the war has transformed. He refused a furlough to stay and fight. He writes home, “I do not intend to shirk now that there is really something to fight for; I mean freedom. Since the 1st of January it has become more and more evident to my mind that the war is henceforth to be conducted upon a different basis. Those who profess to love the Union are not so anxious to preserve slavery, while those who are opposed to the war acknowledge in all their actions that its continuance will put an end to this accursed system. So then I am willing to remain and endure whatever may fall to my share.”
He was honored for bravery by at least three commanding officers in numerous battles, especially the Battle of Chancellorsville in May of 1863; he was promoted to Captain. He eventually switched; his New York [regiment] — this happened in many regiments in the Civil War — it took so many casualties it ceased to exist — and he switched to a Connecticut regiment and he served that Connecticut regiment through the summer of 1864. The great war of attrition in Virginia. He survived the Battle of the Wilderness, the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, the Battle of Cold Harbor, the entire Siege of Petersburg from August of ’64 all the way until the end of March of 1865. He was killed on April 1st, 1865, at the Battle of Five Oaks — excuse me, at Five Forks, just west of Richmond, the last major engagement of the Civil War. And when you walk out today and you go through Woolsey Hall, if you haven’t done this before, you’ll note, if you haven’t before, that that’s full of the names of Yale College men who have died in war. And Uriah Parmelee’s name will be right on your right, as you’re walking through. He’s this high on my arm or shoulder, and there’s his name. Dropped out, Junior Year, to fight, to destroy slavery. And he did, for four years, and died in the last battle.
But how do you get to Uriah Parmelee, a kid from Connecticut, obviously bright enough or connected enough to get into Yale, who gave all that up for something he saw as a lot higher? If you can come to understand a Uriah Parmelee — or better yet, if you can come to understand young, white, northern, Yankee, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants, who often were very contemptuous of Irish immigrants, and even more contemptuous of black Americans, who nevertheless believed the War of 1861 had to be fought, and ultimately came even to support the destruction of slavery — if you can understand why those Northern Yankees get to that point, you really will understand the Civil War. Uriah Parmelee had an inheritance; at what level he exactly understood it I can’t necessarily know, although his letters are extraordinarily rich.
The Market Revolution of the North: Mobility, Child Labor, Wealth
Boston printing press, 1860 / Wikimedia Commons
Now, in that Northern society — and here we’re using labels pretty loosely, but so be it — the northern states; and well I’ll leave the outline up for the moment. No I won’t.
That’s a wonderful old painting from 1830 called “The Yankee Peddler.” Everybody’s heard of Yankee peddlers. They don’t come door to door anymore unless they’re working for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Oops. [Laughter] Well, or the Environmental Action Committee or the, let’s see — never mind. What’s the Yankee peddler peddling? Cloth. Readymade, factory-made cloth for a woman, a housewife, who isn’t making her own cloth anymore. That’s the Market Revolution. There are a thousand ways to see it, understand it and grasp it. If the South was a slave society — and we tried to demonstrate that last time, we tried to define that. Although it’s not defined in that newspaper that you’re reading back there in row twelve, the Market Revolution is not reported in this morning’s newspapers; actually it probably is, the markets are going bad, although they went back up yesterday. But this Market Revolution is not reported in that newspaper, I would venture. Sorry to interrupt you.But if the South was a slave society the North was a market society. It was a booming market society by the 1820s and 1830s. It was beginning to be a market society even in the late eighteenth century. The northern states by the Antebellum Period — 1820s, 1830s, 1840s — was beginning to sort of hurtle toward a different future than what that slave society was — perhaps — no, not really slowly — it too was hurtling toward a certain future. This market — this booming market society with its market, commercial, consumerist mentalities, and its belief — eventually, its faith in, its defense of — free labor for the common man, its kind of fanfare for the common man ideology, would be something a lot of white southerners would actually fear and be frightened by.
What is the Market Revolution? It’s the time in which — it’s not a single moment in time or course, it’s a long process — but it’s the time in which long distance commerce began to take hold, because of transportation revolutions: canals, roads, railroads in particular. It’s a time of technological innovation, tremendous technological innovation, so much technological change that half the time it frightened people. In fact you can find all over American culture in 1800, 1810, even into the 1820s, a lot of fear of technology. What is this thing, a telegraph? Now today you probably don’t fear technology. I still have a little bit of that, I’m still a little nineteenth century in that sense. I hate it when they tell me they want to buy me a new laptop. Enough already. I don’t care if it’s four years old, I don’t want another one. Don’t make me learn something new with my machine.
The Market Revolution was driven, of course, by the growth of cities, which became market centers and manufacturing centers. Maybe more importantly, the Market Revolution is that time in American history — that incredible time, really, when you think about the scale of change — when eighteenth century subsistence farmers who engaged in what was always called, or we’ve always called, mixed agriculture — that is, they grew all kinds of foodstuffs, almost always for themselves — when that kind of eighteenth century style farming gave way to commercial farming, where farmers now produced cash crops, for a much broader market. A market on the East Coast if they were in upstate New York, or out in Ohio eventually, and a market of the whole world. It’s that period when the home or the farm — still a majority of northern people by the 1830s and 1840s were making their livings from agriculture — but it’s a time when that home and farm became its own domestic factory, where people began to produce in their homes, for markets, not for themselves. The vast multitudes were still farmers, but they began to now buy goods, manufactured goods, readymade clothing and shoes, cloth, candles, soap, all kinds of foodstuffs. Stuff that the eighteenth century farmer made for him and herself now you bought from a peddler or you bought from a store in town.
This all, of course, leads to a change in what European historians taught us to call mentalities, mentalité. It brought about fundamental alterations, slowly, in ways sometimes people didn’t even know it’s happening; fundamental alterations in aspirations, in habits, in activities, in conceptions and definitions of work, and leisure. What is work and leisure now in a society where you don’t have to produce everything for yourself? It produced, it would produce fundamental alterations in the conception of labor. Who’s a worker? What is labor? Is a laborer any more just an individual, or is a laborer part of a collective problem, part of a collective mentality, part of a collective movement against a much greater force now called capital, manufacturing, the company?
It’s going to alter the very idea of individual rights. We have a habit in this society to think that individual rights, when they drafted the Bill of Rights, was just laid down for us and it’s just traveled through time and here they are. Just go back and look at the founders. It’s such nonsense. It’s ahistorical. The very idea of individual rights got reshaped by the Market Revolution. What do you have a right to now? New shoes?
It’s going to change the very idea of mobility. Where can you go, and how, by what means? It’s going to really change — and this is absolutely crucial, indirectly, in helping us understand this war that’s going to come down the way — it’s going to change for a lot of northern — millions of northern people, some of them now immigrants who have come here with a clear purpose — that is, to make a better life — it’s going to change their conception of what they can give their children.
And we’re going to hear a lot more later on, next week, week after, about free labor ideology. The idea that if labor is left free then that common man always has a chance. If the land isn’t taken up by large oligarchies — life slaveholding class — then the small guy has a chance. But rooted in free labor ideology is, among other ideas, this notion of mobility. That a free laborer is a mobile laborer, especially in a society like the United States that had this thing called The West, the limitless — apparently to them anyway — boundless West.
Even such concepts, such great American concepts — let’s call it that — as self-reliance about which Ralph Waldo Emerson may have written his greatest essay — I go read Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” at least once a year. Just, I don’t know, to feel better or something. It’s the quintessential sort of expression of individualism, but it’s more than that. But even an ideal like self-reliance — I can remake my world, I can be anything I want — is changed by the Market Revolution. It doesn’t mean people believe any less in self-reliance, it’s just they keep seeing evidence, they keep bumping into realities that show them that in the face of the market now, especially the boom and bust cycles of the market, their individualism is not so powerful.
Sketch of Lowell factories in 1860 / Wikimedia Commons
The Market Revolution would, on the level of ideas and thinking and sort of common behavior, would bring about a kind of combination of tremendous optimism, possibly like we’ve never experienced since; although you can find other moments in American history, like the 1950s, where a kind of broad, broad social optimism took hold of Americans. It’s one of the reasons we had a Civil Rights Movement. But at the same time the Market Revolution is going to bring a certain sense of anxiety, even dread, even despair. It will lead to great wealth, of course. Fortunes will begin to be made in the textile industry and in the railroad industry by the ’40s and ’50s, and in a host of other ways, real fortunes. And some fortunes will begin to be made in simple financial speculation. Wall Street will be born. At the same time, of course, as wealth grows, the inequality in wealth grows too. Specialization will set in. Workplaces that some — that your parents’ generation may have grown up understanding as a very personal place. Even if you worked in a small shop, they only had eight workers and you were related to half of them. The workplace would become less personal, bigger, uncontrollable.
Women went to work, most famously in the Lowell factories in Massachusetts and in other places. Among the many images of the famous mill girls is this one, taken in 1850, I believe, in Lowell, Massachusetts. She looks about nine-years-old; she may have been 12 or 13. But for the first time, in significant numbers, young girls and young women left farms, left the realm of domesticity, left that world in which they presumably had been shielded as children, and now entered a world where they were child laborers, and in a world now that breeds child labor, and even defends child labor, you have problems.
The Market Revolution would also lead to a lot of natural environmental degradation. People got to be — got worried about rivers, they really did. There’s now an environmental history being written of the impact of the Market Revolution.
As I mentioned earlier it would lead, of course, to big cycles of boom and bust. A big depression hit in 1837. Another big depression hit in 1857. Much more on that 1857 panic, as they were called then, a little later in the course, because it’s absolutely pertinent to what happened in the great political debates of the late1850s. Even the idea of what a child is — since we’ve got a child up here — even the idea of — and there’s a growing little subfield now of children’s history, which is actually very interesting; there’s a man named Jim Martin at Marquette University who’s pioneered this — even the idea of a child, that a child’s place in a family undergoes a kind of revolution in 20 or 30 years. In a working-class family, an immigrant working-class family in particular, by the ’30s and ’40s, a child meant income, a child meant a worker. Everybody had to work, and usually outside of whatever was home. But what also set in, in the growing middle-class, of course, was a more bourgeois definition of childhood, a more modern definition of childhood, born somewhere there between 1800 and 1860, where the child was to be a protected youth — shielded, and not used, by a family. Parenting, in this new bourgeois conception of family, parenting was to be moral guardianship. Or so it seemed.
The Idea of Manifest Destiny, the Reality of Change, and the Transportation Revolution
What the Market Revolution was, in so many ways, was an engine, a tremendous — Charles Sellers has written a famous book on this — it was a tremendous engine for what became arguably the most prevalent idea of the entire nineteenth century in America, and that’s the notion of progress. America was now going to be the nation of progress. It was going to be the place of progress. It seemed to have boundless borders and boundless resources. It looked like it could expand almost forever. It had tremendous riches in ore. It had tremendous natural wealth. It would therefore be the place of progress in the world. And as Walt Whitman wrote in poem after poem, and other poets did as well, and politicians said over and over and over and over — America, and this United States, this nation formed there — would be the beginning of a new man, a new start for humankind. That’s a big idea. Of course we still want to be that. It’s never vanished in our culture. We still sometimes want to be Winthrop’s City on the Hill, beacon of something for everybody.
But think with me just for one second about the idea of progress. If you come to believe, if you say to the world, “We are the hope of humans, we are the hope of earth, we are progress. And by the way, we, the people of progress, are rooted in those principles of the Declaration of Independence” — which are written down essentially as creeds — “and, oh and by the way, we have a written Constitution — we actually wrote it down, we have a Bill of Rights where we declare these things on paper, unlike the Brits.” What have you done? You’ve said: “we are really special, and we are really important, and we are really good.” You’ve kind of set yourself up, haven’t you? If somebody walks and you’re meeting them for the first time, “Hello, I’m a beacon of progress and good and hope in the world, how do you do?” You’re probably going to think, “oh shit, this” — instantly your cynicism kicks in and then “who’s this jerk?”
The doctrine of progress I’m simply saying has always bred its contradictions. And there were a whole bunch of them laying out there, weren’t there? They were laying all over the place. But, you know, you couldn’t resist it. How could you resist a sense of change in 1820s New York? 1830s Philadelphia? 1840s and ’50s Ohio? 1850s Chicago, which was already by the 1850s the railroad capital of North America? How could you resist that sense of change? Tocqueville couldn’t resist it, it was the thing he couldn’t stop writing about in Democracy in America, and he was only observing in 1831. He didn’t come back and see it in the 1850s. He was just amazed at these Americans, how they just moved all the time, and they were just so full of hope all the time. He said Americans would always build a house but then move before they put a roof on it. They were always mobile, always going somewhere, always changing.
Part of that change, of course, bringing fear with it, was immigration. In the 1830s 600,000 immigrants came to the United States, almost entirely from Western Europe; in the 1840s alone 1.5 million; and in the 1850s, almost 3 million more. By 1852-53, Boston and New York — think about this — Boston — although we’re getting close to that again — Boston and New York had 50% foreign-born populations. One of every two people in New York City in 1852 was born outside the United States. Same in Boston. Close to that in Philadelphia. The Northern cities, seats of market culture, commercialism, manufacturing, were immigrant cities.
Erie Canal, 1825 / Wikimedia Commons
All this, of course, was fuelled by — I mentioned it already — a transportation revolution symbolized by the Erie Canal, finished in 1825, which remained profitable all the way out into the 1880s. The longest ditch in the world, as it was called, 300-and-some-odd miles out to Buffalo. It was the romantic — and by the way, about 3,300 miles of such canals would be built by the middle of the 1850s, all for the purpose of commerce, and to move people. Steamboats became the romantic symbol of this great transportation revolution and all of this movement. Although they too, they too brought dread with them. One-third of every steamboat built in the United States before 1850 exploded and destroyed — became a wreck. And there’s no mistaking in Mark Twain’s imagination, if you remember the scene in Huck Finn — I mean, among the hundred eternal take-home images in Huck Finn is that moment when Huck and Jim are on their raft, it’s a little foggy, they can’t quite see — they can hear — and pretty soon that steamboat just smashes into that raft and over they go. Steamboats were wonderful and exciting and romantic. You could go gamble on them, you could go get sexed on them. They also might just blow you up.
And then, of course, railroads, which reshaped North America. No continent, you could argue, had ever been quite made — readymade if you want — for railroads quite like North America. It fit the environment perfectly, once they could make these things actually go twenty-five miles an hour. They never figured out how to build gauges properly. There were some twelve to fifteen different widths of railroads in the Northern states alone by the 1850s, and you could go into one town on a gauge, I don’t know, three feet wide but on the other side of town it would come out four feet wide. Why they never quite sat down and standardized all this, I have no idea. But railroads revolutionized an American sense of time, their ability to travel. It revolutionized manufacturing, it revolutionized how quickly you could get to markets, and it made Chicago Chicago. It also made the first multi-millionaires, the first massive fortunes, and it became the first great example of the deep relationship in the nineteenth century — back in our heyday of laisser-faire government, ho-ho — of a relationship between the Federal government and business. The great American railroads were built by and large, for decades, by government subsidies, and a tremendous amount of corruption. The railroad had a lot to do, too, of course, with linking northeast with northwest, which has a lot to do with a certain sense of economic isolation that set in in the South, to some extent.
And I’ll just say a word quickly, that don’t underestimate the influence here of an ideology beneath this. We usually only talk about Manifest Destiny when we’re talking about the westward movement beyond the Mississippi. We only usually bring it up when we’re talking about the Mexican War and its aftermath, or something. But Manifest Destiny was a very old American idea. It was probably coined by this journalist named O’Sullivan, although now there’s a new theory that it wasn’t. I leave it to my expert colleagues in History of the American West to decide exactly who came up with the term Manifest Destiny, who actually first used it. But Manifest Destiny was in some ways the fuel of the American imagination. It combined so many ideas. Under that heading you might call “American Progress” came the sense of American mission: spreading liberty, spreading democracy, spreading Christianity. A Christian civilization was deeply at the root of this cluster of ideas we call Manifest Destiny, as was a virulent kind of nationalism that boomed after the War of 1812 and through the 1820s into the 1830s. And Manifest Destiny was the engine of capitalism, make no mistake. Why did we want all that land in the Mexican Session? Why did we want Oregon? Why did we want California? And deep at the root of Manifest Destiny, of course — and there’s book after book written on this — is a deep and abiding American white supremacy. It was the destiny of a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, United States to take control and improve this great land it had been given.
Contradictions of Progress in American Literature
Portrait photograph from a ninth-plate daguerreotype of Henry David Thoreau, by Benjamin D. Maxham, 1856 / National Portrait Gallery, Washington
Now, before I leave that, let me just suggest — sometimes one of the ways, when you want to understand how progress builds in its own contradictions, and why I think contradiction is what makes American history interesting — we are our contradictions. That’s why the world is fascinated with us. Look at the literature. Go back all the way to James Fenimore Cooper. His Leatherstocking Tales are full of a certain anxiety about what might be happening to that frontier, what’s coming from east to west.
Read Thoreau’s Walden. What’s Thoreau up to? I mean Thoreau may have been a snob, he may have been smarmy, and he may have wanted you to think he was cool because he sold pencils. [Laughter] But he wrote one of the most brilliant critiques of change, and what it can mean, any American ever wrote. When Thoreau sits on his little stool outside his cabin at Walden Pond and he hears the train go by over the ridge, and he puts his hands over his ears — he doesn’t want to hear it — he’s representing something. I’m not saying he was right, and the damn fool should’ve got down and got real with the railroads, but he didn’t.
What is Emerson up to in his essay “Nature”? In almost every poem Walt Whitman wrote he seems to be fashioning himself, if not the whole of this American people, which sometimes he did call an American race, as a new Adam. “I the singer of Adamic songs” — he said it directly — “through the new garden of the West, the great city is calling, as Adam early in the morning, walking forth from the bower, refreshed with sleep; behold me, where I pass, hear my voice.” He goes on, I can do anything in this American West, this American possibility.
But as soon as we read Whitman, then you realize there’s Nathaniel Hawthorne who in 1844 — even before Whitman started writing most of his poems — Hawthorne was a pretty dourful, he was an old Puritan, he was a conservative, dourful kind of — he was a real New Englander. Hawthorne wrote a short story you should read sometime, as a balance to all of this optimism of this period, irresistible as that optimism was. It’s called “Earth’s Holocaust.” Have you ever read that? It’s an incredible story. He has this whole group of people out somewhere on the American frontier and they’re a kind of a cult. They decide they’re going to have a bonfire and they build this giant fire and into it they throw everything from the past. They throw heraldry, they throw every kind of vestige of Old World culture and monarchy and aristocracy and civilization. They throw all kinds of old books, great old books, onto the bonfire. They burn everything from Europe, everything that’s old. It’s a purification. They’re going to make a new world. They don’t need anything from the past. And it’s Hawthorne’s satire, it’s his critique of it. It’s apocalyptic, angry critique of all these Americans who think they’re inventing everything anew every day. Hawthorne had a bummer, I mean he — .
Well enough, I guess, of that; although if you want to understand the optimism of that time just dip into Leaves of Grass, read Whitman’s Old Pioneers. He can’t stop. I once counted the number of times he used the word — the letter — O — in that poem, and I quit counting. It’s like America, to Whitman, was “O!”. He just couldn’t stop. Well, and sometimes that “O America” meant the tinkerer, it meant the inventor, it meant the guy who invented a new kind of sewing machine and took it in for a patent. If you want to understand this Yankee, northern, market economy, society, just look at some histories of technological innovation throughout this era and you realize there were just thousands and thousands of patents given, mostly to northerners, for inventing this or that kind of thing or trinket or firearm or method of producing something or printing press or glass or musical instrument or Connecticut clocks or the first refrigerators or ice-making machines or new locks or new elevators, and on and on and on and on and on it goes. I forget who — it may have been Charles Seller — who said if you want to see the Market Revolution happening go study the Archives of the U.S. Patent Office. I’ve always found that kind of research rather boring, but I think he had a point. Now —
Change as Precursor to Reform: A Historical Perspective
In any society changing this much, this fast, doubling its own population — doubling — in twenty-five years. If the rate of population growth of the United States between 1820 and 1850 had sustained over time, we’d have today approximately one and a half billion people in the United States. Now it didn’t, and we had these World Wars and we had all this history in between. What do we have now, 300 million? If the rate of growth had sustained, that’s what the population would’ve been. Any era of great change, great ferment, usually causes reform, anxiety, people who get worried, want to change things.
We’ve probably had four major periods in American history of — there’s one other picture I wanted to put up. Oh, I’ll leave that little girl up. She’s much better than the — . I had a picture of the Lowell Mills insignia but you don’t need that. We have probably four great reform periods in American history. Now, and by reform I mean a period in which people became professional reformers. Movements, organizations, societies — whole newspapers came into existence, magazines came into existence — to either eradicate something, to change something, or to build something. Fundamental challenges to the social order. The first is this era, of the 1820s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, Antebellum America, exemplified most obviously by the anti-slavery movement, which is where we’re going to get to as we leave today. Of course, there were many other reform movements at the time. The second great reform era is the Progressive Era, a great response to urbanization, industrialization and immigration, as it had never quite happened before. The third is in all likelihood the New Deal, the Great Depression, the incredible emergencies and crises of what governments owe their people and people owe their governments that the Great Depression caused. And the New Deal brought a fundamental new set of approaches, ideas, which we’re still debating today; it’s all over our political culture whether it’s named or not. And the fourth one is the ’60s. There it had less to do often with social forms of reform — although that’s not entirely true — than it had to do with the Civil Rights revolution and the Vietnam War.
In American history our reform crusades have usually had to do with one of several objects or purposes or problems. The first is the industrializing process. And we’ve been living the history of how to reform the industrializing process, and now the post-industrializing process, ever since our first market revolution — we’re still living it. Why are we having a debate over Social Security? The second is racial equality, and we’re still having that reform movement. Well, or are we? The third is gender equality; that’s at least as old as abolitionism. The fourth is war, and we got peace movements in American history and anti-war fervor and ferment, of all kinds, for a very long time. And the fifth kind of American reform — and here it takes on sometimes some distinctive, distinctly American forms — is religious and individual morality; movements of piety, movements that try to define deviance in others, and try to reform others to a certain personal conception of faith, or religion, or behavior.
But whenever we’ve had a reform era there’s been a big issue, or two or three or four. That’s why all these arguments that we all get into these days about third-party political candidates — what do we really need in our political culture, what would break apart the stagnation of our two-party system, if that’s what people want — or put more directly, will Michael Bloomberg run or not? I always throw that back at people and say, damn it, read some history. There’s never been a successful third-party political culture take hold in this country without one really big issue to drive it. Name that issue that Michael Bloomberg would use. I’m a billionaire and you can be too? [laughter] That’s unfair. I know, he’s a nice guy.
Let me just end here with this. To be anti-slavery in America by the 1820s and 1830s was to face a host of barriers — and I’ll come back to these barriers next time — a host of barriers. The sanctity of the U.S. Constitution, the depth of that pro-slavery argument, which northern abolitionists over time had to actually come to realize even existed — and they began to realize it existed in the 1820s and ’30s. They faced tremendous barriers. There was no good reason in the world that an abolitionist in the 1830s, ’40s, and even the ’50s, had any right to believe they would see the end of slavery in their lifetime.
And last point. One of the barriers — think about this — one of the barriers that an anti-slavery — if you were worried about slavery in America, its expansion, its influence in the government, what it did to free labor, how it might retard that market revolution that you wanted your children to benefit from, whatever position you might end up taking between 1830 and 1860 that made you at least suspicious of slavery, whatever you thought of African-Americans — one of the barriers you’re up against is the simple fact that the United States was a republic, and that the side that owned those slaves, that vast slave society, half of the United States — it’s still half the States in 1850 — they were free, their leaders at least, were free to defend their system. They were free to dissent. And they were republicans, small r, too. The greatest tragedy of American history arguably is that this struggle could not be decided by debate.