Fear of Emancipation

Yesterday’s Disunion blog in the New York Times, written by Daniel R. Crofts, focuses on Daniel W. Cobb, a substantial slaveholding farmer in Southampton County, Virginia.  The article explores Cobb’s gradual transformation from a unionist to a “Susseader,” a pattern common in the Upper South before the Civil War.

In his piece, Croft alludes to an event in Southampton County thirty years before that shook the entire antebellum South: Nat Turner’s Rebellion.  In August 1831, Nat Turner, a literate slave preacher, feeling inspired by God, led an uprising in the county that resulted in the deaths of over 50 white residents.  Although quickly suppressed, Nat Turner’s Rebellion resulted in a backlash in which several hundred African Americans, many innocent, were killed and state legislatures throughout the South passed repressive laws outlawing teaching slaves to read and write, mandating white ministers be present at slave worship services, and tightening restrictions on free blacks.

Perhaps more important, Nat Turner’s Rebellion became for southern whites a preview of the race war they were convinced would follow a general emancipation, much as the Haitian Revolution of the 1790s had been for an earlier generation.  Only the discipline imposed by slaveholders could restrain what they believed was the violent barbarism of their slaves.  Hence, even the slightest threat to slavery raised in many white Southerners a deep fear that does much to explain their emotional reaction to Abraham Lincoln’s election.  Without the ability to expand the institution many of them believed slavery was doomed to die and be followed by an orgy of violence as ex-slaves turned on whites.

In early February 1861, the white South was still greatly divided on how to act on the fear of emancipation prompted by Lincoln’s election.  February 4, 1861 is a pivotal day in illustrating the two directions those sentiments were taking.  On February 4 in Montgomery, Alabama, delegates from six Lower South states gathered to organize a national government for themselves that would result in the formation of the Confederacy.  Yet the same day another convention assembled at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. to attempt a last ditch compromise that might still hold the Union together.  The convention brought together representatives from the northern states and the Upper South.  Indeed, the call for the convention had come from the Virginia legislature which was seeking to resurrect something akin the Crittenden compromise that had failed in the U.S. Congress in December 1860, but had promised constitutional guarantees for the protection of slavery and its ability to continue expanding south of the old Missouri Compromise line of 36 degrees, 30 minutes north.

So despite the remedy that divided the rival delegates in Montgomery and Washington what united them was a nagging fear of emancipation.  This blog will return to these gatherings over this month to remember their respective remedies to quiet these fears through secession or conditional unionism.

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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