Understanding the Slaves’ Power – Now and Then

Yesterday’s Disunion blog in the New York Times has a nice piece by John Ashworth, of the University of Nottingham, entitled “What the South Got Wrong.”  Ashworth explores the miscalculations by the South that helped lead to the Civil War and ultimately to the Confederacy’s defeat.

One of the major miscalculations the white South made, according to John Ashworth, was about their own slaves.  He writes:

Southerners utterly failed to see the threat presented to them by their own slaves, whose racial inferiority, they sincerely believed, made them ideally suited to enslavement. Since the 1950s and 1960s historians have understood that the slaves in reality longed for liberty. But until recently they have made the same error as Southerners (and Northerners) in assuming that this desire for freedom, and the resistance to slavery that flowed from it, played no part in the coming of the Civil War. In fact, as I have tried to show in my own published works, black resistance was a vital cause of the conflict between North and South. Furthermore, it was – and here we encounter the supreme irony – a vital cause of Southern defeat when that conflict erupted into violence.

Black resistance suffused the sectional conflict from the start. If the slaves had been truly contented in their enslavement, they would not have tried to escape. There would thus have been no political controversy over the fugitive slave issue, a controversy which provoked outrage in the North when Northerners were required to assist Southerners in recovering their “property.” (This outrage produced in 1852 history’s greatest work of antislavery propaganda: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”)

Moreover, Southerners, assuming blacks’ innate suitability for enslavement, misinterpreted black resistance when it did surface. According to Sen. Thomas Clingman of North Carolina, there was “in fact about as much reason to apprehend a general insurrection of the horses as of the slaves when left to themselves.” The slightest act of defiance, the slightest sign of unrest or even the potential for hostility were invariably attributed to outside influences, whether Northern abolitionists, Republicans like Abraham Lincoln or Southern “traitors.” The South’s vulnerability to pressure from either Northern antislavery groups or those few antislavery Southerners in reality stemmed from the slaves’ longing for freedom; the antislavery cause would have been doomed if the slaves had indeed been suited to slavery. But to this the secessionists were blind.

For this blindness the Southerners would pay the ultimate price during the war itself. In the final months of the conflict the Southern social order unravelled as, given the opportunity presented by the oncoming Union armies, the slaves fled by the tens of thousands. Slaveholders were genuinely astonished and dismayed. They even felt let down. They had already learned that war was not the wild improbability they had assumed. They had also learned that thimbles and pocket handkerchiefs would not be enough to dispose of the blood shed in such a war. Now they discovered that blacks were not nearly as content in their enslavement as they had supposed.

At a time when many northern leaders were still desperately trying to appease the South, it is not hard to understand how the white South could have so badly misunderstood its true position.  In February 1861, people would have found it hard to believe the idea that freedom for the slaves would come in only a few years hence.  We can more easily in hindsight see the forces gathering then that made emancipation possible.  Steven Hahn alluded to them last weekend in Disunion and now so has John Ashworth.

But there were a few persons in February 1861 that had a sense of slave’s potential to help achieve their liberation.  One of them was Wendell Phillips, perhaps the finest abolitionist orator in a movement that produced so many of them.  15o years ago today, February 17, 1861, addressing an audience in Boston’s Music Hall, Phillips uttered words both uncannily perceptive and prophetic, although at the time they would have struck even a sympathetic audience as fanciful.

Phillips stated: “The slaves are not a herd of vassals.  They are a nation, four millions strong; having the same right of revolution that Hungary and Florence have.  I acknowledge the right of two million and a half white people in the seven seceding states to organize their government as they choose.  Just as freely I acknowledge the right of four million black people to organize their [emphasis in the original] government, and to vindicate that right by arms.”

Later he added: “I hesitate not to say that I prefer an insurrection which frees the slave in ten years to slavery for a century.  A slave I pity.  A rebellious slave I respect. . . . I know what anarchy is.  I know what civil war is.  I can imagine the scenes of blood through which a rebellious slave population must march to their rights.  They are dreadful.  And yet, I do not know, that, to an enlightened mind, a scene of civil war is any more sickening than the thought of one hundred fifty years of slavery.”

It is easy for John Ashworth and other historians today (including myself) to see the potential of the slaves to help gain their own freedom.  It was a feat of perceptive faith that Wendell Phillips was able to understand the same thing 150 years ago today.

For the full text of Wendell Phillips address of February 17, 1861, see: Disunion: Two Discourses at Music Hall, on January 20th, and February 17, 1861 (Boston: Robert F. Wallcut, 1861), 27-46, available via Google Books.  Quoted above from Phillips are pp. 37-38.

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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