[This piece will be appearing in newspapers in my Confederate area sometime in November, 2022.]
More than a century and a half after the Civil War, the Confederacy looms large in the identity of many people. Or at least an image of the Confederacy.
Teaching American history led to me to study that era in some depth, and this is how I believe the Confederacy should be understood.
For starters, the Confederacy was formed for one central reason: to maintain the ability of the slave-economy to expand. For decades before the Civil War, this goal had dictated the politics of the South on practically every issue that arose. And when the slave states seceded, their pronouncements were quite open about the centrality of the slave issue.
Another key reality in that picture is that the slavery-based economy served only the interests of a ruling elite. That elite consisted of a relatively few owners of very large plantation with a great many slaves – people whose power and wealth were both dependent on slavery.
For most other white Southerners, the system for which the Confederacy fought the Civil War was actually contrary to their economic interests.
That the slave-system was injurious to most Southern whites can be inferred from the decisions made by the many immigrants (mainly Irish) entering the United States in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Overwhelmingly, they decided to settle in the North, avoiding the South because they didn’t want to compete against (unpaid) slave labor. They understood that the slave system impoverishes paid workers — which means it kept most Southern whites poorer.
The slave-based economy inevitably generated great inequalities – of wealth and power – between a ruling elite and the rest of the whites. (The economy of the North did not generate inequalities of that magnitude until the latter part of the 19th century.)
Generations of such inequality – starting two centuries before the Civil War — enabled this elite to shape the region’s culture to serve its purposes. We can infer such power from the striking fact that the ruling elite was able to raise an army – mostly of men who’d be better off if the slave system disappeared – to fight for that system. (Persuaded that “Southern honor” was insulted by criticism of the South’s great “Peculiar institution.”)
What starts coming into focus is that the ruling group behind the creation of the Confederacy and the choice to go to war was bound to be shaped – in both thought and character – by the Spirit of Domination.
Slavery itself, of course, is an extreme form of domination. And, unsurprisingly, this dominant class – dependent on slavery for both power and wealth — developed an ideology that justified their ownership of the human beings they enslaved.
On the eve of the Civil War, one of the Confederacy’s best leaders (its Vice President, Alexander Stephens) provided the rationale for that domination, and for the formation of the Confederacy: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea [i.e. opposite of the idea that “all men are created equal”]; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”
The system that shaped the thought of the South’s ruling class also, over the generations, had shaped that class’s character. One big slave-holder – the very one who’d also written that “all men are created equal, i.e. Thomas Jefferson – wrote about the morally corrosive effects of slavery:
“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other….The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.”
Not only had this class achieved domination over their slaves, and over the rest of the White population, but also – from the nation’s founding in 1789 to the election of Lincoln in 1860 – been dominant in the American government. The historical record shows that the slave-holding class was disproportionately represented among the Presidents, Speakers of the House, and Justices of the Supreme Court.
(The Constitution itself helped confer that dominance, e.g. with three-fifths rule that gave the rulers of the slave states virtual “proxy votes” for the slaves they owned.)
That ruling elite, bred by the slave-system for dominance, also had a corresponding abhorrence for being in a subordinate position. For in the world of this elite, the figure of the black slave greatly defined the meaning of subordination: a frightening meaning articulated in the Dred Scot decision, that the black “had no rights the white man was bound to respect.”
Those two passions combined to drive that ruling elite to refuse to accept living under a President-elect who opposed them. And then to refuse to submit their fate to the Rule of Law to settle the disagreement about their right to break up the Union.
This – the insistence on domination, the manipulation of those who died in their service, the refusal to submit to the order that had put them on top for four score years — is the spirit behind the Confederacy that generations of Southern whites have been persuaded to idolize.
Can you spot the major elements of this basic pattern that are visible in America today?