1. The Ethic of Subsistence and the Origins of Southern Secession
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1 The Ethic of Subsistence and the Origins of South­ ern Secession In the spring of 1984, the legislature of Maryland undertook to modify the words of the state’s famous anthem, “Maryland, My Maryland,” written in the far more passionate spring of 1861 by James Ryder Randall. Enraged by the violence that had surrounded General Benjamin Butler’s efforts in April to get his frightened Massachusetts militiamen through Baltimore, on their way to Wash­ ing­ ton, Randall had dashed off his poem as a call to his fellow Marylanders to join the Confederate cause. His summons contained the stirring admonition, “The despot’s heel is on thy shore! / His torch is at thy temple door!” These sentiments have proven too strong for the legislators who today guide Maryland’s destiny. They have voted their preference instead for the following doggerel: “Oh, join we all to lift a song / To home and state we’ve loved so long.”The author of this sanitized rhyme is a Baltimore schoolteacher, Barbara Klender. Asked by the press to explain her desire to suppress Randall’s text, she said that she had found it impossible to explain to her pupils how Abraham Lincoln could have been considered a despot.1 Barbara Klender’s approach to his­ tori­ cal evidence has all too of­ ten been the refuge, as well, of professional historians: the document whose words prove inexplicable has an unfortunate tendency to disappear from the rec­ ord. We should consider, though, what might have been the salutary outcome if Klender had turned her talents from bowdlerizing and had instead asked her students to reflect seriously on the implications of Randall’s words. Imagine if she and her students had contemplated the possibility that many hundreds of thousands of Ameri­ cans might have believed President Lincoln to be a despot.Just conceivably,the exercise might have served to call into question one of America’s most enduring and delusory his­ tori­ cal myths. Many antebellum North­ ern Republicans, just as blind to antebellum South­ ern realities as Barbara Klender, had expected with the outbreak of fighting in 1861 a rapid South­ ern social disintegration under the stresses of war. For that matter, many Republicans expected something like a dis- 2 / Chapter 1 integration to arise eventually, whether there was a war or not.2 They found strong support for their belief in a volume by the North Carolina abolitionist Hinton Rowan Helper, The Impending Crisis of the South (1857). Helper argued strenuously that slavery as an institution had the effect of exploiting white nonslaveholders, preventing the development of the South­ ern economy and elevating white plantation owners to the status of a rul­ ing class. He predicted that these conditions would soon produce an internal crisis in the region.If many Republicans found Helper’s claims of inevitable antagonism between white slaveholders and nonslaveholders congenial, essentially all of them were even more certain of general enmity between the slaveholders and their slaves, and particularly so after the powerful fictional portrait of the relationship by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).3 The Republicans’ beliefs about South­ ern society implied the existence of fissures along which the South might be expected to crack. White nonslaveholders would resist secession; many would refuse to fight for the preservation of the institution that was the source of their degradation, and would desert if drafted; a substantial number would welcome the North­ ern liberators who promised to deliver the South from feudalism and to bestow upon it the blessings of democracy, free labor, and progress. The backward South­ ern economy would be unable to sustain the war effort. As the North­ ern armies approached, slaves promised their free­ dom would rise in revolt against their masters; this belief was in fact one of the sources of the Emancipation Proclamation. Nonslaveholder opposition, economic dislocation, and slave insurrection all portended a rapid South­ ern collapse. The South would fall from its own internal contradictions. In the event, this analy­ sis was not without some objective confirmation. The most important bit of evidence that it contained elements of truth is the state of West Virginia. Populated overwhelmingly by nonslaveholding white small farmers, the west­ ern counties of Virginia strongly discountenanced secession, and when the rest of the state forced it upon them, they proclaimed their own secession from Virginia and applied to the Congress for admission as a separate state. It was this path, or one closely resembling it, that...


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Subject Headings

  • Reconstruction (U.S. history, 1865-1877).
  • Civil rights -- United States -- History.
  • Southern States -- History -- 1865-1951.
  • Southern States -- History -- 1951-.
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