Secession and Racism

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    My friend sent me this lecture today given by a guy named Tim White back in around 2006. The lecture, entitled “The Pathology of White Privilege” is mostly about what he explains as societies systemic problem of racism and white privilege, institutional racism, etc. It’s hard to tell exactly what his thesis is, but in general it’s something like “Racism is still a systemic problem here and now, especially the fact of white privilege. It is a much larger problem than most white people are of'” [NOTE: That’s not a direct quote from him]. Here’s the link:

    Anyway, the talk is an hour long and you don’t need to listen to all of it. The couple of points he makes about the Civil War era (and the 17th century colonies) are what I found especially interesting, and I thought people might want to respond to them. [They are presented in the midst of a longer narrative at the 33 – 38 minute marks] Here they are:

    (1) The elite in Virginia, and other colonies, gave special privileges to poor white Europeans in order to maintain their high status and to outnumber the lower classes of blacks and whites who commonly stirred up rebellions.

    (2) The ONLY reason ever given publicly for secession by the secessionists was the protection of slavery as an institution and its expansion into new territory. Now we lie about it and say it was about states’ rights.


    His thesis sounds similar to the one referenced here; that racism is wrong, thus we need to talk about how evil whitey (exclusively) is, and tendentiously and mendaciously slant the narrative to present Whitey as uniquely wicked, because that’s how you fight racism. Any comparison of this method of activist historiograpy to that of Streicher in his prime or of Goebbels would, of course, be inappropriate. However I will note that this sort of thing is a prime example of the progressive-as-therapeutic-manager-of-public-opinion rather than historian.

    That said I second your interest in how the professors here would respond to your points (1) and (2). I tend to share Kelley Ross’s position on the whole Civil War thing.


    For secession in 1860-61, I recommend four books: Freehling & Simpson’s SECESSION DEBATED: GEORGIA’S SHOWDOWN IN 1860, a short collection of primary documents which makes clear why Georgia seceded; the same editors’ SHOWDOWN IN VIRGINIA: THE 1861 CONVENTION AND THE FATE OF THE UNION, which shows why Virginia — after at first voting before Lincoln’s inauguration not to secede — finally voted to secede after seeing his presidency’s early weeks; Dew’s APOSTLES OF DISUNION: SOUTHERN SECESSION COMMISSIONERS AND THE CAUSES OF THE CIVIL WAR, which briefly gives you the general answer for the Deep South; and Crofts’ RELUCTANT CONFEDERATES, which explains why the Middle South seceded.


    THanks for the recommendations Dr. Gutzman


    “Secession Debated” is worthwhile, as is “Showdown in VA,” and Crofts’s book is required reading in grad school on the topic, but I would avoid Dew’s book. It is an open polemic against “neo-confederates” and his “evidence” is often cherry picked to fit his agenda, namely that only a defense of slavery drove secession during Dec-Jan 60 and 61. For example, several of these “apostles” visited Delaware in 1861 and catered their speeches to the views of that State, namely they promoted the economic motivation for joining with the Confederacy over pro-slavery sentiment. Of course, DE did not secede, but it probably would have if MD had not been coerced to stay in the Union by the Lincoln administration.

    Certainly, the public declarations for secession expressly stated that Northern hostility to slavery caused the separation, but there were many Southerners uncomfortable with this position, and if the protection of slavery was the only issue, why did the South reject Corwin’s proposed 13th Amendment, which would have prohibited the central government from interfering with slavery in States where it already existed? It would have left the issue open in the territory, but according to many Southerners, the SCOTUS had already decided that problem with Dred Scott. We can argue how that would have been enforced, but many Southern leaders openly declared after 1857 that the issue was dead.

    Was racism involved in secession in 1860-61. Yes. Was racism involved in Republican promotion of “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men” from 1854 forward. Yes. Were 19th century Americans racist (including Honest Abe and most Notherners)? Yes. Did Northern theological instruction contribute to a Biblical defense of slavery in the South? Yes. When people start placing racism front and center as “the” issue in 1860 and 1861 it distorts the picture into a “good vs. bad” moral crusade won by the North, which was simply not the case. The 1850s and 1860s were more complex and should be treated as such. Many Southerns believed that abolition would bring the same results as Haiti and Santo Domingo to the South, meaning the extermination of white Southerners. They had historical examples and thought that would be the natural outcome of such a move.

    Here are a couple of good older books that I think do a better job on secession than Freehling (an open anti-Southern historian), Dew, and Crofts:

    E. Merton Coulter: “The Confederate States of America.”

    L.Q.C. Lamar:

    Richard Taylor (son of Zachary Taylor):

    Benjamin H. Hill:

    B.H. Wise:

    Dwight Dumond, “The Secession Movement 1860-1861,” and “Southern Editorials on Secession.” Should be able to find both in a good academic library.

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