I'm working away on a paper on what I like to refer to as the ideological origins of secession -- the constellation of ideas about the centrality of slavery to Southern life and how slavery was threatened by Lincoln's election -- and events in the North more generally. It's the bookend of University, Court, and Slave, which tries to tie together the ideas and economic and demographic reality of slavery that gripped the south in the decades leading into war with their role in the coming of war. I'm very much looking forward to talking with my friends at the University of Florida about this on March 21. I guess I might have called it the constitutional origins of secession but I didn't want to seem to be legitimizing the southern constitutional arguments or making it seem as though I thought that secession was constitutional. So instead I'm cribbing the title of one of my favorite works of history -- Bernard Bailyn's Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.
Little bit of background here -- there's a really important question about just what would have happened to slavery had war not intervened -- would slavery, as many in the south after the war said, have ended pretty quickly? In some ways this lets the south off the moral hook rather easily -- as in it suggests that slavery was on the way out (both economically and morally) and it calls into question the need for the enormous sacrifices of war.
....Or would slavery have continued for decades, just as Jim Crow did. Part of this question turns on how people think about the economics of slavery; it used to be assumed that slavery was inefficient. This is partly due to the pre-war southern argument that slavery was hindering the growth of industry in the south (this was employed by anti-slavery southerners and also by some proslavery southerners who wanted to make it appear that they were making sacrifices for the benefit of their enslaved property). But more recent investigations -- for instance Gavin Wright's Political Economy of the Cotton South -- points to a rather different picture -- one of a healthy institution of extracting labor at a relatively low cost. I'm on the side of this would have continued for a long while -- though I suppose that eventually the North would have stopped it.
For this purpose, though, I want to go back to the time in the fall of 1860 when white southerners were thinking that their way of life was imminently threatened. What interests me about this is that Southerners spoke often in terms of a series of ideas -- the centrality of slavery to southern life; the constitution's protection of slavery; and the North's violation of the South's constitutional rights. A couple weeks back I wrote about why historians haven't focused so much on the constitutional rhetotic. But whatever the reasons for overlooking the constitutional arguments, I think there are some important reasons to spend some time with it now -- for the constitutional arguments help us understand what Southerners were thinking and they point out some of the ways that the Supreme Court and public constitutional arguments added to the South's claims.
Three points here. First, the constitutional arguments were seen as part of the larger understanding of the centrality of slavery. Southerners understood that the constitutional arguments by themselves had little weight -- they repeatedly said that the North had to support slavery, or the constitutional arguments would be ineffective. Thus, even southerners saw the constitutional arguments as a framing device, something that helped them understand their world. We should bear this in mind when we start wondering how much power ideas have by themselves. Second, the constitutional arguments had several key components -- first, that the Constitution recognized slavery, such as with the fugitive slave clause and with the recognition that slaves were the basis for apportionment of representation; second, that the states were equal and that the federal governmentcould discriminate against the states (such as impose disproportionate tarrifs on products of slave labor); and third that attempts to undermine that recognition were themselves unconstitutional. The election of Lincoln, for instance, was framed as the violation of the spirit of the Constitution's protection of slavery. Third, the Constitution's recognition of slavery -- as affirmed by decades of writing by southern politicians, judges, and academics -- added further legitimacy to the South's case. That is, just as Brown v. Board of Education legitimized those who sought to destroy Jim Crow a century later, decisions like Prigg v. Pennsylvania and Dred Scott legitimized the South's case.
I am in complete agreement with the great weight of historians who see the economic and demographic reality of slavery behind the South's move towards Civil War. What I want to introduction to the discussion is a renewed focus on how public constitutional ideas help us understand the move towards war and also how those ideas helped frame and give shape to the move towards war. Those public understandings of the Constitution added amplitude to the Southern support for secession. I think the secession debates can be a vehicle for seeing how public constitutional arguments frame and shape political behavior; they also suggest how economic and demographic reality shape public understanding of the Constitution.
The final piece of this story is how southerners were so adament about their constitutional rights that they went to war, which brought down slavery much sooner than it would have ended without war. As happens so often when people resort to violence they accomplish exactly the opposite of what they intend. And for our liberation as a people we should, I think, be grateful for the war and cherish the memories of the suffering that made that liberation possible.
In the next couple of weeks I hope to talk a little bit more about some of these points -- especially Southern academics' writings about political theory that moved us from Enlightenment ideas of universal equality to a sense that some people should labor for others; Southern academics' writings about history and economy, which supported the belief that slavery was central to Southern society and could not be ended; and about the specific arguments made by academics like James Henley Thornwell, Thomas Cobb, and University of Virginia law professor James Holcombe during the secession debates.
Update: Here is a podcast of my talk.