I shared in my last post the concern that the recent scrutiny of the Confederate battle flag may simply end up replacing one myth about the American Civil War with a different one. On the plus side, most of the online chatter has rightly dismissed the postwar southern invention that the conflict had little to do with slavery. On the minus side, much of the editorial opinion I’ve read implicitly promotes the postwar northern fiction that the conflict was first and foremost a moral struggle over the institution. Both views are wrong, and both prevent us from reckoning honestly with our nation’s racial history.
As I explained last time, the Civil War was never a clear-cut struggle between defenders and opponents of slavery. While the white South was nearly unanimous in its defense of human bondage, the North was badly divided. To generalize broadly: the cause of Union unified the North, the cause of emancipation divided it, badly blurring the distinction between the two sides.
For different reasons, it’s likewise true that the war was never an unambiguous contest over racial equality. On this issue, the opinions of whites in North and South were almost—if not quite—interchangeable. The range of attitudes was undoubtedly greater in the North than in the South, but in both regions the vast majority of whites took white supremacy for granted and denounced all appeals for racial equality. Much of the condemnation of white southern racism during the debate over the Confederate battle flag has left the mistaken impression that the men who marched under the Stars and Stripes had significantly different views.
I won’t take the time to overload you with examples, but here are just a few observations that hint attest to the pattern I am describing. I’ll concentrate on white northern attitudes:
Let’s begin in the late 1850s. In many of the eighteen free states, adults could easily remember a time when bondage had been legal in their own neighborhoods. Slavery had been legal in all of the original thirteen colonies at the beginning of the American Revolution, but the northern states began to phase out the institution after the achievement of independence. They typically did so very gradually, however, commonly passing what are known as “post-natal” statutes that only freed slaves not yet born. Pennsylvania was the first to act in 1780 and set a pattern that was widely followed. The Pennsylvania law stipulated that no slaves currently living would ever be freed, but that any future children born to enslaved mothers would be freed on their twenty-eighth birthday. Other northern states followed suit, with New Jersey being the last to act in 1804 when it declared that all slaves not yet born would be free when they reached adulthood. This gradual approach minimized the financial impact of emancipation on slaveholders and insured that slavery would linger in the North, although in increasingly small numbers, all the way up to the Mexican War.
As enslaved African Americans made the transition from slavery to freedom in the North, they quickly discovered that “freedom” did not mean equality. Five states (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Oregon) legally prohibited free blacks from settling within their borders or required them to post prohibitive bonds for “good behavior.” In the remaining states, blacks were relegated to the most menial, low-paying jobs; consigned to segregated schools, when schools for blacks even existed; often prohibited from giving testimony in courts; always barred from serving on juries; and in the vast majority of cases, disqualified from voting explicitly because of their race. (When the Civil War ended, nineteen of twenty-four Union states still disfranchised black voters. Those that allowed blacks to vote were typically New England states with minuscule black populations. Overall, only 6-7 percent of adult black males could legally vote in the North at war’s end.)
In northern politics, race was a combustible theme throughout the 1850s and 1860s. Both major parties recognized its power. Generalizing broadly, northern Democrats sought to score points with northern voters by convincing them that the reason Republicans opposed the extension of slavery was that they favored racial equality. Republicans tried to deflect such charges by assuring northern voters that they were as committed as anyone to white supremacy. Where both parties clearly agreed was in their reading of the northern electorate. No political movement could expect broad success across the North if voters became convinced that they questioned the hierarchy of the races.
Such racially charged politics pervaded the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. In their contest for a U. S. Senate seat from Illinois, the two future presidential candidates perfectly modeled the larger strategy. For his part, the Democrat Douglas continually charged that Lincoln and his Republican Party were a bunch of abolitionist fanatics with radical views on race. According to Douglass, the Republicans
“really think that under the Declaration of Independence the negro is equal to the white man, and that negro equality is an inalienable right conferred by the Almighty, and hence that all human laws in violation of it are null and void. With such men it is no use for me to argue. I hold that the signers of the Declaration of Independence had no reference to negroes at all when they declared all men to be created equal. They did not mean negroes, nor the savage Indians, nor the Fiji Islanders, nor any other barbarous race. They were speaking of white men. They alluded to men of European birth and European descent—to white men, and to none others—when they declared that doctrine. I hold that this Government was established on the white basis. It was established by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and should be administered by white men, and none others.”
This was race-baiting with a vengeance. While I find no evidence that Lincoln ever similarly pandered to white racism—intentionally trying to whip up a crowd with cheap racist remarks—he understood full well that he had to convince voters that Douglas was wrong if his campaign was to survive. And so he sought to persuade the audience that it was possible to oppose slavery without favoring the end of all racial distinction. Lincoln confessed his belief that slavery was a “moral, social, and political evil.” He admitted his opinion that the black man had just as much right as the white to “earn his bread by the sweat of his brow.” But this need not lead to complete racial equality, Lincoln explained.
“I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races: that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people. . . . And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
Northern racism kept the Republican Party on the defensive throughout the war. By all accounts, it was more virulent in the lower North than in the upper North, stronger in the Midwest than in New England, more pronounced in cities than in the countryside, more common among immigrants and blue-collar workers than among native-born Americans and farmers. Catholic archbishop John Hughes spoke for New York City’s massive Irish population when he insisted that Catholics “are willing to fight to the death for the support of the Constitution, the government, and the laws of the country. But if . . . they are to fight for the abolition of slavery,” he declared, “they will turn away in disgust from the discharge of what would otherwise be a patriotic duty.”
Class animosities also figured prominently in attacks on the Republican campaign against slavery. New York City’s Democratic newspapers argued that emancipation would eventually lead to a mass exodus of newly freed bondsmen from the South to northern cities, where they would compete for jobs with working class whites and drive down wage levels. Campaigners in 1862 for New York gubernatorial candidate Horatio Seymour announced that “a vote for Seymour is a vote to protect our white laborers against the association and competition of Southern Negroes.” Such working-class resentment of blacks reached its pinnacle in July 1863 when New Yorkers rioted for four days in protest of the new federal Conscription Act. During the New York City Draft Riots, as they are known, angry Irish laborers trashed African-American homes, burned an African-American orphanage to the ground, and lynched a half-dozen black New Yorkers.
Racism was almost as pronounced in the Midwest. Republican politicians from the region lamented that it was ubiquitous. Republican Congressman George Julian of Indiana confided in a letter, “Our people hate the Negro with a perfect if not a supreme hatred.” Republican Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois agreed. “There is a great aversion in the West . . . against having free negroes come among us,” Trumbull conceded. “Our people want nothing to do with the negro.” The Chicago Times spoke for a broad swath of Midwestern sentiment when it blasted Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Alluding to Lincoln’s allusion to “the proposition that all men are created equal,” the Times editorialized:
“It was to uphold this Constitution, and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg. How dare he, then, standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.”
Race continued to be a powerful weapon in the presidential campaign of 1864. Seeking to protect themselves from Democratic charges that they favored black equality, the Republicans took two steps aimed at redirecting the voters’ attention away from the controversial emancipation policy. First, they temporarily abandoned the “Republican” label and ran instead under the banner of the “National Union” Party, a transparent attempt to make loyalty to the Union, rather than support for emancipation, the defining issue of the campaign. Second, they scratched the current vice-president from the ticket. Vice President Hannibal Hamlin of Maine was widely perceived as a man of radical racial views, and some Democrats had even insinuated that the supposedly swarthy Hamlin was a mulatto. To replace him the Republicans opted for an individual that no one ever accused of liberal racial views, the current military governor of Union-occupied Tennessee, Andrew Johnson. A staunch southern unionist who hated slaveholders and slaves alike, Johnson would later publicly proclaim in his 1867 State of the Union address that blacks possessed “less capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary, wherever they have been left to their own devices they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism.”
While the Republicans tried to soft-pedal emancipation in the campaign, northern Democrats did everything they could to emphasize the issue, always linking Republican support for emancipation to the party’s supposed commitment to full racial equality. There was no subtlety in Democrats’ playing of the race card. They lampooned Lincoln as “Abraham Africanus I” and insisted that he and his Republican Party wanted nothing so much as a thoroughgoing intermixture of the races on terms of complete equality. Democrats coined a new term in the 1864 campaign—miscegenation—and informed voters that the creation of a mongrel race that was neither black nor white was the Republicans’ true objective. Democratic pamphlets and broadsides told voters that the Republicans wanted ex-slaves and Irishmen to intermarry, and Democratic artists imagined a ballroom of interracial couples celebrating a Republican victory.
No, the Civil War was not a referendum on racial equality. Next time we’ll talk about what to make of this fact.