Sixty pages into I’ll Take My Stand and we come to what is perhaps the most objectionable piece so far, at least if we’re to judge according to our liberalized public school-style education on the topic of the Civil War and its causes. Frank Lawrence Owsley’s piece, “The Irrepressible Conflict,” gets into exactly that, with all the subtlety and even-handedness of a vengeful rebel wielding a sledgehammer. The man clearly had a few bones to pick with the liberal, industrialized North, and he wasn’t afraid to show it.
Like the pieces before it, this essay is chiefly devoted to the analysis of Southern agrarian culture, and in particular, the causes and nature of the widening divide between it and the Northern industrialism in the years leading up to the Civil War. It’s a longer piece so in the interests of brevity, I’ll restrict this post to what is simply the most interesting part of his analysis: the problem of slavery.
“The eternal race question had reared itself. Negroes had come into the Southern Colonies in such numbers that people feared for the integrity of the white race. For the negroes were cannibals and barbarians, and therefore dangerous. No white man who had any contact with slavery was willing to free the slaves and allow them to dwell among the whites. Slaves were a peril, at least a risk, but free blacks were considered a menace too great to be hazarded.” (77)
He goes on to mention the brutal spectacles of bloodletting that came to be known as the slave revolts of Santo Domingo and Haiti, in which the whites on the island were driven to extermination and the entire infrastructure of civilization that had been started there was willfully demolished by the newly-freed slaves. The legacies of these events still haunt much of the Caribbean today, in fact.
Now it probably goes without saying that passages like this would never be assigned reading in modern schools except as a means of vilifying Southern Agrarianism in its entirety, to say nothing of further highlighting the inherent villainy of the supposed “white race.” It’s true enough that the freed blacks of the North weren’t, in general, the feral beasts whose wills were subservient to their passions, nor did they exist in such numbers or concentration as to be a civilizational threat. It’s true also that, as Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America, the blacks of the North often faced harsher de facto racism—and likely reciprocated it—than the enslaved blacks of the South did prior to emancipation. But it is also true that, generally speaking, the slaves of the South were not invited to partake in the civilization they were demanded to serve; as a result, the children and grandchildren of the peoples enslaved by neighboring tribesmen of Africa grew up with only the loosest sense of cultural identity, a lack of historical knowledge regarding both their own people and the people that they were in shackles to, and of course, they were often denied the basic education taken for granted today. This made an already difficult problem nigh-unsolvable.
Which is what Owsley points out. Efforts at deportation and recolonization in Africa—the Liberian experiment—were costly, inefficient, and too subject to failure, or at least Owsley claims. In reality, they were costly and inefficient, but the Liberian political scene and domestic life remained remarkably stable all the way up into the mid-twentieth century, when communist and revolutionary ideas spread throughout the country and turned the place into yet another example of a failed African state.
He does mention, however, that the introduction of the cotton gin made it nearly impossible for the South to accept emancipation of the slaves, an idea that they may have been willing to entertain prior to that development but certainly not afterward. This is a strikingly economic argument, which seems to contradict his earlier point that the slavery of the South did not underpin the existence of the South’s agrarian nature. While ostensibly true, the absence of the institution would have meant that the South would likely never have been economically viable enough to offer any feasible political resistance to the Northern alternatives in the first place, much less fund a war.
It is because of this acceptance of the institution—both in the South and even in the North, implicitly—that Owsley claims this:
“They had considered emancipation honestly and fairly and had found it out of the question. Their skirts were clear. Let the blood of slavery rest upon the heads of those who had forced it upon the South.” (78)
What Owsley is saying here, as he mentions in the following paragraphs, is that the notion of the complete abolition of slavery across the South was a radical position that Northerners embraced, completely ignorant as to the nature of the situation in the region. And while he paints slavery with perhaps too lenient a brush, his fundamental point is nonetheless worth considering. The abrupt change in the way of life in the South that the abolitionists desired (and eventually got), themselves removed from the consequences of that action, indicate a gross negligence on their part. The question of what to do with the slaves was never fully answered; it simply changed its shape a little bit. Ironically, the same could be said for the Civil Rights period that occurred a century later. The time that transpired between the two events is riddled with reactions to the former.
A good book that covers a lot of the build-up to the Civil War in detail is Christopher Ferrera’s Liberty: The God That Failed. I don’t have the space to go into it in detail here, but many of the points Owsley raises in this piece are effectively demolished by Ferrera’s admittedly anti-Confederate analysis of the build-up to the war.
I’ll end it here tonight because this is already longer than I had intended, but Owsley’s piece goes on to mention other interesting aspects about the dynamic between federal and state power, particularly in how it relates to business and regulation. We’ll look at that tomorrow.