Provoking Total War and Devastation
Careful historians like to blame the War Between the States on fanatics of both North and South, though the fanatics seemed to primarily inhabit the North. The South by 1860 certainly had “the wolf by the ears” as Jefferson noted decades earlier, greatly fearing Santo Domingue-style race war and machete-wielding slaves in revolt. What was needed in 1860 was a well-reasoned and peaceful solution to the large number of enslaved Africans in the South, but none was offered by the transcendentalist-abolitionist sons of New England slave merchants who only preached slave revolts and rivers of blood.
Bernhard Thuersam, Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
Provoking Total War and Devastation:
“The potency of literature in the governance of men’s minds was forcibly shown when in 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe published her Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a work of popular fiction which set up a Christian martyr in black skin as hero, idealized the Negro, exaggerated his unhappiness in the South, and presented harrowing pictures of brutality. The book was universally read, 100,000 copies being sold within two months and 300,000 within a year. The south considered the book a slander, regarding it not incorrectly as an abolitionist tract. A Southern woman of spirit wrote of trying to read Uncle Tom, but added that she “could not”; it was too sickening.” Flesh and blood revolt,” she said, at such details as a “man sending his little son to beat a human being tied to a tree.”
The significance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as of similar mass attacks upon the popular mind, lay in the fact that the conflict of sections was becoming increasingly dramatized. Issues were becoming emotionalized; slogans were reducing public sentiment to stereotyped patterns; social psychology was approaching a hair-trigger instability. To this factor of mass psychology William H. Seward made a fateful contribution. Speaking at Rochester, New York, October 25, 1858, he said: “Shall I tell you what this collision means? They think that it is accidental, unnecessary, the work of interested or fanatical agitators, and therefore ephemeral, mistake the case altogether. It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slave-holding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation.” A year after the speech was delivered old John Brown of Osawatomie broke out with an insane attack upon slavery in Virginia; and the sensitive mind of the South put the two together: Seward, the Republican spokesman, was preaching the “irrepressible conflict”; John Brown was giving the illustration of it in blood and servile war!
Scorning the “milk-and-water” abolitionists of the parlor variety, John Brown had said: “What is needed is action—action!” Exalting this resolution to the self-immolating life-purpose of a martyr, he had sworn his sons to the support of his undertakings; and in the Pottawatomie massacre, albeit his complicity in this outrage was not generally known, he had demonstrated that murder in cold blood was part of his strategy. Tireless in his determined efforts, Brown obtained money and arms from respectable antislavery sources; established himself in Canada with a band of twelve whites and thirty-four Negroes; held a “Convention” (misrepresented as a meeting to organize a colored Masonic lodge); drew up a document called “Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States”; and concocted a daring plan for violent emancipation.
“Virginia, said Wendell Phillips, “is no government…Virginia, the Commonwealth of Virginia!…She is a pirate ship, and John Brown sails the sea a Lord High Admiral of the Almighty with his commission to sink every pirate he meets on God’s ocean of the nineteenth century.”
(Civil War and Reconstruction, J.G. Randall, D.C. Heath and Company, 1937, pp. 170-172)