Michael T. Griffith


@All Rights Reserved

Second Edition

In the 2003 Civil War movie Gods and Generals, the character of Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a famous Union officer, gives a brief, stirring speech to his brother, Tom, about slavery and the Confederate cause. In his short speech, Chamberlain presents a strong argument against the Confederate position. Says Chamberlain,

Now, somewhere out there is the Confederate army. They claim they are fighting for their independence, for their freedom. Now, I cannot question their integrity. I believe they are wrong, but I do not question it. But I do question the system that defends its own freedom while it denies it to others, to an entire race of men. I will admit it, Tom, war is a scourge, but so is slavery. It is the systematic coercion of one group of men over another.

Many people find this argument simple, logical, and powerful. After all, wasn’t it inconsistent for the Confederates to claim they were fighting for freedom and independence when at the same time they were keeping another group of people in bondage? Yes, this is a valid argument–up to a point. But it’s also an incomplete argument, and in some ways it’s an unfair argument. One reason this argument is both incomplete and unfair is that it ignores major inconsistencies in the North’s position.  For example, one could ask tough, critical questions about the North’s claim that it was fighting for freedom and for the preservation of the Union:

* How could the North claim it was fighting for freedom when the Union army was forcing Southern slaves to fight against their will, even when those slaves made it clear they didn’t want to leave their plantations and didn’t want to fight for the North?

* How could the North claim it was fighting for freedom when four of the Northern states were slave states and when some Northern states wouldn’t even allow free blacks to settle within their boundaries?

* How could the North claim it was fighting for freedom when it was trying to crush an independence movement? To put it another way, how could the North claim it was fighting for freedom when it was trying to conquer eleven states that had left the Union in a peaceful, democratic manner and that simply wanted to be left alone?

* How could the North claim it was justified in fighting to preserve the Union when the original Union was a voluntary compact between the states, and when the founding fathers had prohibited the federal government from using force against any of the states? Even President James Buchanan, who was president when the Deep South states seceded, said the federal government had no authority to use force against the seceded states. How can one rightfully attempt to preserve a democratic union by waging war to force eleven of its members to remain in it against their will?

* Wasn’t the North’s use of force against the Southern states fundamentally contrary to the Declaration of Independence, which says that governments derive their just powers "from the consent of the governed" and that a people have the natural, God-given right to sever existing political ties, to establish their own government, and to take their place among the family of nations?

A key argument that is implied in the movie character’s criticism is that the South did not deserve to be independent because slavery existed within its borders. Critics argue that not only was the South’s position inconsistent, but that the Southern states had no moral right to be independent and that therefore the North’s invasion was justified.

No Moral Right to Independence?

Did the South have no moral right to be independent because it permitted and upheld slavery? There’s no doubt that slavery was wrong and that it needed to be abolished. But, if the Southern states had no right to form their own government because slavery existed within their borders, then the American colonies had no right to form their own government either, since slavery existed in the colonies and since some of the colonies (especially the New England colonies) upheld and grew rich from the slave trade. British leaders noted this inconsistency during the American Revolution. They pointed out that some of the colonial leaders who were loudly demanding "freedom and independence" were slaveowners. If the existence of slavery within a nation’s borders means that nation has no right to exist, then America had no right to exist in the first place. In fact, the slaves may have been freed over thirty years sooner if the British had won the war, since England abolished slavery in 1833.

Every nation and region has its share of social injustices, and the South was certainly no exception. But what about the North? For starters, the New England states made large fortunes from the slave trade and from industries associated with that trade. Nearly all American slave ships were Northern-owned and operated from Northern ports.  Some Northern states continued to profit from the slave trade until just before the war started (John Tilley, The Coming of the Glory, Springfield, Tennessee: Nippert Publishing, 1995, reprint, pp. 1-13). Conditions on the New England slave ships were horrible. The slaves were kept below deck in cramped quarters and forced to sit or lie in their own urine and defecation. Not surprisingly, disease was rampant. The slaves were chained together by twos, hands and feet, and had no room to move around. Tens of thousands of slaves died on those slave ships.  In fact, the number of slaves who died on slave ships was far, far greater than the number of slaves who died from mistreatment on Southern plantations.

The North was home to a cruel form of wage slavery where factory workers, especially those who were immigrants, worked in terrible conditions for wages that were barely sufficient for basic existence. These workers were usually cast aside as soon as they ceased to be productive. On the other hand, many if not most slaves were fed, clothed, and housed for the duration of their lives, even after they grew old and could no longer work.  Even some modern scholars agree that many Northern wage-slave factory workers were materially worse off than most Southern plantation slaves (see, for example, John Garraty and Robert McCaughey, The American Nation: A History of the United States to 1877, New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1987, p. 385).

Most Northern states had "Black Codes" that severely discriminated against free blacks. As mentioned, some Northern states wouldn’t even allow free blacks to move into their territory. Let’s briefly consider the conditions in one such Northern state, Illinois, the "Land of Lincoln," a state that was described as a "free state" because it had abolished slavery. As of 1845, free blacks could not settle in Illinois unless they could prove their freedom and post a $1,000 bond. If a black did in fact have a certificate of freedom, under Illinois law "he and his family were required to meet reporting and registration procedures reminiscent of a totalitarian state," notes African-American scholar Lerone Bennett (Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream, Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, 2000, pp. 184-185). Bennett continues describing the conditions under which free blacks lived in Illinois,

The head of the family had to register all family members and provide detailed descriptions to the supervisor of the poor, who could expel the whole family at any moment.

Blacks who met these requirements were under constant surveillance and could be disciplined or arrested by any White. They could not vote, sue, or testify in court. . . .


[Abraham] Lincoln’s active and passive support, the state used violence to keep Blacks poor. Most trades and occupations were closed to them, and laws and customs made it difficult for them to acquire real estate. . . .

As for the pursuit of happiness . . . Blacks could not play percussion instruments, and any White could apprehend any slave or servant for "riots, routs, unlawful assemblies, trespasses and seditious speeches." It was a crime for any person to permit "any slave or slaves, servant or servants or color, to the number of three or more, to assemble in his, her or their house, out house, yard or shed for the purpose of dancing or reveling, either by night or by day. . . ." (Forced Into Glory, pp. 185-186)

Incidentally, Abraham Lincoln not only supported the Illinois Black Code, but he voted to deny blacks the right to vote and also voted "to tax Blacks to support White schools Black children couldn’t, in general, attend" (Forced Into Glory, p. 186).

In 1848 Illinois adopted a new constitution that made it illegal for blacks to settle in the state. It, like the previous statute, also prohibited them from voting and from serving in the militia. In 1853, the state legislature made it a crime, punishable by fine, for a black to settle in the state. If the violator couldn’t pay the fine, he or she could be sold by the sheriff to pay court costs. The architect of this Negro Exclusion Law was John Logan. During the Civil War, Lincoln named Logan to be a major general in the federal army.

In any discussion on the South and the Confederacy, critics invariably raise the issue of white supremacy. They are quick to point out that Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederate States, said that one of the foundational principles of the new government was that the white race was superior and that blacks were best suited for slavery. Said Stephens,

Our new government . . . rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. (Cornerstone Speech, March 21, 1861)

When critics quote this statement, they almost never inform the reader that, sad to say, most Americans at that time believed that whites were superior and that blacks and other minorities were inferior. One of those Americans was Lincoln himself, who said the following in 1858:

. . . anything that argues me into . . . [the] idea of perfect social and political equality with the negro is but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse chestnut to be a chestnut horse. . . . I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgment will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position. (Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, New York: The Library of America, 1989, edited by Don Fehrenbacher, pp. 511-512)

In another speech that he gave that year, Lincoln said much the same thing:

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 of the free negroes, or jurors, or qualifying them to hold office, or having them to marry white people. I will say in addition, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races, which, I suppose, will forever forbid the two races living together upon terms of social and political equality, and inasmuch as they cannot so live, that while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, that I as much as any other man am in favor of the superior position being assigned to the white man. (Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, p. 751)

Not only did most Americans believe that blacks and other minorities were inferior, but they believed that America was founded to be ruled by whites and for whites. Senator Stephen A. Douglas, a prominent Northern politician, the leader of the Northern faction of the Democratic Party, and a presidential candidate in 1860, voiced this view in the following words in 1858 during his fourth debate with Lincoln:

I say to you in all frankness, gentlemen, that in my opinion a negro is not a citizen, cannot be, and ought not to be, under the constitution of the United States. . . . I say that this government was established on the white basis. It was made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and never should be administered by any except white men. (Fourth Lincoln-Douglas Debate: Douglas’ Reply, in Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, p. 673)

What did Lincoln think about this? He agreed, saying, "in point of mere fact, I think so too" (The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 2, edited by Roy P. Basler, Rutgers, 1955, p. 281, as quoted in Bennett, Forced Into Glory, p. 306, emphasis added).

Many Northerners believed that the statement in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" did not apply to blacks, but only to whites. Senator Douglas expressed this position in his fifth debate with Lincoln,

The signers of the Declaration of Independence never dreamed of the negro when they were writing that document. They referred to white men, to men of European birth and European descent, when they declared the equality of all men. (Fifth Lincoln-Douglas Debate: Douglas’ Speech, in Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, p. 697)

Lincoln believed that the "all men are created equal" phrase did not refer to inherent equality but only to legal equality in certain respects, and more than once Lincoln called the Declaration of Independence "the white-man’s charter of freedom" (Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, pp. 269, 477; see also Bennett, Forced Into Glory, pp. 303-304).

It’s interesting to note that of the 3.4 million votes that were cast in the free states in the 1860 election, Senator Douglas received over 800,000 of them.  In addition, during that election Republican candidates described their party as "the true ‘White Man’s Party’ because they wanted to reserve the territories for free white labor" (James McPherson, Ordeal By Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982, p. 123).  The Republican candidate for governor in Ohio assured voters that “the Republican Party is the white man’s party . . . and it labors for the prosperity and liberty of the white man” (Merton L. Dillon, The Abolitionists: The Growth of a Dissenting Minority, Norton Paperback Edition, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979, p. 240).

James and Lois Horton point out that free blacks in the North had fewer opportunities to engage in skilled labor than did free blacks and slaves in the South:

Opportunities for free black skilled workers seemed limited in the North in some ways that they were not in the South.  Slaves did virtually all types of work, and . . . in the South . . . free blacks were employed at many levels, even in skilled jobs.  It was not unusual to find black carpenters, blacksmiths, and coopers working in Charleston or New Orleans, for example.  One observer noted that in New Orleans skilled work was performed by some white workers but also by a substantial number of blacks, “and of the negroes employed in those avocations a considerable proportion are free.”  One black Virginian reported in the 1840s that in Virginia “both bond (slaves) and free (blacks) had trades” and he “had expected to find the people of color in free New York far better off than those in Virginia.”  Instead, he found that “many tradesmen he knew from the South were . . . cooks and waiters.”  Thus, northern blacks’ occupations reflected both their job skills and the prejudice and discrimination which prevented many from using those skills.

Official records paint a dismal picture of black opportunities for skilled work in Philadelphia.  In 1859 they reported, “Less than two-thirds of (black workers) who have trades follow them,” and “the greater number are compelled to abandon their trades on account of the unrelenting prejudice against their color.”  The exclusion of black artisans was even worse in Boston, where one foreign visitor reported seeing almost no skilled black workers in 1833.  The few exceptions were “one or two employed as printers, one blacksmith, and one shoemaker.”  White workers in New York City pressured authorities to exclude black workers from jobs requiring special authorization.  The city regularly denied African Americans licenses as hackmen or pushcart operators. . . .  As a slave in Baltimore, Frederick Douglass was a skilled ship caulker.  After he escaped slavery and moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, he was unable to find employment as a caulker because, as he was told, “every white man would leave the ship, in her unfinished condition, if I struck a blow at my trade.”  Douglass was forced to take unskilled work at a fraction of the wages he would have made if he could have followed his trade.

White workers in the North generally saw black craftsmen as competitors and tried to exclude them from the work force. . . .  Blacks were barred from membership in the trade associations, dominated by German and some Irish immigrants, which pressured white businesses to hire black workers only for “appropriate” menial employment. (In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998 paperback edition, pp. 117-118)

Merton Dillon observes that the abolition of slavery in most of the North in the late eighteenth century actually caused an increase in prejudice against free blacks:

The ending of slavery in the North had not been accompanied by change in the racial attitudes that for so long had supported it.  If anything, prejudice increased as the numbers of free Blacks grew and as the insecurities resulting from rapid economic and social change were felt throughout white society.  Prejudice was not expressed in verbal slurs and social slights alone.  Far more serious was the fact that custom barred most Blacks from economic and educational opportunity.  Although striking examples can be cited of Blacks who overcame all such obstacles, the majority were shut out by prejudice from sharing in the profits and advantages of the growing American economy. (The Abolitionists, pp. 20-21)

Even after the war, racism was alive and well in the North. Herbert Gutman notes that Northern whites not only viewed blacks as inferior but also women and working-class men:

Neither the Civil War nor the Thirteenth Amendment emancipated northern whites from ideological currents that assigned inferior status to nineteenth-century blacks, women, and working-class men. . . .

Northern whites regularly compared the ex-slaves to the northern Irish and other "degraded . . . races or classes." (The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, New York: Pantheon Books, 1976, p. 293)

Several years after the war, prominent Northern leader William Seward, who had served as Lincoln’s Secretary of State, said the following:

The North has nothing to do with the Negroes.  I have no more concern for them than I have for the Hottentots. . . .  They are not of our race.”  (William Klingaman, Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, New York: Viking Press, 2001 p. 295)



I could go on for several pages documenting the fact that, unfortunately, throughout the nineteenth century most Americans, North and South, believed in white supremacy. This is why it’s unfair when critics quote Stephens’ cornerstone speech but remain silent about the fact that most Northerners held very similar views, and that some Northerners held identical views. It’s also unfair when critics quote Stephens’ speech but say nothing about the Black Codes that existed in most Northern states. Furthermore, not all Southerners agreed with Stephens’ belief that blacks were best suited for slavery, but critics rarely mention this fact either.

What Was Slavery Really Like?

So just how bad was slavery in the South? Did any good come from slavery? Did slavery have any good aspects? Did all slaveowners mistreat their slaves? The subject of slavery in the antebellum (i.e., pre-Civil War) South is a delicate, highly charged issue because history books and documentaries have usually only told one side of the story.  The recent PBS documentary Slavery and the Making of America is a prime example of the  one-sided, misleading, and incomplete portrayals of Southern slavery that are usually presented to the public. I’m not trying to justify slavery. All I’m saying is that if we’re going to talk about slavery, let’s be fair and honest about it.

Most history books and documentaries that discuss slavery are full of tragic stories about the bad aspects of slavery, but they rarely mention the good aspects of the institution. Historians typically cite the worst cases of mistreatment and abuse but ignore or minimize the far more numerous cases of humane treatment, mutual respect, and genuine friendship. True, the good aspects of slavery don’t outweigh the fact that slavery was wrong, but they should be noted in the interest of fairness and historical truth.

Southern slavery may have been the most humane form of slavery the world had ever known.  Most slaves were not mistreated, and most masters treated their slaves humanely.  Slaves in the South were arguably materially better off than many factory workers in the North. In many cases, slaves and slaveholders formed lasting friendships.  Most of the ex-slaves who were interviewed for the W.P.A. narratives and who discussed how they were treated said their masters were good men.  Some slaves remained fiercely loyal to their masters, even during the war and even though they had ample opportunity to leave. The suicide rate among slaves was actually substantially lower than the suicide rate among whites.  In part because of the efforts of numerous slaveowners, millions of slaves voluntarily accepted Christianity and found peace in their personal lives.  In some cases, Christian slaves converted their masters and afterward enjoyed a better relationship with them (see, for example, Leslie Howard Owens, This Species of Property: Slave Life and Culture in the Old South, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976, p. 150).  Bearing in mind that most American slaves lived in the South, let’s consider some of the observations of historian James McPherson, who certainly can’t be accused of being sympathetic toward the antebellum South:

Slavery in the United States operated with less physical harshness than in most other parts of the Western Hemisphere. . . .

The U.S. slave population increased by an average of 27 percent per decade after 1810, almost the same natural growth rate as for the white population. This rate of increase was unique in the history of bondage. No other slave population in the Western Hemisphere even maintained, much less increased, its population through natural reproduction. In Barbados, for example, the decennial natural decrease from 1712 to 1762 was 43 percent. At the time of emancipation, the black population of the United States was ten times the number of Africans who had been imported, but the black population of the West Indies was only half the number of Africans who had been imported. Of the ten million Africans brought across the Atlantic by the slave trade, the United States received fewer than 6 percent; yet at the time of emancipation it had more than 30 percent of the hemisphere’s black population. (Ordeal By Fire, pp. 34-35)

McPherson notes other interesting facts: Although Southern law did not recognize marriages between slaves, 66 to 80 percent of slave marriages were not broken up by their masters (Ordeal By Fire, pp. 35-36).   McPherson points out that not only did most slaveowners permit their slaves to marry, but that some masters allowed their slaves to earn money and in some cases to buy their freedom (Ordeal By Fire, p. 34).  Economic historians Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman contend that slaves were able to earn money and rise to responsible positions in the slave system, and that in some cases they received a greater share of the product of their labor than did many factory workers in the North (Time on the Cross, Norton Edition with Afterword, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989, pp. 39-78, 144-150; see also John Niven, The Coming of the Civil War, Arlington Heights, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1990, pp. 160-161).  Fogel and Engerman discuss some of the various forms of advancement and reward that existed in Southern slavery:

While slavery clearly limited the opportunities of bondsmen [slaves] to acquire skills, the fact remains that over 25 percent of males were managers, professionals, craftsmen, and semiskilled workers.  Thus, the common belief that all slaves were menial laborers is false.  Rather than being one undifferentiated mass, slave society produced a complex social hierarchy which was closely related to the occupational pyramid. . . .

Neglect of the fact that more than one out of every five adult male slaves held preferred occupational positions, which involved not only more interesting and less arduous labor but also yielded substantially higher real incomes, has encouraged still another oversight: that is, the failure to recognize the existence of a flexible and exceedingly effective incentive system that operated within the framework of slavery. . . .

What planters wanted was not sullen and discontented slaves who did just enough to keep from getting whipped.  They wanted devoted, hard-working, responsible slaves who identified their fortunes with the fortunes of their masters.  Planters sought to imbue slaves with a “Protestant” work ethic and to transform that ethic from a state of mind into a high level of production.  “My negroes have their name up in the neighborhood,” wrote Bennett Barrow, “for making more than anyone else and they think whatever they do is better than anybody else.”  Such an attitude could not be beaten into slaves.  It had to be elicited.

Much of the managerial attention of planters was focused on the problem of motivating their hands.  To achieve the desired response they developed a wide-ranging system of rewards.  Some rewards were directed toward improving short-run performance.  Included in this category were prizes for the individual or the gang [a team of slaves] with the best picking record on a given day or during a given week.  The prizes were such items as clothing, tobacco, and whiskey; sometimes the prize was cash.  Good immediate performance was also rewarded with unscheduled holidays or with trips to town on weekends.  When slaves worked at times normally set aside for rest, they received extra pay—usually in cash and at the rate prevailing in the region for hired labor.  Slaves who were performing well were permitted to work on their own account after normal hours at such tasks as making shingles or weaving baskets, articles which they could sell either to their masters or to farmers in the neighborhood.

Some rewards were directed at influencing behavior over periods of intermediate duration.  The rewards in this category were usually paid at the end of the year.  Year-end bonuses, given either in goods or in cash, were frequently quite substantial.  Bennett Barrow, for example, distributed gifts averaging between $15 and $20 per slave family in both 1839 and 1840.  The amounts received by particular slaves were proportional  to their performance.  It should be noted that $20 was about a fifth of national per capita income in 1840.  A bonus of the same relative magnitude today would be in the neighborhood of $1,000.

Masters also rewarded slaves who performed well with patches of land ranging up to a few acres for each family.  Slaves grew marketable crops on these lands, the proceeds of which accrued to them.  On the Texas plantation of Julian S. Devereux, slaves operating such land produced as much as two bales of cotton per patch.  Devereux marketed their crop along with his own.  In a good year some of the slaves earned in excess of $100 per annum [per year] for their families.  Devereux set up accounts to which he credited the proceeds of the sales.  Slaves drew on these accounts when they wanted cash or when they wanted Devereux to purchase clothing, pots, pans, tobacco, or similar goods for them.

Occasionally planters even devised elaborate schemes for profit sharing with their slaves.  William Jemison, an Alabama planter, entered into the following agreement with his bondsmen:  “You shall have two thirds of the corn and cotton made on the plantation and as much of the wheat as will reward you for the sowing it.  I also furnish you with provisions for this year. . . .”

There was a third category of rewards.  These were of a long-term nature, often requiring the lapse of a decade or more before they paid off.  Thus, slaves had the opportunity to rise within the social and economic hierarchy that existed under bondage.  Field hands could become artisans or drivers.  Artisans could be allowed to move from the plantation to town where they would hire themselves out.  Drivers could move up to the position of head driver or overseer.  Climbing the economic ladder brought not only social status, and sometimes more freedom; it also had significant payoffs in better housing, better clothing, and cash bonuses. (Time on the Cross, pp. 40-41, 147-149)

In a separate study, Fogel observes the following:

U.S. masters also designed a wide array of positive incentives to promote the productivity of slaves. . . .  A favorite device was the awarding of prizes to the individual or the gang with the best cotton-picking record on a given day or during a given week.  Year-end bonuses, often distributed at Christmas, were another common device and could be quite substantial.  One Louisiana planter, for example, distributed gifts averaging between $15 and $20 per slave family in 1839 and 1840, with the amount of the gift made proportional to the planter’s view of the performance of each of his slaves.  Not all gifts were this large ($20 in 1840 was about one-fifth of per capita income; a bonus of the same magnitude today would be about $1,000), but $20 was by no means an upper bound.

Indeed, many large-scale planters had elaborate systems for rewarding exceptional work that not only recognized outstanding performances by field hands but generally led to substantial income differentials between ordinary field hands on the one hand and exceptional workers, especially drivers or artisans, on the other. (Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994, p. 191)

Fogel further notes that slaveholders often allowed slaves to grow food for their own use and to sell some of that food for their own profit:

Most U.S. planters allowed slaves to supplement rations with vegetables raised in gardens or by rearing small livestock and often purchased eggs, chickens, and vegetables raised by slaves for use on their own tables [i.e., on the slaves’ tables].  There were also masters who rewarded top hands by allowing them plots of up to a few acres to grow cotton or other staples on their own time, with the proceeds of the sales of these crops accruing to the hands. . . .

A recent study by Phillip D. Morgan of the practices of planters in the low country of South Carolina, where the task system predominated, revealed that despite legal injunctions prohibiting slaves from producing and marketing on their own account, the practice was widespread.  An industrious slave could sometimes finish his daily task by 2 P.M.  Such slaves accumulated property at a high rate.  Morgan estimates that in one county the average recorded accumulation of mature males was over $300, which is similar to the estimates of the wealth of industrious slaves in Jamaica. (Without Consent or Contract, pp. 192-193)

Slaves in Southern cities had additional opportunities to advance themselves. This was no small number of people either. In 1860 there were some 400,000 slaves living in cities, "and many additional thousands were hired out by their owners" (J. G. Randall and David Donald, The Civil War and Reconstruction, Lexington, Massachusetts: D. C. Heath and Company, 1969, p. 75). J. G. Randall and David Donald, citing the research of Richard B. Morris, point out some of the opportunities that were available to these slaves:

By the nature of their employments and the conditions of their service, as Richard B. Morris has pointed out, these urban and industrial slaves were a step removed from plantation service. . . . many of them were, despite numerous legal restrictions, "permitted to hold property, receive wages, make contracts, and assume supervisory responsibilities"; in addition, they possessed "some measure of mobility and occasionally a limited choice as to masters and occupations." "In industry slaves were customarily reimbursed for services performed beyond an accepted minimum," Professor Morris continues. ". . . slaves hired to others occasionally received directly a portion of the hiring wages. . . . Masters were often reluctant to force slaves to work as hirelings in occupations they disliked or for masters whom they found uncongenial." An increasing number of slaves were permitted to hire their own time–i.e., to work at whatever employment they pleased, paying their masters an annual rental. Such "nominal slaves" were able "to control their earnings, separate property, or occupational choices." (The Civil War and Reconstruction, p. 76)

Most slaves were provided with good housing for that era.  The Northern abolitionists’ claim that slaves lived in inhumane housing was unfounded.  The “houses of slaves compared well with the housing of free workers in the antebellum era” (Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross, p. 116).  Some slaves who worked in Southern cities had private homes "that rivaled those of country slaveholders in space and rustic luxury" (Owens, This Species of Property, p. 147). On "many of the farms the slave cabins were not much inferior to the master’s cabin," and on some plantations "they were nearly as comfortable as the overseer’s cottage" (Kenneth Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, Vintage Books Edition, New York: Vintage Books, 1989, p. 293).  According to information from the 1860 census, there were 5.2 slaves per house on large plantations, whereas there were 5.3 persons per house in free households, and most slave families, like most free families, lived in a house by themselves and didn’t have to share the house with others (Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross, pp. 115-116).  In fact, Fogel and Engerman point out that the typical slave cabin probably provided more sleeping space per person than did the homes of most workers in New York City over twenty years after the war:

As late as 1893, a survey of the housing of workers in New York City revealed that the median number of square feet of sleeping space per person was just thirty-five.  In other words, the “typical” slave cabin of the late antebellum era probably contained more sleeping space per person than was available to most of New York City’s workers half a century later. (Time on the Cross, p. 116)

Good relations often existed between slaves and slaveowners. As one example of this fact, let’s consider the relationship between Confederate soldier Henry Kyd Douglas and one of his family’s slaves named Enoch, who had left the family and had gone to live in Pennsylvania as a free man. When Enoch found out that Douglas had been wounded and captured and that he was being held in a Union prison camp, he wrote to Douglas and offered to send him money. Douglas was deeply moved by the offer:

I was surprised about this time to receive a letter from Enoch, whom I have spoken of as my father’s colored coachman. He had gone off from home and was living in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, working for his living, in freedom, but harder than he ever did in his life. He wrote to say that he heard I was wounded and in prison and was having a hard time, and he had laid aside several hundred dollars and would send it to me, or as much as I wanted, if I were suffering or needed it. His letter was in his own untutored language, but its words were verily apples of gold. I did not need his money, but I hope I wrote him a letter that left no doubt of my appreciation and my gratitude. (Henry Kyd Douglas, I Rode With Stonewall, Marietta, Georgia: Mockingbird Books, 1974, reprint, p. 255)

Another case in point is that of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America himself. Davis cared deeply for his slaves, and they for him. When Davis had to leave his plantation suddenly in order to assume duties as the Confederate president, "He made a touching farewell speech to his quickly assembled slaves, who responded with expressions of devotion. . . ." (Rembert Patrick, Jefferson Davis and His Cabinet, Louisiana State University Press, 1944, p. 27). Davis was deeply concerned about the fate of his slaves when federal forces torched and plundered the Davis estates in Mississippi. Davis even sent money, in fact $3,000, to pay for supplies for his slaves to ensure they received proper care. The year before Davis died, he received a letter from one of his former slaves, James H. Jones, who had since become a Republican and had had a successful career in the intervening fifteen years. Jones told Davis, "I have always been as warmly attached to you as when I was your body servant" (William J. Cooper, Jefferson Davis, American, Vintage Books Edition, New York: Vintage Books, 2000, p. 691). Jones went on to say that he always defended Davis from "any attack of malicious or envious people" (Cooper, Jefferson Davis, American, p. 691). William J. Cooper gives us additional information about Davis’s relations with blacks:

Without question he respected individual blacks and in turn received their respect. His dealings with his slave James Pemberton and with Ben Montgomery as both a slave and a freedman illustrate such a relationship. Inviting Davis to attend the Colored State Fair in Vicksburg in 1886, Montgomery’s son Isaiah said he knew Davis would have an interest "in any Enterprise tending to the welfare and development of the Colored people of Mississippi." "We would be highly pleased to have you here," Isaiah Montgomery asserted, " and he closed "with best wishes for your continued preservation." (Jefferson Davis, American, pp. 690-691)

At a time when many Americans, in all parts of the country, still opposed allowing blacks to testify in court, Davis favored allowing them to do so. He expressed this view in a letter to his wife in which he also expressed concern about the welfare of their former slaves:

I hope the negroes’ fidelity will be duly rewarded and regret that we are not in a position to aid and protect them. There is, I observe, a controversy which I regret as to allowing negroes to testify in court. From brother Joe [Joseph Davis], many years ago, I derived the opinion that they should be made competent witnesses, the jury judging of their credibility. (Jefferson Davis: Private Letters 1823-1889, selected and edited by Hudson Strode, New York: De Capo Press, 1995, reprint, p. 188)

Few people know that Davis and his wife informally adopted a mulatto (part-white-part-black) orphan during the war. For those who care to know, the child looked like a young African-American boy, except that his skin was slightly less dark than the skin of most other black children; his facial features and hair were clearly African-American. Mrs. Davis rescued the young boy from a cruel guardian and brought him with her to live at the Confederate White House in Richmond. His name was Jim Limber. Davis and his wife raised him as one of their own children. Jim Limber and the other Davis children played together as normal siblings. Even in family letters, Jim’s new family spoke lovingly of him, and he expressed his love for them. Sadly, after the war, the Davises had to give up custody of the child when a disreputable Union officer threatened to take him from them (Felicity Allen, Jefferson Davis: Unconquerable Heart, Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1999, p. 24).

Davis was a kind, decent Christian man who treated blacks with respect, and many blacks knew it. During a trip through the western part of the Confederacy, Davis got off his train at Griswoldville, Georgia, in order to meet with a group of slaves who had gathered in the hope of seeing him. These men worked at a local pistol factory and had come to the train station because they wanted to meet Davis. Informed of the gathering, Davis got off the train and circulated among the group, shaking each hand and speaking to each man individually (Cooper, Jefferson Davis, American, p. 494). When Davis returned to Richmond, Virginia, after the war, he was not only cheered by whites but also by blacks. One observer noted that Davis was "greatly touched" by the sympathy shown to him by the blacks in the crowd. In fact, some blacks climbed up on his carriage, shook and kissed his hand, and called out "God bless Mars Davis" (Allen, Jefferson Davis: Unconquerable Heart, pp. 486-487).

Many other examples of good relations between slaves and slaveholders could be cited. For example, there were numerous instances during the war when slaves hid food from Union troops and then gave the food to their masters and their families (who in turn shared it with them). One such instance occurred when Union forces occupied Charles and Mary Jones’ plantation on the Georgia coast. When the Union troops took over the plantation, a slave named Sue hid potatoes from the troops in order to feed the Jones’ children (Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, p. 322).

Ex-slaves of the Sea Islands in South Carolina showed great kindness to their former masters when the masters fell on hard times. The freedmen "did not enjoy seeing their old masters suffer." They "offered help and even, when they could, gave them money" (in Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, p. 312 n). An ex-slave in Georgia remained on his former master’s estate to work for wages "so that, in a variety of ways, he could take care of the distressed white family. . . ." (in Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, p. 312 n). In another case, Clarence Fripp, a former Sea Islands slaveowner whose plantation had been sold from him, went back to his old plantation and asked his ex-slaves for money because he was nearly destitute. The former slaves took up a collection for Fripp and gave him a "significant amount of money" (in Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, p. 312 n). Two years earlier, "a northerner among the Sea Islanders reported that ‘all’ the ex-slaves ‘speak with great affection of Fripp’" (in Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, p. 312 n).

"Many ex-slaves," notes Leslie Howard Owens, "chose to live with their masters after emancipation, some out of affection" (This Species of Property, p. 86). Owens continues,

The affection that masters and domestics [domestic slaves] showed one another took many forms. At the death of Jimmy, a "faithful servant," one of her owners, whom she had suckled in his infancy, experienced her loss deeply. He lamented that she "always felt more like a mother than a servant to me and was a kind mother to all my children." Masters’ feelings at these times seem to strip the slave’s personality of any resemblance to stereotypes. Jimmy’s master continued his tribute as follows: she "was a kind mother to all my children. I frequently left them entirely in her care and always found her faithful in nursing and taking care of them and they all loved her as a mother and she loved them. . . ." In other cases, masters compared their domestics to relatives and friends: [In speaking to his sister during a funeral, one master said] "True, sister, he was a servant, and you may be vexed or ashamed, that I should in any manner compare him with yourself . . . but although his skin was black his heart was always in the right place." (This Species of Property, pp. 116-117)

Some female slaves occupied an especially honored place in plantation homes. Owens observes that one of "the most privileged domestics was the black mammy of the large estate" (This Species of Property, p. 118). Owens provides further information on these women:

She "is in fact the foster Mother of her Master’s children and is treated with all the respect due to the faithful discharge of the duties of her station. . . ." The mammy nursed them through their illnesses and watched them as they grew into adulthood. She also showered them with a loving affection, which they returned. Many whites mourned for her at her death. (This Species of Property, p. 118)

One almost never hears about the fact that at times free blacks sought refuge on slaveholders’ plantations to escape persecution during periods of rumored slave revolts. Says Owens,

There were times, too, when slaves witnessed the hasty retreat of free blacks to the plantation’s safety in order to escape repression by whites during periods of rumored slave uprisings. Elizabeth Jefferson of Mississippi remarked that her "grand father let a negro free and gave him a trade. He was a competent brickmason. Often he came to the plantation for protection, sometimes remaining there for weeks." And this was not all. "There was an old . . . [slave] freed by a relative of our family. He was prosperous and finally bought his wife and children. He and his family on several occasions came to Greenwood for protection." This was not an atypical situation. (This Species of Property, pp. 86-87, emphasis added)

Most masters strove to accommodate a slave couple’s desire to get married, and some sought to provide a form of recognition for the marriage. Cooper says "most slaveowners . . . recognized families among their slaves, despite the absence of any statutory provision or protection for the slave family" (Jefferson Davis, American, p. 251).  As a matter of fact, Fogel and Engerman observe that slave marriages “were not only recognized but actively promoted under plantation codes” (Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross, p. 128).  This promotion, say Fogel and Engerman, came in various forms:

To promote the stability of slave families, planters often combined exhortations with a system of rewards and sanctions.  The rewards included such subsidies as separate houses for married couples, gifts of household goods, and cash bonuses.  They often sought to make the marriage a solemn event by embedding it in a well-defined ritual.  Some marriage ceremonies were performed in churches, others by the planter in the “big house.”  In either case, marriages were often accompanied by feasts and sometimes made the occasion for a general holiday. . . .

For most slaves it was the law of the plantation, not of the state, that was relevant.  Only a small proportion of the slaves ever had to deal with the law enforcement mechanism of the state.  Their daily lives were governed by plantation law.  Consequently, the emphasis put on the sanctity of the slave family by many planters, and the legal status given to the slave family under plantation law, cannot be lightly dismissed. (Time on the Cross, pp. 128-129)

Gutman observes,

The recollections of elderly ex-slaves and other historical evidence disclose a variety of ways in which slave marriages were publicly announced and legitimized. . . . Elderly ex-slaves also recollected owner-sponsored ceremonies. (The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, pp. 273-274)

John Blassingame points out that thousands of slaves were married in Southern churches:

Abolition doubts notwithstanding, thousands of slaves were married in Southern churches between 1800 and 1860. For example, out of a total of 1,228 marriages performed in Episcopal churches in South Carolina, Alabama, North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Virginia in 1860, at least 460, or 38.1 percent, were slave weddings. At many times between 1830 and 1860 more slaves were married in the Episcopal churches in some states than were whites. Between 1841 and 1860 Episcopal ministers performed 3,225 weddings in South Carolina; 1,705, or 52 percent, of these were slave marriages. (The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, Revised and Enlarged Edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 169)

Contrary to the portrayals often given in textbooks and documentaries, most slave marriages and slave families were not broken up by their masters.  "A study of wills and advertisements," says Francis Butler Simkins, "shows that many masters" stipulated that their slaves "were not to be sold away from their families or transported out of the state" (A History of the South, Third Edition, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher, 1963, p. 123). As mentioned, even a strongly pro-Northern historian like McPherson acknowledges that 66 to 80 percent of slave marriages were not broken up by their masters.  Fogel and Engerman note that information from the slave market in New Orleans, which was the largest of the markets, refutes the claim that masters frequently broke up slave marriages:

Data contained in the sales records in New Orleans, by far the largest market in the interregional slave trade, sharply contradict the popular view that the destruction of slave marriages was at least a frequent, if not a universal, consequence of the slave trade.  These records, which cover thousands of transactions during the years from 1804 to 1862, indicate that more than 84 percent of all sales over the age of fourteen involved unmarried individuals.  Of those who were or had been married, 6 percent were sold with their mates; and probably at least one quarter of the remainder were widowed or voluntarily separated.  Hence, it is likely that 13 percent, or less, of interregional sales resulted in the destruction of marriages. . . .  the New Orleans data show that slaveowners were averse to breaking up black families. . . . (Time on the Cross, pp. 49, 52)

When circumstances led to the separation of a slave family, some owners and others tried to help the family in any way they could. Notes Gutman,

The separation of slave family members by sale or for other reasons led some sensitive owners to encourage contact between them. . . .

Overt expressions of slave familial feelings deeply affected some owners and other whites who came into contact with these slaves. Whites intervened sometimes to prevent the sale of slaves. After a hired Virginia slave was sold and separated from his family because he had not earned enough, whites who attended church with the man raised sufficient cash to buy him from a trader. Their slave grandmother persuaded a Kentucky clergyman to bid for two teen-aged sisters threatened with a distant sale, but a trader outbid him. The purchase of Mima and her children by an Alexandria slave-trading firm led the hard-pressed Virginian Richard H. Carter, who owned Mima’s husband, to try to buy them "because of the distress . . . on account of the separation". . . . (The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, pp. 287-288)

Kenneth Stampp:

No slaveholder needed to respect the marital ties of his slaves; yet a Tennesseean purchased several slaves at a public sale, not because he needed them, but because of "their intermarriage with my servants and their appeals to me to do so." A Kentucky mistress tried to buy the wife of her slave before moving to Missouri. Another Kentuckian, when obliged to sell his slaves, gave each an opportunity to find a satisfactory purchaser and refused to sell any to persons residing outside the neighborhood. (The Peculiar Institution, pp. 229-230)

A number of slaves were freed by their owners in the owners’ wills. African-American scholars John Franklin and Alfred Moss note that for many years slaveholders, "stricken by conscience, impelled by affection, or yielding to the temptation to evade responsibility, manumitted [freed] their slaves in large numbers. . . ." (From Slavery to Freedom, Eighth Edition, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000, p. 168, emphasis added).

Other slaves earned enough money to purchase their freedom. Some owners assisted with the purchase of freedom by accepting payments over a period of time or by agreeing to accept a generously low price. Stampp explains how some slaves managed to buy their freedom:

Occasionally, they earned the necessary funds by working nights and Sundays. More often, they hired their own time. Either way, they gradually accumulated enough money to pay their masters an amount equal to their value and thus obtained deeds of emancipation. Benevolent masters helped ambitious bondsmen by permitting them to make the payments in installments over a period of years or by accepting a sum lower than the market price. (The Peculiar Institution, p. 96)

Allan Nevins noted that even in the 1850s "many" slaves continued to buy their freedom:

Even in the eighteen-fifties, many slaves, particularly in towns and among the skilled or semi-skilled, continued to buy their liberty. (The Emergence of Lincoln, Volume 2, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950, p. 161)

In contrast to many factory workers in the North, and even in contrast to many low-wage workers in our day, many if not most slaves received relatively good medical care. Most slaves received at least some medical care. And some slaves received exceptional medical care. Says Stampp,

To treat their sick slaves, many masters employed trained physicians, often the same ones who treated the white families. A few large planters retained resident doctors on their estates; occasionally several small planters together contracted with a doctor for his full-time service. More commonly a slaveholder made a yearly contract with a physician who agreed to charge a fixed amount for each visit. "Bargained today with Dr. Trotti to practice at the plantation," Hammond noted in his diary. "He agrees to charge only $2.50 a visit without reference to the number of sick prescribed for." Another planter cautioned his overseer, "Strong medicines should be left to the Doctor; and since the Proprietor [the master] never grudges a Doctor’s bill, however large, he has a right to expect that the Overseer shall always send for a Doctor when a serious case occurs." Slaveholders, both large and small, sometimes spent generous sums for skilled medical treatment for their "people." To prove that there was "no class of working people in the world better cared for," one southern physician declared that he had often received large fees for attending even senile and worthless slaves.

This statement was much too optimistic, but it did give recognition to a class of humane masters whose expenditures for medical service went far beyond the simple dictates of self-interest. In mourning the death of an old slave woman, a North Carolinian noted that his physician had given the case "assiduous attention" for six months, "devoting to it more reflection and research than he had (as he informs me) to any case within ten years". . . .

A few masters patronized hospitals which were built and maintained especially for the care of sick slaves. During the 1850’s, three Savannah physicians ran a slave hospital for "lying-in" women as well as for medical and surgical cases; similar institutions existed in Charleston, Montgomery, Natchez, and New Orleans. But plantation proprietors usually established their own hospitals where the sick could be attended by physicians or slave nurses. "All sick persons are to stay in the hospital night and day, from the time they first complain to the time they are able to go to work again," a South Carolinian instructed his overseer. "Hopeton," James Hamilton Couper’s Georgia rice plantation, contained a model hospital where ailing slaves received the best medical attention the South could provide. The hospital was well ventilated and steam heated; it contained an examining room, medicine closet, kitchen, bathing room, and four wards, all of which were swept every day and scrubbed once a week.

Wise and humane masters gave proper attention to slave women who were either expectant or nursing mothers. A Mississippian ordered his overseer to treat them with "great tenderness." A South Carolinian required "lying-in women" to remain at the quarters for four weeks after parturition, because their health might be "entirely ruined by want of care in this particular." Hammond gave the "sucklers" lighter tasks near the quarters and insisted that they be cool and rested before morning.

Some masters were equally solicitous about the care of slave children. On the smaller establishments they appointed an old woman to watch the children while the mothers worked in the fields. On the plantations they built nurseries where the plantation nurse cooked for the children, mended their clothing, and looked after them during illness. (The Peculiar Institution, pp. 311-313)

Fogel and Engerman:

While the quality of slave medical care was poor by modern standards, there is no evidence of exploitation in the medical care typically provided for plantation slaves. . . .

That adequate maintenance of the health of their slaves was a central objective of most planters is repeatedly emphasized in instructions to overseers and in other records and correspondence of planters. . . .

Slave health care was at its best for pregnant women.  “Pregnant women,” wrote one planter, “must be treated with great tenderness, worked near home and lightly.”  “Light work” was generally interpreted as 50 to 60 percent of normal effort and was to exclude activity which required heavy physical effort.  During the last month of pregnancy work was further reduced. . . .

Demographic evidence gives strong support to descriptions of pre- and post-natal care contained in plantation rules, letters, and diaries.  Computations based on data from the 1850 census indicate that the average death rate due to pregnancy among slave women in the prime childbearing ages, twenty to twenty-nine, was just one per thousand. . . .  The slave mortality rate in childbearing was not only low on an absolute scale, it was also lower than the maternal death rate experienced by southern white women. (Time on the Cross, pp. 117, 122-123)

In addition, slaves were by no means always confined to their farms and plantations. Many if not most slaves were allowed to visit other estates or to go into nearby towns on a fairly regular basis. A few slaves lived in a state of virtual freedom. As mentioned, some slaves earned money by working on their time off. Slaves were usually free to attend church, and often times they were encouraged to do so. Blassingame observes that many slaves did not have to sneak off the plantation in order to leave for short periods for social visits and the like:

Many slaves did not have to use . . . stratagems. Their masters did not try to restrict their recreational activities as long as they did not interfere with the plantation routine. According to Robert Anderson, "The slaves on a plantation could get together almost any time they felt like it, for little social affairs, so long as it did not interfere with the work on the plantation. During the slack times the people from one plantation could visit one another, by getting permission and sometimes they would slip away and make visits anyway." Similarly, Elijah Marrs said his master "allowed us generally to do as we pleased after his own work was done, and we enjoyed the privilege granted to us." (The Slave Community, p. 108)

The more religious planters not only excused their slaves from work on religious holidays but provided great feasts and recreation on these occasions. "During these periods, which lasted from four to six days," says Blassingame, "planters prepared sumptuous feasts for their slaves" (The Slave Community, p. 107). He continues,

Whole hogs, sheep, or beeves were cooked and the slaves ate peach cobbler and apple dumplings, and frequently got drunk. Often the festival seasons included dances and athletic contests. (The Slave Community, p. 107)

Abolitionists claimed that most slaves worked intolerably long hours.  This claim is repeated in the PBS documentary Slavery and the Making of America.  In point of fact, “the slave work year was shorter than the free work year” (Fogel, Without Consent or Contract, p. 78, original emphasis).  Fogel qualifies this observation by making the argument that slaves were forced to work harder than were free workers; yet, he admits that slaves also earned 15 percent more income per clock-time hour than free workers earned (Without Consent or Contract, p. 79).  In addition, Fogel concedes that on average slaves enjoyed longer rest breaks during the workday and more time off on Sundays than did free workers (Without Consent or Contract, p. 79).  As a matter of fact, many if not most masters gave their slaves part of Saturday off and all of Sunday off (Without Consent or Contract, pp. 77-78).  Not only did slaves work less hours than did free workers, but they also worked less hours than did workers in English textile mills:

Recent studies on the labor routine on U.S. cotton plantations have revealed that the average work week during the spring, summer, and fall was about 58 hours, well below the 72 hours thought to have prevailed in English textile mills during the first quarter of the nineteenth century and also below the 60-hour work week of northern commercial farmers in the United States during the first quarter of the twentieth century. (Fogel, Without Consent or Contract, pp. 28-29)

One frequently runs across the claim that slaves had no legal protection. This is simply not true. I’m not saying slaves had all the legal protection they deserved, but the often-heard claim that they had no protection whatsoever is incorrect. Stampp discusses the legal status of slaves:

"A slave," said a Tennessee judge, "is not in the condition of a horse. . . . He has mental capacities, and an immortal principle in his nature." The laws did not "extinguish his high-born nature nor deprive him of many rights which are inherent in man." All the southern codes recognized the slave as a person for purposes other than holding him accountable for crimes. Many state constitutions required the legislature "to pass such laws as may be necessary to oblige the owners of slaves to treat them with humanity; to provide for them necessary clothing and provisions; to abstain from all injuries to them, extending to life and limb."

The legislatures responded with laws extending some protection to the persons of slaves. Masters who refused to feed and clothe slaves properly might be fined; in several states the court might order them to be sold, the proceeds going to the dispossessed owners. Those who abandoned or neglected insane, aged, or infirm slaves were also liable to fines. In Virginia the overseers of the poor were required to care for such slaves and to charge their masters. (The Peculiar Institution, p. 217)

All Southern states had laws that imposed penalties for mistreating slaves. Whites who killed slaves could be convicted of first- or second-degree murder or of manslaughter, depending on the circumstances, and could be put to death for the crime. A few whites were actually executed for murdering slaves, and in a few other cases, Southern courts refused to convict slaves who had killed brutal overseers because they had acted in self-defense to resist a potentially deadly assault (Stampp, The Peculiar Institution, pp. 220-221).

Southern legislatures sought to provide other legal protections for slaves. Some legislatures passed laws that limited the number of hours a slave could be worked in a day. All legislatures enacted laws that set aside Sunday as a day of rest for slaves. Some states provided for trials by black juries for slaves accused of misdemeanor offenses. In most states, slaves who were accused of a capital crime were given jury trials in the regular courts. Certain states, like Texas, stipulated that slaves accused of any felony were to receive an impartial trial by jury.

Northern abolitionists charged that most slaves were poorly fed.  The evidence indicates otherwise.  Indeed, the energy value of the average daily diet of slaves “exceeded that of free men in 1879 by more than 10 percent” (Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross, p. 113).  Furthermore, the slave diet actually surpassed the levels of primary nutrients that were recommended in the U.S. as late as 1964.  “On average,” note Fogel and Engerman, “slaves exceeded the daily recommended level of proteins by 110 percent, calcium by 20 percent, and iron by 230 percent” (Time on the Cross, p. 115).  Many masters spent extra money on expensive food like pork in order to cater to the dietary wishes of their slaves, even though they could have fed them much cheaper foods like fish or beef instead.  When one planter was asked why he bought pork for his slaves instead of feeding them with his own beef, he replied that he did so because his slaves would be “miserable” if they were deprived of pork (Fogel, Without Consent or Contract, p. 195).  Fogel acknowledges that “most southern planters considered the extra cost of conceding to their slaves’ dietary preferences was worth the price. . . .” (Without Consent or Contract, p. 196).  Perhaps these facts explain why slaves had an average life expectancy that was longer than that of whites in Italy and Austria and equal to that of whites in Holland and France (Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross, p. 125).

Textbooks and documentaries often repeat the Northern abolitionist claim that slaveholders engaged in widespread slave-breeding and regularly had sexual relations with their female slaves, with or without their consent.  Fogel and Engerman point out that the evidence for these charges is meager and doubtful:

The evidence put forward to support the contention of breeding for the market is meager indeed.  Aside from the differential in profit rates produced by Conrad and Meyer, the evidence consists largely of unverified charges made by abolitionists, and of certain demographic data.  However, subsequent corrections of the work of Conrad and Meyer have shown that rates of return on men and women were approximately the same.  And the many thousands of hours of research by professional historians into plantation records have failed to produce a single authenticated case of the “stud” plantations alleged in abolitionist literature. . . .

Proponents of the breeding thesis have been misled by their failure to recognize the difference between human beings and animals.  That eugenic manipulation increases the fertility of animals does not mean it would have the same effect on human beings.  Not only does promiscuity increase venereal disease (an issue which does not plague animal husbandry) and thereby reduce fertility, but emotional factors are of considerable significance in successful human conception.  These emotional factors, of course, also carry over into the work routine.  Distraught and disgruntled slaves did not make good field hands.

Consequently, most planters shunned direct interference in the sexual practices of slaves, and attempted to influence fertility patterns through a system of positive economic incentives, incentives that are akin to those practiced by various governments today.  The United States, for example, provides tax benefits for marriage and children; France has direct subsidies for childbearing. . . .  So too on the plantation.

First and foremost, planters promoted family formation both through exhortation and through economic inducements.  “Marriage is to be encouraged,” wrote James Hammond to his overseer, “as it adds to the comfort, happiness and health of those entering upon it, besides ensuring a greater increase.”  The economic inducements for marriage generally included a house, a private plot of land which the family could work on its own and, frequently, a bounty either in cash or in household goods.  The primary inducements for childbearing were the lighter work load and the special care given to expectant and new mothers.  The field-work requirement of women after the fifth month of pregnancy was generally reduced by 40 or 50 percent.  In the last month they were frequently taken off fieldwork altogether and assigned such light tasks as sewing or spinning.  Nursing mothers were permitted to leave for work at a later hour than others and were also allowed three to four hours during the day for the feeding of their infants. . . .

While there were circumstances under which the economics of slavery encouraged widespread promiscuity and concubinage . . . the main thrust of the economic incentives generated by the American slave system operated against eugenic manipulation and against sexual abuse.  Those who engaged in such acts did so, not because of their economic interests, but despite them.  Instructions from slaveowners to their overseers frequently gave recognition to this conflict.  They contain explicit caveats against “undue familiarity” which might undermine slave morale and discipline.  “Having connection with any of my female servants,” wrote a leading Louisiana planter, “will most certainly be visited with a dismissal from my employment, and no excuse can or will be taken.”  No set of instructions to overseers has been uncovered which explicitly or implicitly encouraged selective breeding or promiscuity. . . .

Antebellum critics of slavery . . . accused slaveowners and overseers of turning plantations into personal harems.  They assumed that because the law permitted slaveowners to ravish black women, the practice must have been extremely common.  They also assumed that black women were, if not more licentious, at least more promiscuous than white women, and hence less likely to resist sexual advances by men, whether black or white.  Moreover, the ravishing of black women by white men was not the only aspect of sexual exploitation which devastated the slave family.  There was also the policy of deliberate slave-breeding, under which planters encouraged promiscuous relationships among blacks. . . .

The evidence on which these assumptions and conclusions were based was extremely limited.  While none of the various travelers through the South had seen deliberate slave-breeding practiced, they had all heard reports of it.  Some travelers published conversations with men who admitted to fathering a large number of the slaves on their plantations.  Others wrote of the special solicitude shown by one or another master to mulatto offspring, a solicitude which in their minds strongly implied parenthood.  There were also the descriptions of the treatment of especially pretty slave women on the auction block and of the high prices at which such women sold, prices too high to be warranted by field labor and which could be explained only by their value as concubines or as prostitutes.

Even if all these reports were true, they constituted at most a few hundred cases.  By themselves, such a small number of observations out of a population of millions, could just as easily be used as proof of the infrequency of the sexual exploitation of black women as of its frequency. . . .  The prevalence of mulattoes convinced not only the northern public of the antebellum era, but historians of today, that for each case of exploitation identified, there were thousands which had escaped discovery.  For travelers to the South reported that a large proportion of the slaves were not the deep black of Africans from the Guinea coast but tawny, golden, and white or nearly white.  Here was proof beyond denial of either the ubiquity [widespread occurrence] of the exploitation of black women by white men, or of the promiscuity of black women, or both.

But this seemingly irrefutable evidence is far from conclusive.  It is not the eyesight of these travelers to the South which is questionable, but their statistical sense.  For mulattoes were not distributed evenly through the Negro population.  They were concentrated in the cities and especially among freedmen.  According to the 1860 census, 39 percent of freedmen in southern cities were mulattoes.  Among urban slaves the proportion of mulattoes was 20 percent.  In other words, one out of every four Negroes living in a southern city was a mulatto.  But among rural slaves, who constituted 95 percent of the slave population, only 9.9 percent were mulatto in 1860.  For the slave population as a whole, therefore, the proportion of mulattoes was just 10.4 percent in 1860 and 7.7 percent in 1850.  Thus it appears that travelers to the South greatly exaggerated the extent of miscegenation because they came into contact with unrepresentative samples of the Negro population. . . .  Far from proving that the exploitation of black women was ubiquitous [widespread], the available data on mulattoes strongly militate against that contention.

The fact that during the twenty-three decades of contact between slaves and whites which elapsed between 1620 and 1850 only 7.7 percent of the slaves were mulattoes suggests that on average only a very small percentage of the slaves were fathered by white men.  This inference is not contradicted by the fact that the percentage of mulattoes increased by one third during the last decade of the antebellum era, rising from 7.7 to 10.4 percent.  For it must be remembered that mulattoes were the progeny not just of unions between whites and pure blacks but also of unions between mulattoes and blacks.  Under common definition, a person with one-eighth ancestry of another race was a mulatto.  Consequently, the offspring of two slaves who were each one-eighth white was to be classified as a mulatto, as was the offspring of any slave, regardless of the ancestry of his or her mate, whose grandfather was a white.

A demographic model of the slave population . . . shows that the census data alone cannot be used to sustain the contention that a large proportion of slave children must have been fathered by white men.  And other available bodies of evidence, such as the W.P.A. survey of former slaves, throw such claims into doubt.  Of those in the survey who identified parentage, only 4.5 percent indicated that one of their parents had been white.  But the work of geneticists on gene pools has revealed that even the last figure may be too high.  Measurements of the admixture of “Caucasian” and “Negro” genes among southern rural blacks today indicate that the share of Negro children fathered by whites on slave plantations probably averaged between 1 and 2 percent.

That these findings seem startling is due in large measure to the widespread assumption that because the law permitted masters to ravage their slave women, they must have exercised that right.  As one scholar recently put it, “Almost every white mother and wife connected with the institution [of slavery] either actually or potentially shared the males in her family with slave women.”  The trouble with this view is that it recognizes no forces operating on human behavior other than the force of statute law.  Yet many rights permitted by legal statues and judicial decisions are not widely exercised, because economic and social forces militate against them.

To put the issue somewhat differently, it has been presumed that masters and overseers must have ravished black women frequently because their demand for such sexual pleasures was high and because the cost of satisfying that demand was low.  Such arguments overlook the real and potentially large costs that confronted masters and overseers who sought sexual pleasures in the slave quarters.  The seduction of the daughter or wife of a slave could undermine the discipline that planters so assiduously strove to attain.  Not only would it stir anger and discontent in the families affected, but it would undermine the air of mystery and distinction on which so much of the authority of large planters rested.  Nor was it just a planter’s reputation in the slave quarter of his plantation that would be at stake.  While he might be able to prevent news of his nocturnal adventure from being broadcast in his own house, it would be more difficult to prevent his slaves from gossiping to slaves on other plantations. . . .

For the overseer, the cost of sexual episodes in the slave quarter, once discovered, was often his job.  Nor would he find it easy to obtain employment elsewhere as an overseer, since not many masters would be willing to employ as their manager a man who was known to lack self-control on so vital an issue.  “Never employ an overseer who will equalize himself with the negro women,” wrote Charles Tait to his children.  “Besides the morality of it, there are evils too numerous to be now mentioned.”

Nor should one underestimate the effect of racism on the demand of white males for black sexual partners.  While some white men might have been tempted by the myth of black sexuality, a myth that may be stronger today than it was in the antebellum South, it is likely that far larger numbers were put off by racist aversions.  Data on prostitutes support this conjecture. . . .  The substantial underrepresentation of Negroes, as well as the complete absence of dark-skinned Negroes, indicates that white men who desired illicit sex had a strong preference for white women. . . .

The contention that the slave family was undermined by the widespread promiscuity of blacks is as poorly founded as the thesis that masters were uninhibited in their sexual exploitation of slave women.  Indeed, virtually no evidence, other than the allegations of white observers, has ever been presented which sustains the charge that promiscuity among slaves was greater than that found among whites. . . .

Unfortunately, abolitionists and other antislavery critics were not free of racism merely because they carried the banner or a moral struggle.  With their greater physical separation from blacks, these writers were often more gullible and more quick in their acceptance of certain racial stereotypes than slaveholders. . . .

The available demographic evidence on slaves suggests a picture of their sexual lives and family behavior that has little in common with that conveyed by the allegations.  (Time on the Cross, pp. 78-79, 84-86, 130-136)

For well over one hundred years, virtually all books on slavery repeated the Northern abolitionist claim that slaves were unproductive workers and that slave plantations were less productive than free farms.  Northern abolitionists argued that slaves supposedly worked so poorly because they were trying to sabotage their masters’ financial interests.  But the abolitionist assertion that slaves were less productive than free workers has long since been refuted.  Fogel:

Slave plantations and laborers were not less efficient than free farms and free farmers.  Slaves on small plantations who, like ordinary field hands, worked in the fields alongside their masters were just as productive as free farmers.  But those who toiled in the gangs of the intermediate and large plantations were on average over 70 percent more productive than either free farmers or slaves on small plantations.  These gang laborers, who in 1860 constituted about half of the adult slave population, worked so intensely that they produced as much output in roughly 35 minutes as did free farmers in a full hour. (Without Consent or Contract, p. 159)

Few books on slavery mention the fact that many overseers were black.  Instead, one is usually given the impression that slaveholders almost always employed whites as overseers.  However, in point of fact, most slaveholders used blacks as overseers.  Fogel and Engerman:

Among moderate-sized holdings (sixteen to fifty slaves) less than one out of every six plantations used a white overseer.  On large slaveholdings (over fifty slaves) only one out of every four owners used white overseers.  Even on estates with more than one hundred slaves, the proportion with white overseers was just 30 percent, and on many of these the planters were usually in residence. (Time on the Cross, pp. 200-201; see also p. 211)

What did outside observers say about slavery?  Europeans visited the South and left us their impressions of slavery. Civil War scholar John Tilley observed that their accounts suggest that most slaves were treated humanely:

Among these were Buckingham and Sir Charles Lyell, both Englishmen of distinction. Interestedly appraising the status of house-servants of his Southern hosts, Buckingham wrote that their situation was quite comparable to that of servants in the middle rank of life in his own country. He goes on record that, as a rule, they were "well-fed, well-dressed. . . ." Lyell’s investigation led to a like conclusion: namely, that these house-slaves enjoyed advantages superior to those experienced by white servants in similar work in Europe. He found himself in agreement with the view expressed by William Thompson; after traveling in the South, Thompson, a Scotch weaver, had made public his finding that he had not seen in slave conditions one-fifth of the suffering which was the lot of employees in British factories. Observers of the high type of Chevalier, Fredrika Bremer, and Achille Murat, drew similar contrasts between the conditions prevailing among the "peasants" and "poor working people" of Europe and those obtaining in the slave sections of the United States. Bremer’s verdict was that the slaves were "much better provided for."

Yet others came from abroad to be astonished by the variance between fiction and fact relative to slavery conditions. Lady Wortly found the Southern negroes generally happy and contented. Grund’s observations convinced him that they were better cared for than the free negro element he had seen in the North. Charles Mackay singled out the farm labor of Europe, the shop tailors and seamstresses of the great English cities, as living in physical surroundings inferior to those of the slaves. In his work, Life and Liberty in America, MacKay called attention to the "paternal and patriarchal kindness" of many among the masters.

A digression may be indulged. True to his Northern preconceptions, historian [James] Rhodes manifests unmistakable annoyance because of the reports of the foreign visitors. He proceeds to use his scalpel and the result of his dissection of the phenomenon is the pronouncement that, with the exception of the Scotch weaver who likely mingled only with the less favored class, the opinions of the travelers were possibly colored by their enjoyment of "the generous hospitality of the Southern gentlemen." Such an evaluation of the effectiveness of social contact with slave-owners in beclouding the judgment of astute foreign investigators presents, perhaps, the climax of tributes to Southern courtesy and charm. (The Coming of the Glory, pp. 27-28)

Tilley continued by arguing that the findings of Northern student Frederick Law Olmsted and of a Northern governess agree with those of the European visitors:

A few years prior to the War between the States, a Northern student, Frederick Law Olmsted, made tours of various sections of the South in order personally to view the situation of negro bondman. In 1856, in a volume entitled Journey in the Seaboard States, he shared with the public the benefit of his findings. Some of these, it may be worthwhile briefly to summarize.

Generally, according to Olmsted, the slaves had food in plenty; in fact, it was his opinion that in this respect they were better provisioned for than "the proletarian class of any other part of the world." While in South Carolina, he noted that the house-servants were intelligent, competent, and comfortably dressed. Regarding the consideration given their "health and comfort," he believed it superior to that usually bestowed upon free domestics. His judgment was that the labor required of the negroes would not be considered excessively hard by free labor in the North. It interested him to find that, in their employment in the fields, the rule was to assign to each a specific task; this performed, his work for the day was done. He had personally observed a number of significant scenes, such as slaves leaving the field by one or two o’clock, the remainder of the day to be theirs to use as they willed. On one plantation he had seen, between three and four o’clock, "a dozen women and several men" returning to their quarters, their day’s work completed. The slaves on "Mr. X’s plantation" were treated with uniform kindness. . . .

Rhodes tells of a New England-born governess, employed on a Tennessee plantation, who expressed astonishment that there had failed to show up the "revolting horrors" of which she had heard. Her wonder had grown upon learning that physical punishment was there unknown; willingly, she testified to the sharp contrast between actual conditions and what her preconceived theories had prepared her to expect. (The Coming of the Glory, pp. 28-29)

Before we conclude this section, let’s take a moment to consider what the slaveholders themselves said in response to the charges of the abolitionists:

They vigorously denied promoting promiscuity and practicing barnyard techniques to increase fertility.  Although admitting that some masters abused their power, seducing or raping slave women, they argued that these were isolated cases and that such behavior was condemned by the generality of masters.  They pictured themselves as devoted family men who promoted stable family lives among their slaves.  Although they acknowledged their adherence to a pronatalist [pro-childbirth] policy, they insisted that this was in keeping with church doctrine, both Catholic and Protestant, and that their means of implementing this policy among the slaves—bounties of various sorts for married couples, released time and special rations for nursing and pregnant women, bounties for parents of large numbers of children—were along lines sanctified by religion and long practiced by civilized states.  They also acknowledged that the slave trade was an impediment to family life but contended that its deleterious [harmful] effects were exaggerated.  Masters forced to sell slaves for economic reasons, they insisted, sought either to sell slaves who were still single or to sell them in family groups.

As for food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, they argued that masters were at great pains to see that slaves were well taken care of in these respects because it was to their economic interests to do so.  Far from being poorly treated, they claimed that slaves were better fed, clothed, and sheltered than free laborers in the cities of the North.  To support their case they called attention to census and local registration data that showed that death rates were higher in northern cities than on slave plantations, turning the arguments that British abolitionists had used to condemn West Indian slavery into a critique of northern society.  They also denied that slaves were overworked, except in isolated cases, claiming that the daily hours on plantations were the normal ones for agriculture, that there was no work on the Sabbath, and that slaves also received part of a day, or all day, off on many Saturdays, on rainy days, and on various holidays. (Fogel, Without Consent or Contract, pp. 121-122)

As we have seen, there is a great deal of truth in what the slaveholders said in defense of the way they administered slavery.  Most of these men treated their slaves humanely.  One can make the case that Southern slaveholders treated their slaves better than many Northern factory owners treated their workers.  Most former slaves who discussed their treatment said their masters were good men who treated them well.

All this being said, slavery was still wrong. It had its positive aspects, and it was usually administered humanely, but it was still wrong.  It was wrong because it’s wrong to hold humans in bondage against their will if they have committed no crime.  My only point in noting some of the good aspects of slavery is to provide a little balance to the one-sided picture that is usually painted of it.  There were many forms of injustice in the world in the nineteenth century. Southern slavery was one of them, but it was by no means the worst of them.  The exploitation of free workers in many Northern factories was arguably just as bad as slavery, if not worse in a good number of cases.  The terrible abuse that slaves experienced on Northern slave ships was far worse than anything they experienced on most Southern plantations and farms.

Moreover, it’s important to keep in mind that most Southerners did not own slaves. According to the 1860 census, 69 percent of Southern families did not own slaves.  Scholars generally agree that only about 25 percent of Southern citizens were slaveholders. Notes Stampp,

Nearly three-fourths of all free Southerners had no connection with slavery through either family ties or direct ownership. The "typical" Southerner was not only a small farmer but also a nonslaveholder. (The Peculiar Institution, p. 30)

Of those Southerners who did own slaves, three-fourths owned less than ten. Half owned less than five, and often worked side by side with them in the fields. As for the "planter class," less than fifteen percent of slaveholders belonged to it. "The planter aristocracy," says Stampp, "was limited to some ten thousand families. . . ." (The Peculiar Institution, p. 30).

Slavery and the Federal Government’s Use of Force

Given these and other facts, I don’t believe the existence of slavery in the South justified the federal government’s use of force to deny the South its independence. I don’t believe that Southern slavery justified the brutal form of "total war" that federal armies waged against the South. This brand of warfare included the needless destruction of thousands of private homes and public buildings, the large-scale theft of private belongings, the burning of priceless Southern libraries, the killing of thousands of farm animals (even in remote areas), and the shelling of defenseless towns. Some idea of the brutality that was inflicted on the South is indicated by the fact that about 50,000 Southern civilians died in the war (Kenneth C. Davis, Don’t Know Much About the Civil War, Avon Books Edition, New York: Avon Books, 1997, p. 411). Nor do I believe that Southern slavery justified Lincoln’s policy of blocking medicines from reaching the South. This cruel policy caused the needless deaths of tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers and of thousands of Southern civilians (Charles, Roland, The Confederacy, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1960, pp. 152-153). This policy also caused the deaths of thousands of Union soldiers who were being held in Confederate prisoner of war camps. When the South tried to buy medical supplies from the federal government to care for Union prisoners, Lincoln wouldn’t even reply to the offer. Noted Tilley,

The time came when, shut off from the world by blockade [the federal blockade], the South experienced the greatest difficulty in obtaining medicine which had been made contraband by order of the federal government. By 1864 conditions were so desperate that the South actually offered to purchase from the North such needed supplies, agreeing to pay for them in gold, cotton, or tobacco. The offer made plain that Union surgeons might bring the medicines down and use them solely to minister to Union prisoners. To this offer, there was no reply. (Facts the Historians Leave Out, Ashland City, Tennessee: Nippert Publishing, 1993, reprint, p. 52)

I’m glad slavery was abolished, but it could and should have been abolished peacefully. Yes, this would have taken longer, maybe a lot longer. But it also would have saved the lives of over 600,000 soldiers who died in the war, as well as the lives of tens of thousands of Southern civilians who died as a result of the brutal type of warfare that federal armies waged in the South. It also would have spared tens of thousands of soldiers from suffering the loss of arms and legs for the rest of their lives. Other nations found ways to abolish slavery peacefully. I don’t believe we needed to wage the most destructive war in our nation’s history before slavery could be abolished.  It’s important to understand that slavery was not abolished during the war; it was abolished several months after the war with the passage of the 13th Amendment.

We will never know what would have happened to Southern slavery if the North had allowed the South to go in peace. The Confederacy was never given the chance to outgrow slavery. There were plenty of people in the South who did not like slavery and/or who wanted to see the slaves freed, including Confederate generals Robert E. Lee, Joseph E. Johnston, and Stonewall Jackson, Confederate Congressman Duncan Kenner, and James Spence, the Confederate financial agent in Europe, who criticized slavery in his book The American Union (Patrick, Jefferson Davis and His Cabinet, p. 196).  There were also Confederate leaders who supported emancipating slaves who served in the Confederate army, such as Confederate generals Patrick Cleburne, Daniel Govan, John H. Kelly, and Marc Lowrey, Governor William Smith of Virginia, Confederate Secretary of State Judah Benjamin, and the Confederate president himself, Jefferson Davis.  It’s worth repeating that some 75 percent of Southerners did not own slaves.


I believe the Confederacy would have eventually abolished slavery, either actively or passively. There is some evidence that suggests slavery was beginning to die out on its own.  For example, the percentage of Southern whites who belonged to slaveholding families dropped by 5 percent from 1850-1860 (Robert Divine, T. H. Bren, George Fredrickson, and R. Hal Williams, America Past and Present, Fifth Edition, New York: Longman, 1999, p. 389). Nevins noted that "slavery was dying all around the edges of its domain" (The Emergence of Lincoln, Volume 2, p. 469).   Historians Randall and Donald, after noting the Confederacy’s move toward officially using slaves as soldiers and the support of key Confederate leaders for granting freedom to slaves and their families for faithful military service, acknowledged that the Confederacy may very well have abolished slavery even if it had survived the war:


On November 7, 1864, President Davis went so far as to approve the employment of slave-soldiers as preferable to subjugation, and on February 11, 1865, the Confederate House of Representatives voted that if the President  should not be able to raise sufficient troops otherwise, he was authorized to call for additional levies “from such classes . . . irrespective of color . . . as the . . . authorities . . . may determine”. . . .  There was no mistaking the meaning of this action.  The fundamental social concept of slavery was slipping; an opening wedge for emancipation had been inserted.  Lee’s opinion agreed with that of the President and Congress.  On January 11, 1865, he wrote advising the enlistment of slaves as soldiers and the granting of “immediate freedom to all who enlist, and freedom at the end of the war to the families of those who discharge their duties faithfully. . . .”  This fact, together with other indications, suggests that, even if the Confederacy had survived the war, there was a strong possibility that slavery would be voluntarily abandoned in the South. (The Civil War and Reconstruction, p. 522)

We must be careful not to judge a country or a people through our twenty-first-century lens. Past nations and their citizens should be judged primarily in the context of their own times and not in the context of our times. One hundred years from now, who is to say that future civilizations won’t look back and denounce modern America as an unjust, oppressive nation because we have legalized the killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent unborn children every year by abortion, because we still have not extended basic health care to all of our citizens, and because we continue to pollute the environment with toxic waste and fossil fuel emissions? Over the last thirty years alone, more innocent human beings have been killed by abortion than were ever killed by slavery (even including the thousands who died on the slave ships). Or, consider how many low-income people in our country have died prematurely because they had substandard health care or no health care at all. This tragic injustice is no secret. Numerous stories about it have appeared on TV, in newspapers, and in books for decades. Yet, it continues. Will future civilizations look back and judge America harshly because of this? Will we be condemned as a cruel, elitist society? How would we feel if Islamic nations teamed up to invade America because we permit and uphold abortion? How would we feel if Russia and China teamed up to invade America because we don’t have universal health care and because we’re the world’s biggest polluter? What if England, France, and Russia had teamed up to invade the Northern states in the early 1800s because New England permitted and reaped huge profits from the African slave trade and because so many Northern states strongly discriminated against blacks?

More on the Confederacy

This is not to say the Confederacy was perfect. But, in comparison to other nations in that era, and even to many nations in our day, the Confederacy was one of the most democratic countries in the world. The Confederacy came into existence in a peaceful, democratic manner, with the support of the overwhelming majority of Southern citizens. In fact, the percentage of Southern citizens who supported the formation of the Confederate States of America was considerably larger than the percentage of colonial citizens who supported the American Revolution (Roland, The Confederacy, pp. 14-15; cf. Divine et al, America Past and Present, pp. 159-161). Throughout its existence, the Confederacy enjoyed a vibrant free press. The Confederate government closely resembled the federal government, with three separate branches of power, i.e., executive, legislative, judicial. Confederate laws went through the legislative process. The Confederate Constitution was very similar to the U.S. Constitution, and it contained improvements that even some Northern writers praised. The Confederacy held free and fair elections. Citizens of the Confederacy enjoyed every right that we now enjoy, if not more.

The Confederacy made every effort to establish peaceful relations with the federal government. The Confederate government even offered to pay compensation for all federal facilities in the South and to pay the Southern states’ fair share of the national debt. The Confederacy also announced that Northern ships could continue to use the Mississippi River. The record is clear that the South sought to avoid war. In fact, most Southerners believed secession would be peaceful. It’s interesting to note that the correspondence of the first Confederate Secretary of War, Leroy Walker, "clearly indicates he did not expect war" (Patrick, Jefferson Davis and His Cabinet, p. 106). The Confederate states believed, with good reason, that since they had joined the Union voluntarily and peacefully, they had every right to voluntarily and peacefully leave the Union. But war came when the federal government launched an invasion of the Confederate states. That’s why the vast majority of battles were fought in the South. The South fought because it was invaded. The South had no desire to overthrow the federal government–it merely wanted to leave that government and to form its own.

The Confederacy did not start the war, and, contrary to what most history books claim or imply, the war didn’t really begin when Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Lincoln later admitted he provoked the incident so that he could blame the South for firing the first shot and thus use that as an excuse for going to war.

Soon after South Carolina seceded, federal forces, acting without orders to do so, occupied Fort Sumter, in violation of the agreement that South Carolina had (or certainly thought it had) with President James Buchanan not to change the status quo. Southern leaders argued that South Carolina had the legal right to reclaim Fort Sumter, citing the fact that the state had ceded the fort to the federal government on certain conditions and that these conditions had not been fulfilled. (Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Volume 1, New York: De Capo Press, 1990, reprint of 1881 edition, pp. 179-180). South Carolina, and then the Confederacy, tried for months to have Fort Sumter evacuated. Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, promised Confederate representatives the fort would be evacuated, but this promise was not kept.

When Confederate leaders learned that, contrary to Seward’s promise, Lincoln had sent a convoy of warships and other vessels to resupply the fort, they decided to demand the fort’s surrender. The commander of the federal garrison on the fort refused, even though he did not agree with Lincoln’s decision to send a resupply convoy (Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Vol. 1, pp. 243-244). The Confederates then gave the federal commander advance notice the fort would be attacked. Not a single Union soldier was killed in the attack. As a matter of fact, at one point, when the Confederates feared a fire on the fort was going to burn out of control, they offered to help put out the fire. When the federal troops surrendered, the Confederates allowed them to surrender with full military honors and then permitted them to return to the North in peace. This was the "attack," the alleged act of "rebellion" or "insurrection," that Lincoln used as his pretext for launching an invasion of the seceded states. On the other hand, even after the Fort Sumter incident, Jefferson Davis continued to publicly express his desire for peaceful relations with the North. In fact, just two weeks after the Fort Sumter incident, Davis said the following in a message to the Confederate Congress:

We protest solemnly, in the face of mankind, that we desire peace at any sacrifice, save that of honor. In independence we seek no conquest, no aggrandizement, no concession of any kind from the States with which we have lately been confederated. All we ask is to be let alone–that those who never held power over us shall not now attempt our subjugation by arms. (The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Vol. 1, pp. 283-284; see also Cooper, Jefferson Davis, American, p. 367)

Was the War Fought Over Slavery?

Many historians seek to justify the federal government’s invasion of the South by claiming that the war was fought over slavery, and that Union forces were fighting to free the slaves while the South was fighting to keep them in bondage. A number of critics claim the South only fought in order to ensure the continuation of slavery. A detailed refutation of these assertions would require a separate paper. However, for now, I offer the following points in response to them:

* The war was fought over secession, not over slavery. If the South had not declared its independence, Lincoln would not have launched an invasion, and there would have been no war. The only slave states that were charged with insurrection and then invaded were those that belonged to the Confederacy. Would Lincoln and his fellow Republicans have accepted secession if the Confederacy had announced it was abolishing slavery as the first official act of its existence? Would the Republicans have allowed a peaceful separation if the Confederacy had started an emancipation program right after the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run)? Any serious student of the Civil War will agree that the answer to both of these questions is no.  I don’t think anyone who has studied the subject believes the Republicans would have allowed the South to go in peace no matter when the Confederacy would have started to abolish slavery.

* In July 1861, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution, by a nearly unanimous vote, that affirmed that the North was not waging the war to overthrow slavery but to preserve the Union (Klingaman, Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, pp. 66-70). McPherson notes,

. . . in 1861 the North was fighting for the restoration of a slaveholding Union. In his July 4 message to Congress, Lincoln reiterated the inaugural pledge that he had "no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with slavery in the States where it exists." (Ordeal By Fire, p. 265)

* When Lincoln assumed office, he was entirely willing to allow slavery to continue. Lincoln even supported a constitutional amendment that would have given additional legal protection to slavery. When Lincoln issued his famous Emancipation Proclamation about two years later, he did so largely because he was under intense pressure from abolitionist Republicans in Congress, who were threatening to cut off funds from the army if Lincoln didn’t issue some kind of emancipation statement. One only has to read the Emancipation Proclamation itself to see that it was a war measure that only applied to slaves who were in Confederate territory; it did not apply to any slaves who were in Union-controlled territory, not even to slaves who were in the four Union slave states. In addition, Bennett presents evidence that Lincoln himself tried to undermine the proclamation soon after he issued it, and that he issued it unwillingly (Forced Into Glory, pp. 22-29, 411-508). For that matter, Lincoln only began to consider issuing the proclamation after the Union war effort continued to falter (Klingaman, Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, pp. 134-139; Robert Divine et al, America Past and Present, p. 460.)

* To be sure, some members of the Republican Party did believe the war should be waged for the purpose of abolishing slavery. Those who belonged to this faction of the party were commonly known as "Radical Republicans."

* There were important economic and political differences between the North and the South that were major reasons for the South’s desire for independence. Prior to secession, the South had complained for decades about unfair, unconstitutional Northern economic policies, especially tariff policy. One of the seven ordinances of secession and two of the Declarations of Causes of Secession of the Deep South states mention unfair Northern economic policies. Jefferson Davis mentioned the South’s complaints about Northern protectionist tariff policies in his first message to the Confederate congress (he cited the North’s imposition of "burdens on commerce as a protection to their manufacturing and shipping interests"). In his famous speech on secession to the Georgia legislature, Robert Toombs spent the first half of the speech listing some of the South’s economic complaints against the North, and he cited these complaints as reasons the South needed to be independent. Historian Frank Owsley discussed some of the reasons for these complaints:

The industrial North demanded a high tariff so as to monopolize the domestic markets, especially the Southern market. . . . It was an exploitative principle, originated at the expense of the South and for the benefit of the North. . . .

The industrial section demanded a national subsidy for the shipping business and merchant marine, but, as the merchant marine was alien to the Southern agrarian system, the two sections clashed. It was once more an exploitation of one section for the benefit of the other.

The industrial North demanded internal improvements–roads, railroads, canals, at national expense to furnish transportation for its goods to Southern and Western markets which were already hedged around for the benefit of the North by the tariff wall. . . .

It is interesting to observe that all the favors thus asked by the North were of doubtful constitutional right. . . . Even in the matter of public lands the South favored turning over these lands to the state within which they lay, rather than have them controlled by the federal government. . . . ("The Irrepressible Conflict," in Edwin C. Rozwenc, editor, The Causes of the American Civil War, Second Edition, Lexington, Massachusetts: D. C. Heath and Company, 1972, pp. 108-109)

Even after the war, the North’s economic exploitation of the South continued for decades. For example, Kenneth C. Davis, although he is critical of the South on many points, concedes that Southern railroad companies were "burdened for decades by unfair rates and restrictive tariffs set by Northerners, who controlled the vast majority of railways and the legislatures that set rates" (Don’t Know Much About the Civil War, pp. 425-426).

* Southern leaders had valid reasons for their belief that monetary considerations played a major role in the North’s decision to invade the South. It was no secret that the North did not want Southern ports to be able to trade directly with Europe because they knew European businesses would naturally be attracted by the Confederacy’s extremely low tariff, as opposed to the North’s high tariff. In addition, the North didn’t want to lose the tariff revenue that the federal government collected from the Southern states. I think it’s revealing that in his first inaugural address, Lincoln threatened to invade the seceded states if they didn’t pay the federal tariff. He didn’t threaten to invade over slavery. But he said there would be an invasion if the seceded states didn’t pay the federal tariff:

The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere. (First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861)

Lincoln was a master at using clever wording that could blunt the full impact of what he was saying. But his meaning in this statement is readily discernible. He named two "objects" over which he would use force in order to carry them out, and one of those objects was "to collect the duties and imposts," i.e., the federal tariff. Southern leaders resented this threat, especially since the Southern states paid an unfairly large amount of the tariff and since the tariff rates had just been markedly increased. The fact that Lincoln was prepared to invade if the tariff wasn’t paid shows that monetary considerations played a significant role in the North’s decision to use force against the seceded states.

* In order to understand the Civil War, one must take into account the inflammatory anti-Southern propaganda that numerous Northern leaders and newspapers spread for years prior to the war. Northern abolitionist attacks on slavery were often misleading and exaggerated. These attacks frequently included unfair attacks on the South as a whole. Northern agitators unfairly attacked the South on a wide range of issues. In her book, North Over South: Northern Nationalism and American Identity in the Antebellum Era (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 2000), British scholar Susan-Mary Grant documents the harsh anti-Southern propaganda that Northern leaders, writers, and newspapers spread in the decades leading up to the war, especially from around 1840 onward. During the five years that preceded the war, numerous Republican leaders and pro-Republican newspapers frequently portrayed Southerners as barbaric, ignorant, depraved, and even un-American. In the 1860 presidential election, the Republican Party distributed an abridged version of a book entitled The Impending Crisis of the South, which spoke approvingly of a scenario where slaves would rise up and kill their masters. Not only did the Republican Party distribute this book, but in the version that the party printed, Republican editors added such captions as "The Stupid Masses of the South" and "Revolution–Peacefully if we can, Violently if we must." The "Revolution . . . Violently if we must" statement referred to inciting slave revolts that would potentially cause the deaths of thousands or even tens of thousands of Southern citizens.

* As one reads the speeches and letters of Confederate leaders during the war, it becomes apparent that they certainly didn’t believe their main reason for fighting was the preservation of slavery.  For example, beginning in late 1862, James Phelan, Joseph Bradford, and Reuben Davis wrote to Jefferson Davis to express concern that some opponents were claiming the war "was for the defense of the institution of slavery" (Cooper, Jefferson Davis, American, pp. 479-480, 765). They called those who were making this claim "demagogues." Cooper notes that when two Northerners visited Jefferson Davis during the war, Davis insisted "the Confederates were not battling for slavery" and that "slavery had never been the key issue" (Jefferson Davis, American, p. 524).

* There is no doubt the issue of slavery was the main, immediate factor that led the original seven states of the Confederacy to secede, but it was certainly not the only factor. It’s crucial to understand that secession and the war were two different events. The election of Lincoln and the Radical Republicans in 1860 was the reason the Deep South states seceded. The issue of slavery was the biggest reason they decided to secede when Lincoln was elected, though, as mentioned, it was by no means the only reason.

What about the four other states of the Confederacy? Why did they secede? They only seceded after Lincoln announced he was going to invade the Deep South. In fact, in two of those four states, the people themselves voted on the question of secession and voted against it.  In the two other states, democratically elected secession conventions voted against secession.  However, when Lincoln announced he was going to invade the seceded states, new votes were held, and in each of them secession won by overwhelming margins.

The causes of secession were not the causes of the war, and secession did not have to lead to war. The Republicans could have allowed the South to go in peace, but they chose not to do so. The direct cause of the war itself was the federal invasion of the South. The battles started when federal armies invaded the Southern states in an effort to destroy the Confederacy and to force the South back into the Union.

* Precious few textbooks mention the fact that by 1864 key Confederate leaders, including Jefferson Davis, were prepared to abolish slavery. As early as 1862 some Confederate leaders supported various forms of emancipation. In 1864 Jefferson Davis officially recommended that slaves who performed faithful service in non-combat positions in the Confederate army should be freed.  Robert E. Lee and many other Confederate generals favored emancipating slaves who served in the Confederate army.  In fact, Lee had long favored the abolition of slavery and had called the institution a "moral and political evil" years before the war (McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom, New York: Ballantine Books, 1988, p. 281; Recollections and Letters of Robert E. Lee, New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2003, reprint, pp. 231-232). By late 1864, Davis was prepared to abolish slavery in order to gain European diplomatic recognition and thus save the Confederacy.  Duncan Kenner, one of the biggest slaveholders in the South and the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee of the Confederate House of Representatives, strongly supported this proposal. So did the Confederate Secretary of State, Judah Benjamin. Davis informed congressional leaders of his intentions, and then sent Kenner to Europe to make the proposal.  Davis even made Kenner a minister plenipotentiary so as to ensure he could make the proposal to the British and French governments and that it would be taken seriously.

The Radical Republicans

It would be worthwhile to take a closer look at the Radical Republicans.  They wielded tremendous power in their party. They were not only abolitionists, but, like most other Republicans of their day, they tended to support higher taxes (in the form of high tariff rates), subsidies and land grants to certain big businesses, and the expansion of the federal government’s size and power. Southern leaders consistently opposed these policies. Most Radical Republicans made no secret of their hatred of the South. Southern leaders suspected that some of the Radicals didn’t really care about the slaves but were using slavery as an excuse to crush and subjugate the South. The harsh, illegal Reconstruction program that the Radical Republicans in Congress imposed on the South after the war led many people, in all sections of the country, to believe this suspicion was justified. Even President Andrew Johnson said in an official message that the Reconstruction regime that the Radicals wanted to impose on the South was illegal, vengeful, and despotic (Lloyd Paul Stryker, Andrew Johnson: A Study in Courage, New York: The MacMillan Company, 1930, pp. 263-285; see also Johnson’s veto message of the first Reconstruction act). Johnson tried to prevent the Radicals from imposing such harsh terms by vetoing their Reconstruction bill, but they had enough votes to override his veto. When Johnson persisted in opposing the Radicals, they indicted him and then tried to remove him from office on the basis of charges that can only be described as shameful, not to mention invalid (Stryker, Andrew Johnson, pp. 572-674; see also Randall and Donald, The Civil War and Reconstruction, pp. 601-617).

Almost immediately after Lincoln was assassinated, Radical Republicans in Congress and in the War Department, along with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, falsely accused Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders of complicity in Lincoln’s death. A War Department military tribunal and the House Judiciary Committee formally endorsed this claim. They based this accusation on information they knew was bogus. Some Radicals continued to repeat the accusation even after it became clear that it was false. Cooper notes that most people came to reject the claim that Davis was involved in Lincoln’s death:

In the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination . . . the War Department, with Secretary Stanton’s enthusiastic endorsement, claimed that Davis was intimately involved in the conspiracy that resulted in Lincoln’s murder as well as other failed intrigues. . . . In subsequent investigations this supposedly crystal-clear certainty turned murky. A few officials clung to the theory of Davis’s responsibility, but most observers found the evidence flimsy, even fraudulent. (Jefferson Davis, American, pp. 582-583)

The story of the Radical Republicans’ attempt to convict Jefferson Davis of involvement in Lincoln’s death is one of the most shameful episodes in American history, and it says a lot about how utterly lawless and corrupt some Republicans were.  I’m unaware of a single textbook that says anything about the Radicals’ unethical conduct in the affair. Therefore, I’d like to devote a few paragraphs to examining some aspects of their attempt to frame Davis for Lincoln’s death. One of the best treatments of the subject is Seymour Frank’s booklet The Conspiracy Against Jefferson Davis (Biloxi, Mississippi: The Beauvoir Press, 1987). The booklet originally appeared as an article in The Mississippi Valley Historical Review (March 1954) under the title "The Conspiracy to Implicate the Confederate Leaders in Lincoln’s Assassination." In his foreword to Frank’s booklet, historian James West Thompson discusses some aspects of the attempt to blame Davis for Lincoln’s murder:

A surprise witness at the Lincoln conspirators’ trial was a man who identified himself as Henry Von Steinacker, who claimed to have attended a meeting of Confederate officers who were planning Lincoln’s murder. Shortly after his testimony, defense counsel learned that Von Steinacker had been a member of the Union Army and had been arrested while attempting to desert. Sentenced to death, he had escaped while awaiting execution. Joining the Confederate forces of General Edward Johnson, he had been assigned to headquarters as a draftsman, but he was arrested by the Confederates and accused of theft and of abuse of prisoners. Again he escaped. Defense Attorney Clampitt was denounced by General Lew Wallace . . . for stating these facts. Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt [who headed the Bureau of Military Justice] hypocritically stated that he would be happy to return "Von Steinacker" to the courtroom if only he could be found. It later developed that when "Von Steinacker" testified, he had been a Federal prisoner named Hans Von Winklestein and was serving a sentence for desertion. He had, with the full knowledge of the prosecution, been allowed to testify to lies under a false name, and he was then released from prison immediately afterwards as a reward for his lies.

There were three other "witnesses" who were the backbone of the trial and who supplied the basis of the verdict. All were perjurers for hire, and they were hired by Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt. Foremost was . . . Sanford Conover, alias James Watson Wallace, but whose true name was Charles A. Dunham, a totally unscrupulous New York lawyer. He brought together a group of minor characters whom he drilled in stories he wrote out for each one and drilled them in reciting the stories until they were letter-perfect. Then they gave the depositions of these stories to Judge Holt personally. Only he took their statements. Conover’s testimony and that of his "witnesses" proved to be a mass of lies. But Judge Holt continued to use him and to pay him even after he had been thoroughly exposed. . . .

Second of these perjurers was a man who claimed to be Richard Montgomery. His real name was James Thompson, and he was a convicted New York burglar with a long record of felonies.

The third of these perjurers was known as Dr. James B. Merritt, who later confessed to a committee of the House of Representatives that his testimony had been a tissue of lies, for which the government had paid him $6,000. . . . It was on the basis of the lies of these men that Secretary of War Stanton was able to induce new President Andrew Johnson to issue his offer of rewards for the capture of Jefferson Davis and several other Confederates, accused of having plotted Lincoln’s death. Stanton claimed that this was on the basis of evidence in the possession of the Bureau of Military Justice. Stanton knew that this was false, that no evidence was held, and that only unsworn, oral statements, never reduced to writing, had been obtained. (Foreword, The Conspiracy Against Jefferson Davis, pp. 5-6)

Time permits me to quote only a small part of Frank’s analysis:

The news of President Lincoln’s assassination came as a terrific blow to the people of the North. . . . Stanton immediately informed the stunned world that Lincoln’s assassination had been the outcome of a general plot to murder the President, his cabinet, and leading Union generals. It was engineered, he charged, by Jefferson Davis and other Southern leaders. . . .

Through bribes and offers of rewards, Stanton’s assistants were able to assemble a group of persons who seemed willing to perjure themselves to aid the Secretary in achieving his goal. . . .

In the trial before the military tribunal the prosecution had attempted to establish this complicity [of Davis in Lincoln’s death] primarily by the testimony of three witnesses. This attempt had failed despite the fact that the military court, by its verdict, had indicated otherwise.

The three witnesses were Richard Montgomery, Dr. James B. Merritt, and Sanford Conover. By his own admissions, each had done much to discredit his story and to impeach his personal credibility. Holt knew that their stories would not stand public scrutiny and tried to keep their testimony secret. This endeavor had failed. . . . The entire evidence of the three was therefore given to the newspapers.

In early June [1865], this suppressed evidence appeared in the leading American and Canadian papers. Bitter denunciations, indignant denials, and angry countercharges followed. The witnesses had alleged that most of the plotting had occurred in Toronto and Montreal. The newspapers in both cities were swamped with letters and statements, all tending to establish that Montgomery, Merritt, and Conover were men of poor reputation and that their testimony was false. (The Conspiracy Against Jefferson Davis, pp. 11-12, 17-18)

Although President Johnson allowed several people to be tried and hung as conspirators in Lincoln’s death, he came to realize that the "evidence" against Davis was false. Incredibly, when it became apparent that Johnson was not going to allow Davis to be brought to trial on the basis of this evidence, two Radical Republicans in Congress plotted with Sanford Conover to produce false evidence that would connect Johnson himself with Lincoln’s assassination. Yes, two Republican members of Congress conspired to falsely accuse a sitting president with involvement in the previous president’s murder. And, yes, they did so with the same Sanford Conover, one of the discredited Davis-conspiracy witnesses. The two Republicans were Representatives James Ashley and Benjamin Butler. The scheme failed because Conover, fearing the two Congressmen weren’t keeping their part of the deal, decided to reveal the plot to Johnson; he turned over to the president several documents that exposed the plan. Needless to say, Johnson was shocked by this information, and he immediately had the documents published in major newspapers, including the New York Times (Frank, The Conspiracy Against Jefferson Davis, pp. 37-38).

The same Republican-controlled Congress that imposed Reconstruction on the South also sanctioned official discrimination against the American Indians in the West and permitted them to be segregated from the rest of society. One textbook, edited by Civil War scholar Bruce Catton and others, puts it this way:

The same Congress that devised Radical Reconstruction . . . approved strict segregation and inequality for the Indian of the West. (Catton et al, editors, The National Experience: A History of the United States, Second Edition, New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1968, p. 416)

The Abolitionists, Slavery, and the South

The conduct of the Northern abolitionists is rarely questioned because their ultimate goal, the emancipation of the slaves, was undeniably noble and praiseworthy. But does a worthy goal justify any and all means to achieve it, even if those means include the use of egregious falsehoods and violence? Granted, it’s tragic and frustrating when immoral institutions or evil practices are protected by law, either expressly in the Constitution, by legislative acts, or by court rulings. However, the proper way to remedy such situations is to change the law or to reverse the court ruling, not to resort to inflammatory slander and violence. Slavery was an institution that was protected from federal intervention by the Constitution. Even Lincoln said repeatedly the Constitution prohibited the federal government from abolishing slavery. In 1835 the House of Representatives voted 201 to 7 that Congress had no constitutional authority to interfere with slavery. There were only two ways to legally abolish slavery, and that was by each state voting to end slavery within its borders or by the passage of a constitutional amendment banning slavery in every state. The abolitionists realized it would be many years before slavery could be abolished by either of these two processes. Therefore, many of them, if not most of them, resorted to spreading grossly misleading attacks on the South, and some of them even began supporting or launching armed raids into the South that were designed to incite violent slave rebellions.

Naturally, Southerners resented these methods. They saw considerable hypocrisy and lawlessness in such assaults. They knew that slavery had been legal since the founding of the republic. They also knew that many of the founding fathers had owned slaves, and that slavery had existed in the North for decades. When the Northern states abolished slavery, they did so gradually, and in many cases Northern slaveholders had ample time to sell their slaves.  Similarly, when England abolished slavery, slaveholders were compensated. Yet, Northern abolitionists, some of whom were Radical Republicans, demanded that the Southern states free their slaves immediately and without compensation, which even Lincoln said was unfair. Additionally, the abolitionists made no suggestion that the Northern states should return any of the large fortunes they had made from the slave trade or from the sale of Northern slaves to the South. Even more upsetting to many Southerners were the abolitionists’ attempts to incite slave insurrections. When the British attempted to incite slave revolts in the American colonies, the colonists greatly resented it.  Thomas Jefferson cited this in the Declaration of Independence as one of the colonists’ grievances against the British.

In many ways one can compare the situation that existed with slavery to the situation that now exists with abortion. Abortion is an immoral practice that was legalized by a highly questionable ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973. No matter how dubious or unfounded the court’s ruling may have been, the decision established abortion as a protected practice in American law. As a result, tens of millions of unborn children have been killed in abortion clinics. In an effort to stop this evil practice, a few radical anti-abortion activists have resorted to bombing abortion clinics and to shooting abortion doctors. As much as one might detest abortion (as I do), one cannot condone these actions. In terms of the cost in human lives, abortion has caused far, far more death and suffering than did slavery. There is simply no comparison. Nevertheless, no responsible citizen, no matter how strongly he or she dislikes abortion, condones the bombing of abortion clinics or the shooting of abortion doctors. Similarly, although I certainly admire the Northern abolitionists for their opposition to slavery, I cannot condone some of their methods, especially their armed raids into the South.

Few nations or peoples respond positively when they’re subjected to false accusations and unfair criticism, and especially when they’re subjected to armed raids. Tilley expressed the view of many Southerners that slavery could have been abolished peacefully and that some of the abolitionists’ methods only made the situation worse:

The record has disclosed that prior to the onslaught of the abolitionists, gradual emancipation was in the making. As a matter of course, it was not to be accomplished overnight. Beyond question, it would require a plan of just compensation to those on whom would fall the financial loss. . . . After all is said, the best blood of the South knew then, as its descendants know now, that slavery was inherently, incurably evil, an economic and moral anachronism. Slavery and the ideals of freedom which inspired the founders of the nation were wholly incompatible conceptions. No system of human bondage, be it ever so humane, could have long endured the blinding light of American civilization and Christianity.

Time was required. Time is a potent problem solver. . . . Time would have wrought the extirpation [elimination] of human enslavement. The march of progress, intellectual, social, and spiritual, could not long have tolerated the barrier of such a stumbling block.

That the ugliest blot on American life is forever gone from these shores no individual Southerner regrets. It is just possible, however, that he may be indulged the privilege to submit that, in light of all the facts, the method of its going was transparently unjustified and unfair. (The Coming of the Glory, pp. 46-47)

On an aside note, it should be observed that the South’s anger over the attempts to incite slave revolts was a major reason that Confederate leaders strongly objected when the federal government began to use former slaves in the Union forces that were invading and ravaging the Southern states. Few textbooks mention the fact that Union forces often compelled slaves and former slaves to fight in the Union army.  Nor do many textbooks explain that Union soldiers frequently took slaves away from their farms and plantations against their will. Confederate leaders, and most Southerners as well, viewed the Union army’s use of former slaves as a federally sanctioned slave revolt. From their viewpoint, since those slaves had either been stolen or had run away, they still belonged to their masters and had no legal right to be soldiers or to take up arms against Southern citizens. Slavery was still legal in the South, and it was still legal in the four Union slave states. Yet, Union armies didn’t invade and devastate Northern slave states, only Southern slave states. Of course, on the other hand, one can certainly sympathize with those former slaves who joined the Union army in the hope of freeing their fellow blacks who were still being held as slaves in the South. If I had been in their position, I may very well have done the same thing.  But I can also understand the Confederate position on the matter.  It should be kept in mind that the American colonists greatly resented the British attempt to recruit slaves to fight against them in the Revolutionary War.  The British offered freedom to American slaves who would fight on their side, and they encouraged slaves to sabotage the colonial war effort.  Many thousands of slaves flocked to British lines, and several thousand of them fought for the British.  At the end of the war, at least 18,000 former slaves accompanied British troops as they evacuated New York, Charleston, Savannah, and other cities.

What If the Confederacy Had Survived?

Although I don’t support secession in our day, I don’t agree with the view that it would have been a catastrophe if the Confederacy had survived. The claim is sometimes heard that if the South had remained independent, we could not have defeated Nazi Germany and Japan in World War II. Yet, England and America, though separate nations after the Revolutionary War, were able to work together to defeat Hitler and Tojo. There’s no reason that the U.S.A. and the C.S.A. could not have worked together to defeat the fascist threat.

The Confederate States and the United States could have worked together in numerous areas for the benefit of all Americans, North and South. All the states still would have been American states, but with somewhat different laws in certain cases. The borders could have remained open. Trade and business could have flowed freely between the two nations. An independent South, freed from the protectionist trade policies of the North, could have traded directly with Europe and undoubtedly would have grown even more prosperous than she was before the war. Hopefully, Northern citizens would have seen the benefits of lower tariffs and would have insisted that their leaders adopt such policies. (Instead, high tariffs remained in place for decades after the war.)

If the Confederacy had survived, abortion most likely would not have been legalized in the Southern states; taxes would have been much lower in the South; no federal income tax would have been imposed on the Southern states; prayer and Bible reading and the posting of the Ten Commandments would have remained in Southern schools; Southern anti-sodomy laws would not have been swept aside by an amoral U.S. Supreme Court; and sick "virtual" child pornography would not have been legalized as "protected free speech" by that same amoral U.S. Supreme Court.

We should keep in mind that the Confederate states and their citizens were American too. After all, they comprised the Confederate States of America. They still revered our founding fathers. In fact, they saw themselves as preserving and defending the principles of the founders. The official seal of the Confederacy featured George Washington. Confederate postage stamps bore the images of Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson.

If the Confederacy had not been invaded but had been allowed to exist in peace, the relations between all the states would have been nearly identical to how they had been before secession, and the citizens of the states could have remained "one people" in every important sense. Similarly, if the U.S. were to announce tomorrow that it was withdrawing from the United Nations, how would this change the relations between the people and the governments of, let’s say, America and England? Would it have any meaningful impact on the millions of British-American friendships? Would it have any meaningful impact on the relations between British and American families that are related to each other? Would our leaving the United Nations prevent us from working on a joint space-station project with the Russians, as we’ve been doing for years? Would it prevent us from continuing the close trade and business relationships that we have with Canada and England? Would it mean we could no longer have virtually open borders with Canada? Obviously, the answer to all these questions is no. These aren’t exact analogies, but they’re fairly close to the mark. It’s hard to imagine now, but in the days before the Civil War the average citizen had very little contact with the federal government. Why? Because back then the federal government was much, much smaller than it is today. The states performed the great majority of the vital functions of government.

"We Lost Too Much": The War’s Impact on Our Form of Government

The North’s invasion and subjugation of the South destroyed the type of Union that the founding fathers established. We went from a Union in which the federal government’s powers were strictly limited to a Union in which the federal government could dominate the states and control functions that were originally reserved to the states. We went from a Union where the federal government was prohibited from using force against a state to a Union where the federal government invaded and crushed eleven states. We went from a Union with a limited federal government and very low taxes to a Union with a huge federal government and much higher taxes. Basically, the only functions the federal government leaves to the states are those that it simply doesn’t want to perform. McPherson explains how the relationship between the average American and the national government was changed because of the Civil War:

The Internal Revenue Act of 1862 taxed almost everything but the air northerners breathed. . . . The law also created a Bureau of Internal Revenue, which remained a permanent part of the federal government. . . . The relationship of the American taxpayer to the government was never again the same. . . .

The old federal republic in which the national government had rarely touched the average citizen except through the post office gave way to a more centralized polity that taxed the people directly and created an internal revenue bureau to collect these taxes, drafted men into the army, expanded the jurisdiction of federal courts, created a national currency and a national banking system, and established the first national agency for social welfare. . . . Eleven of the first twelve amendments to the Constitution had limited the powers of the national government; six of the next seven, beginning with the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, vastly expanded those powers at the expense of the states. (The Battle Cry of Freedom, pp. 447-448, 859)


The Civil War marked a decisive turn in the nature of American nationality. Buried forever was the notion of the Union as a voluntary confederation of sovereign states. The word "Union" gradually gave way to "nation". . . . The war strengthened the national government at the expense of the states. Before 1861, only the post office among federal agencies touched directly the lives of most Americans. Citizens paid their taxes to local or state governments and settled most of their disputes in state courts. For money, they used the notes of banks chartered by state legislatures. When war came in 1861, the President called first on the state militia. State governors took the lead in recruiting, equipping, and officering the volunteer regiments. But the centralizing pressures of war changed all this. By 1863 the War Department prescribed enlistment quotas for states and drafted men directly into the army if states failed to meet the quotas. The President declared martial law and stationed soldiers in every state, where their powers of detention superseded those of state courts. The United States government levied a host of direct taxes and created an internal revenue bureau to collect them. (Ordeal By Fire, p. 485)

For all practical purposes the Tenth Amendment, which reserves all unspecified powers to the states and to the people, was abolished by the North’s victory. Former Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton came under attack during her confirmation hearings because she had dared to say in a 1996 speech that "we lost too much" in the way of states rights because of the Civil War. In her speech, Norton, who was then the Attorney General of Colorado, said the following:

I recall, after I had just gone through this massive battle with the EPA on state sovereignty and states rights, visiting the east coast. For the first time, I had the opportunity to wander through one of those Civil War graveyards. I remember seeing this column that was erected in one of those graveyards. It said in memory of all the Virginia soldiers who died in defense of the sovereignty of their state. It really took me aback. Sure, I had been filing briefs and I thought that was pretty brave. And then there were times we looked beyond the substance. When we looked at the decision making process. And understood the 10th Amendment was part of that separation of powers. It was part of what was supposed to guarantee that our government would remain limited. What would guarantee our freedom? Again, we certainly had bad facts in that case where we were defending state sovereignty by defending slavery.

But we lost too much. We lost the idea that the states were to stand against the Federal government gaining too much power over our lives. That is the point I think we need to reappreciate. We need to remind ourselves and remind the political debate that part of the reason the states need to be able to make their own decisions is to provide that check in our Federal system against too much power going to Washington. ("Rediscovering the 10th Amendment," delivered at the Stevinson Center’s Annual Summer Symposium, Vail, Colorado, August 24, 1996)

Jefferson Davis believed the North’s denial of the Southern states’ desire to peacefully leave the Union was a repudiation of the original form of our government, and he noted that secession was in no way a hostile act:

Secession, on the other hand, was the assertion of the inalienable right of a people to change their government. . . . Under our form of government, and the cardinal principles upon which it was founded, it should have been a peaceful remedy. The withdrawal of a state from a league has no revolutionary or insurrectionary characteristic. The government of the state remains unchanged as to all internal affairs. It is only its external or confederate relations that are altered. To term this action of a sovereign a "rebellion" is a gross abuse of language. So is the flippant phrase which speaks of it as an appeal to the "arbitrament of the sword" [i.e., trying to settle an issue by force]. In the late contest, in particular, there was no appeal by the seceding states to the arbitrament of arms. There was on their part no invitation or provocation to war. They stood in the attitude of self-defense, and were attacked for merely exercising a right guaranteed by the original terms of the compact. . . . The man who defends his house against attack cannot with any propriety be said to have submitted the question of his right to it to the arbitrament of arms. . . .

The invasions of the Southern states, for purposes of coercion, were in violation of the written Constitution, and the attempt to subjugate sovereign states, under the pretext of "preserving the Union," was alike offensive to law, good morals, and the proper use of language. The Union was the voluntary junction of free and independent states; to subjugate any of them was to destroy the constituent parts, and necessarily, therefore, must be the destruction of the Union itself. (The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Volume 1, pp. 157, 379)

The Right of Secession

What about the right of secession? Did the South have the right to secede? Thomas Jefferson clearly indicated he would allow a state to leave the Union, even if he didn’t agree with its reasons for wanting to separate. President John Tyler likewise believed a state had the right to leave the Union. So did President John Quincy Adams. The Northern Federalists’ Hartford Convention declared in 1814 that a state had the right to secede in cases of "absolute necessity" (Alan Brinkley, Richard Current, Frank Freidel, and T. Harry Williams, American History: A Survey, Eighth Edition, New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1991, p. 230). None other than President Ulysses S. Grant (1868-1876), who was also the commanding general of all Union armies at the end of the war, said he believed the founding fathers probably would have allowed the South to go in peace. Grant stated,

If they had foreseen it, the probabilities are they would have sanctioned the right of a State or States to withdraw rather than that there should be war between brothers. (The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, Old Saybrook, Connecticut: Konecky & Konecky, 1992, reprint, p. 131)

Grant also said he believed that if any of the original thirteen states had attempted to secede from the Union under the Articles of Confederation, their right to do so would not have been challenged. Said Grant,

If there had been a desire on the part of any single State to withdraw from the compact at any time while the number of States was limited to the original thirteen, I do not suppose there would have been any to contest the right, no matter how much the determination might have been regretted. (The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, p. 130)

The Declaration of Independence says people have the right to sever existing political ties with other peoples and to take their place among the family of nations.  It also says governments derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed" and that people have the right to form a new government when they believe they need to do so, "laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."  It may be said with complete accuracy that the Declaration of Independence is a secession document.  Our founding fathers signed the declaration in order to proclaim their independence from England and to declare that they had a natural, God-given right to break their political ties with England and to establish their own government.  If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, then the Confederacy was certainly a legitimate government, since Southern citizens overwhelmingly supported secession and the formation of their states into the Confederate States of America.

This is just a small part of the evidence that shows the South had valid grounds for believing it had the right to peacefully leave the Union. In offering this evidence, I don’t mean to imply that I support secession in our day. My intent is merely to show that the South had just cause for believing secession was legal. A thorough treatment of the legality of secession can be found in attorney John Remington Graham’s book A Constitutional History of Secession (Louisiana: Pelican Publishing, 2002).

The Devastation of the South

One cannot understand why many Southerners and others feel the war was unjust without understanding the extent of the devastation that federal forces inflicted on the South during the war. When a whole region experiences the kind of devastation and brutality that the South suffered, accounts of such wrongs are passed down from parents to children for many generations. Today nearly all textbooks either ignore or gloss over the cruel type of warfare that federal armies waged in the South and the amount of destruction and suffering those armies caused. So, before I conclude this article, I’d like to take just a moment to examine the nature and consequences of the devastation that federal forces inflicted on the South.

Kenneth Davis:

Along with the horrible number of deaths and crippling wounds, much of the seceded South was left in smoldering ruins. The Southern economy was practically nonexistent. The dollar value of the destruction was staggering. Although cotton resumed its significant position almost immediately, it was another twenty-five years before the number of livestock in the South returned to prewar levels. . . .

William T. Sherman [a Union general] always maintained that the devastatingly destructive war he had waged on the Confederacy shortened the war and saved soldiers’ lives. His good intentions went unappreciated by the victims of his ruthlessness. For many along his path, after Sherman’s troops departed, there was literally nothing left on which to support a family. Houses were looted. Those animals that were not taken by the Union troops were killed. Under Sherman’s "scorched earth" policy, any item that could be used for farming or manufacturing was destroyed, the grim "justice" for what Sherman viewed as treason.

In the aftermath of the war, the entire Confederacy, save sections west of the Mississippi that had been spared the massive battles, was devastated–physically, economically, even spiritually. The postwar South was probably worse off than Europe after either of the world wars of this century. Because of Sherman’s notorious destruction of the southern railroads, many of Lee’s defeated soldiers had to walk home from Virginia. Many found that their homes had been burned. In some cases, entire towns and even whole counties had been evacuated. (Don’t Know Much About the Civil War, pp. 411, 425)

Randall and Donald:

On the nature and extent of devastation at the South the historian’s sources present a sad record. By the end of the war the eleven seceding states had 32 percent fewer horses than in 1860, 30 percent fewer mules, 35 percent fewer cattle, 20 percent fewer sheep, and 42 percent fewer swine. . . . Omitting slave property from his calculations, Professor Sellers concludes that "southern wealth in 1860 had shrunk in value at the end of the war by 43 percent". . . .

The South had been broken by the war. Lands were devastated. Proud plantations were now mere wrecks. Billions of economic value in slaves had been wiped away by emancipation measures without that compensation which Lincoln himself had admitted to be equitable. . . . Accumulated capital had disappeared. Banks were shattered; factories were dismantled; the structure of business intercourse had crumbled. In Atlanta, Columbia, Mobile, Richmond, and many other places great havoc had been wrought by fire.

The interior of South Carolina, in the wake of Sherman’s march, "looked for many miles like a broad black streak of ruin and desolation–the fences all gone; lonesome smoke stacks, surrounded by dark heaps of ashes and cinders, marking the spots where human habitations had stood; the fields along the road wildly overgrown by weeds, with here and there a sickly looking patch of cotton or corn cultivated by negro squatters. In the city of Columbia . . . a thin fridge of houses encircled a confused mass of charred ruins of dwellings and business buildings, which had been destroyed by a sweeping conflagration." The Tennessee valley, according to the account of an English traveler, "consists for the most part of plantations in a state of semi-ruin, and plantations of which the ruin is for the present total and complete. . . . The trail of war is visible throughout the valley in burnt up gin-houses, ruined bridges, mills, and factories, of which latter the gable walls only are left standing, and in large tracts of once cultivated land stripped of every vestige of fencing. . . . Borne down by losses, debts, and accumulating taxes, many who were once the richest among their fellows have disappeared from the scene, and few have yet to take their place." (The Civil War and Reconstruction, pp. 517, 543-544)


The war not only killed one-quarter of the Confederacy’s white men of military age. It also killed two-fifths of southern livestock, wrecked half of the farm machinery, ruined thousands of miles of railroad, left scores of thousands of farms and plantations in weeds and disrepair. . . . Two-thirds of assessed southern wealth vanished in the war. The wreckage of the southern economy caused the 1860s to become the decade of least economic growth in American history before the 1930s. As measured by the census, southern agricultural and manufacturing capital declined by 46 percent between 1860 and 1870, while northern capital increased by 50 percent. In 1860 the southern states had contained 30 percent of the national wealth; in 1870, only 12 percent. (The Battle Cry of Freedom, pp. 818-819)


When surrender stopped the invader, physical destruction was apparent in many places. Lands were devastated, plantations wrecked. Accumulated capital had disappeared in worthless stocks, bonds, and currency. The banks had failed; factories had been dismantled; and the structure of business intercourse had crumbled. Two billion dollars invested in slaves had been wiped out, without the compensation which Lincoln himself had regarded as equitable. . . . Cotton worth $30,000,000 had been confiscated by federal Treasury agents. . . .

The eighty miles from Harpers Ferry to New Market were described by a Virginia farmer as "almost a desert." "We had," he explained, "no cattle, hogs, sheep, or horses or anything else. The fences were all gone. . . . The barns were all burned; chimneys standing without houses, and houses standing without roofs, or doors, or windows". . . .

In December 1865, an estimated 500,000 white people in three states of the lower South were without the necessities of life, and some of them even starved. . . .

Fifteen years after the war only the frontier states of Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Florida had as many acres under cultivation as in 1860. . . .

The spirit of vengeance was strong in the victorious North at first. . . .

Because Southerners refused to be friendly, the federal army of occupation resorted to irritating retaliations. Women required to go to military headquarters for any favor were forced to take ironclad oaths of national loyalty. The wearing of Confederate uniforms was forbidden and when this order was enforced among men who had no other clothes, scenes of unforgivable humiliation resulted. . . .

Church buildings were seized and turned over to Northern denominations, and ministers were not allowed to preach unless they agreed to conduct "loyal services, pray for the President of the United States, and for Federal victories." Direct refusal of Protestant Episcopal clergymen to substitute in their liturgy the name of the President of the United States for that of the President of the Confederate States resulted in the closing of churches and the dispersal of congregations.

In addition, there was the burden of discriminatory war taxes and the confiscation laws of Congress. Federal Treasury agents threaded their way through the occupied areas seizing 3 million out of the 5 million bales of cotton which had not been destroyed. They corruptly enriched themselves. "I am sure," said the Secretary of the Treasury, "that I sent some honest agents South; but it sometimes seems very doubtful whether any of them remained honest for very long." A special tax of from 2.5 to 3 cents a pound on cotton yielded the federal treasury $68,000,000. Because of its effects on the economy of a prostrate region, this levy was called by the United States Commissioner of Agriculture "disastrous and disheartening in the extreme." As soon as the federal troops got a foothold in the South, property was seized and sold for nonpayment under the Direct Tax Act. (A History of the South, pp. 247-251, original emphasis)

In conclusion, I hope that in this article I have provided some balance to the common, and I believe inaccurate and unfair, descriptions of the antebellum South, of the Confederacy, and of the events that led to the Civil War. When judged by any fair, reasonable comparison, the South was just as deserving of its independence as were the original thirteen colonies. Similarly, the South had just as much right as did the North to be governed by a government of its own choosing. The Confederacy had just as much right to exist as did any other nation of its day.

It’s been said that those who fail to learn from the mistakes of history are bound to repeat them. But how can we learn from history if our version of history is markedly one-sided and incomplete? Sometimes the facts of history can be unsettling, especially when those facts have been widely suppressed. Robert Catlett Cave expressed my feelings about discussing such facts:

I acknowledge . . . the obligation to heal dissensions, allay passion, and promote good feeling; but I do not believe that good feeling should be promoted at the expense of truth and honor. I sincerely desire that there may be between the people of the North and the people of the South increasing peace and amity, and that, in the spirit of genuine fraternity, they may work together for the prosperity and glory of their common country; but I do not think the Southern people should be expected to sacrifice the truth of history to secure that end. (The Men in Gray, Crawfordville, Georgia: Ruffin Flag Company, 1997, reprint, p. 17)


Michael T. Griffith holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Excelsior College in Albany, New York, two Associate in Applied Science degrees from the Community College of the Air Force, and an Advanced Certificate of Civil War Studies and a Certificate of Civil War Studies from Carroll College in Wisconsin. He is a two-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, in Arabic and Hebrew, and of the U.S. Air Force Technical Training School in San Angelo, Texas. He is the author of four books on Mormonism and ancient texts, and of one book on the John F. Kennedy assassination. He has completed advanced Hebrew programs at Haifa University in Israel and at the Spiro Institute in London, England. He is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Religious Studies from The Catholic Distance University in Hamilton, Virginia.