What a historian looks for in the past is often shaped by his concerns in the present. This is particularly true when he is confronting an event which involves great and unresolved questions of national life. The American Civil War is a classic case in point, and the new books by Stephen Channing, Anne Firor Scott, and William McLoughlin illustrate how contemporary concerns—in these cases racism, the role of women in American society, and the ideology of American imperialism—help shape our perceptions of the past.
Channing’s Crisis of Fear, which as a doctoral dissertation was awarded the prestigious Allan Nevins Prize, is an attempt to explain the process of secession in South Carolina. Historians have long known that the election of 1860 and the secession crisis took place in the South in an atmosphere of excitement and apprehension bordering on hysteria. John Brown’s raid of October, 1859, sent shock waves of fear throughout the South, and Brown’s towering figure cast a dark shadow over the events of the ensuing year in South Carolina. Rumors of slave rebellion and insubordination spread across the state, and vigilance committees arrested and punished suspicious slaves and “abolitionist agents.” At the same time, Brown’s near-deification in Northern abolitionist and intellectual circles convinced Southerners that the majority of Northerners, and certainly all Republicans, were at heart abolitionists. Under such circumstances, secession in the event of a Republican election victory became all but inevitable.
Channing’s outline of the events of 1860 extends the interpretation advanced by William Freehling in his important study of South Carolina during the nullification crisis.1 Throughout the nineteenth century, Freehling argued, South Carolina reacted to outside attack in a manner far out of proportion to the actual seriousness of the danger. But while Freehling explained this as a natural outgrowth of Southerners’ deep-seated guilt feelings over an institution which, try as they might, they were unable to reconcile with their Jeffersonian, libertarian professions, Channing rejects the idea that any significant number of white South Carolinians felt guilty about slavery. Rather, their reaction was grounded in racial fear—“in the end fear of the Negro—physical dread, and fear of the consequences of emancipation—would control the course of the state.”
Slavery, in Channing’s view, was at bottom less a labor system than a means of racial control, a way of keeping in subordination a population viewed by white Southerners as savage, hostile, alien, and a threat to the very fabric of white civilization. The reason whites reacted so strongly to Brown’s raid was that it seemed to threaten their complete mastery over their slaves; the reason they were obsessed with snuffing out all internal divisions on the question of slavery was fear that open discussion would encourage slave insurrections and race war. In the end, they could not accept Lincoln’s election in 1860 because they equated Republicans with abolitionists, and Republican victory with eventual Negro equality. Race fear, Channing concludes, was so pervasive in South Carolina that it either subsumed or canceled out the numerous other political, economic, and social causes to which historians have usually attributed secession.
Stressing as it does the primacy of fears and passions in the events of 1860-61, Channing’s interpretation clearly has many affinities for the “revisionist” school of Civil War interpretation, which argued that the war was a “needless conflict” brought about by a “blundering generation” of politicians and agitators who irresponsibly inflamed sectional passions. Yet while Channing stresses, for example, “the extreme, almost paranoid sensitivity of the southern mind,” he does not believe that the secession impulse was entirely irrational. Rather, he writes, “secession was the product of logical reasoning within a framework of irrational perception.” The fears and reactions of the South may have been exaggerated, but the basis of secession, fear of an erosion of race control, was real enough, and the South was justified in believing that Lincoln’s election represented the triumph of an anti-slavery impulse which, in the long run, threatened the very delicate stability of the slave system. The more perceptive South Carolinians recognized that, as Alexis de Tocqueville had observed thirty years earlier, public opinion was the real ruler of American life. Once a majority of the nation’s public opinion had turned against slavery and elected a President on the basis of his anti-slavery views, the institution could not be considered safe within the Union.
Rather than being a restatement of the old revisionist argument, Channing’s book seems to be an extension of the analysis advanced many years ago by the Southern historian Ulrich B. Phillips. In his essay, “The Central Theme of Southern History,” Phillips argued that the “essence” of the South, what made its society distinctive, was not states’ rights, not belief in free trade, not even slavery and the plantation system, but the determination “that it shall be and remain a white man’s country.”2 At a time when historians have become increasingly aware of the role racism has played in American history, it is understandable that Phillips’s argument should be revived and applied to the coming of the Civil War.
In fact, much the same thing has been done by a number of writers who have examined the Northern side and who insist, somewhat extravagantly in my opinion, that abhorrence of the Negro, rather than any moral or political opposition to slavery, lay at the root of the North’s anti-Southern feelings.3 Yet the very prevalence of racism in ante-bellum Northern society raises some difficult questions for Channing’s analysis. If we have learned anything from recent research on the history of racism, it is that Phillips’s “central theme” has from the beginning been a theme of American and not merely Southern life. Both sections before the Civil War were equally committed to race control, and the North had its own system of racial subordination in segregation.
Ante-bellum Northern society clearly showed that the maintenance of white supremacy did not require the existence of slavery, that abolition in the South need not imply “Negro equality.” What the South was fighting to preserve was more than a system of racial control, or, at least, it was a system of racial control which was the foundation of a distinct civilization and way of life. What makes Crisis of Fear less than completely convincing is its failure to confront the interpretation of another writer who drew heavily on the insights of Ulrich Phillips, although in a much different way—Eugene Genovese.4 For Genovese, secession was motivated less by fear and passion than by a perfectly logical determination on the part of the planter class to preserve its distinct moral code, ideological outlook, and social position in the face of a severe outside threat.
Channing does note that for many Southerners “it was slavery alone that was believed…to have given tone and character to Southern civilization,” but he avoids the implications of this insight. Of course, he might plausibly argue that Genovese’s interpretation may be criticized for treating racism as merely a component of ideology without an independent life of its own; but by essentially reducing the “slavery question” to the “race question,” Channing runs the danger of oversimplifying a very complex matter, and of slighting elements other than race relations that made Southern society distinctive and made Southerners think their entire way of life was at stake in 1860.
A view of Southern society from a different angle, but one which in its own way adds insights to the debate over the causes and impact of the Civil War, is Anne Firor Scott’s perceptive study, The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830-1930. Mrs. Scott’s title is important—her book is not intended to be a history of Southern women between 1830 and 1930, in fact black and working class women make few appearances in her narrative. Rather, it is an investigation of the image of the “lady” and how it affected the lives of Southern middle- and upper-class females, and of the growth of a movement which demanded options other than marriage and motherhood for Southern women.
Mrs. Scott’s central concern is the discrepancy between the idealization of the “lady” and the difficult reality faced by even well-to-do Southern women. The ideal “lady” was pictured as innocent, dependent, and submissive; her purposes in life were to love and obey her husband and bear his children, and marriage was depicted as a life of bliss and ease. Yet the reality of feminine life, especially in the ante-bellum years, bore little relation to this benign image. The responsibilities of the plantation mistress were difficult and time-consuming, involving not only overseeing the household and kitchen, caring for ill slaves and aiding in births, but weaving, sewing, and making products like soap and yeast. Moreover, in contrast to the idealized bliss of motherhood, the backward state of medicine meant that many Southern women died in child-birth and the absence of contraception made family planning impossible, with the result that raising large numbers of children increasingly became more a burden than a joy.
These discrepancies between image and reality created, Mrs. Scott believes, a certain discontent among Southern women. Many secretly abhorred the peculiar institution, particularly objecting to the lack of privacy resulting from the constant presence of slaves in the household, and to the widely practiced sexual exploitation of slave women by white men. Nonetheless, Mrs. Scott writes that, by and large, ante-bellum Southern women not only accepted the image of the lady, but strove to live up to it.
The “cult of the lady,” as Mrs. Scott recognizes, was a national phenomenon in the ante-bellum years and Northern women were expected to be as helpless and innocent as their Southern counterparts. But the idealization of the lady and the family, and the placing of women on a pedestal, seem to have taken especially deep roots in the South. Mrs. Scott finds it perfectly “understandable” that a Southern woman, Sarah Grimké, should have written the first comprehensive statement of the women’s rights argument in America. One might add that it is equally understandable that Miss Grimké wrote and published her essay in the North. Partly as a result of their experiences in revivalistic religion and the antislavery movement, and partly because technological change and the influx of Irish immigrants freed them from many household chores, Northern middle- and upper-class women achieved the leisure time and access to education which made the organization of a women’s rights movement possible.
The Seneca Falls convention of 1848, where the demand for women’s suffrage was first raised, produced a few reverberations in the South, but what was striking was the absence of any counterpart to the Northern feminist movement. Most Northerners, of course, had little use for organized, militant women, but the South’s extreme sensitivity regarding the role of women and the family and demands for women’s rights is a clue to Southerners’ perceptions of the differences between their own society and that of the North.
The family played a special role in Southern thought; like slavery, it typified the proper relations between superior and dependent classes. As Mrs. Scott observes, “Men expected to be obeyed by women, children, and slaves,” and one cannot help but be struck by the similarities between the “Sambo” image of the dependent, childlike, submissive black, and the demands placed upon the “lady.”
The patriarchal relationships of the family and slavery seemed to Southerners central to the superiority of their hierarchical, “organic” society to the individualistic, materialistic civilization of the North, in which abolitionism, feminism, labor unrest, and the other reform movements testified that all dependent classes—not merely blacks—were out of control. The institutions and values of social order and hierarchy seemed to Southerners to be disintegrating in the North and if, as Southerners feared, the aim of the antislavery movement was to remake Southern society in the Northern image, race control was only one facet of Southern civilization which was thereby threatened. “Marriage,” the Southern ideologue George Fitzhugh feared, “is too much like slavery not to be involved in its fate.”
Fitzhugh, of course, was wrong—marriage and the family survived slavery. But they survived in a somewhat altered form. As Mrs. Scott shows, the war was a liberating experience not only for slaves but for Southern women as well. The absence of men forced them to manage plantations, run shops, and do countless kinds of work which had previously been considered outside their “sphere.” In a word, women learned to make important decisions without relying upon men, and this could not help but affect their sense of themselves and of their capacities.
In effect, the abolition of slavery freed Southern plantation women from their time-consuming, debilitating commitment to their “extended family” of husband, children, and slaves. Moreover, as the South began to follow in the North’s economic footsteps, the processes of urbanization and industrialization proved as liberating for Southern middle- and upper-class women as they had previously been for Northern women. By the twentieth century there had emerged a Southern “new woman,” who no longer felt confined to the traditional roles of mother and wife, and who had the education and sophistication to make the most of the new options and roles which had opened to her.
The Civil War, of course, altered Northern life almost as completely as it changed the South. Several years ago, George Fredrickson made the point that the war experience wrought a significant transformation of Northern intellectual life in general, and the reform impulse in particular.5 As transcendentalists and reformers abandoned their previous role of independent social critics and made a full commitment to the Northern war effort, their earlier anti-institutional, individualistic outlook was transformed into a fervent, uncritical nationalism. Ante-bellum reform movements in such diverse areas as temperance, education, and even antislavery had always had a dual aspect—they combined an egalitarian, humanitarian perspective with a desire on the part of New Englanders to regulate the behavior of deviant groups like Westerners, immigrants, and Southern slaveholders. The Civil War, according to Fredrickson, brought to the fore the social conservatism latent in the reform impulse.
William McLoughlin’s examination of Henry Ward Beecher is a case study of the process which Fredrickson described: the transformation of a moderate pre-Civil War reformer into an arch conservative. Beecher, the pastor of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Congregational Church, was mid-nineteenth-century America’s most popular orator, and the author of countless books and articles on religious, political, and social topics. In religion he was a confirmed liberal, rejecting the stern Calvinism of his Puritan ancestors with its doctrines of predestination and the depravity of mankind, in favor of the possibilities of salvation and grace. He attempted to bring liberal Protestantism up to date by embracing technological and scientific advances and insisting that God revealed himself in “natural laws.” Socially, however, he condemned labor unions, advocated Social Darwinism, and preached a faith in “the national destiny of Anglo-Saxon America” which was grounded in racism.
Beecher, in a word, was a spokesman for the native-born Protestant middle and upper classes who frequented his Brooklyn church, read his books, and controlled the nation’s destiny for most of the postwar period. He successfully interpreted and justified for them the vast changes which were taking place in American life. Their wealth, leisure, and conspicuous consumption were for Beecher natural outcomes of their superior qualities which also helped to uplift the lower orders of society by example. Their fears of labor unions and immigrants were the natural feelings of those fated by the laws of environment and heredity to become leaders of society and rule over less fortunate elements.
One might say that Beecher replaced the earlier Calvinist belief in predestination with a determinism grounded in Social Darwinism, which indicated that God had “obviously chosen the United States and the rising middle class as the prime movers in His plan for human betterment.” Anglo-Saxon racism increasingly became the focal point of Beecher’s analysis and celebration of American society.
McLoughlin’s exposition of Beecher’s outlook is elegantly written and convincingly argued, although at times it may prove somewhat confusing to the reader not familiar with the intricacies of American Protestant theology or the exact meaning of such terms as perfectionism and pietism. Theology alone, however, cannot explain what made Beecher such a man of the moment in post-Civil War New York. His magnetic personality, interest in all kinds of worldly activities and enjoyments, and his dramatic and witty performances in the pulpit drew thousands of listeners to the Plymouth Church. “The men admire him, the women adore him, and the children all love him,” a contemporary remarked. One of the women, Mrs. Theodore Tilton, sought Beecher out for religious guidance and solace after the death of her son, and the adultery trial which resulted from their affair was the great scandal of New York society in the 1870s.
There is no question that McLoughlin is right in focusing on Beecher as an authentic symbol of an important shift in American values, a transformation in which the Civil War played a crucial role. Beecher viewed the war as a divinely ordained national testing time, and a purification and chastisement for the sin of slavery. Though he had been as harsh as any Northerner toward Southern whites during the war, Beecher was prepared to forgive them quickly. They were, after all, whites and Anglo-Saxons, they had essentially been the victims of inferior institutions, and at any rate the alternative was rule of the South by “inferior” blacks.
The results of the war, for a man like Beecher, were nothing short of monumental. The superiority of Northern to Southern society had been demonstrated, and a new and fervent nationalism had been imbued in the populace. Having created by force of arms an internal unity, the nation was now free to turn outward and perform the divine mission of spreading “the blessing of liberty” to less fortunate peoples. In other words, the ideological underpinnings of American imperialism were being laid; the same philosophy which justified the subordination of Irish, Indians, and blacks to middle-class Anglo-Saxons at home would justify the new age of imperialism. The irony is that the tendency toward “moral stewardship” and social control had been present even in the humanitarian reform movements of the prewar years. White Southerners, in one sense, were among the first people to experience the consequences of resisting the desire of men like Beecher to rule over and uplift those who differed from themselves.
February 25, 1971
William W. Freehling, Prelude to Civil War (Harper & Row, 1965). ↩
Ulrich B. Phillips, “The Central Theme of Southern History,” American Historical Review, XXIV (October, 1928), pp. 30-43. ↩
Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery (University of Chicago, 1961); Eugene Berwanger, The Frontier Against Slavery (University of Illinois, 1967); James A. Rawley, Race and Politics (Lippincott, 1969). For a somewhat different view of this subject, see Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men (Oxford, 1970), ch. 8. ↩
Eugene D. Genovese, The Political Economy of Slavery (Pantheon, 1965). ↩
George M. Fredrickson, The Inner Civil War (Harper & Row, 1965). ↩