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The Confederacy Was About Slavery, Not Progressivism


“Modern-day progressivism is one of the Confederacy’s most enduring legacies in America today. Whether they realize it or not, progressives themselves are among the inheritors of the political ideology that led to the Civil War.” John D. Davidson’s multifaceted claim, while not entirely false, is not instructive either.

Movements within the intellectual culture of the Confederacy and United States birthed modern progressivism. New England’s Transcendentalists foreshadowed progressivism perhaps more than any other intellectual or reform movement of the day. Southerners lent their hands, especially in the person of progressive racial theorists and proto-Darwinians like Alabama’s Josiah Nott.

But it seems a stretch to say this made the North or South inherently conservative or progressive. Most Americans where neither Ralph Waldo Emerson nor Nott. Edward L. Ayers, in his award-winning history “In the Presence of Mine Enemies,” concluded the only major difference between North and South was that the North believed slavery wrong and wanted to contain it. The South thought slavery should expand.

Abraham Lincoln agreed in his first inaugural. “One section of our country,” said the sixteenth president, “believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.” Another historian, Michael Bernath, argued that even after secession the Confederacy never formed a separate intellectual tradition. Bernath’s work “Confederate Minds” contended that even if Confederates had a separate intellectual culture, the supporting evidence wasn’t particularly conclusive.

Both North and South Thought They Were Conservatives

Most southerners, in fact, viewed themselves as conservatives, if conservatism was articulated as the defense, retention, and perpetuation of rights they believed the Constitution guaranteed them. James Henley Thornwell, a Presbyterian minister and one of the Confederacy’s earliest and most prominent defenders, spoke for many Confederates when he declared that the Civil War was a conflict between “atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, Jacobins on the one side”—the North—“and friends of order and regulated freedom”—the South—“on the other. In one word, the world is the battleground – Christianity and Atheism the combatants; and the progress of humanity at stake.”

Thornwell’s declaration held a kernel of truth, since he was an orthodox Protestant of decidedly conservative political proclivities. By 1861, Thornwell was more representative of Southern opinion and thought than John C. Calhoun. Of course, most northerners likewise viewed themselves as conservatives. In fact, Lincoln, most northerners, and most Confederate southerners were all right to claim that they were conservatives. The only difference lay in one’s economic and social reliance on human bondage.

Lincoln rightly identified that slavery’s presence in the South lay in economic and social developments, not a deep-seated intellectual difference. Most white Americans of North and South and in both major parties, if they thought about it, would have identified themselves as classical republicans, committed to representative government, and committed to the individual liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. A sizeable majority practiced orthodox Protestant Christianity and were devoted to Christian moral precepts. Including the growing Roman Catholic population, the Union was still Christian, classically republican, and politically conservative.

John Calhoun Went Off the Rails with American Ideals

Davidson associates a distinct southern intellectualism with Calhoun. This is not sensational or inaccurate. Calhoun played a major role in defending slavery and promulgating what he began to call Southern rights. Undoubtedly, some of his latter-day disciples adopted vestiges of his thought to defend progressive causes. But calling Calhoun a progressive or even representative of the South is problematic.

To begin with, Calhoun’s family hailed not from the old aristocracy along the Atlantic, but from Pennsylvania Scots-Irish stock. He was educated by tutors and later at Yale University, where he ran afoul of the college’s archconservative Calvinist president, Timothy Dwight IV. Calhoun might be called a progressive in his time at Yale, and Dwight and conservative members of the Federalist Party certainly thought Calhoun was a progressive. Why? Because Calhoun was a follower of Thomas Jefferson—the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence.

Davidson identifies the Founders—we can safely include Jefferson in their number— as men who based “government on the tenets of natural law — liberty, equality, consent of the governed.” But conservatives at Yale in Calhoun’s college years saw in liberty and equality potential for mischief and the destruction of nature’s laws. Ideas such as universal suffrage and freedom of religion created, in the words of Timothy Dwight’s cousin Theodore:

a country governed by blockheads and knaves; the ties of marriage with all its felicities are severed and destroyed; our wives and daughters are thrown into the stews; our children are cast into the world from the breast and forgotten; filial piety is extinguished, and our surnames, the only mark of distinction among families, are abolished. Can the imagination paint anything more dreadful on this side of hell?

Calhoun’s youthful radicalism embraced notions of liberty considered dangerous by some not because he was innately progressive but because he disagreed with Dwight. Calhoun didn’t affirm notions in human and societal perfectibility, but he believed Jefferson’s ideas upheld ideas he believed natural: family, the home, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And in 1800, nine of 16 states included slaveholding within the definition of what a white American might include as a legal instrument in their pursuit of happiness.

Calhoun shed his youthful radicalism and became a convinced conservative nationalist in the first three decades of the nineteenth century. His American identity mattered to him more than even that of his home state of South Carolina. His progressive and unsympathetic biographer Hermann Von Holst thought mid-life nationalism Calhoun’s most impressive quality: Calhoun routinely subordinated Southern interest to that of the “ultimate attainment of national strength.”

A Right to Property in a World of People as Property

Most Americans of Calhoun’s generation would have adopted visions of a national government that affirmed basic conservative precepts: should be limited, interfere with citizens’ lives as little as possible, protect U.S. independence from foreign (European mostly) invaders, and finally and perhaps most importantly to the average American, protect property.

And in 1830, the U.S. Constitution recognized the right of citizens in 12 states to hold another human being as property. It also pledged the federal government to turn over those enslaved people to their enslavers, should the bound person try to flee the brutal system they lived under. Distasteful as it might be, Americans of nearly identical economic, moral, religious, and political beliefs lived in a Union where they could own a human in one state, and could not do so in another.

By 1830, cotton production, made lucrative by Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, infused new life into chattel slavery. For the next three decades slave-owners in the South made massive and constitutional profits off human bondage. But slavery’s opponents, a small cadre of devoted northern reformers known as abolitionists, began working seriously for slavery’s outright abolition in the 1830s.

Calhoun and other southerners’ political machinations from the 1830s until secession centered around defending what they saw as their constitutional right to hold slaves. Few saw themselves as progressives. Most believed they were defending conservative constitutional rights received from the Founders.

To a degree, they were correct. The constitution was at its inception a bargain with slavery. Thomas Lynch, a South Carolina representative at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, flatly told northern representatives that “if it is debated whether (our) slaves are (our) property, there is an end of the confederation.” This sentiment was shared in Georgia, North Carolina, and to a lesser extent in Virginia and Maryland. No slavery. No union.

Even anti-slavery politicians admitted to some degree that slavery was constitutionally permitted. Republican northerners and Lincoln believed it was a local societal glitch recognized by the Constitution. Slaveholders believed the Constitution guaranteed the right to hold humans in bondage nationally. The differences that emerged between North and South all stemmed from that dichotomy.

The Union government had conservative and progressive elements during the Civil War. So too did the Confederacy, which was not any very different intellectually than the antebellum South. The similarities between North and South stemmed from the fact that by 1860, Americans had grown to view themselves as a more or less united people.

In 1857 Harpers Weekly declared that, despite violence over slavery in Kansas, the controversial Dred Scott trial, and a host of other issues pertaining to slavery, “with the immense majority of the American people, North, South, East, West, attachment to the Union is the paramount idea.” Of course in 1857 that union still seemed like it might let slavery expand. In 1861, Lincoln’s election rendered that impossible. That, and not disagreement over conservatism or progressivism, was, to quote Lincoln, “the only substantial dispute.”