As Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr. rightly points out in his new book, there is no denying that there were other questions besides the issue of slavery energizing the air prior to the War Between the States, questions which cannot be entirely trivialized.
It Wasn’t About Slavery: Exposing the Great Lie of the Civil War, by Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr. (320 pages, Regnery History, 2020)
As it happens, the very first superhero was Captain John Carter, the Confederate veteran featured in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars, which depicts Carter reluctantly setting aside his cavalry uniform in the wake of Appomattox to seek a new life prospecting for gold in the untamed West. Through a surreal turn of events the protagonist finds himself teleported to Mars, where that world’s lighter gravity and unearthly atmosphere confers upon him super-strength, telepathy, and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Burroughs’s interplanetary “gentleman of Virginia” swashbuckles his way across the Red Planet, exuding gallantry and charm as he rescues alien princesses from bug-eyed monsters.
Nowadays, it sometimes seems as if the Southerner is the bug-eyed monster, and no prudent reader will hold his breath waiting for Marvel or DC to mint their own Confederate heroes. Far from having been resolved by the 13th Amendment, the issue of slavery still dominates discourse about America generally and the Civil War particularly. In establishment circles, at least, this discourse rests largely upon a syllogism: Since the unconditional, metaphysical evil of slavery automatically outweighs any other considerations, and since the South fought for slavery, anyone who can be shown to have any connection to the Confederacy warrants denunciation. In It Wasn’t About Slavery: Exposing the Great Lie of the Civil War, Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr., critiques both assumptions—especially the latter.
Few would deny that Dr. Mitcham is fighting an uphill battle, as almost all academics and even most conservatives are inclined to dismiss what they call “Lost Cause mythology.” On the other hand, there is no denying that there really were other questions energizing the air prior to the War Between the States, questions which cannot be entirely trivialized. In the antebellum period the Nullification Crisis pitted staunchly nationalist President Andrew Jackson against his regionalist Vice-President John C. Calhoun, and it was Calhoun’s conviction that the Tariff of 1828 (in his words) “favored manufacturing over commerce and agriculture,” which prompted him to elaborate and hone the famous theory of states’ rights. Nor did Calhoun pull states’ rights out of thin air, for his ideas owe no small debt to Thomas Jefferson’s authority as co-author of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. In Jefferson’s own words, “the several States composing, the United States of America, are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government,” for the Constitution only “delegated to that [general] government certain definite powers, reserving, each State to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self-government.” In short, states were empowered to nullify federal laws, as Calhoun’s South Carolina sought to do in response to the 1828 tariff. President Jackson held different ideas about sovereignty, to say the least, and some form of civil war looked entirely plausible. “Jackson requested Congress pass the Force Bill authorizing military intervention in South Carolina,” Dr. Mitcham writes. “The state mobilized 27,000 men. Washington and Charleston were plainly on a collision course.”
Although compromise prevailed, Dr. Mitcham believes those seeking to understand the war that eventually did come should look at events like the Nullification Crisis rather than unabashed propaganda such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As he rightly points out, quarrels over trade policy divided the Union all the way up to Abraham Lincoln’s election:
In 1858, Representative Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont introduced the Morrill Tariff in Congress. It would have raised the average dutiable ad valorem tax on imports from just under 20 percent in 1860 (under the Tariff of 1857) to more than 36 percent in 1862—and a whopping 47 percent within three years…. The South accounted for close to 82 percent of US export business and form more than 83 percent of American tariff revenues even before the Morrill Tariff. About 80 percent of these revenues went to public works projects, railroads, and industrial subsidies in the North, enriching Northerners at the expense of the South.
Whether we believe them to have been right or wrong, there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Southerners who believed that the Union had become a racket. In a speech given during a special session of the Georgia legislature in 1860, Senator Robert Toombs argued that the issue of secession could be traced back to tensions present at the very establishment of the Constitution:
The instant the Government was organized, at the very first Congress, the Northern States evinced a general desire and purpose to use it for their own benefit, and to pervert its powers for sectional advantage, and they have steadily pursued that policy to this day. They demanded a monopoly of the business of shipbuilding, and got a prohibition against the sale of foreign ships to citizens of the United States, which exists to this day. They demanded a monopoly of the coasting trade, in order to get higher freights than they could get in open competition with the carriers of the world. Congress gave it to them, and they yet hold this monopoly. And now, to-day, if a foreign vessel in Savannah offer to take your rice, cotton, grain or lumber to New-York, or any other American port, for nothing, your laws prohibit it, in order that Northern ship-owners may get enhanced prices for doing your carrying.
Northern manufacturers “have saddled the agricultural classes with a large portion of the legitimate expenses of their own business,” Toombs contended, and concluded with a jab at Unionist ideology, which was in his view little more than sacralized greed: “No wonder [Unionists] cry aloud for the glorious Union; they have the same reason for praising it, that craftsmen of Ephesus had for shouting ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians,’ whom Asia and all the world worshipped.” If Alexander’s “Cornerstone” speech deserves close attention, surely too does that of Toombs, as well as an 1860 Charleston Mercury editorial which argued that “The real causes of dissatisfaction in the South with the North, are in the unjust taxation and expenditure of the taxes by the Government of the United States, and in the revolution the North has effected in this government, from a confederated republic, to a national sectional despotism.”
Even as he puts the economic conflict between New England and Dixie at the foreground, Dr. Mitcham is not so naive as to utterly discount slavery as a moral question. He does take a very different perspective on this dimension, however. Citing the New York Journal of Commerce, Dr. Mitcham relates that “New York was the largest African slave-trading port in the world in January 1862, followed by Portland, Maine, and Boston, Massachusetts,” with “the eighty-five slave ships sailing out of New York transport[ing] 30 to 60 thousand slaves from Africa annually.” According to Dr. Mitcham, censures of the South then and now have always rested upon the unjust assumption that the social and economic catastrophes entailed by emancipation should have fallen entirely on the Southerner. Why should any Southerner, planter or not, have cheered for emancipation when so much abolitionist energy was directed toward Haitian-style slave uprisings whereby Southern whites would be murdered in their beds?
Here Dr. Mitcham seems to be on extremely solid ground, as Southern anxiety about Lincoln’s election clearly stemmed in part from fear that the new administration would indulgently view terrorist projects such as John Brown’s Raid, an event which for Dr. Mitcham exemplifies not heroic martyrdom but inept lunacy. Brown’s nocturnal assault on western Virginia overlooked the fact that “there were no true plantations in this mountainous region. Most of the area’s blacks were house servants and free people of color. They would not be enthusiastic about joining a dubious revolt. Brown was counting on their support, but he would not get it, and everything depended on speed.” Here Dr. Mitcham registers a strikingly ironic note which is well documented but too little remarked upon: The very first victim slain by Brown’s raiders was a free and prosperous black man who had tried to flee from them.
Perhaps a more accurate title for Dr. Mitcham’s book would have been It Wasn’t Just About Slavery. Even then, it is worth reflecting that his thesis will be irrelevant to those who view slavery as an issue which would trump all other possible considerations put together, for whom the sentence “it wasn’t just about slavery” would be moral nonsense. From the “woke” standpoint certainly, concepts such as constitutional rule, social stability, or devotion to one’s region dwindle to total triviality when set alongside emancipation. As Dr. Mitcham seems to hint, however, viewing the primordial evil of slavery as an absolute which overshadows every last admirable trait of Confederates subtly leads to other implications for the American identity. It is not exactly clear how we can accept the idea that virtue revolves around taking a firm line against servitude and then complain about the younger generation’s indifference toward the Bible and the Founding Fathers.
In any case, those who think slavery is an issue which automatically outweighs all else cannot even begin to consider Dr. Mitcham’s thesis. The rest of us might wonder with Dr. Mitcham whether abolition was a mere side effect of the Union triumph, and not the most important one:
The main result of the war was settling the issue of ‘What kind of government would we have?’ From 1783 to 1865, there was a struggle between the Hamiltonian ideas of a strong, central government (with the corruption which naturally accompanied it) and the small government ideas of Jefferson, with a system of checks and balances, and the sense of personal responsibility that naturally accompanies it. The Hamiltonian system called for principal loyalty to a strong, dominant federal government. The Jefferson ideal held that the principal loyalty was to be to the state and to the idea that that ‘governs best which governs least.’ The issue is now settled.
Then again, some of us might also quibble with that very last sentence. Even after all this time and following unrelenting defamation campaigns, a tenacious remnant of states’ rights proponents may be found. Such people are not easily intimidated by name-calling, or even Antifa terrorism. What such people contend is not that a man’s ultimate dignity is determined by his skin color. Rather, defenders of states’ rights may be defined by what they reject: The notion that ignorant strangers intoxicated by lofty slogans should wield as much power in a community as do those who inhabit said community, love it, and have to live with the consequences.
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