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The War of the Sections

ISSUE:  Autumn 1934

The Secession of the Southern States. By Gerald W. Johnson. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $1.50. The Irrepressible Conflict. By Arthur Charles Cole. New York: The Macmillan Company. $4.00.

Gerald Johnson, in “The Secession of the Southern States,” has done as good a job as one could expect of a busy journalist who never has time to devote to research or to unremitting, single-tracked reflection. He contends that the leaders of the South from 1830 to 1860 were bound down by legalism and strict interpretation of the constitution. The South, he says, had the law, but made its error in standing on the letter of the law in the face of the North’s insistence on loose construction of the constitution. In fact, Mr. Johnson makes a very ill considered quotation from the Scriptures in condemnation of the South’s insistence upon the Law. “The law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers.” What the author failed to see in his journalistic haste was that this quotation describes very accurately the South’s conception of the abolitionists, like Garrison, who preached that the constitution was “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell”; or John Brown, whose bloody records in Kansas and Virginia soon raised him to the status of a saint in the North; or Seward and Sumner, who proclaimed the doctrine of the “higher law”; and the quotation goes far to explain the South’s narrow interpretation of the constitution.

Mr. Johnson calls the abolitionists the prophets and insists that the law and the prophets should have been combined. I don’t understand Mr. Johnson’s use of such mystical terms—unless he means that compromise was necessary. If he means this, then he is correct; but the abolitionists would not compromise. It must not be forgotten that before the severe phase of the abolition crusade began there were over two hundred abolition societies in the South and that emancipation was being seriously considered; but that after Garrison and Weld began their uncompromising attack upon the South in 1831 all abolition societies were disbanded in that section and all energy was devoted to combating abolition propaganda.

The closing section of Mr. Johnson’s book dealing with the results of the war is more authentic than that part which treats of secession. He assesses fairly well the losses material and spiritual to both North and South and concludes that both sides made a mistake—which is true of any war. He considers that “the first and largest item of its bill is the very fact that it destroyed the old South as a cultural influence in the nation,” There were elements “of culture of the old South that the United States of America needed then and needs now”: “gracious manners” and a “very definite way of life,” which had for its basis the “firm belief that a reasonable man acquires the means of livelihood in order to live and for no other purpose.”

Professor A. C. Cole has given me a great surprise and an unpleasant shock. I had looked forward with pleasant anticipation to the publication of his “The Irrepressible Conflict” because I had a feeling—based on my limited personal contact with Mr. Cole—that here was at last a man who would hold an even poise on controversial matters and present a definitive and objective interpretation of one of the most stormy and complex chapters in American history.

But my disillusionment has been complete. While “The Irrepressible Conflict” is clothed in the trappings of scholarship—it has an excellent bibliography and index, and a formidable array of footnotes—it is in reality a belated abolition tract. With the exception of occasional descriptive matter the book could have been written from the abolition pamphlets which the author cites frequently in support of statistical or moral statements concerning the South, or he could have written it from the volumes of Schouler, Mac-Master, Rhodes, and Von Hoist. Any other references outside of these authors and the abolition pamphlets are superfluous and misleading.

Mr. Cole purports to describe and analyze the systems of society which faced one another across the Ohio and the Potomac from 1850 to 1860. But he ignores practically everything written on Southern history since Reconstruction. The only use he makes of investigation in Southern history during the last thirty years is the use that the devil makes of the scriptures.

He says there were several classes of white people in the South, but in treating of that section he forgets that he has said this and deals with two classes: the slave oligarchy and the poor whites. The slave oligarchs seem to arouse the author’s fury—nearly seventy years after their overthrow. There is nothing good in them. They were in reality everything Garrison, Bourne, or Theodore Weld said they were: brutes, tyrants, “the narrow confines of whose culture could not be denied in the face of prevailing illiteracy.” (p. 46.) In fact, “the cultural poverty of Dixie caused extensive patronage of Northern and foreign universities.” (p. 47.) None of what the author considers “cultural advances” which were being made in the North was shared by the South, which was busy in the “glorification of the status quo.” (pp. 46-7.) “The cultural advance of these years was sectional in character. For the most part the South, hampered by its caste system, its undigested poor whites and enslaved blacks, its growing antagonism to the free states, remained unaffected by the new currents of civilization.” (p. 242.) The ruling oligarchy was made up of a core of 2,600 slave holders who owned over one hundred slaves and the periphery of about 882,000 slave holders who owned from ninety-nine to one slave. His picture of the South, of course, is the stereotyped picture coming down from the anti-slavery crusade through Von Hoist and Rhodes. There is so much fairly recent literature, such as Flanders’ “Plantation Slavery in Georgia” and Sydnor’s “Slavery in Mississippi,” to mention only two of a multitude of books based upon non-propaganda sources, which students of history are familiar with but which Mr. Cole, refuses to consider, that it is hardly incumbent upon a critic to analyze in detail the biased and emotional picture of the South which Mr. Cole has conjured up. However, I cannot refrain from pointing out that the author’s conception of culture is material and statistical: the number of pianos per capita, the number of lithographs or prints hanging on the wall, the number of public libraries, the number of students in a college or the number of volumes in a library, the amount of endowment of a university, the number of art galleries, public orchestras, the total value of crops or industrial production. In short, our author displays one of the typical traits of the Americans so caustically dealt with by James Truslow Adams in his “Epic of America”: the worship of size and quantity and of concrete tangible things which can be put in the census reports or the reports of an optimistic chamber of commerce in a small but growing midwestern town.

The small farmers, middle-class people generally, and the poor white trash, in spite of an early attempt at differentiation, are essentially lumped into “the poor white class.” That is, once more the author is overcome by his prejudices.

The Negro slave population is dealt with essentially as it was described in the abolition literature. The author has a savage antagonism toward the work done on the history of Negro slavery in the South, and makes no reference to “History of American Negro Slavery” by Phillips except by way of criticism on some non-essential points. Apparently Flanders and Sydnor did not break in upon his consciousness at all. On the other hand, he considers Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” “the most effective revelation of the seamy side of chattel slavery” ever made. “She knew the institution of slavery as it had revealed itself in Kentucky across the Ohio River from her Cincinnati home. She and her family had aided the fleeing slave as he sought freedom under the guidance of the North star.” (p. 270.)

Mr. Cole gives a very good “survey” of the North during this period. But, as in his treatment of the South, he confuses numbers and quantity with quality. He paints a glowing picture of “progress” in the North, usually avoiding anything which might detract from the perfection of the industrial section. In case he does have to deal with unpleasant things—which he touches lightly—such as labor conditions, the monopolistic trend of the industrialists, the spread of crime and graft, he speaks of such defects as “growing pains of society,” thereby making of them a virtue. He touches ever so lightly upon labor conditions in the North. Woman and child labor, which had been so much criticised by the South as a counter-attack to the abolitionists, is passed over with the scornful observation that to compare the labor situation among the slaves with that of the industrial areas of the North is absurd. The labor of children five or six years old twelve to sixteen hours a day for a dollar or less a week, the failure to provide for the laborer when ill or too old or during slack times, are passed over in this panegyric for the social system of the North.

The abolition crusade, which Beveridge—and other students of history—said brought on the Civil War and its aftermath, Mr. Cole, as is to be expected from what has been said already, considers a holy war. “The outstanding fact in the anti-slavery cause of the fifties was the awakened conscience of the masses of the free states.” (p. 262.) The fugitive slave law of 1850 was a “clear violation of the principles of common justice.” (ibid.) He speaks of “heroic fugitives living in Boston,” and gloats over the passage of the personal liberty laws which nullified the fugitive slave law of 1850: “When the long arm of slavery reached into the North to recover its human victims, it encountered all obstacles which sympathy for a hunted human animal could throw in its way.” He asserts that all this sectional contest had “after all but one real issue, that of slavery and its future status in the republic.” (p. 273.) That is to say, Mr. Cole, in assessing the fundamental issue between the North and South, despite his failure to understand imponderables in connection with his picture of the South, flatly puts it as a struggle between freedom and slavery and between light and darkness. Not one time does he seem to suspect that the issue was complex, that much of the anti-slavery impulse was based upon the Northern objection to the three-fifths ratio in making up representation from the Southern States, and that much more was made up of the desire of each section to gain or maintain control of the federal government in its own interest, the industrial section desiring protection and other sectional favors and the agricultural South desiring low tariffs, etc. Mr. Cole has in this respect ignored Beard, Turner, Dodd, and practically all of the younger generation of American historians. In fact, Mr. Cole seems to have inherited his history rather than to have acquired it.


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