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On Going Viral: Reflections on Why the South Really Seceded

1865 cartoon.

On Sunday, January 9 [2011], the Washington Post published my op-ed article, "5 Myths about Why the South Seceded."  Even before it appeared in print, I knew it had touched a nerve. At its website, the Post dates the article at the stroke of midnight Saturday, but by 7:00pm that evening I had received at least thirty emails about it, a portent of the torrent to come. 

By Monday, the piece had received more than half a million hits, more than any other Post story. During the next week, almost four thousand other sites, from Forbes to The Times of India, linked to it or discussed it. Still other sites simply reprinted the article, which now appears at, for example, the Black Pride Network and the South Carolina Agricultural Trade News

The reaction continues. It has remained the most viewed article at the Post for two more weeks, now with more than 1,500,000 hits. Economist Thomas DiLorenzo published "Another Court Historian's False Tariff History" at the right-wing LewRockwell.com website, attacking me. I continue to get emails, now more than 750, including more than 200 from viewpoints that could be characterized as neo-Confederate.

The thesis of my article was that the key reason that Confederate states gave as they left the union was slavery. Rather than seceding for states' rights -- the reason that most people supply today -- Southern states castigated Northern states for trying to exercise their states' rights, whenever those attempts threatened slavery. The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader, recently published by the University Press of Mississippi, contains the most complete collection of secession documents in print. Those documents declare slavery as the South's key interest, along with concern about the election of Abraham Lincoln. In turn, Lincoln's victory disturbed Southern leaders solely because of his anti-slavery position.

DiLorenzo attacked my dismissal of tariffs as an issue. I had mentioned the earlier tariff controversy of 1828-33, when South Carolina threatened to "nullify federal laws or secede." "No state joined the movement," I went on. "This is all false," DiLorenzo rejoined. "It is not true that 'no state joined the movement.'"  He went on to "prove" his point by noting that three other Southern states "publicly denounced" the tariff. Of course, I had not claimed that no state criticized the tariff. My article was about secession, and I was right:  no state joined South Carolina in passing laws providing for secession or nullification.

In 1860-61, when the seven Deep South states seceded, they did not give tariffs as a significant reason, partly because they had no quarrel with the tariff law then in force, which Southerners had written. DiLorenzo berated me further for failing to mention the Morrill Tariff, which Congress passed in March of 1861. Its rates indeed were higher, but none of the four states that seceded after it passed mentioned it either, when leaving the Union. Why then would I? 

DiLorenzo and many of my e-correspondents are part of a movement that has existed for more than a century. Around 1890, as the Nadir of race relations set in, apologists for secession emphasized states' rights as well as tariffs. This was part of a campaign claiming "anything but slavery" as the rationale for breaking up the nation. One writer even told me that Southern leaders were all lying when they claimed to be seceding for slavery, because the mass of white Southerners would not have gone to war about tariffs and taxes. Cavalry leader John Singleton Mosby, famed "Gray Ghost" of the Confederacy, who knew better, grew "disgusted" at this retreat from the truth. "The South went to war on account of Slavery," he wrote in 1907. "South Carolina went to war -- as she said in her Secession Proclamation -- because slavery wd. not be secure under Lincoln. South Carolina ought to know what was the cause for her seceding."

Especially after Brazil gave up slavery in 1888, opposition to tariffs provided a more attractive cause than expansion of slavery. So did states' rights. That romantic notion pits the David of any given state against the Goliath of the federal government. Anyone who has ever had a beef with the IRS can identify with that. Such mystification helps explain why, throughout the next four years, many more grey re-enactors will take the field than blue, unlike the first time 'round. 

Many of the defenders of secession who emailed me used DiLorenzo's technique of distorting what I wrote. Their most frequent dodge was to conflate individuals' reasons for fighting with states' reasons for seceding. "Not one owned a slave; but many fought for the Confederacy," wrote one man about his ancestors; he unfortunately concluded that therefore, the South had not seceded over slavery. My piece had tried to defuse this error by listing it as a myth:  "Most white Southerners didn't own slaves, so they wouldn't secede for slavery."  In fact, individuals fight for reasons that can be very different from why nations war. Nor do they always fight for their own class interests. Some defer to the upper class partly because it is upper. As Thorstein Veblen noted long ago, this tendency is particularly likely in societies like the U.S. "where class distinctions are somewhat vague."  Years ago, two students of mine demonstrated this deference by driving around Burlington, Vermont, in an old beat-up subcompact and a new shiny luxury sedan. Coming to a red light, they waited to proceed until honked by a car behind. In the subcompact, this reminder came at 5.7 seconds on average, while motorists let the luxury sedan luxuriate for 13.2 seconds before tooting.

Would that I had used that example!  Instead, in trying to make this point, I blundered. "Americans are wondrous optimists," I wrote, "and many subsistence farmers hoped to be large slaveowners one day."  Indeed, with their mansions and manners, plantation owners showed far more wealth than a mere Lexus. As a class, they had carried immense prestige since the founding of the republic -- vide Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. However, my editor suggested an additional sentence to drive home the point:  "Poor white Southerners supported slavery then, just as many low-income people support George W. Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy now."  I accepted it. 

The line went viral in its own right. Almost one-fifth of the emails I received attacked that sentence. "To compare a white Southerner's desire to own slaves to a low income voters support of Bush tax cuts is ABSURD," wrote one respondent. "The tax cuts, right or wrong, can be argued to stimulate investment and economic growth.... But there is a moral component of owning slaves.... As a result of such arguments you undermine the creditability of everything else you claim. I would ask where the editor was when you went to print but being that it is the WP I think I know the answer."  NewsBusters (slogan: "Exposing and Combating Liberal Media Bias") posted an article, WaPo Publishes Sociologist Who Compares 'Low-Income' Supporters of Bush Tax Cuts with Poor Southerners Who Backed Slavery. Of course, I had not meant the comparison that way, any more than I mean here to compare owning a Lexus to owning a slave. But a foe of the estate tax would never have included the line. I had embraced its glibness and now bore responsibility for it.

I responded to almost every message I received. To those complaining about the tax cut comparison, I wrote, "You have a point about the Bush line. I wish I'd used a different analogy."  Many writers were stunned to get any reply; several immediately softened their tone. More troublesome were the responses from Confederate sympathizers who hated everything about my piece. "You are a misinformed idiot," wrote one. "What drivel," another titled his message. "Just read your article and it really almost made me throw up!" exclaimed a third. 

Sometimes these responses were tinged with obvious racism. "You must be a nigger" was the entire message sent by one respondent. "If you are not black, there must be some in your blood," was the message sent by another. "I truly wish slavery did not happen," wrote a woman who went on to explain why:  "I truly wish they weren't brought here and were still in Africa with their tribes living in the jungles, running thru the Seringetty and enjoying the freedoms and luxury of Africa that their ancestors enjoyed."

Other respondents claimed I was the racist. "I read your anti-white article," wrote one. "All you did was tell us that all white Southerners were evil."  To these writers I suggested my book Sundown Towns, which points out that thousands of communities across the North -- and few in the traditional South -- expelled their entire black populations during the Nadir. Some remain all white on purpose today. 

These responses constitute a trove of Confederate apology material. A major issue proved to be the name of the war itself. "A civil war is a war between factions of a government for the control of that government," insisted several writers. In fact, Random House Webster's Unabridged -- and every other dictionary I've checked -- gives this definition:  "a war within a nation."  Some civil wars are motivated by religion, some by desire to secede, some by politics. Motivation is hardly intrinsic to the definition. I have never grasped why neo-Confederates try to change the war's name. Confederates called it "the Civil War."  Searching a selection of South Carolina newspapers from 1860 to 1865 revealed not one use of "War of Northern Aggression" or "War Between The States," the alternatives neo-Confederates proposed, but 87 uses of "Civil War."

Many messages demonized Lincoln. "Lincoln was a bully," wrote one respondent, who went on to blame him, almost single-handedly, for the war. In reality, even President Buchanan, who had supported the Southern candidate for president, called secession unconstitutional. He did so as a patriot who didn't want the nation sundered, but in addition, advisors warned him that to do otherwise would be suicidal for his party. How much more true would that have been for a Republican!  Lincoln hardly chose war by himself. The nation made the choice, so we must seek the explanation in the politics and ideology of the nation, not in one man's mind. 

Many writers took Lincoln to task for his racism. Indeed, Lincoln was racist, sometimes explicitly so. Sons of Confederate Veterans took delight in reminding me of Lincoln's statement "that I am not, nor have ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races."  They also pointed out that the Emancipation Proclamation didn't apply to states not in rebellion. They reasoned since the North was racist, therefore the war could not have been about slavery. Of course, as my original piece noted, Northern racism was one of two reasons why the Emancipation Proclamation was written exactly as it was. Nevertheless, secession was still all about slavery and war resulted from secession.

Many correspondents, even some of the most hostile, proved reachable. I sent the man who began his email, "You are a misinformed idiot," my standard reply to such blanket condemnations:  "Do get your library to get THE CONFEDERATE AND NEO-CONFEDERATE READER. Then read it. Your quarrel is not with me but with what Confederate states said as they were leaving the nation."  He answered, "Thank you, will do as suggested."  Another replied, "I'll do that, and I'll try to be more objective."  The person who had told me that my article "almost made me throw up" responded, "I will read your suggestions. I am first and foremost a "student" of history always seeking knowledge."  On the other hand, several replied angrily without reading the book and as if I had never mentioned my research. They simply continued to denounce my "liberal opinions." 

During the next four years of remembrance, those of us who care about getting history right will not be able to reach everyone. Still, we have to keep trying. Evidence will convince many -- including some who today celebrate the "Lost Cause" -- that it was a good thing when secession on behalf of slavery was crushed. Then we can get students and the public to discuss when and why our culture began to misunderstand these matters. At that point, they are ready to learn about the Nadir, the most important era in our past that most Americans never heard of.

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