According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in 2011, nearly half of all Americans believe that the issue which animated the Civil War was states’ rights. Historian Edward Ayers admits to being surprised by this, pointing out that history books generally point to slavery as the issue that brought Northern states and Southern states into armed conflict (source).
In fact, the Civil War was not solely about slavery, and it was certainly not about states’ rights.
If one employs a content analysis of the arguments between North and South, Ayers tells us, some of the words that are used repeatedly are “state,” “people,” “union,” “right,” “constitution,” “power,” “federal” and “amendment.” He argues, based on this analysis, that citizens of the Northern states were galvanized by the desire to “sustain the justice, power and authority of the federal government.” The North was not united by opposition to slavery, because many Northerners were conflicted on the issue, and even those who opposed slavery were fearful of what might happen if the slaves were freed.
One could assume that, if the North sought to assert a strong federal government, the South sought to assert states’ rights. However, as Ayers points out, this is a mistake. Using the same content analysis, Ayers finds that the Southern lawmakers – most elected officials in the South were plantation owners – were motivated by the desire to defend the institution of slavery. Given the benefit of this insight, one may review the evidence and recognize that, in fact, the Southern states were more than willing to band together under a federal structure – the Confederacy – to defend their shared economic interests. And one may infer, reasonably, that the plantation owners were highly effective at manipulating popular sentiment and rallying people of the South to their side.
These points are offered to provide a context for discussing Abraham Lincoln’s views on slavery. Lincoln mobilized public opinion around the goals of putting down insurrection, restoring the union, and preserving federal authority; but this does not shed light on Lincoln’s private motivations.
To understand Lincoln, consider his childhood. A friend of Lincoln by the name of Carl Schurz described Lincoln’s father as a typical “poor Southern white.” The man was “shiftless and without ambition for himself or his children” and “always looking for a new piece of land on which he might make a living without much work.”
Another friend of Lincoln’s, Horace White, pointed to a biographical sketch by Chester Dewey as providing an apt description of Lincoln’s background. According to Dewey’s account, Abraham Lincoln was, “a native of Kentucky, of poor white parentage, and, from his cradle, has felt the blighting influence of the dark and cruel shadow which rendered labor dishonorable and kept the poor in poverty, while it advanced the rich in their possessions.”
Abraham Lincoln himself did not believe that there was much of note in his personal history. In response to a biographer’s questions, he said, “The short and simple annals of the poor. That's my life, and that's all you or any one else can make out of it.”
The view that labor is “dishonorable” emerged from antebellum Southern culture. Manual labor was scorned by the self-styled Aristocrats, Patricians, and “cavaliers.” This is no doubt because they had no need of engaging in manual labor themselves. These men had made their fortunes by selling cotton in the global marketplace.
Tensions between North and South were as much about class as they were about race.John Brown, after his capture at Harper’s Ferry, complained that had he acted “on behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or on behalf of any of their friends ... it would have been all right, and every man in this Court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.” Seeing the Holy Bible displayed ostentatiously in the courtroom, he quoted Hebrews 13:3, “Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body.”
The monied elites of the South regarded themselves as superior beings. This is implicit in the comments of a stalwart Confederate named Frank Alfriend, who said,
The North [is] carrying out to its legitimate conclusion the pernicious doctrine of the Declaration of Independence, that ‘all men are born free and equal,’ recognizing no distinction whatever of race, intellect, or character, witnesses in its fullest development, that never-ending conflict of classes, between the rich and the poor, those who have accumulated property, and the breadless pauper, the ‘codfish’ element, and the idle, starving sans-culottes.
Alfriend believed that what the South stood for was the defense of “property and intelligence” against “ignorance and indolence.” He discussed the Northern Working Class in the same terms that Southerners used to described people of African origin, as “a class of population noted for its want of enterprise, intellect, or any quality which could make it a disturbing element of society, and peculiarly adapted to a condition of absolute subordination, by a characteristic docility and inability to provide for its own wants when beyond the control of the superior race.”
Similarly, D.R. Hundley said, in 1860, that the Southern Gentleman belongs to an impeccable pedigree; he comes “of a good stock.” And because of this, the Southern Gentleman is “usually possessed of an equally faultless physical development. He is on average six feet tall, is graceful and athletic, and possesses, in all, a physique which unites firmness and flexibility.” In contrast, the class of Southerner known as “poor white trash” is bony and lank, with a “sallow complexion, awkward manners, and a natural stupidity or dullness of intellect that almost surpasses belief (source).”
Even the slaves, living under the influence of their captors, derided poor white trash. One folksong that was popular among slaves carried the refrain,
I had a little dog,
His name was Dash.
I'd rather be a nigger
Than po' white trash.
The reader is referred to Forret’s excellent book on the Civil War era, Race Relations at the Margins, where he discusses widespread derisive references to “crackers,” “hillbillies” and “rednecks.” He makes a convincing case that “poor white trash” occupied a place in the Southern social hierarchy that was only slightly above that of African slaves.
|Poor White Folks, 1845|
Frederick Law Olmsted traveled in the South in 1862 and, based on his experiences, wrote a book called The Cotton Kingdom. In this book, he develops the hypothesis that Southern culture, by extolling the Southern Gentleman, valorized men of property (and property, according to this view, included slaves), and in doing so, stigmatized white men who had failed to acquire property. Because Southern Gentleman did not need to engage in manual labor, men who did were regarded as inferior. As a result, Olmsted observed, poor Southern whites were indeed guilty of indolence and lack of enterprise. “They work little, and that little, badly; they earn little, they sell little.”
Impoverished whites of the South had only one consolation, according to Olmsted. “From childhood, the one thing in their condition which has made life valuable to the mass of whites has been that the niggers are their inferiors. It is this habit of considering themselves of a privileged class, and of disdaining something which they think beneath them, that is deemed to be the chief blessing of slavery.”
Olmsted believed that one of the key distinctions between North and South revolved around divergent views of economics. Money spent on the upkeep of slaves did not circulate back into the economy, and as a result, there were fewer jobs available for whites. Southern oligarchs believed that the only thing that mattered was the price one could fetch for surplus production; Northerners believed, in contrast, that it is appropriate to examine how this income is spent.
The truth has been overlooked that the accumulation of wealth and the power of a nation are contingent not merely upon the primary value of the surplus of productions of which it has to dispose, but very largely also upon the way in which the income from its surplus is distributed and reinvested. Let a man be absent from almost any part of the North twenty years, and he is struck, on his return, by … the improvements which have been made.
Thus, according to Olmsted, the Northern states enjoyed better buildings, churches, school-houses, mills and railroads than he saw in the South. Under the Southern oligarchy, Virginia was “deteriorating, growing shabbier, more comfortless, less convenient.”
The debates between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas touched on the question of whether slavery ought to be introduced in newly-established American territories. The views expressed by Lincoln demonstrate that his opposition to slavery was motivated, in part, by the effects of slavery on poor whites. Of these new territories, Lincoln said, “We want them for homes of free white people. This they cannot be, to any considerable extent, if slavery shall be planted within them. Slave states are places for poor white people to remove from, not to remove to. New free States are the places for poor people to go to, and better their condition.”
Lincoln was also concerned that, if a country accepts the legitimacy of slavery, it sets a dangerous precedent. This is reflected in notes written in 1854:
If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B. -- why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?—
You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.
You do not mean color exactly?--You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.
But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.
None of this suggests that Lincoln was indifferent to the fate of Africans living in America. Instead, it suggests that Lincoln, like John Brown, was attentive to that Biblical passage, “Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body.” This point is made clear in the Lincoln Douglas debates, when Lincoln contrasted the philosophies of equality and aristocracy:
The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.
To honor Lincoln’s memory, be vigilant when idle aristocrats accuse the poor of being lazy, when we allow other human beings to toil in conditions that we ourselves would find intolerable, and when the dignity of manual labor is disparaged. There is no doubt that Lincoln would have agreed with Desmond Tutu’s credo that, “None of us is truly free while others remain enslaved.” But do not mistake this for some esoteric principle; it is, instead, a warning that we’d be foolish to ignore.