The Long, Long, Road to Secession: Part II New England

 

Hartford Convention
The Hartford Convention was the Northeast’s early move towards seceding from the Union. Fortunately the War of 1812 before Secessionist sentiment grew any stronger.

As noted in our previous essay, the notion that slavery “caused” the Civil War seems to be in vogue again these days as a matter of political dogma, although any serious historian of the era would, or should, know better.  Journalist Ta-Nihisi Coates, influential editor at The Atlantic, in particular has pushed this as the sole cause of the Civil War.  No one can deny that slavery was an underlying cause or that many leaders of the Secession movement cited its preservation as a motive for dragging the country into war.  But that is a far cry from saying that it was THE cause.

In the previous installment I argued, rather, that it was the economic system of the South—the Plantation Economy—that was the root cause, of which the enslavement of Negroes was but a means to an end.  If good ole’ Artistotle were analyzing this, I’ll wager he would identify Negro slavery as a “formal cause” not as the material cause, the efficient cause and especially not the final cause.  An economic oligarchy—at base a very small number of tremendously wealthy planters—had control of the South’s political and economic life and managed to impose their self interest over the greater good of the majority of its inhabitants and the good of the country.

But even the economics of the Southern plantation system was not the sole cause of the Civil War.  The road to Secession was a long and convoluted process, much of it irrational and based on perceptions rather than facts.  As I noted in the previous essay, Great Britain too had a substantial economic investment in Negro slavery, especially in the West Indies; yet when it finally abolished slavery, there was no rebellion by the sugar plantation owners in the Indies, no assertions of independence, no bloodshed.

In truth, the ideology of Secessionism in the US is far older than the debate over slavery and in this and following essays we will take a brief look at previous secession movements in the United States, most of which had nothing to do with slavery.

A Boxing Match
“John Bull” gets the worst of it from “Brother Jonathan” in the Boxing Match in this rather optimistic view of the War of 1812.

The War of 1812 has sometimes been described as the “Second American Revolution” as it was perceived by many as an effort to throw off the yoke of British dominion that many still perceived the country to be under.  The western states were hot for war, looking towards expansion to the west and northwest and to many leaders in the burgeoning west the British to blame for much of their troubles with the Indians, both to the South and to the North along the western frontier.

Indeed, in the northwest the British had encouraged Tecumseh and his followers and even appointed the Shawnee leader a “brigadier” giving him a shiny gorget and a redcoat officer’s uniform, complete with epaulettes.

3-tecumseh-1768-1813-granger
The Shawnee leader Tecumseh, adorned in his British general’s uniform and medal.

 

There was also the issue of the impressments of American sailors by the British Navy.  Employment by American merchant fleets was better paying and the treatment of sailors far better than in His Majesty’s Navy, where commoners were treated as less than dirt by the officers, who were often as sadistic as they were incompetent.  To make up for the lack of willing recruits, the Royal Navy often resorted to stopping ships on the high seas and stealing as many sailors as they needed to make up a full ship’s complement.  The British government justified this by arguing that they were merely drafting English citizens into military service.  Since most Americans had been citizens of the British Empire before the Revolution, there was an element of truth in this argument, although the US disputed the claim.

 

As a note of caution, however, I should point out that historians still haggle over the causes of the War of 1812 just as they do over the Civil War and there were a number of motives at work in the period leading up to the war as well.   But our present interest is not so much in the causes of this war as one of the consequences.

Not everyone in the US was eager for war with Britain, no matter the provocations.  In particular, the New England merchants were less than pleased with the disruption the war was causing their trade with England.  New England may have led the movement towards independence in 1776, but once independence was achieved, the thrifty Puritan merchants of the northeast were quite happy to trade with the London merchants and visa versa.  The wealthy merchant traders of New York and New England may have resented the impressments of sailors as high handed, but they resented the embargos Presidents Jefferson and Madison had placed on trade far more and then, when the US declared war in 1812, the British blockaded American ports, which hit them in a very sensitive spot—their pocket books.

Leap or no Leap color
“Leap or No Leap” criticizing the Hartford Convention’s disloyalty and implying that they were actually in league with the British king.

As the war dragged on and their profits diminished, the New England shippers and merchants became quite vocal in their opposition to a war which not only benefited them nothing, but which the US seemed to be losing.

The Democratic-Republicans (today just the Democratic Party) had been the party of laissez faire economics and small government—except that no sooner was Jefferson elected President than he started wielding Federal power like a club.

The Federalist Party, in contrast, had originally been the party which had advocated a strong Federal government and policies that involved government intervention in the private sector.  But in the face of Jefferson and Madison’s adverse trade policies and then the declaration of war, the Federalists of the northeast became more and more opposed to Federal policies.  New England governors even refused to supply militia regiments to fight the war with the British.  Things came to a head in 1814, when delegates from New England attended the Hartford Convention.

As early as 1804, some New England Federalists had discussed secession from the Union if the national government became too oppressive.  By 1814, many in New England and not few in New York came to regard the “small governent” Democratic-Republican Party as oppressive and that the Northeast’s best solution was secession from a Union dominated by the South and the West. The New England governors and legislatures called for a regional convention, ostensibly to propose constitutional amendments to protect their region’s interests and to make arrangements for their own military defense against the enemy.  In theory the “enemy” was the British, but implicitly many New Englanders were viewing the Federal government as more an enemy than the British.

DetailHartfordConvetionLeap2
Detail of “Leap or No Leap” making clear the New Englander’s economic motives for seceding from the Union.

 

The amendments that were proposed by the Hartford Convention seemed more aimed at galling the opposing party than ensuring any basic liberties.  For one thing, they wished to abolish the “3/5th Compromise”  which gave the Southern states a disproportionate share of representatives in the House of Representatives.  In terms of the original Constitution, the Southern states were fine with regarding Negro slaves as people (or at least 3/5 of a person) so long as it gave them political clout.  Another amendment would have prohibited not only a person serving more than one term as President, but also prohibiting someone from the same state succeeding him—clearly aimed at Virginia, from whence most of the Presidents had come up to that point.  Other amendments would have restricted the Federal government’s ability to declare war and impose embargoes.

The delegates met in secret from December 14, 1814 to January 5; no notes were kept and even the votes were not recorded.  It is believed that secession was actively discussed in these meetings, even if their official proposals made no mention of it.  Much of what went on during these sessions was very hush-hush and even to some fellow New Englanders their activities were regarded as treasonous.  In the end their activities came to naught: by the time three commissioners from Massachusetts reached Washington, news of Andrew Jackson’s famous victory at New Orleans and the peace treaty—The Treaty of Ghent—had both reached Washington.

 

Battle of New Orleans
The Battle of New Orleans made Jackson the hero of the war, even though it was fought after the Treaty of Ghent had been signed.

 

In the celebrations over Andrew Jackson’s famous victory, most people in the country forgot the string of defeats the US had suffered—Generals Hull’s and Winchester’s humiliating defeats in the Northwest territories and General Wilkinson’s bungled Canadian invasion.  Even though Jackson fought his battle after the peace was signed, in the public mind he “won” the war.

Raison River Massacre
“Remember the Raison” was the war cry after General Winchester surrendered his army and the wounded prisoners were murdered in cold blood.  Today nobody remembers this and the other defeats American troops suffered during the war.

 

With the return of peace, trade between America and Great Britain was restored, the Napoleonic Wars were over and the British no longer needed to impress seamen, and the Federalist Party, its reputation now blackened by accusations of disloyalty, extremism and advocacy of Secessionism, had been discredited.

But had the war not ended when it did and the Madison administration summarily rejected the convention’s proposals (which they were fully expected to do), who knows what would have happened next?

 

Much of New England and perhaps even the state of New York might have lined up against the South and West in a bitter sectional conflict—a conflict which had nothing to do with slavery, but everything to do with economics.

Secret_Journal_of_the_Hartford_Convention
“Secret Journal of the Hartford Convention.”

 

 

For more about lesser known aspects of the Civil War, see Ghosts and Haunts of The Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

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GHOSTS AND HAUNTS OF THE CIVIL WAR 3x5

 

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The Long, Long, Road to Secession Part I

CottonPlantation
The Ante Bellum Plantation System was a highly commercial economic enterprise, closer to a factory than a family farm. It was above all an economic system with slaves as the main form of capital.

Ever since a deranged racial terrorist burst into a Black church in Charleston and murdered people, politicos of all stripes have been on a Jihad against symbols of the Civil War throughout the South and elsewhere.  Self-anointed vigilantes have gone on private and pubic property vandalizing monuments even remotely connected with the Civil War, especially anything to do Confederate veterans. This vigilante mentality has now spread to other icons of American History unrelated to the Confederacy and now virtually no public monument or private memorial is safe from vandals. 

In the wake of the Charleston murders, noted identity-politics journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates published an op-ed article in Atlantic Magazine on why the Civil War was all about slavery and nothing else.  While Mr. Coates was, as usual, eloquent in his argument and cited numerous period quotes to buttress his argument, it set off debates about this much disputed topic once again.

As a disclaimer, let me reiterate that the Charleston massacre was an abominable act; that Governor Nikki Haley was entirely correct in removing the Confederate battle flag from state grounds, that slavery was a Bad Thing—and still is—and that racism in all its forms is not just morally wrong, but a spiritual illness that should be actively combated in society.  Nor, for that matter, do I think that Secession was either a necessary or good thing in 1860, and that fringe groups such as neo-Secessionists are a dangerous and delusional fringe group that should be taken very seriously.

However, a historian’s first responsibility is to the truth.  Part of that responsibility consists, not of simply regurgitating quotes out of context to prove one’s a priori assumptions.  Still less is it to simply parrot the assumptions of the current prevailing popular dogma; rather, one should to go beyond what was said at the time and seek to understand the underlying factors that led people to act in certain ways, for good or ill.

The road to Secession that culminated in the Civil War was a long one which stretches back to the earliest days of the Republic and that, yes, slavery was a very important factor in the long process that led to the outbreak of Civil War.  But that is a far cry from saying that slavery, in and of itself, caused the Civil War.

It would take a very large volume to detail all the factors that led to the Secession Crisis of 1860 and certainly the debate over slavery would play a very large part of that book.  But other countries outlawed slavery and did not go to war over it—notably Great Britain—although during our war, the British establishment was quite active in aiding and abetting the slave states in their rebellion.  In fact, far more Black slaves were transported to the Caribbean and South America than to the US, which fact is conveniently overlooked by most historians.  So Great Britain’s investment in slavery in the Caribbean was quite substantial–yet no rebellion or civil war when it was finally abolished.

Conversely, when the colony of Georgia was first founded in the early 1700’s, slavery was banned as its founders did want the colonists to be dependent on an economy based on human bondage.  The truth about slavery was far more complex than most Americans realize and, unfortunately, nostrums and stereotypes abound by people of all castes and classes.  Be that as it may, let me limit this present essay to analyzing just one aspect of this Gordion’s Knot of causality that lead to the Civil War and try to show why slavery was not THE cause of war, despite its large and pernicious role in the crisis.

Let us deal with the North to start with.  In 1860, Lincoln did not run on a platform of abolishing slavery; he ran on a plank which would have prohibited the extension of slavery into the territories not yet admitted to the Union—two very different things.  Lincoln, although opposed to slavery on moral grounds, was not an Abolitionist, although as a good politician he actively solicited their votes.  At best one could label Abraham Lincoln as a “gradualist”—to try to slowly wean the nation away from the “Peculiar Institution” and more or less starve it to death.  Even after war broke out, Lincoln only came to emancipation very cautiously: several generals who tried to free slaves prematurely were severely reprimanded by Lincoln early in the war.  He stated on several occasions to the effect that if to preserve the Union he would maintain slavery, he would not hesitate to do so.  Even after embracing emancipation, Lincoln continued to entertain various schemes to ship freed Negroes back to Africa, rather than allow them to remain as citizens in the US.

In retrospect, even though it seems wrong by modern standards, President Lincoln was entirely correct to go slow regarding emancipation. In truth, had Lincoln asked the North to go to war in April of 1861 to free the slaves, the response among northern whites would been have been an overwhelming NO.  Abolitionists, while vocal and politically powerful in many states, were a very small minority in 1860.  Preserving the Union; rallying to the flag; fighting Southern rebellion; northern patriotism; these were all important motives to go war for most northerners—and even some southerners.

Although the postwar Lost Cause propaganda glossed over it, the truth is that in many parts of the South there was strong anti-Secessionist sentiment that over the course of the war turned violent.  Nor were Southern loyalists at all motivated by sentiments of abolishing slavery; many were virulently racist themselves and detested not only the Southern plantation owners, but their slaves as well.

Fernando Wood was Mayor of New York City at the start of the War. As a shipping magnate his sympathies were with the South and proposed the city secede from the Union.
Fernando Wood was Mayor of New York City at the start of the War. As a shipping magnate his sympathies were with the South and proposed the city secede from the Union.

In the North, moreover, there were pockets of strong sympathy for the Confederate cause: throughout the Ohio Valley there was strong pro-Secessionist sentiment in southern Illinois, Indiana and Ohio; similarly in ostensibly Free States along the Mississippi there were pro-Confederate pockets.  For that matter, the northeast also had its Rebel sympathizers: the Mayor of New York, Fernando Wood, proposed that New York City secede from the Union and there were Yankee factory owners in New England who were none too happy that the supply of cotton for their textile mills was cut off by the Union blockade.

Although slavery existed from the beginning of the first colonies, the nature of slavery in America evolved over time.  In the Jamestown Colony and elsewhere, there co-existed several forms of unfree labor, of which slavery was but one.

Far more numerous in raw numbers were indentured servants; although de facto treated like slaves (or worse) their term of servitude was only for a limited number of years.

In fact the first 33 Blacks to land in Jamestown were not slaves but indentured servants.  Nor was slavery exclusively limited to Negroes.  During the reign of the usurper Oliver Cromwell in England, the Puritan ‘reign of saints’ carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Ireland; English troops would descend on Irish villages and massacre everyone over the age of 12 and then send the survivors as slaves to the West Indies, which why today one frequently finds Jamaican Americans with names like O’Brian or O’Hara.

Although, like modern Holocaust deniers, you will find English apologists who deny the genocidal policies of Oliver Cromwell and other English leaders, the truth is that whites were often enslaved as well in the early years.

The northern colonies practiced slavery as well as the southern ones at the time of the American Revolution, although by that time Black slavery was already well entrenched in the South.  Many of the founding fathers were aware of the incongruity of having slavery while proclaiming freedom; but they were men of the Enlightenment and sincerely believed that in time rationalism and humanism would lead to the end of slavery.  Rice and tobacco cultivation at that time made up most of the large plantation agriculture and while they were economically important to the southern states, small farms had far less need of slaves, especially in the more mountainous regions of the South.  Cotton was a small part of Southern agriculture, mainly because it was so time consuming to process.

That all changed with the invention of the Cotton Gin.  It was this invention by Yankee inventor Eli Whitney that revolutionized the Southern economy in the early nineteenth century.  Large plantations, owned by a very small number of landowners, many of them absentee owners, could efficiently raised large crops of cotton, a raw material in high demand in both the northeast and also in England, where the Industrial Revolution was in full swing.

These were a far cry from the small “Yeomen Farmers” that Thomas Jefferson had envisioned as the basis for his ideal of democratic agrarian republic.  In truth the plantation system was big business, a form of commercialized agriculture—Agribusiness—at its very worst and it contaminated every other institution it touched.

If one so chose, I’m willing to wager one could track the growth of ever more restrictive slave legislation with the growth of the cotton economy in the deep South, as well as the growing ideology of Blacks as an inferior race who needed to be kept in permanent submission.  The growth of racist ideology and of racism was a necessary corollary to the rise of King Cotton.  The growing numbers of slaves, needed to work what were essentially factory farms, spawned increasing fear of blacks, punctuated by occasional slave revolts.  The official outlawing of the transatlantic slave trade did nothing to slow its growth and was more honored in its violation than observance.

By the world view of the Southern plantation owner, Abolitionists rabble rousers were not just a threat to public safety, they were a threat to their very way of life.  Destroy slavery and the elite who owned most of the wealth in the South would be impoverished—or so they believed.

The Ante Bellum economy was based on the cotton plantation economy; an economy controlled by a small minority of politically powerful landowners owners--the "Slaveocracy"
The Ante Bellum economy was based on the cotton plantation economy; an economy controlled by a small minority of politically powerful landowners owners–the
“Slaveocracy”

A crusading journalist in Great Britain, who wrote for the New York Tribune from 1852 to 1862, understood this very well and gave a name to it: he dubbed it “the Slaveocracy.”  It was a small group of very wealthy planters who became fabulously wealthy on the enslavement of Negroes who dominated the politics of the South and even of the Nation as a whole.  It was, as the name implies, an oligarchy based on slavery.

According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia: “Slaveholders controlled not only the best land and the vast majority of personal property in the state but also the state political system. In 1850 and 1860 more than two-thirds of all state legislators were slaveholders. More striking, almost a third of the state legislators were planters.”

This economic elite controlled the state legislatures, the newspapers and just about everything else in the South; moreover the dominance of the plantation economy in the South also meant that free whites who did not own large plantations were at a severe disadvantage both as farmers and as laborers.  It meant that you were either very, very wealthy or very poor, with a small group in the middle dependent on the slave masters.  No wonder that in many places like Appalachia hatred of slaves went hand in hand with hatred of their masters.

Sherman's march was aimed at destroying the economic base of the South--its plantation economy.
Sherman’s march was aimed at destroying the economic base of the South–its plantation economy.

In 1992, James Carville famously advised up and coming Presidential candidate Bill Clinton that it was “the economy stupid;” In 2008 it was also “the economy stupid” and today it is still the same thing.  Similarly, in 1860 it was also the economy, not States’ Rights, tariffs, or at base even slavery in itself, although many at the time believed it was.

White Folks did not going about kidnapping Negroes from Africa just to get their jollies; the slave system was a by-product of the plantation economy, not a cause.  In turn, racism was an ideology which grew to justify that vile yet profitable economic system.  It was the Slaveocracy’s stranglehold on the economy of the South and the politics of the nation which really precipitated war.

Although from the perspective of Americans of African descent it is understandable that they should be fixated on the most important aspect of their own personal history, if we would really understand what caused nearly three quarters of a million of Americans to die in the Civil War and the event whose after effects still dog us today, we need to look more deeply to this key underlying factor and its lingering after effects on American society.

A Mississippi cotton planter and his field hands. Although free in theory, Blacks were de facto subservient due to the Jim Crow laws of the late 19th century. Note the planter's shotgun.
A Mississippi cotton planter and his field hands ca. 1908. Although free in theory, Blacks were de facto subservient due to the Jim Crow laws of the late 19th century. Note the planter’s shotgun.

There is another lesson to be learned here: Oligarchy and Democracy are mutually exclusive political-economic systems.  The concentration of wealth into the hands of the few is an immanent threat, not only to Democracy, but to the peace and prosperity of the nation.  

Let us hope it does not take another civil war to finally learn that lesson.

 

For more about the Civil War, read Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln

Paranormal Presidency cover suitable for online use 96dpi
For the first time documents Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs and experiences dealing with the paranormal. The Paranormal Presidency chronicles his prophetic dreams, premonitions and beliefs, as well as his participation in séances and Spiritualism.

ambrose-bierce-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover
Ambrose Bierce, famed American author, is best known for his macabre fiction and cynical humor, served as a soldier in the front lines throughout the Civil War. Bierce’s wartime experiences were the transformative events of the young author’s life. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife for the first time chronicles this pivotal period of Bierce’s life.