Confederate Emancipation? Part 5 – The End (Whew!)

Today we conclude our series on Donald Livingston’s piece in the July/August issue of the Confederate Veteran magazine. To date, we have seen that Livingston’s piece obfuscated the reason for southern secession, incorrectly described the nature of the Union the founders created, perhaps mischaracterized Jefferson’s attitude toward coercing states to remain in the Union, and agreed with Lincoln and the Republican Party’s stance on slavery as a great moral wrong.

The last argument, or arguments, I want to address (there are many, many others, believe me), is Livingston’s contention that “The evidence, however, strongly sup­ports the contrary counter-factual judg­ment that had there been no war, slavery, in an independent Confederacy, would have ended in a reasonable amount of time, and race relations in the South (and in America), would have been better than what they be­came, having been put through the dehu­manizing experience of a scorched earth war, a decade of military occupation, the plunder and corruption of Reconstruction, and the manipulation of race by the Union League and similar organizations created to keep the Republican party in power.” Really? I wonder, for the four million enslaved Americans, what they believe would have been, as Livingston puts it, “a reasonable amount of time” to remain enslaved, rather than, as Lincoln and the Republicans wanted to do, begin “to devise federal policies, to be implemented immediately, that would bring about the ultimate extinction of slavery.” (James Oakes, Freedom National, page 22)

Added to this, I wrote in Loathing Lincoln:

Likewise misleading, at least from [Timothy] Sandefur’s viewpoint, was the relatively un-substantiated assertion that a slaveholding Confederacy (or northern secession from the South) would have eventually emancipated the slaves without federal intervention. Following Mises’s emphasis on slavery’s economic inefficiency, [Thomas] DiLorenzo maintained that “the market economy and the advance of industrialization were in fact eating away at the institution of slavery.” This trend, together with the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act, “would have caused the price of slaves to plummet by dramatically increasing the cost to slave owners of enforcing the system, thereby quickening the institution’s demise.” Such speculation ignored that slaveholders wanted the Fugitive Slave Law enforced and would never have consented to its repeal and that in an independent, slaveholding regime such as the Confederacy, there would have been strong economic and cultural incentives to preserve the institution and to acquire more slaves by whatever methods necessary. Slavery was extraordinarily profitable, and it is difficult to see why white southerners would have voluntarily abolished the institution. Indeed, if slavery was such an inefficient, unproductive form of labor that would have some day perished, then one wonders why it had not withered away by the twenty-first century. As Sandefur concluded in a 2012 lecture: “Slavery was efficient to southerners, if not as a purely financial matter, at least as a means of perpetuating White Supremacist social institutions. Proslavery leaders sought to address those economic problems that did plague slavery—escape, manumission, and the need for land—through government subsidies and crackdowns on civil liberties.” So, at the very least it was debatable whether northern secession would have led to large numbers of slaves running away to freedom, although perhaps that would have been the case. Still, southern fire-eaters such as Robert Barnwell Rhett, Edmund Ruffin, and William Lowndes Yancey all thought slavery would be better protected in an independent slaveholding Confederacy because such a republic could deport abolitionists and their sympathizers, provide greater domestic surveillance of slaves, build an elaborate border patrol system, and use railroads and telegraph lines to deliver a more rapid response to runaways and potential rebellions. Once the Confederacy had been formed, these fire-eaters thought, the importance of cotton to the northern economy would force the United States government to make treaties promising to return or pay for runaways. “Our treaties would protect our slaves,” explained Yancey. (Barr, Loathing Lincoln, page 309-310)

Added to this, Livingston believes that the cost of freeing the slaves was simply too great and thus peaceful separation would have been better. Here is Livingston:

It is a terrible thing to destroy a social and political order. History shows that a people can recover in a short time from almost any amount of physical destruction if their social and political traditions are intact. The great tragedy of World War I is that it destroyed the social fabric of Europe and opened the door to a plethora of ideol­ogies and other social pathologies, includ­ing totalitarian regimes and World War II. Similar baneful results followed from the North’s systematic destruction of Southern society.

But there was another cost which has been largely ignored, namely the death and suffering of blacks caused by the Emanci­pation Proclamation itself. A window has recently been opened into this terrible epi­sode by Jim Downs in Sick From Freedom, African American Death and Suffering Dur­ing the Civil War and Reconstruction. “The Civil War,” he says “produced the largest biological crisis of the nineteenth century … wreaking havoc on the population of the newly freed.” Tens of thousands of freed slaves “became sick and died due to the … exigencies of war and the massive disloca­tion triggered by emancipation.” ‘

The Emancipation Proclamation was designed to encourage a slave uprising and weaken Southern morale. Consequently, the Lincoln administration had made no preparation to care for the slaves suddenly dislocated from their place of sustenance. The army hastily threw up what were called “contraband camps.” These were the first modern “concentration camps,” a distinction usually given to the British in the Boer War 1899-1902. Though no longer slaves, blacks in these camps were not citi­zens of the states or of the United States and had little in the way of civil rights. They were legally defined as “contraband” of war.

What “social and political order,” I ask my readers, was destroyed by the Civil War? Wasn’t that order one based upon racially-based slavery? And, was that order entirely destroyed? I discussed this at some length in my book:

One piece of history that these Lincoln contrarians ignored, . . .  was that a virtual secession was carried out by the South in the years after the country abandoned Reconstruction. By 1900, once African Americans were effectively disfranchised across the region, the white South was in effect in local control of its own internal affairs. The real tragedy of Reconstruction, notwithstanding the assertions of Lincoln’s detractors, was not that it enhanced federal power at the expense of the states but that the country eventually turned a blind eye to homicidal violence and racial oppression for almost another century after the president’s death. The link between freedom and equality forged by the Declaration of Independence and vindicated in the Civil War and Reconstruction was severed by the turn of the century. The consequence was that a broad anti-caste, civic nationalism was replaced by a narrow, ethnic nationalism based upon white supremacy. Democracy was in effect dead, certainly for blacks, in the southern United States until the stunning achievements of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, whose legislative successes were anathema to Lincoln’s foes. The de facto secession of the former Confederacy after Reconstruction on racial matters did not enhance freedom; rather, it diminished freedom and tarnished American lives and ideals. (Barr, Loathing Lincoln, page 308-309)

Now, I think Livingston is correct to cite Jim Downs’s book Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford, 2012), regarding the tragic, “unintended” consequences of emancipation, but I’m not sure that this – great – work supports his case as well as he thinks (the comment that these were the first “concentration camps” is without merit, and not worthy of a philosopher of Livingston’s caliber). To be sure, as Downs shows, the “Bondspeople who fled from plantation slavery during and after the war, and embraced their freedom with hope and optimism did not expect that it would lead to sickness, disease, suffering, and death.”  But, there are quotes in Downs’s work which contradict Livingston’s very argument. To wit:

In a letter to prominent religious leader and abolitionist Levi Coffin, John Eaton summed it up best when he stated, “Some among us, and some in England, have considered emancipation a farce; because it was proclaimed by President Lincoln as a military necessity, and not on the ground of humanity and justice.” Eaton went on to explain the complicated nature of emancipation, “Others declare emancipation inhuman [Livingston?] because it has been attended with so much suffering; overlooking the fact that the war itself would have produced as much without any attempt at emancipation; and that the distress then would have been without the alleviation afforded by the joys of freedom.” (Downs, Sick From Freedom, page 38-39)

Or, consider this, from O.O. Howard (the first director of the Freedmen’s Bureau, whose work Confederates and ex-Confederates did their absolute best to undermine, with violence):

Looking at the great number of indigent freedmen, old men and women and helpless children, in every Southern State, I have not wondered that the old slaveholder should pour into my ear the glowing accounts of the blessedness of slavery in its prosperous and patriarchal days, and that he should heap curses on that freedom which he believes to be the occasion of so much restlessness and suffering. But you and I know that the real cause of the desolation and suffering is war, brought on and continued in the interest of and from the love of slavery. (Downs, Sick From Freedom, page 40-41).

Might I also add here that these escaped slaves in the contraband camps who Livingston says – correctly – were not citizens of the United States at that time later became so because of the efforts of the Republican Party?

As I conclude this series, I am reminded that many, many Americans, argue that in flying the Confederate flag, or honoring their Confederate ancestors, they are honoring “heritage” and not “hate.” Fair enough, I suppose. Livingston’s essay, however, gives me pause, because he is clearly arguing that the Confederacy was constitutionally and morally right in their cause. And, I think we have a different country, if we have a country at all, if we find ourselves in agreement with Livingston’s viewpoint.

Let me conclude with the last paragraph of my book:

Americans need to remind themselves that Lincoln’s principled stand against the monstrous injustice of slavery and the slaveholders’ advocacy for its perpetuation “in all future time,” combined with his belief that recurrent elections as opposed to secession were the best, most peaceful method for solving political disagreements, were not only the hallmarks of democratic politics and Lincoln’s political career but essential aspects of “the better angels of our nature.” Consequently, Lincoln’s aim in asking Americans to fight a war to preserve a relatively democratic Union eventually cleansed of slavery was courageous and noble, perhaps even necessary, and the country remains indebted to those who fought to ensure that the United States was not forever split apart in the 1860s. This is not to say that Lincoln was either a god or a saint; obviously, he was neither, and he would in fact have been the first to scoff at such a notion. Nor was the president a demon, . . . Both views are an oversimplification of an extraordinarily complex man and movement dedicated to ending slavery in America. In fact, there is no shame in saying that Lincoln was a gifted, prudent politician who, with the help of millions of antislavery Americans, including the slaves themselves, enthusiastically issued the Emancipation Proclamation and, in public letters and speeches that contained some of the most beautiful language ever written, explained why the United States should attempt to fulfill the better ideals of its founders. And because of the war those ideals were, at least for a time, realized. The “new birth of freedom” of which Lincoln expectantly spoke at Gettysburg occurred, as African Americans became citizens in the new American nation born from the conflict, with ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. In this particular instance federal power broadened rather than diminished freedom, and it became another of the war’s heartbreaking tragedies (in addition to its hundreds of thousands of casualties) that human liberty shrank as the nation’s commitment to a more pluralistic democracy withered in the face of state and local resistance to the postwar era’s egalitarian possibilities. Such inegalitarian consequences persisted for far too long yet were thankfully impermanent because Americans, especially African Americans, realized they were inconsistent with the nation’s increased commitment to freedom and equality forged in the 1860s and 1870s. As they have in the past, so will Americans in the future continue to grapple with the Civil War and the president who led the nation through that conflict. But to loathe Abraham Lincoln would be to lose, or loathe, an essential part of the nation that he thought should allow all its inhabitants “an open field and a fair chance for . . . industry, enterprise and intelligence,” one that would give his fellow Americans “equal privileges in the race of life,” a country Lincoln hoped would become, as he said in his last written words, “a Union of hearts and hands as well as of States.” (Barr, Loathing Lincoln, page 341-342)

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