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Causes of the American Civil War – 1

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Photo of Dred Scott. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-5092CE

Image of slaves on Smith's Plantation

To celebrate the opening of Wig-Wags.com, I’m republishing a  series of posts on the much debated topic of the causes of the American Civil war. Let today’s post serve as its introduction. I’ll attempt in the series to address two questions. The first is whether economic interests, political agitation, and the cultural differences between North and South did more to bring about the Civil War than the issue of slavery. The second is whether the American Civil War could have been avoided. Was it inevitable? Underlying both questions is the matter of causation of the war. If there was a singular, definitive reason for it the task would be easier. But deliberation over its cause has continued for almost a century and a half and will no doubt carry on into the future with little hope of achieving clear answers. Scholar Kenneth M. Stampp summarized the challenges of the quest well. [Image of Dred Scott .]

As one reflects upon the problem of causation one is driven to the conclusion that historians will never know, objectively and with mathematical precision, what caused the Civil War. Working with fragmentary evidence, possessing less than a perfect understanding of human behavior, viewing the past from the perspective of their own times, finding it impossible to isolate one historical event to test its significance apart from all others, historians must necessarily be somewhat tentative and conjectural in offering their interpretations.[i]

He concluded, and with this, I whole heartedly agree, that even though the ongoing debate over the causes of the war remains inconclusive, the effort of examination brings increased clarity.[ii]

More in the next post.

Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree

Kenneth Stampp

Kenneth Stampp

[i] Kenneth M. Stampp, ed. The Causes of the Civil War, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991), 17-18.The Causes of the Civil War
[ii] Ibid., 18.
Photo of Dred Scott. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-5092CE

On Slavery – 8: The "Peculiar Institution"

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I believe the use of the phrase “peculiar institution” was intended to convey the highly contradictory nature of the practice of human ownership in a country based on equality and freedom. Regardless of what perspective one might have of slavery in America, it is difficult to argue against the fact that these contradictions existed. Historian Kenneth Stampp’s chapter titled “Between Two Cultures,” in his book, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, provides several compelling examples.

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1. American culture was heavily influenced by religion and yet the South used that religion to justify slavery.

2. Morality of the day frowned on fornication and yet the laws of the day prohibited slaves from legally marrying, thus not only condoning but also encouraging slaves to live out-of-wedlock. Slave owners preached “virtue and decency…” but then wondered why there was widespread sexual promiscuity. Add to this the “hypocrisy in white criticism of their moral laxity” when masters used their slaves “to satisfy an immediate sexual urge.”

3. Rape of a white woman by a slave was punishable by death but “no such offense against a slave woman was recognized in law.”

4. The family was critically important to white culture but the “peculiar institution” condoned the intentional undermining of normal family structures among bondsmen because it best suited their owner’s economic goals as well as furthering command and control of laborers. “The family had no great importance as an economic unit.” And the Protestant South was highly tolerant of slave owners who separated spouses and families.

5. Stampp points out that “the enterprising, individualistic, freedom-loving, self-made man” attained the greatest respectability in white society of the 19th century. And yet slaves were given no opportunity to even hope to aspire to this level of respectability.

6. Rather than a society based on equality, the South developed a highly stratified caste system.

And so I contend that embracing slavery left the South at odds with itself, the North, and much of the rest of the world. And yet embrace it, it did. Use of the phrase “peculiar institution” instead of “slavery” was yet another way in which the South struggled to reconcile the irreconcilable.

Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South.

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On Slavery – 5 Escaping

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Original photo Library of Congress. LC-B8171-518″]escaping-slaves

Fugitive African Americans Fording the Rappahannock River. Rappahannock, Virginia, August 1862 [cropped

Historian Kenneth Stampp makes an interesting point about differing locations of slaves determining the destination of escapees. Those living near Indians might, for example, seek refuge with local tribes, as was the case in Florida.

“…Florida slaves escaped to the Seminole Indians, aided them in their wars against the whites, and accompanied them when they moved to the West. At Key West, in 1858, a dozen slaves stole a small boat and successfully navigated it to freedom in the Bahamas. Arkansas runaways often tried to make their way to the Indian country.” (Stampp, 120)

Those nearer to the north often choose to escape to the north where there was a greater presence of abolitionists.

Those in Texas would escape in larger numbers to Mexico.

“In Mexico the fugitives generally were welcomed and protected and in some cases sympathetic peons guided them in their flight.” (Stampp, 120)

Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South

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On Slavery – 1

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Photograph of Slave Cabin and Occupants Near Eufala, Barbour County, Alabama (Photo source: Library of Congress)

I’m reading Kenneth M. Stampp’s fascinating book, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South for class. A focus this week and next is, among other things, the ways in which slave owners controlled their bondsmen. The methods varied considerably as did the ethical sensibilities of the masters and overseers. Stampp suggests that behavioral control included both the carrot and the stick with heavy weighting on the stick. That is to say, some masters and/or overseers used positive incentives and some negative.

Positive incentives included: work stoppage at noon on Saturdays and Sunday off, holidays off, parties and dances, holiday gifts, cash for the best worker for a given period, the right to grow one’s own crops whether for personal food or sale, the right to rent oneself out and keep some of the income, and the ultimate incentive, the right to achieve freedom.

Negative incentives were many. Stampp suggests that few adult slaves did not have some experience with flogging. This seemed to be the most acceptable method of disciplining slaves and was used extensively. Other forms of physical punishment used to control slaves included: confinement either in “the blocks” or even jail, mutilation (ranging from castration to branding), and even more severe forms of torture. For young slaves or those who needed “breaking,” there were actually specialists who through, undoubtedly mental and physical persuasion, reduced high spirited individuals to more pliable and subservient workers.

Another method of control was the introduction of religion to the slaves. Indoctrination of slaves into Christianity had its advantages. It was not uncommon for them to ensure that sermons emphasized those verses in the Bible that instructed servants to obey their masters. (Stampp, 158) Particular focus was made on teaching slave children “respect and obedience to their superiors” in the belief that it made them better servants. (Stampp, 159) This suggests a fascinating area of study – the effects of religion on American slaves – for which I must look for information. Let me know if you can recommend any.

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Antebellum America Course Underway, New Books

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Class has started, Antebellum America. Books have been added to the reading list, some familiar and respected authors.

First up, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South by Kenneth M. Stampp.

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And, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men by Eric Foner.

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