December 24, 2010

The South, Secession, Slaves & John Brown

Four days ago, there were fancy celebrations in South Carolina. It was the 150th anniversary of the Palmetto State becoming the first to secede from the US. Much was made by the partiers of the proposition that this had been an exercise in fighting Big Government and upholding states’ rights.

They are unlikely to be celebrating today, at least in public. That’s because 150 years ago the elected legislators of South Carolina issued a document explaining their move, Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.

I know you’ll be stunned to learn this, dear reader, but it turns out the reason the state tried to bail was: slavery. No, make that: slaves.

Of course it is customary in thinking about the period to refer to “slavery” as the cause of the Civil War, and my point here may be a bit nit-picky, but to me, “slavery” seems too abstract a term. It describes a social institution, but slaves were people! Sometimes folks lament the carnage of the Civil War by saying “Slavery would have died out anyway….” Make the subject of that sentence “Slaves” and the whole premise has to be reconsidered.

And the SC legislature was well aware that the stakes in their desperate political stroke was slaves, not just slavery. The Declaration of the Immediate Causes in its short paragraphs contains a twofold vision of slaves, as valuable pieces of property to be defended and as an omnipresent danger to be kept under tight guard.

The charges justifying separation from the Northern States, whose citizens had just elected the next President, Abraham Lincoln, read, in part:

[T]hey have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.
Servile insurrection! This had always been the deepest dread of the slaveowners. Look at the ascending nature of the list of offenses the people of the Northern States are charged with--speaking against slavery, organizing to free the slaves, acting to free them and, the ultimate enormity, helping slaves to rebel and free themselves.

And in 1860, this prospect was glaringly real, thanks to the Harpers Ferry raid conducted by abolitionist John Brown and a small band of Black and white freedom fighters only a year before.

The Harpers Ferry raid is usually portrayed as helping trigger secession because it stirred Northern opposition to slavery and Southern fears that Northern tolerance of this great evil was coming to an end. But, as the Declaration of Immediate Causes shows, Southern fears were also directed at menaces more local and immediate.

To underline this, one need only look at events in the vicinity of Harpers Ferry in the weeks between John Brown’s trial and his execution on December 2, 1859. As word of the raid spread through the plantations, they began to burn. “The heavens are illuminated by the lurid glare of burning property,” fretted a Richmond daily.

On October 31, “a Negro boy” torched the barn and stable of George Fole. Eleven days later three straw ricks belonging to John LaRue and the carriage house and granary of a Dr. Stephenson combusted on the same night. Planters rushed to reap and harvest early, lest their crops go up in flames

A planter by the name of Ulare who raised cattle, soon wrote the governor, blaming abolitionists and begging help:
[T]hree stockyards have been burnt in this county alone since their capture and since their trial—last night one of mine was burned destroying not less than $2000 worth of property.
To no avail. On December 2, all the animals on two separate farms belonging to members of the Turner family died suddenly. The next day one of those farms caught fire. And that same week, properties owned by three of the jurors who convicted Brown and his men were destroyed by flames!

Small wonder the South trembled and sought to cut off ties with the contagion from states where many citizens memorialized and honored John Brown.

[The historical material is largely drawn from a splendid article entitled “Regional Black Involvement in John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry.” It was written by a scholar named Hannah Gellert, with the assistance of Jean Libby. It details extensive Black participation in the planning and preparation of the raid, the death of as many as 17 local free Blacks and slaves who joined Brown's squad during the battle and the response summarized above. The piece can be found in a volume entitled Prophets of Protest, edited by McCarthy and Stauffer.]

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