“…Slavery and race were absolutely critical elements in the coming of the war”

I just saw another Rebel-flag emblazoned “Heritage not Hate” bumper sticker. I suspect I’ll see more during the sesquicentennial observances of the Civil War. 

The “Heritage not Hate” folks claim slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War. Neo-Confederates – and there are more than a few in my native Kentucky – claim that 11 slave states – the Bluegrass State not among them — seceded over “states’ rights.”

I teach history. Slavery had everything to do with the Civil War. “To put it quite simply, slavery and race were absolutely critical elements in the coming of the war,” wrote Charles B. Dew in Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War.

For my money, Dew’s little book is one of the best Civil War reads to come along in years. Published in 2001, it is especially timely as we get ready to mark the 150th anniversary of America’s bloodiest conflict.

Dew is a Southern-born historian with a family tree full of Rebel ancestors. No doubt, his book has made him an apostate to the neo-Confederates. Die-hard Rebels would have scorned him as a “scalawag,” meaning a fellow white Southerner who “betrayed” his race and region during the post-war Reconstruction period.

Dew uses the words of real Confederates to rebut the neo-Confederates.

He quotes a raft of Rebels from Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Vice President Alexander Stephens to representatives of Confederate states who went to other slave states – including Kentucky – to try to talk their political leaders into secession.

“I believe deeply that the story these documents tell is one that all of us, northerners and southerners, black and white, need to confront as we try to understand our past and move toward a future in which a fuller commitment to decency and racial justice will be part of our shared experience.”

 Dew explained that after the Rebels lost the Civil War, Davis, Stephens and other Confederate civil and military leaders wrote their memoirs, claiming “that slavery had absolutely nothing to do with the South’s drive for independence.” He added that their claim has been “picked up and advocated by neo-Confederate writers and partisans of the present day.”

 Some of them plaster it on the bumpers of their cars and trucks.

In his book, Dew cited a multitude of primary sources: newspapers, letters, official publications and other documents. He carefully footnoted his research.

Davis praised human bondage as a worthy institution by which “a superior race” had transformed “brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers.”

Stephens was thankful the Confederacy was based “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.” He added, “the Confederate States of America was “the first Government ever instituted upon principles in strict conformity to nature and the ordination of Providence…”

Dew also quotes from secession ordinances Southern states wrote as they exited the Union. When Texans pulled out, they denounced “the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race and color — a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law.”

Mississippi disunionists announced that “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery….We must either submit to degradation and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union.”

Dew ‘fesses up that he teaches history at a Yankee school – Williams College in Massachusetts. But he was born in Dixie. He said he went to a boarding high school in Virginia and had a Rebel flag in his dorm room.

Dew’s pedigree easily qualifies him for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, though they might not let him in. “My ancestors on both sides fought for the Confederacy, and my father was named Jack, not John, because of his father’s reverence for Stonewall Jackson,” the author wrote.

Dew said as a boy, he had a ready answer for anybody who asked him why the South seceded: states’ rights. “Anyone who thought differently was either deranged or a Yankee, and neither class deserved to be taken seriously on this subject,” he explained.

But studying history in college mugged Charles B. Dew. In honestly examining his region’s past, he discovered that by using the term “states’ rights,” white Southerners of the 1860s meant the right of a state to have slaves (just as white Southerners of the 1960s defended segregation in the name of “states’ rights”). Apostles of Disunion ultimately resulted.

Dew focused his book on a group of state-appointed commissioners who traveled throughout the slave states in 1860 and early 1861. They were supposed to drum up support for secession in all 15 slave states, including Kentucky.

The commissioners preached the same racist line: the only way to keep the Yankees from destroying slavery and white supremacy was to start a new Southern nation.

“Our fathers made this a government for the white man, rejecting the negro, as an ignorant, inferior, barbarian race, incapable of self-government, and not, therefore, entitled to be associated with the white man upon terms of civil, political, or social equality,” a Mississippi commissioner said.

Declared another Magnolia State emissary: “Slavery was ordained by God and sanctioned by humanity.”

Likewise, a Kentucky-born Alabama commissioner to Kentucky pleaded that secession was the only way the South could maintain “the heaven-ordained superiority of the white over the black race.” Another Alabama representative said ideas that slavery was immoral and that God created all people the same were rooted in “an infidel theory [that] has corrupted the Northern heart.”

Dew concluded, “By illuminating so clearly the racial content of the secession persuasion, the commissioners would seem to have laid to rest, once and for all, any notion that slavery had nothing to do with the coming of the Civil War.”

This history teacher hopes Dew is right.

Berry Craig is the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast,  Bourbon and Burgoo.

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About Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a native Kentuckian, a professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance journalist. He is a member of the American Federation of Teachers and the Kentucky Education Association/National Education Association. He is the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, which he describes as "a strictly non-partisan chronicle of our political past from Gov. Isaac Shelby to Gov. Ruby Laffoon."
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