The black man occupied the position of mere domestic animal, without will or right of his own. The lash lurked always in the background. Its open crackle could often be heard where field hands were quartered. Into the gentlest houses drifted now and then the sound of dragging chains and shackles, the bay of hounds, the report of pistols on the trail of the runaway. And as the advertisements of the time incontestably prove, mutilation and the mark of the branding iron were pretty common. (W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South)
I’d planned to write about southern plantation life today, but White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly’s comment that the Civil War was caused by “lack of the ability to compromise” needs to be addressed for its historical inaccuracy, as well as the rest of his comment that “…men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.” The institution of slavery, which plays an important part in Where the River Runs Deep (WTRRD), is at the center of the compromises he references, and of course, it also figures tragically in what passes for the nineteenth-century southern conscience.
Let’s take the subject of compromise first. Starting with the Constitution, the slavery issue was addressed a number of times with compromise. Some of the founding fathers were profoundly anti-slavery, but knew they could not press their cause without alienating southern states; hence, for the purpose of representation and taxation, each slave was counted as three-fifths of a person. In the north as the abolitionist movement grew stronger, states began outlawing slavery, and slaves escaped to northern states. The 1820 Missouri Compromise permitted Missouri to enter the union as a slave state, but made slavery unlawful only above the 36th parallel. The Compromise of 1850 tried to balance the number of slave and free states as they entered the union. The Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) allowed new states to determine their slavery status by “popular sovereignty.”
So Kelly, whose word according to Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, should not be disputed because he is a four-star general, is flat out wrong. There were several successful compromises, although dubious to modern minds before the American Civil War erupted.
To address the second issue, that people of good faith obeyed their consciences in the matter of fighting the Civil War, most historians agree that slavery was the primary issue dividing North and South. The North was against slavery. The South was for slavery. It is incredulous that honorable people (even in the 1850s and 1860s) would think the enslavement of fellow human beings was a noble position.
In Kelly’s world, is there no right and wrong?
Cash’s quotation above is revealing for many reasons: he does not sweeten slavery. In writing of “the gentlest houses,” he gives no squirming room for people hiding behind what he calls The Great Southern Heart—gallantry, Christian benevolence for savages, female virtue, etc. The gentle folk heard the brutal sounds of enslavement. The problem then was to sugarcoat the debasement of a race of people to appease Southern consciences.
Trump sought to resurrect The Great Southern Heart when he sugarcoated the protest in Charlottesville, VA, claiming the behavior of white supremacists, and supporters of Black Lives Matter and Antifa were equally “bad.” Until then, white supremacists, regarded as hate groups, had no endorsement from US presidents. They kept in the shadows. In his slick campaign to polarize and twist American minds, Trump slides hate groups to the forefront on a smear of horse dung to legitimize their message. Kelly’s respect for the consciences of slaveowners tries to do the same thing.
I’ll write more on slavery in the next blog.