Sunday, June 8, 2014

Resisting Furious Abolition Fanaticism


Antebellum Presbyterian Pastor James Henley Thornwell's understanding of Providence envisioned no Utopian solution to slavery -- the only hope was the gospel. He stated that "our design in giving [Africans] the Gospel is not to civilize them, not to change their social conditions; not to exalt them into citizens or freemen; it is to save them." Likewise, Robert E. Lee understood that the gentle hand of Christianity would solve the riddle in time.

Bernhard Thuersam, Chairman

North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial Commission

"Unsurpassed Valor, Courage and Devotion to Liberty"

"The Official Website of the North Carolina WBTS Sesquicentennial"

Resisting Furious Abolition Fanaticism

"Northerners calling for an immediate end to Southern slavery seemed to forget the long history of bondage in their own States. For generations African slaves had toiled in each of the thirteen American colonies, purchased from other Africans and brought in chains to the New World in the holds of New England slave ships.

Pennsylvania's experience was instructive.  There, long before independence, the Quaker-dominated assembly recognized slavery and codified a rigorous system of slave control.  William Penn himself owned a dozen black slaves and is said to have preferred them to indentured whites because slave labor was permanent.  In colonial days some Quakers expressed misgivings, but most readily accepted slavery.

During the American Revolution many Pennsylvania slaves ran away, some joining the Tory cause, lured by promises of freedom should Britain win the war.  In 1780 the Pennsylvania legislature passed the gradual Abolition Act, the first such statute in America.  By its provisions all slaves born before March first of that year remained slaves for life, while children born to slaves after that date would be set free after twenty-eight years of servitude.

Alexis de Tocqueville observed that when Northern masters were faced with the imminent prospect of having to let go of their slaves they often sold them to new owners in States where slavery still existed. "Consequently," observed the Frenchman, "the abolition of slavery [in the North] does not make the slave free but just changes his master to a Southerner instead of a Northerner."  Southerners inclined to consider emancipation had fewer practical choices in de Tocqueville's view.  "The North rids itself of slavery and of the slaves in one move. In the South there is no hope of attaining this double result at the same time."

Slavery had other costs more difficult to measure. According to de Tocqueville, writing in the aftermath of Nat Turner's abortive 1831 slave insurrection, the specter of revolt haunted the Southern mind.  Northerners, secure from danger themselves, freely discussed the prospect of a race war drowning the South in blood.  "In the Southern States there is silence," said de Tocqueville, "one does not speak of the future before strangers . . ."

With abolitionists calling for slavery's violent overthrow, Southern reaction to threatened terrorism was predictable. "The abolitionist is as free to hold his opinions as I am to hold mine," said [John] Randolph of Roanoke, "But I will never suffer him to put a torch to my property, that he may slake it in the blood of all that are dear to me." Randolph labeled slavery a "cancer," but one that "must not be tampered with by quacks, who never saw the disease or patient."

When Randolph died his slaves were freed, sent to farms purchased for them in the free State of Ohio under the terms of his will.  There they were met by mob violence and forced to flee. Yet it was incessant abolitionist propaganda that demonized Southerners and pictured their country as fit only for destruction. "If Northern abolition action has goaded and driven us to be also fanatical," claimed Virginians Edmund Ruffin, "our fanaticism has been, and is altogether defensive."

Thornwell categorized abolitionism as but one of the modern "isms," a manifestation of "a general spirit of madness" growing in nineteenth-century America.  "It is a hot, boiling, furious fanaticism, destroying all energy of mind and symmetry of character and leaving its unfortunate victim . . . a spectacle of pity and of dread."

(Taking a Stand, Portraits From the Southern Secession Movement, Walter Brian Cisco, 1998, White Mane Books, pp. 55-57)