Friday, August 1, 2014

Abolitionist agitations force social and political changes in the South.


By the middle of the nineteenth century, a generation of radical abolitionism in the North, particularly in New England and more particularly in the Boston-Concord area of Massachusetts, had forced a number of social and political changes in the South—changes that, along with the fear of slave insurrections instigated by such men as John Brown and rising tariff rates that were stifling the Southern economy—would a decade later lead to the secession of Southern states.

--Ken Bachand, Hendersonville, NC


Abolitionist agitations, mounted by a relative handful, had proceeded now for a generation. In that time [1849] its rhetoric had gradually entered every public issue and every national debate, and had created irritations everywhere. Abolitionist lecturers, writers, and leaders had risen, inch by inch against violence and heavy odds, to convince overseas observers of their importance and to create sweeping though resentful changes in the South. Even the war with Mexico and its great victories was clouded by abolitionist protest. Arguments over whether the new territories should enter the Union as free or slave states distorted congressional debate even after the 1848 elections, and in the weeks before Old Zack Taylor was sworn into office in 1849.

Even the discovery of gold in California and the great land rush did not end the controversy. It penetrated every issue and darkened every debate. Would California be admitted as a free state? Would New Mexico be admitted as a slave state?

The Underground Railroad was transporting a small but steady trickle of fugitives out of the South; the possibility of new free-state senators would upset the balance of power between the regions. Abolitionist agitation in the North, although barred from the South, injured the reputation of the United States abroad, soured personal relation­ships in the Capitol, and stifled the dialogue between North and South.

The South smarted under a wave of denigration that issued from hundreds of Northern presses and hundreds more lecture platforms. The South's culture and religion were denied, its classes mocked, its heritage and accomplishments ignored. Millions of Northerners re­garded the South as a region of nightmare and evil. The reality was far different. The South was a region not simply of Calvinism, but of the religious principles inherited from John Knox and Scotland. It was a region where the Bible was revered as the base of Western civilization, and where such ministers as the Reverend Theodore Parker were regarded as malignant in their influence. Lacking roads, with even its better known cities relatively small, with a population undisturbed by the streams of immigrants who poured through the North, the most important regions of the South—in South Carolina, Virginia, Tennes­see, and other states—reflected the Scots Presbyterianism of an earlier age.

The ranks of upper-class Southern planters had been increased by the rise of King Cotton, and newcomers to these ranks imitated the manners and mores of their predecessors. In their close-knit families and customs, the planters resembled the "county families" of an older England more than they did the rising Victorians. The Southern poor white resembled the rural Scot, and believed, as did Bobby Burns two generations before, that "freedom and whiskey gang together." Even in poverty the Southern white was a landowner, proud of belonging to a superior race.

There were variant-pockets throughout the South, as throughout the North; towns and counties where Catholicism rather than Pres­byterianism was dominant; cities like New Orleans with a different heritage and ethnic mix than in upcountry Louisiana. There were also pockets of abolitionism, and areas such as Virginia, where slaves were barbers, clerks, house servants, and housekeepers rather than field hands. But in general the South had remained unchanged since the Revolution. Its culture and social patterns were set and familiar. Duels were still fought. Men drank, gambled, and wenched as in the 18th century, while Victorianism, with all its pruderies and pretenses, its red light districts and its hypocrisies, altered the North. Southern anger rose steadily under a Northern barrage that insisted the South revolu­tionize itself, dislocate its economy, and change its pattern of relations between the races—all to please the consciences of men in another region who would suffer no pain, loss, or change of status from such changes.

At first the South was content to seal its mailbags against Northern propaganda and to issue denials and refutations. In time, abolitionist propaganda led to a worsening of the conditions of blacks; efforts to educate slaves were halted, and emancipations made more difficult. The conditions of free blacks declined remarkably. The South moved toward the condition of a garrison state in its own nation.

As immigrants filled the North, as its wealth and commerce in­creased, as Northern settlers moved west, Southern leaders began to see their political power decline in the government and the nation. If more free states were admitted, each with its senators and representa­tives, the precarious balance of power maintained since the Missouri Compromise of 1820 would tilt, and the South would inevitably be­come helpless against Northern votes.

(Excerpted from The Secret Six: The Fool As Martyr, Volume Three of the Sacred Fool Quartet by Otto Scott, pp. 176–177)