I like Chris Matthews a great deal. I find his interviews to be sharp, incisive, and rigorous. But, he isn't much of a historian. Luckily, I have friends who are. Introducing our newest guest blogger, Thaddeus Stevens, who kindly offers Chris Matthews a little American History 101 on the North's role in America's slaveocracy.
"Stop talking about the South. As long as you're south of the Canadian border, you're South."
Malcolm X "The Ballot or the Bullet" (1964)
Brother Malcolm might have been talking directly to Chris Matthews of MSNBC, whose anti-historical outburst against the South during his interview of two southern Congressmen on Thursday afternoon has floated around the web.
Let's get our history straight. Slavery was an institution legal in all of the 13 Colonies and briefly legal in all of the founding 13 states of the United States. Slavery's legitimacy was supported by provisions omitted from the Declaration of Independence and inserted into the U.S. Constitution. While not all of the figures rated as Founding Fathers were slaveholders, they all compromised explicitly with the continued legality of slavery. Nor was slavery a minor institution in early America. Blacks, mostly enslaved, constituted about 20% of the population in 1776 and again in 1790 at the time of the first U.S. Census.
While Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire led the way with early abolition measures, other states in the historical North moved much more slowly, such that there were a number of slaves in New Jersey who were freed by the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution: the very provision that ended slavery in much of the South.
So, if the South wasn't solely responsible for slavery, then it certainly was the cradle of race prejudice and discrimination, right? Well, not exactly. Alexis de Tocqueville, writing about America in the 1830s, noted that race prejudice was least obvious in the South where slavery prevailed. It was much more strident in states where slavery had been abolished and was even more marked in states and territories where slavery had never existed. Race riots, which before the 1960s consisted almost exclusively of white mobs attacking blacks and other people of color, were practically nonexistent in the South before Emancipation but prevalent in the North where black men and women were free. Perhaps the greatest urban riot in American history, the New York uprising of July, 1863--a combined anti-conscription and anti-black pogrom--focused on the black communities of Manhattan. Blacks in the North and Midwest had to arm themselves against violence from their ostensible neighbors in the free states.
Segregation or "Jim Crow" was born in northern cities (see C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow.) Philadelphia and New York were in process of becoming racially segregated while Richmond, Savannah, and New Orleans had essentially residential integration. Surely, slavery ruled race relations in those latter cities--all southern--but the differences in appearance of say Philadelphia and New Orleans in 1850 was there for all to see. Philly had a ghetto (still does) while blacks and Creoles lived all over the "Big Easy." The laws of slavery governed often even free blacks in the South. The "law" of the mob governed free blacks in the North. Barred from the vote, the jury box, and many economic pursuits in much of the North, many free blacks could be excused for not being able to tell the difference between 'freedom' in the free states and slavery in the slave states. Indeed, after Congress extended slaveholders' power into the North through a new Fugitive Slave Act, many black women and men found that true freedom lay far to the north, in the British Dominions of Canada to which they fled. (Frederick Douglass departed upstate New York for Canada upon receiving news of John Brown's capture at Harper's Ferry in 1859. Despite the fact that Douglass had cautioned against an armed uprising against slavery led by Brown, he knew that an uppity black man would find scant justice at trial for treason in these United States.)
Let's not forget the Civil War. The Confederate nation was certainly proclaimed to protect and extend slavery but the North didn't initially fight the C.S.A. for purposes of Emancipation. We can take President Abraham Lincoln's word on that. The Civil War, one of the most profoundly transformative events to ever occur in the U.S. is not a simple subject. The North didn't set out to free slaves and not all southerners defended secession. If one counts blacks as southerners, 33% or more of residents of the eleven Confederate states served the C.S.A. under threat of violence and prayed, worked, and finally fought to preserve the Union. Moreover, there were nearly 200,000 WHITE Union regular and irregular soldiers, probably representing 2,000,000 of the South's civilian population. Meanwhile, there were areas in the North with strong Confederate sympathies, not least New York City (then consisting only of Manhattan.) The Union military was full of officers who were born in the South and the C.S.A. military had more than a few officers born in the North. Tennessee split, with the eastern part turning towards the Union. Virginia split permanently, with its western mountain region rejoining the Union. Conscription resistance, partly a sign of lukewarm support for the larger Union, was epic in parts of upstate New York, rural Pennsylvania, and rural Ohio.
Lincoln, the Emancipator, was born in Kentucky, a slave state, and married into a prominent slave holding family there. Robert E. Lee early in the Civil War executed his father-in-law's will to manumit his considerable estate of enslaved people: late in the War, Lee wanted to emancipate black men and recruit them into the Confederate armies.
What I think a reasonable person should conclude from all of this is that the United States is a very complex country but one country through it all. There are regional differences and yes, the North did generally fight the South during the Civil War. But the American South is not our historical scapegoat to be sent out into the desert to die for our sins; for all of our sins. The South is not in the Caribbean or South America. The South is as American as...pecan pie. Today, as in the past, people born in the South migrate to other parts of the country and this is and always has been reciprocated. While the South didn't get much immigration from abroad after 1810 during the 19th century that is no longer the case. The modern South is an international immigration destination.
Let's lay down the bloody shirt at long last, Chris. Even my namesake, a Civil War-era Pennsylvania politician who was called "the scourge of the South" didn't think the South was all bad. He worked for enfranchisement of nearly one million black men in the South during Reconstruction and tried to enact land reform for them and for white men loyal to the Union, too. Not even the "radicals" he led wanted to read southerners out of the American family if they pledged their loyalty to the Union and gave up slavery. And while my namesake also wanted racial equality in America, that hope plus a nickel wouldn't have gotten him a cup of coffee anywhere in his Congressional District in central Pennsylvania back then, and he knew it.