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Eugene D. Genovese

An Uncertain Trumpet

How Christians in the South sought to reconcile slavery with Scripture.

When the Confederacy collapsed, Southern divines ruefully allowed that God had punished the South for failing to do justice to its slaves. Simultaneously, they reiterated their conviction that they had not sinned in upholding slavery per se. In October 1865, the Baptist Religious Herald of Richmond, Virginia, defiantly asked "whether any combination of capital and labor ever produced greater freedom from want and suffering, and a higher degree of contentment and cheerfulness among the laboring classes, than did Southern slavery." A month later, the South Carolina Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, in a pastoral letter, reiterated that Holy Scripture contains everything necessary for salvation and warned against a misreading of the fall of the Confederacy. It affirmed that the War had settled the question of "the powers that be," whom Southerners were commanded to obey as they rendered unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's. But the conference insisted that the demise of slavery did not invalidate the certainty that God had ordained it in a previous time and place. Educators like the Presbyterian Reverend T. E. Peck of Union Theological Seminary in Richmond firmly contended that, religiously and morally, slavery was by no means a settled issue. The intransigence of the divines may be more readily understood if for "slavery" we substitute "some form of personal servitude" and recall the long efforts to bring their preferred social system up to biblical standards.

Christian Southerners, sadly acknowledging that they had lost the War because a persistent sinfulness had cost them God's favor, recognized a bitter irony. By forfeiting God's favor, they had sentenced themselves to live under the very social system that they had condemned as unchristian in tendency. Punished for their lapses, they now found themselves enmeshed in a materialistic, marketplace society that promoted competitive individualism and worshiped Mammon. From early on, they had feared that defeat would ensure precisely that outcome. In December 1861 the Reverend J. Henry Smith of North Carolina declared, as others were doing in their own words, "If we fail, the progress of civilization will be thrown back a century." A still hopeful James Henley Thornwell pondered that fearful possibility in a letter written to his wife shortly before his death in 1862: "Every day increases my sense of the value of the principles for which we are contending. If we fail, the hopes of the human race are put back for more than a century."

Thornwell could contemplate the possibility of defeat without loss of the optimism of the will that Romain Rolland has wisely suggested must accompany pessimism of the intellect, but not all of his compatriots could match his confidence in the ultimate triumph of the principles for which they were contending. When the prospects for a Union victory mounted after Gettysburg and Vicksburg, ministers and secular leaders continued to express confidence in a Confederate victory, but a note of desperation crept into their sermons. Haunted by fears of a religious as well as social and political catastrophe, the preachers redoubled their efforts to rally the faithful, but, notwithstanding the growing doubts, they continued to resist the idea of slavery's inherent sinfulness. Instead, they reiterated their belief that slavery, with all its faults, sustained a Christian social order, and they focused on the dreaded consequences of the victory of the Antichrist. Southerners must trust God to save them, the preachers cried, for the Yankee invaders have shown how utterly bestial they can be. The preachers reminded their people that an infidel North stood for a political radicalism that threatened the very foundations of civilization. If the North wins, they prophesied, the country will fall under a ruthless tyranny that will, among other atrocities, extinguish religious liberty and, with it, religious truth.

At the end of the War, the unreconstructed Robert L. Dabney suffered such deep discouragement that he considered emigration. Virginia, he wrote to the Reverend Moses Drury Hoge in August 1865, will no doubt recover its prosperity but only at the price of "being completely Yankeeized." The loss of independence meant that "the honor, the hospitality, the integrity, everything which constituted Southern character is gone forever." The Yankees, he added, are killing off the "ruling class." In 1868, speaking at Davidson College in North Carolina, Dabney referred to the Confederate defeat as one more proof that God uses infidels to chasten his people, and Dabney reiterated that victory in war does not always go to the cause of right. Dabney, to the day he died, hated the bourgeois social order the slave South had stood against, but he wound up supporting big business against both Populism and the labor unions as the lesser of unspeakable evils. Dabney was not alone in being haunted by apocalyptic visions, which marked the sermons of many divines shortly after the War. For men like the less politically volatile Reverend John Girardeau, the emergence of socialism, anarchism, and class warfare in Europe and America conjured up the specter of the Antichrist. Without the religious overtones, the embittered Eliza Frances Andrews of Georgia cried, "In another generation or two, this beautiful country of ours will have lost its distinctive civilization and become no better than a nation of Yankee shopkeepers."

The question remains: What went wrong? Why did the many Southerners who long before the War saw the need for a drastic change in the social order fail so miserably? After all, their ranks included politically influential clerical and secular spokesmen of high intellectual quality. That question leads to another: With all the good will in the world, could the slaveholders, as a class, ever have countenanced the kind of reforms that were being urged upon them by their pastors and their own Christian consciences?

Let us begin by recalling the paradoxical juxtaposition of common beliefs in the Southern attitude toward the perpetuation of slavery: first, slavery, as practiced in the South, might not last forever; second, slavery was an immeasurably better, more Christian system than free labor; and third, the Southern slave system cried out for radical reform. Thornwell provided a jarring illustration of the paradox. As forcefully as any Southern divine, he excoriated the free-labor system and regarded its expected demise as a moral, political, and social imperative. Yet according to Benjamin Morgan Palmer, Thornwell was drafting a plan for gradual emancipation in an eleventh-hour effort to head off disunion. Then, too, in 1864, Mary Chesnut heard Palmer deliver a sermon in which he thanked God that slavery was doomed. Now, how could Thornwell and Palmer, honest and clear-thinking men, have simultaneously praised slavery as a superior labor system, damned the free-labor system as morally monstrous and politically insupportable, and looked kindly on the prospects for emancipation?

Some Southerners understood the biblical sanction of slavery as absolute and binding on all future generations until the millennium, but those who demurred did more than remind themselves that God could withdraw his sanction if he chose. They warned that he should be expected to do so if the Southern social system were not brought up to the highest biblical standards. For God had ordained slavery as a trust, not a sinecure, and those entrusted with it had to meet heavy responsibilities. The apparent contradiction disappears once we recognize that, for Southerners, emancipation did not imply freedom as others understood it. Southerners were by no means predicting, much less advocating, an emancipation that would throw into the marketplace blacks, whom they regarded as racially inferior, or, for that matter, the laboring classes of the white race, whom they regarded as also in need of paternalistic protection. The divines foresaw a stratified order based on the strict subordination of the laboring classes and the legally enforced personal responsibility of a master class toward those who labored for them. In effect, they foresaw a transition to a different form of bound labor, whether called slavery or not.

Many of the divines envisioned a paternalistic personal servitude in which white as well as black laborers could be assured of their "human rights" while they submitted to the control of individual superiors. But unlike Henry Hughes of Mississippi in his Treatise on Sociology (1854), no divine tried to envision a socioeconomic system that could encompass the recommended reforms. That some such system would have been acceptable either to Southerners or to Northerners may be doubted, and Thornwell's desperate hopes of avoiding secession and war may well have been sheer fantasy. Certainly, the problems were daunting. Thus, in 1858, James P. Holcombe cautiously suggested to the State Agricultural Society of Virginia that slavery could be maintained in a manner that held black families together, but he offered no specifics. Holcombe, like other educated Southerners, knew that the Spartan helots provided an illustration of communally owned slaves with family rights, but they also knew that a system of helotry was by no means a system of slavery as established in Athens, Rome, or the South. For that matter, they knew how brutally the Spartans treated their helots despite formal recognition of family rights.

The War brought the issue to a head. The Confederacy may have come into being as a bastion of constitutionalism, state rights, and traditional values, as its originators and many others since have claimed with considerable justification, but it also came into being as a slaveholding republic. Alexander H. Stephens could not have been clearer in his "Cornerstone Speech," and no Southerner of importance contradicted him. Yet, almost from the opening shot at Fort Sumter, the future of slavery in a victorious Confederacy became the subject of heated debate, for the calls to bring slavery up to biblical standards would have effected a social revolution.

In 1863, an anonymous writer in Southern Presbyterian Review, replying to James Lyon and the Presbyterian reformers, warmly endorsed most of their proposals but demurred on slave marriages. Legalization of slave marriages would grant the right of contract to slaves and thereby destroy the master's patriarchal control: "It would amount to a revolution in the status of the slave as great as a transfer of allegiance from one prince or state to another would effect in the condition of a free people." That step, he insisted, would open the door to recognition of the slave's right to enter into contracts to accumulate property and much else. Some of this writer's arguments were tortured, but their principal thrust struck home: The essential reforms would undermine the master-slave relationship in a social experiment that threatened the power of the master class.

The reformers replied to their critics by insisting that a milder system of labor bondage would provide the protection that McCord feared would be lost. They were doubtless sincere, but they never did explore the ramifications of proposals that would have led toward a new social system. From antiquity, as educated Southerners well knew, slavery flourished only as a system of commodity production—production for market—whereas serfdom did not, at least not normally or necessarily.

It is true that the emergence of large-scale serfdom in sixteenth-century Russia and the "second serfdom" in Eastern Europe poured foodstuffs into the cities of a rapidly developing capitalist western Europe, but the deepening economic backwardness of the East offered little encouragement to those invited to plunge into the proposed reformation of slavery. For one thing, educated slaveholders were taught medieval history in school and read a good deal of it thereafter. And in the late Middle Ages, just as a vassal could turn to the king's court to protect him against a lord, so a serf could run to town not merely to escape his master's clutches but to secure legal protection against him. The belief in the supremacy and sanctity of the law rested on hierarchical assumptions that made both superior and inferior subject to mutual obligations and gave inferiors the right to appeal violations to an authority higher than the lord. The great difficulty in the way of a transition to a system of unfree labor other than slavery was that virtually all its features threatened the economic or political security of the slaveholders in a transatlantic world that was rising on commodity production for a burgeoning world market.

Albert Barnes threw a favorite proslavery argument back in the Southerners' faces. Noting that the Southern divines insisted on defending the biblical sanction for slavery in general rather than the Southern slave laws in particular, Barnes argued, "It is not improper to regard slavery as it exists in the United States as a fair illustration of the tendency of the system. It exists here in the best age of the world, and in the land most distinguished for intelligence, and for wisdom in making and administering laws. The laws pertaining to the system here may be regarded as those that long experience has shown to be necessary." Barnes pressed his point: "It is hardly necessary to remark, what a modification it would make in slavery in this land, if it should become a settled principle that a slave could never be SOLD." The more moderately antislavery Reverend Rufus Clark of New Hampshire acknowledged the existence of many good and kind slaveholders but charged that the mass of slaveholders were doing nothing to mitigate the rigors of slavery. He concluded, "Were the Mosaic system to be applied to American slavery, it would be, by the operation of those laws, very soon abolished."

Acute Southerners, opposed to as well as in favor of slavery, had long been mulling over the problem. In the winter of 1839-40 the Reverend George F. Simmons became pastor of a church in Mobile, Alabama, after having made clear his antislavery views. In May he delivered two sermons on slavery. The congregation listened with "attention and respect" to the first sermon on the Christian duty of masters to their slaves. But the second sermon on the evils of slavery and the need for a program of gradual emancipation led to his having to flee Mobile. He claimed that the trouble came not from his congregation or from the majority of the people of Mobile but from a "cabal" that had failed to have him indicted and then threatened to invoke lynch law not only against him but against anyone who defended his right to speak.

Simmons believed that the majority of slaveholders, being inherently sinful like all men, should be expected to place their worldly interests first, so he aimed his appeal at the minority of the most pious, who could begin the work of reformation and spread its example. Simmons outlined the kind of reforms that would establish the Mosaic Law, which, while it tolerated slavery, contained no permission for the sale of slaves. Christians can only "own" slaves in the same sense that they may "own" their wives and children—that is, "they cannot be a part of our property; nor can they be treated as such." To reform slavery according to scriptural command, he concluded, would effect a fundamental transformation: "Thus will Christianity eat the heart of Slavery even while slavery continues."

Simmons's challenge reappeared, if implicitly, in the efforts to reform the slave codes promoted by Judge John Belton O'Neall, who led judicial reformers in championing fairness for slaves and free blacks and in opposing obstacles to manumission. O'Neall's bold course led to charges that he surreptitiously held antislavery views—an error still echoed in the work of some historians who admire his courageous defense of the rights of black people. O'Neall made clear that he intended to strengthen slavery by providing slaves with security and the hopes for manumission as a reward for exceptional services. He called for kindness as indispensable, noting, "Nothing will more assuredly defeat our institution of slavery than harsh legislation rigorously enforced." Astute legislators and others saw the implications of O'Neall's bold program of reform and argued that it would lead to the collapse of slavery.

O'Neall's critics were right. As both the more perspicacious abolitionists and proslavery diehards understood, the proposals to bring slavery up to biblical standards constituted, at least potentially, not so much a program for reform as a revolutionary program for the transformation of slavery into an alternative form of bond labor. White Southerners might have decided they could live with it since it did not necessarily threaten white supremacy and racial dictatorship, but some, notably the acute Louisa McCord, perceived clearly, while others perceived dimly, that any such transformation invited regional economic retrogression and the political decline of the dominant class. In the short run, the metamorphosis of the slaveholders into a new class of quasi-seigneurial landowners might not have undermined the power of those at the top, but it would have burdened them with a system ill suited to commodity production for a world market. It would have loosened their control of labor time, decreased the size of their marketable surplus, and, in general, undermined their ability to respond to market fluctuations. Later developments, coming in the wake of a crushing defeat in war, are no sure guide to the might-have-beens, but, along with the experience of postseigneurial Europe, they do suggest that no course of action could have prevented the emergence of precisely the bourgeois social order the slaveholders had long struggled to avoid.

A contradiction between intent and reality bedeviled Southerners who attempted to defend and yet transform slavery. Roman law established the concept of absolute property, which rationalized a commercial slave system based on commodity exchange. Roman law thereby provided an ideal starting point for the modern bourgeoisie as it fought loose from medieval notions of multiple claims to property. The Southern slaveholders necessarily had to claim the rights of absolute property for themselves, and they did so for the same reasons the Romans did. But Southerners simultaneously had to deny that they owned human beings outright and to claim only ownership of labor power and services.

Although George Fitzhugh and others proudly proclaimed their adherence to the idea of property in man, the proslavery divines and no few secular theorists adamantly denied that they held any such property. Their denial that they held property in persons hardly ranked among the strongest in the proslavery arsenal, and the abolitionists rent it simply by pointing out that, in practice, the degree of control of labor power the slaveholders claimed required power over the body of the worker. But the significance of this argument for the development of proslavery ideology, while virtually unnoticed by historians, should not be underestimated.

Among other things, the claim that slaveholders held property only in labor and services exposed the extent to which the proposals to reform slavery implied a neomedieval theory of property. Historically, free and unfree labor have been associated with different forms of property, and, in modern societies based on absolute individual property, free labor has invariably triumphed. Modern slavery arose on the crest that brought absolute property to the uncontested status required by capitalist expansion. Benefiting simultaneously from property in their laborers and the freedom of commodities, Southern slaveholders did their utmost to garb slavery in older traditions according to which different people held rights in the same property.

The slaveholders tried to square the circle by claiming both the Roman concept of property and the medieval, notwithstanding their fundamental incompatibility. There can be only one Christian position on property and wealth, Dabney wrote: "Our property is purely a trust fund, and the whole of it is to be used for the benefit of the owner." The owner, he made clear, is God, and the human being serves only as the Lord's steward: "The owner, as a just and benevolent man, will of course allow his steward a competent subsistence out of the estate; but the profits of the property are his, not his servant's." Dabney added, pointedly, "The servant must be duly fed and clothed, in order that he may be able to work for his master" and avoid being "a dull, over-worked hack." Augustus Baldwin Longstreet took a more radical view and wanted to restructure the state legislatures to allow for the veto of legislation by representatives of such corporate groups as agriculture, commerce, and manufacturing. Ultimately, the center would not hold, for the proposals to reform slavery exposed the harsh truth that the political and economic viability of the South or, more precisely of its dominant class, required the retention of property in man.

The ablest defenders of slavery did not commit the theological error that would have God dictate a particular social, economic, or political system. They did not argue that slaveholders were exemplary Christians, whereas the employers of free labor could never be. Rather, slavery's defenders argued that slavery, milder forms of bound labor, or any other system based on organic social relations created conditions favorable to Christian behavior and to the spread of Christianity among all classes, whereas the demands of the market compelled people to choose between their Christian ethics and their material interests. Proslavery theorists thus merged "humanity" and "sentiment" with "interest." Recognizing the inherent sinfulness of man—his tendency toward selfishness and destructive behavior—they concluded that a social system must encourage the wayward to treat their dependents according to the Golden Rule by providing material incentives.

That was the meaning of the constant boast that slavery merged capital and labor into a single interest. A slaveholder has a direct stake not only in keeping his slave alive but also in maintaining the good physical and moral condition that would enhance his productivity. The slaveholders read with respect socialists like Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen, and Proudhon, although, to their cost, they did not know Marx, and, like the socialists, they assumed that in a society driven by the market, capitalists simply could not provide the stewardship of labor to which Christian capitalists might aspire. Northern conservatives, especially among the Whigs, believed that strong government could render capitalism much more responsible and humane, but they did not make headway before the War. Not surprisingly, the slaveholders considered them dreamers.

Yet a number of the proslavery theorists became fascinated with Louis Napoleon's social program, interpreting it as a bold effort to subjugate and, simultaneously, to nourish the working class. In 1859, James Johnston Pettigrew, who knew western Europe firsthand, spoke well of Napoleon III as "really ambitious of advancing humanity," but Pettigrew warned that the "democratic element" that had helped raise Napoleon III to power "was calculated to cause as much apprehension as the enemy in front." Pettigrew concluded that Europe needed a "hand of iron." Southerners usually expressed disdain for this new despot who combined monarchy, demagogy, pseudodemocratism, bastardized socialism, and an iron fist, but they grudgingly acknowledged him as the man of order needed to contain the social question. Bishop Elliott, in accord with John Berrien Lindsley, hailed Napoleon III as a "great man" whose strong-arm tactics kept "the discordant elements in the population in subjection." Others, while denouncing him as a tyrant, recognized him as the long-predicted military dictator who would restore social order to a deranged Europe, much as his great ancestor had done after the French Revolution. And besides, the proslavery theorists could hardly help chuckling when they saw a callous and arrogant bourgeoisie finally get what it deserved.

The proslavery theorists did not have time to ponder the implications of a resurgent Bonapartism, and they fell from power before Bismarck instituted his social program in Germany. We shall never know how they would have evaluated the prospects for a welfare-oriented capitalism that enhanced the possibilities for a reformation under Christian guidance along the lines proposed in Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum. We should not be too hard on proponents of Southern slavery for their failure of imagination. Notwithstanding the immense transformations of our own day, who is prepared to be sanguine about capitalism's ability to avoid the commodification of every feature of life and to promote a culture in which Christian principles can flourish?

As a matter of high probability, the new order envisioned by the reformers would not easily have been able to resist the penetration of Northern capital and, with it, the political colonization of the South. An independent Confederacy, bent on maintaining political and military power in an environment of nation-states embedded in a world market, could hardly have avoided the path of rapid industrialization and full-fledged capitalist development. Those who believe that a Southern Confederacy would have had to emancipate its slaves before long are probably right, but the kind of emancipation that Confederates were most likely to consider, in contradistinction to that which would have created a genuinely free labor system, promised to turn the South into a second-rate power. One way or the other, the slaveholders, however metamorphosed into a new class, faced a decline in their class power and an end to their dreams of an alternative road to modernity. At best, they faced the prospect of thriving economically as individuals who served as clients of Northern capital and who were subject to their cultural hegemony. We need not be surprised that they resisted the social restructuring toward which their Christian consciences beckoned them.

The failure of the slave system to reform itself—or rather, to transform itself into a more humane system of personal servitude—opened the floodgates to the absorption of the South into the mainstream of transatlantic capitalism. For the churches, that meant absorption into the mainstream of theological and ecclesiastical liberalism, although they waged a protracted, rhetorically fierce rear-guard action that long disguised the content and depth of their retreat. The defenders of slavery had regarded orthodoxy as compatible with modern science and social theory but as a bastion against the anarchic doctrines of the radical Enlightenment and the French Revolution. That is, orthodoxy had been regarded as the foundation of a comprehensive philosophy and world-view that could master the modern world while resisting its theological and political heresies. And for the Southern divines, the prevalence of a comprehensive world-view required a Christian social system, which implied some form of servitude for the laboring classes. Let us thank God for slavery's demise. But however badly the proposed solution to the great social question of their—and our—day, they offered a profound analysis of the relation between the social order and the prospects for upholding sound Christian doctrine.

Eugene D. Genovese is the president of the Historical Society. This essay is excerpted from his book A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South, published this month by the University of Georgia Press. Copyright 1998 by the University of Georgia Press. Used with permission.

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