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64th Annual Meeting

South Carolina's Pivotal Decision for Disunion: Popular Mandate or Manipulated Verdict?

Keynote Address by William W. Freehling

13 May 2000

Let me explain why I have eagerly anticipated the opportunity to speak to you today.

The South Caroliniana Library was more my alma mater than Harvard College or the University of California, Berkeley, graduate school. Here I learned my two biggest lessons in how to be an historian. True, I'd learned lots of abstract lessons about theories of history at those Yankee schools-you know how we Yankees love theories. But no abstruse lesson proved much of a guide through the complex avalanche of letters, diaries, and pamphlets I found at this very southern (meaning richly specific) place. There was nothing to do in that Fall of 1961 but dive into the complexities, soak in the specifics, read until I could read no more. After months of the hardest study I had ever experienced, specific people started emerging, specific incidents, specific houses, specific lordly titans, specific lowly slaves.

At this juncture, I heard my first South Caroliniana annual lecture, given by one of the leading historians of that era, Avery Craven, a Southerner who taught at the University of Chicago. Perhaps some of you also heard that memorable lecture. Professor Craven dwelled on what he called friends he had met at the South Caroliniana, meaning long-dead characters who came alive as you read their letters on their wonderfully thick nineteenth-century paper. His favorite friend, he said, was Thomas Bennett, South Carolina's governor in 1822, the time of Denmark Vesey's slave conspiracy in Charles-ton. Governor Bennett destroyed his political career by trying to halt a white men's witch hunt which for a moment threatened to hang hundreds of innocent blacks, including his own slaves.

Dr. William Freehling talks with Library Director Allen Stokes at the reception.

For more about the 64th Annual Meeting, see
Caroliniana Columns, Autumn 2000 edition.

Dr. Freehling and Dr. Stokes - 29114 Bytes

The previous month, I had made a friend of the ultrabrave Thomas Bennett too. Out of such friendships, I was slowly learning, one might write a much more richly complicated history than my simplistic Yankee theory envisioned. Denmark Vesey, the greatest slave conspirator in nineteenth-century South Carolina history, did not just produce that simplicity, a monolithic wave of terror and reprisals from outraged, fearful South Carolina whites. Vesey's threatened revolution against whites also produced a courageous governor, standing up against a frightful counter-revolution. Thomas Bennett defined the first mission I had learned at the South Caroliniana: find the complexity beyond the theory, and do justice to all the diverse protagonists.

Southern compatriots here helped me learn how to move past the northern simplicities. I think of my contemporaries, also on the learning trail, each in their own way now grown into giants akin to Avery Craven, at their respective South Carolina institutions: Selden Smith, Charles Joyner, Dan Carter. I think of their remarkable professors and mine too, including William Foran, who never wrote much but taught gorgeously about his favorite friends, the folk he called "pragmatists in wonderland." He meant Carolina's upcountry leaders of the 1850s, especially James L. Orr, who tried to make anti-pragmatic, anti-Yankee Carolinians more like pragmatic Yankees. These Yankee-like Carolina pragmatists did not altogether carry their anti-Yankee wonderland, but they too added to the complexity, conditioned my Yankee abstractions about South Carolina's differences from the North. How fine that their tale, William Foran's tale, continues to be emphasized here by your brilliant Professor Lacy Ford.

Professor Foran's colleagues back in the 1960s included Dan Hollis, who had published a decade earlier his superb study of this university in Thomas Cooper's era, and Bob Ochs, who gave me, a stranger, my first job, teaching fine students from Fort Jackson in night school. And I think of the archivists who helped so much, Clara Mae Jacobs and Les Inabinett here and the incomparable Charles Lee over at the Archives.

Let me say a word more about Les Inabinett, beyond the words we are all thinking today, the words of prayer for swift recovery from his late surgery. Les had a terrible problem for an archivist. As director of the South Caroliniana, he was custodian of a sensational document, the James Henry Hammond secret diary. The Hammond family, the diary's donors, wanted to keep the diary secret, lest their ancestor's dirty linen be washed in public. But Les knew that the Hammond secret diary had value far beyond its sexual sensationalism, for understanding South Carolina's political culture. So when serious scholars, including Yankee strangers, asked to see the priceless source of information, he felt compelled to find a way to whisper "yes," despite the Hammond family's shouts of "no way!"

Les' way was to allow me to see the document but to take no notes on it, and to promise to publish no information on its sexual revelations. The document became for me a critical source of strictly political revelations, and I have often silently thanked Les for finding the middle way. Then later on, as the family's sensitivity lessened, Les equally skillfully presided over a change in the rules for reading the secret diary, ending with Carol Bleser's fine publication of the marvelous document. The secret diary is secret no more! How times have changed in forty years, and how well Les served as custodian of pro-gress.

With Les Inabinett at the center of the professors and students growing wiser at the South Caroliniana during the early 1960s, what a golden time that was to learn how to learn. Now you have invited this slow learner to stand for at least a few minutes where Avery Craven once stood. Nothing could mean more to me.

Those reminiscences aside, I want to talk to you today about what one can learn about historical complexities, and what one can't learn, at libraries such as this place. One can learn all kinds of astonishing facts about hitherto unknown historical complexities. But one can't learn whether the complexities yielded a different result-whether history would have come out the same way if the complexities had never existed and if the past had been as simple as one once imagined. But that formulation is too theoretical, too Yankee. Let's get down to southern specifics.

Next February, the Oxford University Press will publish my new book, entitled The South vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War. During thousands of hours at libraries such as this one, I uncovered the story of hundreds of thousands of Southerners, black and white, who opposed the Confederacy or cared not whether it lived or died. Four hundred fifty thousand anti-Confederate Southerners, black and white, fought in the Union armed forces, meaning that one Southerner wore Yankee blue for every two that wore rebel gray. Thus a Southerner replaced every Northerner killed in the Union army, with enough southern anti-Confederate soldiers left over to outnumber Robert E. Lee's main army. These anti-Confederate Southerners included some seven hundred thousand blacks who ran away from their masters and supplied one hundred fifty thousand troops to the Union army. Meanwhile, white anti-Confederates kept the Border South states of Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, West Virginia, and Delaware in the Union. Thus almost one slaveholding state rejected disunion for every two that embraced it. The states that rejected the Confederacy contained over half the slave states' factories. They handed the Union a third of southern terrain, at the cost of but a few Yankee lives.

What an enormously more interesting Civil War thus emerges than the simplistic notion of "the North" versus "the South." The richly complex reality becomes more like half the Southerners against the Northerners plus the other half of the Southerners. My guess is that the Union would not have won the Civil War without this southern help. Abraham Lincoln guessed that way too. What a story it is of these Southerners who were not quite southern enough, and how their complexity does deepen the otherwise too simple Civil War tale.

But I must guess about the importance of what I found, for here is the problem that no library can solve: did southern anti-Confederates' exploits really change the Civil War outcome, really produce a Union victory unattainable without their help? The North, after all, was stronger than the South, maybe so much stronger that if all Southerners had massed behind the Confederacy, the Union still would have won. That history did not happen. Because a war between all the Southerners and all the Northerners did not happen, no library has any documents on it and the historian can only guess about the tale. Yet the history that did not happen has everything to do with whether my new southern friends really brought the North a victory unattainable without southern aid.

We have here the second lesson I first learned at the South Caroliniana about the limits of historical theorizing. It's not just that the richness of the letters and diaries yields a complexity that spills beyond a simple theory like "the Northerners versus the Southerners." It is also that the surviving historical materials run dry before one can be arrogantly certain that even a complex guess has it right.

At the heart of this guessing is the difference between my laboratory, such as the South Caroliniana, and the laboratory of a chemist. Like a chemist, I can find out all the elements in a reality, including an element hitherto unsuspected. But a chemist can then separate out the newly found element and see if the compound changes its nature. Such work is of course crucial in discovering, say, what particular enzyme causes Alzheimer's disease.

The South Caroliniana Library does not give me the power to separate out one element that I have found. No way can I remove the southern anti-Confederates from the Civil War amalgam, then see whether the North would have won. That's why I am reduced in the end to an informed guess. That's why history is art as well as science. That's why the arrogant historical theorist, absolutely sure she or he knows why a historical outcome happened, is a misguided creature.

Let me take another example of an intriguing, unsuspected complexity that perhaps didn't matter in an historical outcome, a purely South Carolina example, an example that is at the heart of the book that I am now finishing, the saga of the final steps on the southern Road to Disunion. As I do not have to tell anyone in this audience, South Carolina was a really special place in 1860, for a moment arguably the most special place on earth, which is one reason why the South Caroliniana Library is one of our nation's most important repositories. The simplistic myth is that President-elect Abraham Lincoln intended to abolish slavery and the South up and revolted, with South Carolina unanimously leading the way on December 20, 1860. The complex truth is that Abraham Lincoln was a debatable threat to slavery and most Southerners knew it.

To take one example among many of why Lincoln was a highly uncertain menace to slavery, in his Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861, the new President threw his support behind an unamendable constitutional amendment, forever barring the federal government from abolishing slavery. Congress had already passed the amendment, as had several northern states. The evidence is overwhelming that if the seceded states had come back into the Union, the Lincoln-endorsed amendment would have become part of the U.S. Constitution. I have often wondered how slavery could ever have been abolished, with that amendment on the books and the federal government forever barred from touching the institution. In 1860, many Southerners wondered too. And wondering about whether a highly dangerous revolution is necessary does dampen the revolutionary spirit.

Particularly for this reason, most Southerners did not want to secede unless and until the ambiguous Mr. Lincoln proved to be an immediate menace to slavery (which is one reason why there were many anti-Confederate Southerners during the war). But disunion was not dependent on what most Southerners wished. According to most Southerners' (and many Northerners') version of American political and constitutional theory, the people of each state could decide for themselves whether to withdraw their consent to be governed. Most of the population in any one state could start a disunion ball rolling, even if most of the population in the other fourteen slaveholding states wanted that ball to stand still. However much they disagreed on whether disunion should occur, Southerners agreed that if any one state could begin the process of withdrawing consent to the federal Union, that state would have to be South Carolina.

There was good reason for that perception. South Carolinians had been in the vanguard of attempts to nullify federal laws or discard the federal Union ever since the Nullification Controversy of 1832, the subject of the book I wrote in the early 1960s in the South Caroliniana Library. There was far more loathing of Lincoln and Yankees and Union in the South Carolina of 1860 than anywhere else. In that sense, the South Carolina revolution of 1860 seems a spontaneous rebellion, a deeply grass roots simplicity, a profound inevitability.

Because I once believed in that myth of the unanimous, simple South Carolina, I was at first surprised, then increasingly intrigued by discovering, in this library and others, a nervous uncertainty, among the South Carolina leaders of disunion, about whether they could bring off secession. Their uncertainty stemmed first of all from their towering constitutional obstacle: it took a two-thirds majority of Carolinians to carry disunion. The forbidding size of that majority had stopped the nullifiers in 1830 and the disunionists in 1850-52.

Secessionists' uncertainty stemmed also from their constituents' fear of going it alone, of charging out of the Union without any other state following. That had happened to John C. Calhoun's South Carolina in 1832; and the experience of being left out to hang by the rest of the South had been a profound trauma. And South Carolina's uncertainty about disunion also fed on all the other apprehensions, so controlling outside South Carolina: that Lincoln might not be an immediate menace to slavery, that a civil war with the Yankees might not be won, that it might be hard to control slaves during a war-in short that secession would bring on chaos and abolition faster than any other strategy.

At the heart of the matter was the irony that defined your ancestors: no Americans were such devoted revolutionaries-or so anxious to stop their social order from being revolutionized. The revolution of 1860 was profoundly a reactionary revolution, aimed at preserving the southern status quo from Yankee do-gooders who supposedly wanted to rip up everything gloriously Carolina. Yet an unsuccessful revolution could itself rip up the South Carolina social and political structure. No wonder your forebears went forward with a tremble in their step-and a secret suspicion that their nerve would falter before they dared the final inch.

Out of such nervous misgivings among Carolina's disunionists came three strategies to manipulate the verdict, to secure the two-thirds majority of South Carolinians that secessionists feared they might not be able to rally by relying purely on popular enthusiasm for disunion. It's been great fun to uncover these strategies, this complexity in the supposedly simplistic Carolina of 1860.

The leading complicators were the conspirators of 1860. Webster defines a conspiracy as a secret plot to break up the standing order, and there was demonstrably such a conspiracy in 1860. It took the form of South Carolina leaders privately writing to leaders in other Deep South states, secretly trying to arrange a plan for revolution. The letters from South Carolina asked two questions: Can secessionists in any state beyond South Carolina bring off secession, if we in South Carolina do not first secede? And if we do first secede, will other Deep South states follow us? The answers from other Deep South states came back resoundingly. No, we can't bring off secession here first. Yes, we will follow, if South Carolina secedes first. This time, you will not stand alone. Act! Then we will act.

These letters had the effect of quieting qualms, of shoring up Carolinians' nerve. But still South Carolina's leaders of secession did not wish to risk a full-scale debate in their state over the merits of disunion. So in two ways, they shut off debate.

First of all, they silenced U.S. Senator James Henry Hammond. Hammond is about as close to an anti-friend as I have in South Carolina, a male chauvinist full of sexual indiscretions. The secret diary shows all that. But Hammond demonstrates that even the most repulsive of men can have their admirable side-more historical complexity. In 1860 Senator Hammond wrote a brilliant long public letter on the folly of disunion and sent it to his friend A.P. Aldrich, a key South Carolina legislator, to have it printed in the Charleston newspapers. So superb a Unionist dissertation from so important a Carolinian could have started a real South Carolina debate over whether Lincoln's alleged menace to slavery justified secession-the same debate transpiring in every other state, with the Unionists winning the argument.

Aldrich suppressed Hammond's letter. He acted in the spirit of his classic quote about the manipulations of 1860-"Whoever waited for the common people when a great move was to be made. We must make the move and force them to follow."

In their final tactic to force doubters to follow, Carolina secessionists deployed the local militia, whenever doubts were expressed. Armed men paraded the streets. With their tongues as well as their guns, they shamed as well as frightened Unionists into silence. Unionism, militia-men said, was disloyal to slavery, disloyal to Carolina, disloyal to the ideals of 1776. And the Unionists did fall silent.

The Conspiracy of 1860, the silencing of James Hammond, the atmosphere of shame on, sometimes violence against, all who disagreed-with these tactics South Carolina blazed out of the Union seemingly unanimously, with none of the oft-times paralyzing debate elsewhere.

By seceding on December 20, 1860, South Carolina changed the issue elsewhere. The issue no longer was whether Lincoln's menace to black slavery justified secession. The issue was whether other Southerners could allow the federal government to coerce white men in a seceding state. On that issue, secession did blaze forward beyond South Carolina, throughout the Deep South before Lincoln could be inaugurated. Then, after the guns fired at Fort Sumter and Lincoln called up seventy-five thousand volunteers, four more states seceded, in outrage that federal troops would kill southern white men who no longer consented to federal rule.

All of this historical complexity, bye the bye, mocks the historical simplicities of both sides in your late flag debate. If I were a South Carolinian, I'd want the flag taken off the capital dome, indeed taken off the capital grounds, for current-day reasons. But I do not think the historical record justifies only my present-day position. My fellow opponents of the flag say that the secessionists were all about protecting slavery from Lincoln's menace. Clearly, these contemporary Carolinians are partly right about the Confederates. Equally clearly, Lincoln's alleged menace to black slavery did not alone carry the day. As proponents of the flag urge, some Confederates clearly fought against federal coercion of whites. Whether the flag should come down or stay up, historical reality sustains both sides. Which only makes my point again: historical reality is too complex for one simple abstraction to cover all the ground.

But would there ever have been a Confederacy, much less a Confederate flag, without the South Carolina manipulators of 1860? I'm not going to have any trouble convincing any of you that all the pre-secession manipulation in South Carolina happened, any more than I will have trouble convincing you that four hundred fifty thousand Southerners fought in the Union armed forces. The conspiratorial letters of 1860, the gagging of Hammond, the frightening minutemen-these are facts, documented in your library and others; and all who support the South Caroliniana Library make the discovery of such fact possible.

But the facts do not answer the $64,000 question about the importance of the facts. To repeat my former question, if there had been no anti-Confederate Southerners, would the Union have won anyway? And now for the parallel question: if the Aldriches had not deployed their manipulations, would South Carolina have seceded anyway? Perhaps your ancestors in South Carolina were so hot for revolution that they would have won that difficult two-thirds majority, despite their nervous qualms, even without the reassuring conspiracy of 1860, without the silencing of James Henry Hammond, without the militia in the streets. A.P. Aldrich guessed that without the manipulations, secessionists might have lost. So do I. But then again, I can only guess. After all, nothing in the South Caroliniana-in any library-tells the tale of a revolution of 1860 without the manipulators.

Some of you may disagree with my two big guesses in this talk. Some of you may guess that even without the southern anti-Confederates, the North would still have won the Civil War. Some of you may guess that even without the South Carolina manipulators of 1860, South Carolina would still have seceded. But I hope you will agree with me that the discovery of such historical complexities as Thomas Bennett and Bill Foran's "pragmatists in wonderland" and the anti-Confederate Southerners and the manipulative secessionists mocks historical simplicities and makes the past ever so much more interesting. And I hope you will agree with me about the two big lessons that I first learned at this strange alma mater for a Yankee. First of all, before one settles for simple theories about human life, one must drive one's knowledge as far as it can go. Secondly, one must realize that human knowledge can only go so far, that at the limits there is only the educated guess-and the lack of arrogance about the guessing. Great pride in the learning, great humility in the face of the unknowable-those aren't bad prescriptions for being an historian-indeed for living a human life. How can I thank you enough for supporting the institution that makes these lessons possible? And how can I thank you enough for being such a kind audience, as I today gloried in my chance to play Avery Craven for a few much-anticipated moments?


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