Slavery’s Amnesia

In our local paper recently a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans wrote an Op-Ed holding that slavery was not the cause of our Civil War. While acknowledging that it was a factor, he attributed the war to sectional, economic, and political factors. This is a claim often echoed around this region and can be conveyed by some history books.

Some years ago, I took a carriage ride around old Charleston, South Carolina, and heard the same claim from our garrulous guide. I knew that it didn’t sound right, but I couldn’t google the matter on my phone (yes it was back then!), so I just remained congenially quiet but somewhat guilt-afflicted. I later looked into the matter and found a document that led me years later to write a response to this Op-Ed. Here is what I said.

[In response to claims that slavery did not cause the Civil War] I think it is helpful to read the “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union” issued by the Convention of South Carolina in December 24, 1860. After arguing that the national government created by the Constitution was no longer serving its original aims, as stated in its Preamble, the Convention stated that originally:

“The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.

“We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of Slavery; they have permitted the open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.”

The Convention statement, which is easily accessible via internet search, spends the rest of its argument precisely on the defense of slavery. All other reasons for secession flow from it. While there are many factors that contributed to this horrendous conflict, the defense of slavery was at its core, as the South Carolinians plainly stated.

The wounds of this war, like the near genocide of the native peoples in this land, still constitute the greatest challenge to our healing and progress as a people. The search for a full truth about our past, as your writer argued, is essential to that reconciliation. I hope reading the actual documents of secession will be a part of it.

I received numerous personal thanks for actually looking up an historic document to deal with our present consciousness. In a time of hasty accusations, flim flam, lies, and obfuscations, the patient work of the archivist, historian, scientist and researcher needs a prestige and encouragement that can reorient our lives around stubborn truth and insistent memory.

Like St. Paul’s dreaded curse of the Law, the Real history and nature in which we live can condemn us to depression, anxiety, and denial, or it can open us up to a conversation, even an argument, in which we might be able to build a better future. It’s still a possibility.

If you do read the whole Declaration, I hope it can provide a moment of contemplation about our own present blindness. Take a look. It might be emancipating.

2 thoughts on “Slavery’s Amnesia”

  1. I’m reading John Meachem’s Soul of America. It’s amazing to me how the effects of commitment to and the Lost Cause deeply penetrate America decade by decade to this day. Your research is a bitter reminder of just how far we truly have to go to overcome our racial divisions.

  2. We all could use some emancipating. Thanks again, Bill, for your words of wisdom that help keep us grounded. Hugs.

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