Saturday, July 29, 2006

Commentary: Were We the Good Guys?

Some months past, while walking eagerly towards the Gettysburg Battlefield Visitor’s Center, I noticed a mother with her young daughter approaching me in the opposite direction. The little one, walking with a child's carefree light step, turned to her mother and asked innocently, "Mommy, were we the good guys or the bad guys." Clasping her hand, the smiling Mom announced proudly to her daughter, "We were the good guys." Although an unfortunately common sentiment, I have struggled to accept its complete accuracy for some time. Reconciling the notion that one group of people possessed an overall higher degree of morality remains a difficult task. Few would debate the despicable evil of slavery. Yet I could not easily accept the contention that, in a country with a similar heritage, history, and people, the entire collection of persons in one section had emerged so morally different from all of those in the other.

Long before the bloodiest war in US history turned against the Confederacy, the seceding states eagerly identified the institution of slavery as the primary justification for seeking to form their own country. Although many after the war touted the banner of states rights, the Southern states own initial brazened pronouncements declared otherwise. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina opted for the long threatened secession, severing her ties with the Union to which she had belonged since 1788. In the coming months, ten other Southern states would follow in her rebellious footsteps. Upon her separation from the United States, South Carolina’s delegates spoke of the initial negotiations when first entering the Union over 70 years earlier. " The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: "No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due." This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made."

A few weeks after, Mississippi followed her Southern sister’s lead stating emphatically, "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world." Days later, Georgia added her voice as she also left the old Union for the new. Georgian representatives would throw a few more logs on the secessionist bonfire, accusing the new Republican Party of treachery. "The prohibition of slavery in the Territories, hostility to it everywhere, the equality of the black and white races, disregard of all constitutional guarantees in its favor, were boldly proclaimed by its leaders and applauded by its followers."

Despite initially arguing for maintaining the now fragile Union, in his famous Cornerstone speech, Confederate Vice-President Andrew Stephens offered, "The new (Confederate) constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution -- African slavery as it exists amongst us -- the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution…its (our new government) cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition…"

These statements seem damning enough. Yet, more must exist of this issue than the obvious failings of some on one side of this conflict.

In "The Negro’s Civil War", James McPherson notes that in the early 1860s, there existed those who specifically sought disunion and separation from the slave states. A country divided would absolve the Federal Government and private citizens from their legal obligation to assist in the recapture of runaway slaves. The North would become safe ground, eliminating the necessity of extending the journey for freedom to the region north of the United States’ upper border. Slaves successfully crossing onto free soil could then safely settle in the northern states.

Others apparently did not gaze fondly upon the idea of the North as a safe haven for former slaves. In the 1850s, some Northern states established Personal Liberty Laws in response to the Fugitive Slave Act to impede the re-capture and return of runaways to slavery. Others however passed legislation now known collectively as "Black Laws" which hindered or eliminated blacks' ability to move into their states. Although established prior to the 1850s, Ohio’s version of the Black Law stated ominously, "Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Ohio, that from and after the first day of June next, no black or mulatto person shall be permitted to settle or reside in this state, unless he or she shall first produce a fair certificate from some court within the United States, of his or her actual freedom." In the early 1850s, Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana barred immigration of black persons into their states. Indiana’s Constitution, adopted in 1851, declared explicitly, "No negro or mulatto shall come into or settle in the State, after the adoption of this Constitution." The Illinois Historic Preservation Association notes that in 1853, their state deemed illegal the act of bringing "…a free Negro into the state."

In 1860, when South Carolina began the cascade of states seceding from the Union, some feared the beginning of a black exodus to the safe grounds of the North. Several states made known their displeasure with that possibility. In January of 1861, Pennsylvania said, "…That the people of Pennsylvania, entertain and desire to cherish the most fraternal sentiments for their brethren of other States, and are ready now, as they have ever been, to co-operate in all measures needful for their welfare, security and happiness, under the Constitution which makes us one people. That while they cannot surrender their love of liberty inherited from the founders of their State, sealed with the blood of the Revolution, and witnessed in the history of their legislation, and while they claim the observance of all their rights under the Constitution, they nevertheless maintain now, as they have ever done, the Constitutional rights of the people of the slaveholding States, to the uninterrupted enjoyment of their own domestic institutions."

Ohio added in their resolution, "…That the people of Ohio are inflexibly opposed to intermeddling with the internal affairs and domestic relations of the other States of the Union; in the same manner and to the same extent as they are opposed to any interference by the people of other States with their domestic concerns.". They continued, "…That it is incumbent upon any States having enactments on their statute books, conflicting with or rendering less efficient the Constitution or laws of the United States, to repeal them…". This seems a likely reference to the Personal Liberty Laws intended to counteract the Fugitive Slave Act.

New Jersey would declare, "…be it resolved, that the resolutions and propositions submitted to the Senate of the United States by the Hon. John J. Crittenden of Ky., for the compromise of the questions in dispute between the people of the Northern and of the Southern States, or any other constitutional method that will permanently settle the question of slavery, will be acceptable to the people of the State of New Jersey, and the Senators and Representatives in Congress from New Jersey be requested and earnestly alleged to support those resolutions and propositions. The first article of the Crittenden Compromise stated, "Slavery would be prohibited in all territory of the United States "now held, or hereafter acquired," north of latitude 36 degrees 30 minutes. In territory south of this line, slavery was "hereby recognized" and could not be interfered with by Congress. Further, property in slaves was to be "protected by all the departments of the territorial government during its continuance." States would be admitted to the Union from any territory with or without slavery as their constitutions provided."

New Jersey would also reference repealing the Personal Liberty Laws. "…And be it resolved, That such of the States as have in force laws which interfere with the constitutional rights of citizens of the other States, either in regard to their persons or property, or which militate against, the just construction of that part of the constitution that provides that "the citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States," are earnestly urged and requested, for the sake of peace and the Union, to repeal all such laws."

In an address to the Confederate Congress, President Davis spoke of part of the process by which the North had earlier abolished slavery. "The climate and soil of the Northern States soon proved unpropitious to the continuance of slave labor, whilst the converse was the case at the South. Under the unrestricted free intercourse between the two sections, the Northern States consulted their own interests by selling their slaves to the South and prohibiting slavery within their limits." So while some strove to free their states of slavery, the slaves did not necessarily find themselves free. A percentage of former Northern Masters sold their now outlawed slaves into continued bondage in the Southern States.

Several states protested the Emancipation Proclamation which may have contributed to a northern migration. Individuals did likewise. Horatio Seymour, Governor of New York, famously stated that he would do all he could to preserve the Union but blasted the Emancipation Proclamation. Others encouraged colonization, the emigration of black persons to lands outside of the United States, as a fair solution to the "Negro Question" of what to do with freed slaves. The Library of Congress summarized, "During the 1850s, the (American Colonization) society also received several thousand dollars from the New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Maryland legislatures." Clearly, although many in the Northern States desired to see their individual regions free from the stain of slavery, some wished that the new birth of freedom would occur elsewhere.

Countless Northerners fought with unparalleled bravely to advance the cause of peace and save the Union that we now call home. Others worked tirelessly towards the noble end of complete and total abolition of the institution of slavery. Yet because of the above, for a little while longer, I will continue to struggle with blanket questions asking, "Who were the good guys?"



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Causes of the Civil War
South Carolina Historical Documents Northern Black Laws
Tulane University: The Crittenden Compromise
Indiana Historical Bureau: Indiana Constitution of 1851
Illinois Historic Preservation Agency: African American Timeline
Library of Congress: An African-American Mosaic


JUDI FONS said...


Randy said...

Thank you Judi. I am glad that you find this enjoyable. It's always nice to know someone finds worthwhile what I very much enjoy doing.


GettysBLOG said...

At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phrase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention, and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hopes for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it – all sought to avert it. While the inaugeral [sic] address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war – seeking to dissole [sic] the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather that let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. . The Almighty has his own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! For it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the Providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to him? Fondly do we hope -- fervently do we pray -- that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. . Yet if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, "the judgements of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether”.

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan --to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.