American history

The Confederate States of America And Racial Ideology




“Slaves Waiting for Sale” – Women and children slaves wait to be sold in Richmond, Virginia in the 19th century (painting by Eyre Crowe via Wikimedia Commons)

On November 13, 1860, the Legislature of South Carolina under Governor William Henry Gist called a convention, which on December 20 passed by a unanimous vote an ordinance stating that “the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of the ‘United States of America’, is hereby dissolved”. Other Southern States, namely Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, soon followed suit (see J. G. Randall / David Donald: The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1961, pp. 133-136).

On February 4, 1861, delegates from the seceded Southern States met at Montgomery, Alabama, where they declared the founding of the Confederate States of America and promulgated a Constitution. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi and Alexander Stephens of Georgia were elected President and Vice President respectively.

In his Address on the Confederate Constitution of March 21, 1861, Stephens explained in clear terms the reason why the South had chosen to sever its political ties with the Union:

The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions – African slavery as it exists among us – the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution …

[Our new Government’s] foundations are laid, its 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 moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth (quoted in: Hugh Tulloch: The Routledge Companion to the American Civil War Era, 2006, p. 93, my emphasis).

The Southern States had seceded because the government of newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln had not accepted the extension of slavery legislation to the rest of the Union. The Confederacy was thus the first state in history to be founded on the principle of racial inequality. In this respect, it was a precursor of other “racial” state-building experiments, the most radical of which was Nazi Germany.

In this article we shall briefly examine the concept of racial supremacy in the United States and how it evolved in colonial society.

The Construction of Racial Hierarchies

The Southern secessionists regarded the category of race as self-evident. Yet the term “race” (which itself entered the English language in the early 16th century via French from Italian) did not initially define a genetic difference between groups of humans that placed them into a specific hierarchical relation to one another.

As Eric D. Weitz pointed out, the concepts of race and nation “represent modern ways of understanding and organizing human difference.” Although people have always been aware of differences in physical appearance among various ethnic groups, they did not regard such differences as natural barriers setting communities apart from one another, nor as self-evident political categories (see Eric D. Weitz: A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation, 2003, pp. 17-18).

In antiquity, race was not perceived as a fundamental element of state-building. Ancient empires were mostly multi-ethnic. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of racial segregation among different ethnicities, or of racial hatred, in the ancient world.

When Alexander the Great conquered vast areas of North Africa, the Middle East and Asia, he pursued a policy of intermarriage in order to consolidate the unity of his empire. Arrian of Nicomedia, a Greek historian of the Roman period, wrote in his work The Anabasis of Alexander:

[Alexander] ordered that the names of all the other Macedonians who had married any of the Asiatic women should be registered. They were over 10,000 in number; and to these Alexander made presents on account of their weddings (Arrian: The Anabasis of Alexander, Book VII, Chapter IV). 

Later, however, Macedonian soldiers rebelled against Alexander. Some modern historians have attributed the troops’ revolt to “racism” (see e.g. Lance B. Kurke: The Wisdom of Alexander the Great, p. 66). Yet ancient authors ascribed the dissatisfaction of the Macedonians to culture, not to “race”. Arrian explained that Alexander’s adoption of Eastern customs

offended the Macedonians, who thought that Alexander was becoming altogether Asiatic in his ideas, and was holding the Macedonians themselves as well as their customs in a position of contempt (Arrian: The Anabasis of Alexander, Book VII, Chapter VI).

What incensed the Macedonians was not that the “purity” of their blood was compromised; such a concept was not formulated in ancient texts. What Alexander’s soldiers complained about was the fact that his “ideas” were being influenced by foreign cultures, and they feared that Alexander would replace Macedonians in the army and administration with people from the conquered Asian kingdoms.

The Roman Empire, too, was a multiracial and multicultural empire. Roman citizenship was not related to race. It was not a means of creating a “hard boundary” between ethnic Romans and aliens, but a way of establishing a system of privileges and hierarchies (see Greg Woolf: Rome: An Empire’s Story, 2012, p. 220; and Michael Peachin: The Oxford Handbook of Social Relations in the Roman World, ed. Michael Peachin, 2011, p. 12).

Paul the Apostle, who lived in the first century AD, was a Jew, but according to the New Testament, he was also a Roman citizen, as the following excerpt shows:

22 The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!”

23 As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, 24 the commander ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. He directed that he be flogged and interrogated in order to find out why the people were shouting at him like this. 25 As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?”

26 When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “This man is a Roman citizen.”

27 The commander went to Paul and asked, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?”

“Yes, I am,” he answered.

28 Then the commander said, “I had to pay a lot of money for my citizenship.”

“But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied.

29 Those who were about to interrogate him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.

Acts 22:29

It is clear that the Roman state did not take exception in a man who had “Jewish blood” being born a Roman citizen. Paul enjoyed the same rights and privileges as all Roman citizens, regardless of his “race”. Furthermore, the Romans also “sold” citizenship, as the remark of the commander demonstrates. Therefore, “blood” was not regarded as a precondition for enjoying the rights and privileges of Roman citizens.

The emergence of Christianity and, later, of Islam, did not alter the multi-ethnic nature of the pre-modern world. On the contrary. The two largest monotheistic religions placed emphasis on the fact that all men were children of God, regardless of their ethnicity (Weitz 2003, p. 19). The list of Church Fathers comprises individuals from various parts of the late-Roman world. Cyprian and Augustine, for example, were from North Africa.

When the English arrived in North America they did not view the world in terms of race, either. In 1607 the colonists founded Jamestown, which was the first permanent English settlement overseas. As they were outnumbered by and relied for food supplies on Native Americans, the English needed to establish peaceful relations with their neighbours. To a certain degree, English, Native Americans and blacks intermingled in this period (David Brown / Clive Webb: Race in the American South: From Slavery to Civil Rights, 2007, p. 12).

The most famous example of “interracial” marriage in early colonial America is that between John Rolfe and Pocahontas.

John Rolfe was a plantation owner who perfected a variety of tobacco suitable for the climate of Virginia. However, tobacco cultivation required land – and land was in the hands of the Native Americans. Rolfe was one of many colonists who wanted to obtain more land from the Indian tribes. The struggle over natural resources increased tensions between the Natives and English settlers.

In 1614 John Rolfe married Pocahontas, daughter of Powhatan, the paramount chief of an alliance of Indian tribes in the Tidewater region of Virginia. This marriage can be understood in traditional terms as an alliance between two rival peoples to secure peace, not unlike what Alexander had done during his eastward expedition. It is clear that the blood association between an Englishman and a native was not frowned upon at the time (Brown / Webb 2007, p. 16).

When in 1616 John Rolfe and Pocahontas visited England, Captain John Smith, whose life Pocahontas had saved years earlier, wrote a letter to Queen Anne. In it Smith praised the character of the Indian princess, as well as the Native Americans’ generosity in helping English colonists:

That about ten years ago, being in Virginia, and taken prisoner by the power of Powhatan, their chief king, I received from this great savage exceeding great courtesy, especially from his son, Nantaquaus; the manliest, comeliest, boldest spirit I ever saw in a savage; and his sister Pocahontas, the king’s most dear and well-beloved daughter … 

After some six weeks fatting amongst those savage courtiers, at the minute of my execution, she hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine, and not only that, but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown, where I found about eight and thirty miserable, poor and sick creatures, to keep possession for all those large territories of Virginia. Such was the weakness of this poor commonwealth, as had not the savages fed us, we directly had starved …

[R]ejecting her barbarous condition, she was married to an English gentleman, with whom at this present she is in England. The first Christian ever of that nation; the first Virginian ever spake English, or had a child in marriage by an Englishman a matter surely, if my meaning be truly considered and well understood, worthy a prince’s information (Letter by Captain John Smith to Queen Anne, quoted in: Frank E. Grizzard, Jr. / D. Boyd Smith: Jamestown Colony: A Political, Social, and Cultural History, 2007, pp. 333-334). 

This letter is interesting for several reasons. First, it shows that the distinction between “savage” and “civilized” people was cultural, not racial. Second, it acknowledges that the English owed their survival to the help of Indians. Third, and perhaps most importantly, it demonstrates that, in the worldview of the English of the time, an Indian could simply “reject” his or her “barbarous condition” by adopting Christianity and English mores. The fact that John Smith saw it as appropriate to send such a letter to the Queen, proves that he was not expecting the authorities to react negatively to intermarriage between an Englishman and a Native American.

The English did not have a sense of racial superiority with regard to the Native Americans, but they believed their civilization to be superior. This superiority was technological, military and religious, not racial. The contrast between “civilized” and “savage” peoples was articulated in terms of culture rather than blood (Brown / Webb 2007, pp. 14-15).

Slavery And Racial Ideology

In the summer of 1619, English pirates attacked a Portuguese ship that was transporting 350 slaves from Luanda, the capital of Portuguese Angola, to Vera Cruz in Mexico. Half of the salves were taken on board the English ship Treasurer, while the rest was seized by the Dutch vessel Trier. The latter was perhaps heading towards the Caribbean colonies, but for unknown reasons it stopped in Virginia. This is the first recorded arrival of African slaves in the English settlement (ibid., p. 17).

At first the number of black people living in the colony remained small. According to a Virginia census, merely twenty-three black persons lived there in 1625. It was only until the second half of the 17th century that slave-trafficking started to intensify.

Between 1635 and 1669, around 1,200 black salves were brought into Virginia. Between 1669 and 1694, the number rose to around 2,500; between 1699 and 1708 it reached 6,600; and between 1708 and 1740, it had increased to 43,000 (Grizzard, Jr.  / Smith 2007, p. 198).

Initially, the legal status of slaves was unclear, and it was not unusual for black and white people to work alongside as indentured labourers (servants with bondage contracts who regained their freedom after a specified amount of time). There are indeed instances of black people who were able to gain their freedom after working in Virginia for several years. The most notable example is that of Anthony Johnson, a native of Angola who arrived in Virginia in 1621. He earnt his freedom and was able to buy land and become a wealthy tobacco farmer (ibid., p. 199).

The transformation of indentured labour into slavery, and of class inferiority to racial inferiority, happened over time, as the number of blacks increased. The black population occupied the bottom of the social hierarchy. Gradually this position of inferiority was codified by law and became not just a way of life in itself, but also an ideology.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth century, a unique historical development took place in North America. For the first time in history, the condition of slavery began to be “linked to people of only one skin color” (Weitz, 2003, p. 22).

In the American colonies a society was born in which the English and other Europeans enjoyed privileges by virtue of their origin; the Native Americans held a middle ranking in the colonial hierarchy; the blacks were increasingly confined to a position of perpetual inferiority, from which they could not escape (ibid., p. 23).

According to Eric Weitz, the concept of race was developed by Europeans in the context of colonial society, as they tried to “place people in fixed categories.” Colonial legislation began to define and regulate privileges on the basis of race, to create barriers which made the mixing of Europeans, Indians and blacks more and more difficult.

In 1691 Virginia banned marriages between white colonists, blacks, Indians and mulattoes. Other colonies followed suit. The European colonists began to assert their superiority and position in society by creating a system which we may call an “aristocracy of blood.”

Social hierarchies and power relations thus became associated with skin colour. In this way, the superiority and the rights of the colonists could not be challenged. The British were the masters on grounds of their blood and appearance. Racial hierarchies were consolidated by a series of laws that deprived the blacks of the most basic rights. The slaves had to surrender every bit of freedom, their bodies and their children fully belonged to their masters.

The violence which white masters inflicted on their slaves, visible in their brandings, amputations and scars, reinforced the dehumanization of black slaves. But it was in the surrender of their sexuality that the blacks experienced the deepest humiliation. Colonists could rape female slaves and castrate disobedient male slaves (Weitz 2003, pp. 24, 41).

John Andrew Jackson described in his book The Experience of a Slave in South Carolina the violence and debasement that black slaves had to endure:

[My master] was originally a Quaker in North Carolina, United States, but he came to South Carolina and married a lady who had a few slaves.

He afterwards became very rich, and owned two plantations, where he hired different overseers to whip his niggers, and he himself whipped them too. He used to work them till nine o’clock at night …

[A pastor], as he was riding along the road by the cotton fields where the slaves were working, saw a female slave named Matilda, who pleased him, and he told her to meet him at such a place. She did so; and when he had accomplished his vile purpose, he gave her a dollar, which turned out to be a bad one. He often preached at St. Luke’s Church on Lynch’s Creek. If the pastors do such things, what will the masters and their sons do?

[My master] could not bear any one of the negroes to finish his task before sunset; if any did, he would set them such a heavy task next day, that it would be impossible for him to finish it, and then he would give him fifty lashes, which sometimes would cause him to fly to the woods; and when he returned, he would receive one hundred lashes, and fifty blows with the paddle …

My mistress’s expressed opinion was this, “Never to give the niggers any meat; for where she was brought up a dry peck of corn and a pint of salt was all that was allowed to niggers per week.” My master, her husband, did as she said, so that we were often on the verge of starvation. Nevertheless, she had a favourite dog, which she called “Old Rip,” of the mastiff breed, which she continually fed with meat that we would have given anything to possess.

She would tie the female slaves, who did the domestic work, to trees or bedposts, whichever was handiest, and whip them severely with a dogwood or hickory switch, for the slightest offence, and often for nothing at all apparently, but merely for the purpose of keeping up her practice. She would also make her daughters whip them, and thus she brought up her children in the way they should not go, and in consequence, when they were old they did not depart from it.

(John Andrew Jackson, ed., The Experience of a Slave in South Carolina, 2011, pp. 19-20, 25)

Though slaves since ancient times had endured hardship and violence, no ancient society had ever drawn such a sharp distinction between master and slave, based on the colour of one’s skin. In colonial America, inferiority became a genetic trait, which could never be altered. The British settlers constructed a homogeneous black race out of many African ethnicities, and they also invented a European “master race”.

The Southern States that in 1861 formed the Confederacy sought to perfect the system of racial aristocracy, in which class hierarchies were defined not by individual talent, but by appearance, and by the assumption that one’s skin colour made a group of people naturally superior to another.

As Bep Schrieke wrote in 1936, the American South had grown

into the most complete aristocracy the United States has ever had [where] few thousand great slave-owners scattered about the black belt from Richmond, Virginia, to Austin, Texas, received the bulk of the net returns from cotton, rice, and sugar plantations, and controlled every local legislature (B. Schrieke: Alien Americans: A Study of Race Relations, 1936, pp. 104-105).

Yet although the Civil War destroyed the South’s slave society, the idea of “white supremacy”, as Schrieke called it, lived on:

The existing social order was shattered like the material culture. The whole complex of southern institutions had depended on the subordination of the Negro. With slavery destroyed, the labour system which had been the basis of the southern community was destroyed with it.

Under those chaotic conditions, the planters, who were without funds, without credit, and without dependable labour, moved into the towns. Here they found other whites, ruined and defiant like themselves; in the common distress they were in need of each other’s sympathy.

Here they could recall the days of yore and the exploits during the war, curse the Yankees who had disturbed a harmonious situation, discuss their overwhelming problems, build up a common defence attitude against the Negro, resolve to resist further federal interference, and brood on the restoration of white supremacy (ibid., p. 106).

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