When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession by Charles Adams
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
When in the Course of Human Events – Charles Adams
Every now and then I’ll pick up a pro-Confederate book and sample the argument one more time.
As a northerner by birth now living in the South, I try to understand the strong sentiment that the South was right and that it will (or should) rise again.
Charles Adams’ take is an extremely one-sided picture of the war. He jumps right in, asserting in the preface that abolitionists were terrorists. This is like calling pro-lifers terrorists. Some extremists shoot abortion doctors, but most reject such violence while advocating for a legal end to abortion. You can’t blame the radical abolitionists for the South’s refusal to free the slaves. Our author actually attempts to assert this. He holds the North’s oppression of the South after the war responsible for the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. These kinds of wild claims made it hard for me to take the book seriously and finish it.
A key thesis that I acknowledge is that there were economic factors at work, dividing the North and the South, apart from slavery. Adams wants to make that the only motive for secession, while many today believe slavery was the only motive for the war. Neither are right.
Slavery was doomed in the 1860s he says and would go away inevitably.
If so isn’t the South still to blame for resisting the pressure in the North to emancipate? They would rather secede than give in to the inevitable emancipation, making it seem much less inevitable. Lincoln’s “extreme position” only went as far as to not let slavery expand, and this was all it took for the South to secede.
Adams asserts that the issue of slavery was a pretext to unify Southerners to fight. Slavery wasn’t in jeopardy, so it wasn’t the reason to secede, he argues. But slavery WAS in jeopardy in territories headed for future statehood. He doesn’t mention this at all. Southerners viewed the abolition of slavery in territories becoming states as the forerunner to abolition in their states.
Adams tries to make parallels in chapter one to secessions from empires throughout history.
The difference is that few of these voluntarily joined as one nation originally; they were annexed forcibly to start with. These United States of America were not a conglomeration of disparate nations, but arose from a unified English culture, more or less.
Adams relies heavily on English opinion of the war, which favored the South. He colors them as unbiased outside observers, but their opinion had economic reasons. Britain was an economic competitor with the North and traded more with the South. It is a mark of Adams’ extreme bias, to the point of dishonesty, that he argues so strongly the North’s economic motive to keep the union, while muting England’s economic motive FOR secession, in siding with the South in their papers. To Adams, the South’s cause was noble; the North’s was malicious.
Why was secession so intolerable for the North? Why not just let the states go? Adams poses this as a rhetorical question, but there is a real answer. Secession produced a double evil: the division of a nation and the continuance of slavery. Political union makes us responsible for each other.
How could it threaten liberty to let the South secede? the author asks. Wouldn’t it advance liberty to give the states the self-determination they should rightly have? Well, to let the South secede would show that America could not bring about liberty for its citizens, the slaves.
Now, I know the North wasn’t pure as the driven snow, either. There was plenty of racism there, too. Adams makes a good case that there was little support for emancipation in the North.
Adams may be right that there was no huge political will in North or South for freedom and equal rights for blacks/slaves. So what was Lincoln to do? This fuller picture is indeed missing from the standard version of the history.
Was it an injustice to free the slaves without some provision of education or training for them?
Yes. But it would have been a greater injustice to leave them in slavery in a new nation, the Confederate States of America.
The lesson to learn from the war is not, as Adams contends, to let the South secede – to let political liberty trump social evils. It is to have the right reasons for any law or war, imposing government will on a people. His charges against how Lincoln conducted the war legally were new to me. If true (don’t know if I can trust Adams’ historical verity), this is a lesson to learn and not repeat.
In the end, both sides can look back and say, this should have gone differently. But they continue blaming each other. North to South: you should have freed your slaves willingly. South to North: this book. You shouldn’t have forced us to stay for your own economic reasons.
Here is a review from Amazon that summarizes the book and my perspective quite nicely.
“In case anyone doubted Garry Wills' argument in A Necessary Evil that the peculiar myths and distortions surrounding the nature, formation, and meaning of the U.S. regularly stir movements committed to myth rather than reality, Adams, a historian of taxation, delivers a polemic that proves it. The Civil War, Adams argues, was not about slavery or the Union; it was about tariffs! The Southern states had a right to secede. Slavery would have ended at some point, but Lincoln did not particularly threaten it. It was, Adams maintains, the "dueling tariffs" of the Union and the Confederacy that caused the war. Within his states' rights argument, Adams maintains secession's legality should have been determined by the courts, and slaveholders should have been compensated for the property they lost through emancipation. Adams relies heavily on the European press; he asserts, but does not prove, that U.S. abolitionists were a fanatical lunatic fringe. The author clearly anticipates controversy; it should not be long in coming.” Mary Carroll
Marilynne Robinson, Givenness of Things. Pgs. 96-97
“I know causes of the Civil War are widely disputed, but I have been reading the speeches and papers of leaders of the Confederacy, and for them the point at issue was slavery. Slavery plain and simple. They drew up a constitution very like the national Constitution, except in its explicit protections of slavery. Their defense of their sacred institutitons means the defense of slavery. Their definition of state’s rights means their insistence on their right to bring this ‘species of property’ into states that did not acknowledge it, and to make these states enforce their claims on such ‘property’ without reference to their traditions, to their own laws, or to their right to protect their own citizens.”
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