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April 2, 2011 2:23 PM   Subscribe

How Slavery Really Ended in America On May 23, 1861, little more than a month into the Civil War, three young black men rowed across the James River in Virginia and claimed asylum in a Union-held citadel.... [T]the laws of the United States were clear: all fugitives must be returned to their masters. The founding fathers enshrined this in the Constitution; Congress reinforced it in 1850 with the Fugitive Slave Act; and it was still the law of the land — including, as far as the federal government was concerned, within the so-called Confederate states. The war had done nothing to change it. Most important, noninterference with slavery was the very cornerstone of the Union’s war policy. President Abraham Lincoln had begun his inaugural address by making this clear, pointedly and repeatedly. “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists,” the president said. “I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”

Yet to Fort Monroe’s new commander, the fugitives who turned up at his own front gate seemed like a novel case. The enemy had been deploying them to construct a battery aimed directly at his fort — and no doubt would put them straight back to work if recaptured, with time off only for a sound beating....Whatever Butler’s decision on the three fugitives’ fate, he would have to reach it quickly. He had barely picked up his pen to finally begin that report before an adjutant interrupted with another message: a rebel officer, under flag of truce, had approached the causeway of Fort Monroe. The Virginians wanted their slaves back.

Waiting before the front gate was a man on horseback: Maj. John Baytop Cary of the 115th. With his silver gray whiskers and haughtily tilted chin, he appeared every inch the Southern cavalier.

Butler, also on horseback, went out to meet him. The men rode, side by side, off federal property and into rebel Virginia. They must have seemed an odd pair: the dumpy Yankee, unaccustomed to the saddle, slouching along like a sack of potatoes; the trim, upright Virginian, in perfect control of himself and his mount.

Cary got down to business. “I am informed,” he said, “that three Negroes belonging to Colonel Mallory have escaped within your lines. I am Colonel Mallory’s agent and have charge of his property. What do you mean to do with those Negroes?”

“I intend to hold them,” Butler said.

“Do you mean, then, to set aside your constitutional obligation to return them?”

Even the dour Butler must have found it hard to suppress a smile. This was, of course, a question he had expected. And he had prepared what he thought was a fairly clever answer.

“I mean to take Virginia at her word,” he said. “I am under no constitutional obligations to a foreign country, which Virginia now claims to be.”

“But you say we cannot secede,” Cary retorted, “and so you cannot consistently detain the Negroes.”

“But you say you have seceded,” Butler said, “so you cannot consistently claim them. I shall hold these Negroes as contraband of war, since they are engaged in the construction of your battery and are claimed as your property.”

Ever the diligent litigator, Butler had been reading up on his military law. In time of war, he knew, a commander had a right to seize any enemy property that was being used for hostile purposes. The three fugitive slaves, before their escape, were helping build a Confederate gun emplacement. Very well, then — if the Southerners insisted on treating blacks as property, this Yankee lawyer would treat them as property, too. Legally speaking, he had as much justification to confiscate Baker, Mallory and Townsend as to intercept a shipment of muskets or swords.


This action was met with approval in an editorial soon after in the Harper's Weekly. However, it would still be some time until the Emancipation Proclamation. Neverthelss, General Butler's decision may well have helped steer Lincoln in that direction.

[It is with some hesitation that I post a NYT article so soon after they implement their paywall. Hopefully, it being the beginning of the month, most folks who are not paying have not exhausted their monthly limit. Some of this information can be found in this article on the Contrabands and the article in the Times is excerpted from "1861: The Civil War Awakening" by Adam Goodhear.]
posted by caddis (95 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite

 
It is with some hesitation that I post a NYT article so soon after they implement their paywall.

I believe that, in theory, those who have exhausted their monthly limit should still be able to access the article perfectly legally and legitimately through a google search like this one, though I don't really know the ins and outs of the Times paywall.

posted by dersins at 2:36 PM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Nevertheless, General Butler's decision may well have helped steer Lincoln in that direction."

is a long way from

"How Slavery Really Ended in America"

I hate sensationalist reporting. It's a cool story, and should stand on its own merit.
posted by Eideteker at 2:49 PM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]



"How Slavery Really Ended in America"

I hate sensationalist reporting. It's a cool story, and should stand on its own merit.


No, it seems about right: the Union government perpetuated slavery in hope of preventing secession. When secession happened anyway and it looked like emancipating the slaves would speed up Union victory, Lincoln passed the emancipation proclamation. Incidents like this one on the front lines were evidence that the slaves were important to the Southern war effort, and should therefore be encouraged to flee, and thus may have helped Lincoln reach his decision of 1863.
posted by ocschwar at 2:53 PM on April 2, 2011 [6 favorites]


It is odd to contemplate leaders cleverly arguing the finer points of logic and the law, all the while oblivious to the injustice of owning another human being as a slave.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 3:06 PM on April 2, 2011 [18 favorites]


The historical question has always been *why* Lincoln thought it crucial to achieve an end to the Civil War by military victory. It was clear at this point that this victory was going to be extremely costly. At the same time, it is also clear that the end of slavery was never a absolute goal of Lincoln's. I mean, this incident illustrates this clearly: why would the confederate officer even attempt to parlay for the return of the slaves if the war was seen at this point as being about slavery?

It's never been an encouraging sign for the U.S. as a consitutional republic that the only way it has been able to achieve comprehensive reform has been either violence, i.e. the Civil War, or cataclysm: the Great Depression and WWII. Speaking as someone with no sympathy for the south or it's traditions, I think it's clear that for Lincoln, fighting the Civil War was about what the U.S. was to become, not preserving what it was. Secession proved that the first American republic was fatally flawed.
posted by ennui.bz at 3:13 PM on April 2, 2011 [5 favorites]


excellent nyt online civil war blog
posted by robbyrobs at 3:16 PM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's never been an encouraging sign for the U.S. as a consitutional republic that the only way it has been able to achieve comprehensive reform has been either violence, i.e. the Civil War, or cataclysm: the Great Depression and WWII.

That's not entirely true... there was the Progressive Era, not to mention women's suffrage and the civil rights movement.
posted by Frankieist at 3:16 PM on April 2, 2011 [7 favorites]


It is odd to contemplate leaders cleverly arguing the finer points of logic and the law, all the while oblivious to the injustice of owning another human being as a slave.

History shows us, however, that justice is much more frequently served by arguing the finer points of logic and the law than by the alternative.
posted by Skeptic at 3:26 PM on April 2, 2011 [7 favorites]


"silver gray whiskers and haughtily tilted chin"? Is he kidding? Even Butler himself, who is the source of the dialogue, didn't go quite that purple. (As Cary was apparantly only 42, the silver gray whiskers are, absent a footnote, also suspect. Call me picky, but history is largely the pursuit of accuracy and this kind of thing is both tendentious and veering to novelicious.)

It is odd to contemplate leaders cleverly arguing the finer points of logic and the law, all the while oblivious to the injustice of owning another human being as a slave.


Assume not that they were oblivious - it simply was not the matter under discussion. Though I'm pretty sure Butler would have been happy to discuss that at another time.

As to it's oddity, really, not so very odd. You can find parallels in modern day. Generally having to do with international political or military actions a party will or will not take on foreign soil, bombings where there is surely to be collateral damage, some might suggest the abortion issue - things of that sort.
posted by IndigoJones at 3:31 PM on April 2, 2011 [9 favorites]


That's not entirely true... there was the Progressive Era, not to mention women's suffrage and the civil rights movement.

I think without the New Deal the Progessive Era would have been seen as entirely a failure. I mean, it wasn't until FDR that we stopped being crucified on a cross of gold. You'll notice that racial and sexual equality and the gold standard/monetarism/making-sure-the-money-supply-never-inflates are front and center with the modern 'conservative' movement: the goal to roll back FDR's third republic.
posted by ennui.bz at 3:35 PM on April 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


In 1862, Lincoln sent a letter to Horace Greely, publisher of the New York Tribune, explaining his goals in the war:
As to the policy I "seem to be pursuing" as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was." If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.
It's also noteworthy that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all slaves. Slaves in states which had not seceded were not freed.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:36 PM on April 2, 2011 [13 favorites]


It is odd to contemplate leaders cleverly arguing the finer points of logic and the law, all the while oblivious to the injustice of owning another human being as a slave.

Nothing like smarmy judgment of people who lived in a different time.

Get this: There's no such thing as justice, no such thing as right and wrong. There's only what we like and what we don't. We call what we like "good" and what we don't "bad." Why do we like some things and not others? Because of what other people like and don't -- and these things change like the wind. What's "bad" today will be "good" next century and then they'll invert again the next.
posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 3:38 PM on April 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


why would the confederate officer even attempt to parlay for the return of the slaves if the war was seen at this point as being about slavery?

Because doing so is nearly costless and slaves were quite valuable, making even a very small chance of success worth pursuing.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:40 PM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Get this: There's no such thing as justice, no such thing as right and wrong.

oh great, here come the nihilists.

Because doing so is nearly costless and slaves were quite valuable, making even a very small chance of success worth pursuing.

no, come on, the whole point of the article is that the confederate officer thought the union commander would feel compelled, lest he imply that the war was about freeing the slaves, to give the slaves back.
posted by ennui.bz at 3:48 PM on April 2, 2011


This is where I get into a lot of friction with people: everyone thinks the war was about slavery, when, in fact, the war was started because of states vs federal rights. It only later became focused on slavery because Lincoln decided that was the way to get people behind him on a unpopular war.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 3:48 PM on April 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.

I know that excerpt shows that Lincoln wasn't fighting the war because he cared particularly about black people, but because he thought it was necessary in order to preserve the Union as he saw it. However, this final "personal" sentiment, "that all men everywhere could be free", shows that he viewed slaves as human beings in a common struggle for freedom. And in that, he demonstrated that he did indeed care for justice.

Every time this subject comes up, people go to great pains to make sure everyone knows the North wasn't pure in its motives and Lincoln wasn't a negro-lover. Certainly, before, during, and definitely after the war, black people faced oppression whether North or South, because the United States of America was founded on violent exploitation and conquest. Its entire economy depends on it even now.
posted by Danila at 3:48 PM on April 2, 2011 [4 favorites]


Because doing so is nearly costless and slaves were quite valuable, making even a very small chance of success worth pursuing.

And also, to make sure the other slaves saw that escaping across enemy lines was no escape at all. If 3 get away and get away good, that close to the front, guess how many more would get away next?

If you don't break people's hope, then they start figuring out how to break chains.
posted by yeloson at 3:52 PM on April 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


oh great, here come the nihilists.

So you're saying there's a universal moral code?
posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 3:56 PM on April 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


everyone thinks the war was about slavery, when, in fact, the war was started because of states vs federal rights.

Finally got around to finishing Team of Rivals by Goodwin and it seems to be an apt capture of the way in which Lincoln evolved over time in his thoughts on slavery. I know it got a lot of YOU.MUST.READ.THIS.BOOK when it was released, but I heartily recommend it.

That said, what states rights were deemed sufficiently serious, so much so as to justify secession from the Union when his election seemed obvious?

Ah, right. The right to own slaves.

posted by joe lisboa at 3:57 PM on April 2, 2011 [10 favorites]


DO NOT FORCE YOUR FEDERALIST TYRANNY OF HTML ON ME, YANKEE!
posted by joe lisboa at 3:57 PM on April 2, 2011 [5 favorites]


He six foot one way, two foot tudder,
An' he weigh tree hundred pound;
His coat so big, he couldn't pay de tailor,
An' it don't go half way round.
He drill so much dey call him Cap'n
An' he get so drefful tanned,
I spec he try and fool dem Yankees
For to t'ink he's contraband!

"Jubilo" by Henry Clay Work
posted by Faze at 4:01 PM on April 2, 2011



>>Get this: There's no such thing as justice, no such thing as right and wrong.

>oh great, here come the nihilists.


What's the atomic weight of justice? Is it positively or negatively charged? How long is one ounce of justice? Its volume? Can I get trashed if I drink it mixed with OJ? How does it appear similarly on an MRI for any two random humans selected from anywhere on Earth in any time period? What's the universal test for it that works here next week, Mongolia a thousand years ago and in the outer Pleiades in AD 802,701? Does it come in teal?
posted by codswallop at 4:09 PM on April 2, 2011 [17 favorites]


Flagged as fantastic.
posted by dunkadunc at 4:12 PM on April 2, 2011


What's the atomic weight of justice love? Is it positively or negatively charged? How long is one ounce of justice love? Its volume? Can I get trashed if I drink it mixed with OJ? How does it appear similarly on an MRI for any two random humans selected from anywhere on Earth in any time period? What's the universal test for it that works here next week, Mongolia a thousand years ago and in the outer Pleiades in AD 802,701? Does it come in teal?

...

Values do not fail to exist just because we brought them into existence, yo.
posted by joe lisboa at 4:13 PM on April 2, 2011 [14 favorites]


no, come on, the whole point of the article is that the confederate officer thought the union commander would feel compelled, lest he imply that the war was about freeing the slaves, to give the slaves back.

There's no evidence of that at all. All that we know is that the Confederate agent, of unknown legal training and expertise, thought that that would be the most fruitful tactic to employ.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:19 PM on April 2, 2011


Major reforms usually do take major explosions of What Is in order to instigate a Change to What Needs to Be

I had thought that it was a commonplace that Lincoln had always placed keeping the union intact as the central issue of the war and that slavery was peripheral, a later thought, in this instance another weapon to be used against the Confederacy. He did dislike slavery.
posted by Postroad at 4:20 PM on April 2, 2011


Get this: There's no such thing as justice, no such thing as right and wrong. There's only what we like and what we don't. We call what we like "good" and what we don't "bad."

Some people think that is true. Some others disagree. It's part of a hot debate--running in some form for millennia now--and so bald assertions that one view is correct aren't going to move the ball much in one direction or the other.
posted by Marty Marx at 4:20 PM on April 2, 2011 [10 favorites]


The second link should go here, but linking back to this article discussing slavery works to make the point, too.
posted by Marty Marx at 4:24 PM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


What's the atomic weight of justice?

It doesn't have an atomic weight because it's an activity, not an object. What's the weight of running? What's the weight of baking a cake? What's the weight of coming up with an idea?

People ACT JUSTLY with one another (or not), and such acts are -- at least in theory -- measurable, or, rather, like all acts, they produce measurable effects, for instance neural changes in the recipients of the justice (or injustice).

I'm sure there are other meanings of the word, meanings that are more mystical or whatever, but things like fairness, equality, equity, revenge, etc. are basic human drives. It's useful to have words to talk about them.
posted by grumblebee at 4:26 PM on April 2, 2011 [6 favorites]


> What's the atomic weight of love?

It doesn't have one either. It's made up, we give it our own definition and we enjoy it or not accordingly.

Just because I feel and enjoy it every day doesn't mean it's part of universal and objective reality.
posted by codswallop at 4:26 PM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


What the opening vignette of the article should remind us--and the author!--is that the slaves freed themselves. Focusing on Butler's legalisms, or Lincoln's evolving views, or what some other white person thought and did misses the main point. By 1863 thousands and thousands of slaves had deserted their plantations and crossed into Union territory and declared themselves free. They created a massive "fact on the ground" and with their collective action left Lincoln with no choice and forced his hand.
posted by LarryC at 4:30 PM on April 2, 2011 [21 favorites]


What's the atomic weight of justice?

Probably about the same as the atomic weight of the number 2, or of the law of conservation of energy, or of the world record for memorizing pi to the most digits.

I think you are confusing "real" with "tangible." Maybe only tangible things are real--we don't usually talk that way, but maybe we're wrong--but again, it isn't obviously true.
posted by Marty Marx at 4:34 PM on April 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


What's the atomic weight of justice? Is it positively or negatively charged? How long is one ounce of justice?

oh great, here come the materialists.

I had thought that it was a commonplace that Lincoln had always placed keeping the union intact as the central issue of the war and that slavery was peripheral, a later thought, in this instance another weapon to be used against the Confederacy. He did dislike slavery.

but the problem with that viewpoint is that it would have cost far less to negotiate a settlement than to fight it to a conclusion. I don't think the war would have started if the south hadn't to some extent subscribed to that view. if you leave slavery aside, taking lincoln at his word, then it would have cost far less and preserved more of the union to have negotiated a peace, even after hostilities began. the civil war remade the US and I think Lincoln saw that as necessary.
posted by ennui.bz at 4:35 PM on April 2, 2011


Get this: There's no such thing as justice, no such thing as right and wrong. There's only what we like and what we don't. We call what we like "good" and what we don't "bad."

I seriously doubt that's true, and I'm an atheist who believes that the universe is "random," or, more precisely, that it's not sentient and that it doesn't care about people. I believe what we call "right" and "wrong" are 100% mental constructs -- "just" in people's heads. (But I put "just" in quotes for a reason.)

Given that, I still think it's a gross misunderstanding to say that right and wrong are the same as good (as in pizza) and bad (as in "The Davinci Code"). They are, I believe, related but not identical.

Can you honestly say that, to you, "I hate broccoli" and "I hate murder" feel remotely similar? Saying the two feelings are the same is like saying that falling-in-love and being-bored are the same because, after all, they are both brain states.

I can't prove this, but I'd be willing to bet a lot of money that via some sort of future brain scanning, we'll discover that one's sense of justice (or ethics) comes from a different process from one's sense of "the best flavor of ice cream."

There's a sort of person who is SO eager to reject magical thinking that he acts as if anything you can't touch isn't real. But if you're a materialist, you should recognize that the brain, and its processes is every bit as real as a car or an elephant. Ethical feelings are human universals. They exist in every culture and as-far-as we know, they always have. And in every culture, people make distinctions between "I hate the color yellow" and "Stealing is wrong."
posted by grumblebee at 4:36 PM on April 2, 2011 [8 favorites]


Just because I feel and enjoy it every day doesn't mean it's part of universal and objective reality.

Does this mean that feelings stem from some supernatural cause?
posted by grumblebee at 4:37 PM on April 2, 2011


"If Slavery is to be abolished, it must be abolished there. But its abolition would be attended at present with insurmountable difficulties. If the South should be willing to take measures to abolish it, I do not see how they are to act. It is a wise rule, when your course of action is beset with insurmountable difficulties, to remain quiet till a way shall be opened... The only true course to be pursued is to leave them alone for the present. Let the South and the North, respectively, manage their own concerns and take care of themselves, as they did formerly before this excitement took place."

-Letter From George Wood, Esq. Published: January 12, 1860.



posted by clavdivs at 4:39 PM on April 2, 2011


Secession proved that the first American republic was fatally flawed.

ennui.bz, thank you for that beautiful quote.


This is where I get into a lot of friction with people: everyone thinks the war was about slavery, when, in fact, the war was started because of states vs federal rights. It only later became focused on slavery because Lincoln decided that was the way to get people behind him on a unpopular war.


Old'n'Busted, if by "later" you mean:
1st sentence in the Ordinance of Secession of Georgia,
4th paragraph in the Ordinance of Secession of Alabama,
2nd paragraph in the Ordinance of Secession of Virginia,
3rd paragraph in the Ordinance of Secession of Texas,
2nd paragraph in the Ordinance of Secession of Mississippi,
and the 1st paragraph in the Ordinance of Secession of South Carolina,

all of which were issued prior to the beginning of the Civil War itself...

... then, yes, it occurred "later".

(And, if by "Lincoln decided" you mean to imply that he had godlike mind-control powers over the lackeys he directed from afar to write those documents...)
posted by IAmBroom at 4:46 PM on April 2, 2011 [31 favorites]


Regarding the article, I find it gets better as it goes along; the beginning is too full of purple prose (including the needlessly harsh verdict on Butler's physique).

Regarding the Civil War and "States' Rights": As many people, including a few in this thread, have pointed out, the "right" that the Confederates wanted was the right to hold slaves.

I admit that at first, Lincoln did not fight to end slavery, but to preserve the union. However, why did the South secede? Because they were afraid that Lincoln would try to end slavery. Just read the Declarations of Causes issued by four of the Confederate states to explain why they were seceding.

Mississippi's is particularly telling: Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

See also South Carolina: the non-slaveholding States... have assume[d] 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 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.
posted by dhens at 4:47 PM on April 2, 2011 [7 favorites]


everyone thinks the war was about slavery, when, in fact, the war was started because of states vs federal rights.

Everyone thinks the war was about slavery because the war was about slavery.

Read some of the declarations of secession. Mississippi's, in particular, says right at the top "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world." Georgia's, right at the top, said "For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic. "

Wars are started over economics more than abstract political concepts. The right that the states in question wanted to exercise was the right to maintain the institution of slavery.
posted by adamrice at 4:48 PM on April 2, 2011 [6 favorites]


Ethical feelings are human universals. They exist in every culture and as-far-as we know, they always have. And in every culture, people make distinctions between "I hate the color yellow" and "Stealing is wrong."

When most people in a culture are in agreement about "good" and "bad", the subjective underpinnings get lost and the result is "right" and "wrong." Happens everywhere, probably has a biological basis, still doesn't make it objective.
posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 4:48 PM on April 2, 2011


Beaten to the punch!
posted by dhens at 4:48 PM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


...everyone thinks the war was about slavery, when, in fact, the war was started because of states vs federal rights.

Yeah, the states' right to secede. Why did they secede?

Georgia: "The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery."

Mississippi: "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world."

Texas: "She [Texas] was received as a commonwealth [The United States] holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery--the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits--a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time."

On preview: Beaten to the punch!
posted by marxchivist at 4:50 PM on April 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


When most people in a culture are in agreement about "good" and "bad", the subjective underpinnings get lost and the result is "right" and "wrong." Happens everywhere, probably has a biological basis, still doesn't make it objective.

What does "objective" mean?

If it "probably has a biological basis," then, like everything else, it is a creation of cause-and-effect. It's as objective as "leaves are green because..."
posted by grumblebee at 4:52 PM on April 2, 2011


What the opening vignette of the article should remind us--and the author!--is that the slaves freed themselves.

While this is true, before this a main avenue for freedom was the underground railroad. It was by no means the only way but one that involved clandenstine operations to subvert the laws that made free states obligated to return "property". Horrid thing. My grandmothers mothers family ran a "way station or stationmaster" in Ann Arbor. She told me the family helped about 90 people to the next station. It was at times dangerous because of the agents rich slaveholders would send to fetch the slaves.
posted by clavdivs at 4:54 PM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Are you just saying that if, say, almost all people in all cultures believe that stealing is wrong, that still doesn't make it wrong in some cosmic, writ-in-stone sense? That it's not a Law like Gravity? If so, I agree with you. But so what? It's still real in the sense that the fight-or-flight instinct is real.

It's important that our zeal to fight magical thinking doesn't lead us down the treacherous path of Dualism, which is another kind of magical thinking.
posted by grumblebee at 4:56 PM on April 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


What does "objective" mean?

Not the product of sentiment, something that exists even with the perceiver does not.
posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 4:56 PM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Not the product of sentiment, something that exists even with the perceiver does not.

Dog paws don't exist if dogs don't exist. You are privileging (or dismissing) the mind, as if it's a special (or negligible) object. It's not.
posted by grumblebee at 4:58 PM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Are you just saying that if, say, almost all people in all cultures believe that stealing is wrong, that still doesn't make it wrong in some cosmic, writ-in-stone sense? That it's not a Law like Gravity? If so, I agree with you. But so what? It's still real in the sense that the fight-or-flight instinct is real.

Right. But recall this derail was instigated by someone sniping at people from the 1860s who were working out moral problems with a different set of norms.
posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 4:59 PM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Dog paws don't exist if dogs don't exist. You are privileging (or dismissing) the mind, as if it's a special (or negligible) object. It's not.

See above.
posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 5:00 PM on April 2, 2011


I realize that, but a sensible responsable response isn't "right and wrong don't exist," because they DO exist, as very real, materially-based mental processes. They are as real as dog paws or fire engines.

The fact that they may have changed over time doesn't make them not real.
posted by grumblebee at 5:02 PM on April 2, 2011


Hyperbole is also real. Relax.
posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 5:05 PM on April 2, 2011


Metafilter: I actually love that an American slavery thread triggered a derail about the ontological status of values.
posted by joe lisboa at 5:08 PM on April 2, 2011 [7 favorites]


Beaten to the punch!

Nyah, nyah, dhens!
posted by IAmBroom at 5:10 PM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


because they DO exist, as very real, materially-based mental processes.

Thoughts about good and bad might be nothing but mental processes, but that wouldn't mean that good and bad themselves are mental processes. I make judgments about rocks, math, and unicorns, too.
posted by Marty Marx at 5:10 PM on April 2, 2011


This is where I get into a lot of friction with people: everyone thinks the war was about slavery, when, in fact, the war was started because of states vs federal rights. It only later became focused on slavery because Lincoln decided that was the way to get people behind him on a unpopular war.
What you're saying is often claimed, despite you saying that "everyone thinks" the opposite. But in any case, here is a side-by-side comparison of the United States Constitution and the Confederate Constitution, with a summary of the differences at the end.

They are highly similar documents, with almost all significant exceptions being ones in which the Confederate Constitution strengthened the "right" to be able to own people.

There are a few "states' rights" sort of exceptions, but none of the things that people who talk about states' rights talk about when they talk about what should be changed (or made more clear, depending on their point of view) about the Constitution. They're all essentially trivial differences, and in fact some of them are taking rights away from states, not granting new rights to states.

Yes, Lincoln explicitly said that if he could save the union by keeping slavery, he would, and I believe he meant it. And (despite your claim that everyone says it was just about slavery) that fact is often used by people to claim that it was really about states' rights, not about slavery.

But those people who actually did the rebelling most definitely thought it was about slavery. To the extent that it was "states' rights", it was that they were afraid that Lincoln would take away the "right" of states to have legal slavery; history leading up to the civil war -- even for decades before -- is absolutely clear that they were afraid of this.

"States' rights" is just an all-too-common whitewashing.
posted by Flunkie at 5:18 PM on April 2, 2011 [10 favorites]


Dudes, dudes, dudes. One and one and one is three.
posted by pressF1 at 5:19 PM on April 2, 2011


What's the atomic weight of justice? Is it positively or negatively charged? How long is one ounce of justice? Its volume? Can I get trashed if I drink it mixed with OJ? How does it appear similarly on an MRI for any two random humans selected from anywhere on Earth in any time period? What's the universal test for it that works here next week, Mongolia a thousand years ago and in the outer Pleiades in AD 802,701? Does it come in teal?

My sentiments on this, precisely described by Pratchett:

Death: Humans need fantasy to *be* human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.
Susan: With tooth fairies? Hogfathers?
Death: Yes. As practice, you have to start out learning to believe the little lies.
Susan: So we can believe the big ones?
Death: Yes. Justice, mercy, duty. That sort of thing.
Susan: They're not the same at all.
Death: You think so? Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder, and sieve it through the finest sieve, and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet, you try to act as if there is some ideal order in the world. As if there is some, some rightness in the universe, by which it may be judged.
Susan: But people have got to believe that, or what's the point?
Death: You need to believe in things that aren't true. How else can they become?
posted by Neuffy at 5:26 PM on April 2, 2011 [7 favorites]


What is justice? Baby don't hurt me, don't hurt me, no more.
posted by A dead Quaker at 5:29 PM on April 2, 2011 [5 favorites]


Nothing like smarmy judgment of people who lived in a different time. Get this: There's no such thing as justice,[...]

But apparently there is such a thing as smarminess. It's fascinating, the things you allow on your list and the things you don't, but it's no basis for a conversation with other people who don't have the suitably informed position of living in your head, where the list of givens is published.
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:35 PM on April 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


Lincoln said that if he could save the union without freeing any slaves he would do so. Then why did slave-owning states feel the need to secede if Lincoln was willing to so accommodate them?
posted by canoehead at 5:36 PM on April 2, 2011


This is where I get into a lot of friction with people: everyone thinks the war was about slavery, when, in fact, the war was started because of states vs federal rights.

The vast, vast majority of analysis needs to focus on the South's secession, not why the North decided to defend itself from traitors.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:39 PM on April 2, 2011 [4 favorites]


Lincoln said that if he could save the union without freeing any slaves he would do so. Then why did slave-owning states feel the need to secede if Lincoln was willing to so accommodate them?
Why do people think that Barack Obama is a Kenyan-born Manchurian Candidate placed here on a lifelong mission to install sharia law and communism?
posted by Flunkie at 5:40 PM on April 2, 2011 [9 favorites]


yeah what about that
posted by klapaucius at 5:48 PM on April 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


To support Flunkie's argument, the Confederacy's federal government greatly expanded some of its powers over the Confederate states during the war. The Confederate Congress created the first national draft in 1862 (the Union Congress began conscription in 1863), for example. The Confederate war department also created a national pass system which required civilians to gain a written pass whenever they wanted to travel anywhere, not simply from one state to another but whenever they wanted to go to church or the store, which strongly resembled the slaves' pass system. The federal Confederate government also began rounding up potential traitors and jailing them without trial mere days after Fort Sumter. To say the war was simply about states' rights v. federal power ignores that the Confederacy itself didn't particularly value states' rights.
posted by lilac girl at 5:58 PM on April 2, 2011 [12 favorites]


*captures ferdinand.bardamu, sells him to highest bidder*

hey, there is no right or wrong, no justice - what's the problem?
posted by pyramid termite at 6:03 PM on April 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


There is no such thing as justice?
Why then do we get reports that 2-year-old world-wide already all have a sense of fairness?

Note that what the slaves say when they show up is similar to what we seem to see taking place in the Middle East these days.
posted by Postroad at 6:37 PM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


[comments removed - no more name-calling. Please act like adults or go somewhere else, thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 7:08 PM on April 2, 2011


This is where I get into a lot of friction with people: everyone thinks the war was about slavery, when, in fact, the war was started because of states vs federal rights.

South Carolina seceded over slavery. The Civil War was about slavery. What everyone thinks is correct. Even the people writing and speaking on behalf of the Southern states up to and during the war openly assert that.

The idea that somehow, the Civil War wasn't about slavery was formed as a retrospective rationalization during the Reconstruction era. It's amazing how it survives in some quarters.
posted by Miko at 7:51 PM on April 2, 2011 [6 favorites]


Who would have thought this thread would go so badly? I'm disappointed.
posted by dunkadunc at 10:48 PM on April 2, 2011


Who would have thought this thread would go so badly? I'm disappointed.

I suppose you could always secede or something.
posted by joe lisboa at 10:49 PM on April 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


There was an excellent BBC documentary recently on Lincoln his motivation for the civil war and the ending of slavery. Worth a watch if you can find it.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00y5kdx

Although I would question weather slavery was ever ended as the US constitution still allows it as a punishment for a crime.
posted by ollybee at 5:18 AM on April 3, 2011


This is where I get into a lot of friction with people: everyone thinks the war was about slavery, when, in fact, the war was started because of states vs federal rights.

Being fair to the OP, states vs federal rights were mentioned in the Causes of Secession. At least one specific state vs federal right. The seceeding states were objecting to the Free States refusing to enforce Federal Law, notably the Fugitive Slave Act. That comes through in all the Causes of Secession that have been linked upthread.

It only later became focused on slavery because Lincoln decided that was the way to get people behind him on a unpopular war.

It focussed on slavery because that was what the South had been talking about all along. And if you haven't been demonstrated to be thoroughly wrong enough yet, I'm going to bring in the newspapers. In specific the Richmond Enquirer in March 1861. (Note this was before even the Battle of Fort Sumter - and hardly under Lincoln's control).

The money quote is as follows.
The ultimatum of the seceded States is left in no uncertainty; it is to be found in the solemn action of the Montgomery Constitution and may be analyzed as follows:

1. That African slavery in the Territories shall be recognized and protected by Congress and the Territorial Legislatures.

2. That the right to slaveholders of transit and sojourn in any State of the Confederacy, with their slaves and other property, shall be recognized and respected.

3. That the provision in regard to fugitive slaves shall extend to any slave lawfully carried from one State into another, and there escaping or taken away from his master.

4. That no bill or ex post facto law (by Congress or any State,) and no law impairing or denying the right of property in negro slaves, shall be passed.

5. That the African slave trade shall be prohibited by such laws of Congress as shall effectually prevent the same.
Point 1 is wholely and clearly against States Rights. The South wanted to force the spread of Slavery into the Territories despite the Territories having overwhelmingly voted against slavery. Yes, this was about States Rights - the Southern States wanted to remove any rights to do what they didn't want doing.

Point 2 is wholely and clearly against States Rights. The South wanted to force the acceptance of Slavery in any state of the Union despite Free States having overwhelmingly voted against slavery. The South wanted to make the only difference between a Slave and a Free state the ability to buy slaves in Slave states. Yes, this was about States Rights - the Southern States wanted to remove any rights to do what they didn't want doing.

Point 3 is wholely and clearly against States Rights. The South wanted to ban the Free States from banning Slavery and force them to implement Federal Law they thought was evil. Yes, this was about States Rights - the Southern States wanted to remove any rights to do what they didn't want doing.

Point 4 is about preventing anyone banning slavery. It has nothing to do with states rights and is a change to the Constitution. And Point 5 is about slavery as well - and restricting supply.

So there are your States Rights. In every case they are about slavery. And in every case the States Rights in question are ones the Confederacy doesn't want.

And on a different topic: It is odd to contemplate leaders cleverly arguing the finer points of logic and the law, all the while oblivious to the injustice of owning another human being as a slave.

Why? And if you want something odd, if General Butler had been a staunch and vehement abolitionist, his reading of the law would have been less useful than the one he gave. The precident he set encouraged every Union commander to liberate every slave they found, irrespective of their opinions on slavery. It was solid and based on the law so it wasn't going to fall to a challenge of being illegal. And it also wasn't going to get him reprimanded for being a radical. It was therefore far more effective than any discussion of the morality of slavery at that point could have been.
posted by Francis at 6:25 AM on April 3, 2011 [10 favorites]


People continue their neurotic fixation with America's past slavery, consistently ignoring the fact that slavery is widespread in the world today. There was no Emancipation Proclamation in Islamic history, there was no Magna Carta in Islamic history. Where are most of the slaves? Islamic countries. Jesus wept.
posted by midnightscout at 6:31 AM on April 3, 2011


The seceeding states were objecting to the Free States refusing to enforce Federal Law, notably the Fugitive Slave Act.

And so, somewhat ironically, the seceding states were angry because the free states respected their "states' rights" too much.
posted by Miko at 7:09 AM on April 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Falstaff: 'Tis not due yet: I would be loath to pay him before his day.
What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me? Well, 'tis
no matter; honour pricks me on.
Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? How then?
Can honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm?
No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No.
Honour hath no skill in surgery then? No. What is honour? A word.
What is in that word honour? What is that honour?
Air - a trim reckoning! Who hath it?
He that died a Wednesday.
Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No.
'Tis insensible then? Yea, to the dead.
But will it not live with the living?
No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it.
Therefore I'll none of it. Honour
is a mere scutcheon - and so ends my catechism.

posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:15 AM on April 3, 2011


Takes two to fight. Secession may have been about slavery (though to be fair, there were other aspects as well, and it behooves us to remember that there were strong anti federalist feelings throughout the country in the four score years preceding Sumter) but by and large it wasn't slavery that got all those Union boys to sign up and head south. Worth noting as well that there was a strong anti-war movement in the north, to say nothing of anti-draft.

The idea that somehow, the Civil War wasn't about slavery was formed as a retrospective rationalization during the Reconstruction era. It's amazing how it survives in some quarters.

This is a point! But such is the nature of historiography. Who is to say that the current take on the late unpleasantness will not , in another hundred years, be seen as narrow minded and wrongheaded? Hell, even fifty years the standard view was that the men and women on both sides were at the very least honorable warriors all deserving of respect. Now - not so much.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:33 AM on April 3, 2011


midnight scout, what are you basing your assertion on?
posted by epj at 9:52 AM on April 3, 2011


Jesus wept.

Really? Because I don't see that bro anywhere, especially not Islamic countries.
posted by liketitanic at 10:48 AM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


...by and large it wasn't slavery that got all those Union boys to sign up and head south.

True. They signed up because the Southern states seceded. What was the major reason those Southern states said the seceded? Oh yeah. Slavery.
posted by marxchivist at 11:19 AM on April 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


all the while oblivious to the injustice of owning another human being as a slave.

It's not clear to me that they were both oblivious.

The value of the story to me is that we often do the right thing for the wrong reasons. If Lincoln truly was motivated to issue the Emancipation Proclamation primarily by the thought of depriving the enemy of resources, that is a selfish reason. Nonetheless the right thing to do.
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:04 PM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


So you're saying there's a universal moral code?

A lot of sly comments notwithstanding, yes, there is. It's roughly the Golden Rule.
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:20 PM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


It is with some hesitation that I post a NYT article so soon after they implement their paywall. Hopefully, it being the beginning of the month, most folks who are not paying have not exhausted their monthly limit.

I think it would be good if those of us with the means actually paid for the Times. I buy it at the store everyday, so my feelings on the paywall are a little mixed. But, things being what they are in the news business, I think it's necessary, and it would do us well to support quality journalism.

[Full disclosure: I work in the news business. (knocks on wood)]
posted by Jim Slade at 1:21 PM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I find it bizarre that people insist that the Civil War was about states' rights. It was the South that wanted to expand federal powers through the Fugitive Slave Act. It was the South that wanted the free states to allow them to carry their "property" wherever they pleased. It was the South that compelled the federal government to send in the military to recover their "property" when it escaped.

The Union bent over backwards to hold everything together, despite the South's oft-repeated threat of secession. It was the South that drove the country to war.
posted by SPrintF at 2:52 PM on April 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


Thanks for posting this. I'm actually in the process of working on an exhibit and article focusing on Grant and Contraband Camps.

Like was said way upthread, the African Americans fleeing slavery into the Union lines were the ones who forced the issue. Yeah, Butler, Grant and later Sherman all saw the practical, political, and military benefit to refusing to return fugitive slaves to rebel owners, but none of them would have faced the issue if the slaves had not chosen to try for freedom.

It's an old book, but Louis Gertais From Contraband to Freedman is a good look at this.

Sadly the systems put in place by Grant and Butler did directly lead to the sharecropping system in the South, but in many areas, like Memphis, Nashville, and Corinth, the camps evolved into very strong African American communities in the post-war years.
posted by teleri025 at 3:27 PM on April 3, 2011


It's also noteworthy that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all slaves. Slaves in states which had not seceded were not freed.

Slavery was protected by the Constitution, and it would've been unconstitutional for Lincoln to unilaterally free the slaves in states that were still in the Union. This was a crucial point in the slaveholding border states--Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri--that stayed in the Union. Slavery was ended throughout the United States by the 13th Amendment in 1865.

The Union bent over backwards to hold everything together, despite the South's oft-repeated threat of secession. It was the South that drove the country to war.

The Union even passed a an amendment in March 1861 that would have prohibited Congress from making slavery illegal:
No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.
If it had been ratified by the states it would've become the 13th Amendment.

The following month, the South fired on Fort Sumter. They had a chance to keep slavery and avoid war, and they chose war.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:07 PM on April 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


True. They signed up because the Southern states seceded. What was the major reason those Southern states said the seceded? Oh yeah. Slavery.

That sounds clever, but it entirely misses my point. The government could not sell this war on a Free The Slaves plank any more than a later government could sell that later sixties war on a Free The Soon to be Enslaved Vietnamese plank. How then to do it? Lincoln got lucky with a stubborn Major Anderson and a fruitcake Charleston. Absent Fort Sumter, he'd have had a hell of a time getting a credible pretense for invading the south. Because, again, you could not get the northern boys to fight for slaves. Even with that good cause behind you, you eventually had to draft them - a very disturbing act and one which should tell you a lot about the war's credibility up north.

So why, at the outset, did they sign up?

They signed up because, like most young men, they wanted to prove their manhood. They signed up because it was a more exciting prospect than sitting behind the counter at the general store or behind the plow on the old man's farm. They signed up because they were led to believe that it would be a matter of a few weeks and done. They signed up because "every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier." They signed up because their elders told them to. They signed up because all their friends did. They signed up because they admired the spiffing uniform. They singed up because the girls like a man in uniform.

They signed up because they thought themselves immortal.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:24 PM on April 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


The government could not sell this war on a Free The Slaves plank...

The government did not sell it on the Free The Slaves plank. They sold it on the They Are Breaking Up the Union Our Forefathers Fought to Create Plank.

Yes, Northerners were racist and the majority really didn't care about the slaves. That doesn't make the war any less about slavery.

I realize now you were talking about why the soldiers signed up and I was talking about why the war was fought. Along with you, I think they signed up for every reason soldiers have ever signed up: excitement, impress the girls, etc. But I'm arguing that the war was fought largely because of slavery, that is why the South seceded. I should have been clearer and I guess was arguing with you about something you didn't say.
posted by marxchivist at 5:43 PM on April 3, 2011


liketitanic writes "Really? Because I don't see that bro anywhere, especially not Islamic countries."

Jesus is a full fledged prophet in Islam. Unless you were talking about seeing him the way people see Elvis.

Jim Slade writes "I think it would be good if those of us with the means actually paid for the Times. I buy it at the store everyday, so my feelings on the paywall are a little mixed. But, things being what they are in the news business, I think it's necessary, and it would do us well to support quality journalism."

That's all fine and good but allowing content to be linked on the front page that is behind a pay wall can only lead to a balkanization of Metafilter along a spectrum between those unable or unwilling to pay for any content and those able to pay for all content. It's bad enough that Hulu gets linked here all the time.
posted by Mitheral at 10:16 PM on April 3, 2011


It's bad enough that Hulu gets linked here all the time.

Not to derail, but hulu has been linked on the front page 6 times in the first three months of 2011 and only 19 times in all of 2010. That's roughly once every two-and-a-half weeks, which is a damn far cry from "all the time."

posted by dersins at 11:51 PM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


So why, at the outset, did they sign up?

You're sort of half right- they didn't sign up because they believed in the universal equality of man or any of that jazz. They did, however, believe in free labor- and the incursion of slavery into the territories posed a profound threat to their ideology and livelihood, however ambivalent they might be about black liberation.

See Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 5:27 AM on April 4, 2011


dersins i writes "Not to derail, but hulu has been linked on the front page 6 times in the first three months of 2011 and only 19 times in all of 2010. That's roughly once every two-and-a-half weeks, which is a damn far cry from 'all the time.'"

I guess that depends on how irritating you find it. Some guy cutting you off in traffic once every 14 days: not all that often. You neighbour walking you up three hours before you need to every second weekend with the roar of a chain saw: often. Some one leaving a flaming bag of excrement on your stoop every 2-3 weeks: all the time.
posted by Mitheral at 6:53 AM on April 4, 2011


Someone needs a little perspective...
posted by dersins at 8:05 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I guess that depends on how irritating you find it. Some guy cutting you off in traffic once every 14 days: not all that often. You neighbour walking you up three hours before you need to every second weekend with the roar of a chain saw: often. Some one leaving a flaming bag of excrement on your stoop every 2-3 weeks: all the time.

Yeah, I'm sorry, but if you find this as flaming excrement at your doorstep, I can't really help you.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 9:31 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I should have been clearer and I guess was arguing with you about something you didn't say.

Then allow me to extend the hand of reconciliation.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:06 PM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is super interesting to me. Ft. Monroe is in my backyard. It's a shame that the gov't is closing it next year and handing it over to commercial property developers. Some of the houses are nice but I have no idea what they're going to do with the Fort proper.
posted by daHIFI at 1:27 PM on April 4, 2011


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