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Why was the Confederacy so obsessively devoted to preserving slavery?

By now, don’t you wonder why?

Why, from its birth pangs to its death rattle, was the Confederacy so obsessively devoted to the preservation of the Antebellum South’s system of slavery?

Slavery had existed in countless places and times, but the Confederacy’s own Vice President, Alexander Stephens, declared that his new government was “the first in the history of the world” to be “founded upon…the great truth” of its variety of slavery.

And it was the first in the history of the world to die for it. As the great historian C. Vann Woodward told us, “Nowhere else did a slave society wage a life-and-death struggle for its existence with abolition at stake.”

So, why were Southerners so committed to what they called their “peculiar institution”? Posed in that form, the question answers itself. It was valued so highly because it was “peculiar” — not in the sense of “odd,” but in the sense of “unique to.”

Its distinctive brand of slavery was the South’s, and the Confederacy’s, defining essence, to a degree that was rare if not unprecedented in world history. To begin to understand this, we need to note an important distinction first made 50 years ago by scholars of ancient slavery — that between “societies-with-slaves” and “slave-societies.” In societies-with-slaves, those in bondage were fewer in number, generally below 20 percent of the total population. To the degree that they did any productive labor, they shared it with many other non-slave laborers.

 

Of slavery’s two primary functions — to enable exploitation of labor, and to bestow status upon the slaveholder — the emphasis in these societies was the second. Therefore, slaves in a society-with-slaves were not the primary source of the masters’ wealth and power, but instead were a way for those masters to show off their wealth and power, to raise his own social standing by degrading the standing of enslaved house servants or concubines. Crucially, slavery in such a society was not economically fundamental; it was incidental.

In slave-societies, by contrast, the scale was greater, with slaves at times making up the majority of the population. Their labor was economically vital, often being the primary source of wealth, and therefore power, for their masters and for the entire society.

 

Consequently, slavery was not incidental in such a place and time; it was fundamental. It was — as always in a slave system — also a means to establish the master’s status, his “honor.” As such, its hierarchical mindset pervaded the culture, influencing every institution. Of course, there was no precise line between the two, but without question, throughout the 5,000 years of human civilization, the smaller scale societies-with-slaves vastly outnumbered the larger slave-societies. There have been only five “great slave-societies” in all of human history — four of them being Classical Greece and Rome in ancient times, then Brazil and the Caribbean islands in the early modern era.

And then there was the fifth, the one matched in scale only by Ancient Rome, the one called by Harvard scholar Orlando Patterson, “the most perfectly articulated slave-society since Ancient Rome.” The one, however, that exceeded Rome or any other slave-society in the totality of its economic, political, and social importance. The one that was more rigidly racialized in its definition of status than any other. The one that, in its labor exploitation, was arguably more profit-driven than any other. The one that insisted on creating its own “nation” specifically dedicated to its preservation – to be, more than any other, not merely a society in which slavery existed, but to be a society openly, proudly defined by slavery. This was the slave-society of the Antebellum American South. Its “nation” was the Confederacy.

“Peculiar,” to say the least. And so, we begin to see the roots of obsession.

Jim Wiggins is a retired Copiah-Lincoln Community College history instructor.

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