In 1860 there was no threat by Abraham Lincoln to interfere with the institution of slavery in states where it already existed. But the southern plantation aristocracy saw his opposition to the spread of slavery into the territories as a threat to their historic domination of all three branches of government.
This legislative power was far out of proportion to the South’s actual white population numbers. Of the first seven U.S. presidents, five were slave owners. Through the disproportionate three-fifths Constitutional compromise southerners were able to wield political power far out of proportion to their actual population numbers. But they saw this advantage slipping away and feared the eventual abolition of slavery. They saw secession as the only way to preserve their way of life.
But what about those southerners who didn’t own slaves, the town people, craftsmen and yeoman farmers, almost three out of four Southerners? Would they support a new nation founded on the principle that all people are not created equal? They would, and they did.
There were almost four million slaves in 1860 and they touched every area of southern life. And fear of slave rebellion was ever-present. As the South became more isolated politically and culturally, southerners became more unified in defending slavery, not only as a necessary evil, but a positive good.
Churches were the center of social and intellectual life in the antebellum south and most all defended slavery as a moral good through an elaborate theory based on the Bible’s assumed approval of slavery. If God tells us how to buy, sell and treat slaves in Leviticus and the Apostle Paul advises a slave to obey his master, then God must surely approve of slavery, right? The three major Protestant denominations split nationally over the slavery issue: the Presbyterians in 1837, the Methodists in 1844 and the Baptists in 1845. Only the heavily-southern Episcopalians remained united. One South Carolina Presbyterian pastor warned his flock "Soon they will send preachers down here who will consummate the marriage of your daughters to black husbands."
Probably due to repressed guilt from taking sexual favors from defenseless slave women, not an uncommon practice in the plantation south, one of the greatest fears among southern men was miscegenation. And the plantation aristocracy played this fear/guilt card at every opportunity. By this and other ruses they duped rank-and-file southerners into supporting secession and defending slavery even though they had no first-hand stake in either.
As southern Senators began leaving the Democratic Party for the GOP in the late 1960s over civil rights legislation, the Republican leadership was able to convince the southern middle- and lower-income voters to cut their own economic throats and vote Republican. How was the GOP able to pull this off? They targeted the most impressionable, vulnerable, auto-suggestive group in southern society, the southern evangelicals and fundamentalists, and played on their worst fears and prejudices.
A point I’ve made in previous columns: to secure the southern vote, over fifty years ago the Republican right wing pledged to restore prayer in the public schools, ban abortion and reverse gay rights trends. But they have delivered on absolutely nothing they promised. Today church-state separation grows stronger, Roe V Wade is still on the books and gays and lesbians are gaining new rights almost daily. Somebody’s been had!
George B. Reed Jr., who lives in Rossville, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.