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Using Fear of Racial Equality to Sell Secession

Before the Confederates fired upon Fort Sumter, even before Abraham Lincoln took office, the seven seceded states sent commissioners to the still-loyal slave states in the hopes of convincing them to join their fledgling Confederacy. They all said basically the same thing: the destruction of slavery and the equality of the races would come about without secession from the United States.

A couple of days after Christmas of 1860, Alabama’s Stephen Fowler Hale, visited Kentucky for such a purpose.

The Horror of Negro Equality

He had come “in a spirit of fraternity,” in order to explain to Kentucky how the slave states’ Constitutional rights were being infracted upon, and what to do about it. He began by explaining to Governor Beriah Magoffin that the mere election of Lincoln was “nothing less than an open declaration of war.”

Stephen Fowler Hale: Not exactly in favor of racial equality.
Stephen Fowler Hale

Of course, there had been no actual violent act by either side thus far. Lincoln, though elected, was still months away from taking office. And yet, Hale didn’t just feel threatened, he felt as if the election of Lincoln was the shot across the bow of the South.

“If the policy of the Republicans is carried out according to the programme indicated by the leaders of the party, and the South submits, degradation and ruin must overwhelm alike all classes of citizens in the Southern States. The slave-holder and non-slave-holder must ultimately share the same fate; all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes, stand side by side with them at the polls, and fraternize in all the social relations of life, or else there will be and eternal war of races, desolating the land with blood, and utterly wasting and destroying all the resources of the country. Who can look upon such a picture without a shudder?

“What Southern man, be he slave-holder or non-slave-holder, can without indignation and horror contemplate the triumph of negro equality, and see his own sons and daughters in the not distant future associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality, and the white man stripped by the heaven-daring hand of fanaticism of that title to superiority over the black race which God himself has bestowed?”

These were all fine questions. Hale was not speaking of a coming Civil War. He was trying to convince Kentucky to join the new Southern nation, and pitching a war where thousands of their sons would be sacrificed would hardly have been the best way to go about it. Instead, he was telling them of the horrors that would come simply if they did not secede.

If Kentucky remained part of the United States, then their white people would be forced to treat black people as equals, he contended. Their black people would be given rights and the white people would, somehow, be forced to interact with them socially.

Equality Certain Without Secession

But he was also saying something which, to the abolitionist, might seem optimistic. Hale reasoned that if black people gained their freedom and citizenship the next generation of white Kentuckians – their own sons and daughters – would not care whether their friends and associates were black or white. In Hale’s mind, equality of the races was, without the Confederacy, a foregone conclusion. It was secession, and only secession, that would stop this equality from happening.

True, Hale was speaking with flare and hyperbole, but he wasn’t being dishonest. He continued, warning that either “amalgamation or the extermination of the one or the other would be inevitable,” equating both with “such degradation and ruin.” To Hale, writing as a representative of the Confederacy, secession was not just about slavery, but about racial segregation and, most importantly, the God-given superiority of the white race.

All of that was, however, esoteric. Racial superiority was essential, but so was paying the bills. That is where slavery came in.

“If we triumph,” continued Hale, speaking now of secession, “vindicate our rights, and maintain our institutions, a bright and joyous future lies before us. We can clothe the world with our staple, give wings to her commerce, and supply with bread the starving operative in other lands, and at the same time preserve an institution that has done more to civilize and Christianize the heathen than all human agencies beside – an institution alike beneficial to both races, ameliorating the moral, physical, and intellectual condition of the one and giving wealth and happiness to the other.”

It might here be noted that Hale spoke nothing of the happiness of the slaves. They were Christians, they were working, and some of them could read – their happiness wasn’t his concern. Happiness was for the white men. Wealth without labor was for the white men.

Former slave quarters near Bardtown, Kentucky. Circa 1940.
Former slave quarters near Bardtown, Kentucky. Circa 1940.

The Heaven-Ordained Superiority of the White Race

As was true with all of these speeches and letters from secession commissioners to the border states, the conclusion was the pitch. Though fear was sold throughout, the ending is where it all came together.

“Then, is it not time we should be up and doing, like men who know their rights and dare maintain them?” he asked. “To whom shall the people of the Southern States look for the protection of their rights, interests, and honor? We answer, to their own sons and their respective States.”

The Southern sons played a part writ large in Hale’s warnings and urgings. Under the Republican banner, their sons would soon see black people as equals, but under the Confederacy, those same sons of the South would fight to maintain slavery.

The Federal government, with the election of Lincoln, had failed the South, and was “about to pass into the hands of a party pledged for the destruction not only of their rights and their property, but the equality of the States ordained by the Constitution, and the heaven-ordained superiority of the white race over the black race.

“Will the people of the North cease to make war upon the institution of slavery and award it the protection guaranteed by the Constitution?” asked Hale. “The accumulated wrongs of many years, the late action of their members in Congress refusing every measure of justice to the South, as well as the experience of all the past, answers No, never!”

Governor Beriah Magoffin
Governor Beriah Magoffin

Hale was steady in resolve. Hoping then to embolden fair Kentucky: “Will the South give up the institution of slavery and consent that her citizens be stripped of their property, her civilization destroyed, the whole land laid waste by fire and sword? It is impossible.”

Here again, Hale was not speaking of the Civil War to come. For the South, slavery was this civilization. Without it, everything would be destroyed. The land, somehow unable to be worked by paid white or black people, would be laid waste. If he spoke of war at all, it was a servile one. He mentioned the “San Domingo servile insurrection” which consigned “her citizens to assassinations and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans.”

“Disunion was inevitable,” Hale concluded. “Why, then, wait longer for the consummation of a result that must come? Why waste further time in expostulations and appeals to Northern States and their citizens, only to be met, as we have been for years past, by renewed insults and repeated injuries?”

Things were bad now, but he conceded that they were not so bad just yet. “Shall we wait until our enemies shall possess themselves of all the powers of the Government; until abolition judges are on the Supreme Court bench, abolition collectors at every port, and abolition postmasters in every town; secret mail agents traversing the whole land, and a subsidized press established in our midst to demoralize our people? Will we be stronger then or better prepared to meet the struggle, if a struggle must come? No, verily.”

Magoffin: ‘Let Resistance Cost What It May’

Hale closed his speech, inviting Kentucky to join with the South. Governor Beriah Magoffin, writing on behalf of his state, agreed with Hale and Alabama, with the South and its conclusions. But rather than division, he wished for the Federal government to give an “explicit definition and final recognition” of the rights of “African slavery.” “Kentucky,” replied Magoffin, “would leave no effort untried to preserve the union of the States upon the basis of the Constitution as we construe it, but Kentucky will never submit to wrong and dishonor, let resistance cost what it may.”

The history of Kentucky and the Civil War is strange and multifaceted. But in the end, they remained loyal. Magoffin called together a secession convention, but little came of it. For a time, it was hoped that Kentucky could at least remain neutral, but both sides ignored such an impossible dream. In the next election, the Unionists won out, and Kentucky remained as part of the United States, her resisting of Hale’s conclusions never quite certain until the war made it so. 1Hale’s letter to Magoffin, as well as Magoffin’s replies, can be found in the Official Records, Series 4, Vol. 1, p4-15, which can be read in full here.

Hale so plainly, so succinctly described Alabama and the South’s reasons for secession. This wasn’t just a disagreement. This wasn’t a parting of the ways over a different lifestyle. This was war before a single shot was fired. In his own words, the North wanted to destroy slavery, and the South could only save it by secession. And if necessary, they were more than willing to spill blood to keep it.

Meanwhile, at Fort Sumter.... From Harper's Weekly, January 26, 1861.
Meanwhile, at Fort Sumter….
From Harper’s Weekly, January 26, 1861.

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Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.