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The Interest in Slavery of the Southern Non-Slaveholder

The question is often raised – why would a Southern man who owned not a single slave fight for the Confederacy? Isn’t the fact that the majority of Confederate soldiers were not enslavers proof that they were not fighting to preserve and even expand slavery?

After the war, and even in the present, many who defended the South attempted to convince the public that the war was not waged for slavery. The non-slaveholding Confederate soldiers were one of the sharpest arrows in their quiver. They saw that since a majority of soldiers did not own slaves, it was proof positive that they were not fighting to keep black Southerners enslaved.


However, in the South on the eve of war, some, like James D.B. De Bow, were attempting to augment these figures to make it seem like there were more slaveholders than there actually were. In fact, it was De Bow who made the greatest attempt to convince non-slaveholders why it was not only in their best interest, but absolutely essential that, they fight to preserve and expand slavery.

De Bow, writing after the election of Abraham Lincoln, saw what he as up against. He too asked these questions – why would a Southern man without slaves fight for slavery? What was in it for him?

De Bow considered that the non-slaveholding class “were even more deeply interested than any other in the maintenance of our institutions, and in the success of the movement now inaugurated, for the entire social, industrial and political independence of the South.” 1James D.B. De Bow “The Interest in Slavery of the Southern Non-Slaveholder” (Charleston: Evans & Cogswell, 1860) 1. Here.

Mr. De Bow began his writing with the math to prove that there were more slaveholders than one might first expect. He discovered, through census records, that many more poor Southerners owned slaves than was commonly believed. The crux of his argument was: “The poor men of the South are the holders of one to five slaves, and it would be equally consistent with truth and justice, to say that they represent, in reality, its slaveholding interest.”

Still, he allowed that there was “a very large class of persons in the slaveholding states, who have no direct ownership in slaves.” Despite this, he questioned where their true loyalties lay – in “their fellow citizens” of the South, or in “the larger class of non-landholders in the free States”?

According to De Bow, a poor Southerner, even one without slaves, “would make common cause with, and die in the last trenches in defense of, the slave property of his more favored neighbor.”

North Carolina Emigrants: Poor White Folks by James Henry Beard, 1845.
North Carolina Emigrants: Poor White Folks by James Henry Beard, 1845.

He insisted that their lack of slaves was a financial necessity, not a moral objection. “A class conscientiously objecting to the ownership of slave-property, does not exist at the South,” he claimed, “for all such scruples have long since been silenced by the profound and unanswerable arguments to which Yankee controversy has driven our statesmen, popular orators and clergy.”

De Bows nearly refused to admit that there was even a morsel of opposition to slavery in the South. But he conceded that if such a conflict existed, it was the opposition of poor whites to working with enslaved blacks. This was, he countered, “a very insignificant item.” He, like most in his time, believed that such toil was physically possible only by those of African descent.

The “physical organization” of the white man simply refused “to endure that exposure to tropical suns and fatal miasmas.” Any attempt to do so would fly in the face of God, and the sinner would be “attended with disease and death.” For proof, he pointed to “the poor white foreign laborer upon our river swamps and in our southern cities” who were apparently dying off by the score.

Concluding his introduction, De Bow set down ten reasons why slavery was essential to the non-slaveholding class. This reasoning, such as it is, appears in below. 2The headings used for each section were invented by me. De Bow used no such device – but then, he wasn’t publishing in blog form just yet.

Higher Wages in the South

1. The non-slaveholder of the South is assured that the remuneration afforded by his labor, over and above the expense of living, is larger than that which is afforded by the same labor in the free states.

To be convinced of this he has only to compare the value of labor in the Southern cities with those of the North, and to take note annually of the large number of laborers who are represented to be out of employment there, and who migrate to our shores, as well as to other sections. No white laborer in return as been forced to leave our midst or remain without employment. Such as have left, have immigrated from States where slavery was less productive. Those who come among us are enabled soon to retire to their homes with a handsome competency. The statement is nearly as true for the agricultural as for other interests, as the statistics will show.

The following table was recently compiled by Senator Johnson, of Tennessee, from information received in reply to a circular letter sent to the points indicated.


No Unemployment in the South

2. The non-slaveholders, as a class, are not reduced by the necessity of our condition, as is the case in the free states, to find employment in crowded cities and come into competition in close and sickly workshops and factories, with remorseless and untiring machinery.

They have but to compare their condition in this particular with the mining and manufacturing operative of the North and Europe, to be thankful that God has reserved them for a better fate. Tender women, aged men, delicate children, toil and labor there from early dawn until after candle light, from one year to another, for a miserable pittance, scarcely above the starvation point without hope of amelioration.

The records of British free labor have long exhibited this and those of our own manufacturing States are rapidly reaching it and would have reached it long ago, but for the excessive bounties which in the way of tariffs have been paid to it, without and equivalent by the slaveholding and non-slaveholding laborer of the South. Let this tariff cease to be paid for by a single year and the truth of what is stated will be abundantly shown.

Few Degraded Foreigners in the South

3. The non-slaveholder is not subjected to that competition with foreign pauper labor, which has degraded the free labor of the North and demoralized it to an extent which perhaps can never be estimated.

From whatever cause, it has happened, whether from climate, the nature of our products or our own labor, the South has been enabled to maintain a more homogeneous population and show a less admixture of races than the North. This the statics show.


Our people partake of the true American character, and are mainly the descendants of those who fought the battles of the Revolution, and who understand and appreciate the nature and inestimable value of the liberty which it brought.

Adhering to the simple truths of the Gospel and the faith of their fathers, they have no run hither and thither in search of all the absurd and degrading ism which have sprung up in the rank soil of infidelity.

There are not Mormons or Spiritualists, there are not Owenites, Fourierits, Agrarians, Socialists, Free-lover or Millerites. They are not for breaking down all the forms of society and of religion and reconstructed them; but prefer law, order and existing institutions to the chaos which radicalism involves.

The competition between native and foreign labor in the Northern States, has already begotten rivalry and gear-burning, and riots’ and lead to the formation of political parties there which have been marked by a degree of hostility and proscription to which we have known none of this, except in two or three of the larger cities where the relations of slavery and freedom scarcely exist at all. The foreigners that are among us at the South are of a select class, and from education and example approximate very nearly to the native standard.

Poor Southern Whites Are Not The Lowest Class

4. The non-slaveholder of the South preserves the status of the white man, and is not regarded as an inferior or a dependent.

He is not told that the Declaration of Independence, when it says that all men are born free and equal, refers to the negro equally with himself. It is not proposed to him that the free negro’s vote shall weigh equally with his own at the ballot-box, and that the little children of both colors shall be mixed in the classes and benches of the school-house, and embrace each other filially in its outside sports.

It never occurs to him, that a white man could be degraded enough to boast in a public assembly, as was recently done in New York, of having actually slept with a negro. And his patriotic ire would crush with blow the free negro who would dare, in his presence, as is done in the free States, to characterize the father of the country as a “scoundrel.”

No white man at the South serves another as a body servant, to clean his boots, wait on his table, and perform the menial services of his household. 3And there goes the whole “whites were slaves too” myth. His blood revolts against this, and his necessities never drove him to it. He is a companion and an equal. When in the employ of the slaveholder, or in intercourse with him, he enters his hall, and has a seat at his table. If a distinction exists, it is only that which education and refinement may give, and this is so courteously exhibited as scarcely to strike attention.

The poor white laborer at the North is at the bottom of the social ladder, whilst his brother has ascended several steps and can look down upon those who are beneath him, at an infinite remove.

You Too Could Soon Own Slaves!

5. The non-slaveholder knows that as soon as his savings will admit, he can become a slaveholder; and thus relieve his wife from the necessities of the kitchen and the laundry, and his children from the labors of the field.

This, with ordinary frugality, can, in general, be accomplished in a few years, and is a process continually going on. Perhaps twice the number of poor men at the South own a slave to what owned a slave ten years ago. The universal disposition is to purchase. It is the first use for savings, and the negro purchased is the last possession to be parted with.

If a woman, her children become heir-looms and make the nucleus of an estate. It is within my knowledge, that a plantation of fifty or sixty persons has been established, from the descendants of a single female, in the course of the lifetime of the original purchaser.

The American Dream: Southern Style

6. The large slaveholders and proprietors of the South begin life in great part as non-slaveholders.

It is the nature of property to change hands. Luxury, liberality, extravagance, depreciated land, low prices, debt, distribution among children, are continually break up estates. All over the new States of the South-west enormous estates are in the hands of men who began life as overseers or city clerks, traders or merchants. Often the overseer marries the widow.

Cheap lands, abundant harvests, high prices, give the poor man soon a negro. His ten bales of cotton bring him another, a second crop increases his purchases, and so he goes on opening land and adding labor until in a few years his draft for $20,000 upon the merchant becomes a very marketable commodity.

Slaves for Generations to Come

7. But should such fortune not be in reserve for the non-slaveholder, he will understand that by honesty and industry it may be realized to his children.

More than one generation of poverty in a family is scarcely to be expected at the South, and is against the general experience. It is more unusual here for poverty than wealth to be preserved through several generations in the same family.

One Need Not Own (Many) Slaves to Advance in the South

8. The sons of the non-slaveholder are and have always been among the leading and ruling spirits of the South; in industry as well as in politics.

Every man’s experience in his own neighborhood will evince this. He has but to task his memory. In this class are the McDuffies, Langdon Cheves, Andrew Jacksons, Henry Clays, and Rusks, of the past; the Hammonds, Yanceys, Orrs, Memmingers, Benjamins, Stephens, Soules, Browns of Mississippi, Simms, Porters, Magraths, Aikens, Maunsel Whites, and an innumerable host of the present; and what is to be noted, these men have not been made demagogues for that reason, as in other quarters, but are among the most conservative among us.

Nowhere less in the world have intelligence and virtue disconnected from ancestral estates, the same opportunities for advancement, and nowhere else is their triumph more speedy and signal.

We Would Be Nothing Without Slavery

9. Without the institution of slavery, the great staple of products of the South would cease to be grown, and the immense annual results, which are distributed among every class of the community, and which give life to every branch of industry, would cease.

This world furnishes no instances of these products being grown upon a large scale by free labor. The English now acknowledge their failure in the East Indies. Brazil, whose slave population nearly equals our own, is the only South American State which has prospered. Cuba, by her slave labor, showers wealth upon old Spain, whilst the British opulence have been, by emancipation, reduced to beggary. St. Domingo shares the same fate, and the poor whites have been massacred equally with the rich. 4Here De Bows gives a page of statistics, available here.

Better to Be Dead than Lower than an Emancipated Negro

10. If emancipation be brought about as will undoubtedly be the case, unless the encroachments of the fanatical majorities of the North are resisted now, the slaveholders, in the main, will escape the degrading equality which must result, by emigration, for which they would have the means, by disposing of their personal chattels: whilst the non-slaveholders, without these resources, would be compelled to remain and endure the degradation.

This is a startling consideration. In Northern communities, where the free negro is one in a hundred of the total population, he is recognized and acknowledged of as a pest, and in many cases even his presence is prohibited by law. What would be the case in many of our States, where every other inhabitant is a negro, or in many of our communities, as for example the parishes around and about Charleston, and in the vicinity of New Orleans where there are from twenty to on hundred negroes to each white inhabitant?

Low as would this class of people sink by emancipation in idleness, superstition and vice, the white man compelled to live among them, would be the power exerted over him, sink even lower, unless as it to be supposed he would prefer to suffer death instead.

Conclusion: Slavery and Independence Will Distribute the Wealth

I must apologize to the non-slaveholders of the South, of which class, I was myself until very recently a member, for having deigned to notice at all the infamous libels which the common enemies of the South have circulated against them, and which our everyday experience refutes; but the occasion seemed a fitting one to place them truly and rightly before the world.

This I have endeavored faithfully to do. They fully understand the momentous questions which not agitate the land in all their relations. They perceive the inevitable drift of Northern aggression, and know that if necessity impel to it, as I verily believe it does at this moment, the establishment of a Southern confederation will be a sure refuge from the storm.

In such a confederation our rights and possessions would be secure, and the wealth being retained at home, to build up our towns and cities, to extend our railroads, and increase our shipping, which now goes in tariffs or other involuntary or voluntary tributes, to other sections; opulence would be diffused throughout all classes, and we should become the freest, the happiest and the most prosperous and powerful nation upon earth. 5De Bow’s provided a chart showing just how much in profits and tariffs left the South. It may be viewed here.

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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.