Book of

Deliver Us from Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South, by Lacy Ford

In 1776 Southerners said slavery was a regrettable and probably temporary necessity; by 1859 they said it was the foundation of their society and their liberty. Men of the Upper South, like Thomas Jefferson, were always more ambivalent than the planters of South Carolina. But over time, a paternalistic image of slavery became the standard for both the Upper South and the Deep South, unifying the region around their “peculiar institution”.

Ford’s book is even longer than its 600+ pages suggest — the print is a point smaller than usual, to fit in *all* his research. The great mass of detail supports some rather uncomfortable conclusions — which is not to say that I don’t believe them.

To me Ford seems to show that the turning point for Southern ideology come when the abolitionists started to argue that slavery was an unmitigated, absolute evil. Southerners had been able to deal with the idea that slavery was not the best of all possible arrangements, a weakness that they might work their way out of. But the idea that they might be bad people because of it was not to be borne. Their paternalistic ideology was a reaction to abolitionism, a kind of moral doubling-down. They did not merely deny that slavery was evil, they raised their commitment to it and claimed it was an active, paternalistic good.

As part of their doubling-down, Southerners made race an ever stronger determinant of free status. They moved toward an ideology of white populism: all white men were free, proud and equal (unlike the “wage slaves” in the North, they said). Meanwhile, free blacks were actively disenfranchised in North Carolina (where they were common) and in Tennessee (where they were rare). A quick googling suggests that Ford is wrong to see this as a Southern phenomenon — a shocking number of Northern states also disenfranchised free blacks during the antebellum period.

Ford definitely looks at the usual antebellum suspects: the different economies of the South and North, social structures, education, expansion. But to my mind he really brings out the importance of Southern self-image, what they called “honor”. It reminds me of the way many people react to being told they’ve said something racist: they’ll defend the indefensible, because “being racist means you’re a bad person” and so must be rejected utterly.

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