Southern Conservatism, the Confederacy, and the Legacy of Slavery

1861 U.S. Coast Survey Showing Prevalence of Slavery in Southern Counties.

1861 U.S. Coast Survey Showing Prevalence of Slavery in Southern Counties.

At the Vault History blog, Rebecca Onion posted a really cool map of the United States in 1861 (shown above), which uses data from the 1860 census to determine the percentage of enslaved people per county in the southern states.  Onion explains that:

The map, which shades counties based on the percentage of total inhabitants who were enslaved, shows what a range there was in levels of Southern enslavement. Some counties, the map explains, “appear comparatively light … this arises from the preponderance of whites and free blacks in the large towns in these counties.” The population of Orleans Parish, La., in one example, was 8.9 percent enslaved. Places that were rural but were located in mountainous areas devoid of plantations were similarly light-shaded: The people of Harlan County, Ky., were 2.3 percent enslaved.

Meanwhile, a dark belt of counties bordering the Mississippi River held more than 70 percent of their residents in slavery, with Tensas Parish, La., at 90.8 percent and Washington County, Miss., at 92.3 percent.


Historians have noted correlations between the percentage of slaves held in different parts of the South and the general enthusiasm for secession in 1860-1861.  Using these conclusions we can make some broad generalizations about support for the Confederacy in different southern states that are reasonably reliable…to a point. Onion notes, for example:

Though this map was simple, it showed the relationship between states’ commitment to slavery and their enthusiasm about secession, making a visual argument about Confederate motivations.

Again, this generalization is reasonably accurate, but as always, history is far more complicated than that. Take Mississippi for example: in 1860-61, some of its slaveholders, among the wealthiest people in the nation, voted for the Conservative Union ticket in 1860. Yet, other Mississippi slaveholders voted for immediate secession from the Union, and they ultimately won the day when Mississippi became the second state to secede from the Union in January 1861.

The supposed correlation between slaveholding and support for secession really gets at a bigger issue in southern history that is still pondered over in contemporary American politics: the connection between race and conservatism in the South. Shortly before the 2012 election, for example, Michael Lind — and a whole lot lot of other political watchers — noted that the current conservative Republican South basically consists of the Old Confederacy, while the current bastion of Democratic Party strength lies in the old Union states that put down the slaveholders’ rebellion. Lind notes:

Now that they dominate the Republican Party, Southern conservatives are using it to carry out the same strategies that they promoted during the generations when they controlled the Democratic Party, from the days of Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren to the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s.  From the 19th century to the 21st, the oligarchs of the American South have sought to defend the Southern system, what used to be known as the Southern Way of Life.

Notwithstanding slavery, segregation and today’s covert racism, the Southern system has always been based on economics, not race.  Its rulers have always seen the comparative advantage of the South as arising from the South’s character as a low-wage, low-tax, low-regulation site in the U.S. and world economy.  The Southern strategy of attracting foreign investment from New York, London and other centers of capital depends on having a local Southern workforce that is forced to work at low wages by the absence of bargaining power.

The key word in Lind’s analysis is “conservatism.” With some very notable historical exceptions that have generally proven a larger ruling trend, the South has been, and continues to be, dominated by political conservatism. In terms of the South, you can’t understand conservatism without recognizing the intimate connection between race and economics. This connection drove conservatism during the buildup to the Civil War, and it still retains a strong legacy on contemporary Southern conservatism.

As Corey Robin notes in The Reactionary Mind, his brilliant revisionist study of the modern Right, “Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument for why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, to govern themselves or the polity.” Thus, wherever there are movements seeking to expand freedom and agency to those lower orders in society, thereby expanding social agency beyond the sphere of the traditional ruling elite, conservatives will be there to, in the famous words of William F. Buckley Jr., yell “Stop!”

Nowhere was this more true than in the slaveholding South: there, powerful planters wanted to retain their system of racially based slave labor against the perceived growing political power of the anti-slavery North. But different groups of southern conservatives were divided over how to do that, and therein lies the answer to why some planters supported secession and some remained tied to the Union. Both groups, Secessionists and Conditional Unionists (those who believed that secession should only be a last resort, and that slavery was better protected in the Old Union) were conservatives. They both believed in the inherent right of a chosen few to benefit from a racially-based slave labor system. But the Secessionists thought that after Abraham Lincoln’s election, the slave system could best be protected by a new, breakaway nation, the Confederate States of America. Conditional Unionists, however, thought that slavery would better flourish under the Union. The latter proved right in the long run.

The legacy of slavery lives on in the political environment of the contemporary conservative South. Of course, southerners today don’t support slavery. But, the conservative South does support an economic system weighted almost entirely in employers’ favor. As Lind writes:

Anything that increases the bargaining power of Southern workers vs. Southern employers must be opposed, in the interest of the South’s regional economic development model.  Unions, federal wage and workplace regulations, and a generous, national welfare state all increase the bargaining power of Southern workers, by reducing their economic desperation.  Anti-union right-to-work laws, state control of wages and workplace regulations, and an inadequate welfare state all make Southern workers more helpless, pliant and dependent on the mercy of their employers.  A weak welfare state also maximizes the dependence of ordinary Southerrners on the tax-favored clerical allies of the local Southern ruling class, the Protestant megachurches, whose own lucrative business model is to perform welfare functions that are performed by public agencies elsewhere, like childcare.

The need to maintain the social and political dominance of privileged elites, and therefore stymie attempts by the lower orders to assert their agency, is a direct historical legacy of the old slave system, which was the ultimate manifestation of conservative dominance. Thus, Lind is partially right when he observes that “the Southern system is essentially about class and only incidentally about race.” In the South, the “lower orders” have historically consisted mostly of African-Americans. This created an intertwined relationship between race and class that exists to this day. Hence, southern conservatives continue their long fight against any agency on behalf of workers that might curtail employers’ power and pass restrictive voting laws that are blatantly designed to suppress racial minority groups that traditionally do not vote the conservative Republican ticket. Conservatives do these things because in the South, and indeed, in most of the United States, lower-income groups tend to be minority populations, especially African-Americans.

These are the groups most likely to use their votes to increase their freedom and agency relative to the ruling business and political elites. The fear of  a determined majority challenging the power of a much smaller ruling minority terrified southern conservatives of the 1860s, and contemporary southern conservatives still fear this expansion of power to the lower orders. In many ways, of course, the issues have changed, but in other ways, the fundamental issues of who wields power –  and why – remain as potent as when those slaveholding delegates voted to take Mississippi out of the Union and into a cataclysmic Civil War.

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