The American Civil War: A Handbook of Literature and Research

By Robin Higham; Steven E. Woodworth | Go to book overview
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11 Slavery, Race, and Culture

Eric H. Walther

Of all the factors that contributed to secession and Civil War, the role of slavery and race in motivating both Southerners and Northerners usually draws the most attention and the hottest debate. Certainly political and economic concerns played their part, yet these hinged invariably on issues and competing interests that arose from slavery and the institutions and ideals built upon that institution. Many "unreconstructed Southerners" continue to insist that the sectional conflict originated over states' rights, not slavery, although these people seldom complete the thought by specifying which "rights" they mean. This reasoning usually entails the arguments that few white Southerners owned slaves and therefore had no interest in preserving the institution, and that most white Northerners were racist and did not initially invade Dixie for any desire to free African Americans. Although truth exists in both of these assumptions, an enormous amount of scholarship on these very issues points to the centrality of slavery and race in the coming of the war.

The following works rank among the most influential for understanding the development of African slavery and its role in shaping antebellum white society and thought. Winthrop Jordon, in White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812 ( 1968), established that white people's belief in the inferiority of African peoples and the development of chattel slavery reinforced each other and grew stronger over time. George Frederickson introduced the concept of herrenvolk democracy in The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914 ( 1971) to explain how a bond of interests among white people developed through their shared set of assumptions about the racial inferiority of slaves. Edmund Morgan American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia

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