Understanding Southern Tensions Towards The North
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In Antebellum America tensions between the Republican north and the long established aristocracy of the south were growing. The actions of many northern politicians and radicals caused many southerners to fear for the existence of their cultural identity and independence. The impression that these loud northern radicals gave was that of a foreign tyrannical government attempting to impose its will on an unwilling populous. Southerners feared that the federal government would move, slowly but surely, to break up their social order and instill northern values. Radical abolitionists in the north began calling for rapid change. Fears of northern aggression towards their culture seemed justified through anti-slavery literature from the north.
Fears quickly began to arise that the federal government, influenced by Northern politicians, would pass legislation that would slowly begin to chip away at the social order and culture of the southern people and strip them of their independence (Fehrenbacher, Republican, 301). While not all southerners where wealthy plantation lords owning large flocks of slaves many Yeomen saw slavery as a corner stone of their own social status. Yeomen saw their own political independence depended greatly on their ability to dominate a lesser class of people. Many yeomen never owned slaves but many had hoped to, giving them a method to noticeably move up in social status (Clinton & Silber, Divided, 37). When the North West ordinance, which restricted the expansion of slavery in the new western territories, was passed concern developed. Even when President Lincoln attempted to calm southern nerves by stressing his conservative views his speech fell on deaf, if not untrusting, ears. In a country whose cultural foundation depended on a system that was quickly becoming seen as ancient and barbarous almost any simple action from the free north would seem to be an attack on an increasingly paranoid people. (Fehrenbacher, Republican, 298)
Many influential abolitionists led a public outcry for the destruction of the long standing political order and demanded a new direction be taken. Speaking to an audience in Glasgow Fredrick Douglass claimed that the pro-slavery south which had led for 50 years should now yield to 50 years of abolitionist rule. The southerners had lived a comfortable existence feeling secure under the protection that the constitution offered their culture. Now radicals where claiming that that same constitution could just as well provided liberation for the slaves under different interpretation. Interpretation of the law was obviously on the side of the old southern aristocracy, but southerners must have sensed that the wind was changing and their luck running out. With the election of Abraham Lincoln it appeared that the abolitionists just might get the interpretation that they wanted, in effect turning the southern political world upside down (Fehrenbacher, Republican, 299-300). Despite Lincoln's attempts to reassure the south that preservation of the union was his main concern this only caused strife in his own party and caused more lashing out at the south's "Peculiar institution". The almost outside view of all this political in-fighting would have left all southern slave holders believing that the views of the loud minority would over shadow the silent majority and circumvent the will of the policy makers against southern interest (Hattaway & Jones, North, 84).
Fears of the antebellum south were again amplified by a sudden influx of anti-slavery literature, which seemed to attack the core of the southern class structure. Republicans viewed their abolitionist propaganda as part of a new world wide movement towards liberation and democracy (Fonner, Free, 72). Southern political leaders and land owners wanted nothing to do with this republican ideology. When Northern mailings of this propaganda began it gave the impression that their own desires not to subscribe to these views were not a right that they posses. This radical literature racked the foundations of the tightly knit southern social structure and came short of out right ridicule of southern values. Complaints were made and under President Andrew Jackson a ban was put on such mailings. This ban, however, did not last long as it was found to be unconstitutional, in violation of the first amendment. To control these mailings a lose interpretation of the law was allowed which allowed mail to be delivered to the postmaster but was then considered to be at its final destination. When Lincoln took office it was feared that this loose interpretation would no longer be tolerated. The Now insecure south also believed that southern postmasters would be replaced with northern abolitionist post masters and this harmful literature would flood into southern homes. The power of propaganda was greatly appreciated and southern politicians feared the picture that the northern radicals would paint of their culture through their literature, the pen was defiantly feared more than the sword. This fear was quite justified as it was through such similar methods that aided in the build up of pro-slavery sentiment in California, obviously they were aware that propaganda could just as easily be used in the other direction (Fehrenbacher, Republican, 302).
Northern abolitionists such as Fredrick Douglas aided the south along in forming its view of the north as a tyrannical government bent on imposing its will on all. Southern fears and mild concerns grew into paranoia as radicals began to outright attack the southern social order and their states governing policies. Fragile understandings and lose interpretations of federal laws held the union intact and calmed southern fears only temporarily. On the eve of, what the south saw as, a new anti-slavery administration southern paranoia rose anew. While many views of the south were without any real merit it was the series of events cumulating with Lincolns election that convinced the south that their own independence and life as they knew it was in danger of being overrun by a tyrannical government.
Fehrenbacher, D. E. The fugitive slave problem from 1850 to 1864. In The Slaveholding Republic, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones, How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil war Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Silber Nina & Clinton, Catherune. Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War: New York: Oxford University Press,1992
This page published 12/11/04