'Battle Cry of Freedom' Discussion Group, Chs. 7 and 8

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McPherson on the antebellum South's systemic white supremacy:


Outside the Appalachian highlands, many of them [nonslaveholders] were linked to the ruling class by ties of kinship, aspirations for slave ownership or mutual dislike of Yankees and other outsiders. A caste sysem as well as a form of labor, slavery elevated all whites to the ruling caste and thereby reduced the potential for class conflict. However poor and illiterate some whites may have been, they were still white. if the fear of "nigger equality" caused most of the northern working class to abhor Republicans even where blacks constituted only 2 or 3 percent of the population, this fear operated at much higher intensity where the proportion of black was tenfold greater.

I think that's marvelous. First, a note on McPherson as a writer. The laymen, when first confronted with Battle Cry, has to be intimidated by its sheer page-count. But page-count is irrelevant when its the result of great writing. 800 pages in McPherson's hands feel like 400 pages in the hands of lesser writers.

That talent is on display in the above graf. McPherson is making a very uncomfortable and complicated, but essential point. He's noting how slavery was not simply a matter of slave-holders--it was a matter of caste and aspiration. In making that point he quietly refutes the Lost Cause talking point that most Confederate soldiers didn't own slaves. This is irrelevant. I don't own a uterus. But I might go to war to protect a woman's right to chose, as surely as other men might go to war to outlaw abortion. This is, among other things, because we see our fate, in intimate ways, tied to either the protection or the banishment of abortion. Kinship ties, as McPherson would put it. Likewise, I don't own a house. But I might go to war to protect the right of homeownership, because much as the poor white aspired to the social status of slave-owning planter, I might aspire to be a homeowner in all that that means.

Think of Sam Watkins, a non-slave owning Confederate soldier:

A law was made by the Confederate States Congress about this time allowing every person who owned twenty negroes to go home. It gave us the blues; we wanted twenty negroes. Negro property suddenly became very valuable, and there was raised the howl of "rich man's war, poor man's fight." The glory of the war, the glory of the South, the glory and pride of our volunteers had no charms for the conscript.

The irony is beautiful--owning blacks became a way out of war inaugurated to protect the ownership of blacks, hence reinforcing the value and prestige of owning blacks.

There's obviously a lot more. I'd be much obliged to anyone willing to talk about the Panic of 1857, how it connected to slavery, and how it ultimately fit into the election of 1860.

Two more side points:
1.) Does anyone else laugh anytime the phrase "Black Republican Party" comes up?

2.) Isn't the connection between systemic racism, and hostility toward public education depressing? There's a part where McPherson basically says the planter really had nothing to gain from seeing the yeoman farmers educated, and so they didn't support public education.


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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