My Southern Heritage

Every Southerner should read this book

Every Southerner should read this book

A Readers Guide to this Post: As you read the following post, you are going to think I’m being critical of the South, particularly South Carolina. I am. I was born in Kentucky, and I’ve lived 42 of my 49 years in the Southeast. I love the South, much like you love a pet cat that bites you for petting it for too long.  The South is full of a lot of good people with outstanding character, and it’s full of characters who are outstanding archetypes for the stories I write. South Carolina has been my home for 20 years. In a lot of ways, it is a utopia. There is no better place on Earth. But at the same time, in minor ways, it’s a weed-filled abyss that old-guard South Carolinians like to pretend is pretty. I want to pull the weeds. Recent developments by a school board in Texas to label slavery as immigration has made me realize that hardline Southerners from coast-to-coast are trying to rewrite history in an effort to retrain successive generations on the matter of racism. In a covert way, they are trying to reestablish the positive good philosophy of slavery in order to maintain a racial divide. Why? Because these hardliners benefit politically and financially when they have a well-defined base to cater to. It’s easy to appease a group of angry white voters who feel unfairly maligned. All you have to do is say exactly what they’re feeling, and you know what they’re feeling because you taught them to feel that way. These hardliners are a fringe group, but they hold the power. I want to change that. The only way I can do that is to be honest about our past and critical of the future they want for us. I do it because I love the South. 

Can we talk? I mean about something that’s really uncomfortable to talk about. Something that a lot of Southerners feel is in bad taste to discuss, given our history on the topic. I’m talking about the ‘S’ word, slavery.

I took a deep dive into my Southern heritage after the Emanuel Nine were gunned down by a racist shit bag in my hometown of Charleston. It shook me, and I wanted answers. In my search, the Confederacy was a beacon of Southern identity for a lot of Southerners. I was told by a large number of establishment rednecks that the Confederate battle flag was a symbol of my proud Southern heritage. But none of these roadkill scholars could tell me what that heritage actually was. I’ve come to realize that a faction of the Confederate flag supporters mean “white” heritage when they say Southern heritage. But, to be clear, not all of them believe there are racial undertones to the term. Some of them genuinely believe there is a Southern spirit – fiercely independent, do-or-die attitude, God-fearing, Jesus-loving, deer-huntin’, etc. In essence, a boldness and self-reliance that defines who we are as Southerners.  That is a romanticized version of Southern heritage.  Let’s call it an exaggeration based on a nugget of truth.

In my research, I picked up a book by Joseph Kelly called America’s Longest Siege. It is a comprehensive history of Charleston and South Carolina starting from the mid-1600’s to the late 1860’s.  Kelly does an incredible job of identifying the divide between Southerners and Northerners from the earliest days of the colonies to the abrupt end of Reconstruction.  The South, more specifically South Carolina, developed a chip on its shoulder the second slavery started to lose favor among the Northern territories.  However, even in South Carolina, when the first slaves arrived, there was an open uneasiness among Southern whites about keeping other human beings as slaves. Had it not been for the discovery that the Lowcountry was prime real estate for growing rice, slavery would most likely have been short-lived in the area because the morality of the practice was constantly questioned. It was thought to be a grotesque privilege for the rich.  Once the landowners and ruling class discovered there was money to be made by using what was essentially a free labor force, a campaign began to quiet the opposition to slavery. It was a relatively easy undertaking because the wealthy controlled the lawmakers and the newspapers.  Sound familiar?

Dissenters still existed, but fear was used to shout them down. In almost no time, slavery became crucial to the economy of South Carolina. The slave population even outnumbered the free population. Slave traders became some of the wealthiest and most influential members of the community. There seemed to be an ever-present anxiety that the slaves would rebel, and when the white public’s distress grew to a fever pitch, harsher ordinances were created to squelch what was often a non-existent threat.  There were a small number of rebellions, but they were met with an unspeakable brutality and not just the perpetrators were punished.

Among the rise of the slave economy, there arose a true hero. Ironically enough, he was the son of one the most influential slave traders in US history. This hero’s name was John Laurens. His father was so wealthy he sent his son to Europe to be educated. It was there where he developed not only an abolitionist’s mindset, but a strong desire to end slavery in his home land.  Before he could do so, America declared its independence, and Laurens joined the revolution as one of General Washington’s top aides. The abolitionist who was the son of a slave trader would become a war hero.

During the war, Charleston became a strategic port city. The British were desperate to capture it. Laurens recognized that there weren’t enough men in the area to defend the city, so with the support of his military backers, he petitioned the governor of South Carolina, John Rutledge, to give him slaves to protect the city in exchange for their freedom. His petition was denied. Laurens fought on as the British drew closer and closer.  His request was made a number of times and denied each time. When it became clear the British would take Charleston, Rutledge responded by sending a letter to the King and informing the Crown that South Carolina was officially neutral in the War between the Colonies and the British. His and South Carolina’s allegiance would go to the victor. Today, there are monuments and streets that honor this man who effectively withdrew his support from what would become the United States of America.

As for Laurens, his valor in the war was proven on several occasions. His future was bright. He was set to become a powerful voice in the direction South Carolina would take after the war. Unfortunately, he was killed in a battle that took place after the British had surrendered.  He died needlessly, and his death widened the divide between the North and the South, for he would have undoubtedly been a delegate sent to the convention that drafted our country’s Constitution.  He would have fought to end slavery along with the Northern states. Given his stature as war hero, there’s a better than good chance that he would have won the fight.

Instead, South Carolina sent delegates who represented the plantation class. They were given instructions that under no circumstances was slavery to be sacrificed in favor of forming a country of unified states.  They were told to threaten to pull out of the convention if emancipation was to become the law of the land.  And that’s just what it was, a threat. South Carolina had a huge war debt that it couldn’t pay. It wanted to be forgiven the debt and the only way that would happen is if it went along with whatever contract was devised by the entire delegation. But, Rutledge was among the South Carolina delegates, and he was a master manipulator and negotiator. He calmly let the slavery debate rage during the convention and then entered into a backroom deal with a powerful Connecticut delegate that kept slavery out of our Constitution’s final draft.

Before striking the deal, he set the tone for how Northerners could let go of their demands to end slavery. He convinced the convention that slavery was a dying institution in South Carolina. The morality of the practice weighed heavily on the people, and no one wanted to continue the practice. He floated the idea that a timetable to end slavery had been worked out among South Carolinians. In twenty years it would be totally eradicated, but it couldn’t be sooner because the state had dug itself into a huge hole. Slaves outnumbered whites, and were they to just set them free, the whites would be the minority. And as against slavery as a lot of Northerners were, none of them wanted a state controlled by former slaves.

Rutledge was of course lying.  No such timetable, either formally or informally, had been set. He played the entire delegation. So, that’s how it is that we formed a country dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, while at the same time leaving out an entire race (not to mention gender) in that equation.

Slavery continued and grew in the South. South Carolina thrived on the institution much more so than the other states.  Attitudes towards slavery did begin to turn however. The thought that Southerners lived in a country conceived in liberty started to taint the minds of the younger generation. How could there be true liberty if not everyone had access to it? In Charleston, the practice of quasi-freedom became common. Slaves were taught a trade and then allowed to find work in that trade. Most of their salaries would be turned over to their owners, but many of them were permitted to live on their own, and spend their off-hours anyway they wished. Many of them even earned enough to buy their own freedom.

It was a liberal direction that the ruling class couldn’t stomach. Lucky for them, a successful slave revolt in Haiti served to terrify the white population of South Carolina.  They became convinced that such a thing could happen in their own community.  This is where Joseph Kelly’s thesis gets somewhat controversial, although he’s not alone in his assessment. He makes the thoroughly researched case that the white power structure in Charleston seized on the fears of the people, and invented a planned revolt to be led by a freedman, Denmark Vesey.  Blacks, both free and slave, were rounded up, tortured and made to confess in secret court proceedings. The mayor of Charleston, a man named Hamilton, prevented authorities outside of the city any access to the proceedings. The Denmark Vesey revolt was used to change the liberal tide, and stricter, harsher rules were put into place to control the black population. No evidence of the revolt ever really existed. Coerced testimony by blacks with no access to attorneys was the only framework used to find a number of slaves and freedman guilty. They were dealt with promptly and lethally.

Not long after, John C. Calhoun enters the picture, and he would become the man that ensured there would be a Civil War. Calhoun was a political operative with his sights on the Presidency.  He rose to the ranks of Vice President, a post he served under two presidents, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.

Jackson would make the mistake in believing that Calhoun was a close political ally. In fact, as Secretary of War, Calhoun tried to convince President Monroe to arrest Jackson for war crimes for overstepping his authority and causing an International incident with Spain in Florida.  Monroe, of course, ignored Calhoun and designated Jackson a war hero instead.  Jackson was led to believe Calhoun had been his biggest supporter during the ordeal. Knowing what we know today about politicians, it’s a solid bet that Calhoun was the one who convinced Jackson of that notion.

During Jackson’s term as president, tariffs were levied on agriculture that Southerners felt put an undo tax burden on them. The South was an agriculture economy supported by a slave economy. The North was largely made up of manufacturing and textile industries. Southern delegates protested to Jackson, a Southern slave-owner himself, expecting him to be sympathetic to their plight. He basically told them to get lost. The tariff would stand.

Calhoun went behind his president’s back and developed the Nullification doctrine. In a nut shell, he invented a political philosophy that said any state could declare a federal law unconstitutional. They simply had to hold a convention, and if attendees voted the law invalid, the state wouldn’t have to abide by said law.  Based on this new power, South Carolina representatives went to Jackson and told him to shove the tariff, and if it wasn’t reduced, they would secede.

What these South Carolinian’s failed to recognize was that Andrew Jackson was a psychopath. This is the man that forcibly removed the Cherokee Nation from their land, and then had their blankets laced with smallpox during the notorious Trail of Tears incident, all in an effort to reduce the country’s financial responsibility to care for these displaced people. So, he wasn’t really into threats. He let the South Carolina representatives in Washington know just how many people he would kill if there was any attempt to secede.

They heeded his warning, and called off all talks of secession. Calhoun was outed as the architect of Nullification, and made an enemy of Jackson, a man you didn’t want as your enemy. Any aspirations Calhoun had of one day being President were gone. His only hope to survive as a politician was to stop pretending to be a moderate and adopt deeply conservative views.  Slavery became the cause he decided to champion to win the approval of the wealthy ruling class in South Carolina.

With a few small exceptions, the nation outside of the South was desperate to end slavery. The expansion westward fueled contentious debates in the Capitol. Abolitionists had the audacity to point out the evil and immoral nature of slavery. Petitions were sent to congress to pass a law ending slavery and prevent it from spreading to the territories out West.  Southern lawmakers responded by demanding Congress stop accepting such petitions. It was an insult to the honor of the South.  A compromise was struck that they would accept the petitions, but they would never debate the petitions. So, basically, Congress has always worked very hard to do nothing at all.

In the late 1830’s, Calhoun decided the problem was that the younger generations had been taught that slavery was a necessary evil. The negligible cost of labor it provided to support the agriculture industry was essential for the Southern economy. The implication being that slavery was wrong, but needed. Calhoun decided that this was a creed that would lead to the end of slavery and decimate the Southern way of life.  A way of life his wealthy backers were very fond of.  He decided he needed to change the discussion. Slavery wasn’t a necessary evil unfairly perpetrated on an unfortunate people. Slavery was a “positive good” that saved a barbaric people from dying in the jungles of Africa. He championed the idea that blacks were incapable of being civilized to the point that they would survive as a free people. He turned the tables and made it popular to believe that to emancipate the slaves would be nothing short of cruel.

He said this from the Senate floor, and he was the first public official to make such a claim. While he made the speech to his fellow lawmakers, he wasn’t speaking to them. He was speaking to the South. He was telling them what the new dialogue would be from that moment on. Whites were the superior race, and as such, they had a duty to hold in bondage and care for blacks. He wanted this to be what the next generations of Southerners were taught. The press in the South picked up on the “positive good” canon and ran with it. It became the rallying cry for the majority of Southern whites.  From that moment on, Southerners lived in Calhoun’s superior race generation.

It is the generation that would be the one that would lead the country into a civil war. South Carolina would secede from the Union after the election of Abraham Lincoln. The reason for the secession was clearly identified as the growing hostility by the North towards slavery.  It didn’t matter that Lincoln had indicated he would favor a Constitutional amendment that protected slavery in the South. Southern Democrats felt betrayed by their own party, when their Northern counterparts refused to choose a candidate that would expand slavery into the Western territories.  They realized if they could not win the fight in their own party, they couldn’t win the fight on slavery with the North. There was nothing left to do but form their own country.

Having said all this, what did I learn about my Southern heritage? It is unquestionably built on slavery, but not just of Africans brought to and born in this country.  The white plantation class not only kept blacks in bondage, they also kept poor and working class whites in a kind of bondage, too, one based on fear and ignorance. They convinced a class of people that saw no benefit from the slave economy that slavery was at first a necessary evil and then a positive good.  The white plantation class controlled elections, and they controlled the education system. They bred a slave mentality into generations of Southern whites because they needed the deplorable industry to build and maintain their wealth.

The Confederate flag symbolizes a lie that our heritage was built on. Men who never owned slaves or gained any “value” from slavery died in battle because of that lie.  A race of people were denied their humanity for centuries because of that lie. Why would we want to honor a flag that represents such undeniable evil? If Southerners want a heritage to be proud of, I ask you to look to two men: John Laurens and Robert Smalls.

Smalls is a remarkable man who was a slave that stole a Confederate ship and sailed the slaves on board to freedom across treacherous waters, guarded by Confederate garrisons. He would go on to serve with distinction in the Union Navy and help defeat the Confederacy. In doing so, he helped expose the positive good doctrine for what it was, a lie.

Don’t take my word on any of this. Do your own deep dive. If I were you, I would start with America’s Longest Siege by Joseph Kelly. Most of what I wrote about in this post today, I learned from his book. I’ve picked up other sources here and there, but Kelly’s book is a goldmine of information. Every Southerner should read it, especially if you live in South Carolina.

2 thoughts on “My Southern Heritage

    • Thank, Kenneth. That’s a new take I hadn’t heard. BTW – The Cherokee Nation “factoid” doesn’t come from Kelly’s book. That’s just something I had been taught years ago in an Native American History class.

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