Both Sides Were Racist in the US Civil War

The War of Two Racisms

What the US Civil War was really about

by Gwydion M. Williams

The Southern USA is a stronghold of racist ideology, everyone knows that. What’s not understood is that for much of its history, the Yankee North had a purer form of White Racism than the South ever managed. The Yankee ideal was an all-white society that was self-contained and dominated by people of ‘Nordic’ origin. The South didn’t disagree with this ideal, but cash crops got started early and became the major source of wealth. Tobacco maybe saved the settlement in Virginia, and at first the settlers grew it themselves. But as the years past they found it easier and more profitable to buy slaves, mostly Black Africans.

To grow rich by the labour of helpless slaves was much easier than doing your own hard work. Like a drug addict or a chronic drunkard, the South could not abandon a habit it initially saw as immoral and socially destructive. Unlike an individual addict, a ‘hooked’ society will often try to redefine its values to be in tune with what it can manage. Up until the 1830s they mostly believed that slavery should end eventually, though actual laws for abolition got nowhere. They then reversed their ideas and tried to make a virtue of it.

The idea of negro slavery as a good system was popularised by John C. Calhoun, Andrew Jackson’s Vice-President. Calhoun was a member of the Democratic-Republicans, the party that Jefferson led to power and which confirmed that the new republic would be a democracy. The Founding Fathers had mostly wanted an oligarchy dominated by rich colonial gentry like themselves. There was nothing in the original constitution that said that everyone should have a vote, or even that all white men should have a vote. This had to be fought for, but extending it to blacks wasn’t a widespread choice. In some places they had a vote but dared not use it – Alexis de Tocqueville noted this in the 1830s in his famous book Democracy In America. Dickens in 1842 was shocked by the injustice of ‘democratic racism’– he had come with a strong predisposition to the USA and never viewed himself as hostile. But his highly accurate satire in the American chapters of Martin Chuzzlewit caused a lot of anger. Then as now, the USA would sooner denounce the bearer of bad tidings – preferably murder the bearer of bad tidings –than acknowledge they were imperfect and fix the fault.

Democratic racism existed from the 1830s right up to the 1960s, with the Democratic Party as its main focus. When the Democrats finally yielded to world opinion and took effective measures of reform, the Republican Party took over as apologist for racism and the protector of racism. It was populist resistance to the Federal Government attempt to impose world norms on the USA.

Up till the Civil War, the South in practice was run by its gentry, but only because the bulk of the white population allowed it. Calhoun’s political career began in the South Carolina legislature, where he wrote legislation making South Carolina the first US state to adopt universal suffrage for white men.[B] But more than half of South Carolina’s population was black, and white voters kept on choosing to elect rich slave-owners.

Calhoun died in 1850, but his notion of slavery as a good system lived on and was the logic behind the Confederacy. Though Lincoln was elected in November 1860, he only took office on 4th March 1861, and would have faced plenty of constitutional limits on whatever he might have wanted to do about slavery. But by that time, seven states in the Deep South had seceded, beginning with South Carolina in December. By February 11th 1861 they had formed the Confederacy as an alternative to the existing Federal Government, under a Provisional Constitution.[C] This was replaced on March 11th by a modified Constitution, the one they fought the war under.

South Carolina also initiated hostilities by firing on Fort Sumter, which was doing them no harm. In reaction to this, Lincoln made it clear that he would fight rather than allow secession to succeed. The lines being clearly drawn, the Upper South also seceded and the war was on.

Slavery was the main issue, though the modern South hates to admit it. If secession had been mainly about States Rights, there was no logic in seceding before the new President showed how he meant to govern. Lincoln commented later that he thought secession had been deliberately rushed by Southern leaders who feared that ordinary Southerners would get used to him and lose their hostility if he’d been given a chance. He claimed no right to abolish slavery in states that were part of the Union: he wanted just to ban it from the Territories, those parts of the USA that had few white inhabitants and were judged not yet fit to govern themselves. Lincoln’s policy could have led to a gradual and peaceful elimination of slavery – before the Declaration of Emancipation, Lincoln offered non-seceding slaves states like Maryland a deal that would have seen slavery last until 1900. This was probably not his final offer: quite likely he’d have been ready to see negro slavery extend into well into the 20th century if this would avoid a war, or end it early. But the dominant elements in the South had already decided that they wanted to follow a different destiny in which slavery was seen as a positive system. This view found its clearest expression in the ‘Cornerstone Speech’ by Alexander H. Stephens, the Confederate Vice-President:

“The new [Confederate] constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this [slavery], as the ‘rock upon which the old Union would split.’ He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the ‘storm came and the wind blew.’

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us.” [A]

Rejection of slavery had become a world-wide trend outside of the US South, a grand push to eliminate an ancient evil. Chattel slavery is vastly older than the state. It’s been noted that the first known laws regulated slavery, whose existence is assumed. Probably it began in tribal society, where someone without kin-ties had no rights as a human and could be beaten or killed without anyone doing anything about it. An outsider who became attached to one particular family and worked for them would be protected because they were useful, but would be viewed as property. Once buying and selling emerged as concepts – they are far from natural – the dependent people would be liable to be sold.

Christianity in its early centuries had accepted slavery, though it was unhappy about it, much more so than any of the other world religions. But the type of slavery that they accepted was slavery for the poor and unfortunate, with most slaves coming from the same racial group as the owners. Christianity held that all believers were equal, and the European Enlightenment went further in saying that neither race nor belief really mattered. The Confederate States of America were part of a general attempt to roll back the Enlightenment, or at least its notions of equality.

At the time of the Confederate Secession, some pretty bad things were happening in the British Empire, where some aspects of politics went backwards during the Victorian Era. The men who had won Britain control of the Indian Subcontinent in the Georgian era had been happy to interbreed and to accept mixed-race children as part of the society. The founders of the Empire did many appalling things, but they were not racists and they were not keen to push Christianity – most of the gentry were open skeptics at the time. White Racism was to be the destroyer of the British Empire in the long run, but only over several generations. In the short run it could be seen as an improvement, benevolent Victorian values pushing out Georgian corruption. But the British Empire as run by Georgians might have evolved into a multi-racial state. The Victorian reformers were also mostly racists who assumed that the White Race must always rule. There’s an excellent book called The Last Mughal that describes the process in the context of what most Britons called the ‘Indian Mutiny’. It was a revolt by previously loyal Muslim and Hindu regiments when they realised that their status in what had been a multi-racial empire was low and sinking all the time.[D]

But though White Racist values dominated the British Empire, this did not include a tolerance of slavery. The Slave Trade had been banned in 1807, slavery as such was outlawed in 1834, and Britain made a serious effort to end the transatlantic slave trade. Non-whites were exploited in lots of other ways, but Britons retained the Enlightenment distaste for owning humans as if they were animals.

Slavery was an inhuman institution and deserves no sympathy. Racism was also wrong but more understandable in an unequal and uncertain world. A multi-racial British Empire might also have been one in which the class privileges of the gentry became solid. White racism tended to put all white men at an equal level, superior to women and non-whites. It gave a sense of identity. Universalist creeds can easily become very empty. They can justify the complaint that if everyone is my brother then no one is my brother. And there were major cultural differences that took a long time to remove, several generations, long enough to make it seem plausible that they would never vanish. In the absence of socialism, either racism or religious extremism will meet the human need for a strong sense of community.

Racist societies can be quite stable. To live as a member of an inferior majority is quite different from being a slave: mostly you are safe as an inferior if you accept your position. You can live your own life within limits, and this has been the condition of most of the human race for most of history. In most societies also, being a slave was being a servant in a rich household. It was vastly worse being a slave in a society where slavery was race-based and almost impossible. But for the white non-slave majority it was highly comfortable, the poor whites saw a gratifyingly large number of people below them in the social order. They also benefited from the general prosperity based on supplying slave-grown cash crops to Europe. They enjoyed a feeling of being part of an all-white society that was fairly democratic for those with the right skin colour.

The US South was the worst, but it was not an isolated case. It wasn’t just white-against-black: creeds that combine radical community democracy with hatred of other communities were there from the beginning, and remain widespread. English Popular democracy in the 17th was mostly Puritan and intolerant. Wilkes in the mid-18th century was a renewer of popular democracy, but he intentionally tapped into English resentment of the Scots. His followers went further, with many of them involved in the Gordon Riots. The actual issues of the riot were complex: those demonstrating were in part in favour of the new United States, in part expressing of Protestant sectarianism and in part expressing communal hatred of the Irish. Wilkes was shocked by it and organised the forces of ‘law and order’ to put down the rioters, ending his political career by so doing. He was maybe the first of many radicals who encouraged democracy and then found that the actuality was not quite what they’d been after.

Most modern commentators confuse democracy with enlightenment. Most modern commentators are fools who’ve swallowed the nonsense the New Right has been pumping out since the 1970s, even when they view themselves as being something quite different from the New Right. Democracy and enlightenment are not a natural pair, and can quite easily be enemies. Early pioneers like Voltaire looked mostly to Enlightened Despots, though Voltaire also liked the British system, a parliament where there were elections but most of the seats were controlled by the rich.

I emphasise all this because the standard left-wing view of the US South is to see it as some sort of betrayal of democracy. You get whole books written about the small amount of popular Southern resistance to the Confederacy, the stuff that Marx was very hopeful about at the time, but which actually amounted to little. Democratic movements can boost the prejudices of the majority, or of a politically dominant minority. That is pretty much the history of the USA/

But to get back to slavery, the Confederate Constitution said little about ‘state rights’. The preamble to the original constitution included the aim to “promote the general welfare”.[F] The Confederates removed this, but added “invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God”.[G]. Which is very much in line with the way US politics has gone since the 1870s, invoke God and let your less fortunate neighbours go to hell. Interestingly, the Confederate version also says “to form a permanent federal government” rather than “to form a more perfect Union”. It did say “each State acting in its sovereign and independent character”, but what this meant remained unclear. It is nowhere stated that any state has the right to secede from the Confederacy having once joined it. What it did do was clearly entrench negro slavery, explicitly identified as such and without the evasive language of the 1787Constitution: “no bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”[F]

The original constitution said:

“No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, But shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”[G]

The Confederate version said:

“No slave or other person held to service or labor in any State or Territory of the Confederate States, under the laws thereof, escaping or lawfully carried into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor; but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such slave belongs, or to whom such service or labor may be due.”

The Confederate constitutions did ban the import of African slaves, confirming the position established by the USA in 1808. This makes sense as a ‘sweetener’ for Virginia, which had not joined the secession of the Deep South at the time the Confederate Constitution was drawn up. Virginia was an exporter of slaves, with its own population of slaves fast increasing and being shipped out. The wealth of plantation owners depended on the market value of slaves as much as on their immediate capacity for work. Most of them were in debt, and used slaves as ‘collateral’ to secure the loan.

There was a report in June 2009 that the Rothschild family, previously supposed to be anti-slavery, had been involved in such a transaction: “In the case of Mr Rothschild, the documents reveal for the first time that he made personal gains by using slaves as collateral in banking dealings with a slave owner.”[H] Just as house-owners in Britain and the USA used the rising value of their houses as a ‘cash machine’ until the recent slump, so slave-owners had a lot to gain or lose depending on how the price went.

If your main source of wealth was ownership of slaves rather than exploitation of slave labour, you wanted to keep the price high. Fresh slaves threatened the value of your property, but so did gradual emancipation. States like Texas that were freshly settled and short of labour wanted to resume the Atlantic slave-trade, get labour from the cheapest source. But this was secondary to the need to secure slave-ownership in the long run by a successful secession. Slave-owners from slave-exporting states were following their ‘rational’ economic interests in backing the Confederacy.

There’s a book called Time On The Cross that tries to play down the economic importance of slavery. I’ve read it and found it full of holes. Written records maybe show quite a limited trade. But huge numbers of slaves appeared in newly formed states that had been thinly populated by Native Americans a few years earlier – how did they get there? A lot of it might have been informal, a younger son going west and taking with him a share of the family slaves. In any case, price depends on the actual trading that takes place. So Virginia and the rest of the Upper South made huge sacrifices in a war to save slavery, despite a certain distaste for it.

Meantime the North had a purer sort of racism. Slavery was abolished but blacks were not wanted and not viewed as full citizens:

“Connecticut disenfranchised blacks in 1818, but that was a mere formality. As in many other places in the North, there is no evidence that blacks ever dared attempt to vote in Connecticut, in colonial times or after the Revolution.” [J]

“Wisconsin was one of the first states to establish black suffrage, but this was accomplished only through a Supreme Court decision after suffrage had been defeated repeatedly at the polls. Like many in the North, Wisconsin residents disliked slavery, but they also felt no desire to integrate with blacks, whom they felt were inferior…

“When the Civil War ended, nineteen of 24 Northern states did not allow blacks to vote. Nowhere could they serve on juries before 1860. They could not give testimony in 10 states, and were prevented from assembling in two. Several western states had prohibited free blacks from entering the state. Blacks who entered Illinois and stayed more than 10 days were guilty of “high misdemeanor.” Even those that didn’t, debated it and had discriminatory ordinances on the local level.” [K]

The Oregon Territory banned slavery but also banned black people from trying to live there. The Northern vision of the future was all-white, small farmers working hard on their own land.

When it came to raising an army, black volunteers were initially turned away from what was seen as a ‘white man’s war’. The Federal Government only changed this later, when it started running out of white men of military age. The North had far more troops, but it had to garrison everything it captured. Blacks were accepted, but under white officers and given a limited role. There was surprise when they did well when they were later allowed to fight as front-line troops. This was seen at the time as undermining the notion that they were fit only to be slaves. But not the idea that North America should be all-white, with blacks not wanted anywhere.

Before his assassination, Abraham Lincoln was working at some means of shipping out the mass of emancipated blacks. The Thirteenth Amendment banned slavery: Lincoln helped push it through, though it was only ratified in December 1865, a few months after his death. There’s no way to know what he’d have thought of the Fourteenth Amendment (July 1868), which forced all of the states to accept blacks as equal citizens. Or the Fifteenth Amendment (February 1870) that gave them equal voting rights.

In the event, though blacks became technically equal, this was subverted as part of the reconciliation of North and South. General Grant as Republican President from 1869 to 1877 made a real effort to break racism, but he was succeeded by Rutherford B. Hayes, also a Republican but a man who won a disputed election by agreeing to wind up Reconstruction. For decades, the Federal government chose to stop doing anything serious to end racism or to stop the intimidate of black voters in the South.

Civil wars are a monstrous business. Few states have ever put themselves together without one, but the scars run deep. With luck the war will become part of the dead past, as Britain’s Civil War has become (except in Ireland). Few Britons nowadays feel any strong identification with either side in the ‘British Wars’, which ended with a compromise between most of the rival forces – Catholic Irish excluded, unfortunately. British politics has moved on, going well past the rejected radicalism of the Civil War’s Levellers on social matters, while becoming largely skeptical about the religious notions that were so critical at the time.

The USA is different. US popular culture increasingly sentimentalises and distorts a Civil War they ought to be thoroughly ashamed of, North as well as South.

If the USA today was content just to live its own life, I’d be ready to leave the matter alone, view it as none of my business. But the USA has decided that the whole world is its business. The USA has decided that its own social and political examples are something astonishing superior and must be imposed everywhere in their modern form. They ignore or gloss over all of the social development and political struggle that was needing in first Britain and then British settlers in North America before such a system could work.

The USA makes a big noise ‘freedom’, as it did in the 1950s. But it fails to admit that ‘freedom’ nowadays means something very different than it did in the 1950s. Back then, US society was segregated, sex was dirty and the role of women was firmly subordinated to male needs. They can at most claim credit for legalising homosexuality and then later normalising it – neither were part of the Soviet agenda, even though a significant minority of gifted homosexuals used to support the Soviet cause. The rest of the freedoms we now value came from multiple influences and from the fact that the USA always needed to compromise and seek allies.

I personally have great objections to modern Britain being subordinated to an offshoot of 18th century English society. But these values are far less intrusive here than in most of the world, where the whole set of values are alien. Britain did take some things that were useful from US culture in the 1930s to 1950s. But then the Hard Left successfully undermined moderate socialist reforms like Workers Control and Incomes Policy. They created a stalemate that allowed Thatcher and Reagan to restore many of the old evils.

The way the USA’s Civil War was won and lost has great significance today, especially with Southern influence rising as the East Coast loses confidence in itself. Just now, the US Republicans are dependent on the votes of Southern Whites who reliably voted Democrat until the Democrats became the party of Black Equality. The Democrats had run a stable racist system for decades, and Southern Democrats were an essential part of the New Deal coalition. But the Cold War and a mass of newly sovereign countries offended by open racism meant that the system had to change. The Democrats broke down the old system, but the Republicans stopped anything new being built. And both sides prefer to mythologize the war.

First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2009


[B] []

[C] []

[D] []

[E] Dalrymple, William. The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857. Bloomsbury 2007

[F []

[G []

[H] []

[J] []

[K] []


  1. The USA wanted a all white country and was okay with the free white irish slaves but wanted to ship black slaves to another country. That is racist. Their however was no white own black racism. The first slave owner was black. In count of both countrys which made up 5% of slave owners, 70% were jewish slave owners, 18% black slave owners and only 12% were white or indian slave owners. Nothing racist about slavery. It was leagal and every race has been slaves and slave owners. Most slaves did not even care they were slaves. They only debated and fought on the idea if they were freed or still own.
    Lincoln stood alone on wanting to free slaves. Most people think the south was a bunch of KKK leaders who own blacks and wanted to keep slavery while the USA wanted to free them. NO! Lincoln only wanted to free them to ship them away. If he never died most blacks would not be here today. Johnson agree because he lost a brother in war and hated the south. His part in Lincolns assassination was to take power to end the war. Each president before Lincoln had slaves.

    CSA- The generals, and other leaders in the Confederate states in cludes the President did not have slaves. Though they needed slaves to keep a country going (as every country did) Robert E,Lee said if he could buy all the slaves to free them he would. Their was nothing racist about the south, Confederate states or their flag.

    The KKK was in both countrys waving both flags. Their actions does not represent either country nor does what has happen since. What one guy did to a church (clearly wrong) does not represent the flag itself. Should we ban the gay flag? A black guy killed 6 army white men waving the gay flag. Hatecrime just as the white guy with the church. What about the BLM hate group. Should be ban their flags for their hate crimes? Since no one looks at both sides it is time to leave the flags alone. The CSA never flew their flag on a slave ship, Never stood for hate/ Slavery, never stood for terrorism yet is hated. The American flag has been used in terrorism and hate crimes, waved over slave ships yet look at as a normal flag.


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