Reflections on Antebellum Language and Public Discourse: A mini-review

“As soon as we start putting our thoughts into words and sentences everything gets distorted, language is just no damn good—I use it because I have to, but I don’t put any trust in it. We never understand each other.”                       ― Marcel Duchamp

Elizabeth R. Varon’s 2008 book, Disunion: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859, explores the non-partisan use of the term “disunion,” and delves into the layered meanings of the word in the political and social landscape of antebellum America. She argues that use of the term “disunion” was a significant cause of tensions that led to the Civil War. A chronologically organized work, Varon mines a multitude of primary sources to “…reframe the issue of Civil War causality.”1 Moreover, Varon’s work seeks to answer why “…Americans [could] not debate the fate of slavery without also conjuring up the notion of disunion?”2 More than a theoretical debate on the power of language or of its various inflectional interpretations, Varon’s argument centers on the pervasive fear held by antebellum Americans that the Union was potentially “contingent—and even fatally flawed.”3 Used as a rhetorical catch-phrase in the North and the South, Varon encapsulates “disunion” into five categorical “registers:” prophecy, threat, accusation, process, and program. Her delineated categorical approach helps to organize what is a plethora of material on the subject.

Varon clearly states that “disunion” is not interchangeable with “secession,” that as secession was a clear political and legal process, disunion was a “sublimely adaptable concept and thus could be put to a stunning range of uses.”4 As an answer to the challenge of fellow historian Edward Ayers to revisit the causes of sectionalism, Varon’s attempt is a successful one, not only for her approach to her subject matter, but also for the sheer professionalism of her scholarship.

Varon follows an accepted course of scholarship in her attention to the large issues that are fundamentally cited as catalysts of sectionalism: the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, abolitionist movements, and political partisanship, among others. She definitively argues that it was slavery that made the war an inevitable event, but that specter of disunion, “suffused as it was with images of treason, rebellion, retribution, and bloodshed…bred disillusionment with part politics; mistrust of compromise; and…the expectation that only violent conflict would resolve the debate over slavery once and for all.”5

Forcefully argued and well-supported, Varon cogently weaves an intricate narrative that is an important contribution to existing pre-Civil War scholarship. She successfully illustrates how the use of disunion as a rhetorical device contributed to intense sectionalism, and stands as a trail-blazer for other scholars as they continue to ask new questions of existing sources of antebellum America. An example of Varon’s willingness to tread new ground is her disagreement with Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer and his analysis of the Lincoln/Douglas debates. Varon states clearly that Holzer missed the “striking departure [of] Lincoln’s June speech…from the Lecompton congressional debates of 1857-58.” By asking readers to re-analyze old material, Varon is keeping the scholarship of the Civil War moving forward.

Civil War scholarship is a challenging historical genre in that the existing framework of the political conditions that existed prior to 1860, to many scholars, is not only the focal point of causation, but also the only legitimate answer to causation. Varon boldly attacks the preexisting scholarly consensus by presenting the argument that an ephemeral concept (language) could be as divisive as an Act of Congress. Yet her work is not blind to the integrated aspect of political action and rhetorical process, as her argument illustrates.

Varon weaves numerous social and cultural gems into her male dominated, politically focused argument, providing readers additional layers of historical analysis. With nuance, she points out other conventions of language (i.e. “morbid,” and “sickly,”) to show how Victorian gender roles used language as a “weapon.” This is significant to her overall argument as the “distinct meaning in Victorian discourse” had deeper implications than our twenty-first century perception of the words alone would imply.

I find it intriguing that Varon ended her discussion in 1859, with John Brown. Brown is a powerful representation of the verbosity with which the antebellum era is rife; his violent response to slavery shows the power of language to provoke, and he is widely thought of as the cause, the match to the torch of secession. Varon’s analysis of language in pre-Civil War America to engender sectionalism shows a masterful understanding of both the intricacies of human discourse, and the repercussions of it.

1. Elizabeth R. Varon, Disunion: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 4.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., 5.
4. Ibid., 6.
5. Ibid., 16.

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Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Defining Freedom

The fairest minds of all their [Freedmen’s Bureau] officials seems not to be able [to] comprehend the difference between the “nigger” freedman and the white northern laborer.  
–William McBurney to Thomas B. Ferguson, in a private letter dated February 1, 1866.  These two men were f
ormer slaveholders in Charleston, South Carolina.  McBurney writes about the advantages of paying contracts in cash wages versus paying in a share of crops.1 

You are now free, but you must know that the only difference you can feel yet, between slavery and freedom, is that neither you nor your children can be bought or sold.….Do not think of leaving the plantation where you belong.  If you try to go to Charleston, or any other city, you will find no work to do, and nothing to eat.  You will starve, or fall sick and die.  Stay where you are, in your own homes, even if you are suffering.  There is no better place for you anywhere else. 
–Part of a Speech to Freedpeople written by Capt. Charles C. Soule,
Chairman of Commission of Contracts, Orangeburg, South Carolina; June 12, 1865 in order to help the Freedpeople understand their new position in society.2 

Here is where secession was born and Nurtured   Here is were [sic] we have toiled nearly all Our lives as slaves and were treated like dumb Driven cattle,  This is our home,  we have made These lands what they are.  we were the only true and Loyal people that were found in possession [sic] of these Lands.  we have been always ready to strike for Liberty and humanity yea to fight if needs be To preserve this glorious union.  Shall not we who Are freedman and have been always true to this Union have the same rights as are enjoyed by Others?  Have we broken any Law of these United States?  Have we forfieted [sic]our rights of property In Land?
–Excerpt of a Letter to President Johnson written by Freedman Henry Bram on behalf of 2500 Freedpeople of Edisto Island, South Carolina, October 28, 1865 in response to being ordered to vacate the island upon the return of the property to former Confederate owners.3

Reconstruction in the post-Civil War South was a battleground of definitions. Definitions of law, of identity, of place, and of freedom filled the landscape as fully as the tensions that arose out of the need for such delineations. Though the particulars of location altered the fundamental way tensions and definitions manifested, defining the parameters of freedom became essential to the larger question of how former slaves would participate in their local communities; specifically, how Freedpeople would make a living for themselves and their families, or as Abraham Lincoln put it, to reap the fruits of their own labor. The question of defining law, identity, place, and freedom was not academic to these men and women as they struggled to adapt to their status as Freedpeople, and began to pursue the benefits of a free labor society.

Numerous historians, like Eric Foner, Bruce E. Baker, Brian Kelly, and Susan Eva O’Donovan have explored Reconstruction through lenses that magnify the delicate political, economic, and social landscapes that former slaves had to navigate in a post-slavery society. One of the enduring contributions to come out of Civil War and Reconstruction studies is the argument of “black agency,” which posits that slaves and then Freedpeople were not simply pawns but actively engaged in all aspects of their emancipation, and in the formation of their post-slavery lives. The topic of “black agency” is not relegated to emancipation, and has touched off a significant re-evaluation of the way in which the labor of the post-slavery South is being considered.   This trend in Reconstruction scholarship is actually inspired by an argument posited years ago by W.E.B. DuBois. In his Black Reconstruction in America, published in 1935, DuBois argues in part that the Civil War was a general strike by slaves against slaveholders. By defining the actions slaves took to subvert their bondage “a strike,” DuBois illustrated an altered way in which to view the Civil War and Reconstruction; in essence, Southern race and class struggles were relatable to the labor/capital problem faced in the North. When viewed from the position of class conflict and not race, Reconstruction takes on whole new meanings, not unlike the labor conflicts faced by many Northern and Western communities during the late nineteenth century that centered on ethnicity. But, excluding the racial component from the class component when discussing nineteenth century labor relations is foolhardy, especially as racial intolerance was still widely prevalent everywhere. This is not to say that race and class did not combine in ways unique to each community in the North, and in ways unique to the South, making generalizations dangerous.

Examinations of postbellum labor contracts, Freedmen’s Bureau documents, court cases, and letters, like those from which the above excerpts are taken, gives a fuller understanding of who was working, for how much, and under what conditions. The old vision of former slaves laboring with their “40 acres and a mule” is slowly being replaced by more developed images of the diversity of work done by former slaves: from sharecropping to serving in the state legislature, and everything in between.   Yet, analysis of labor in the South also illuminates disturbing aspects of a depressed, post-slavery society: significant poverty, child indentures, and abuse of former slaves. The exploration of the labor aspect of Reconstruction shows that though emancipated, and regardless of intelligence or education or financial position, the de-capitalization of human property did not guarantee that Freedpeople would be viewed as equal, nor could they easily exercise their new-found freedom.

Even after the fall of Richmond, surrounded by Union troops, and flush with the promises that emancipation offered, Albert Brooks found his ability to navigate freedom’s waters bumpy. Brooks was a former slave who had purchased his freedom prior to the start of the Civil War.  Brooks, along with a partner, established a successful taxi service in the city of Richmond, which they ran for ten years prior to the end of the war. This is no mean feat considering Brooks did this in the heart of the Confederacy, at a time when the politics of race, property, and disunion were being stirred into a frenzy, and were most likely argued in the very conveyances Brooks managed. His enterprise consisted of ten “hacks” as he referred to them, and twenty-two horses, valued over $10,000 until the war began. The Rebels confiscated all but one of his horses and burned seven of his taxis, leaving Brooks with little. He was able to recover somewhat, and had built his business back to five buggies and ten horses when the end of the war came and Union troops occupied Richmond. Following proper procedure, both Brooks and his partner sought out Federal authorities where they took a loyalty oath to the Union, paid $12.50 each for licenses to continue doing business and received papers of protection which allowed them safe passage around the city. Yet on June 6, 1865 Brooks was arrested.  He was jailed for not having the proper papers, despite showing the credentials he had previously obtained, and because he was black was assumed to have been a former slave though he did not belong in the same category as emancipated Freedmen of the area, as he had bought his freedom years earlier. In a statement given about the incident, Brooks states it best:

I asked him what I was to do to prevent being arrested and taken from my business again. He said I must have some white master to give me a pass to show that I was employed. I said if I must have a master, I would have some of these Union men. I went to Asst. Provost Marshal Chas. Warren, 11th C. I. And asked him if he would be my master and give me a pass. He said he would. I asked him if my oath and permit, and licence and the seal of the U. S. were not sufficient—he would not answer. I said don’t deceive me again. You told me before that these papers were sufficient—give me something now that will protect me—he than [sic] gave me a pass which I am obliged to show to Mayor’s police, who stop on nearly every corner of the street and make it nearly impossible for me to carry on my business.4

Brooks’s story is important in that it shows how race was influential even to those soldiers working toward the cause of emancipation, especially in the blurring of identity. Brooks was a former slave who chose to make his home in Richmond after purchasing his freedom, stayed in Richmond for the duration of the war, endured confiscation by Rebels, and yet identified himself as a part of Richmond, and thus the Southern community. Considering Union officials outsiders, Brooks nonetheless sought them out as his sole solution to his problem of safe passage in the area. But the interruptions to his work, and his inability to vouch for himself and the men he employed, shows how even under emancipation, race was a tremendous obstacle to assertions of freedom.

Current scholarship does not lack a rich and varied exploration of the political and economic ramifications of the labor aspect of Reconstruction. In 2013, The After Slavery Project  published a collection of essays on “Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South.” Each of the historians mentioned earlier has contributed material to this volume, and to a companion website, dedicated to viewpoints that have heretofore been underexplored regarding labor in the post-emancipation South. Douglas R. Egerton just published The Wars of Reconstruction:  The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era which further reflects upon the ways that violent actions toward former slaves derailed the promises Reconstruction offered to blacks, and the Unites States as a whole in the late 19th century.  These projects serve to broaden our understanding of Reconstruction, which is still misunderstood and largely mythologized by a majority of Americans today.

The address written by Capt. Soule, which began this post, illuminates the challenge of defining freedom or any other condition of humanity: he who interprets the condition is as important as he who wields the power to define it. As freedom relates to the ability to profit by the sweat of one’s brow, exploring the way in which Freedpeople and blacks in general were defined by officials, by former masters, and by themselves helps to clarify the complex environment in which they made their homes, raised their families, and most importantly, were able to participate in the market economies of their communities.

 

1. Low Country Digital Library, http://lowcountrydigital.library.cofc.edu/u?/HFF,1102

2. Capt. Charles C. Soule to Maj. Gen’l. O. O. Howard, 12 June 1865, enclosing an address “To the Freed People of Orangeburg District,” [June 1865], and Maj Gen. O. O Howard to Captain Charles C. Soule, 21 June 1865, all filed as S-17 1865, Letters Received, ser. 15, Washington Headquarters, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives; Freedmen & Southern Society Project , Published in Land and Labor, 1865, pp. 215–22.

3. Henry Bram et al. to the President of these United States, 28 Oct. 1865, filed as P-27 1865, Letters Received, ser. 15, Washington Headquarters, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives, Freedmen & Southern Society Project, Published in Land and Labor, 1865, pp. 442–44.

4. Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Virginia Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865 – 1869. National Archives Microfilm Publication M1048, Roll 59, “Statements Relating to Abuses of Freedmen in Richmond,” http://www.freedmensbureau.com/virginia/richmndabuses.htm (accessed November 18, 2013).

 

For Further Reading:

W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction In America

Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877

Bruce E. Baker and Brian Kelly, eds., After Slavery: Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South

Alex Lichtenstein, “Was the Emancipated Slave a Proletarian?”

Douglas R. Egerton, The Wars of Reconstruction:  The Brief Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era

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