Southern Confederates Believed They Were Racially Superior to Northern Whites

Civil wars often produce unusual ferocity because they involve visceral feelings of contempt forged by close association with one’s enemies.

Furthermore, mischief generally follows when a nation’s intelligentsia aligns with a ruling class. When that happens, members of the resulting political and cultural establishment tend to treat their perceived inferiors with hostility.

If this sounds familiar, it should. After all, it happened in the United States more than 160 years ago.

The long-debated question of the American Civil War’s origins came up again last week at a town hall in New Hampshire when Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina and current candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, failed to mention slavery while responding to an attendee’s question about the cause of the war.

Of course, no serious scholar doubts that the sectional controversy of the 1850s revolved around slavery. The documentary record proves as much.


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Furthermore, no serious scholar doubts that before 1860 slaveholders and their Northern allies in the Democratic Party tried to use the full power of the federal government to expand slavery westward. In other words, they did not act from principled belief in what later generations called “states’ rights.”

Nonetheless, the passage of time has obscured aspects of the war’s origins that help explain the two sides’ mutual contempt.

For instance, in June 1860 a remarkable essay appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger, a periodical published in Richmond, Virginia.

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The Southern Literary Messenger billed itself as a magazine “devoted to every department of literature and the fine arts.” Edgar Allan Poe once served as writer and editor. Thus, the periodical had a cultural focus.

Five months before the election of Abraham Lincoln, however, the Southern Literary Messenger ventured into the realm of public affairs. And it did so in a way that modern readers might find eye-opening.

An anonymous author penned an essay entitled, “The Difference of Race between the Northern and Southern People.”

The author’s purpose, in short, was to highlight white Southerners’ racial superiority over white Northerners.

In fact, the sectional conflict belonged in cultural and ethnographic realms, the author contended, because “the questions which agitate and divide us” have largely “lost their politico-party character.”

Traditional political parties no longer mattered. The Whigs had vanished. Only the Democrats had a viable presence both North and South. And Southern Democrats kept the Republican nominee Lincoln off the ballot in their states.


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The author, therefore, focused not on political views but on “the difference in RACE which exists between the two people.”

“The postulate, then, now sought to be established, is that the Southern people in the main — in other words, the representative blood of the South — comes of that branch of the human race which, at this time, controls all the enlightened nations of the earth,” the author wrote.

Although the author did not identify that “representative blood of the South” until later in the essay, we may assume that contemporary readers understood the reference, which stretched back more than two centuries.

In fact, one could explain much of early American history by referring to the English Civil War of the 1640s.

After losing that war, many royalist fugitives loyal to the English monarchy fled to Virginia. They called themselves “Cavaliers.” And they retained many of their aristocratic habits and assumptions.

True aristocrats, of course, believed that nature had favored them over their presumed inferiors.

And this “ethnological superiority” gave Southerners their “particular capacity for executive control.”

Northerners, on the other hand, lacked the capacity to govern. They descended from English Puritans — Protestant religious zealots, in the author’s view, who thrived in legislatures but distrusted autocratic power.

Thus, self-righteous Northerners incessantly quarreled with one another and failed to command obedience.

Aristocratic Southerners, by contrast, “possess every quality necessary to rule the Northern people.”

If this manner of thinking strikes the 21st-century reader as a relic of feudal Europe, it should.

In fact, the author’s exaggerated sense of aristocratic honor showed through in a passage warning Northerners what would happen if they continued to meddle with slavery.

“And it is greatly to be feared, that they will not desist till a lecture upon the error of it be read to them by the light of their burning cities, informing them that every slave is a Southern muniment, every plantation a garrison of defense — every planter a feudal lord upon his lands, and every lord a soldier,” the author wrote.

In short, if you challenge feudal lords, they will burn your cities.

Northerners did have some good qualities, but “they still require CONTROL.”

Thus, the white rulers of the South must assert their racial superiority over white Northerners.

“They come of that race to whom law and order, obedience and command, are convertible terms,” the author wrote of Southerners, “and who do command, the world over, whether the subject be African or Caucasian, Celt or Saxon.”

Of course, a single essay in a literary journal hardly condemns an entire region.

On the other hand, we might fairly regard the Southern Literary Messenger as representative of antebellum Southern intellectual thought.

With this in mind, “The Difference of Race between the Northern and Southern People” has much broader significance.

It tells us, for instance, how some powerful Southerners viewed the situation that led to civil war.

Political parties had lost their significance, so the conflict took on new and deeper dimensions.

Southerners’ natural superiority meant that they did not have to take Northerners’ objections to slavery seriously. In fact, slaveholders needed only to issue commands.

One manifestation of this uncompromising mindset even involved the threat of burning cities. Again, one need not deliberate or negotiate with inferiors.

Hence, the Southern aristocrat had a natural right to rule.

Finally, that right had a global context. The same “representative blood” that ruled the South also ruled Europe and much of the world.

One could scarcely invent a more imperious set of statements than these.

Likewise, one need hardly imagine how Northern readers might have reacted to them.

Such statements reveal ruling-class hostility and breed the kind of reciprocal contempt that fuels civil wars.

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Michael Schwarz holds a Ph.D. in History and has taught at multiple colleges and universities. He has published one book and numerous essays on Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the Early U.S. Republic. He loves dogs, baseball, and freedom. After meandering spiritually through most of early adulthood, he has rediscovered his faith in midlife and is eager to continue learning about it from the great Christian thinkers.

Michael Schwarz holds a Ph.D. in History and has taught at multiple colleges and universities. He has published one book and numerous essays on Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the Early U.S. Republic. He loves dogs, baseball, and freedom. After meandering spiritually through most of early adulthood, he has rediscovered his faith in midlife and is eager to continue learning about it from the great Christian thinkers.

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