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Haley Barbour Comes Out Against Slavery

By Matthew Yglesias on March 28, 2011 at 10:44 am

"Haley Barbour Comes Out Against Slavery"

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Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour is an admirer of the work of moderate white supremacist organizations like the Council of Conservative Citizens who he thinks were a constructive influence during the civil rights era as opposed to extremist egalitarians or the Ku Klux Klan. And in keeping with his moderate take on race relations, over the weekend Barbour endorsed the end of slavery and Union victory in the Civil War:

But he has now made a forthright declaration about the events swirling around what some Southerners still call the War of Northern Aggression. “Slavery was the primary, central, cause of secession,” Barbour told me Friday. “The Civil War was necessary to bring about the abolition of slavery,” he continued. “Abolishing slavery was morally imperative and necessary, and it’s regrettable that it took the Civil War to do it. But it did.”

Now, saying slavery was the cause of the South’s Lost Cause hardly qualifies as breaking news — it sounds more like “olds.” But for a Republican governor of Mississippi to say what most Americans consider obvious truth is news. Big news.

As it happens, last night I was reading a scholarly article by historian Gary Kornblith called “Rethinking the Coming of the Civil War: A Counterfactual Exercise”. His argument is that had Henry Clay won the agonizingly close election of 1844 there would have been no annexation of Texas, no war with Mexico, no Wilmot Proviso, no collapse of the Second Party System and no Civil War:

The suggestion is that a Clay administration would have preferred independent California and Texas republics which, in turn, would have established the precedent for recognition of Brigham Young’s independent nation of Deseret. In the short-run, non-annexation of Texas would have been a defeat for the South, but Kornblith argues it would have been good for the cause of slavery. The stable Whig-Democrat two party system would have kept slavery off the national agenda, leaving slavery as a state-level issue, and laying the groundwork for its perpetuation into the twentieth century. He argues that the speed with which Reconstruction was abandoned and the durability of the Jim Crow system (and see Slavery By Another Name for a look at how little difference there was between pre-FDR Jim Crow and slavery) highlights the underlying dynamics that could have kept slavery locked in place, albeit a source of lingering controversy.

It’s a provocative argument and while of course it’s impossible to prove anything with counterfactuals, I do think it’s useful to think about them. One counterpoint I would make is that in a North America featuring multiple Anglophone republics, the idea of breaking up the USA might have increasingly suggested itself as a kind of common sense approach. So perhaps the long-run impact of non-annexation of Texas wouldn’t have been to avert the Civil War by averting secession, but to avert the Civil War by turning secession into a consensual means of coping with sectional differences. It’s also worth noting that the Civil War was one of the causes of the British North America Act of 1867, so in this counterfactual universe it’s very plausible that Canada might never have emerged as a unitary state. Instead, Québec would be one dominion, “Canada” would denote Ontario and some of the Canadian Plains, you’d see one or more separate Anglophone dominions east of Québec, and later British Columbia would emerge as a separate Pacific-facing one.

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