My Great Grandfather, Stephen Douglas, and the Seductions of Non-intervention
Also among my belongings is a gold-framed tintype photo, of the kind made by itinerant photographers around the time of the Civil War. Etsy offered one for sale recently for $18, and in the days before Etsy, when I used to frequent funky antique shops, the tintype I have is the just sort of thing I might have bought as an item of décor. Only I inherited it. And now am I finally taking in that the man in the photo is my own great grandfather, Edwin Alexander Banks.
I recognize him: take away the Confederate uniform, add a white Hemingway-esque beard, and I can see he is a twin image of my dad, Col. Richard Griffin Banks, USA, Retired. Edwin Banks was married to Eliza Ward Pickett, the woman I think of as “the other Eliza,” memorialized on my silver serving spoon inscribed “Corrine to Eliza Pickett.”
I knew nothing about Edwin until recently, when I learned from the 1860 census that he claimed his profession as “editor.” He was only 21 but, despite his youth, had partnered with 45-year-old Col. J.J. Seibels in publishing a Montgomery newspaper called The Confederation. They took a strong stand on the most pressing issue of the day: whether the South should stay in the Union or secede.
The Confederation’s stance was ultra-Unionist, equating secession with treason. This did not mean it was anti-slavery. According to the 1860 Montgomery slave census, Edwin and Eliza enslaved two people: a 17-year-old mulatto and a 20-year-old mulatto. Their names are not listed.
With the 1860 Presidential election looming, Col. Seibels wrote to Stephen Douglas, the Democratic candidate from Illinois who was running against Abraham Lincoln, urging him to make a campaign swing through the South. Trailing Lincoln in the Northern states and John Breckinridge, a breakaway pro-slavery Democrat, in the Southern states, Douglas had no hope of winning.
But Seibels argued he could still make a last-ditch effort to promote the cause of the Union in the South. Douglas agreed and, endorsed by The Confederation, appeared in Montgomery just days before the election. He held forth on the steps of the Alabama statehouse for four hours, reassuring his listeners that slaveholders had nothing to fear from the Federal government. It is not a stretch to imagine that in the audience that day was John Wilkes Booth, in town to play Richard III, his first leading part as a Shakespearean actor. (For more on this subject, see “Maybe the White Abolitionist Should Have Listened to the Black Abolitionist” and “How to Change History.”)
So close to the election, Stephen Douglas’s speech got little attention outside Montgomery, although The Confederation published a transcript of it. I summarize it below because I believe it persuasively illustrates that the Civil War was fought not over self-determination; not over states’ rights; not over heritage. It was fought over slavery. Others can parse whether the moral or the economic aspects of slavery were paramount; I will leave this as an unqualified declarative sentence: The Civil War was about slavery. So successful have the Lost Cause apologists been at clouding this truth that it is actively contested even now.
Douglas hoped to find a compromise between North and South and it was brave of him to venture into the heart of secession country. But throughout the speech, he pays homage to state’s rights and self-determination as a way to reassure his audience that in the United States they will be able to keep their slaves, no matter what.
Let me sum up his main points:
1. Yes, of course you can keep your slaves.
“ . . . your title to your slave property is expressly recognized by the Federal Constitution as existing under your own laws, where no power on earth but yourselves can interfere with.”
“The true doctrine of the Constitution, the great fundamental principle of free government … is that every people on earth shall be allowed to make their own laws, establish their own institutions, manage their own affairs, take care of their own negroes and mind their own business.”
2. If your slaves run away and are caught – no matter where – of course they will be returned to you:
“ . . . the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 . . . declares that any person held to service or labor in either of the States of this Union, or in any organized Territory, under the laws thereof, escaping, shall be delivered up.”
3. No need to treat your slaves humanely. Just because the workday in some Eastern factories may now be limited to 10 hours, there is no reason for that to prevail in the slave states.
“ . . .Get up a protective law for your property and what is your property worth? Whenever you permit Congress to touch your slave property you have lost its value.”
4. Don’t worry about the Territories becoming free states.
“As the law now stands . . . slaves are to be held in the Territories the same as in the States . . .under the laws thereof, beyond the reach of Congress to interfere.”
5. Abolitionists are terrible people and they are only making things worse for slaves by pushing slaveholders toward greater cruelty.
“ . . . have they not forced the master to draw the cord tighter, and to observe a degree of rigor in the treatment of their slaves which their own feelings would like to ameliorate, if the Abolitionists would permit them to live in safety, under a milder rule?”
Douglas’s pandering in Montgomery was to no avail. Lincoln won the election and within months, the Deep South states started seceding from the Union just as Douglas had feared.
But that wasn’t the last of his Montgomery statehouse address. It had a rebirth in November 1939, some 80 years after it first ran in my great-grandfather’s newspaper, when the Journal of Southern History found occasion to republish it. The text was accompanied by an introduction that included a rather startling observation by authors David R. Barbee and Milledge L. Bonham: “Today the reader may find the speech very convincing . . .”
Why would Douglas’s 1860 speech be germane to readers in 1939? And why very convincing? Because, as Stephen Douglas had made clear on that distant November afternoon, he believed strongly in the idea of non-interference between sovereign states. Such views were a comfortable fit with American isolationist policy in the year when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and Britain and France declared war on Germany. Douglas’s words provided great cover: If bad things are happening elsewhere and it isn’t your business, look away.
There is a postscript to my great grandfather’s story. Edwin Banks was a Unionist but when the Civil War began, he joined the Confederate Army. He served in various postings around the South, finally being sent to New Orleans. There he remained until 1867, and there he died of yellow fever at age 29.
The War had been over for three years by then, but in a sense it killed Edwin Banks. During the War, Union forces occupying New Orleans had instituted strict sanitary regulations that had kept yellow fever at bay. From 1860 to 1865 there was a total of 20 yellow fever deaths in New Orleans. But in 1866 all-white governments were in power in the South, and local health authorities had regained control of the Mississippi riverfront and relaxed these precautions.
The following year brought an epidemic in which yellow fever killed more than 3,000 residents. As a local physician remarked, “We … have occasion to mingle some thanks among the many curses” that New Orleaneans had heaped on the Union occupation.”*
* See Yellow Fever, Race, and Ecology in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans, by Urmi Engineer Willoughby
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