Historical Déjà Vu

By Ritchie Devon Watson

The climate of division and discontent that characterized the United States during the antebellum period bears some striking resemblances to current times, Ritchie Devon Watson notes in this post.

Low-angle photo of U.S. flag
Photo by Jonathan Simcoe

In the summer of 2006, I was wrapping up research for a book that LSU Press would publish in 2008, Normans and Saxons: Southern Race Mythology and the Intellectual History of the American Civil War. One afternoon, on my way to the reading room of the New York Historical Society, I took a detour into what is now regarded as one of that institution’s major exhibitions. The title of this exhibition was “New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War”; and for me, a literary scholar and not a historian, it was an eye-opener and a revelation.

Until the day I walked into this exhibit I had no idea that New York City was so deeply indebted to southern cotton for its astonishing and meteoric rise between 1820 and 1860 into the ranks of the world’s major cities. I had not known that, because of its dominance of the enormously lucrative trade in slave-produced southern cotton, Gotham had quickly acquired the reputation among northerners of being by far the most prosouthern in its sympathies of all the cities lying above the Mason-Dixon line. Nor had I realized that, despite this mutually profitable political and economic entente between New York and the antebellum plantation South, rising abolitionist sentiment in the North and gradually increasing unease within New York over the morality of the institution of chattel slavery would make the alliance between Gotham and the South increasingly fraught. By the 1850s, sensing that the rising tide of abolitionism threatened to undermine the “peculiar institution” that was the foundation of both their economic prosperity and their plantation culture, increasingly reactionary southerners were demanding that New Yorkers—who they believed had profited exorbitantly from the cotton trade—pledge their absolute political fealty to the preservation of southern slavery. By 1861, southern secessionists viewed New York City’s failure to extend such unalloyed validation as the betrayal of an erstwhile ally, a base infidelity that, in the words of one southern nationalist, made Gotham worthy of being “blotted from the list of cities.”

For the next fifteen years I set about detailing and analyzing this complex, four-decade-long love-hate affair between antebellum southerners and New York City. Like my earlier research in Normans and Saxons, my examination of the increasingly frayed alliance between Gotham and the antebellum South led me to the conclusion that, by the eve of the Civil War, the collective thinking of most southerners had become both profoundly reactionary and deeply delusional. Fire-eaters were demanding from New York’s leaders absolute support, not only for the preservation of slavery in the nation but also for its expansion into the new federal territories. For moderately conservative members of New York City’s political establishment, such as George Templeton Strong, southern intransigence had finally become too much to bear. It had led them to the realization that slave and free societies “could not co-exist in the same territory. It opened our eyes to the fact that if we allowed slaves to enter any territorial acquisition, our own free labor must be excluded from it.” The South, however, remained confident that New York’s dependence on southern cotton for its prosperity made it vulnerable to economic blackmail. Fearing the loss of its cotton trade, most southerners believed, Gotham would never actively oppose the secession of the slave states; and it would never support Abraham Lincoln’s call to arms to preserve the Union. Southern secessionists like Louisiana senator Judah Benjamin blithely ignored the warnings of prosouthern New York Democrats like Charles Daly, who predicted that no New Yorkers would “ever enter your confederacy if you take these forcible measures to separate yourselves, except upon the point of a bayonet. You will unite us as one man in defense of this government.”

Southern slavery, southern political reactionism, southern delusions, southern secession—I was researching a nineteenth-century historical phenomenon at the beginning of the twenty-first century. But during these years of research and writing I became increasingly aware that these widely separated periods shared disturbing similarities. When I initiated my research, America had elected its first African American president, and the nation was embarking upon a new century full of hope and promise. Yet by the time I had begun writing the manuscript of Grand Emporium, Mercantile Monster, another president of a completely different stripe had been swept into office on a wave of reaction. By the time I was finishing my manuscript, mobs were storming the Capitol and Confederate flags were being waved over hallowed halls littered with shattered glass. By the time I was revising and proofing my manuscript, the political party founded on the abolition of slavery and dedicated to the preservation of the Union included members who denied the reality of a presidential election result and questioned the legitimacy of a sitting president. By 2023, the words “civil war” were being uttered occasionally and provocatively in extremist circles.

What century was I living in? Was America repeating a nineteenth-century historical cycle of reaction, xenophobia, and violence? I understand that the historical parallels are not precise. Yet it seems to me that the locus of this xenophobia and reaction remains in the twenty-first century, as it was in the nineteenth century, most concentrated in the states of the Old Confederacy—that the spirit of reactionism and rebellion against federal authority is most evident in this region of the country. Today my completed study of the forging and ultimate fracturing of the antebellum alliance between New York City and the plantation South between 1820 and 1860 seems to me to shed unintended light on the divisions and the seemingly irreconcilable visions of what our nation should be in 2023. If the past is indeed prologue to the present, then America’s future appears to be an ominous one.

Quotations are taken from the Charleston Courier, April 27, 1861; The Diary of George Templeton Strong (New York: Macmillan, 1952); and The Diary of a Union Lady (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1962).

Ritchie Devon Watson Jr. is professor emeritus of English at Randolph-Macon College. His previous books include Normans and Saxons: Southern Race Mythology and the Intellectual History of the American Civil War.

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Grand Emporium, Mercantile Monster

Focusing on the crucial period of 1820 to 1860, Grand Emporium, Mercantile Monster examines the strong economic bonds between the antebellum plantation South and the burgeoning city of New York that resulted from the highly lucrative trade in cotton. Drawing on contemporary letters, diaries, fiction, and travel writings, Ritchie Devon Watson provides the first detailed study of the complicated relationship between the antebellum South and New York City in the decades leading up to the Civil War.

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