The History of the Rise and Fall
of the Slave Power in America

by Henry Wilson
[with Samuel Hunt]
(Boston: J.R. Osgood, 1876-1878,
and Houghton & Osgood 1877-1879),
pages 127-138

Henry WilsonHenry Wilson (1812-1875, R-Mass) had in his youth, seen abuses by slavers. He became a Senator, and later chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs. This occurred during the War (1861-1865). He advised on a key war ending measure.
The South aka the "Slave Power" had been accustomed to ruling the U.S. on all issues, while taking anti-U.S. actions via its ruling America on all issues, e.g.,
In modern terminology, when referring to some "Power," here the "Slave Power," we use the word "Big" instead. We say "Big Business," not "the Business Power." We say "Big Tobacco," not "the Tobacco Power." In modern terminology, we'd say "Big Slavery," not "the Slave Power."
A "Big Slavery" advocate, Sen. Jefferson Davis, in his November 1858 “Farewell Speech” at Vicksburg, said that if an abolitionist were elected two years hence (in 1860), he favored revolution, seizing Washington, D.C., declaring the U.S. government at an end, and appealing to the "God of battles" even if the result were blood in torrents throughout the nation.—Jefferson Davis Papers (10 vols), ed. Haskell M. Monroe, Jr., et al., (Baton Rouge: Lousiana State Univ Press, 1971), Vol 6, p 228.
In December 1859, after John Brown's Harper's Ferry slave rescue effort, Mississippi Congressman O. R. Singleton "called for disunion and war."
Indeed, "long before John Brown appeared at Harper's Ferry, Southern leaders like Mason, the author of the Fugitive Slave Bill, and chairman of the Harper's Ferry investigating committee; Jefferson Davis, who was a member of this committee; Wise, Hunter and other Virginians, had set their faces toward secession as the only method of protecting slavery," says William E. B. DuBois, Ph.D. [1868-1963], John Brown: A Biography (Philadelphia: G.W. Jacobs & Co., 1909), Chapter XII, p 212.
To achieve these long-desired secession and war goals, Southern aristocrats, nobility, and lords deliberately split the Democratic Party during the summer before the November 1860 election. Their purpose was to have a pretext (a Republican win they'd arrange) to begin revolution against the U.S. government, or failing that, to secede the Southern states. By splitting the Democratic Party, they expected to lose the subsequent November 1860 election, then use that pretext to stampede the Southern public into the pre-determined revolution or secession.
As they had planned, their splitting the Democratic Party did result in losing the November 1860 Election.
The person elected was Abraham Lincoln.
Soon, the South's "rule or ruin" attitude became more evident to the public-at-large by two attacks:
  • (1) South Carolina on 9 January 1861 attacked the supply ship Star of the West en route to Fort Sumter with food.
  • (2) Three months later, on 14 April 1861, South Carolina attacked Fort Sumter itself.
    These attacks on America were Pearl-Harbor-style. They occurred without prior 'declaration of war,' and led to killing of hundreds of thousands of people.
    Revolution, preventive war, was intended and in process. In December 1860, out-going President James Buchanan [4 March 1857 - 4 March 1861] had asked Georgia Senator Robert Toombs, “. . . do you mean that I am in the midst of a revolution?” Toombs replied, “Yes, sir. More than that, you have been there for a year and have not yet found it out.”
    Robert Barnwell Rhett, an aristocrat and editor of the Charleston, S.C. Mercury, called the 9 Jan 1861 firing on the Star of the West, “the opening ball of the Revolution.” He said South Carolina was honored to have shot first: “She has not hesitated to strike the first blow. . . . We would not exchange or recall that blow for millions!”
    Toombs and Rhett were delegates at the politicians' “revolutionary assembly” setting up the Confederacy. Toombs was a candidate for its Presidency, before the selection of Jefferson Davis. Davis appointed Toombs as Confederate Secretary of State.
    North Carolina Governor Zebulon B. Vance said, “the great popular heart [the public generally] is not now and never has been in the war. It was a case of revolution of the politicians and not the people.” Source: Steven A. Channing and Time-Life Editors, The Civil War: Confederate Ordeal: The Southern Home Front (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983, p 77.
    Secretary Toombs advised the 9 April 1861 Confederate Cabinet meeting considering whether to open fire at Fort Sumter, that "the firing upon that fort will inaugurate a civil war greater than any the world has yet seen." Source: William C. Davis and Time-Life Editors, The Civil War: Brother Against Brother: The War Begins (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), pp 109, 125, 127, 130, 138 respectively.
    As Toombs predicted, civil war, with 10,455 battles and 1,038,222 casualties, did come.
    Afterwards, 4 March 1869, Senator Henry Wilson became U.S. Vice-President under Pres. Ulysses S. Grant.
    Wilson wrote and published a series of three volumes on what he knew concerning events of the era.
    His book series cited evidence from participants that the primary cause of the Civil War was a conspiracy by Southern slavers ("lords paramount"), often tobacco planters, to overthrow the U.S. government.
    When the overthrow attempt failed, the conspiring slavers had dragooned the South into secession. Here is an excerpt, nine pages from Wilson's 1872-1877 book series.
    This was in a three-volume series, 1872-1877. His material was the "first major history of the coming of the Civil War."
    For pertinent background links, click here.
  • “. . . No intelligent and adequate estimate of the Rebellion and its causes, immediate and remote, can be formed without special note of the small proportion of the people of the South who were at the outset in favor of that extreme measure.

    “Even in the six States which first seceded, South Carolina possibly excepted, there was far from a majority who originally gave it their approval. In the remaining five the proportion was much smaller; though this large preponderance was overcome by able, adroit, and audacious management.

    By means illegitimate and indefensible, reckless of principle and of consequences, a comparatively few men ["lords paramount"] succeeded in dragooning whole States into the support of a policy the majority condemned, to following leaders the majority distrusted and most cordially disliked.

    As no sadder and more suggestive commentary was ever afforded of the utter demoralization of slaveholding society, and of the helpless condition of a community that accepted slavery, and accommodated itself to the only conditions [barbarism] on which it could be maintained, it seems needful, to an intelligent apprehension of the subject, though it will be necessary to anticipate events somewhat, that notice should be taken here of the process by which this was done.

    How, then, could such an object be accomplished? How could such a result be secured? How came it to pass that this comparatively small number could persuade whole States to support a policy that not only was, but was seen to be, suicidal?

    “How could a class of men who despised the colored man because he was colored, and the poor whites because they were poor, inspire the latter with a willingness, an enthusiasm even, to take up arms, subject themselves to all the hardships and hazards of war, for the express purpose of perpetuating and making more despotic a system that had already despoiled them of so much, and was designed to make still more abject their degradation?

    A summary and substantial answer might be that it was by the adoption of the same principles and of the same policy by which the Slave Power ["lords paramount"] had dominated and so completely controlled the nation for the preceding two generations; only aggravated and made more intolerant in the immediate communities where slavery was domiciled and had become the controlling social as well as political element.

    But there was an individuality and a specific character about this last and dying effort of slaveholding control that may justify and call for a more detailed account, even though it require the reproduction of some facts and features thereof of which mention has been already made.

    "Nor does it seem amiss, in this connection, to introduce the words of another,—a foreigner, who thus records the impressions of one who made his observations uninfluenced at least by Northern prejudices and prepossessions.

    The first item or element in the answer now sought must be looked for in the mental and moral condition of Southern society. Alluding to this point in his recent History of the Civil War in America, the Comte de Paris, says:

    "Notwithstanding all that has been said on the subject [slavery], our people, who fortunately have not had to wrestle with it, are not aware how much this subtle poison instils itself into the sore" which "the enlightenment and patriotism of their successors" would "heal" to the opinion that regarded "the social system founded upon slavery as the highest state of perfection that modern civilization had reached," he thus sets forth his estimate of Southern society as it existed at the opening of the Rebellion:

    “In proportion as slavery thus increased in prosperity and power, its influence became more and more preponderant in the community which had adopted it. Like a parasitical plant, which, drawing to itself all the sap of the most vigorous tree, covers it gradually with a foreign verdure and poisonous fruits, so slavery was impairing the morals of the South, and the spirit of her institutions.

    “The form of liberty existed, the press seemed to be free, the deliberations of legislative bodies were tumultuous, and every man boasted of his independence.

    “But the spirit of true liberty, tolerance towards the minority and respect for individual opinion, had departed, and those deceitful appearances concealed the despotism of an inexorable master, slavery,—a master before whom the most powerful of slaveholders was himself but a slave, as abject as the meanest of his laborers.

    “No one had a right to question its legitimacy, and like the Eumenides, which the ancients feared to offend by naming them, so wherever the Slave Power was in the ascendant, people did not even dare to mention its name, for fear of touching upon too dangerous a subject.

    “It was on this condition only that such an institution could maintain itself in a prosperous and intelligent community. It would have perished on the very day when the people should be at liberty to discuss it.

    "Therefore, notwithstanding their boasted love of freedom, the people of the South did not hesitate to commit any violence in order to crush out, in its incipiency, any attempt to discuss the subject.

    “Any one who had ventured to cast the slightest reflection upon the slavery system could not have continued to live in the South; it was sufficient to point the finger at any stranger and call him an Abolitionist, to consign him at once to the fury of the populace."

    [Ed. Note: H. B. Stowe, Key (1853), p 186, had said likewise.]

    Dwelling at some length upon the plantation system and "the inconveniences felt in a region of country yet half wild," with a mention of some of the incidents and contingencies attending the working of "their large domains" by servile labor, he noted the division of Southern society into three classes,

  • “at the foot of the ladder the negro bowed down upon the soil he had to cultivate;

  • at the top the masters ["lords paramount"], in the midst of an entirely servile population, more intelligent than educated, brave but irascible, proud but overbearing, eloquent but intolerant, devoting themselves to public affairs—the exclusive direction of which belonged to them—with all the ardor of their temperament.

  • “The third class—that of common whites, the most important on account of its numbers—occupied a position below the second, and far above the first, without, however, forming an intermediate link between them, for it was deeply imbued with all the prejudices of color. This was the plebs romana [aka "white trash"], the crowds of clients who parade with ostentation the title of citizen, and only exercise its privileges in blind subserviency to the great slaveholders ["lords paramount"], who were the real masters of the country.
  • “If slavery had not existed in their midst, they would have been workers and tillers of the soil, and might have become farmers and small proprietors.

    “But the more their poverty draws them nearer to the inferior class of slaves, the more anxious are they to keep apart from them, and they spurn work in order to set off more ostentatiously their quality of freemen. This unclassified ["white trash"] population, wretched and restless, supplied Southern policy [made by "lords paramount"] with the fighting vanguard [cannon fodder] which preceded the planter's invasion of the West with his slaves.

    “At the beginning of the war the North [naively] believed that this [trash] class would join her in condemnation of the servile institution, whose ruinous competition it ought to have detested.

    But the North was mistaken in thinking that reason would overcome its [“white trash”] prejudices.

    It [Southern white trash] showed, on the contrary, that it was ardently devoted to the maintenance of slavery. Its pride was even more at stake than that of the great slaveholders ["lords paramount"]; for while the latter were always sure of remaining in a position far above the freed negroes, the former feared lest their emancipation should disgrace the middle white classes by raising the blacks to their level.”

    Without the adduction of other particulars, or the recognition of other elements, these make the improbability of the results now under consideration seem less than they would otherwise appear.

    For certainly it is sufficiently obvious that a society made up of such materials

    [(1) “lords paramount”;
    (2) white trash; and
    (3) serfs/slaves]

    could not but present an inviting field for the machinations of the shrewd, unscrupulous, and designing. With ignorance so profound, with prejudices so unreasoning, and with passions so inflammable, it was not difficult to hoodwink and commit such people to purposes and plans not only dangerous to others but destructive to themselves.

    But there were other causes. There were auxiliaries that gave greatly increased potency to those elements of mischief. There were combination and careful and long-considered preparation. Indeed, division of labor and assignment of parts have seldom been more carefully attended to.

    "Each man," says the Comte, "had his part laid out.

  • Some, delegated by their own States, constantly visited the neighboring States in order to secure that unanimity to the movement which was to constitute its strength;

  • others were endeavoring to win over the powerful border States, such as Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, as well as North Carolina and Tennessee, which stood aghast, terrified at the approach of the crisis brought on by their associates;

  • some, again, were even pleading their cause in the North, in the hope of recruiting partisans among those Democrats whom they had forsaken at the last election;

  • while others kept their seats in Congress in order to be able to paralyze its action; forming, at the same time, a centre whence they issued directions to their friends in the South to complete the dismemberment of the Republic.

    “Jefferson Davis himself continued to take part in the deliberations of the Senate.”

  • Corroborative of the above, and at the same time indicative of the actual method adopted by the conspirators, is the following letter which appeared in the "National Intelligencer," at Washington on the morning of January 11, 1861. It is introduced by the editor, with the remark that it was from “a distinguished citizen of the South who formerly represented his State with great distinction in the popular branch of Congress.”

    It has since transpired that the writer was the Hon. L. D. Evans of Texas, formerly a member of the XXXIVth Congress, and subsequently a judge of the Supreme Court of his adopted State. A native of Tennessee and long resident in Texas, he ever remained true to the Union, and not only advised but encouraged and supported Governor Houston to resist the clamors of the revolutionists in their demands for an extra session of the legislature. Though overborne in this and compelled to leave the State, he rendered essential service to the Union cause and the administration of Mr. Lincoln.

    He [L. D. Evans] writes:—

    "I charge that on last Saturday night a caucus was held in this city by the Southern secession Senators from Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas. It was then and there resolved in effect to assume to themselves the political power of the South and the control of all political and military operations for the present. They telegraphed to complete the plan of seizing forts, arsenals, and customhouses, and advised the conventions now in session, and soon to assemble, to pass ordinances for immediate secession; but, in order to thwart any operations of the government here, the conventions of the seceding States are to retain their representatives in the Senate and the House."

    “They also advised, ordered, or directed the assembling of a convention of delegates from the seceding States at Montgomery on the 4th of February. This can of course only be done by the revolutionary conventions usurping the powers of the people, and sending delegates over whom they will lose all control in the establishment of a provisional government, which is the plan of the dictators.

    “This caucus also resolved to take the most effectual means to dragoon the legislatures of Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, and Virginia into following the seceding States.

    “Maryland is also to be influenced by such appeals to popular passion as have led to the revolutionary steps which promise a conflict with the State and Federal governments in Texas. They have possessed themselves of all the avenues of information in the South,—the telegraph, the press, and the general control of the postmasters. They also confidently rely upon defections in the army and navy.

    “The spectacle here presented is startling to contemplate. Senators intrusted with the representative sovereignty of the States, and sworn to support the Constitution of the United States, while yet acting as the privy counsellors of the President, and anxiously looked to by their constituents to effect some practical plan of adjustment, deliberately conceive a conspiracy for the overthrow of the government through the military organizations, the dangerous secret order, the Knights of the Golden Circle, 'Committees of Safety,' Southern leagues, and other agencies at their command; they have instituted as thorough a military and civil despotism as ever cursed a maddened country.

    “It is not difficult to foresee the form of government which a convention thus hurriedly thrown together at Montgomery will irrevocably fasten upon a deluded and unsuspecting people. It must essentially be 'a monarchy founded upon military principles' or it cannot endure. Those who usurp power never fail to forge strong chains. It may be too late to sound the alarm. Nothing may be able to arrest the action of revolutionary tribunals whose decrees are principally in 'secret sessions.' But I call upon the people to pause and reflect before they are forced to surrender every principle of liberty, or to fight those who are becoming their masters rather than their servants.”

    Abundant corroboration of these statements has since been found, revealing the fact of such a meeting and its action. Among the proofs is a letter, written by Senator Yulee, one of the conspirators, and found in Florida after the capture of Fernandina, giving an account of the meeting and its purposes, among which, as he expresses it, was the thought, that by [treasonably] retaining their seats in Congress,

    "we can [treasonously] keep the hands of Mr. Buchanan [in office until 4 March 1861] tied, and disable the Republicans from effecting any legislation which will strengthen the hands of the incoming administration [to enter office 4 March 1861]."

    The next morning Mr. Wilson met Mr. Evans, and, surmising him to have been the writer of the communication, inquired whether or not his surmise was correct. Receiving an affirmative answer, with the remark that the members of that secret conclave should be arrested, Mr. Wilson replied that they deserved expulsion and punishment for their treason, but he felt constrained to add,

    “There are too many of them, and to expel them will be to precipitate the revolution”; so perilous did he deem the situation, so really weak was the government, and so illy prepared to cope with its traitorous foes, and repel the dangers that threatened and surrounded it. Even such high-handed treason could be enacted with impunity, and that within the sacred precincts of the capitol.

    Subsidiary to and a most important part of this preparation was the enrolment of volunteers. The chronic fear of slave-insurrections had always invested with importance the local militia of the South, which similar organizations at the North had never possessed. Under the guise, therefore, of being prepared to maintain Southern rights and protect Southern interests against all possible contingencies, agents, who were in the secret and who were carrying out purposes of the conspirators, were active in inviting and securing such volunteer enlistments. The Comte de Paris thus refers to this branch of the work of preparation that had been quietly going forward.

    “The volunteers,” he said, “repaired [went] to the recruiting-offices which had been opened by the initiative action of the most zealous and ambitious persons in every district. The formation of regiments which were thus spontaneously called into existence throughout the Southern States was generally the private work of a few individuals, associated together for that purpose in their respective villages or quarters. Consequently, while the North was sincerely trying to effect some kind of political compromise, companies of volunteers were seen assembling and arming in haste throughout the whole of the slave States. Their minds were bent upon war, and they went to work with the greatest energy.

    The zeal of the women stimulated that of the men, and in that population, essentially indolent, whoever hesitated to don the uniform was set down as a coward.”

    But more effective than any other agency, and more successful in crushing out the Unionism of the slaveholding States were the violence and a system of terrorism which filled that whole land with the tortures of soul as well as those of the body, crushed out everything like freedom of action, of speech, or of thought, and made the words "the sunny South" but the mockery of a name.

    This is the testimony of the Comte: “A few executions [lynchings of Yankee sympathizers] and a considerable number of forced enlistments sufficed to crush out every expression of Union sentiments. Vigilance committees were formed in all the Southern States; and if they did not everywhere proceed to the extremes of violence, they everywhere trampled under foot all public and individual liberties, by resorting to search-warrants and other vexatious proceedings, which, by intimidating the weak and stimulating the irresolute, contributed to fill up the cadres of the volunteer regiments rapidly.

    In each of the growing centres of civilization, where farmers came from afar across the forests to attend to then-political and commercial affairs, vigilance committees were formed, composed of men who had been conspicuous for their excesses during the electoral struggles.

    Assuming unlimited power without authority, they united in themselves the attributes of a committee of public safety with the functions of a revolutionary tribunal. The bar-room was generally the place of their meetings, and a revolting parody of the august forms of justice was mingled with their noisy orgies. Around the counter on which gin and whiskey circulated freely, a few frantic individuals pronounced judgment upon their fellow-citizens, whether present or absent; the accused saw the fatal rope being made ready even before he had been interrogated; the person in contumacy was only informed of his sentence when he fell by the bullet of the executioner, stationed behind a bush for that purpose.”

    Nor was this kind of preparation confined to these classes.

    Judge Paschal of Texas, visiting the military school at Lexington, Virginia, about the middle of January, 1861, wrote to a friend in Washington that, from conversation with the young men gathered there from the several Southern States, he had become convinced that "the South was virtually in arms and in motion northward," their objective point being the seizure of the national capital, and that General McCulloch was relied on to lead them in the threatened onset.

    A week later than the date of his letter to the "National Intelligencer," Judge Evans addressed another to Secretary Stanton. From “reliable information” he informed him

  • that there were in process of formation "military associations" throughout the South;

  • that “within the last two weeks they have reached the magnitude and solidity of an army ready and willing to move at any moment and to any point”;

  • that “wild enthusiasm which now animates them supplies the place of a regular organization, and facilitates the greatest rapidity of communication”;

  • that “the movement comprises almost the entire youth of the South, all the restless and ambitious spirits, and all the ever floating population.”
  • After describing the general expectation that the government was on the verge of overthrow, that Congress would be broken up before the 15th of February, and that Lincoln would not be inaugurated, he added:

    “How far this idea has taken form I cannot say, but certain it is that among the members of the associations the belief is universal that such an expedition is intended.”

    Such substantially was the state of Southern society, and such were the conditions of success, when the secession leaders ["lords paramount"] resolved to make their appeal to the people to come to their support in their great and guilty treason.

    Though they hoped that every slaveholding State would respond to that appeal and flock to their standard, they knew that some might fail. Accordingly they resolved that such failure should be the result of no hesitation on their part to appeal to any motives or resort to any measures, however desperate or indefensible.

    That they did fail in some and succeed in others was due to circumstances and contingencies, agents and agencies, beyond all human prescience and control, as also to that higher agency of Him who was without doubt no less active in preventing some States from joining the Rebellion than He was, as the nation with few exceptions gratefully admitted, in preventing those that did join from accomplishing their fell purposes of dismemberment and destruction.

    Enough yielded to effect the great purposes of [i.e., to cause] the war, but not enough to destroy the nation.”

    Constitution Article I § 10 (Ban on States
    Creating a Confederacy With Other States)
    Slavers' 1837-1839
    Testimony of Slavery Conditions

    Overview of Legal Issues
    George W. F. Mellen's 1841
    Unconstitutionality of Slavery

    Alvan Stewart's 1845
    Unconstitutionality of Slavery

    L. Spooner's 1845
    Unconstitutionality of Slavery

    Benjamin Shaw's 1846
    Unconstitutionality of Slavery

    Horace Mann's 1849
    Slavery and the Slave Trade . . .

    Joel Tiffany's 1849
    Unconstitutionality of Slavery

    Rev. Wm. Goodells' 1852
    Slavery and Anti-Slavery

    Abraham Lincoln's 1854
    Peoria Speech

    "Where Will It End?"
    Atlantic Monthly, Vol 1, pp 22-46 (1857)
    Rep. Joshua R. Giddings'
    History of the Rebellion:
    Its Authors and Causes

    (New York: Follett, Foster and Co, 1864)
    MSU Prof. Russell Nye's 1946
    "Slave Power Conspiracy"
    U. Cal. Prof. James Oakes,
    The Ruling Race:
    A History of American Slaveholders

    (New York: Knopf, 1982)

    “The policy of the federal government down through the years, despite several conspicuous exceptions, had been predominantly supportive of slavery. . . . That was the impression given in the national capital . . . . That was the image presented in diplomacy to the rest of the world.”—Don E. Fehrenbacher, Ph.D. (1920-1998), The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government's Relation to Slavery, ed. Ward M. McAfee (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
    When the Fall 1860 election of Lincoln gave the impression that the federal government pro-slavery policy might change, the South immediately rebelled. It soon attacked the U.S. supply ship, the Star of the West, then began the war in earnest by attacking the Union's Fort Sumter. Nonetheless, disregarding history, unreconstructed Confederates falsely label the war they started as the "War of Northern Aggression"! See, e.g., NRA President Speech (2012). And see conservatives continuing to defend slavery (2013).
    See also J. E. Cairnes, The Slave Power, Its Character, Career and Probable Designs: Being an Attempt to Explain the Real Issues Involved in the American Conflict (New York: Harper Torch Books, 1862, reprinted 1969); and James Freeman Clarke, Anti-Slavery Days, The Sketch of the Struggle which ended in the abolition of Slavery in the United States (New York: J. W. Lovell, 1883, reprinted, NUP, 1970).
    Southern politicians led their people into war. “As for the peoples, they were nothing at all . . . except cannon fodder. No government ever . . . hesitated to deceive them [; each government] took it for granted that they [average citizenry] would [per “patriotism”] let themselves be butchered in unlimited quantities when the game of power politics [included] war.”—Konne Zilliacus, M.P., Mirror of the Past: A History of Secret Diplomacy (New York: A. A. Wyn, 1946). [See more in context of war generally and U.S. in particular.]
    Abolitionists such as Rev. Stephen S. Foster and Rev. William Goodell understood the duty to suppress the South's rebellion, as there is "no moral or political right to allow [the slaves] to be kidnapped out of the Union, when it is the religious and constitutional duty of the Union to set them free."