Editor’s Note: We are pleased to note a new style of post on the Emerging Civil War Blog – “The Dusty Bookshelf.” This is an opportunity to occasionally spotlight books of interest or of historiographical note that were not recently published. Many of us treasure our “old books” and relish the sound or smell of an old volume when it’s opened, and we hope these posts will have that sense of rediscovering interesting history books. Thank you to Max Longley and Tim Talbott for creating this idea for featuring older publications.
The distingushed scholar David Brion Davis delivered some lectures – published as a short book – effectively applying Richard Hofstadter’s analysis in his book The Paranoic Style in American Politics (who had examined “fringe” movements like Birchite anticommunism and the like) to examine the antebellum theories of a Slave Power conspiracy to hijack the American ship of state and steer it onto the shoals of proslavery policy.
Davis believed that these conspiracy theories, under a “rigorous analysis…would doubtless reveal hard grains of truth connected with a mucilage of exaggeration and fantasy.” But Davis did not consider that these theories needed to be taken seriously as statements of the true situation. Instead, he looked at the psychological and political needs which the conspiracy theories served for the theorists.
An aggressive Slave Power plotting successfully to bend the federal government to its purposes – promoting slavery at home and abroad, trying to extend the evil system to federal territories and elsewhere – that wasn’t the reality, says Davis. It’s just that the United States had slavery as part of its makeup and of course there would be clashes, not conspiratorial plots, between the slavery and antislavery forces (Davis also analyzes proslavery conspiracy theories about the abolitionists, applying similar reasoning).
The usual culprits for conspiracy theories are exhibited – status anxiety, the need for a clear demarcation between righteous anti-slavers and an “other” – in this case the legend of sinister proslavery forces, the need to posit a conflict between frank and honest opponents of slavery and crafty and subtle promoters of slavery.
Who was responsible for the slave-power conspiracy idea? Davis has his own conspiracy-theory theory. “[I]t was a fairly small group of men – scarcely over twenty-five or thirty – who first delineated the Slave Power in speeches, articles, and books, who drew on one another’s works, and who were more generally quoted as leading ideologues….They benefited from either close family ties or the encouragement of older friends of professional mentors.” They tended to go in for journalism, with the attitude of righteous crusade which was (in those far off days) associated with that business. These crafty promoters of a Slave-Power conspiracy weren’t marginal figures (like Hofstadter’s John Birchers) but “an intellectual elite of their generation.” No wonder they were able to exert such sinister influence over the Northern white masses!
For a book issued in 1969 and reissued in 1982, there are, unsurprisingly, clear references to the Cold War and the danger of nuclear war, a danger which Davis considers greatly increased by conspiratorial thinking. “[T]he Slave Power image was also associated with certain dangerous assumptions which have by no means disappeared from American thought.”
Citing Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which posited a powerful struggle between the time-travelling Yankee and the forces of superstition in the Dark Ages era he visited, Davis elaborates on the “dangerous assumptions” of conspiracy thinking in the antebellum era and the also at the time Davis spoke and wrote. When the Connecticut Yankee couldn’t bring enlightenment to the Dark Ages, “there could be no peaceful coexistence with the Antichrist….The only alternative to the Yankee civilization was annihilation.”
As the Slave Power conspiracy theories had led to a Civil War, so similar theories could lead to nuclear annihilation.
But there was a silver lining. Northern paranoia about a Slave Power got Northern whites mobilized against slavery. “There is something almost providential in the way that the paranoid style, for all its irrationality, finally enabled significant numbers of Americans to perceive the evil of an institution which had long been entertwined with the promise of American life.” Maybe the whites themselves weren’t threatened by a Slave Power conspiracy, but at least the whites were tricked (or tricked themselves) into standing up for the black slaves, and ultimately assisting in their liberation.
I’m not endorsing Davis’ thesis, but I think it’s worth sharing. The hints of a conspiracy-theory conspiracy are interesting, and the effect of the nuclear shadow on historical analysis of the Civil War is a pertinent historiographical question.