Dusty Bookshelf: Clement Eaton’s The Freedom of Thought Struggle in the Old South

The Freedom of Thought Struggle in the Old South (Revised and Enlarged Edition). By Clement Eaton. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964. Paperback, 418 pp.


Professor Clement Eatonrevised his 1940 work about intellectual freedom in the antebellum white South, the revision appearing in 1964. The book is important in showing the attitudes of the dominant groups in the South and how they closed their consciences and rushed into disaster, not following the advice of anyone who suggested acknowledging the evils of slavery or suggested ways out of the nightmarish system. The dissenters could at best be expect to be ignored, and at worst face persecution and political and career blacklisting.

Not that these dissenters were all egalitarians who wanted to transition into a post-racial society. Many of them were racists, they often focused on the harm slavery did to the economy and to the morals of the whites, and they tended to disavow the Northern abolitionists. Not that this helped them get a hearing in the South.

Professor Clement Eaton

Eaton’s book also has many word-portraits of white Southern dissenters, who tried, Cassandra-like, to warn the region’s leaders away from their course. Subsequent scholars have published many works focusing on Southern dissenters, From Carl N. Degler’s The Other South to Victoria Bynum’s accounts of white and black foes of the Southern, later Confederate leadership. It’s fair to say that the myth of white Southern uniformity has been well and truly exploded.

But antebellum leaders sealed off their minds, as they sealed off their hearts, to dissident voices. Not only did they reject the denunciations of Northern abolitionists, they rejected white dissenters who argued against slavery, even if the argument was combined with distaste or hatred toward the slaves themselves. That is, even arguments against slavery based solely on the interests of whites were regarded as unacceptable assaults on slavery.

In a few cases, dissenters faced prosecution under the increasingly stringent laws against criticism of slavery. Yet while matters sometimes escalated to the point of prosecution, it didn’t usually get that far. The dissenter would more likely be visited by an extra-legal vigilante committee, warning him to leave town or face the public  wrath. And on a less violent level, ambitious politicians in most parts of the South knew that any hint that slavery was less than ideal would meet with a return to private life. University professors did not possess academic freedom to criticize slavery – as Professor Benjamin Hedrick at the University of North Carolina discovered when he endorsed Republican Presidential candidate John C. Fremont in 1856.

To Eaton, the antebellum battle over freedom of the mind in the South was part of the battle between liberalism and conservatism. Liberalism to Eaton includes not only antislavery views but public education, skepticism toward traditional religion (Christianity and Judaism), free speech, and academic freedom.

The focus of the book is on Southern whites – both as rejecters of, and battlers for, freedom of thought. Blacks and Northern abolitionists sometimes appear in the narrative – especially in the case of Nat Turner’s insurrection which inspired the famous slavery debate in early-1830s Virginia – but these two groups appear more often as an offstage presence influencing the mentality of the Southern whites.

The story of the decline of such liberalism as the South possessed begins with the wealthy liberals of the years after the Revolution. These liberals, most famously exemplified in the case of Thomas Jefferson, were planters, lawyers and merchants – and were also of course powerful in politics, in the region and in the nation as a whole. The elite liberals believed slavery to be an evil, even if they themselves struggled to think up ways they would be willing to get rid of the institution. The elites were religiously skeptical, rejecting Christianity in favor of a broader deism.

Later, the successors to these elites, in Eaton’s portrayal, came to become more accepting of slavery and Christianity. On slavery, they at first developed a despairing refusal to do anything to get rid of it. Then they began embracing slavery as a positive good. Of course, the growth of the cotton economy in the deep South had much to do with these changing elite views on slavery. In religion, either the revivalists influenced the elites to grow more orthodox, or they at least stopped bitterly attacking Christianity, chastened by the French Revolution and Northern “infidelity” which they associated with abolition.

Eaton’s praise of religious heterodoxy, and the pairing of it with antislavery, runs into a few problems. The most famous Southern “infidel,” the scientist and educator Thomas Cooper, was also a proslavery polemicist and potential disunionist. So while Cooper gains points with Eaton for his attacks on traditional Christianity, Cooper loses points for his defense of slavery and secession. John C. Calhoun was also reputed to be unorthodox (Unitarian), yet he took Cooper’s political theories on slavery and the Union into politics. It seems that the rejection of Christianity by some didn’t necessarily make antislavery any more likely to succeed.

While the elites, in Eaton’s telling, declined toward unapologetic defense of slavery and religious fundamentalism, the white masses were also showing intolerance toward antislavery views. Eaton devotes some analysis to suggesting that a system of free public education for the white masses could have freed them from fundamentalist and slavery-supporting error. However, Eatton had already documented the growing proslavery proclivities of the cream of society, who had extensive education in the South’s private academies and its colleges – and in the colleges of the North, as well. Perhaps education didn’t automatically lead people away from slavery, either, any more than unorthodox religion did.

The bottom line is that the rich slaveowners and the white yeomen and workers both had an interest in promoting slavery and discouraging debate about it. The planters, merchants and lawyers (and the merchants and lawyers often doubled as planters) had a direct financial interest in the slave system. The white yeomen and workers sometimes aspired to join the slaveowning classes. Even if they didn’t have or want slaves, they didn’t want to compete with free blacks, or indeed to have free blacks around at all.

Over everything hung the fear of slave rebellions. Nat Turner and John Brown showed that there was a danger, and false reports of potential slave insurrections provoked vigilante actions against blacks and supposed white plotters. Periodic terrors flew through the white South about how the “contented” slaves were supposedly planning cut their masters’ throats. In reality, as Eaton briefly notes, the rebellious impulses of the slaves were usually directed into fleeing slavery, which though risky was less risky that launching a revolt which would likely result in mass killings of the rebels and of innocent blacks.

With these attitudes among most of the white elites and the masses of white voters, things looked pretty grim for any Southerner who wanted to dissent from the groupthink on slavery (and we’ll focus here on slavery). There were antislavery subgroups of the Southern population – Quakers, some of the German immigrants, people of Northern origin, and those whom Eaton calls “free-lances.” These dissenting voice were mostly ignored or repressed.

What if the South’s leaders had been open to hearing the dissenting arguments, rather than suppressing them? This opens a bunch of tantalizing what-ifs – perhaps we wouldn’t be a Civil War for us to write about?

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