Racial Mixture, “White” Identity, and The “Forgotten” (or censored) Cause of the Civil War

Racial Mixture, “White” Identity, and
The “Forgotten” (or censored) Cause of the Civil War

By A.D. Powell

Why would Northern whites oppose slavery while rejecting racial equality for blacks? This is a question one reads constantly in Civil War scholarship. However, the answer is obvious if one is willing to address taboo and “politically incorrect” subjects – “white” slavery and racial mixture. Obviously, the answer to this question also demands that historians acknowledge and deal with another forbidden subject – the definition of “white” and the impossibility of distinguishing the “mixed race white” from the “pure white.” Equally taboo is dealing with the fact that, to most “whites,” a fellow “white” is defined by looks and not racial “purity” or freedom from the dreaded “black blood.” Now, how did this belief on the part of Northern “whites” contribute to the Civil War?

The Forgotten Cause of the Civil War: A New Look at the Slavery Issue by Lawrence R. Tenzer, Scholars Publishing House, 1997, shows how the whiteness of some slaves increased the fear and hatred of slavery in Northerners because of the possibility that any white person could be seized and taken South – especially after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Tenzer states:

If “cause” can be defined as any political or social dynamic which exacerbated the tension between the North and South, then white slavery certainly qualifies because it contributed to the deep-rooted friction which existed between the free and slave sections of the country. Lincoln himself made references to slavery “regardless of color.” The facts presented in this thoroughly researched text prove that white people were slaves in the American South and that white slavery was indeed a cause of the Civil War.

Tenzer is careful to define his terms. “The South” refers to the slavocracy – the political power which governed the slave states – not the Southern people in general. This definition embodies an important point. There were many poor and nonslaveholding whites throughout the Southern states who had no influence on proslavery politics… The oligarchy of Southern politicians and their slave holding allies were the power of the South, what came to be known as the “slave power.” This is great. Tenzer puts the blame were it lies. Too many historians engage in lazy, meaningless and inaccurate racial generalizations such as “Whites decided that…” or “Whites believed…” Which “whites”? Indulging in collective guilt lets the guilty people off the hook

What Separates the “Mulatto” from the “White”? Can Slaves Be “White”? Can “Whites” Have “Negro blood”?

The status of children born of white fathers and black or mulatto slave mothers was a pressing issue. The English Common Law said that a child follows the status of the father. However, that would mean that the issue of a female slave was not her master’s property – in the way that the issue of female livestock were his property. In 1662 the Southern colony of Virginia was the first to pass legislation which attempted to regulate interracial fornication and marriage as well as the status of the mixed-blood children of slave mothers. Going back into classical Roman history, it confirmed the legal doctrine of partus sequitur ventrem, which held that the child follows the status of the mother. This early legal precedent had far reaching effects.

Tenzer emphasizes the fact that “negro blood” by itself did not make anyone a slave. It was the maternal descent of the partus rule that enslaved a person – if the maternal slave line was unbroken by legal manumission. A slaveholder could, legally, have more “negro blood” than his slave. A legal “white” man could have more Negro blood than a so-called “light mulatto” who would be legally “white” if he were manumitted. The latter was possible because the general Southern rule was to establish one-eighth or less Negro blood as the dividing line between “white” and “mulatto”. Even this could be modified by such things as reputation, acceptance by the local “white” community, property ownership, etc. Hard as it may be for persons raised on “one drop” mythology to believe, a person classified as a “mulatto slave” would, if manumitted and one-eighth or less “black,” legally become a free “white” person rather than a “free colored.” As Thomas Jefferson, himself the reputed father of “white slaves,” states:

Our canon considers two crosses with the pure white, and a third with any degree of mixture, however small, as clearing the issue of the Negro blood. But observe, that this does not reestablish freedom, which depends on the condition of the mother, the principle of the civil law, partus sequitur ventrem being adopted here.

The South is caught in a major contradiction here. She has justified slavery on the basis of the alleged inferiority of the “negro race” but also implements the partus rule, while effectively enslaves people who are not only not “black” or “negro” but even “white.”

If Slavery is Justified on the Basis of “Race,” Shouldn’t White Slaves Be Free?
The Importance of White Slavery in Securing Support for the Abolitionist Cause Many anti-slavery people argued that, if the South justified slavery on the basis of “race,” then the loss of blackness justified a slave’s freedom. This was a direct attack on the legal doctrine of partus sequitur ventrem. “White Slavery” was essentially a godsend for the abolitionist movement. It created an antipathy toward slavery that would not have been as widespread had all slaves been “black” or even dark-skinned. Moreover, with the uncomprehending assistance of the South herself, the movement was able to show white Northerners that they themselves were in personal danger from slavery. If the South would enslave its own “white” children, what wouldn’t they do to the hated Yankees, “white” or not?

The term “white slave” was frequently used in 19th century abolitionist and Republican literature. There was also a recognition that being “mixed race” and “white” were not mutually exclusive. The term “white mulatto” was frequently used to describe a combination of mixed racial descent and Caucasian phenotype. Anti-slavery activists encouraged novels and stories about “white slaves” in order to gain the empathy of Northern readers. The “tragic mulatto” stereotype has its origins in novels about “white slaves.”. Up through 1861, no less than 17 novels utilized a “white slave” theme. One of the most popular plays was The Octoroon. Indeed, it was scheduled to be performed at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. the day after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. The first anti-slavery novel, published in 1836, was about a white slave – The Slave: or Memoirs of Archy Moore by Richard Hildreth. After the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, the novel’s title was changed to The White Slave: or, Memoirs of a Fugitive. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which Lincoln credited with helping to start the Civil War) utilized “white slave” characters. Furthermore, “Yankee” and foreign visitors who traveled to the South expecting to see black slavery were shocked and appalled whenever they saw slaves as white as any other “white.” Indeed, this was usually the aspect of Southern life that left the greatest impression on them. If they talked or wrote about nothing else in Southern life, they took pains to mention the “perfectly white” slaves they saw in the slave states. Northern whites were being constantly exposed to this type of literature.

The “Slave Power” Responds: Slavery Is A Positive Good – and Not Dependent Upon Race or Color

The defenders of slavery reacted with the usual extremism, claiming that slavery was a good thing regardless of the race of the slaves, often pointing out the allegedly superior material conditions of Southern slaves to Northern laborers. Indeed, abolitionists had only to quote Southern newspapers and political literature to make their point.

George Fitzhugh was one of the most important intellectual defenders of slavery. His Sociology for the South, or the Failure of Free Society (1854), was quoted extensively in the election campaign of 1856 and anti-slavery literature in general:

  • Make the laboring man the slave of one man, instead of the slave of society, and he would be far better off.
  • We do not adopt the theory that Ham was the ancestor of the negro race. The Jewish slaves were not negroes; and to confine the jurisdiction of slavery to that race would be to weaken its scriptural authority for we read of no negro slavery in ancient times. SLAVERY BLACK OR WHITE IS NECESSARY.

A South Carolina newspaper was widely quoted in abolitionist literature:

The great evil of northern free society is that it is burdened with a servile class…Slavery is the natural and normal condition of the laboring man, whether WHITE or black. The great evil of Northern free society is that it is burdened with a servile class of MECHANICS and LABOURERS, unfit for self government, yet clothed with the attributes and powers of citizens. Master and slave is a relation in society as necessary as that of parent and child; and the Northern States will yet have to introduce it. Their theory of free government is a delusion.

The Richmond Enquirer made the South’s position plain:

While is far more obvious that negroes should be slaves than whites…yet the principle of slavery is itself right and does not depend on difference of complexion.

What could be clearer to Northerners? The South not only defended the principle that it is right to enslave people of any race or color, it proudly proclaimed its contempt for free labor, free society and the egalitarian principles of republicanism that most Northerners held sacred.

Would the Southern “Slave Power” Enslave Free Northern Whites?
Why Northern Whites Had Reason to Fear the South

Anti-slavery activists were quick to point out that slavery endangered poor white Northern laborers. If Northerners were made slaves to Southern political power, then the next logical step would be the actual enslavement of free white people, especially those of the laboring class who were poor and vulnerable. Republican literature of the antebellum period constantly warns against “white slavery,” and the South’s barely hidden wish to eventually take over the entire country and expand the slave system to include Northern white laborers.

Many Northerners strongly believed that figurative white slavery would lead ultimately to literal white slavery for the free states. The proof of this was not only Southern political power at the federal level but the proved willingness of the Slave Power to put the sanctity of slave “property” above ties of race and kinship.

The abolitionist press played up the issue of white persons being kidnaped, and with good reason. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 provided for no protection against false identification. There was no formal hearing, no due process of any kind. The accused “slave” had no time to summon witnesses to vouch for his or her identity. In the case of a child claimed as a slave, this helplessness was even greater. Add to this the outrageous fact that the commissioner charged with determining the identity of the accused fugitive received double his fee if he found in favor of the slave-catcher. Bribery was built into the law. In response, Northern states passed a series of “personal liberty” laws to provide due process to accused slaves and nullify the effects of the federal law. Pro-slavery forces reacted with outrage to this assertion of “states’ rights.”

It is amazing to discover how much the issue of “white slaves” and “white slavery” were part of the antebellum political agenda. It is rarely mentioned today. Tenzer quotes from historian Russel B. Nye:

If slavery was a positive good, and the superior political, economic and social system that the South claimed it to be, it seemed reasonable to expect that the next step would be an attempt to impose it upon the nation at large for the nation’s own good…It was easy, said the abolitionists, to take one more step, to show that if slavery were the best system for inferior races, it was also the best for inferior classes, regardless of race.

In 1858, Congressman Philemon Bliss of Ohio predicted the enslavement of free “white” labor if the South could not be checked:

The more honest advocates of slavery have already repudiated the idea that it should be the sole condition of any race, and many of them would impose it upon all hand laborers. Free labor would have to compete with slave labor and could not survive.

Editorials like this one from the 1856 Marshall Statesman (Michigan) were common:

The doctrine of white slavery is now openly broached South of the Potomac. This is no more than could be expected, because the difference in color, especially in Virginia, is so slight that sometimes it is absolutely impossible to tell whether an individual has any African blood in his veins or not….hence rises this new doctrine …SLAVERY BLACK OR WHITE, IS RIGHT AND NECESSARY.

In 1856 The Anti-Slavery Bugle predicted the eventual enslavement of “white” immigrant labor:

What security have the Germans and Irish that their children will not, within a hundred years, be reduced to slavery in this land of their adoption?…Is color any protection? No indeed.

It is relevant here to report an incident from another book, Blood and Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest by Donald S. Frazier because it perfectly exemplifies the proslavery contempt for labor, free society and “social inferiors.” In 1856, Philemon T. Herbert, a Democratic Congressman from Texas, shot and killed the Irish headwaiter at Willard’s Hotel in Washington, D.C. for refusing to serve him breakfast after the posted time. This incident was widely publicized during that election year as evidence of Southern or proslavery contempt for all working people – white or otherwise. In the South itself, Herbert was hailed as a hero who acted exactly as a Southern gentleman should. He avenged an “insult” to his “honor” and put an “inferior” in his place. Add to this incident the even more infamous 1856 case of antislavery champion Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts being almost clubbed to death in the Senate chamber by South Carolina Congressman Preston S. Brooks (another matter of Southern “honor”) and you can see how the North came to increasingly view the Southern “Slave Power” as fanatical and contemptuous of the rights of others – even “whites.”

In 1862 The Iron Platform, a New York workingman’s paper, knew what was really at stake during the Civil War.

There is one truth which should be clearly understood by every workingman in the Union. The slavery of the black man leads to the slavery of the white man…If the doctrine of treason is true, that Capital should own labor, then their logical conclusion is correct, and all laborers, whether white or black, are and ought to be slaves.

Was the North Paranoid About White Slavery? Was the Threat to Northern Whites Real?

The North has good reason to fear the kidnaping of “whites” into slavery. The average “white” Southerner was quite poor. Hundreds of thousands of families lived on less than $100 per year. Even skilled laborers averaged no more than $600 or $700 a year. Consider then that the average price of a slave in 1850 was $400, more money than many ordinary people would earn in a year. The 1850s saw a rapid growth in slave prices, with many slaves being worth well over $1,000 or even $2,000. How many men would not be tempted to make a little kidnaping expedition to the North? And, if you found a person who looked like the “light mulatto” slave you were chasing, would you really care whether the suspect was indeed the fugitive or even a “pure” white when you have so much money to gain?

We must also consider the fact, that contrary to the neo-confederate view that the “War Between the States” was fought to free Southern states from the “tyranny” of the federal government, the antebellum period was characterized by Northern states asserting their rights and sovereignty against a proslavery federal tyranny. In addition to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, the North felt the power of the South and the tyranny of proslavery forces in these ways:

  • From 1836 to 1844 pro-slavery forces in the House of Representatives passed and implemented the so-called “gag rule,” a nullification of the First Amendment right of free speech whereby antislavery petitions to Congress were no longer heard.
  • From the 1830s until the Civil War, the Southern pro-slavery forces censored the United States mail. Postmasters were forbidden to deliver antislavery literature into the slave states.
  • In 1845 Texas was annexed as a slave state.
  • In 1846 the Wilmot Proviso, which would have banned slavery from the territories acquired in the Mexican-American War was defeated by proslavery forces in Congress.
  • The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 negated the Missouri Compromise and made slavery possible in any of the territories. New states that came from the territories could easily become slave states, thereby increasing Southern power.
  • A proslavery U.S. Supreme Court existed from the 1840s until the Civil War.

Who could doubt that the South had the political power and will to eventually nationalize slavery and augment its slave population with the laboring classes of the free states? The Theory of Mulatto Inferiority — The Slave Power’s Answer to the Charge of White Slavery

The abolitionists’ challenge to the “Slave Power” regarding “white slavery” had to be answered. It was answered with the theory of “mulatto” inferiority.” This is not the racist belief with which most of us are familiar – the idea that mixed-race people are “superior” to the “pure black” but “inferior” to the “pure white” depending upon the degree of “white blood.” No, this theory’s racism was infinitely greater. It was based upon the assumption that “whites” and “blacks” are like two different species and their mixed-race offspring were sterile, degenerate, and inferior to both parental “races.” What made the “mulatto” and mixed “white” far more threatening to slavery than the “black,” was the higher regard in which they were held by “whites” in general. Indeed, Tenzer notes that from the late 1700s onward, many observations were made about mulattoes being very physically attractive and intelligent. Here are just two of several such quotes from The Forgotten Cause of the Civil War:

English traveler Edward S. Abdy, 1835 recalled:

the dread that the species will be deteriorated by “crossing the breed”; though every one knows, who is capable of comparing forms and figures, that the finest specimens of beauty and symmetry are to be found among those whose veins are filled with mixed blood.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, said in 1811:

It is possible, the strength of the intellects may be improved in their original conformation, as much as the strength of the body, by certain mixtures of persons of different nations, habits, and constitutions, in marriage. The mulatto has been remarked, in all countries, to exceed in sagacity, his white and black parent.

Tenzer notes that historian Robert Brent Toplin researched the attitudes of whites toward mulattoes in the South during the period from 1830 to 1861. He has concluded that in addition to often being thought of as physically attractive and intelligent, they were frequently taught skills and given extraordinary responsibilities. Note that while it was considered a great insult to call a “white” person a “mulatto” (Many “whites” sued in court and won large judgements against people who called them “mulatto” or challenged their legal standing as “whites”), there was still a common belief that the mulatto was very much like the “white,” – especially if he or she “looked white.”

Many influential people such as Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, proslavery writer William Gilmore Simms and Congressman James M. Ashley of Ohio believed that the “black race” was destined, through amalgamation, to eventually disappear into the “white race.”

The proslavery intellectuals had to counteract these positive attitudes. Tenzer describes their dilemma very well: In order to keep the institution of slavery intact and not allow any part of it to be compromised, the South had to find a way to defend the enslavement of all mulattoes, regardless of the degree of admixture. This was done with theories which attacked the idea that mulattoes were approaching conformity with whites.

The father of the theory of “mulatto inferiority” was Dr. Josiah Clark Nott of Mobile, Alabama. His theory was first published in 1843 in an article for the American Journal of the Medical Sciences entitled “The Mulatto a Hybrid – probable extermination of the two races if the Whites and Blacks are allowed to intermarry.” A reprint appeared shortly after in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. He introduced the theory of “mulatto sterility” into the “scientific” community, and his theory has been quoted by “anti-miscegenation” judges and lawmakers until the end of the Jim Crow era.

One may ask how anyone could believe such a preposterous “scientific theory,” since anybody who lived near mulattoes could see that they reproduced just as well as “whites” or “blacks.” Tenzer explains:

Of course mulattoes produced children like everyone else, so the sterility theory incorporated the idea that fertility deteriorated through subsequent generations with sterility being the inevitable end. Nott conceived of mulattoes as having weak and frail constitutions, high mortality, and infertility. The more white admixture mulattoes had, the greater their physical problems. According to Nott’s theories, light mulattoes could never approach being white because blacks and whites were two different species…

In other words, Nott claimed that this alleged degeneration and infertility only occurred with white intermixture. He had no objection to these “hybrids” mating with blacks, nor did he concern himself with any of this alleged infertility in mulatto/black matings. Nott’s purpose was to defend slavery by denying the abolitionists’ contention that white people were being enslaved:

It has been asserted by writers, that when the grade of Quinteroon [one-sixteenth black – a cross between a white and an octoroon] is arrived at, all trace of black blood is lost, and that they cannot be distinguished from the whites. Now if this be true, most of the Mulattoes must cease to breed before they arrive at this point of mixture; for though I have passed most of my life in places where the two races have been mingling for many generations, I have rarely if ever met an individual tainted with black blood, in whom I could not detect it without difficulty. These higher grades should be extremely common if the chain were not broken by death and sterility. How else can the fact be accounted for?

The obvious answer is that the offspring of the “higher grades” were socially and legally integrated into the “white race.” Remember that while Nott is writing this idiotic “theory,” the laws of most Southern states allowed people with more “black blood” than a “quinteroon” to become legal “whites.” This was, of course, a silent process not boasted of in Southern writing. But, since there was still a stigma attached to publicly acknowledging “black” ancestry, these “whites” would not identify themselves as being of mixed ancestry or protest this new stigma. Thus, Nott and his ideological confederates were free to publicize their lies without the “proof” of their nonsense being presented to the public.

Tenzer also relates how the 1840 U.S. Census was used as “proof” of mulatto “inferiority” by the creation of bogus “insanity” rates in the predominately mulatto “free colored” population compared to the slave population. The “sterility theory” was “supported” by pointing out the supposedly higher fertility of slaves compared to free mulattoes, totally ignoring factors such as the illegal slave trade from Cuba and Africa, the kidnaping of free people into slavery, and the deliberate breeding of slaves. These factors bore the primary responsibility, in that order, of augmenting slaves numbers beyond a natural rate of increase. We might also add that free people often have schooling, work or travel ambitions that cause them to postpone starting families. Slaves would generally have no reason to postpone reproduction and would be actively discouraged from doing so by their owners.

Tenzer reminds us that, ridiculous as Nott’s ideas were, they were perpetuated by men who were educated and sophisticated in promoting racist doctrines. When a theory of “mulatto inferiority” appears in the “best” of the “scientific” journals, who is an “uneducated” lay person to question it? “Science” was effectively used in the service of politics and the defense of slavery. Tenzer effectively summarizes the hypocrisy here:

According to Southern laws, those who were free and less one-fourth or one-eighth black were legally defined as white people; those who were slaves and had any admixture of white and black blood whatsoever were physiologically considered frail and sterile hybrids…who were subject to insanity if freed from slavery.

The refusal to admit that “Negro blood” was and is entering the “white race” is still a tacit understanding among both Southern and Northern elites. It is a small wonder that the “white slavery” issue is rarely addressed in modern history classes and academic literature.


The Forgotten Cause of the Civil War inspires us to ask questions that most American historians are afraid to ask:

  • Would the Civil War have occurred if the existence of “white slaves” had not brought home to Northern citizens the great danger that slavery posed to a free society?
  • Why are racial mixture and mixed-race people relegated to the margins of American history when knowledge of their origins and legal status are essential to understanding the tensions between North and South that led to the Civil War?
  • Why is the anti-slavery movement presented to modern students as merely an altruistic concern for “blacks,” with no mention made of the threat to all poor and working class “whites” and “free society” in general?
  • If slaves could be “white,” and legal “whites” could be partially “black,” are they not part of “white” or European American history and populations and not just some “exotic” variety of “African Americans”?

It is no accident that The Forgotten Cause of the Civil War has not received the attention it deserves. The lack of respect for “mixed race” history within American history reflects the lack of respect for, and recognition of, mixed-race people in general. The Civil War is one of the most popular subjects in American society. It is time for us to remind Americans of its “forgotten” cause.


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