This interesting snapshot of pre-bellum Southern evangelicalism struck me as less controversial than advertised and, in any case, a telling portrait of the 'actuals' of religion in American history. The parallel appearance of abolitionism and pro-slavery evangelical apologia is a difficult dialectic to reconcile, and the historical image refresh rate is essential for an archaeologist of ideology. One need not undergo a paradigm shift to find this a useful angle on a multidimensional subject, and a shadowy one at that.
Occasionally, long held beliefs are shaken by a bold new look at old theories.
While many feel that all possible causes for the Civil War have already been proffered and dissected, a new voice is refuting principles that some Civil War scholars assumed were absolute.
Daly argues that there were no sharp moral differences between North and South. He finds the causes of the war were identical, differing only in the perspectives of a widely separated people hampered by insufficient communication.
With myth-shredding clarity, When Slavery Was Called Freedom suggests that the virtue claimed by North and South stemmed from the same evangelical thought. Both sides appealed to the power of God to prove them victorious, and above all, morally superior.
A Northerner by birth and a Southerner by assimilation, Daly takes an objective look at the economy, religious thought and passions of the times that drove a great nation asunder and launched the bloodiest of all wars.
Rather than a backward South peopled by cruel slave owners, Daly presents sound evidence that the South was much the same as the North when it came to commerce and morality. Common to both was the idea that riches were God's way of rewarding good people. Many believed the end result of accumulated wealth was a higher moral plane.
Virtue equaled wealth and wealth equaled power. Although the power of the South was bolstered by slavery, Southerners theorized that slavery was an integral part of the American System and the genius of American commerce.
Concerning religion, Dally offers an example of thwarted Northern idealism involving God's own representatives. Evangelical ministers from the North clad in the armour of righteousness arrived at Southern plantations as if at the gates of Hell only to find the same sort of people they knew back home.
Bound to do battle with the evils of slavery, it was a short skirmish. Although the ministers recognized some evils, many found that slaves were regarded as "laborers" under the protection of Christian gentlemen. They met forward-thinking Southerners who were certain that slavery would gradually dissipate into a laboring class of free men. Slaveholders were quick to point out that under the Southern system , even in its present form, slaves were better treated than workers in Northern sweatshops.
These same ministers who came to reform, found plantation life pleasant and Southern women charming. Some married the heiresses to plantations and changed their views, allowing that it was just for good people to own slaves.
While Daly's research is not likely to completely displace the idea that a division in ideology and morality brought about the War, an excursion into his Virtue as Power theory is worth taking.
Focusing on the similarities of thought held by both sides preceding the War, Daly leaves the reader wondering if more Northerners and Southerners had discovered their commonality before 1860, perhaps secession and the Civil War would never have occurred.
Still, one question looms large: without the Civil War, would slavery have dissolved of its own accord?
By Anne Battle