Kim Tolley: What If There Had Never Been a Confederate Battle Flag?

Heading South to Teach: The World of Susan Nye Hutchison, 1815-1845, by Kim TolleyWe welcome a guest post from Kim Tolley, author of Heading South to Teach: The World of Susan Nye Hutchison, 1815-1845 (October 2015). Susan Nye Hutchison (1790-1867) was one of many teachers to venture south across the Mason-Dixon Line in the Second Great Awakening. From 1815 to 1841, she kept journals about her career, family life, and encounters with slavery. Drawing on these journals and hundreds of other documents, Kim Tolley uses Hutchison’s life to explore the significance of education in transforming American society in the early national period. Tolley examines the roles of ambitious, educated women like Hutchison who became teachers for economic, spiritual, and professional reasons.

In today’s post, as public debates over the Confederate battle flag intensify in the wake of the white supremacist killing of church leaders and parishoners at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, Tolley highlights the little-known history of antislavery sentiment in early 19th-century southern Protestant churches.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” With these words, North Carolina activist Bree Newsome bravely scaled the flagpole on South Carolina’s capitol grounds and brought down the Confederate battle flag. Her act of civil disobedience focused attention on the flag’s meaning in modern American society.

But what if there had never been a Confederate Battle Flag? What if the Southern states had abolished slavery before mid-century? What if the Civil War had never begun? Impossible, it seems. Yet for many men and women just after the American Revolution, the complete abolition of slavery seemed plausible.

During recent debates over the flag, the history of the South sometimes appears as a straightforward tale of unrelenting proslavery leading up to the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era. But there’s another aspect of southern history that is sometimes overlooked—the antislavery of the early antebellum era. Southern antislavery may have been a minority perspective in the early national period, but it had deep roots in the region.

In response to the antislavery stance of the major Protestant churches and the ideas embedded in the Declaration of Independence, slave liberations in the South reached unprecedented levels just after the Revolution. Virginians freed about 15,000 slaves from 1782 to 1808, and those liberations accounted for nearly 60 percent of the free black population growth in the state during that period.

When a young white Presbyterian convert named Susan Nye traveled south from rural New York to teach in North Carolina in 1815, she regularly went into the streets of Raleigh to pray with slaves and free black men and women without sparking any criticism from white residents in the town. After moving to Georgia in 1823 and marrying, she opened her kitchen to an independent congregation of slaves and free blacks. This small church conducted its own services free of oversight by whites until 1831, when the local authorities banned such meetings.

As an educator, Susan Nye Hutchison kept antislavery sentiment alive in classroom lessons on moral philosophy. William Paley’s text, which included a short chapter on slavery, appeared in the published curriculum of Hutchison’s schools in North Carolina and Georgia without sparking any concern from the southerners whose daughters enrolled. Paley argued that slavery was against the laws of nature and could not be justified by the Bible.

Hutchison’s actions had the support of her church in those years. In 1818, southern ministers unanimously endorsed an antislavery statement in the national Presbyterian Church: “We consider the voluntary enslaving of one part of the human race by another as a gross violation of the most precious and sacred rights of human nature, as utterly inconsistent with the law of God which requires us to love our neighbour as ourselves, and as totally irreconcilable with the spirit and principles of the gospel of Christ, which enjoin that ‘all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.'” This resolution, which remained in force until the division of the Church twenty years later, became known as the 1818 Expression of Views.

However, in the early 1830s, clergymen in the major Protestant churches began to advance theological arguments in support of slavery. At around the same time, Paley’s moral philosophy text disappeared from southern classrooms. Southern Presbyterian ministers were soon describing the church’s Expression of Views as “the obnoxious resolutions.” By 1838, when the Presbyterian Church divided, much of its own history had been rewritten. Proslavery clergymen claimed the church’s earlier antislavery stance had been entirely the work of northern men, even though—as South Carolina minister John Witherspoon later recalled—the Expression of Views “was penned, and advocated, and voted for, by Southern men.”

But what if the major Protestant churches had chosen a different path? What if they had followed the Quakers and made membership contingent on the emancipation of slaves? What if their ministers had continued to emphasize the evils of slavery and promote manumission? What if they had never begun to argue that the Bible justified slaveholding? What if the emancipationists among them had set aside their fear, stood up, and spoken out?

Asking “what if” is not a fruitless exercise. Nothing in history is preordained. Societies, like individuals, often face critical crossroads where actions and decisions can play out in unforeseen ways. Looking back in time and reflecting on the paths not taken can remind us of the dangers of political lethargy and the potential of social action. Antebellum Americans utterly failed to solve the problem of slavery, the greatest moral and political issue of the age. Today we grapple with racism, violence, and social inequality. The problems may seem daunting, but change is only possible when we embrace hope and courage, as Newsome did when she called out, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?”

Kim Tolley is professor of education at Notre Dame de Namur University and author of The Science Education of American Girls. Heading South to Teach: The World of Susan Nye Hutchison, 1815-1845, will be published in October 2015 and is available for pre-order now.