The Long Hot Summer of ’60

The summer of 1860 culminated a decade of increasingly bitter polarization among the citizens of the still-United States over the question of slavery, or as the common polite euphemism had it; “our peculiar institution.” At a period within living memory of older citizens, slavery once appeared as if it were something that would wither away as it became less and less profitable, and more and more disapproved of by practically everyone. But the invention of the cotton gin to process cotton fiber mechanically made large-scale agricultural production profitable, relighting the fire under a moribund industry. The possibility of permitting the institution of chattel slavery in the newly acquired territories in the West during the 1840s turned the heat up to a simmer. It came to a full rolling boil after California was admitted as a free state in 1850 . . . but at a cost of stiffening the Fugitive Slave Laws. And as a prominent senator, Jesse Hart Benton lamented subsequently, the matter of slavery popped up everywhere, as ubiquitous as the biblical plague of frogs. Attitudes hardened on both sides, and within a space of a few years advocates for slavery and abolitionists alike had all the encouragement they needed to readily believe the worst of each other.

Texas was not immune to all this, of course. Of the populated western states at the time,Texas was closer in sympathy to the South in the matter of slavery. Most settlers who come from the United States had come from where it had been permitted, and many had brought their human property with them, or felt no particular objection to the institution itself. In point of fact, slaves were never particularly numerous: the largest number held by a single Texas slave-owner on the eve of the Civil War numbered around 300, and this instance was very much a singular exception; most owned far fewer. Only a portion of the state was favorable to the sort of mass-agricultural production that depended upon a slave workforce. In truth while there were few abolitionists, there were many whose enthusiasm for the practice of chattel slavery was particularly restrained, especially in those parts of North Texas which had been settled from northern states, in the Hill Country and San Antonio, similarly settled by Germans and other Europeans.

One of the subtle and tragic side-effects that the hardening of attitudes had on the South was to intensify the “closing-in” of attitudes and culture towards contrary opinions. As disapproval of slavery heightened in the North and in Europe, Southern partisans became increasingly defensive, less inclined to brook any kind of criticism of the South and its institutions, peculiar or otherwise. By degrees the South became inimical to outsiders bearing the contrary ideas that progress is made of. Those who were aware that ideas, money, innovation, and new immigrants were pouring into the Northern states at rates far outstripping those into the South tended to brood resentfully about it, and cling to their traditions ever more tightly. Always touchy about points of honor and insult, some kind of nadir was reached in 1854 on the floor of the US Senate when a Southern Representative, Preston Brooks of South Carolina caned Senator Charles Sumner following a fiercely abolitionist speech by the latter. Brooks was presented with all sorts of fancy canes to commemorate the occasion, while Senator Sumner was months recovering from the brutal beating.

Even more than criticism, Southerners feared a slave insurrection, and any whisper of such met with a hard and brutal reaction. John Brown’s abortive 1859 raid on the Federal armory at Harper’s Ferry sealed the conviction into the minds of Southerners that the abolitionists wished for exactly that.

When mysterious fires razed half of downtown Denton, parts of Waxahatchie, a large chunk of the center of Dallas, and a grocery store in Pilot Point during the summer of 1860 – the hottest summer in local memory – it took no great leap of imagination for anti-abolitionists to place blame for mysterious fires squarely on the usual suspects and their vile plots. Residents were especially jumpy in Dallas, where two Methodist preachers had been publicly flogged and thrown out of town the previous year. The editor of the local Dallas newspaper, one Charles Pryor wrote to the editors of newspapers across the state, (including the editor of the Austin Gazette who was chairman of the state Democratic Party) claiming, “It was determined by certain abolitionist preachers, who were expelled from the country last year, to devastate, with fire and assassination, the whole of Northern Texas, and when it was reduced to a helpless condition, a general revolt of slaves, aided by the white men of the North in our midst, was to come off on the day of election in August.”

The panic was on, then, all across Texas: Committees of Public Safety were formed, as so-called abolitionist plotters were sought high, low, behind every privy and under every bed, and lynched on the slightest suspicion. Conservative estimates place the number of dead, both black and white, at least thirty and possibly up to a hundred, while the newspapers breathlessly poured fuel on the fires . . . metaphorically speaking, of course . . . by expounding on the cruel depredations the abolitionists had planned for the helpless citizens of Texas. When the presidential election campaign began in late summer, Southern-rights extremists seamlessly laid the blame for the so-called plot on the nominee and political party favored by the Northern Free-States; Republican Abraham Lincoln. Texas seceded in the wake of his election, the way to the Confederacy smoothed by rumor, panic and editorial pages.

It turns out that the fires were most likely caused by the spontaneous ignition of boxes of new patent phosphorous matches, which had just then gone on the market, and the usually hot summer weather. But speculation and conspiracy theories are always more attractive than prosaic explanations for unsettling and mysterious events . . . and were so then as now.

8 thoughts on “The Long Hot Summer of ’60”

  1. Thanks – this helped me understand the time better. Texans’ attitudes – and their leaders’ – seem to have been complicated. Perhaps OT (is Sawyer Brown ever really ot) there’s “Another Side” – “I know that some things are wrong / But what gave them the right / To point their righteous fingers and expect us not to fight.” I’ve always been more sympathetic to that line than my husband – but my people were Kentucky Presbyterians and his were Czech brethren. We’re just a lot more touchy.

  2. They were complicated, Ginny – Sam Houston was a Unionist, and an owner of slaves, who had just been elected governor. A number of Texas countes voted against secession – and Texas did very well from the presence of the US Army, who were a protection against Indian raids, and also a market for Texas cattle. But the fires scared the c**p out of everyone, the newspapers enthusiastically played up the idea of it being part of a slave insurrection … and by the time soberer heads figured out that it was the matches, it was too late. Some historians speculate that the Texas Troubles, over the summer of 1860 was chiefly responsible for moving Texas towards secession and joining the Confederacy.
    I think this really broke Sam Houston’s heart – because it was his doing that Texas had joined the Union in the first place. He spent ten years trying to make it happen, pulled it off … and then had to watch all his work being undone. He resigned as governor, rather than take an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy.

  3. 2 questions.

    1. Why would anyone at that time want to own a slave? How did the owners benefit? Wouldn’t it make more sense to hire grateful, cheap, willing labor then be forced to feed, clothe and house an unhappy slave?

    2. I was taught that the slaves were imported all the way from Africa. Why import Africans when there are so many Indians close at hand?

  4. Ah, GH – for question #1 that is the question that roiled the North and South for a good few decades, and for which Northern abolitionists could not find a good answer, either. It made sense, I think, to Southerners – because it was the done thing, it was cheaper than hiring skilled or semi-skilled labor, and because I believe (and it’s just my own belief, YMMV) that many of the slaves were not unhappy to the point of overt rebellion over their lot. Three squares, hot and a cot, assured – to the end of one’s natural days. In Texas, as a matter of fact, many who were technically slaves actually worked for hire as skilled labor … and it was considered bad form for the owner to claim the wages that they earned. The position of a free black was not without peril; who would prosecute if a free black man was murdered? OTO – murdering someone elses’ lawful property … ohh – not good. I have read of one instance where a free mulatto owning considerable property in a frontier county of Texas had the paperwork drawn up during the last years of the Civil War to make him technically a slave owned by his white daughter-in-law. As Ginny said – attitudes were complicated.

    For question #2 – Indians didn’t make good slaves for whites; they either tended to die from exposure to European diseases, or to escape. Indians were, however, successfully enslaved by other Indians; the Comanche had a very profitable slave trade going, utilizing the children and women of other tribes, whites and Mexicans. But they tended to pick their slaves rather carefully. (Mostly by slaughtering adult males, older females, and children younger than toddler-age.)

  5. Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery argues that slavery became more economic in the 1700’s – before that the mortality rate was so high (pretty much for everyone) that indentured servants were cheaper, even considering the “seasoning” year. His focus is on Virginia in the 1600’s. The book is about “slavery” but actually doesn’t get to it for a couple hundred pages. (Morgan was wonderfully informative but depressing about the south’s emphasis upon unconsciousness – white & black – and discouragement of reading.)

    Indians, on the other hand, in the 1600’s enslaved in the northeast (genre of captivity narratives, e.g., Mary Rowlandson’s), though ransoms were part of the point. After King Phillip’s war, his family was taken to the West Indies as slaves. But this may all be irrelevant to everyone’s discussion because mortality rates in the northeast, southeast, and southwest were quite different – and different for different groups and at different pre-1860 times.

  6. There is an excellent discussion of the economics of enslavement and abolition in the American context in Freehling’s Road to Disunion ( Generally speaking, the profit of slavery included the differential between the goods in kind (food, shelter, etc) received by slaves and the wages that would have to be paid for a free worker, but also balancing the cost of acquisition (purchase price or cost of raising a child born to existing slaves) versus the appreciation of value in the ownership interest in the slave, which rose as the slave grew mature and acquired skills, while falling again as the slave aged. The cost of guarding the slave was a big variable; high where means of escape were near, low where escape was difficult. After the African slave trade was banned, and as northern states began emancipating their slaves, scarcity drove the value of slaves higher, as did demand from the newly-settled states (Alabama, Mississippi) with expanding cotton plantations. Free labor also had a mobility premium; you had to pay a free worker extra to get them to risk the danger and hard conditions of the frontier, while cheap land was constantly tempting them to quit and get a farm of their own. The higher the value of the slave, the more reluctant the owners were to forego that value.

    Slaveowners loved to spread lurid tales about slave insurrections, because it frightened the poor whites, who owned few or no slaves, into serving on the militia slave patrols for little or no compensation, thus lowering the costs of guarding the slaves against escape. There were actually very few Haitian-style slave insurrections in the old south; almost always, the slaves just wanted to escape, although in some cases they were willing to kill if they had to in the course of escape. The slave patrol system was a great example of socializing the costs and privatizing the benefits.

  7. The polarization of that time – 1850-1860 – almost seems like today.

    I read a history article on John Brown – and something the author pointed out – unrealized by me – is that Brown fit the classic definition of a terrorist.

    Something that always seems to fall on deaf ears the basis of the Confederacy – that the overwhelming majority of the Confederate Army’s ranks weren’t from slaveholder families – but poor whites who – I suspect – had no interest pro – or con – in the perpetuation of slavery. And I am sure that included Texas but I would defer to our resident Texas historian.

    I suspect they served because their state asked them to .

    As historian Shelby Foote said before the Civil War the “United States” was a confederation of states willing to join a union; after the war the term “United States” became singular.

  8. Also, re. the reason for the lower class Confederate soldiery fighting: Shelby Foote quotes (in PBS series) a foot soldier responding to the question in the simple statement “We’re fighting because you’re here” (in the south).

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