The Civil War: Joseph E. Brown to Alfred H. Colquitt

December 7, 1860

A false dichotomy, or false dilemma, is a situation where a person is choosing from two options and believes that there are no other options available. The worst kind of false dichotomy occurs where there are not only other options but false information matriculating into the public discourse and creeping into the minds of people—particularly those people who are easily influenced; the kind of people who can come to believe anything, no matter how outlandish.

When it came time to decide, in the court of public opinion, whether to secede, southerners could have scarcely known the options their leaders asked them to contemplate: (1) secession; or (2) submit themselves to the North and remain part of the Union.

One man who would stand tall in Georgia, Joseph Brown, wrote of these options and advocated for secession. At the time, he was Governor Brown of Georgia, and he would later become the Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court and after that the United States Senator from the State of Georgia. He was a northern educated lawyer—Yale—and a man of influence, so when he wrote a letter to Alfred Colquitt and others, he knew that his advocacy—this time for secession—could be a loud voice in the public debate in Georgia and potentially reverberate throughout the South.

Brown pondered what may happen if the South abolished slavery. “One may say, send them to Africa,” he wrote. “To such a proposition I might reply, send them to the moon. You may say that is not practicable. It is quite as much so as it is for us to pay for and send this vast number of negroes to Africa, with the means at our command.” He then contemplated the amount of taxes that the governments of the South would need to levy to raise funds to send the freed slaves to Africa since “[n]o one would be so inhuman as to propose to send them to Africa and set them down upon a wild, naked sea coast, without provisions for at least one year.”

But if the South could not raise such funds, society itself would change—or rather transform—into what some in the North sought. “Many people at the North, say that negroes are our fit associates; that they shall be set free, and remain among us—intermarrying with our children, and enjoying equal privileges with us.” Then what would happen? The competition for work would become unbearable: “the 4,500,000 free negroes to be turned loose among us,” some would become tenants and work on the land but a “large proportion of them would spend their time in idleness and vice, and would live by stealing, robbing and plundering.” He went on: “[p]robably one fourth of the whole number would have to be maintained in our penitentiary, prisons, and poor houses” which would require raising taxes to fund. But the rest of them would be starting their time as free people but “miserably poor, with neither land, money nor provisions.” With the marketplace being what it is, landowners would hire the freedman because he “has only been accustomed to receive his victuals and clothes for his labor”—and thus would accept a lower wage and cause landowners to refuse to hire the more expensive white men.

And so white families would become poorer. “They are a superior race, and they feel and know it,” wrote Brown. But with slavery abolished:

“[t]hen the negro and the white man, and their families, must labor in the field together as equals. Their children must go to the same poor school together, if they are educated at all. They must go to church as equals; enter the Courts of justice as equals, sue and be sued as equals, sit on juries together as equals, have the right to give evidence in Court as equals, stand side by side in our military corps as equals, enter each others’ houses in social intercourse as equals; and very soon their children must marry together as equals.”

Secession was the only answer. There could not be southern submission to the North; the North had shown time after time that it was unwilling to agree to an amendment to the Constitution protecting the institution of slavery and ensuring the return of fugitive slaves. Brown wrote: “Secession is not likely, therefore, to involve us in war. Submission may.” And it was now, Brown argued, that the people of the State of Georgia “should send their wisest and best men to the Convention” to vote to leave the Union; just as South Carolina was set to do; and just as Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi would soon do too.

In framing the two options—secession or submission—this way, Brown underestimated the northern appetite to enter into an open conflict. And throughout Brown’s writing, there was an element of believing that his side, whether from a political or military standpoint, had the strength to take on its adversaries—despite the facts and probabilities.

But perhaps most notable was that Governor Brown wrote of a future in the South consisting of freed slaves being social equals with their white counterparts. It is unclear whether this was a design—to show Georgians the fearful future they could have faced if slavery was abolished in the South—or whether it was an expression of naïveté—contemplating a society in which the whites in power did nothing, either by law or by fact, to confine free blacks to a class beneath whites.

Perhaps Brown was simply articulating a vision for the future and had not contemplated the lengths to which men would go to preserve the hierarchy of the antebellum society they knew. In retrospect, however, it was the faultiest of assumptions that there would be a semblance of equality in the South—for the foreseeable future. Brown was setting forth an approach that was far kinder than he and his brethren would embody and more benevolent than that characterizing the post-war years. There would be no equal coexistence—not in that lifetime or the next or even the next after that.

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