Monday, April 29, 2013

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 29: Slave system vs. free labor

A Louisiana planter who returned home sadly after the war wrote in 1865: "Society has been completely changed by the war. The [French] revolution of '89 did not produce a greater change in the 'Ancien Regime' than has this in our social life." And four years later George Ticknor, a retired Harvard professor, concluded that the Civil War had created a "great gulf between what happened before in our century and what has happened since, or what is likely to happen hereafter. It does not seem to me as if I were living in the country in which I was born."

James McPherson in "Antebellum Southern Exceptionalism: A New Look at an Old Question" Civil War History 50:4 (Dec 2004), from which the opening quote is taken, wrote about a theme I touched on in yesterday's post, the prewar polemics between North and South each condemning the other for the cruelty of their respective labor systems, chattel slavery in the South and free labor under growing industrial capitalism in the North. There's a whole interesting debate over whether US slavery was part of the capitalist system or represented some kind of feudal holdover; while I see it the first way, that's not the theme of this article of McPherson's.

McPherson explains the Southern position that the agricultural civilization based on slavery in the South was superior to that of the non-slave states this way:

A South Carolinian told [London Times correspondent William Howard] Russell [in Spring 1861]: "We are an agricultural people, pursuing our own system, and working out our own destiny, breeding up women and men with some other purpose than to make them vulgar, fanatical, cheating Yankees." Louis Wigfall of Texas, a former U.S. senator, told Russell: "We are a peculiar people, sir! ... We are an agricultural people. ... We have no cities—we don't want them. ... We want no manufactures: we desire no trading, no mechanical or manufacturing classes. ... As long as we have our rice, our sugar, our tobacco, and our cotton, we can command wealth to purchase all we want. ... But with the Yankees we will never trade—never. Not one pound of cotton shall ever go from the South to their accursed cities."

Such opinions were not universal in the South, of course, but in the fevered atmosphere of the late 1850s they were widely shared. "Free Society!" exclaimed a Georgia newspaper. “We sicken at the name. What is it but a conglomeration of greasy mechanics, filthy operatives, small-fisted farmers, and moon-struck theorists ... hardly fit for association with a southern gentleman’s body servant." In 1861 the Southern Literary Messenger explained to its readers: "It is not a question of slavery alone that we are called upon to decide. It is free society which we must shun or embrace." In the same year Charles Colcock Jones Jr. — no fire-eater, for after all he had graduated from Princeton and from Harvard Law School — spoke of the development of antagonistic cultures in North and South: "In this country have arisen two races [i.e., Northerners and Southerners] which, although claiming a common parentage, have been so entirely separated by climate, by morals, by religion, and by estimates so totally opposite to all that constitutes honor, truth, and manliness, that They cannot longer exist under the same government."
In Jones' comment, we see an extension of Southern white racism to include a racial superiority of Southern whites over Northern whites. Racism just makes white people crazy.

McPherson gives some representative instances of the Northern side of this argument, which did not extend to regarding Southern whites as an inferior race to Northerners:

Spokesmen for the free-labor ideology — which had become the dominant political force in the North by 1860 —reciprocated these sentiments. The South, said Theodore Parker, was "the foe to Northern Industry—to our mines, our manufactures, and our commerce. ... She is the foe to our institutions— to our democratic politics in the State, our democratic culture in the school, our democratic work in the community, our democratic equality in the family." Slavery, said William H. Seward, undermined "intelligence, vigor, and energy" in both blacks and whites. It produced "an exhausted soil, old and decaying towns, wretchedly-neglected roads, ... an absence of enterprise and improvement." Slavery was therefore "incompatible with all ... the elements of the security, welfare, and greatness of nations." The struggle between free labor and slavery, between North and South, said Seward in his most famous speech, was "an irrepressible conflict between two opposing and enduring forces." The United States was therefore two nations, but it could not remain forever so: it "must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slaveholding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation." Abraham Lincoln expressed exactly the same theme in his House Divided speech. Many other Republicans echoed this argument that the struggle, in the words of an Ohio congressman, was "between systems, between civilizations." [my emphasis]
These polemics have produced a discussion among Civil War historians over the years as to whether these expressed differences reflected primarily subjective perspectives or whether there was a substantial objective basis for them. And there was a substantial difference between the level of urbanization and industrialization between the two sections:

The North was more urban than the South and was urbanizing at a faster rate. In 1820, 10 percent of the free-state residents lived in urban areas compared with 5 percent in the slave states; by 1860 the figures were 26 percent and 10 percent respectively. Even more striking was the growing contrast between farm and non-farm occupations in the two sections. In 1800, 82 percent of the Southern labor force worked in agriculture compared with 68 percent in the free states. By 1860 the Northern share had dropped to 40 percent while the Southern proportion had actually increased slightly to 84 percent. Southern agriculture remained traditionally labor-intensive while Northern agriculture became increasingly capital-intensive and mechanized. By 1860 the free states had nearly twice the value of farm machinery per acre and per farm worker as the slave states. And the pace of industrialization in the North far outstripped that in the South. In 1810 the slave states had an estimated 31 percent of the capital invested in manufacturing in the United States; by 1840 this had declined to 20 percent and by 1860 to 16 percent. In 1810 the North had two and a half times the amount per capita invested in manufacturing as the South; by 1860 this had increased to three and a half times as much.
McPherson doesn't make the point here, but slavery imposed some practical limits on industrialization in the South. Industry required the use of complex machinery. Machinery subject to sabotage. Even the kinds of agricultural machinery that could be used was limited by the need to protect the machinery against the constant problem of sabotage, one widespread form of slave resistance to the slavery system and their masters. Although he does cite a study by Fred Bateman and Thomas Weiss, A Deplorable Scarcity: The Failure of Industrialization in the Slave Economy (1981) that apparently calls into question assumptions about the non-adaptability of slave labor. And there were the beginnings of efforts to use slave labor in industry at the time the Civil War broke out.

Yesterday, we saw J.D.B. DeBow's rather feeble arguments that slave labor did not reduce income and opportunities for free workers in the South. But McPherson writes:

During the middle decades of the nineteenth century, twice as many whites left the South for the North as vice versa. These facts did not go unnoticed at the time; indeed, they formed the topic of much public comment. Northerners cited the differential in population growth as evidence for the superiority of the free-labor system; Southerners perceived it with alarm as evidence of their declining minority status in the nation. These perceptions became important factors in the growing sectional self-consciousness that led to secession.
McPherson discusses various cultural differences between white society in the South and in the North. And those are certainly important to understand.

But that does not mean, and McPherson does not argue, that this somehow makes cultural difference like Southern concepts of honor the cause of the Civil War. Many of those cultural differences came directly from the influence of the slavery system itself. And whatever cultural differences came into play in exacerbating tensions between Northern and Southern whites to the point of civil war, those tensions burst into the open around the institution of slavery. As McPherson puts it, "slavery was more than an institution of racial control. Its centrality to many aspects of life focused Southern politics almost exclusively on defense of the institution."

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