Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2018, April 3: Theory, slaveholder power, and ideology

An essay by James Oakes which I discussed on the Confederate "Heritage" series of post exactly seven years ago (Confederate "Heritage" Month 2010, April 3: Slavery, race and classical economics 04/03/2018) is helpful in providing a broader historical and ideological view that helps to understand the theoretical framework that Forrest Nabors employs in From Oligarchy to Republicanism (2017).

Nabors frames his account of Republican policy toward slavery and the South before and after the Civil War in terms of the North being a "republic" as conceived by the Constitution, while the South was developing into an "oligarchy." He describes this process as a "revolutionary" transformation by the South directed against Northern Constitutional republicanism.

Nabors relies heavily on political theory in his narrative. Oakes' "The Peculiar Fate of the Bourgeois Critique of Slavery" (in Slavery and the American South, Winthrop Jordan, ed.; 2003) focuses instead on how slavery was regarded from the viewpoint of classical economics in the tradition of Adam Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment. Classical economics, accepted in some form by most early American leaders, held that slave labor was inherently less efficient than free labor, largely on the grounds that slaves were cut off from aspiring to an increase in their personal wealth and property. At the time of the American Revolution, that economic assumption was used to argue that slavery would fade out due to its inherent economic inefficiency compared to non-slave enterprise.

But as time went on, slaveowners developed a different argument. They stuck to the basic assumption on the superiority of free labor. But they introduced a biological-racist argument of a kind still familiar to us today in new iterations, in which they argued that black people were inherently and irreparably inferior to whites and slavery was not only required to get maximum economic performance from them and was also the best system for the good of the black race themselves.

I discuss this line of thought in more detail in the post on Oakes linked above. I'll also mention here that William Freehling examines the changing justifications for the continuation of slavery and the development of racial ideology in early America and the antebellum period at length in his two-volume Road to Disunion history.

One technological development that had a major impact of the development and the ideology of slavery was the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. James Brewer Stewart explains ("Antislavery and Abolitionism in the United States, 1776–1870" in Cambridge World History of Slavery, Vol. 4; 2017), "Eli Whitney’s new cotton gin created vast opportunities to adapt enslaved labor to an extraordinarily profitable commodity, short-staple cotton, and the rich soils of these newly forming states promised its limitless cultivation. By 1840, slavery constituted the nation’s second largest capital asset, exceeded only by investment in real estate itself." To be clear, the "capital asset" of slavery was the live bodies of human beings owned as property by others.

Eli Whitney (1765–1825)

What attracted my interest to Nabors' book was his focus on the ways in which American whites came increasingly to see slavery as a danger to their own freedom and political institutions.

In neo-Confederate pseudohistory, when its advocates talk about the Civil War itself, they try to discredit the idea that slavery played any role in it. So we hear claims from them like: "Northern whites were racist against blacks, too." "Most Confederate soldiers didn't own slaves so why would they fight for slavery?" "Freeing the slaves wasn't one of the Union war aims when the war started."

Understanding why those arguments are so empty requires knowing something about the prewar politics of slavery. Particularly when we're looking for the causes of a war, the events leading up to it are always necessary to understand. Things that happen during the war can be understood in connection to prewar events. But events during the war can hardly be taken as having started the war.

As mentioned in an earlier post, Nabors defines the purpose of his book as understanding specifically the ways in which the Republican Party talked about the conflict between the slave states and the free states. The Republican Party was founded in 1854 as a party committed to preventing the spread of slavery beyond existing slave states.

Nabors makes it clear even in the Introduction that even though "the antebellum South" was "where the cause of the national
crisis is found, the "supreme cause of this recurring conflict was the rise of the oligarchy in the South, the independent variable that is underrated or missed by many studies of the period."

On the one hand, this formulation seems to recognize that class structure and dynamics were major factors and that in particular it was the ruling group in the South that generated the crisis from which the Civil War resulted.

On the other hand, this framing also demotes slavery as a cause of the war. And this immediately is a warning sign to people familiar with the historical disputes, including the neo-Confederate claims. So we'll look at it more closely in further posts.

Here I'll just mention a short version of the question this raises. The "oligarchy in the South" ruled an economy based on slavery. It wasn't an "independent variable" from slavery. It was an economy based on slavery. So why use the more limited version that Nabors provides, in which the main owners of capital and the masters (in more than one sense!) of the economy and government there are rhetorically separated from the core element of its economic system and the most controversial one?

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