Friday, April 06, 2018

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2018, April 6: Planters vs. democracy

Continuing my comments on Forrest Nabors' From Oligarchy to Republicanism (2017), in Part 2 of the book Nabors makes his own evaluation of the Republican claims against the Southern planter class and their system. And he delivers some solid and impressive arguments that the basic Republican indictment was very realistic. He writes at some length about how the Southern planters' suspicion and hostility of education for most whites seriously restrained the growth of public schooling in the South compared to the North.

He describes the debates over public education in North Carolina in the early nineteenth century, "The legislature of North Carolina did nothing to establish free schools for decades, despite the requirement in their constitution, while the population of North Carolina sank into deeper illiteracy and ignorance. The Georgia Legislature also flouted its constitutional requirement and instead followed the example of South Carolina and Virginia." In the late 1830s, popular demand from free whites persuaded the state government to expand public education. Still, "North Carolina had the highest adult illiteracy rate in the nation but a public school attendance rate rivaling the free states by 1860."

He also describes various ways in which the planters restricted the vote and political freedoms for poor whites. And a lot of the white people were poor, not least because the planters maintained a much more concentrated ownership of land compared to the North, where property was more widely distributed among the population which was predominantly rural and agricultural in the whole country. He notes, "A general estimate of landless whites for the whole slave South is between 30 and 50 percent of the white Southern population."

He gives this memorable example from John Calhoun's home state of South Carolina, which not by accident was the hotbed of Southern sedition and the first state to secede from the Union, of how the planter class skewed the state's political institutions to their disproportionate favor:
The people were not sovereign in South Carolina. The property qualifications for representative, for senator, and for governor were quite high,152 ensuring that citizens of modest means could not stand for those offices.153 Members of the legislature’s lower house, the popular branch, had to own five hundred acres of land or ten slaves, and twice those property qualifications were required for members of the upper house. Voters outside cities had to own at least fifty acres of land, but even if the freeman could meet the property requirement, voting power diminished outside of areas where slavery was dense. This was because the apportionment of the lower house’s districts was determined by a ratio of white population and wealth, and in weighing wealth the constitution gave greater representation to areas dense with slaves.
Although access to the ballot changed over time and restrictions were not uniformly severe in all slave states, Nabors is right in concluding from this situation, "The slaveholders controlled government in the antebellum South."

This is the real value of From Oligarchy to Republicanism. It not only shows how undemocratic the slave states had become even for free whites, and validates the contemporary broad Republican analysis of the Slave Power as accurate. (Although he distances himself from the "Slave Power" concept.) And he paints a helpful picture showing how the criticisms of the slave system mentioned in this series of posts are not "anachronistic" judgments, i.e., made in retrospective with knowledge and perspectives not available to contemporaries. The Republican Party was making these criticisms and pointing out the very real problems and dangers in slavery in real time. And doing so in terms that are still recognizable as valid after more than 150 years.

But I have reservations about Nabors' overall case that the central political conflict that led to the Civil War is best understood as the conflict between the republicanism of the North versus oligarchy in the South.

I'll use this striking but puzzling reference that Nabors makes as a way to begin framing my reservations in a bit of a roundabout way: "It should be noted that this analysis republicamism vs. oligarchy] chafes against the theoretical premise of Marxist or Marxian analysis that still prevails in scholarship and tends to hold that relative wealth always determines social and political rank." (my emphasis)

Marxist scholarship dominates "scholarship"? If even a majority of Southern historians consider themselves Marxists, they seem to keep it remarkably well concealed. Even if we assume he meant that to characterize only the more narrow argument that Southern oligarchy was somehow fundamentally different from Northern capitalist republicanism, it still doesn't really make any sense. Karl Marx himself and his close collaborator Frederick Engels wrote extensively about the Civil War and followed it closely. They understood very well the difference between the American and Confederate form of government, and the preceding Northern/Southern difference in antebellum times.

As James Oakes notes in the essay I cited in an earlier post in this series, Marx was working with the classical bourgeois/capitalist economic theory of surplus value and shared the classical economic assumption that chattel slavery was less efficient than free labor and therefore slavery couldn't survive indefinitely in a capitalist economy. And while there has been about as many variations of Marxism as there have been people who identified as Marxist, those who adopted his view of historical development were, if anything, particularly insistent in emphasizing the differences in the economic nature of the slave and free economies in the US and their implications for the form of government.

So does Nabors mean his comment about Marxism dominating the scholarship on the subject in a crass polemical sense? Today's Republicans routinely refer to Democrats as socialists and Marxists, and the alt-right love a crackpot theory about "cultural Marxism" which they take as dominating American culture for decades. And, as I mentioned earlier, Nabors also quotes the hardcore neo-Confederate historical Thomas DiLorenzo seemingly dismissing historians who don't accept a view of slavery as essentially benign as "Marxist revisionists."

So I don't think we should discount the conservative polemical edge in Nabors' use of the "Marxist" label.

But I do know of one actual history of slavery by an avowed Marxist that highlights an important point that directly relates to the distinction on which Nabors insists between republicanism in the North and oligarchy in the South. I'm referring to The Negro People in American History (1954) by the longtime US Communist Party leader William Z. Foster. He died in Moscow in 1961 and received a state funeral in the Soviet Union. So it's safe to say he really was a Marxist in his own understanding and everyone else's.

He made this memorable observation about the prewar North-South polemics:
The furious debates of the 1850's over the question of slavery presented a rare spectacle of the ·two quarreling sectors of capitalism - the Southern planters, with their obsolete production system, and the Northern industrial capitalists, representing the interests of capitalism as a whole. They exposed and denounced each other's system of exploitation, and many true words were spoken in these mutual unveilings. Never, in any country, have the sinister workings of capitalism been so thoroughly aired from within. [my emphasis]
That memorably phrased comment raises an important point that bears directly on a problem that call into question the conclusions to which Nabors comes about the conflict between Northern republicanism and Southern oligarchy. I'll go into that in the next post. But for now, Nabors would no doubt be relieved of not being suspected of sharing a "Marxist" view of antebellum history.

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