100 years ago this month the American civil war began with the bombardment by the Confederate forces of the South of the Government held Ford Sumter. By the time it ended, four years later, it is estimated that out of a population of 31,000,000, between 750,000 and 1,000,000 men lost their lives, and many more wounded. The devastation was enormous. In many ways, it was the fore-runner of the total warfare we know today.
The revival of interest in the American Civil War is a phenomenon of the last decade. Chicago boasts of a successful book store where only Civil War items can be bought. Every week sees at least two new books on the War. What prompts this sustained interest is anybody’s guess. Is it, perhaps, a search for a tranquilizer that will narcotize America to the many setbacks of recent years?
The Socialist searching through the mountain of Civil War books, is hard put to apply his yardstick of historical materialism. What seems to occupy the attention of the various authors, for the most part, is the spectacular bravery and dauntless courage displayed by Union warriors and Rebels alike. The social forces underlying the conflict, with the exception of the Slavery issue, are buried in a mass of drum and thunder history. It is easy for the casual reader to be left with the thought that the North was engaged in a crusade to wipe out slavery while the South was imbued with the “noble” ideal of saving it through secession. While this might have been typical of the average ideology of the War, it was certainly not a basic force in its origin.
If the abolition of slavery was an all important issue to the North, then why were Wendell Philips and William Lloyd Garrison mobbed in Boston, the centre of abolitionist ferment? Why was Lovejoy lynched in Illinois? Why was Douglass, friendly to the South and its institutions, elected to the Senate by the same State that started Lincoln on his road to fame?
Then too, the idea of opposition to slavery on moral grounds becomes ridiculous when one regards the low moral conscience of Northern industrialism. There was no revulsion at the horrible mills and mines where men, women and children toiled long hours for a pittance; at the miserable slums, unfit for human habitation in all the cities and towns; at the periodic crises which threw the workers on the streets to starve; at the universal blacklist for those who spoke of unionization.
Certainly it was not opposition to slavery on moral grounds, that prompted Massachusetts, in the early 18th century, to abolish it. John Adams wrote: “that the real cause was the multiplication of labouring white people who would not suffer the rich to employ these sable rivals so much to their injury.” And the fact was that a committee appointed by the Massachusetts Council in 1706. recommended the abolition of slavery because “white servants were cheaper and more profitable than black slaves.” Nor were Lincoln and his party, a century and a half later, concerned with the morals of slavery. In fact, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued as a war measure against the Rebels and did not apply to those slave States loyal to the Union. The Republican Party made quite plain the fact that it was not opposed to the continuance of slavery in the South provided that it was not spread into the frontier areas in which the Northern industrialists wished to establish their own slave system — wage labour.
Chattel slave labour has to fill certain requirements in order to be a practical substitute for “free” wage-labour: (a) it must be cheaper; (b) there must be a climate which permits the use of cheap, coarse and scanty clothing: (c) the product worked must require little, if any, skilled labour; (d) there must be no complex machinery; (e) there must be an unlimited supply of new and fertile land that can be brought into cultivation as the old land becomes exhausted; (f) a one crop system is desirable; and (g) employment must be steady because chattel slaves must be supported continuously.
Obviously, the conditions for this type of labour did not exist in the North, whereas in the South, the cultivation and ginning of cotton for nine months of the year filled the bill. There were, however, serious contradictions which prevented the peaceful co-existence of the Southern and Northern economic systems, and which caused the Southern system to disintegrate prior to 1860.
The American South, despite its slave labour, was basically a commodity society in which goods (including slaves) and services were produced for sale on the market with a view to profit. A more fitting designation for the system is Plantation Capitalism. Certainly the South fought to maintain the chattel status of its Negroes, hut mainly because this type of labour was vital to its economy and because its very system was falling apart largely as a result of Congressional laws which favoured Northern interests and which helped make chattel slave labour too costly. The moral justification for slavery was naturally provided by the Southern churches for the benefit of their aristocratic “partners.”
It was largely because of the law against the importation of slaves and the consequent need of breeding these “vocal tools” that a field hand who in 1808 sold for 150 dollars, brought from two to four thousand dollars in 1860. The control of Congress by the North resulted in high tariffs on imported manufactured goods which interfered with the important trade of Southern raw cotton for English textiles. The development of Northern seaports and railways also brought about a loss of trade to the South from the Western agricultural regions—long ship hauls down the Mississippi to the Port of New Orleans became unnecessary. And the South, which desperately needed new land lo replace that used up by their wasteful one-crop system, was losing out in its bid to bring in frontier areas as slave states.
As its losing economic war with the North and its internal contradictions progressed, the beneficiaries of the Southern plantation system became fewer, their holdings ever larger. In 1860, only about one-half million of a population of 9 million Southern whites are reckoned to have made any profit from chattel slavery, of which a mere 10,000 were the actual ruling class. In this crumbling fabric of the South, the problem confronting the 10,000 was how to maintain dominance under universal white suffrage. Support came from the professional class and the clergy with their one or two personal slaves. Also from the poor, degraded “white trash” who squatted on the poorest land and fiercely defended the institution of chattel slavery which provided another economic groups over whom they could vaunt their “superiority.” As an added bonus, there was the lift to their spirits to be had by identifying themselves with the Southern aristocrats.