From the new July-August 2011 issue of News & Letters:
by Robert Taliaferro
The history of the U.S. is a quagmire of facts and near fictions; conflicting thoughts and ideas; established truths and myths, and nowhere is this more evident than when one discusses the causes and effects of the Civil War. This is especially evident on its 150th anniversary as some try to rewrite history, claiming that “states’ rights” were the issue, not slavery and the racism that underpinned it. They ignore that “states’ rights” meant the “right” to own another human being and work them to death. But history reveals the truth, the war between the states was a war over slavery, about freedom and self-determination. Today’s rampant racism bordering on fascism shows that the Civil War was a truly unfinished revolution.
The Civil War was such a monumental influence that Karl Marx, in the preface to Capital wrote, “As in the 18th century, the American war of independence sounded the tocsin for the European middle-class, so in the 19th century, the American Civil War sounded it for the European working-class.”
In fact, Raya Dunayevskaya notes that under the impact of the Civil War, Marx reorganized Capital, developing a new structure, and collected data from the events in the U.S. for volumes II and III of this theoretical work.
Dunayevskaya states that Marx felt it is “…the mode of labor under capitalism that is the underlying cause of crises,” and in the early 19th Century it was the mode of labor–chattel slavery–that was the impetus for a war that would change the cultural, political, and economic dynamics of the U.S.–and the world–for generations to come.
Though the causes of the Civil War can be blamed on many factors, depending on the particular bias of those making such evaluations, the bottom line revolves around a Southern agrarian society that was loath to relinquish its reliance on slavery as a source of capital and labor.
In 1805 the estimated value of the approximately 1 million slaves located in the country was about $300 million. In 1860, at the dawn of the Civil War, and 52 years after the 1808 ban on the importation of slaves into the U.S., the estimated value of the approximately 4.4 million slaves in the South was valued at $3 billion.
In the North, modernization and industrialization was the key source of wealth, replacing human labor with that of animals and machines.
According to James M. McPherson, author of Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, the North had advantages that the South didn’t which allowed it to be industrialized upon a more capital rather than labor intensive economy.
In the North labor was expensive and scarce, but resources were extensive. Add to this the higher level of mass education available in the North and the resultant higher literacy due to the proliferation of public schools and the openness to change. The U.S. in the mid-19th century–with the exception of the South–was becoming the most rapidly modernized country in the world.
Modernization, according to McPherson, gave rise to reform movements such as temperance, education, women’s rights, and anti-slavery, the latter becoming a primary instigation for the South.
Southern Democrats were the primary advocates of the institution of slavery with the inherited Jeffersonian commitment to maintain states’ rights, limit government, and continue with traditional agrarian economic arrangements, which, most importantly for them, included chattel slavery.
The swift growth of Northern industrialization, changes in modes of transportation, and new inventions revolutionized manufacturing and production in the North in a manner that was truly American.
Additionally, the rapid expansion of the country due to events like the Louisiana Purchase, and the war with Mexico, instigated by Southern Democrats, supported the fact that the South was growing more paranoid over its loss of much-needed political clout, and that despite cotton profits, Southern slaveholders were clearly becoming capitalists, without industrial capital.
Since slavery was at the foundation of the South’s social order, those moderates who called for even a marginal movement towards industrial development were drowned out by those who, according to McPherson, felt that such an entrepreneurial ethic was a form of “vulgar Yankee materialism.” Such “idealism” provided a powerful roadblock to industrial and economic development in the South.
Raya Dunayevskaya refers to the laborer in Marxist ideology as the “gravedigger of bourgeois society.” Capitalism’s brutality pervaded the antebellum South in the U.S., a particular slave-based form of bourgeois society. And slavery, Marx explained, was the pivot on which capitalism’s development turned.
When the secessionist states comprising the Confederate States of America fired on Ft. Sumter on April 12, 1861, they completed the circle of the paradox that was to define the United States of America for all time.
It was not the intent of Abraham Lincoln, newly elected 16th President of the U.S. (and its first Republican President), to attack or sanction the Southern states over the issue of slavery.
In his March 4, 1861, Inaugural Address he noted, “…I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so; and I have no inclination to do so.” This position was reaffirmed in an address he made on July 4, 1861.
But in the end slavery and its end was the only issue. Frederick Douglass, in a speech in Canandaigua, New York, in 1857 said, “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”
In his second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, another Lincoln emerged as he noted, “One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.”
Hegel wrote, “The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom. We may affirm absolutely that nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion.”
Ghosts of the past often imbue theory and practice. The Civil War produced nearly a million ghosts. It should be a constant reminder to those who might long for “the good ole days” that, as Douglass noted in 1883, “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.”