Ever since a deranged racial terrorist burst into a Black church in Charleston last year and murdered the people there, politicos of all stripes have been on a iconoclastic Jihad against symbols of the Civil War throughout the South and elsewhere. In addition, self anointed vigilantes have gone about vandalizing public monuments connected with Confederate veterans and similar symbols of the Civil War. Just recently Ta-Nehisi Coates published an op-ed article in the Atlantic on why the Civil War was all about slavery and, by implication, nothing else. While Mr. Coates was, as usual, eloquent in his argument and cited numerous period quotes to buttress his argument, it set me pondering this much debated topic once again and, especially in light of MLK Day, it is relevant to take a look at this issue yet again.
First off, as a disclaimer, let me reiterate that the Charleston massacre was an abominable act; that Governor Nikki Haley was entirely correct in removing the Confederate battle flag from the flag pole on state grounds, that slavery in 1860 was a Bad Thing—and still is—and that racism in all its forms is not just morally wrong, but a spiritual illness that should be actively combated in society. Nor, for that matter, do I think that Secession was either a necessary or good thing in 1860 and the neo-Secessionists of today are a dangerous and delusional fringe group that should be taken very seriously. A historian’s first responsibility is to the truth; part of that responsibility consists, not of simply regurgitating quotes to prove one’s a priori assumptions and still less to simply parrot the assumptions of the current prevailing historical dogma, but to go beyond what was said at the time and try to understand the underlying factors that led people to act in certain ways, for good or ill.
Let me just say that the road to Secession was a long one which really stretches back to the earliest days of the Republic and that, yes, slavery was a very important factor in the long process that led to the outbreak of Civil War. But that is a far cry from saying that slavery, in and of itself, caused the Civil War.
It would take a very large volume to detail all the factors that led to the Secession Crisis of 1860 and certainly the debate over slavery would play a very large part of that book. But other countries outlawed slavery and did not go to war over it—notably Great Britain—although during our war, the British establishment was quite active in aiding and abetting the slave states in their rebellion. In fact, far more Black slaves were transported to the Caribbean and South America than to the US, which fact is conveniently overlooked by most historians. So Great Britain’s investment in slavery in the Caribbean was quite substantial–yet no rebellion or civil war when it was finally abolished. Conversely, when the colony of Georgia was first founded in the early 1700’s, slavery was banned as its founders did want the colonists to be dependent on an economy based on human bondage. The truth was far more complex than most Americans realize and nostrums and stereotypes abound. Be that as it may, let me limit this present essay to analyzing just one aspect of this Gordion’s Knot of causality leading to the Civil War and try to show why slavery was not THE cause of war.
Let us deal with the North to start with. In 1860, Lincoln did not run on a platform of abolishing slavery; he ran on a plank which would have prohibited the extension of slavery into the territories not yet admitted to the Union—two very different things. Lincoln, although opposed to slavery on moral grounds, was not an Abolitionist, although as a good politician he actively solicited their votes. At best one could label Abraham Lincoln as a “gradualist”—to try to slowly wean the nation away from the “Peculiar Institution” and more or less starve it to death. Even after war broke out, Lincoln only came to emancipation very cautiously: several more militant generals who tried to free slaves prematurely were severely reprimanded by Lincoln early in the war. He stated on several occasions to the effect that if to preserve the Union he would maintain slavery, he would not hesitate to do so. Even after embracing emancipation, Lincoln continued to entertain various schemes to ship freed Negroes back to Africa, rather than allow them to remain as citizens in the US.
In retrospect, President Lincoln was entirely correct to go slow: had Lincoln asked the North to go to war in April of 1861 to free the slaves, the response among northern whites would been have been an overwhelming no. The truth is that Abolitionists, while very vocal and politically powerful in many states, were a very small minority in 1860. Preserving the Union; rallying to the flag; fighting Southern rebellion; northern patriotism; these were all important motives to go war for most northerners—and even some southerners.
Although postwar Lost Cause propaganda glossed over it, the truth is that in many parts of the South there was strong anti-Secessionist sentiment that over the course of the war turned violent. Nor were Southern loyalists at all motivated by sentiments of abolishing slavery; many were virulently racist themselves and detested not only the Southern plantation owners, but their slaves as well.
In the North, moreover, there were pockets of strong sympathy for the Confederate cause: throughout the Ohio Valley there was strong pro-Secessionist sentiment in southern Illinois, Indiana and Ohio; similarly in ostensibly Free States along the Mississippi there were pro-Confederate pockets. For that matter, the northeast also had its Rebel sympathizers: the Mayor of New York, Fernando Wood, proposed that New York City secede from the Union and there were Yankee factory owners in New England who were none too happy that the supply of cotton for their textile mills was cut off by the Union blockade.
Although slavery existed from the beginning of the first colonies, the nature of slavery in America evolved over time. In the Jamestown Colony and elsewhere, there co-existed several forms of unfree labor, of which slavery was only one. Far more numerous in raw numbers were indentured servants; although de facto treated like slaves (or worse) their term of servitude was only for a limited number of years. In fact the first 33 Blacks to land in Jamestown were not slaves but indentured servants. Nor was slavery exclusively limited to Negroes. During the reign of the usurper Oliver Cromwell in England, the Puritan ‘reign of saints’ carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Ireland; English troops would descend on Irish villages and massacre everyone over the age of 12 and then send the survivors as slaves to the West Indies, which why today one frequently finds Jamaican Americans with names like O’Brian or O’Hara. Although, like modern Holocaust deniers, you will find English apologists who deny the genocidal policies of Oliver Cromwell and other English leaders, the truth is that whites were often enslaved as well in the early years.
The northern colonies practiced slavery as well as the southern ones at the time of the American Revolution, although by that time Black slavery was already well entrenched in the South. Many of the founding fathers were aware of the incongruity of having slavery while proclaiming freedom; but they were men of the Enlightenment and sincerely believed that in time rationalism and humanism would lead to the end of slavery. Rice and tobacco cultivation at that time made up most of the large plantation agriculture and while they were economically important to the southern states, small farms had far less need of slaves, especially in the more mountainous regions of the South. Cotton was a small part of Southern agriculture, mainly because it was so time consuming to process. That all changed with the invention of the Cotton Gin. It was this invention by Yankee inventor Eli Whitney that revolutionized the Southern economy in the early nineteenth century. Large plantations, owned by a very small number of landowners, many of them absentee owners, could efficiently raised large crops of cotton, a raw material in high demand in both the northeast and also in England, where the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. These were a far cry from the small “Yeomen Farmers” that Thomas Jefferson had envisioned as the basis for his ideal of democratic agrarian republic. In truth the plantation system was big business, a form of commercialized agriculture—Agribusiness—at its very worst and it contaminated every other institution it touched.
If one so chose, I’m willing to wager one could track the growth of ever more restrictive slave legislation with the growth of the cotton economy in the deep South, as well as the growing ideology of Blacks as an inferior race who needed to be kept in permanent submission. The growth of racist ideology and of racism was a necessary corollary to the rise of King Cotton. The growing numbers of slaves, needed to work what were essentially factory farms, spawned increasing fear of blacks, punctuated by occasional slave revolts. The official outlawing of the transatlantic slave trade did nothing to slow its growth and was more honored in its violation than observance.
By the world view of the Southern plantation owner, Abolitionists rabble rousers were not just a threat to public safety, they were a threat to their very way of life. Destroy slavery and the elite who owned most of the wealth in the South would be impoverished—or so they believed.
A crusading journalist in Great Britain, who wrote for the New York Tribune from 1852 to 1862, understood this very well and gave a name to it: he dubbed it “the Slaveocracy.” It was a small group of very wealthy planters who became fabulously wealthy on the enslavement of Negroes who dominated the politics of the South and even of the Nation as a whole. It was, as the name implies, an oligarchy based on slavery. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia: “Slaveholders controlled not only the best land and the vast majority of personal property in the state but also the state political system. In 1850 and 1860 more than two-thirds of all state legislators were slaveholders. More striking, almost a third of the state legislators were planters.”
This economic elite controlled the state legislatures, the newspapers and just about everything else in the South; moreover the dominance of the plantation economy in the South also meant that free whites who did not own large plantations were at a severe disadvantage both as farmers and as laborers. It meant that you were either very, very wealthy or very poor, with a small group in the middle dependent on the slave masters. No wonder that in many places like Appalachia hatred of slaves went hand in hand with hatred of their masters.
In 1992, James Carville famously advised up and coming Presidential candidate Bill Clinton that it was “the economy stupid;” In 2008 it was also “the economy stupid” and today it is still the same thing. Similarly, in 1860 it was also the economy, not States’ Rights, tariffs, or at base even slavery in itself, although many at the time believed it was. White Folks did not going about kidnapping Negroes from Africa just to get their jollies; the slave system was a by-product of the plantation economy, not a cause. In turn, racism was an ideology which grew to justify that vile yet profitable economic system. It was the Slaveocracy’s stranglehold on the economy of the South and the politics of the nation which really precipitated war. So, although to Americans of African descent it is understandable that they should be fixated on the most important aspect of their own personal history, if we are really going to understand what caused nearly three quarters of a million of Americans to die in the Civil War and the event whose after effects still dog us today, we need to look more deeply to this key underlying factor and its lingering after effects on American society.
There is another lesson to be learned here: Oligarchy and Democracy are mutually exclusive political-economic systems. The concentration of wealth into the hands of the few is an immanent threat, not only to Democracy, but to the peace and prosperity of the nation. Let us hope it does not take another civil war to finally learn that lesson.