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Sunday, October 05, 2014

The Republic in Crisis, 1848-1861 by John Ashworth | LibraryThing

There have been more than 55,000 books and pamphlets written about the Civil War since 1861. Why another?  The author, in his introduction suggests it’s because he has a reinterpretation, proposing that the Civil War was inevitable given the illiberal reactions of the south based on their justified fear of slave insurrection, rebellion, sabotage, and impact  of the growing  differences between between free and slave labor..

Ironically, racism was enhanced by the American Revolution as class differences disappeared and racial differences became necessarily more pronounced in order to make slavery palatable. “Blacks” were genetically “inferior” and well suited for being mastered was the claim.  The social history of slaves and slavery really only got started in the sixties, and historians discovered that slavery was resisted, often quite violently.  Ashworth proposes that slave rebellion played itself out politically and was a major contributor to the war.  

It was the fear of slave rebellion and slave violence that moved whites to take actions that violated white liberties which helped fuel anti-slavery feeling in the north. Constant vigilance against slaves running away and then efforts to get them back (slaves often represented a considerable investment, perhaps the equivalent cost as a nice car in today’s dollars) resulted in pressure for the federal government to enforce the Fugitive Slave Clause of the Constitution and then later the stricter Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. As the number and membership of abolition societies grew in the north, actions by the south, including censoring the mails to (prohibit distribution of pamphlets, and the gag rule in the Senate intended to prevent petitions to eliminate slavery, began to identify antislavery with freedom of speech. (See also  William Miller’s Arguing about Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress.)  The murder of abolitionist Lovejoy in 1837 made things worse.

No slave society in history has managed to urbanize or industrialize and the distinction in that regard between the north and the south became ever more manifest. By the time of the civil war 90% of manufactured goods came from the north and barely 10% of the southern population was urbanized. The contrast between free labor and that of slaves also became more obvious.  It wasn't that industrial slaves weren’t profitable.  They were, but the potential for sabotage was much greater and the economic effects much more damaging while the  implements required for an agricultural economy didn’t require nearly the economic investment.  Not to mention that white labor deeply resented competing with slave labor and that “agitators” could much more easily organize slaves to revolt in an urban setting.  According to James Henry Hammond, one of South Carolina’s most prominent statesmen, “whenever a slave is made a mechanic, he is more than half freed”. “The field”, another southerner concluded, “is the proper sphere of the negro”.

A further reason for the lack of urbanisation and industrialization was the self-sufficiency of the plantation.  Since the need for labor on a farm was seasonal at best, but the slaves were property, and it was important to keep them busy,  it became an economic necessity for owners to encourage slaves to raise their own food which in turn reduced the need for labor-saving equipment further reducing the impetus for industrialization while in the north wage-labor could be laid off when times warranted.

Support of non-slaveholding whites was important since they were needed to patrol areas and to provide assistance in case of slave revolt. In most southern states, whites were outnumbered, often by considerable numbers, so creating an image of the savage black man became essential, but at the same time the myth of Christian protection was created to salve their own consciences, i.e. that the black man needed saving and protection because he was “childlike.”  In other words, slavery was “good for them.”  An extension of this was that by having slaves do menial jobs, the free white man didn’t have to.  And, of course, they could point to the founders of the republic, many of whom had owned slaves, so how could it be a bad thing?  The slaves themselves were quite happy, they insisted, all suggestion to the contrary coming from northern agitators.

This review is getting a bit long, so I’ll end with this quote:  
"In the following decades these attitudes began to change dramatically. It would be a pardonable exaggeration to claim that in the nineteenth century, the United States went from a belief that democracy was incompatible with wage labour (on a large scale) to an assumption that a successful free society and democratic government depend on wage labour and are scarcely possible without it. From the 1830s onwards the abolitionists were in the vanguard of this movement. The adjustment to the arrival of wage labour on a large scale would bring with it a new hostility to slavery. . . In the United States, the writer continued, “the wheels of fortune revolve too rapidly, and the rich and poor change places too frequently, to allow a foundation for such an agitation as this”. The driving force of the entire system was, of course, self-interest: the prospect of upward mobility gave the worker a huge incentive to labour. At this point the antislavery implications became apparent. The slave simply lacked these incentives. In the vast majority of cases he could never cease to be a slave. Moreover because his labour was given under duress, it could not, abolitionists were confident, energise an economy and foster its development. Nor was it properly respected. As a result “indolence” and “dissipation” ruled in the South. According to abolitionist Charles Beecher, “slavery degrades labor, discourages education, science, art; enfeebles commerce, blights agriculture, and continually works society towards barbarism”. As northerners re-examined the basis of their labour system and stressed the incentives available to wage workers (as to other northerners), in increasing numbers they found it difficult to ignore the antislavery implications."

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