From the January 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Conflict Defined
The American Civil War was a savage affair. It lasted for four years and it caused the deaths of 600,000 of the young men of America. It wrote such names as Gettysburg, Bull Run and Shiloh into the history of human conflict.
It was a war, we were told, over slavery. If you were humane, liberal and democratic you fought for the North, against slavery. If you were brutal, despotic and contemptuously aristocratic you fought for the South, for slavery. If there are any legends of history which for their own sakes are worth preserving, this is not one of them.
In truth, the Northern States had little use for slavery. Their agriculture produced anything from lumber to livestock, for which they needed workers who were knowledgeable, adaptable and freely moving. Such workers were also needed by the modern industry, which was developing in the North. In contrast, the South, with its warmer climate, raised settled crops like indigo, sugar, tobacco—and cotton. It was profitable to work these crops by ignorant slaves, under a few overseers. This difference in economic needs was at the root of the clash over slavery.
The first negro slaves came to America at the beginning of the 17th century. Before this, workers were employed under indentures—and they moved on to settle new lands when their term expired. This was not a convenient system for the Southern planters, who needed a settled labour force. Even so, they did not immediately use the Negroes as slaves; at first they were treated as indentured servants (although they had no indentures) and when their term ran out they often themselves bought another Negro. (It is interesting that the recognition of this right was the first legal sanction of slavery in America). When the planters realised that the Negroes had no legal rights they dropped the indenture formalities and openly bought and worked them as slaves. This was the stimulus to the West Indian slave mart, with its history of cold-blooded cruelly.
Slavery takes root
When slavery was not economical the white colonists tried to abolish it, but were often prevented by the English slave-running interests. Any anti-slavery movement based on moral grounds, without good commercial reasons, was doomed, as in the State of Georgia, which banned slavery when it was founded only to see the law ignored and evaded. The reason was that the Southern economy was being boosted by the demand from Europe for fresh foods and new materials; cotton was of increasing importance and the planters would not allow it to be disturbed. The invention in 1793 of the Whitney Cotton Gin (which automatically combed and separated the cotton), stimulated production and increased the demand for slaves. The cotton plantations spread from the Old South (Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky) into the Deep South (Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi), whose red clay was ideal for this crop. The Old South traded slaves into the new plantations—in 1836 Virginia alone sent 40,000. The Negroes did not like their new conditions—the song Carry Me Back to Old Virginia is the lament of the slave who had been moved from the comparatively genteel Old South to the harshness of the Deep South. This area became heavily dependent on its cotton, and its pro-slavery sentiment became that much more fanatical and its planters that much more brutal. This attitude, although outdated, lingers on in the Southern States. It causes the riots in places like Clinton and Little Rock.
As we can see from a few dry figures, the 17th and 18th centuries saw a remarkable growth in the American Negro slave population. Over the 20 years up to 1671 the white population of Georgia increased from 15,000 to 40,000 and its Negros from 300 to 2,000. In 1760 the North American population was about 1½ million, 300,000 of them slaves; at this time the average slave holding in Virginia was 10 (largest 250). When the war started in 1861 there were about four million slaves in the Confederacy and some 230,000 free Negroes.
It was during the first half of the 19th century that the Southerners’ aristocratic pretensions became so objectionable, with the notion that they represented the gracious, hospitable elements of American society, whilst the Northerners stood for all that was brash and cheap. The uniformity of productive (that is, agricultural) , methods and organisation of property ownership tended to unite the South politically and gave it an important—possibly over-important—influence in American politics. On the other hand the North was comparatively disunited, with many economic factions each having its own functional and property rights. In the 1850’s the Capitalists of the North were stricken by a financial crisis and this, with the usual depression of the workers’ conditions and the greed of the industrialists, strengthened the Southerner’s conviction in his superiority. (The romantic novels of Sir Walter Scott went down well with this conviction!) Inevitably, the white men in the South looked on the Negro as a docile, dim-witted, sub-human; even the poor whites tried to get on the band wagon. Although they lived in appalling poverty on their tiny plots, trying to compete with the big plantations, they had their pride. Their skin—when they washed it—was white; so they could join the pro-slavery chorus.
If the poor whites had little reason to get on their high horse, the wealthy Southern planters could offer strong justification for their attitude. They had invested good money in their Negroes, which they would lose if the slaves were freed. They wanted to expand the slave-lands into a great empire to take in the new lands in the West, Cuba, Central America and even Brazil. This empire, they thought, would supply the food and raw materials which the developing industries of Europe needed. But the Northern industries also had designs on the West and it was here that the conflict was defined. To win their point, the South rigged their elections, sending numbers of representatives to Congress based on population returns which included slaves who were not allowed to vote. They became more and more aggressive and impatient of the interference from the government. As the quarrel grew fiercer, one compromise after another was tried, but all failed. The Southern States wanted the right to run their affairs as they liked. And they were getting ready to fight for it.
(To be continued.)