“Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals the fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.”
– Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States
Because much of the myth of American exceptionalism that is the dogma of global empire and the core of our cultural paradigm has its roots in the clash of civilizations that we call the Civil War, I’ve excerpted the following from a most important book on America’s cultural dysfunction – one of the very few honest and accurate analyses of the nature of that internecine conflict (and of the American personality).
The Subjugation of the South by the North
From Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline
Morris Berman, 2012
Nearly everything in modern American history turns on the Civil War, because the nascent ideology of America (which can more accurately be described as a mythology, or grand narrative) requires us to “fix” traditional societies and eliminate obstacles to progress. With the Civil War, these two goals converged. What the North did to the South is the model of what America did and does to “backward” (i.e. traditional) societies if it can. We wiped out almost the entire indigenous population of North America, we stole half of Mexico, we literally vaporized a large chunk of the Japanese population, we bombed Vietnam “back to the Stone Age” (in the immortal words of Gen. Curtis LeMay, Air Force Chief of Staff), we “shocked and awed” Iraqi civilians, and spent ten years trying to “pacify” and “nation-build” Afghanistan.
The Civil War was, in fact, a clash of civilizations and what was at stake was nothing less than the definition of what constitutes a meaningful life. It was this great conflict which generated the energy that sustained a four-year battle and the death of 625,000 individuals.
The popular, school-book version of the antebellum South was one of a backward and immoral place – a national embarrassment – which refused to abandon the abomination of slavery, which led to the Civil War to rectify this injustice. Under the leadership of the saintly Abraham Lincoln, the virtuous Union armies defeated the evil Confederate ones, and the slaves were set free. This remains the politicalyl correct and liberal academic version to this day.
Slavery was a barbaric system, which the South attempted to defend to the bitter end, but this explanation ignores the complexities that contributed to the war, as well as the fact that the South had a rich intellectual tradition and a virtue of its own. There is, in truth, so much complexity to the relationship between North and South that few historians agree on whether slavery was the primary motive for the War or a smokescreen for concealing other motives, on the nature of Southern society, on the nature of slavery and the motivations and character of the anti-slavery movement, and on the interpretation of the sectional clashes which preceded the final crisis.
Among the complexifying elements that contributed to the crisis were economic motives, the desire to preserve the Union at all costs, and the fight over states rights versus federalism, in addition to the nature of the new territories of the westward expansion.
Though the denial of the slavery issue as the prime factor is sometimes a form of Southern apologetics, it is never-the-less true that prior to the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, the North had proposed no change in the status of the Negro as a result of the war. This gives credence to the claims of Jefferson Davis (among others) that the real goal of the North was not abolition but domination of the South.
Charles Beard, in The Rise of American Civilization (1927), saw the war as a struggle between two conflicting economies, the watershed division between the agricultural era and the industrial era in American history. For him, slavery was more of a footnote to the war, as the most obvious result of the war was the ascendancy of Northern capitalism and the emergence of a plutocracy in the United States.
But even this interpretation over-simplifies, as slavery was central to the economic differences between the two American cultures. Without the slavery issue, there would have been no Republican Party, formed as it was by anti-slavery activists, modernizers, ex-Whigs and ex-Free Soilers (who opposed the expansion of slavery into the western territories, arguing that free men on free soil comprised a morally and economically superior system to slavery).
Most Northerners believed, at least initially, that the war was not about slavery as a moral issue. In an address to a special session of Congress on July 4, 1861, Lincoln stated, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with slavery in the United States where it exists”, repeating what he had said at his inauguration earlier in the year. Secession, he said, was the real issue, for the Union must be preserved at all costs (the Union Congress passed resolutions endorsing all of this). Lincoln already made it clear that he did not favor social and political equality for blacks “in any way” and was a major proponent of repatriating them to a colony in Central America. For other Republicans, moral opposition to slavery was a non-issue.
Union soldiers saw themselves as fighting for the Union and against what they regarded as treason. Only a minority had an interest in fighting for black freedom. A popular Northern war-time ditty went:
A willingness to fight with vigor, for loyal rights, but not for the nigger.
In the case of “contrabands” – slaves who escaped from their masters during the war and sought refuge in Union army camps – the typical Yankee response was indifference or cruelty, often using them as defacto slaves, with the women occasionally raped.
Although Lincoln personally believed that slavery was morally wrong, his primary motivations were social and economic. His vision was of a nation of unlimited economic opportunity and upward social mobility – “free labor”, or what would later be known as the American Dream. He had no special prejudices against the South; his goal was to halt further expansion of slavery into the Western territories (what we now call the Midwest) so that the white people could build a better life for themselves through their own efforts. Abolitionists like Horace Greeley, editor of The New York Tribune, rebuked Lincoln in 1862 for not taking a stronger stand against slavery. Lincoln’s reply ought to clear up any doubts as to where he stood on the matter, at least at that point in time:
“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”
All the evidence suggests that the North’s “nobility” in fighting slavery was a long-afer-the-fact justification, an attempt to portray the conflict as a victory of morality over depravity. It’s a thesis that gets people exercised, but it doesn’t wash with the facts.
If not slavery as a moral issue, what then of the economic factors? The conflict between an agrarian slave economy and an industrial capitalist one is also enmeshed in the sectional conflict over the future character of the Western territories and the nature of modernity. Historians James McPherson and Eric Foner see the conflict as a clash of worldviews. Foner concludes with the
“conviction that North and South represented two social systems whose values, interests, and future prospects were in sharp, perhaps mortal, conflict with one another. The sense of difference, of estrangement, and of growing hostility with which Republicans viewed the South cannot be overemphasized… An attack not simply on the institution of slavery but upon southern society itself was thus at the heart of the Republican mentality.”
Each ideology, the Northern and Southern, contained “the conviction that its own social system must expand, not only to insure its own survival but to prevent the expansion of all the evils the other represented”. The conflict had become Manichean; only the aspirations of one of these sides could prevail. To have remained in the Union after Lincoln’s election, says Foner, “the South would have had to accept the verdict of ‘ultimate extinction’ which Lincoln and the Republicans had passed on the peculiar institution [slavery].” Secession, he adds, was “the only action consistent with its ideology”. As the Italian historian Raimondo Luraghi puts it, “no society can ever be expected to commit suicide”.
The Southern economy was agrarian, the Northern one industrial. After the 1830s, cotton ceased to dominate the economy of the North, which had then become a manufacturing region. North and West came to depend less on the South and more on each other. While Northern business interests were hardly advocates of war for the sake of the Union, their expanding interests never-the-less could result in nothing less. “Nowhere”, writes Luraghi, “has the industrial revolution…ever been achieved except by compelling agriculture to pay for it”.
Between 1800 and 1860, the proportion of the labor force engaged in agriculture in the North dropped from 70% to 40%; in the South, the proportion held fast at 80%. One tenth of Southerners lived in urban areas; 25% of Northerners did. For those engaged in business, the North to South ratio was three to one; for engineers and inventors, six to one. In 1850, only 14% of the national canal mileage ran through the slave states. Those states represented 42% of the country’s population but only 18% of its manufacturing capacity. The city of Lowell, Massachusetts operated more spindles in 1860 than all eleven of the future Confederate states combined.
Lincoln’s economic views were central to his political philosophy. Lincoln first came to prominence in rural Illinois as an advocate of better transportation. As a Whig member of the Illinois House of Representatives, he supported the creation of numerous private companies engaged in river, canal, turnpike and railroad construction, as well as the establishment of a state bank in 1835. His vision, according to Gabor Borritt (Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream), was that of endless material progress. The extension of slavery thus had to be opposed, in Lincoln’s eyes, because it flew in the face of this economic objective. Lincoln believed the Union “formed an indivisible economic unit”. In socio-economic terms, Lincoln regarded “unobstructed upward mobility [as] the most important ideal America strove for”.
The Republican Party was united, according to Foner (Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men), by the idea that free (entrepreneurial) labor was socially and economically superior to slave labor and that “the distinctive quality of Northern society was the opportunity it offered wage earners to rise to property-owning independence”. Their political pitch throughout the 1850s was that freedom meant prosperity, progress, and upward social mobility, while slavery was an obstacle to all those things. The Republicans held that today’s laborers would be tomorrow’s capitalists, and that if a man failed to rise above his status he had only himself to blame (the legacy of this, as John Steinbeck pointed out many years later, was that in America the poor regard themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires”). Lincoln was the perfect representative of this group, because his life embodied the ideology of the self-made man – an ideology that would be carried into the next century by means of Horatio Alger stories.
In the antebellum period (let alone much later), the idealization of the self-made man was largely a myth. During that period, 4% of the inhabitants of New York City controlled 50% of the wealth, and only a tiny percentage of the wealthy were self-made; the vast majority being born into wealthy families. As for “free labor” – autonomous or entrepreneurial labor – the reality is that it included wage labor (factory or other types of employment). In 1859, almost 60% of the workforce was employed by another, not economically independent (self-employed). By the late nineteenth century, Lincoln’s argument that wage labor was a temporary state on the road to free labor could not be maintained, and labor unions argued that coercion was as inherent to industrial capitalism as it had been to slavery.
The people driven from the farms and towns into the industrial system regarded it as an attack on their personal dignity. They were free human beings being forced into what they called “wage labor”, which they regarded as not very different from chattel slavery. In fact a slogan of the Republican Party was “‘The only difference between working for a wage and being a slave is that working for the wage is supposed to be temporary”. If you were a journeyman, a craftsman, you would sell a service, a skill or a product that you produced. As a wage earner you sold yourself. If that is not tantamount to slavery, it is surely the definition of prostitution.
“Wage slavery” was a popular phrase in the Gilded Age (during the 1870s and 1880s, the U.S. economy rose at the fastest rate in its history) – a concept that Southerners were bandying about decades earlier. Southerners saw the Linconesque vision of a “race for life” grotesque. They looked North and saw a society of frenetic activity, selfishness and greed and wanted no part of it. Frederick Law Olmsted, traveling through the South at that time, commented that the Southerner “enjoys life itself…[and] is content with being”, whereas the Northerner couldn’t be happy unless he was doing something, making some sort of “progress”. Looking the other way, the Cincinnati Gazette, in 1858, saw a society lazy, decadent and absent of industry.
The treatment of the South by the North was the template for the way the United States would come to treat any nation that got in the way of progress: not merely a scorched earth policy, but a scorched soul policy (the destruction of Native American culture was, of course, a preview of this). From Japan to Iraq and Afghanistan, to the extent that we have been able to impose it, we first destroy the place physically and murder huge numbers of civilians (as the North did to the South with 50,000 civilian deaths) and then we Americanize it. Humiliation, the destruction of the identity of the defeated people, has always been an important part of the equation. What the Cincinnati Gazette called introducing “the Northern system of life” later became the American way of life, exported at the muzzle of a gun.
Lincoln told an official of the Interior Department in 1862 that, as of 1863, “the character of the war will be changed. It will be one of subjugation… The South is to be destroyed and replaced by new propositions and new ideas”. There was an incessant repetition of the theme of how it was necessary to “Northernize the South”. Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the radical faction of the Republicans in the House of Representatives, believed this would have to “involve the desolation of the South”, and in his speeches of 1865 he said that the Southern institutions “must be broken up and relaid…This can only be done by treating them and holding them as a conquered people”. Slavery notwithstanding, it was hard for the South to regard the North as an ethical society.
William Tecumsah Sherman’s march from Atlanta to Savannah in 1864 was a deliberate policy of scorched earth and scorched soul. It was, wrote James McPherson, retribution for secession (not for slavery), a war of plunder and arson. Sherman, himself, said that his aim was to terrorize the state of Georgia and demoralize it. By 1865, the South was “an economic desert”. A quarter of the Confederacy’s white men of military age perished, along with 40% of Southern livestock, 50% of Southern farm machinery and thousands of miles of railroads. Whereas in 1860 the South had 30% of the national wealth, in 1870 it had only 12%.
“Money is a new form of slavery, and distinguishable from the old simply by the fact that it is impersonal – that there is no human relation between master and slave.”
– Leo Tolstoy
“We have stricken the shackles from 4,000,000 human beings and brought all labourers to a common level, but not so much by the elevation of former slaves as by reducing the whole working population, white and black, to a condition of serfdom. While boasting of our noble deeds, we are careful to conceal the ugly fact that by our iniquitous money system we have manipulated a system of oppression which, though more refined, is no less cruel than the old system of chattel slavery.”
– Horace Greeley (1811-1872), editor of the New York Tribune
There was another significant vanquishment consequent to the (un)Civil War, according to prominent historians, as detailed in Radical Individualism in America: Revolution to Civil War by Eric Foner (1978), professor of history at Columbia University and the leading contemporary historian of the post-Civil War Reconstruction period.
Civil War: Twilight of Radical Individualism
“The Civil War represents in part the greatest triumph, in part the death-knell, of the antebellum tradition of radical individualism. On the one hand, the abolition of slavery represented a vindication of the ideals of personal freedom and autonomy; in this sense the war represented, in Lincoln’s words, a new birth of freedom. Yet it has also been argued by William Appleman Williams and George Dennison, that the Civil War separated Americans at last from their revolutionary heritage. It was not simply that the effort to coerce the South to remain in the Union was, as Williams argues, a betrayal of the ideal of self-determination, or the right of the people to determine their own form of government. Every argument utilized to support American independence in 1776 could be employed with equal effect in support of the southern cause in 1860–1861. Further, as Dennison insists, the war represented an end to the dream of America as a nation whose institutions rested on consent rather than force… Order and stability, he claims, had become as important to Americans as liberty itself.”
The Failure of Reconstruction
Ironically, however, it was order and stability that also became victims of the War Between The States, as the near-total destruction of the Southern economy, the Northern military occupation of the South initiated by the Radical Republicans during Reconstruction, and the disenfranchisement of the Southern white elites, created the conditions which birthed the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow.
The Confederacy in 1861 had 297 towns and cities with a combined population of 835,000; of these, 162 locations with 681,000 total residents were at one point occupied by Union forces. Eleven were destroyed or severely damaged by war action, including Atlanta, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; Columbia, South Carolina; and Richmond, Virginia; and forty-five courthouses were burned, destroying the documentation for the legal relationships in the affected communities.
Farms were in disrepair, two-fifths of the South’s livestock had been killed. The value of farm implements and machinery was reduced by 40% by 1870. The transportation infrastructure lay in ruins, with little railroad or riverboat service available to move crops and animals to market – more than two-thirds of the South’s rails, bridges, rail yards, repair shops and rolling stock were systematically destroyed.
The direct costs to the Confederacy totaled $3.3 billion. By 1865, the Confederate dollar was worthless due to massive inflation. Having lost their enormous investment in slaves, white planters had minimal capital to pay freedmen workers to bring in crops. As a result, a system of sharecropping was developed. The South was transformed into a tenant farming agriculture system.
More than a quarter of Southern white men of military age – meaning the backbone of the South’s white workforce – died during the war, leaving countless families destitute. Per capita income for white southerners declined from $125 in 1857 to a low of $80 in 1879. By the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th century, the South was locked into a system of poverty.
Upon this legacy of the War, the Radical Republicans seized power and continued the military occupation and “radical reconstruction” of the South. Historian Eric Foner argues, “What remains certain is that Reconstruction failed, and that for blacks its failure was a disaster whose magnitude cannot be obscured by the genuine accomplishments that did endure.”
A sweeping Republican victory in the 1866 Congressional elections in the North gave the Radical Republicans control of Congress, which removed the civilian governments in the South in 1867 and put the former Confederacy under the rule of the U.S. Army. The army conducted new elections in which the freed slaves could vote, while whites who had held leading positions under the Confederacy were temporarily denied the vote and were not permitted to run for office.
Violent opposition towards freedmen and whites who supported Reconstruction emerged in numerous localities under the name of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a secret vigilante organization, which led to federal intervention by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1871.
With the Compromise of 1877, Army intervention in the South ceased and Republican control collapsed in the South. This was followed by a period that white Southerners labeled Redemption, in which white-dominated state legislatures enacted Jim Crow laws and (after 1890) disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites through a combination of constitutional amendments and electoral laws. The white Democrat Southerners’ memory of the indignities of Reconstruction played a major role in imposing the system of white supremacy and second-class citizenship for blacks, known as the age of Jim Crow.