Class and racial oppression before Reconstruction


posted to on August 30, 2003


I want to begin this article by thanking Mark Lause, American historian and socialist who I had the misfortune to be on the other side of a bitter faction fight with in the mid-1970s. I much prefer the current relationship. Mark was of enormous help in supplying the texts that much of this article relies on, although I am not sure that he will be happy with the analysis.


In her July-August 1998 Monthly Review defense of the Brenner thesis (, Ellen Meiksins Wood singles out John Locke as the philosopher par excellence of agrarian capitalism. With Locke's emphasis on "improvement", which revolved around soil cultivation techniques, etc., he stood as an implacable foe of feudal or precapitalist waste, presumably including chattel slavery.


However, the slave masters of the New World did not quite see things that way. According to James Oakes in "Slavery and Freedom", not only were they receptive to Enlightenment ideals; they played a vanguard role in adapting Locke to the revolution of 1776. Oakes writes:


"The writings of eighteenth-century Southerners were steeped in Lockean premises, never more thoroughly than during the American Revolution. 'Men in a State of Nature are absolutely free and independent of one another as to sovereign Jurisdiction,' Richard Bland of Virginia wrote in 1766. They enter into society 'by their own consent,' he explained, just as 'they have a natural Right to quit the Society of which they are Members . . . [to] recover their natural Freedom and Independence.'" (p. 60)


Indeed, Locke, a slave-owner himself, wrote the state constitution of South Carolina in 1669 that stipulated: "But yet no slave shall hereby be exempted from that civil dominion his master hath over him, but be in all things in the same state and condition he was In before."


If the Brenner thesis posits market coercion as a sine qua non for capitalism, and if John Locke is the quintessential philosopher for the newly emerging system, then how does one reconcile this contradiction? The answer to this question highlights an essential flaw in the Brenner thesis, namely its failure to appreciate the role of racism in the development of capitalism in the New World. Specifically, if indigenous people and Africans are seen as subhuman, then Enlightenment ideas about freedom, including the freedom to compete in labor markets, do not really apply to them. You might as well talk about the right of a mule to vote or teach school.


Some of the most advanced thinkers in Great Britain believed that Africans were a species midway between apes and white men. In a footnote to "Of National Characters", David Hume writes:


"I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences... Not to mention our colonies, there are Negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity, tho' low people, without education, will start up amonst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In JAMAICA indeed they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but 'tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly".


If opposition to slavery distinguished the North from the South, it cannot be assumed that abolitionism was characterized universally by a belief in racial equality. More often than not, paternalism was the guiding principle. Slaves, who were seen as tainted by their environment, required assistance from above. While Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life among the Lowly" (!) was an impassioned attack on slavery, it could not quite transcend the racism that surrounded her:


"The scenes of this story, as its title indicates, lie among a race hitherto ignored by the associations of polite and refined society; an exotic race, whose ancestors, born beneath a tropic sun, brought with them, and perpetuated to their descendants, a character so essentially unlike the hard and dominant Anglo-Saxon race, as for many years to have won from it only misunderstanding and contempt."




If misguided paternalistic and religious feelings fueled abolitionist opposition to slavery, it was far more than could be expected from a Northern ruling class so economically integrated with the South. In chapter one of Philip Foner's "Business and Slavery: The New York Merchants and the Irrepressible Conflict", we discover that Southern slave-owners got the red carpet treatment in New York City:


"In the years just before the Civil War, it was customary for anti-slavery writers and speakers to refer to New York City as 'the prolongation of the South' where 'ten thousand cords of interests are linked with the Southern Slaveholder.' If, by some magic, one of the countless visitors to the 'World of Tomorrow' had suddenly been transported back to the New York World's Fair of 1853, he would have had no difficulty in discovering the reasons for these remarks. Had he arrived in the city late in June or early in July, he would have noticed that the lobbies of the Astor, St. Nicholas, Fifth Avenue, St. Denis, Clarendon, and Metropolitan hotels were thronged with Southern merchants and planters. The pages of the morning and evening newspapers, he would have observed, were filled with advertisements addressed to these Southerners, urging them to visit this or that store, to inspect the latest assortments of dry goods, hardware, boots and shoes, and other types of merchandise…


"Had the visitor remained in the city until September, he would have seen the daily departures of packets for the South, burdened with huge cargoes of dry goods, boots and shoes, hardware, clothing, liquors and even fruits, butter, and cheese. The same vessels, he would have noticed, soon returned to New York, this time loaded with cotton, tobacco, tar, resin, turpentine, wheat, pork and molasses. By the time our visitor was ready to return to the Twentieth Century, he should have been quite ready to agree that New York was 'almost as dependent upon Southern slavery as Charleston itself.' Perhaps he might even have agreed with James Dunmore De Bow, who said in reply to a query by the London Times, asking, 'What would New York be without slavery?'"


Clashing economic interests between the Northern and Southern bourgeoisie would eventually lead to civil war. The political instrument of the North was the multiclass Republican Party. The conservative wing of the party expressed the conciliatory impulses of the New York and Philadelphia big bourgeoisie, which sought economic development within the framework of a unified nation-state above all, while the radical wing was the voice of the middle-class farmer, professional and small manufacturer motivated by both religious fervor against slavery and a desire that it shared with the conservatives to see unfettered economic development. The Democratic Party was also a multiclass formation. It contained many working-class voters in the North that felt oppressed by "free" economic development (i.e. capitalism), Bourbon planters in the South and some Northern bourgeois elements such as the kind described by Philip Foner.


Conservative Republicans formerly associated with the patrician Whig Party were driven less by opposition to slavery than by a desire to push forward legislative changes blocked by congressional Democrats. They saw the defeat of the slave-owners as a way of overcoming opposition to their ambitious goals, including a Pacific railroad. Hegemony over the Federal Government was what they were looking for, not the emancipation of slaves. As a class, the big bourgeoisie was represented in both parties. The Democrats were home to the "New York Central Railroad Group" led by Samuel J. Tilden, which eventually bolted to the Republicans and rallied around Andrew Johnson, a president whose conciliatory attitudes toward the former slave-owners led to his impeachment. Within conservative Republican ranks you found the owners of the New York Times and Anthony J. Drexel, the Philadelphia financier whose company would eventually merge with Burnham-- to crash and burn during the insider trading scandals of the 1980s. The affinity of conservative ruling class figures for both parties has not changed much in the intervening century.


If the radical Republicans' opposition to slavery was innocent of Machiavellian calculations, there were still limits to their understanding of how freedom could be achieved. They saw the slave system as an evil, but the emphasis was in quarantining it from new territories rather than rooting it out of the South. Moreover, they were totally committed to capitalist ideology and saw deliverance in terms of a Horatio Alger novel. Slavery, whether chattel in the South or wage-based in the North, was a fate to be avoided at all costs through hard work, perseverance, thrift, belief in god and a puritanical life-style. Slaves in the South were seen to be totally deficient in these beliefs and badly in need of uplift before being integrated with their more enlightened white brethren. The last thing that the radicals were interested in was opening up the western territories to a flood of black freedmen from the South.


Despite class differences, radicals found it easy to ally with the Anthony J. Drexels of the world since the ultimate goal was to lift every citizen into the propertied class. Labor historian David Montgomery sized them up accurately in "Beyond Equality":


"Radical politicians, in other words, were more likely to be aspiring advocates of the manufacturers than actual members of that group, and their views influenced more by an effort to win and retain the approval of their clients than by direct economic interest. To be sure, many established politicians of all stripes invested some of their earnings in manufacturing. Many more invested in commercial enterprises for the compelling reason that the latter were more likely to offer stock for sale, and the investor was not obliged to assume the risks of a partner. Correspondingly, entrepreneurs were unlikely to be vociferous--or even very articulate--on major political questions."


The vision of the radicals was to create a United States that embodied the values of New England farming villages writ large. Social groups that did not meld easily into that nationalist schema were given short shrift, whether they were brought over on slave ships or came here of their own free will in search of work.


Sadly, a toxic strain of nativism ran through the Republican Party, no doubt a function of the influx of members from the Know-Nothing Party. Free soil ideology and xenophobia dovetailed neatly as party members sought to keep the United States free from foreign rabble, especially Catholics. Just as the plantation system was seen as an alien culture of epicene planters and their barely civilized subjects, so was Rome and Catholicism. Radical John P. Hale opposed the annexation of Cuba because the American system of government could "only be maintained … on the principle of Protestant liberty." (Philip Foner, "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men", p. 228) Eventually the sharpening of the struggle against slavery would reduce the role of nativism in the Republican Party, but only because it became a political liability. To win the votes of Protestant Germans, a stronghold of anti-slavery convictions, such appeals had to be minimized.


White nationalism also took the form of "colonization" schemes that would solve the "Negro problem" through physical removal. Republican Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, speaking for "the white man's party" sought "to settle the territories with free white men." He added that the blacks "should not be among us" and that "it would be better for them to go elsewhere." Radicals such as Gerrit Smith and Theodore Parker were generous enough to stress that emigration would be completely voluntary. In 1860 radical Republican Senator Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio tried to get permission from Central American states to accept slaves from the United States. This would open up "vast tracts of the most fertile land, in a climate perfectly congenial to that class of men, where the negro will be predominant." "... [T]hey will go of themselves and relieve us of the burden. They will be so far removed from us that they cannot form a disturbing element in our political economy." (George Frederickson, "The Black Image in the White Mind", p. 149)


Once the war started, it would put the Republican commitment to social revolution to the test. As Civil War historian Louis Gerteis points out in "From Contraband to Freedman: Federal Policy Toward Southern Blacks 1861-1865", Reconstruction began for blacks in 1861 when Union forces occupied positions in Tidewater Virginia and in the Sea Islands of South Carolina. In the manner that Napoleon and Stalin's armies carried out "revolutions from above", one might expect the Union Army to function as an instrument of economic change. If the intention was to destroy the plantation system, then what better guarantee of success would be confiscation of the land and distribution to the freedmen.


When General Benjamin Butler first ran into runaway slaves in 1861, he termed them "contraband" in the same sense as seized drug-dealer's airplanes, etc. Despite his radical credentials, Butler was not inclined to tamper with the peculiar institution in southern Louisiana. His goal was to restore Louisiana to the Union by assuaging the fears of the planters who were "well-disposed toward the Union, only fearing lest their negroes should not be let alone . . . " Confiscation of slaves would have been in Butler's opinion, an "injustice to the bona fide loyal creditor, whose interest the Government will doubtless consider." Another factor recommending the return of slaves to their masters was his fear of black rebellion. He outlined his thoughts on slavery in a letter to fellow radical Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase: "Be sure that I shall treat the negro with as much tenderness as possible but I assure you it is quite impossible to free him here and now without a San Domingo. A single whistle from me would cause every white man's throat be cut in this city. Accumulated hate has been piled up here between master and servant, until it is fearful. . . There is no doubt that an insurrection is only prevented by our Bayonets."


(William F. Messner, "Black Violence and White Response: Louisiana, 1862", The Journal of Southern History, Feb., 1975, p. 24)


Although many blacks began to farm the land on plantations whose owners had fled in the same manner that others would flee Cuba or Nicaragua years later, Butler made plans during the war to return the land back to their rightful owners. His main interest was in getting blacks to work in chain gangs at coolie wages so as to support the war effort. Even after the Emancipation Declaration was announced, Butler had little incentive to attack the racial and social status quo. But without radical land reform, blacks would simply lack the economic power to provide a basis for political independence. Lockean property rights seemed to stop short of the freedman's doorstep.


Lawrence Powell points out in "New Masters" that the wartime contract labor system supervised by Benjamin Butler represented "a wholesale infringement of the rights of free labor".


"[B]y fixing wages it denied a laborer the right to bargain as a free agent with his employers; by obligating a laborer to contract for a year, it seriously restricted his freedom of movement and his freedom to change employers. The entire apparatus was really a system of vagrancy laws that left black people with the choice of working on the plantations or laboring on the public works. And it was even bolstered by such familiar methods of slave control as the pass system and patrols (led by U.S. provost marshals), even though corporal punishment was forbidden or delegated to military authorities."


Butler's class loyalties were also on display when it came to another form of contraband, namely cotton trade with the rebel enemy. With the red carpet treatment afforded slave-masters in antebellum New York City, it should come as no surprise that big businessmen from the North would seek ways to maintain commercial ties with the rebel enemy, just as people like Henry Ford and Prescott Bush would find ways to do business with the Nazis 80 years later.


In September 1863, Secretary of State Salmon Chase set up special agencies to handle sales of cotton from the Confederacy to union-held territory. After the owner of the cotton pledged to support the Union, he would receive 25 percent of the proceeds from the sale and rest after the war. Needless to say, such a pledge was not worth very much. The main motivation seemed to be commercial gain rather than social and political transformation of the plantation system. One of the main promoters of New England textile mill interests was one Edward Atkinson, who persuaded Lincoln to buy up "all the cotton that was offered, take it to New York City and sell it for gold". In other words, the antebellum economic relationship would be re-instituted in anticipation of the full-scale reintegration of the South that would take place in the waning years of Reconstruction.


Trading with the enemy was a very lucrative business and Benjamin Butler was as energetic in promoting his own interests as he was in tracking down black people.


"From the evidence available, there can be no doubt that a very extensive trade with the Confederacy was carried on in the Department of Virginia and North Carolina during Butler's tenure of command. This trade was extremely profitable for northern merchants and their coadjutors, and was of significant help to the Confederate Bureau of Subsistence. It was conducted with Butler's encouragement, and a considerable part of it was in the hands of his relatives and supporters."


(Ludwell Johnson, "Contraband Trade During the Last Year of the Civil War", The Mississippi Valley Historical Review", March 1963, p. 646)


In my next post I will deal with Reconstruction and why it failed. I can say right now that patterns on display during the war will explain its failure afterwards, and not some backtracking from a non-existent commitment to black social and economic rights.