Posted by Euroranger on July 2, 2013
I’ve mentioned before that I hold a bachelor’s degree in American history and am fairly well versed with the American narrative but few other time periods of my country’s past are as fascinating to me as the two decades that started in 1850. One thing that particularly saddens and concerns me is how disconnected from our history most Americans are. As some or perhaps most of you know, tomorrow is the sesquicentennial of the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg. It’s usually one of the few events that public social studies education even mentions in particular about the Civil War. It’s been turned into countless books, movies and documentaries. Because of this it’s not entirely uncommon to encounter people who know about the military aspects of the battle and, presumably, what it meant. However, more than the immediate advance and retreat of armies and drawing lines on maps, tomorrow is the sesquicentennial of when America changed from what we were founded to be to what we are today and it’s an auspicious event like this that reveals how much we do and do not know about our own national experience and foundation. So, is this a post about what happened across a few miles of Pennsylvania farmland one hundred fifty years ago? Kind of, but only inasmuch as it invites a closer examination for the “why” there was even a Civil War in the first place. The widely held, public school curriculum explanation was that the war was all about slavery…and on a skin deep, superficial level, that’s true. It’s as true though, as saying the AIDS epidemic is about a virus while ignoring all the societal and behavioral affects the disease touches or relies upon for it to be the globe spanning phenomenon it is. So, if you hold the opinion that the Civil War was about slavery, allow me to enhance your understanding a little and, in the process, you might become a more astute citizen of our country and your ancestors.
More than slavery, the Civil War was about two economic systems competing with one another for political dominance inside a single nation. Nearly everyone knows that the South was an agrarian society that used a system of legal slavery as part of the workforce that drove that economy. In more simple terms, the South was overwhelmingly comprised of farmers, some of whom (less than 15% by 1860) owned slaves to perform the work of farming. Because of the amount of arable land and climate, mass agriculture in the South was much more feasible than could be done in the North. The North also had farmers, of course, but the land and climate there didn’t lend itself well to large scale agriculture such as was the case in the South. So, if that’s what formed the basis of the Southern economy (agriculture based on an indentured workforce), and my premise being that two economic systems were competing, what was the Northern economy doing? Well, in short, the North was hosting the arrival of the Industrial Revolution which is the process by which an agrarian society transforms into an industrial one. Initially industrialization in the United States used horse-powered machinery to power the earliest factories, but eventually switched to water power, with the consequence that industrialization was essentially limited to New England and the rest of the Northeastern United States, where fast-moving rivers were located. Industrialization is all about two things though: using machinery and technology to increase productivity and, to be entirely blunt, Capitalism and the pursuit of profits. Industrialization in the United States started in earnest around 1810 or so (an important date to remember). So, at this point, we have slaves in the South and workers in the North, right? Well, yes, but it’s somewhat more complicated than that. Most people today think of workers in our contemporary sense and apply that notion to what a worker was in the North at the time. This is simply false.
Today we have things like minimum wage, health insurance, workers compensation insurance, workplace safety laws, unions, OSHA, the EPA, child labor laws, unemployment insurance and so on. Not so back then. In fact, while people are exceptionally ready to refer to the Southern economy as “slavery” comparatively fewer know the term that was used, in both South AND North, to describe the Northern economy: “wage slavery” and “wage slaves”. Coincident with industrialization in the North, the United States was also experiencing a veritable deluge of mass immigration from Europe that was capped by three potato famines in Europe which drove people to the United States (particularly Scots and Irish) to flee starvation. Most of those ships carrying immigrants landed in places like Boston, Hartford, New York and Philadelphia and the people who got off those boats often brought nearly zero wealth with them…meaning they had no means to move very far from where they got off the boat. Luckily for them (or maybe not) there were thousands of newly minted factories that always needed a supply of fresh workers. However, workers in the North often worked 14-16 hours per day with only half a day off on Sunday, in appalling and unsafe conditions, for very little wages. Injuries on the job were common and because workers hadn’t yet organized into unions, wages were the minimum of whatever the factory owner could pay. If you got hurt on the job you were immediately replaced by another of the seemingly endless streams of freshly arrived immigrants and you were unemployed. Because mass transit didn’t exist, you likely lived in a tenement house or “slum”. Entire families were jammed into single rooms and if Dad or Mom was hurt on the job and couldn’t work, oftentimes it was the kids that went to work in their stead (and the factory owner would naturally pay less because they were children). In short, the Northern economy was in many ways just as bad and sometimes worse than the Southern slave economy. Of course, there is the perception that the Southern slave owner beat and lashed his slaves, raped the women and broke up families. That did happen but not even remotely as often as was being portrayed by Abolitionists (people who wanted slavery outlawed) and a simple examination of what a slave meant to a slave owner makes it easy to understand why.
The reason slaves were owned by so few people in the South was for one salient fact: slaves were expensive. A healthy young slave could cost, by 1860, as much as $1000 dollars which at the time was about what it would cost to purchase 500 acres of land. The importation of slaves was banned in 1808 so the only way to perpetuate more slave workers was to breed them. This meant that keeping families together would eventually result in more children who would grow into productive labor and produce kids of their own and so on. In short, slave owners looked at their slaves as an investment…much the same way a farmer of today might regard his combine or harvester machinery. He paid a lot to acquire them and, if he was anything other than an idiot, he didn’t abuse them or diminish their value to him. For much the same reason, the typical slave owner fed his slaves, clothed them, housed them and provided access to medical care for them when they were sick or injured. Starving, naked, exposed and diseased slaves did less work and generated less profit so most slave owners took special care of their investment. By contrast, the Northern factory owner cared only about profit. He didn’t feed, clothe or provide shelter for his workforce because he didn’t have to. If anything happened to a worker, he could always toss that damaged worker and get a new one from the vast pool of immigrants. What was worse: even if you were healthy and working productively, nothing guaranteed that the factory owner wouldn’t replace you with someone who’d do your job for a penny per day less. You were always in danger of being paid less and less for the same work you’d always done. This is, in summary, the reality of the two sides of the Abolitionist debate: agrarian slavery or wage slavery…which brings us to a final political reality that caused the Civil War.
Our political system back then was much less cynical and money-driven than it is today. The president, the House and Senate were all elected the same way then as now except the notion of “states” and “federal government” was radically different than today. Back then, the federal government was small and had little effect on the day to day lives of Americans. There was no income tax, the armed forces were small and we weren’t a Superpower…we were just an upstart nation of less than 80 years existence. The nation truly was a collection of states UNITED for a common association. One way of understanding it was that before the war, the term “the United States” was a plural and after the war it was a term that signified a singular. States rights were very much the order of the day and only by amending the Constitution could that be changed. Slavery was an institution that was up to each state to determine the legality of not the federal government…unless a Constitutional amendment was passed banning slavery. This is a concept that some people today believe was a driving force behind seccession…but it’s just not true. The balance in the United States had been nearly even between states that allowed slavery and those where it was banned. This is important because, in order to amend the Constitution a two thirds majority in both the House and Senate must approve the amendment before it goes to the states where 3/4 of the states must vote in favor. On the face of it, this seems unlikely and, to people at the time, it wasn’t really the concern. By 1858, there were 17 free states and 15 slave. Even had an amendment passed Congress it would never have garnered the support of 3/4 of the states. So, what was the issue? In short, it was fueled by the population surge in the North via immigration. Each state gets 2 Senators and there is only one president who is elected via the electoral congress meaning that the winner has to “win” states…so on these two counts, the slave states would probably hold their own. However, the House of Representatives is determined by the number of people that live in a particular area. Immigration to the North from Europe meant that the census of 1860 would likely shift the number of Representative in the House decidedly to the North. Back then, bills were introduced almost exclusively in the House which meant, to the South, that any future legislation or compromises that might be proposed to maintain the balance of power between slave and free states would be increasingly likely to be rejected. In short, mass immigration in the North fueled by industrialization was tilting that balance irreversibly in favor of Abolition. To most though, this might seem like a reasonable progression. Since there was a vocal social element that wouldn’t allow slavery to exist un-decried and since the Bible itself (a consideration of monumentally greater affect then) spoke against slavery, it was unlikely that the two economic systems could continue to exist side by side within the same nation. To many, the South needed only to give up their slaves and embrace capitalism and all would be good. Except that, for the conditions in the South, capitalism was nearly impossible.
Freeing an entire population of around 3 million people who would then be forced to adopt a lifestyle none of them ever experienced was, even then, recognized as an unmitigated disaster waiting to happen. People who had never had to search for and retain a job, deal with money, provide for a family, and in many cases even lacked fundamental educational skills such as reading and simple math could never acclimate in the immediacy of the moment that an enactment of Abolition would demand. To make matters worse, even the Northern states who advocated Abolition in the South cynically put laws in place to bar internal immigration by freed blacks to their territories. Entire blocks of counties in some Northern states had settlement bans for freed blacks. Indeed, the average wage slave in the North had no interest in adding to the downward pressure on wages by European immigrants by adding 3 million newly freed African slaves to the mix (who would surely work for less than any white man). Add to that that banking in the South was sparse and not nearly as accessible as it was in the North. This meant that even if a potential factory owner in the South wanted to build a new plant and employ people for wages, he lacked ready access to capital to get it done. Capitalism in the South simply wasn’t possible…and yet, to the South, it seemed the political realities of 1860 were about to force them into an expectedly disastrous transition to capitalism and that the states forcing them to do so wouldn’t even share the burden of the ensuing disruption. Something that was supposed to be a right of each individual state to decide was ever more appearing to be dictated at the whim of other states who wouldn’t feel the effects of such decisions…which was a radical departure from the system most people regarded the United States at the time as representing.
Secession was literally the only real answer…and in December 1860, South Carolina did just that and left the United States. The rest of the story is rather well known: other states joined the departure, a new nation was founded, the incoming president decided that the division of the country couldn’t be allowed and so he forced a military incident to spark a war. For more than 2 years, the Confederacy stayed on the defensive, fighting battles mostly on their own territory against an invading foreign power…until the point came that they realized they needed to punch back while they still had the means to do so and force a final conclusive end on the battlefield in their favor. And thus, Gettysburg. General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had, for more than 2 years, bloodied and stymied the much larger, better equipped but ineptly led Army of the Potomac…with no military resolution in sight. A swift, hard strike North, capturing a state capitol (Harrisburg), winning a decisive battle and perhaps even capturing the enemy’s national capitol might bring the terrible conflict to an end in favor of the Confederacy. Lots of history exists detailing just how close the South came to winning at Gettysburg. Much less known is the waning level of Northern public support for a war they saw few victories in and for a cause many didn’t support (freeing the slaves) and how, perhaps, one more decisive Confederate victory might break the back of the Northern desire to continue the war. That is what Gettysburg represents: the beginning of the triumph of the North’s system of capitalism over the more populist, agrarian, slavery-based system in the South.
And oh yeah, this is also the 150th anniversary of the fall of Vicksburg which was probably even more important to the ultimate victory of the Union over the Confederacy than Gettysburg was. Most seem to forget all about Vicksburg because it involved the Union laying siege to not just an army but a city full of civilians and starving them into submission. Making war on women and children is rarely celebrated though so you can be excused for not being aware of that.
My name is Euroranger and I approved this message.