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Slavery was 'an utter violation of capitalism'
February 6, 2013 7:06 PM   Subscribe

The inefficiency of it all ... Here's a great infographic: slavery and cotton in the South in 1860. But if the map is interesting, the article is astonishing. It says only 2 percent of Deep South land produced cotton in 1860 -- and only 13 percent grew any crop at all. You better read that last sentence again.
posted by LonnieK (80 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
You better read that last sentence again.

but that is the last sentence

You better read that last sentence again.

but that is the last sentence
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:11 PM on February 6, 2013 [80 favorites]


Wow... So not only were the South evil slave owning bastards, but they weren't even any good at it?
posted by Artw at 7:16 PM on February 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


From the site that gave us the Twilight post a few posts down, Django: Back to Basics - Economics and fantasy in Django Unchained

In Debt, Graeber starts by looking at what he calls “human economies” – that is, economies where people are the main unit of account, and money is only used to smooth over social relationships. In these societies, “social currency” was used for weddings and funerals, to settle disputes, and to acquire wives. However, even in societies that recognized slavery and brideprice, this money was not actually used to buy people. And certainly, the same money that was part and parcel of deals between people was not also used to buy things. Graeber argues that two factors enable chattel slavery, a system in which people are equated with things: one, the removal of the slave-to-be from “the web of mutual obligations” that defines him as a human being. And two, violence.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 7:17 PM on February 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


You better read that last sentence again.

You're not my...supervisor.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:22 PM on February 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


This was also the subject of a Yes Men lecture.
posted by chapps at 7:29 PM on February 6, 2013


Actually, while labor unionism didn't really get up a full head of steam until after the Civil War, there was some intellectual connection between labor rights and abolitionism. After all, the existence of slave labor necessarily pushed down the value of free labor, not only directly, but as a pervasive price distortion on everything having to do with cotton. Far from fearing competition from freed blacks, thoughtful labor activists recognized that eliminating this massive pool of free-as-in-beer labor would drive labor prices up, not down.
posted by valkyryn at 7:31 PM on February 6, 2013 [9 favorites]


only 13 percent grew any crop at all.

So the south was undeveloped and that is the fault of slavery? I am not really convinced by this argument, although I guess it made good propaganda in certain circles.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 7:41 PM on February 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


So what were the percentages of arable land dedicated to agriculture and cotton production in the northern states during that time period? Because I don't see it in the article, and I can't read the text on that map.
posted by runcibleshaw at 7:42 PM on February 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


Haven't we known for a while that slavery on any grand scale was limited to a certain socioeconomic group? I feel like I learned this from reading Gone With The Winf hen I was twelve, and it only made slavery more appalling to me.
posted by padraigin at 7:45 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


runbicleshaw:
These figures paled in comparison to the amount of land devoted to agricultural production in the Northeast and the Midwest.
And I can tell by the pixels (and having seen quite a few low resolution scans in my day):

The following lines indicate the proportion of improved lands in the several sections

Ill, Ind, Mich, Ohio, NY, NJ, PA - 35%
New England - 30%
VA, Md, Del, Ky, Mo - 25%
Iowa, Wisc, Minn - 6%
The Cotton States
NC, SC, Ga, Ala, Miss, LA, Tex, Ark, Tenn, Fla 10%
The principal Cotton States
SC, Ga, Ala, Miss, La, Ark 13%
Texas which alone could produce 20 million bales of Cotton - 1%
posted by kaytwo at 7:52 PM on February 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


runcibleshaw: if you download the pdf you can zoom in more. Northern states produced almost no cotton: 6 bales in Illinois, 4092 bales on 8184 acres in Kentucky, 12727 on 25454 acres in Virginia.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:55 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


That argument reminds me of the economic arguments for ending serfdom in the Baltic states and Russia in the 19th Century: Free-as-in-beer labor means you can keep making a profit even if the productivity is very low, which is exactly what most landlords were doing, investing as little as possible in their estates while they re-mortgaged it to keep living the good life in St. Petersburg (or drinking mint juleps on the porch of your mansion).
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:01 PM on February 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


psycho-alchemy: “So the south was undeveloped and that is the fault of slavery? I am not really convinced by this argument, although I guess it made good propaganda in certain circles.”

This isn't some new, radical idea; it's an idea historians have had for a hundred and fifty years now, as the linked article notes. In fact, it's something that people in the South (and some in the North) already understood at the time. The plantation system was a dying system. The advances of the industrial age – machine production, the cotton gin, and dozens of other innovations – made it obsolete, unable to compete with a modernized North.

That's why the conflict that led up to the Civil War was a conflict over the West – the promising and fecund new lands that America looked to at the time. The South knew innately that it desperately needed new territory into which to expand the plantation system if it was going to survive on that system as an economically viable land. But those who had a certain amount of perspicacity (and there were few; Lincoln was one, familiar with the frontier and with wildness) knew that this was a hopeless notion; the West is simply not amenable to the plantation system, given its vastly differing climates, its highly seasonal weather, its extremely variable land and soil. There might be places where plantations would be possible somewhere in southern California, but that was pretty much out of the question in 1840 and 1850 and 1860, and the people who actually lived there at the time would not really have been interested in such delusional grandeur.

One of the reasons the North won the war was because the Civil War was delayed for so many years. Otherwise, the South might well have still been the great strength it had been in decades past. During the ten years before the Civil War, the North surged ahead, building new economic centers and advancing in development. It's ironical, but the inane and in many ways unethical notion of "Manifest Destiny," the obsession with bounding forth into the West, that gripped the United States halfway through the 19th century was a much-needed distraction that provided the edge the North needed to win the war. The fifteen years between the Wilmot Proviso and the first declarations of secession were absolutely essential for the North, although few knew it at the time.
posted by koeselitz at 8:01 PM on February 6, 2013 [79 favorites]


The advances of the industrial age – machine production, the cotton gin, and dozens of other innovations – made it obsolete, unable to compete with a modernized North.

I agree with the general point, but would point out that it was the invention of the cotton gin that actually permitted large-scale commercial cultivation of cotton.
posted by joyceanmachine at 8:15 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


These figures paled in comparison to the amount of land devoted to agricultural production in the Northeast and the Midwest.

The problem with this analysis is that the Northeast and Midwest had huge geographical and historical advantages that led to them having greater productivity. The midwest was fueled by Chicago and the Great Lake connection to the ocean and the East. Industrial level efficiency is highly dependent on transportation.
posted by srboisvert at 8:21 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


In the absence of welfare or minimum wage laws, low-skill labor clears the market at its marginal cost, that of bare subsistence of the worker. (We can observe this well in the third world today.) Once there was a sufficient supply of voluntary immigration, slavery was doomed, as slave owners were forced to pay subsistence plus the cost of keeping workers in bondage plus the deadweight loss of productivity from resistance and lack of motivation.
posted by MattD at 8:29 PM on February 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wait, wait, wait. Capitalism is efficient?
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:30 PM on February 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


“So the south was undeveloped and that is the fault of slavery? I am not really convinced by this argument, although I guess it made good propaganda in certain circles.”

No, it's more that slavery made cotton so stupid-profitable (instead of just regular-profitable) that none of the rich dudes who loved it bothered to ever grow anything else. Southern cottoneers basically felt that land itself was worthless- so they would often exhaust several thousand acres of it over a few years and then just up and move someplace else. They didn't do any of the things that you would expect farmers with a long-term outlook on their land to do, like, you know, crop rotation. So the South as a region was massively underdeveloped because the guys in charge were shit stewards of the place.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 8:31 PM on February 6, 2013 [18 favorites]


They didn't do any of the things that you would expect farmers with a long-term outlook on their land to do, like, you know, crop rotation. So the South as a region was massively underdeveloped because the guys in charge were shit stewards of the place.

Most of the South prior to the Civil War was old-growth forest that Northern industrial concerns bought up and clear-cut after the war (one of the most famous effects of which was the extinction of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker). "Rich dudes", in general, don't make good stewards of the land.
posted by junco at 8:47 PM on February 6, 2013 [17 favorites]


So I'm pretty sure we all know that slavery is/was/forever will be bad. But I swear, it's like some people just figured this out last week and are still processing it.

I got the heebee jeebies when I was twelve and we went on a field trip to Charleston (SC). Once I put two and two together I refused to go into that one market building in the center of downtown.

And that was twenty-gulp-plus years ago.

How have we not already accepted that slave owners were rich money-grubbing assholes, that cared absolutely nothing at all for people who weren't part of his family. Why is this a thing all of a sudden? Did these people not take history classes in the third grade and are just now finding out about this?
posted by Blue_Villain at 8:56 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


It says only 2 percent of Deep South land produced cotton in 1860 -- and only 13 percent grew any crop at all.

You know, I'm not getting why this should be so shocking, or that it even relates to slavery in a significant way. After all, the South is a pretty big place. Is the point that slavery should have made 98% of the South into farmland or something?
posted by 2N2222 at 8:59 PM on February 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


The dark lines on the map encompass the principal cotton-growing regions of 1860, while the dotted line to the north marked the outer limits of cotton cultivation.

Just as a data point, the dotted line excludes the areas of northern Missouri that were the state's principal cotton-producing areas. So the may be some ymmv involved here.
posted by mwhybark at 9:00 PM on February 6, 2013


The funniest part is where the Confederacy wanted to conquer Mexico and Latin America. Because that was ever going to happen.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:06 PM on February 6, 2013


I had always thought Walker was a union man, but I see here he was specifically interested in adding slave states.

How disgusting that the Bush family celebrates his legacy.
posted by mwhybark at 9:12 PM on February 6, 2013


How have we not already accepted that slave owners were rich money-grubbing assholes, that cared absolutely nothing at all for people who weren't part of his family. Why is this a thing all of a sudden? Did these people not take history classes in the third grade and are just now finding out about this?

I suspect that there's something weird going on here about the conservative narrative of slavery and race. Maybe it's that the right needs some ideological reason to denounce slavery, either because they have some nagging feeling that it just wasn't that great or because it is politically expedient given the whole "since Obama was elected it is now okay to be nakedly racist" thing...maybe they feel like the only way to square that particular circle is to say, 'Okay, slavery was bad but it was because it was not capitalist enough, not because of anything to do with race or working conditions or human life". Maybe it's some kind of "real capitalism only ever has good outcomes, so any time you say "capitalism has no regard for human life, look at slavery" you are actually denouncing capitalism incorrectly", kind of like when people say that real communism would never generate labor camps or show trials, so when you criticize Maoist China you are obviously not criticizing communism.
posted by Frowner at 9:16 PM on February 6, 2013 [11 favorites]


How disgusting that the Bush family celebrates his legacy.

Not really. The Grandpappy was a Nazi who plotted to overthrow FDR.
posted by T.D. Strange at 9:22 PM on February 6, 2013


Frowner: “I suspect that there's something weird going on here about the conservative narrative of slavery and race. Maybe it's that the right needs some ideological reason to denounce slavery, either because they have some nagging feeling that it just wasn't that great or because it is politically expedient given the whole 'since Obama was elected it is now okay to be nakedly racist' thing...maybe they feel like the only way to square that particular circle is to say, 'Okay, slavery was bad but it was because it was not capitalist enough, not because of anything to do with race or working conditions or human life'. Maybe it's some kind of 'real capitalism only ever has good outcomes, so any time you say 'capitalism has no regard for human life, look at slavery' you are actually denouncing capitalism incorrectly', kind of like when people say that real communism would never generate labor camps or show trials, so when you criticize Maoist China you are obviously not criticizing communism.”

So, uh – you think the conservatives wanted to shift the narrative of slavery and race in their favor, so they called up their old friends at the New York Times and had them print up this story?
posted by koeselitz at 9:28 PM on February 6, 2013


Er...this discussion seems oddly tangential to the article--which is about historical arguments against slavery from the C19th, not about modern day capitalists suddenly discovering that slavery is bad. It's point is simply "hey, here's part of the historical argument about slavery from the Civil War era that tends to be forgotten nowadays."
posted by yoink at 9:34 PM on February 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


You know, I'm not getting why this should be so shocking.

Yeah, the 13%/2% seems entirely unremarkable to me too, in terms of proportion of land under cultivation, unless I'm missing something.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:37 PM on February 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Orthogonality and others have mentioned George Fitzhugh's "Cannibals All!" defense of slavery a couple times here. It's worth a look in this context, as well.
posted by vitia at 9:40 PM on February 6, 2013


If we're digressing into the life of William Walker, let me here say that everyone should see Alex Cox's amazing, rage-filled biopic of Walker, conveniently titled Walker, which gets into his reversal on slavery quite nicely.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 9:40 PM on February 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


A more readable version of the map can be downloaded here.
posted by Diablevert at 9:46 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


So, uh – you think the conservatives wanted to shift the narrative of slavery and race in their favor, so they called up their old friends at the New York Times and had them print up this story?

Well.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:00 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I find the NYT a fairly conservative paper, honestly. It does not spout Tea Party talking points, but its basic outlook is rightwing. Bear in mind, by the way, that just because something is endorsed by a Democrat does not make it progressive, left or even centrist. (Drones, welfare "reform", killing "terrorists" without trial, et patati et patata.)

Shifts in the discourse are more complex than "calling up a paper and telling people to print something", yes, but that doesn't mean that there isn't right wing thought.
posted by Frowner at 10:07 PM on February 6, 2013 [8 favorites]


I think one thing to keep in mind is the idea that only a certain sort of people should own land. Modern society doesn't think that, we think that any available land should be owned and used by someone or at least have a purpose of some sort but these folks most certainly believed that you had to be a certain sort to be a landowner and it was entirely in their interest to keep the landowner class very small. So a very few families ended up owning vast tracts of land and they had no need to work any of it beyond that which sustained their standard of living. They absolutely would rather have had the majority of the land stay virgin forest than develop it and have a bunch of Yankee farmer types owning small tracts that the family worked themselves. imho anyway.
posted by fshgrl at 10:19 PM on February 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I guess I'm not understanding the numbers (thanks for giving me the numbers though bros).
Is the article trying to say that the south produced a lot of cotton on a small amount of land?
posted by runcibleshaw at 10:20 PM on February 6, 2013


I find the NYT a fairly conservative paper, honestly. It does not spout Tea Party talking points, but its basic outlook is rightwing. Bear in mind, by the way, that just because something is endorsed by a Democrat does not make it progressive, left or even centrist. (Drones, welfare "reform", killing "terrorists" without trial, et patati et patata.)

Shifts in the discourse are more complex than "calling up a paper and telling people to print something", yes, but that doesn't mean that there isn't right wing thought.


Just to clarify for anyone else just seeing this, the linked article is part of an ongoing project launched three years ago, "Disunion," in which the New York Times is documenting the 150 year anniversary of the Civil War by inviting a variety of historians and writers from various disciplines to write short pieces on different aspects of the war, closely tracking the actual progress of the war itself. (The map discussed was first published in March, 1863.)

It's a pretty interesting series, though I admit I've lost touch with it a bit myself over the past several months.

The fact that was the column is part of the project does not of course preclude it or the Times from exhibiting a conservative bias, of course. But I do think it makes a difference that it wasn't a piece commissioned out of the blue to simply introduce this topic, but part of a larger effort to highlight overlooked niches of contemporary discourse around the Civil War and slavery.
posted by Diablevert at 10:23 PM on February 6, 2013 [9 favorites]


you think the conservatives wanted to shift the narrative of slavery and race in their favor

Huh? I think that the conservative party Abraham Lincoln pretty much is already on the correct side of this narrative. The GOP may be many things, but pro-slavery is not one of them.

The Democratic party, on the other hand, was pro-slavery until they lost the Civil War - and even then they persisted in their racism. The American South was firmly in the camp of the Democrats until about 1964 and some of the worst outrages of Jim Crow were carried out in states where the Democratic party was the dominant political force.
posted by three blind mice at 10:31 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yes, but as you know, the two parties switched sides on race issues during the Civil Rights Movement. It's been a long time since the G.O.P. had more than token African American support, or offered more than token support to African American causes.
posted by chrchr at 10:44 PM on February 6, 2013 [10 favorites]


From the site that gave us the Twilight post a few posts down, Django: Back to Basics - Economics and fantasy in Django Unchained

posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 7:17 PM

Aaaaah! My article! *hides*

What David Graeber is talking in the quote you pulled out, Charlemagne, is how "human economies" in Africa in got twisted into suppliers of slaves for chattel slavery. I don't know how good a job I did summing it up but it's a very good chapter of a very good book, I'd recommend it for sure.
posted by subdee at 10:50 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Maybe the South was not exploiting its natural resources the way it was exploiting its laborforce, but slavery was really profitable - for slave traders, at least. The City of Liverpool made so much money from the transatlantic slave trade - and from processing raw materials gathered by slave labor even after the slave trade was ended - that it supported the South in the Civil War. And I think cotton had a lot to do with that.
posted by subdee at 11:01 PM on February 6, 2013


what happened next Three Blind Mice?

Civil rights and the end of segregation split the Dixiecrats off and into the welcoming embrace of the new GOP "states rights" Southern Strategy, which has been the party of the Confederate swastika and the racist dog-whistle ever since.
posted by moorooka at 11:17 PM on February 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


How disgusting that the Bush family celebrates his legacy.

Some allowable confusion, but William Walker of Nashville is not related to the Walker-Bush family, which has its roots in New Jersey and St. Louis.

Not really. The Grandpappy was a Nazi who plotted to overthrow FDR.

Prison Planet? Seriously? There's no evidence that Prescott Bush (who was in 1933 a junior, if well-connected, investment banker whose political career had yet to emerge) was ever a Nazi or even a Nazi sympathizer. They've been pushing this thing for years as if there's something to it and it's pretty much laughable from an objective standpoint. (In fact, one of the books about the "Plot to Seize the White House" published in 2007 and written in cooperation with Butler's family has zero mentions of Bush in it whatsoever.) There's not even all that much to the whole conspiracy to begin with other than that some people who thought themselves more important and influential than they really were talked big to Maj. Butler, let alone anything really detailing a political agenda beyond opposition to FDR. I do, however, presume this meme will never die.
posted by dhartung at 12:02 AM on February 7, 2013 [8 favorites]


I think it's sometimes under appreciated that slavery is not efficient in capitalist terms. Labour is more efficiently distributed if workers can go wherever their labour is most valued: in this case from the South to the North.

Marx regarded Capitalism as a huge improvement on Feudalism, where serf labour is less efficiently controlled by the feudal Lord.

Slavery in the American South wasn't a paragon of market efficiency, but a desperate attempt to distort the market and keep cheap labour where it didn't belong.

It was believers in the free market who were strongly opposed to slavery, which accidentally gave rise to the phrase dismal science to economics.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 12:43 AM on February 7, 2013 [5 favorites]


Slavery was 'an utter violation of capitalism'

Wow, I was kind of iffy on slavery before, but if this is true, you can assuredly count me out of the whole dang system!
posted by threeants at 2:32 AM on February 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


For god's sake, won't somebody think of the gold bars!
posted by threeants at 3:29 AM on February 7, 2013


Yeah Slavery is bad for pretty obvious reasons. If the capitalist ideology can only frame it as bad because of a perceived lack of efficiency ... well that ain't the ideology for me.

yoink, the discussion has centred on this point because of the framing of the post, not the rather differently slanted article.
posted by iotic at 3:30 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


The advances of the industrial age – machine production, the cotton gin, and dozens of other innovations – made it obsolete, unable to compete with a modernized North.

Well, for a fact, industrial slavery existed in antebellum times and, after the Civil War, the South industrialized in no small part using Slavery by Another Name .
posted by y2karl at 3:50 AM on February 7, 2013 [7 favorites]


the extinction of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

Like another famous Southerner, the reports of its utter demise are greatly exaggerated.
posted by hippybear at 4:03 AM on February 7, 2013


Slavery and its aftermath also helped enable the exploitation of poor whites, who were more willing to accept their low social and economic status, since there was always someone below them. At least they were white men, and that could not be taken away. This explains a lot, actually, to the present day.
posted by thelonius at 4:09 AM on February 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


Capitalists have violated capitalism enough to make use of the terminology in discourse highly inefficient, but, for some parties, highly profitable.
posted by romanb at 4:36 AM on February 7, 2013


Count me among the people who are confused by the emphasis placed on the statistics picked out in the FPP. The population density in the antebellum South was way, way lower than it was in the North and Old Northwest (direct image link) so it is unsurprising that a correspondingly lower percentage of the land was cultivated for crops.

(An interesting thing I found while looking for that map: another map, also compiled from the 1860 Census and produced by the federal Census Office in 1861, which illustrates the percentage of the population held as slaves in each county in the South and says Sold for the benefit of the sick and wounded soldiers of the U.S. Army at the top.)
posted by XMLicious at 5:08 AM on February 7, 2013


That argument reminds me of the economic arguments for ending serfdom in the Baltic states and Russia in the 19th Century: Free-as-in-beer labor means you can keep making a profit even if the productivity is very low, which is exactly what most landlords were doing, investing as little as possible in their estates while they re-mortgaged it to keep living the good life in St. Petersburg (or drinking mint juleps on the porch of your mansion).

One of the reasons why English nobles never had anything like the legal power over their subjects/tenants that Russians did is that land was scarce relative to population in England but not in Russia. In England, controlling land meant controlling a scarce productive asset. In Russia, for centuries there were open frontiers with unsettled land outside of them but the land itself was much less productive and labour much scarcer. As a result, in Russia power meant the control of labour since you could always get land easily while in England power came from the control of land since you could always get plenty of labour
posted by atrazine at 5:43 AM on February 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


By Atkinson’s measure, less than 13 percent of the land in the six principal cotton states had even been cultivated...He did not, however, acknowledge the very real limitations of soil composition.

This is the hole in the argument to me. He's comparing area being famed to the total area of the state without any regard for how much of that land could be farmed. He's saying that mountains and lake bottoms and swamps and sand dunes ought to have cotton growing on them.
posted by echo target at 6:12 AM on February 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's not that a small amount of the South was being planted compared to the north. That's an apples versus oranges argument. Cotton plantations (and even moreso) sugar plantations were labor-intensive backbreaking work. Slave owners needed enforced labor as much as unpaid labor and because slavery gave them that they made a goodly profit. The north planted larger areas with less labor intensive crops.
The real capitalistic problem with slavery is that it kept the South from needing to advance technologically - at the time of the Industrial Revolution. They didn't build the Northern factories or infrastructure. They had cheap labor.
But the point the article misses most is that bad capitalism is quite sustainable for a long time especially if it is solidified by an ideology.
And, you know, it's an indictment to capitalism to suggest that it can and should be blind to the human cost of slavery - whether or not slavery will supposedly end on its own.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:24 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


...in 1860 American slaves, as a financial asset, were worth approximately three and a half billion dollars--that's just as property. Three and a half billion dollars was the net worth, roughly, of slaves in 1860. In today's dollars that would be approximately seventy-five billion dollars. In 1860 slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America's manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together. Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy. The only thing worth more than the slaves in the American economy of the 1850s was the land itself, and no one can really put a dollar value on all of the land of North America. If you're looking to begin to understand why the South will begin to defend this system, and defend this society, and worry about it shrinking, and worry about a political culture from the North that is really beginning to criticize them, think three and a half billion dollars and the largest financial asset in American society, and what you might even try to compare that to today.
Yale History Professor David Blight, from his excellent course The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877.

An interesting thing I found while looking for that map: another map, also compiled from the 1860 Census and produced by the federal Census Office in 1861, which illustrates the percentage of the population held as slaves in each county in the South

I did a pretty thorough post about that map a while back.

posted by kirkaracha at 6:35 AM on February 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


Yes, it was the economic inefficiency of slavery that was the problem. Doesn't this imply that if it was a more efficient institution that it would have been less offensive?
posted by blue_beetle at 6:44 AM on February 7, 2013


Back in my high school days, sadly over 20 years ago, I argued that the civil war was hardly about slavery and that the motive was primarily a clash of incompatible economic systems or something like that. Didn't get a bad grade but my teacher and the rest of my classmates said no, elimination of slavery was the impetus. I argued sure, but not for noble purposes, though of course some people felt it needed to be eliminated for moral reasons but I remain skeptical that mobilization would occur for just those reasons.
posted by juiceCake at 6:52 AM on February 7, 2013


No really, the civil war was about slavery.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:13 AM on February 7, 2013 [7 favorites]


As a side note, slavery never really ended and there are still some 30 million slaves around the world today; more than at any point in history.
posted by DWRoelands at 7:25 AM on February 7, 2013


Assessing the economics of slavery doesn't mean its morality is irrelevant. It's just another perspective on the issue. E.g., I can object to capital punishment on moral grounds and also question its efficacy using a cost-benefit analysis.
posted by brain_drain at 7:38 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I find the NYT a fairly conservative paper, honestly.

That would put you somewhere to the left of Lenin and Mao, but maybe slightly to the right of most anarchists.
posted by valkyryn at 8:02 AM on February 7, 2013


juiceCake: “Back in my high school days, sadly over 20 years ago, I argued that the civil war was hardly about slavery and that the motive was primarily a clash of incompatible economic systems or something like that. Didn't get a bad grade but my teacher and the rest of my classmates said no, elimination of slavery was the impetus. I argued sure, but not for noble purposes, though of course some people felt it needed to be eliminated for moral reasons but I remain skeptical that mobilization would occur for just those reasons.”

It was a clash of economic systems that were incompatible because one economic system included slavery as an integral part and the other didn't. It was about states' rights, too – specifically the question of whether the states had the right to own slaves. People jump on this question a lot because it's important to sort out the themes of huge events like the Civil War; and that war did indeed have a lot of contributing factors and tributary concerns. At the heart of every single one of those factors and concerns, however, was the question of slavery.

Clearly this was not fully understood by all or even most of the people alive at the time; the calculus on one side was 'our economy is in trouble, we need to build on the plantation system by expanding into new territory' and the calculus on the other side was 'we must maintain our ascendancy and by imposing ourselves on the southern states because we are superior morally and economically.' Anyone who says that neither of those conscious and stated motives was really very wonderful is right.

But sometimes people engaged in a conflict don't quite understand what exactly they're fighting about. Generally that's because they've chosen conveniently to ignore something central to what's going on. Hardly anybody really wanted to think about slavery. It was a fact, in the North as in the South; and the North was absolutely not innocent of the horror of the slave trade. Thinking about that horror meant reassessing one's whole society, and people aren't often readily prepared to do that. But the horror of slavery loomed darkly over everything that happened through the middle of the nineteenth century. People didn't dare say that they felt that horror necessary, didn't dare try to justify it for their own benefit; instead, they introduced provisos in congress, tried to reach compromises, and uttered emotional hopes that all parties could be convinced to choose to get along peaceably.

But that was not possible. It was not possible for the United States to be peaceful, it was not possible for the United States to be economically prosperous, and most of all it was not possible for the United States to be a free and united nation while slavery still stood as a practice and as an institution. All of these concerns culminated in the absolute necessity of the abolition of slavery.
posted by koeselitz at 8:02 AM on February 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


No really, the Civil War was about slavery.

Yes, it was. But the American practice of slavery had existed for over 200 years before we fought a war over it. It wasn't until major economic, social, and political interests came into play that those moral interests got any real traction. So yes: it was about slavery. Just not slavery purely as an issue of moral and human rights, but rather slavery and all of its implications and consequences.
posted by valkyryn at 8:04 AM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


It was about states' rights, too – specifically the question of whether the states had the right to own slaves.

But the "states rights" proponents didn't have any problem with the federal Fugitive Slave Act, which compelled states to return escaped slaves to the South, even if those states had abolished slavery or had personal liberty laws. South Carolina even cited some states' refusal to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act in its declaration of causes for seceding from the Union.

Another problem with the "states' rights" excuse is that it didn't include everyone in the state. Sizable minorities voted against secession. Slaves couldn't vote, despite being a majority in South Carolina and Mississippi and over 40% of the population in Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:13 AM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


It was about states' rights, too – specifically the question of whether the states had the right to own slaves.

Shortly before the Civil War, it was actually being a free state that was effectively impossible. Even if your state didn't formally permit slavery, it was still forced by Dred Scott to allow people who had been enslaved in slave states to be brought into the state as slaves, continue to be owned as slaves, and to be worked as slaves.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:21 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


something I did not fully appreciate until last year, as i was reading hundreds of letters from people on both sides of the conflict written during the war, was just how strongly the war appeared to all of them as specifically about slavery per se.

there's no doubt the correspondents understood many aspects of slavery with regard to slavery's impact on and role within exonomic systems. But both sides emphasized what they took to be the moral case against (or for, to the extent possible) slavery over the economic impact. So Brandon's assertion upthread is certainly consonant with the perspectives and opinions of those of our ancestors who were involved.
posted by mwhybark at 8:38 AM on February 7, 2013


So Brandon's assertion upthread is certainly consonant with the perspectives and opinions of those of our ancestors who were involved.

Yes, read pretty much any of the succeeding states declarations of succession and slavery is mentioned, usually combined with states rights, economics and what not.

As others have obliquely noted, slavery was labor system that was bound throughout the fabric of southern life and power. So saying the civil war was about it is definitely correct, but there's a lot of fascinating details that go into why slavery was the fighting point, in large and small ways, of the civicl war.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:45 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Huh? I think that the conservative party Abraham Lincoln pretty much is already on the correct side of this narrative. The GOP may be many things, but pro-slavery is not one of them.

The Democratic party, on the other hand, was pro-slavery until they lost the Civil War - and even then they persisted in their racism.


In 1860 the Republican party was the liberal-most party. That remained the case for sometime after; Teddy Roosevelt's "Square Deal" was when he was still a Republican. The "Progressives" were all Republicans, who became disaffected with the party.

The modern Democratic party owes more to these schismatic Repubicans from the early 20th century than to the 19th century Jacksonian tradition.
posted by spaltavian at 10:26 AM on February 7, 2013


In 1860 the Republican party was the liberal-most party.

Nope. There's a clear continuation of voting patterns between the Whigs and the Republicans as the generally-conservative party; this shows up in the DW-NOMINATE distributions.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:09 PM on February 7, 2013


Sure, if you consider bi-metalism a bigger deal than slavery.
posted by spaltavian at 12:40 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


No really, the Civil War was about slavery.

If the abolition of slavery was the point of it, it was a war the South won, as noted by Douglas A. Blackmon in his book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of American Blacks from the Civil War to World War II, linked above, at least from the Compromise of 1870 -- the compromise being about how white people north and south, tacitly accepted the legal, by any Jim Crow means necessary, re-enslavement of black men at the end of Reconstruction -- until 1941. That the South is the center of Right to Work laws is something not unrelated to this history.

And let me note here, my profound disappointment with the PBS special based upon his book. They so dropped the ball on that one. They could have done so much better. Which is sad but unsurprising, given that the subject is something Americans still have a hard time looking at directly.
posted by y2karl at 3:11 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Talking about the Republican and Democratic parties pre-Civil Rights Movement as if they have any significant connection to the modern parties, is ridiculous.

Fun fact: the Arab vote was a Republican constituency until 9/11. Of course, that's something the GOP threw away without looking back.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:35 PM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Holy crap... Mississippi only ratified the 13th Amendment in 1995? And Kentucky only in 1976?

How the hell did I go my entire life without knowing that? I was actually in high school and had watched almost the entire Ken Burns Civil War series when it came out, and Mississippi hadn't ratified it yet, and I don't remember that being mentioned either in class or in the documentary.
posted by XMLicious at 2:52 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I got the heebee jeebies when I was twelve and we went on a field trip to Charleston (SC). Once I put two and two together I refused to go into that one market building in the center of downtown.

It's my understanding from several visits to the City that the Old City Market in the center of downtown was a food market, and that actual slave trading occurred closer to the docks, initially along the north side of the Old Exchange and Provost Building at the end of Broad St, until the city banned outdoor public sales in 1856, at which point the trade moved to auction houses along State, Queen, and Chalmers Streets.

Of course, since it was slave labor that did the cooking, the slaves would naturally be involved in making the purchases of food at the Old City Market, so it's not like it gets a free pass.

Of course, this is all secondhand information I've gotten from the historical tours, and the city has strict licensing for all tour guides and a vested interest in keeping tourism dollars flowing, so this could all be just a big cover story. If it is, they've done a wonderful job of keeping a large number of people decidedly on-message, because if there's a different version of the history, it hasn't even made it on to the wikipedia page.
posted by radwolf76 at 12:37 PM on February 9, 2013


It's my understanding from several visits to the City that the Old City Market in the center of downtown was a food market, and that actual slave trading occurred closer to the docks, initially along the north side of the Old Exchange and Provost Building at the end of Broad St, until the city banned outdoor public sales in 1856, at which point the trade moved to auction houses along State, Queen, and Chalmers Streets.

Oh shit, the Old City Market! We always go there when we visit my brother. He said the same thing about slave auctions, though he also says it's full of shit because he's seen pictures of slave auctions being held there.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:12 PM on February 9, 2013


y2karl, I just read the great The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson, and loved it, and it sounds like I should read the Blackmon, too. Thanks for the tip.
posted by brainwane at 5:53 PM on February 9, 2013


I can recommend the Blackmon book, but be prepared to be angry and/or depressed.
posted by benito.strauss at 7:07 PM on February 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I can recommend the Blackmon book, but be prepared to be angry and/or depressed.

As the review in the first comment linked above in part reads:
Thousands of random indigent black men were arrested for anything from unemployment, to not being able to prove employment at any given moment, to changing employers without “permission”, or even loud talk. In other words, they were arrested for being young black men. They were sentenced to hard labor, and bought and sold by sheriffs and judges among other opportunists to corporations such as U.S. Steel, Tennessee Coal, railroads, lumber camps, and factories. The prisoners who were sent to mines were chained to their barracks at night, and required to work all day – “subject to the whip for failure to dig the requisite amount, at risk of physical torture for disobedience, and vulnerable to the sexual predations of other miners – many of whom already had passed years or decades in their own chthonian confinement.” Hundreds died of disease, accidents, or homicide, and in fact, mass burial fields near these old mines can still be located. Blackmon charges that the desire to industrialize the South quickly was central to the restrictions put in place to suppress blacks, since these laws allowed for easy arrest and enslavement of workers. He avers:

“ ..Repeatedly, the timing and scale of surges in arrests appeared more attuned to rises and dips in the need for cheap labor than any demonstrable acts of crime.”

...He insists that any consideration of the progress of blacks in the United States after the Civil War must acknowledge that “slavery, real slavery, didn’t end until 1945” Thus the parents of today are the children of those who suffered under this egregious system, and so it can be expected that the repercussions continue to inform the expectations and attitudes of those who grew up with the stories and experiences derived from this very recent chapter in their family histories.

...Should it be read? Absolutely! But it’s a painful read, and the text includes some ghastly pictures. And yet, as Blackmon concludes:

“ ..Only by acknowledging the full extent of slavery’s grip on U.S. society – its intimate connections to present-day wealth and power, the depth of its injury to millions of black Americans, the shocking nearness in time of its true end – can we reconcile the paradoxes of current American life.”
The very concept of reparations for antebellum slavery, the sort over which the Civil War was putatively fought, is a topic that is the hottest of hot potatoes in the national conversation.

Yet the slavery of which Blackmon wrote, what he called neo-slavery, lasted from the end of Reconstruction until the end of the Second World War -- in other words, until the middle of the 20th Century, which is well within living memory of many alive today. And given that timeline, there are likely living survivors of that slavery.

I would argue that no one alive today has a stronger case for reparations than they, those survivors, and their heirs, and, in fact. all heirs of all so re-enslaved, as Blackmon puts it.
posted by y2karl at 2:58 PM on February 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


y2k, fascinating. Duly noted, etc.

I have a tag here, about the power of war and terror across generations.

My grandfather's grandfather left south central Missouri after the Civil War, in which my grandfather's great grandfather lost everything he owned and two sons. All three sons apparently served as provost marshals and or special agents for the Union, military spies or military police and tribunals charged with both enrolling men into the Union Army and enforcing US and Missouri law in a state that was heavily divided into warring constituencies.

My grandfather was born in California in the town his grandfather died in. One of his dead great uncles was apparently lynched for recruiting former slaves into the Union Army. My grandfather was vehement about the importance of ignoring history and would grow angry if we asked about our family's heritage.

I have come to believe that his personality, his stubborn orneriness and rejection of the idea of a long-horizon history for family reflects the damage that war per se inflicted on our ancestors, the drive to leave where you were born and to see your closest personal relationships - your parents, your siblings - as an inevitable source of mortal and economic danger.

I can only look at my family's relative economic privilege despite this emotionally traumatic behavioral programming ricocheting down the centuries and think, my god, how much worse it must be to contend with that legacy of violence and exploitation if your ancestors have experienced slavery. The past isn't gone and dead; it's not even past.
posted by mwhybark at 5:15 PM on February 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


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