Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 6: A Southern abolitionist in 1857 (2)

(Continued from Part 1)  A shooting war on a small scale had already taken place in Kansas over the issue of slavery.  It's not surprising that the political rhetoric in 1857 was full of extreme formulations.  Here Helper makes his case in a less statistical and more Jacksonian vein:

In this extraordinary crisis of affairs, no man can be a true patriot without first becoming an abolitionist. ...

It is against slavery on the whole, and against slaveholders as a body, that we wage an exterminating war. Those persons who, under the infamous slave-laws of the South--laws which have been correctly spoken of as a "disgrace to civilization," and which must be annulled simultaneously with the abolition of slavery--have had the vile institution entailed on them contrary to their wills, are virtually on our side; we may, therefore, very properly strike them off from the black list of three hundred and forty-seven thousand slaveholders, who, as a body, have shocked the civilized world with their barbarous conduct, and from whose conceited and presumptuous ranks are selected the officers who do all the legislation, town, county, state and national, for (against) five millions of poor outraged whites, and three millions of enslaved negroes.

Non-slaveholders of the South! farmers, mechanics and workingmen, we take this occasion to assure you that the slaveholders, the arrogant demagogues whom you have elected to offices of honor and profit, have hoodwinked you, trifled with you, and used you as mere tools for the consummation of their wicked designs. They have purposely kept you in ignorance, and have, by moulding your passions and prejudices to suit themselves, induced you to act in direct opposition to your dearest rights and interests. By a system of the grossest subterfuge and misrepresentation, and in order to avert, for a season, the vengeance that will most assuredly overtake them ere long, they have taught you to hate the abolitionists, who are your best and only true friends. Now, as one of your own number, we appeal to you to join us in our patriotic endeavors to rescue the generous soil of the South from the usurped and desolating control of these political vampires. Once and forever, at least so far as this country is concerned, the infernal question of slavery must be disposed of; a speedy and perfect abolishment of the whole institution is the true policy of the South--and this is the policy which we propose to pursue. Will you aid us, will you assist us, will you be freemen, or will you be slaves? ... [I]t is impossible for you to occupy a neutral ground; it is as certain as fate itself, that if you do not voluntarily oppose the usurpations and outrages of the slavocrats, they will force you into involuntary compliance with their infamous measures. Consider well the aggressive, fraudulent and despotic power which they have exercised in the affairs of Kanzas [sic]; and remember that, if, by adhering to erroneous principles of neutrality or non-resistance, you allow them to force the curse of slavery on that vast and fertile field, the broad area of all the surrounding States and Territories--the whole nation, in fact--will soon fall a prey to their diabolical intrigues and machinations. Thus, if you are not vigilant, will they take advantage of your neutrality, and make you and others the victims of their inhuman despotism. (pp. 116, 120-121; my emphasis)

Helper's The Impending Crisis is particularly interesting as a contemporary document in showing that there were Southerners who opposed slavery and understood it to be a damaging institution for the country and for most people of the South.  It's also a reminder of what the South lost by going into a defensive huddle and suppressing open discussion of abolition in the South itself.  "What-if" games are always tricky with history; there's no guarantee that the outcome would have been better if open debate had occurred in the South.  But the Slave Power threw away whatever options might have been opened up by a real debate.

I'm really pleased to see that the full text of this book is available online.  It really is one of the most interesting documents of the antebellum period that I've come across.

Slavery and the class struggle

Class struggle?  Did he say "class struggle"?

Yes, I believe he did say that.

Because the disputants in the slavery controversy talked much more explicitly in class terms than our politicians do today.

That was certainly true of John C. Calhoun, who was the chief theoretician and, during his lifetime, the chief strategist of secession and treason.  Historian Richard Hofstadter famously called Calhoun "the Karl Marx of the master class."  Calhoun understood social conflict and politics as being driven by class conflict.  His main hope was to build an alliance of Northern capitalists and Southern planters to hold back potential revolts by white labor and black slaves.  Richard Current in John C. Calhoun (1966) relates a number of instances in which Calhoun tried to develop such an alliance.  "As each great sectional issue came to a head between 1828 and 1850, he was ready with a new installment of his class-struggle argument." Current wrote:

Calhoun did not intend his theory merely as a bogey with which to frighten Northern property owners into yielding on the sectional issues of the day. Nor did he suppose that his words, in themselves, would induce the Northerners to see the light. "That any force of argument can change public opinion," he wrote in 1831, "I do not expect; but I feel assured that the coming confusion and danger, which I have long foreseen, will." Though the revolutionary movements then under way in Europe failed to have the repercussions that he anticipated for the United States, the time of confusion and danger seemed finally at hand when the financial crisis of 1834 hit the nation. Now, Calhoun persuaded himself, his doctrines gained adherents among the well-to-do in the North. Thousands of them looked to the South for protection against the "needy and corrupt" of their own section. "They begin to feel," Calhoun congratulated himself, "that they have more to fear from their own people than we from our slaves."  A year later, though the financial crisis had passed without fulfilling his expectations, he still nourished a hope that the capitalists would be converted sooner or later through fear of a mass uprising. ...

Calhoun's appeal to the Northern capitalist before the Civil War was much like Marx's appeal to the Northern workingman after the war had begun. Both Calhoun and Marx contended, in effect, that the destruction of capitalism would come only after the destruction of the slave economy. Marx, the great revolutionary, itched to see the destruction of both. But Calhoun, the great reactionary, wished to prevent the destruction of either. To the last, while helping to create a sectional patriotism in the South, he persisted in believing it would be impossible for labor and capital to achieve a similar unity in the North. To the last he persisted in hoping that the men of business, increasingly harassed by labor troubles and radical politics, would eventually be only too glad to meet the planters on the planters' terms.

One characteristic of the polemics over slavery was that free-state partisans and the supporters of the lords of the lash mutually emphasized the social problems of the other system.  So, for instance, in the opening chpater of Sociology for the South, or, The Failure of Free Society (1854), George Fitzhugh, a leading defender of slavery, condemns the selfishness and lack of community spirit in the capitalist system of the free states.  And he denounces the economic theories of Adam Smith.  His arguments sound in places like the socialists of his day, with whom he was familiar (as despised enemies).

But in fact, he was defending a vicious system of human slavery.  He contrasted a phony paternalistic image of slavery to the reality of the many problems encountered by free labor.  But the pretty paternalistic picture of slavery he presented as a contrast to the evils of Northern capitalism was almost as hard to find in practice as WMDs in Iraq.

Another aspect of Southern defences of slavery that may sound surprising today is that both critics and defenders of slavery tended to agree that free labor was more productive than slave labor.  The defenders of slavery made this into a proslavery argement in a couple of ways.  One was to pretend that the slaveowners were actually caring for their human property as though they were an extended family.

The other was to incorporate the racial theories that grew increasingly popular among slaveowners especially in the three decades prior to the Civil War.  They argued that blacks were inherently incapable of being as productive as white workers and therefore slavery was required to force them to work.  The reality of free blacks working productively in northern cities didn't detract from the racial arguments of the Slave Power, since they weren't "reality-based" to begin with.

Anyone willing to risk the vertigo that can come from reading the way academic historians sometimes discuss these topics can check out a recent exchange on the arguments over the economic efficiency of slavery:  "The Peculiar Fate of the Bourgeois Critique of Slavery" by James Oakes with commentary by Walter Johnson in Slavery and the American South (2003).

(See the Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month posts 2005 for links to all this year's posts.)

No comments: