How Quickly We Lost the Peace After the Civil War

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

I am just finishing up Patriotic Gore, Edmund Wilson’s 1962 book that analyzes the literature of the American Civil War.

While I don’t feel quite up to a full review of this 800-page monument, I would like to share one or two notes about it.

The first is that Wilson is so comprehensive and so revealing in his exploration of the war literature, you are bound to feel more American after reading it. It is a book that puts you in far deeper possession of your country’s social and political history than a mere chronicle of the war’s battles ever could.

In so many ways, the war was a fulcrum on which the balance of forces in American art, ideas and politics tipped toward modernity. To take just one example, the prolix style of antebellum novels, full of the fripperies of Walter Scott, gave way to hard Northern efficiency after the war. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a mere 272 words, foretold of this stern brevity, a style that goes straight to the heart of the matter and brings the loftiest abstractions down to a practical level, where people of action and theory alike can make sense of them.

patriotic gore

Second, some of the key works Wilson reviews remind us how immediately and thoroughly the peace was lost after Civil War. Hearts and minds really didn’t change much when the shooting stopped, and the established powers didn’t seem to care.

Reconstruction in the South was based on the assumption that slave-holding culture would end automatically with the abolition of slavery as an institution–that there was essentially no political peace to be won. Today we might say that the Union powers assumed that the ideology of white supremacy died when the war ended. Of course we know with hindsight that was not the case, but Wilson documents just how abundant the evidence was that racists intended to hold their positions even after their military defeat.

For many years after the war, the most popular book in the South was A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, by Alexander Stephens, the former vice president of the Confederacy. In it, Stephens argued that the cause of the South remained a just and legal one despite the loss of the war. As the title of his book indicates, Stephens deploys many a constitutional argument to this effect. Thousands of southerners kept his book in a prominent place in their homes after the war, says Wilson, much like a family Bible. It remains the intellectul heart of Lost Cause-ism.

Equally revealing is the genre of historical fiction by Northerners who moved south after the war to do their part implementing Reconstruction. I am reading one of the outstanding novels of this genre now, A Fool’s Errand, by Albion Tourgee. More or less autobiographical, A Fool’s Errand recounts how a former Union colonel moves to North Carolina after the war and tries to revive a plantation and operate it by paying “freedmen”–former slaves–a living wage to work its soil. After 12 years of frustration and disillusionment, the hero sours on the cause of Reconstruction to such an extent he begins to sympathize with the reactionary attitudes of his racist neighbors.

Also not to be missed in this vein are the novels and essays of George Cable, another Northerner who moved south after the war, to New Orleans. Cable was a staunch early supporter of freedmen’s rights, but he effectively stopped arguing his case in print by the 1890s, at which time African Americans had been “silently disenfranchised,” as Wilson points out.

The books Wilson reviews describe a one-two punch that knocked out any kind of moral victory the war was supposed to win. Southerners did not really accept their defeat, and Northerners could not force them to do so. There is an instructive political lesson in the speed of this development: the immediate collective response to the civil was to nullify the very cause for which it was fought. If you are trying to make sense of the racial divide that persists in America, it is helpful to recall how naturally it seemed to set in after the war, and how tenaciously its advocates clung to power.

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Why I Write: A Postscript

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

This post continues a thought I started a couple years on why I bother to write.

I make no claim to originality in this blog. Its title is taken straight from Orwell. Many of its ideas come from him as well, or from other writers, even where I fail to give them credit. I have stolen almost everything you might possibly read here.

And, as Orwell pointed out on the first page of “Charles Dickens,” the essay that got me addicted to literary criticism, some authors and ideas are well worth stealing.

Take this idea from H.L. Mencken, which I came across this morning in his essay “The American Tradition.” Menken is attacking book critics who promote Anglo-Saxonhood by censoring “foreign” ideas out of American literature:

I have come to believe in [their] inferiority thoroughly, and that it seems to me to be most obvious in those who most vociferously uphold the so-called American tradition. They are, in the main, extremely stupid men, and their onslaughts are seldom supported by any formidable weight of metal. What they ask the rest of us to do, in brief, is simply to come down voluntarily and irrationally to their own cultural level–the level of a class that easily dominated the country when it was a series of frontier settlements, but that has gradually lost leadership as civilization has crept in. The rest of us naturally refuse, and they thereupon try to make acquiescence a patriotic matter, and to alarm the refractory with all sorts of fantastic penalties.

The main thing to notice here is not Mencken’s attack on the stupidity of the middlebrow white supremacist, which is bracing and pungent, yes, but old hat. Read any 100 pages by the old mammal, and you will find this trope in 70. (Enjoy, by the way.)

PP79.1261 Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956)
H.L. Mencken

What struck me with the force of an electric current though, was Mencken’s identification of fear as the defining characteristic of bigotry, and even more than that, how the forces of bigotry use fear’s gravitational power to try to pull the civilizing few down to their level of misery.  And no sooner had I processed this idea than I realized one of the cardinal reasons I keep this diary: to resist this gravitational pull. I write to resist the injunctions of fear and bigotry, which threaten to pull decent folk down into brutality and swinishness.

Mencken’s words remind me that keeping this journal is an attempt at self respect. I may be wrong in my optimistic belief that human dignity is possible: fear may be humankind’s natural and proper response to a world ruled by the law of the jungle. But now that we have built this experimental city on a basis science, reason, law and art, I cannot bring myself to throw away the chance it affords us to become decent. Writing is the best way I know to defy the powers who ask me to voluntarily throw this chance away. Fear may have dominated our country when it was less civilized, but we need not let it do so today. Times change.

 

 

Review of “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” by Edward Baptist

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

All the books I review here are important in some way. They shine a critical light on an unsolved problem or extol the mystery of human existence. They lead me to places I hadn’t yet discovered, unlock voices unheard. Often they attack ideas I dislike, which makes for a lot of fun. Such pleasures, though,  are mostly private. I write about them solely so I can remember them later.

But occasionally I read a book so important, so insightful that I think everyone should read it, and I badger my friends and family to do so. Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism is this kind of book. It will change your conception of America and what it means to be American. It’s a book that requires courage but will also increase your store of it.

baptist half never told

We all know, or at least suspect, that American school books have for many decades proffered a sanitized history of African slavery in our country. In Baptist’s groundbreaking book, he argues that the official version has made it impossible for Amercans to understand what slavery really meant to the formation of our national identity and why so many of slavery’s consequences remain unresolved up to this day.

The official version, says Baptist, rests on three assumptions, all of them wrong.

  1. The first is that slavery was an outlier of industrialization, fundamentally different from the innovations that created our immense wealth and power. The empirical data, though, flatly and massively contradict this assumption. Over and over Baptist shows that, starting from the 1810s, American planters’ use of low-cost slave labor drove long, steep gains in the production of cotton, the world’s most valuable commodity. Americans are taught to believe that slavery was an anachronism, a national embarrassment that had nothing to do with who we “really” are as prosperous, forward-thinking mercantilists and industrialists. Nonsense, says Baptist. Slavery made us rich and powerful. And our wealth brought us to the top of the international order.
  2. The second false assumption is the hindsight-enabled belief that slavery was bound to lose to the forces of liberal democracy and laissez faire economics. History is irrepressibly just, runs this myth, and right will always win out. Markets are ruthlessly perfect, and they will inevitably crush inefficiencies. But again, the data tell a different story. Slavery won for a long time, and there was nothing inevitable about the war that eventually defeated it. Lincoln’s heart was in unionism, not abolitionism. From an economic perspective, the slave system became highly efficient under the planter’s whip, and the “democratic” demand for it increased as southern planters amassed more and more wealth. Far from dying out, slavery was at its strongest just before the Civil War. And the war was a real fight that could have gone either way; it was not a pre-determined set piece.
  3. The third assumption is that slavery’s main offense was that it denied slaves political freedom, a mere abstraction. This, though, is an outrageously antiseptic version of what slavery really was. The truth is that in the cradle of liberal democracy, real Americans dictated over a tyrannical state-within-a-state based on sadism and exploitation. Even as our political insitutions were maturing at a dizzying speed and enabling unprecedented growth in the freedoms and civic virtues of white people (the America de Toqueville justly admired), black slaves lived in forced labor camps that might just as well have been run by the Gestapo or the NKVD. Torture drove slavery, and it is morally instructive to face this deeply unpleasant fact head on rather than burying it under denials, half-truths and abstractions.

A book that rebuts these assumptions will have to avoid mere editorializing. We all know slavery to be wrong, and our condemnations of it can so easily become mawkish. But the task Baptist sets himself is not just to decry slavery but to move it from the margins of American history into the mainstream, where we must face its full impact. This he acomplishes through a single muscular argument that runs throughout The Half Has Nevere Been Told. To adapt a phrase from Edmund Wilson, Baptist sweeps the reader through a canyon whose walls are built of granite statistics, on a stream of powerful, exhilirating historical narrative.

The United States of America has not always been rich. When we came within a hair’s breadth of losing our young independence in the War of 1812, we had almost no wealth for mounting a national defense. Barely out of that crisis, we were a country deep in debt. All that changed over the course of just a few decades, and by the eve of the Civil War, we had in fact become rich and powerful. How?

There exists a clear record of how this transformation happened. Between 1800 and 1860 America shifted from raising subsistence crops to cash crops, and it began to industrialize. The largest of the cash crops was cotton. And cotton growers, along with all the other businesses in their supply chain, kept detailed books. For whoever has eyes to see (and read), the historical record is there. We know the growth by-acreage of cotton plantations over the decades between 1800 and 1860, how much cotton enslaved people picked, how banks and the US government strategized to expand cotton growing, and how downstream industries at home and abroad profited from the whole system.

The story these data tell is that America became a leading capitalist economy–in fact the leading capitalist economy–on the back of slave labor. From the time the first slaves arrived in America in 1619 to roughly the period after the Revolutionary War when the global price of tobacco crashed, slavery in North America actually was more or less what we are taught in the school books–cruel and exploitative, yes, but primarily a class marker of the aristocratic agriculturists. Call this the Thomas Jefferson model of slave ownership (my term, not Baptist’s): you have slaves to show that you are somebody, not to enable the grubbing of money.

But all this changed with the conclusion of the War of 1812 and the opening up of the United States’ southwestern territories on the Mississippi River basin. Here cotton grew. And as it grew, it fed the mills of Connecticut and England and fueled the transatlantic industrial revolution. Baptist explains:

By 1815, the rapid expansion of Mississippi Valley slave labor camps had enabled the United States to seize control of the world export market for cotton, the most crucial of early industrial commodities. And cotton became the dominant driver of US economic growth.

Suddenly, slavery became linked to the world’s largest revenue stream. Slaves were no longer on plantations merely to keep the grounds and reassure the owning class of its master status–they were there to make serious money. And this is when slave drivers became methodically cruel. Under the lash, slave productivity skyrocketed. How do we know this? Enslavers kept daily records of how much cotton their “hands” brought in from the field. Too little meant a whipping of course, or worse. Baptist recounts that slave masters sometimes used demonstrative executions of low producers to show what would happen to “slackers.” Moreover, employing a trick that communist regimes would discover in the 20th century, many enslavers placed shock-workers in the ranks, pickers whose huge daily intake was meant to set a superhuman pace for the “ordinary” slaves. Few could keep up, but many died trying.

Through the calibrated use of cruelty and guile, enslavers drove the productivity of slave labor inexorably upward. As Baptist records,

The amount of cotton the South grew increased almost every single year from 1800, when enslaved Americans made 1.4 million pounds of cotton, to 1860, when they harvested almost 2 billion pounds.

So productive had slave hands become by 1860 that the real price of cotton sank to one-quarter of its 1790 value despite a 500 percent rise in demand. Read that sentence twice. The cotton-based industrial revolution was making England and America rich by 1860, and the efficiency gains driving it were so high that the owning class was reaping its wealth from a commodity that was consistently sinking in real value.

This is the heart of the slavery history that has never been told in America–the plain fact that African slaves became “fuel for the American system,” as Ta Nahisi Coates has put it. We pride ourselves on the range of life opportunities that hard work, disicipline, and innovation create in our country. Apply yourself, pay your dues, and this great country will let you be great. Even better, success breeds civic virtue. We believe that people who have mastered the system are capable of greater political enlightenment. Why else would we listen to Bill Gates talk about politics? But consider this about the supposed connection between economic development and the expansion of social virtues:

In those societies that [economic development] benefitted the most, the transformation built fundamentally on one key shift: increasing the amount of goods, such as food or clothing, produced from a given quantity of labor and land.

Efficiency gains. That’s what drives modern economies. At a critical juncture in history, we won the contest of extracting the most output from the least input. We remain justly pround of efficiency as a principle of American prestige. We’re renowned as a people who gets things done. But economic theory is profoundly agnostic about how to achieve efficiency: it doesn’t care whether efficiency gains are made morally or immorally. Machines can do it or enslaved humans can.

We remain steadfastly ignorant of the concrete means by which we so dramatically increased efficiency in the 19th century and climbed to the top of the mercantilist heap. Here, then, are the unwelcome facts: we used slave labor to keep pace with industrialization and to seed the very technologies that drove the industrial revolution forward. This was the basis of the wealth that grounded our peace, security and freedom. And as Baptist coldly points out, enlsavers were making an economically rational choice when they opted for slave labor. It increased their margins in a way that no other available labor source could.

Incidentally, the rest of the capitalist system does not get a pass. Several chapters of Baptist’s book show how northern bankers, industrialists, politicians and land speculators colloborated to turn slave labor into the paper investment instruments–land deeds, loans, bonds, and shares certificates–that drive economic growth in a capitalist economy. All of America shared in the profits of slave labor.

Why do we not wish to hear this message? Because to do so is to contemplate that the American dream is built on an economy “whose bottom gear was torture,” as Baptist writes. If we accept this history, we can no longer dismiss slavery as a minor crime that was committed by a small minority of misguided Americans, and which in any case has been redeemed by the good intentions of the majority. No. We consciously chose African slavery at a time in our history when it mattered to everyone, and to the wider world. It made us rich, and it made us who we are.

So, read Baptist. Read him for any reason that motivates you. Maybe you think he must have gotten everything wrong. Maybe you suspect he is right, but you want to see the evidence for yourself. Maybe you think I am a self-hating liberal who has cherry-picked Baptist’s ideas to reinforce my sickly worldview. Maybe you want to hear a voice unlike your own, hear claims about who we are that differ from your own ideas. I plead rank Platonism: I am congenitally unable to lead an unexamined life. And I am concivnced you too will be moved by this history of America, no matter what your starting assumptions are. Read Baptist.