HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES
THE CRISIS IN THE CHATTEL SLAVE SYSTEM
INTERNALLY the industrial society based upon the plantation system and chattel slavery was near to a crisis by 1860. This society, first established on the seaboard for the production of tobacco, indigo, and rice, maintained its general form as it moved across the country. In each successive stage of the westward march it followed the hunter and small farmer stage, and there was a brief struggle between these two systems for supremacy.1
Soil and climate determined the outcome of this conflict. There was a definite
belt of land where upland cotton could be raised,2 Where this belt
broke against the foot of the mountains, cotton and slavery stopped, and the
whole character of the population changed.3 Because those engaged in
the production of cotton in this comparatively small portion of the soil were the
industrial, political, and social rulers of the South, it is the portion which is
commonly referred to when the antebellum South is named.
1 U. B. Phillips, "Origin and Growth of the Southern Black Belts," in American Historical Review, July, 1906.
2 Wm. G. Brown, "The Lower South in American History," pp. 25-26.
3 W. A. Schaper, "Sectionalism and Representation in South Carolina," Am. Hist. Ass'n Rept., 1900. Vol. I,. p. 251. et passim.
Although the statement is frequently made that the plantation system had remained unchanged for more than a century,1 there were some important alterations in the generation preceding the Civil War.
Chattel slavery and the plantation system could be maintained only in connection with an industry having certain characteristics. Such an industry must be extremely simple in its operation, requiring few processes and no complex machinery. Because slavery is applicable only to a "one-crop" system of agriculture, it demands an exhaustless supply of new and fertile lands that can be brought into cultivation as the old ones are exhausted. Because the slave represents a permanent investment on the part of the master, and must be supported continuously, without regard to the continuity of industry, it is essential that employment be steady. Cotton cultivation with ginning occupied the slaves for nearly nine months in the year - longer than almost any other crop. The supplies in which the slave receives his wages should not be costly. Otherwise wage labor would be cheaper. The warm climate of the South relieved the master of the necessity of providing anything but the cheapest, coarsest clothing and food, and a miserable shelter.
Slaves must be worked in large gangs under a common overseer. The cultivation and picking of cotton again made this possible.2
The same internal compulsion that leads to concentra-
1 E. L. Bogart, "Economic History of the United States," p. 251.
2 M. B. Hammond, "The Cotton Industry," Pub. Am. Econ. Ass'n, Vol. I, No. 1, pp. 34-66.
tion in modern industry operated with the production of cotton. To this
compulsion was added the fact that the extension of land ownership for the great
plantations literally drove the defeated competitors off the earth. As the system
approached its conclusion, the number of its beneficiaries grew fewer and fewer,
more and more powerful, more defiant and arrogant, more greedy for rulership.
By 1860, not more than half a million of the nine million Southern whites made an
actual profit from chattel slavery. Out of this half million was further selected
not more than ten thousand, who were the economic, social, and political rulers
of the South.1 The problem that confronted these few rulers was to
maintain their dominant position under universal white suffrage. They were aided
by the fact that the clergy and the professional men were with them. This was due
partly to the fact that the more successful members of this class usually owned
one or two slaves for personal service. This
1 A. B. Hart, "Slavery and Abolition," p. 68; Edward Ingle, " Southern Side Lights," p. 263 ; Brown, "The Lower South in American History," p. 34. Hinton Rowan Helper, "The Impending Crisis," p. 146, gives this table for 1850: -
created a class of social retainers who defended the interest of the ruling class. Always there is a large section of society that follows the leaders and defends the interests of those leaders more energetically than its own.
The slave oligarchy in the South was well aware of the uncertainty of social rule by a minority, and comforted themselves with the conclusion that "The proportion which the slaveholders of the South bear to the entire population is greater than that of the owners of land or houses, agricultural stock, state, bank, or other corporation securities elsewhere."1 Until the verge of the Civil War the majority of the non-slave-owning whites were firm in their allegiance to their slave-owning rulers. Indeed, Von Hoist claims that "It was precisely the poorest and most abject whites who found the greatest satisfaction for their self-love in the thought that they were members of the privileged class. He who wished to span the broad gulf that separated them from the slaves, or was suspected of entertaining this wish, was their deadly enemy, for he threatened to expose them in all their neediness, defenseless and naked; he disputed their `right' to the beggarly pomp that was due only to the deeper degradation of others; and he therefore trespassed upon their `freedom.'"2Representatives of the Southern ruling class were fond of taunting those who lived under the wage system with the security of a society based on chattel slavery
1 J. D. B. DeBow, "The Non-Slave-Holders of the South," in DeBow's Review, 1861, p. 68.
2 Von Hoist, "Constitutional History of the United States," Vol. I, pp. 349-350.
as compared with one depending upon hired laborers. They were continually boasting of the fact that chattel slavery made any uprising of the workers impossible. As one writer put it, "There is perhaps no solution of the great problem of reconciling the interests of labor and capital, so as to protect each from the encroachments and oppression of the other, so simple and effective as negro slavery. By making the laborer himself capital, the conflict ceases, and the interests become identical."1
But no such simple solution of class struggles is possible. The negro refused to
be entirely contented in his slavery, and the imagination of the white owners,
reading into the slave's mind an even greater unrest than existed, painted
horrible pictures of impending slave insurrections, until these became the social
nightmare of the South. This fear, which kept the entire South in a state of
hysterical apprehension, was a strong factor in creating the sentiment for
secession. Only under a national government controlled by slave owners could the
South sleep secure in the feeling that all efforts to incite such
1 Thomas R. R. Cobb, "Historical Sketch of Slavery " (1858), p. 214; Frank E. Chadwick, "Causes of the Civil War " (Am. Nation Series), pp. 41-42. E. Von Hoist, "Life of J. C. Calhoun," p. 175, quotes as follows from a speech of Calhoun's:
I fearlessly assert that the existing relations between the two races in the South . . . forms the most solid and desirable foundation on which to rear free and stable political institutions. It is useless to disguise the fact. There is, and always has been, in an advanced stage of wealth and civilization, a conflict between labor and capital. The condition of society in the South exempts us from the disorders and dangers resulting from this conflict; and explains why it is that the condition of the slaveholding states has been so much more stable and quiet than that of the North. The advantages of the former in this respect will become more and more manifest if left undisturbed by interference from without, as the country advances in wealth and numbers.
insurrections would be sternly suppressed. We now know that this terror was largely self-inspired. The negroes did not rise when opportunity offered. On the other hand, the poor whites were showing unmistakable signs of dissatisfaction with the rule of the plantation barons. The propertyless whites were in a most helpless and abject state of industrial, social, and political dependence. They were permitted no share in the government, were shut out from the industrial life of the South, and were the despised hangers-on in the social world. To the north they saw the members of their class attaining to social and political rulership, and they began to move beneath the foundations of Southern society.
By 1850 DeBow, the great literary spokesman of Southern sentiment, was beginning to urge upon the plantation owners the necessity of finding some employment for the poor whites. "The great mass of our poor white population," he says, "begin to understand that they have rights, and that they, too, are entitled to some of the sympathy which falls upon the suffering. They are fast learning that there is an almost infinite world of industry opening before them, by which they can elevate themselves and their families from wretchedness and ignorance to competence and intelligence. It is this great upbearing of our masses that we are to fear, so far as our institutions are concerned."1
In 1856 George M. Weston published a book entitled "The Poor Whites of the
South." He described the industrial and physical and mental degradation of
1 Editorial in DeBow's Review (1850), Vol. VIII, p. 25. Italics in original.
class, as well as their political insignificance. "I have been for twenty years a reader of southern newspapers, and a hearer of Congressional debates," he says, "but in all that time, I do not recollect ever to have seen or heard these non-slave-holding whites referred to by southern gentlemen as constituting any part of what they call `The South."'1
Finally, in 1856, there came a book which voiced the interests and the demands of this class in such thunderous tones that it shook the weakening pillars of Southern society like reeds, and had very much more to do with bringing on the Civil War than did the much talked-about "Uncle Tom's Cabin." This book was Hinton Rowan Helper's "The Impending Crisis."
Reading this book to-day, it is difficult to understand its effect when
published. It is composed largely of cold statistical proof that chattel slavery
was hindering the progress of Southern society. Page after page of comparisons
between the North and the South are given. In every instance the North has far
outstripped the South in wealth. This tempting vision of the fleshpots of profits
from wage labor was dangled before the eyes of the non-slaveholding whites of the
South; and the burden of the book, though never expressed directly, is: "But for
chattel slavery you might be enjoying the things upon which your fellow little
bourgeoisie in the North are fattening." Helper shows how much faster Northern
cities have grown, how much more valuable is Northern land, both agricultural and
urban, how in the North more railroads are built, more patents obtained, more
ships are sailed; how, in short, there were more
1 George M. Weston, "The Poor Whites of the South" (1856).
of all the things that are the gods of the class of little capitalists to which the poor whites longed to belong, and to which, by the laws of social evolution, they should have been tending.Helper taunts the non-slaveholders with the contempt in which they are held by the slave owners.1 He says of the poor whites: "They have never yet had any part or lot in framing the laws under which they live. There is no legislation except for the benefit of slavery and slaveholders. . . . To all intents and purposes, they are disfranchised, and outlawed, and the only privilege extended to them is a shallow and circumscribed participation in the political movements that usher slaveholders into office."2 He shows them how mercilessly the great plantations are devouring the small farms and leaving the country a wilderness when the soil has been exhausted 3 He tabulates the offices controlled by the slavocracy since the foundation of the government, and shows that during nearly all of that time the presidency, vice-presidency, speakership of the House, Supreme Court, and the Cabinet have been filled with representatives of this small class of slave owners.4
From first to last he bases his case upon the material interest of the class he is seeking to arouse, and points that the way out is to use political power in the furtherance of class interests, exactly as the slaveholders have been doing. The publication of this book exposed the Achilles' heel of the South. It was greeted with a perfect explosion of denunciation. Southern postmasters refused to
1 Hinton Rowan Helper, "The Impending Crisis," p. 41.
2 Ibid., p. 42.
3 Ibid., pp. 57-58.
4 Ibid., pp. 307-317.
deliver it. Great bonfires were made of such copies as could be found in the South. Ownership of a copy in a Southern state was to invite mob violence.1 Because John Sherman was reported to have contributed to a fund for its circulation, he was defeated for the speakership of the House of Representatives.2
There was but one way to meet this situation, and retain the allegiance of the
poor whites for slavery. That was to introduce capitalism into the South
alongside of the plantation system. This sounds almost grotesque. It was the only
hope of escape, and was so recognized by the class-conscious slave owners.
The most strenuous efforts were made to introduce manufacturing. "In Alabama . .
. there was a sort of frenzy over railroads in the early fifties."3
State and local societies and "Institutes for the Promotion of Art, Mechanical
Ingenuity, Industry, and Manufactures in the South" were formed. Before the South
Carolina society of this name one William Gregg made an impassioned plea to the
South not to content itself "to stand in the same relation to the Northern States
and the balance of the manufacturing world, that Ireland, poor Ireland, does to
England - hewers of
1 John Spencer Bassett, "Anti-Slave Leaders of North Carolina," in Johns Hopkins University Studies in History and Political Science, p. 15
2 Ibid., pp. 17-18.
3 Wm. G. Brown, "The Lower South in American History," pp. 95-96. A few years ago press reports stated that Hinton R. Helper was found dead on a bench in a Washington, D.C., park. There is a grim irony in the fact that the man who was largely responsible for the vast financial and political power of American capitalists should have died an outcast.
wood and drawers of water."1 He proceeds to urge the establishment of manufactures for the especial benefit of a large portion of our "poor white people, who are wholly neglected, and are suffered to while away an existence but one step in advance of the Indian of the forest."2 Yet while he is planning an opportunity for these poor whites to become wageworkers, he is not blind to the fact that the presence of chattel slavery will permit the plantation class to retain their social leadership, since "capital will be able to control labor, even in manufacture with whites, for blacks can always be resorted to in case of need."3
These efforts to establish manufactures were not wholly in vain. Numerous
factories using either white wage or negro chattel slave labor were running in
the years just prior to the Civil War, and were greatly boasted by the Southern
spokesmen,4 But the two systems of industry could not exist side by
side. The demands which they made upon government were different. The social
classes which they raised to power were antagonistic. The effort to create
manufactures with wage labor alongside of plantation agriculture operated by
chattel slaves was only a sign of the disintegration of the latter system.
1 DeBow's Review, Vol. II (1851), Address of William Gregg before the South Carolina Institute for the Promotion of Art, Mechanical Ingenuity, Industry, and Manufactures in South Carolina and the South, p. 127.
2 Ibid., p. 135.
3 Ibid., p. 130.
3 Ingle, "Southern Side Lights," pp. 75-83; DeBow, "Industrial Resources of the Southern and Western States," Supplement to DeBow's Review, Vol. II (1846), pp. 230-231; ibid., p. 332 4 Thomas P. Kettel, "Southern Wealth and Northern Profits," pp. 53-62.
The germs of disintegration were within the very elements that seemed to indicate the greatest prosperity for the chattel slave system of production. The friends of this system rested their case upon the domination of cotton. As the demand for cotton increased, the slave system seemed more firmly entrenched. The following table gives the principal statistical facts in the growth of the Southern industrial system: -
At first sight this would seem to show swiftly rising prosperity for the slave
owners. But there is an inherent contradiction in chattel slavery, as within the
competitive system, and this was the first time in the history of society that
chattel slavery, on a large scale, had entered into the competitive system. This
is the peculiarity : the increased productivity of the slave, or the increased
profits from his employment, are constantly capitalized and absorbed in the ever
increasing value of the slave.1
1 Daniel R. Goodloe, "Is it Expedient to Introduce Slavery into Kansas?" p. 50 :
The cultivation of land by slave labor requires a five-fold greater outlay of capital than is necessary with the use of free labor. The employer of slave labor must not only have the land, houses, fences, cattle, provisions, etc., which, the employing of free labor requires, but in addition he must own a slave, worth from $800 to $1000, for every twenty acres of land which he proposes to cultivate."
Since the yearly earnings in the most profitable industry where slaves were employed were thus capitalized and applied to the price of all slaves, the price rose in a most astonishing manner. This tendency was still further aggravated by the restrictions upon the foreign slave trade, which prevented the importation of any save those that could be smuggled past the watchful revenue cruisers. Consequently the price rose from less than $150 in 1808 to between two and four thousand dollars for field hands in the years immediately preceding the war.1
At these prices only the largest plantations, working the slaves in the most effective manner upon the richest lands, raising the most profitable crops, could survive. It had become a common saying that the slave owner grew more cotton to get more money to buy more slaves, to raise more cotton, and so on in an endless and ever rising spiral.
This development, combined with the exhaustive one-crop system of farming, drove the slave owner on toward the extreme south and west. A moving picture
1 Kettel, " Southern Wealth and Northern Profits," p. 171. "The Documentary History of American Industrial Society," Vol. II, pp. 73-74, quotes from the Milledgeville, Ga., Federal Union of Jan. 17, 1860, as follows :
Men are borrowing money at exorbitant rates of interest to buy negroes at exorbitant prices. . . . The old rule of pricing a negro by the price of cotton by the pound - that is to say, if cotton is worth twelve cents, a negro man is worth $1200, if at fifteen cents, then $1500-does not seem to be regarded. Negroes are 25 per cent higher now with cotton at ten and one-half cents than they were two or three years ago, when it was worth fifteen and sixteen cents. Men are demented upon the subject. A reverse will surely come,
M. B. Hammond, "The Cotton Industry," pp. 50-51.
of the black population of the South and its white owners during the last ten years of chattel slavery would suggest some thick dark fluid flowing toward the Gulf of Mexico.1 Thus the South became divided into the "slave-using" and the "slave-breeding" states. Virginia and Maryland were the two great sources of the slave supply, from whence the "coffles" of slaves were gathered by the buyers to be shipped to the sugar and cotton plantations further south.2 It was not profitable to keep slaves in the border states except for breeding purposes, and there was somewhat of a sentiment against this. Therefore the number of slaves in the border states steadily decreased in numbers.
There were at least two elements of disintegration added by this movement to the
already crumbling fabric of chattel slavery. The conflict of interest which
always exists between buyers and sellers arose between these two sections of the
South. This showed itself in the agitation for the reopening of the foreign slave
trade on the part of the slave-using states. This was urged in the hope of
lowering the price of slaves and thereby preventing the collapse of slavery by
the absorption of all profits in the values of the laborers.3 It was
also urged that such a reduction in price would enable the chattel slave owners
to compete with the wage system in the settlement of new territory to the
1 James Baker, essay on American Slavery in North American Review, October, 1851, p. 12; Hammond, "The Cotton Industry," pp. 50-51.
2 James F. W. Johnson, "Notes on North America" (1851), Vol. II, pp. 354-355.
3 George Fitzhugh, " The Wealth of the North and South," in DeBow's Review, Vol. XXIII (1857), P. 592.
4 Ibid., P. 594: "The revival of the African slave trade, the reduction in the price of negroes, and the increase of their numbers, will enable us successfully to contend in the establishment of new territories with the vast emigration from the North."
When this proposition to reopen the slave trade was brought up in one of the many trade conventions that were held in the South during the years from 1850 to 1860, the opposition of the slave-breeding states, who were profiting by the high price of slaves, was so great that the resolution on this point was finally dropped "because the resolution was impolitic as affecting the interests of such states as Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, and North Carolina."1
Another great weakness of the chattel slave and plantation system is found in the
fact that it was so completely dependent upon other societies. It was always a
debtor society, unable to market its crop without the ships and mills of New and
old England. It had but one crop to bring to market, and brought this in the raw
stage. Then, as now, the greatest profits went to those who controlled the later
stages of production. Whenever the interests of these two stages of society
conflicted, the advantage was all with the one representing the later industrial
epoch. One of the points where this clash came was on the tariff question, and
the first and some of the sharpest conflicts between the capitalist North and the
semifeudal South were on this question.2 Just why this
1 Ingle, "Southern Side Lights," p. 250.
2 E. Von Holst, "Life of J. C. Calhoun," pp. 75-76; An American, "Cotton is King," pp. 64-81. On p. 67 of this work, which was one of the most commonly circulated books by the defenders of the South, the position of that section is summed up as follows:
If they [the Southern planters] could establish free trade, it would insure the American market to foreign manufacturers; secure foreign markets for their leading staple; repress home manufactures; force a larger number of the northern men into agriculture; multiply the growth and diminish the price of provisions; feed and clothe their slaves at lower rates; produce their cotton for a third or fourth of former prices; rival all other countries in its cultivation; monopolize the trade in the article throughout the whole of Europe; and build up a commerce and a navy that would make us the rulers of the seas.
clash was particularly sharp about 1860 will be pointed out in the next chapter. The absolute need for territorial expansion by a one-crop society was bringing the South into another cul de sac. With the national government completely in its control, it was able to force the annexation of Texas and a large extent of other territory after an almost unprovoked war with Mexico.1 At the same time a large amount of territory in the northwest to which the title of the United States was fairly clear was surrendered almost without a protest.2
The bounds of possible expansion were soon reached, so far as continental America
was concerned. Much of the land which was obtained in the war with Mexico was
closed to chattel slavery by the ever encroaching wage labor society to the
north. The South in desperation turned to the tropical countries and islands
further south. They talked in terms of a "manifest destiny" that was driving them
on to the possession of Cuba and the valley of the Amazon.3 Envious
1 E. Von Holst, "Life of J. C. Calhoun," pp. 220-259, 237 " Because the slave-holding states thought their peculiar institution endangered by the existence of an independent free state, it was declared to be the `imperative duty' and a `sacred obligation' of the United States, imposed by their constitutional compact, to absorb that state into the Union in order to prevent the abolition of slavery in it." 2 Ibid., p. 267 et seq.
3 DeBow's Review, Vol. XVII, p. 280. Ibid., Vol. XV, p. 263, contains a report of a convention held at Memphis in 1853, where a long resolution on the opening of the Amazon, was adopted, beginning as follows
Resolved, that the interests of commerce, the cause of civilization, and the mandates of high heaven, require the Atlantic slopes of South America to be subdued and replenished.
Wilson, "History of the American People," Vol. IV, pp. 173-174.
were cast upon Cuba at this time, and the descriptions of the atrocities of Spanish rule in that island read very much like the writings which appeared upon that same subject almost fifty years later, when Northern capitalism was, in its turn, struggling for expansion.1
All its efforts in this direction were in vain. The hold of the South upon the national government was slipping away, and it was impossible to use that government for another war of conquest.
Internally the chattel slave system was devouring itself; externally it was being
strangled for lack of room to expand. The inherent contradictions that arise
within every industrial system based upon exploitation were rending it asunder,
while a rival industrial system was proving superior in the great struggle for
existence by which social systems are tried out in the laboratory of history.
At such a critical time possession of the national government was essential to
even a temporary prolongation of existence. When that government passed into the
hands of its rival in the battle for survival, the Southern slavocracy tried to
secede and establish a government it could control.2
1 Henry Wilson, "History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America," Vol. II, pp. 688-654, DeBow's Review, Vol. XVIII, pp. 163-167 and 305-313.
2 Brown, "The Lower South in American History," p. 83: "The struggle for ascendency was, in fact, a struggle for existence. . . . The lower South was from the beginning under a necessity either to control the national government or radically to change its own industrial and social system."