The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Birth of the Republican Party

Jul 23, 2018

The following is the third part of a four-part series dealing with the development of political parties in the United States.

As of 1861, at the start of the Civil War, the South had provided 11 of the country’s first 16 presidents, 17 out of 28 Supreme Court Justices, and 14 out of 19 Attorneys General. It dominated what would become the State Department and the diplomatic corps. The Democratic Party, which was the political creation of the Southern slaveholders in 1800, controlled the U.S. Senate in all but six of the next 60 years, and the House of Representatives in all but eight. The top officer corps of both Army and Navy sprang from the South. The slave-owning class, whose economy rested on plantation agriculture, may have been a kind of historical throwback, but it dominated political life in the United States in its first decades, and especially from 1800 through 1860.

That reflected economic reality. In the South, a region primarily agricultural, the ownership of land, capital and labor was concentrated in the hands of a closely-knit class. In the North during the post-Revolutionary period, the merchants, banking interests and small industrialists were only beginning to coalesce into a unified capitalist class. Moreover, slave labor had indirectly provided much of the foundation for Northern commerce and early manufacturing, just as it had for Southern agriculture. The slave trade itself had allowed Northern merchants to accumulate their first large sums of capital, and it nourished the growth of the trade that tied the Western Hemisphere to Europe.

To break the hold of the slaveowners over the nation’s economy would require a second revolution: the Civil War and Reconstruction. And the fight to overturn the nation’s political system, ridding slavery’s hold on it, came through the development of a new political party, the Republican Party.

Plantation Agriculture Requires Ever More Territory

In the first post-revolutionary years, Northern merchants – even some Southern slave-owners like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson – expected that, with time, slavery might die out, beset by its own contradictions. But after the development of the cotton gin, cotton gave a vast resurgence to plantation agriculture. Southern cotton began to flood markets after 1800, feeding Northern factories, as well as the English factory system, strengthening commercial ties between the South and England. In the 60 years up to the Civil War’s outbreak in 1861, the amount of cotton produced increased sixty times. It was by far the most important American product, not only domestically, but also in world trade. The demand for more cotton led to a vast increase in demand both for the land on which cotton could be produced and for slaves to work the fields.

Monocrop plantation agriculture depletes the soil, and cotton, like tobacco before it, was particularly destructive. Finding their soil increasingly unproductive, slaveholders were forced to expand into new territory. This fact, combined with the rapid growth of demand for cotton, determined not only much of the domestic policy pursued by the slaveholders’ Democratic Party, but also its foreign policy. The need for new fertile land lay behind the two big land-grabs of U.S. history, and behind over a dozen wars the U.S. military fought inside the Western Hemisphere before the Civil War.

In 1803, the U.S. doubled the size of its territory, with the so-called “Louisiana Purchase.” In exchange for 15 million dollars, the U.S. directly took over the governing of small sections of Florida, previously colonized by Spain, and sections of Louisiana, colonized by the French. The remainder of the deal concerned an imperial claim that France had staked out over a large chunk of territory extending from Louisiana up the Mississippi river drainage over to the Rocky Mountains, all the way past the Canadian border. Its inhabitants were different indigenous peoples, organized in distinct tribes and language groupings. What the U.S. “purchased” from France was the right to go to war against these peoples to take their territory, without any interference from the major European powers.

The United States went to war ten times before the Civil War against these peoples. Whether by war, massacres, treaties based on the threat of massacre, promises of indemnification that would be forgotten, or trickery, the U.S. began what would become de facto a genocidal policy, which masqueraded under the name of “Removal.”

Under the direction of Southern generals like Andrew Jackson, the U.S. army cleared Native American tribes from the southeastern part of the country – freeing up Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, and parts of Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky and North Carolina, then later on, Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas. All for the extension of slave-based plantation agriculture. Of course, the North also pushed Native American tribes out of territory the tribes had long occupied. But in the pre-Civil War years, most “removal” was carried out in the South. The 1829 bill that authorized “removal” was passed by Congress, supported generally by Southern legislators – i.e. Democrats – and opposed by most Northern ones. It was only after the Civil War that Northern capital, particularly the railroad, lumber and mining interests, became interested in the land the different tribes rested on.

In the 25 years up to 1845, 80,000 Native Americans were “removed” from the southeastern U.S. – about 90% of the numbers estimated to have been living there – opening up wide stretches of territory for cotton, that is, for the extension of slavery. Plantation owners had another reason for this “removal” of the indigenous peoples: some of the tribes in the Deep South had also provided sanctuary for escaped slaves.

In 1848, the U.S. again almost doubled the size of its territory, most of the increase coming as the result of the years of war with Mexico, direct and indirect. Once again, what the U.S. got was mostly the right – which Mexico ceded – to take whatever land the U.S. could take from the Native Americans who inhabited the territory. Some of the territory – particularly the coastlines of Texas and of California – had been settled for a long time. But much of the territory was simply an imperial claim – passed down from Spain to a Mexican government led by Spanish colonists to the United States. The territory grabbed would become much of the states of Texas, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Oklahoma and Colorado, most of them potential areas for the extension of slavery.

Just as more land was opening up for plantation agriculture, the external slave trade was coming to an end. Britain and France had already banned it. One of the “compromises” written into the Constitution of 1787 had de facto set 1808 as the date for banning the slave trade into the U.S. In 1808, Congress passed such a law. Another 250,000 human beings were stolen from Africa and sold into slavery over the next 53 years, despite the law. Even that didn’t keep up with the South’s need for slaves. The older slave states like Virginia as well as the border states like Maryland transformed themselves into breeding pens for the rapid production of human beings to be sold as slaves to the cotton-producing states. The older states, whose land had been destroyed by tobacco production, saw a resurgence of “economic activity” with the South’s new product: human beings. In just one decade, between 1840 and 1850, Virginia bred and shipped 100,000 new slaves south. The border states sent as many as 80,000.

The Relationship between North and South Changes

For five decades, the growing Northern capitalist class had ceded political dominance to the Southern slaveowners. This came with a cost. Northern capital was blocked in its development. In order for its industry to develop, it needed protection from the more advanced industries of Europe; that is, it needed tariffs. And it needed to control its own internal market, which again meant that it needed to keep European goods out of those markets. But the South needed unhindered trade, which gave the plantation owners a much larger clientele for their cotton. The North needed a central bank of some sort to regulate the monetary system, and allow for larger amounts of investment. But the South found itself indebted to the banks and did not want an extension of the banking system. The South, in control of the political system, blocked Northern capital on each of these issues.

But the relationship between the two sections of the country – that is, the two dominant classes – was changing. Europe poured immigrants into the North, a million in the 1840s alone, half of them fleeing starvation in Ireland. Over the next decade, more than twice that number came in. Immigration fed the growing industries of the North, increasing its economic power. In 1800, the South had more population than the North. But from 1810 on, the North pulled ahead, and continued to more rapidly extend its numbers than could the slave-holding and mostly rural South.

The North’s burgeoning population threatened the South’s political control. In fact, by perhaps 1820, or at least 1830, the North should have controlled the House of Representatives, whose members were apportioned roughly according to population. And with some delay, population differences should also have given the North the presidency, which was chosen by an Electoral College whose members came from the total number of representatives and senators each state held. In earlier years, the small farmers of the North had allied themselves with Southern plantation owners, based on their common tilling of the land, and their common resentment of the Northern banks. But the contest for land between the slave system and the small farmers was beginning to break down that alliance.

Threatened with loss of political control, the slaveholders worked, especially after 1820, to establish the Democratic Party as the defender of “free labor” in the big Northern cities. The Democratic Party campaigned in the North by attacking the hypocrisy of Northern capital, whose “free” labor meant freedom only for the workers to starve – in a period when starvation was rampant in Northern cities, when public sanitation was unknown in large parts of these cities, and when disease oozed out of squalid tenements. In some cases, the Democrats assimilated newly organized workers’ parties that were just coming into existence. In other cases, they used the gangsters of political machines like that of Boss Tweed to exterminate workers’ parties. The Democrats pushed to extend the vote to all citizens, not only those who owned some property. Of course, the slaves couldn’t vote, they weren’t citizens, so this extension of the vote didn’t threaten the slaveowners’ hold over the South. But the vote by Northern “free labor” did reinforce the Northern extension of the Democratic Party. The cities controlled by the Northern Democratic Party allowed the slaveholders’ to defend their labor system for some decades longer.

In the years of Southern political dominance, the slaveholders’ essential domestic policy – other than expansion into new territory – was the use of the state apparatus North and South to maintain the slaves in slavery. The most significant parts of this policy were embodied in the laws to prevent slaves from escaping. First passed in 1793, then toughened in 1850, both of the Fugitive Slave Acts required Northern states to return escaped slaves. But the act of 1850 gave a plantation owner the right to come North to claim, by military force, any person he designated as an escaped slave. Even those who had lived as free persons in the North for a long time were put in danger. This was followed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 – which declared that every territory had the right to decide for itself whether slavery was legal. The intention of that act could be seen in “bloody Kansas.” The Kansas territory, which had been settled primarily by Northern farmers, was targeted by terrorist bands sent by the slaveholders to drive small farmers off their land, so a vote for slavery could be organized. Finally came the 1857 Dred Scott decision, issued by a Supreme Court dominated by the slaveowners. That decision effectively meant that a slaveowner, simply by going with his slaves into a territory, could impose the laws of the slaveholding states on that territory.

These were the final actions of a political system still dominated by the slaveholders. They made it obvious that the South’s intention was to spread the tentacles of slavery everywhere.

A New Party Emerges: The Republican Party

The Republican Party, which did not exist in 1853, won the presidency with Abraham Lincoln only seven years later. What seems today like an impossibly rapid development simply reflected the increasingly bitter chasm threatening to break up the old political system. The Northern capitalists, who had chafed under the political dominance of the slaveholders, were looking for a way to step forward as the single and dominant ruling class. And they now found an ally among the small farmers, who were by far the largest part of the Northern population. The bloody war in Kansas had demonstrated the fate that awaited Northern farmers if the slaveholders were allowed to expand.

The new party was cobbled together out of parts of other parties: Northern sections of the Whig Party, which had provided the opposition to the Democrats; much of the Free-Soil party, which attracted support from the small farmers; the Know-Nothing Party, which played on early anti-foreigner prejudice; as well as anti-slavery Democrats in farming states. In other words, the contradiction that existed in the U.S. political system from the beginning, with two possessing classes in an uneasy alliance with each other, also had played out within the different political parties, which were now splitting to pieces. In addition to these splits from earlier parties, the Republicans also attracted some Northern abolitionists.

While the Republicans promised free land in the territories, helping it solidify a popular base among the small farmers, its basic program promised the policies that Northern capital had been clamoring for: an expansion of the banking system, development of a transportation system tying the country together, specifically the railroads, and protection of the North’s industries, which still needed tariffs. There was nothing in its program that hinted it wanted to eliminate slavery.

Nonetheless, this new party would eventually – and often unwillingly – be drawn into heading the “Second American Revolution,” which eliminated slavery.

By 1856, the promises of free land helped the Republican party to build a solid base among small farmers of the upper Middle West and, to a certain extent, parts of New England. But it was not the dominant party. Even in 1860, when it took the presidency, the Republican Party couldn’t win the majority of the popular vote. But, given the chasm in American society, the Democrats also split in 1860, putting up two candidates: a Northern candidate, who tried a vague appeal to small farmers, as well as the openly pro-slavery Southern candidate. And the South also fielded another candidate – one who claimed to be neutral on the question of slavery. That four-way split thus opened the door for the Republicans to take the White House with only a minority of the votes. (Lincoln had just under 40% of the vote, while the Northern Democrat got about 30% of the vote, and the two Southern candidates together polled only about 30%.)

The Planters Go to War to Keep Slavery

For the slaveholders, the hand-writing was on the wall. By 1860, almost 2/3 of the population lived in the so-called “free states,” with just over a third in the slave states. That disproportion was steadily growing, to the political disadvantage of the South. And a Northern Republican president now would occupy the White House.

On April 12, 1861, Southern troops attacked Fort Sumter, initiating a war whose aim was to convince the North to let the Confederacy secede. Under this scenario, two countries would result, living side by side, supposedly in peace. It was a complete impossibility. The South did not go to war to continue existing only in its original states. It went to war to go on doing what it had been doing within the Union, that is, expanding plantation agriculture and the slavery it needed into new territory. It went to war for land. It went to war to maintain slavery as an institution and slavery of the African-American population specifically. And it intended to have a federal government that had no right to restrict slavery anywhere. It certainly did not intend to support the free distribution of government land to small farmers, with the growing population of the North poised to flood into the territories.

Untrammeled slavery was the South’s goal. Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the new Confederacy, made that explicit in a speech defending the new Confederate Constitution:

“The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions – African slavery as it exists among us – the proper status of the Negro in our form of civilization.... Our new government is founded upon ... the great idea that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that Slavery, subordination to the superior, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new Government, is the first in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

If the North had agreed to let the South secede, the North would inevitably have surrendered the territories, most of which were adjacent to the slaveholding states. Like Kansas, those territories were in the crosshairs of the South’s need for expansion. Those territories, combined with the border states, which did not secede, but which were immediately invaded and occupied by the South, would have given the new Confederacy almost 3/4 of the entire land area of the United States. This territory is what the new Confederacy claimed. The North would have been hemmed in, surrounded by another country that maintained trade with England and France, to the disadvantage of the North’s industries. Even the North’s ports would have stagnated, as the products of Southern agriculture would predominate, building up the ports of New Orleans and South Carolina.

Writing in the early days of the war, speaking about the possibility of there being a peaceful co-existence of two separate countries North and South, Marx wrote: There would take place, not a dissolution of the Union, but a reorganization of it, a reorganization on the basis of slavery, under the recognized political control of the slaveholding oligarchy.... The war of the Southern Confederacy is, in the true sense of the word, a war of conquest for the extension and perpetuation of slavery.”

The North Goes to War to Keep the South with Slavery

In a speech in Boston in 1865, freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass said that the Civil War was begun “in the interests of slavery on both sides. The South was fighting to take slavery out of the Union, the North fighting to keep it in the Union ... both despising the Negro, both insulting the Negro.”

The North made that abundantly clear. Abraham Lincoln’s statements to that effect were well-known and many. The North did not admit that slavery was also its problem. In his 1861 Inaugural Address, before the beginning of the war, Lincoln reassured slaveowners: “I have no purpose directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists; I believe I have no lawful right to do so and I have no inclination to do so.”

Less than four months after the Southern attack on Fort Sumter, the U.S. Senate (now of the Northern Union only), voting 30-5, declared: “The war is not being prosecuted [by the North] for the purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the rights and established institutions [i.e. slavery] of the seceding states.”

Lincoln, as late as two months before he was to announce emancipation, said similar things.

Nonetheless, slavery WAS the issue, and from the beginning. As Marx would put it, a few months after the war started: “The present struggle between the North and the South is nothing but a struggle between two social systems, the system of slavery and the system of free labor. The struggle has broken out because the two systems can no longer live peacefully side by side on the North American continent. It can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other.” (From an article published in Die Presse, Vienna, October 1861.)

The South’s biggest weakness was that the slaves were right there, in its midst. But so long as the North did not move to emancipate the slaves, or even to accept them when they fled, the South could turn its weakness into its strength. The slaves continued to produce what was needed, not only cotton, but foodstuffs, other materials, freeing up Southern whites for the army, even providing necessities for the Southern armies.

But, no, the North did not move to emancipate the slaves. Worse, when three of its generals – Fremont, Butler and Hunter – accepted slaves into their armies, Lincoln countermanded their orders. The generals saw the issue as one of military necessity. Lincoln and the Congress saw it as one of needing to find a way to compromise in a situation where compromise was no longer viable.

Instead of embracing the slaves – the social force that might have given the North mastery – the Republicans at the head of the Northern Union waged only a hesitating, tentative campaign against the rebels. The Union armies returned slaves who escaped from the plantations.

Finally, in February 1862, nearly a year after the beginning of the war, General Grant forbade his officers to return slaves who followed his army. He began to use those who brought themselves into his army’s camp, putting them to work. And he asked those who came in, often with whole families, to organize themselves to solve the problems of their daily lives, foraging what they needed from the Southern plantations.

The action of the slaves pulled some of the poor whites with them. So long as the South seemed to win, there was little active opposition among the poor whites. But conscription and taxes to support the slaveowners’ war rested on the poor whites. Most just deserted, tried to get back home. But some were driven to outright opposition, and some joined the slaves who were fleeing.

By April 1862, Confederate General John K. Jackson reported the existence of guerilla bands – made up of Confederate army deserters and runaway slaves – who harassed Confederate troops or who worked to draw other slaves and deserters into “maroon” colonies in the wilderness. Another Confederate general, about the same time, estimated that North Carolina alone was losing one million dollars in slaves every week.

The Revolutionary Waging of War

Up to this point, the U.S. had witnessed only what Marx called the First Act of the Civil War – a “constitutional War.” But, as he said, the Second Act was now at hand: revolutionary waging of civil war.

In the spring of 1862, Congress passed the Homestead Act, setting aside a portion of public lands for settlers, not just for moneyed interests – land the Northern masses were already rushing to settle.

Congress abolished slavery in the District of Columbia and the nation’s capital.

It declared slavery “forever impossible” in all the territories.

West Virginia, which had seceded from Virginia, was accepted into the Union – after it declared that all slaves within its borders were to be emancipated by stages and that all children born after July 4, 1863, were born free.

General Ulysses Grant declared that all slaves owned by rebels are to be emancipated as soon as they fall into the hands of his army.

The slaveholders had always faced an underground, unremitting resistance by those enslaved. Herbert Aptheker (in Essays in the History of the American Negro, 1954) gives as good a picture as any of this resistance:

“The American Negroes never let the world forget their oppression and enslavement. They purchased their freedom where possible, they killed themselves, they cut off their fingers and hands, they refused to work and were tortured. They fled to swamps and congregated and waged war, they fled to havens of liberty, to invading armies, to the Indians, to the Canadians, to the Dutch, to the French, to the Spaniards and Mexicans, and to the Northern states; and there they went from door to door seeking money wherewith to purchase the freedom of their parents or their wives and children. They went from city to city, these Negroes – Douglass, Still, Allen, Steward, Lane, Bibb, Northrup, Truth, Tubman, Walker, Garnet, Remond, Purvis and a thousand more – explaining, describing, pleading, warning, agitating. They wrote pamphlets and letters and books, telling of the plight of their people, and urging reform or rebellion. They plotted or rebelled, alone or with the poor whites, time and time again; and the corpses of the martyrs were barely cold before others sprang forward to give their lives’ blood to the struggle – Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner and scores upon scores of plain Catos, Gabriels, Jacks, Arthurs, Toms, Peter, Sams, Tonys, Patricks, Greens, Copelands.”

It was, however, with the Civil War and Reconstruction, that such individual heroic acts of the slaves took on a social character, allowing the slaves to step onto the stage of history.

Every move the union armies made, every new area they went into, meant more fugitive slaves: “This was the beginning of the swarming of the slaves, of the quiet but unswerving determination of increasing numbers no longer to work on Confederate plantations, and to seek the freedom of the Northern armies.” So said W.E.B. Dubois, who was to call this the “general strike against the slave system on the part of all who could find the opportunity. The trickling streams of fugitives swelled to a flood. Once begun, the general strike of black and white went on madly and relentlessly like some great saga.”

In August 1862, Lincoln declared that escaped slaves may be militarily organized and sent into the field against the South. By the end of the war, 125,000 of them from the South and 80,000 from the North served in the union armies, fighting in 450 battles.

Then came the battle at Antietam – one of the bloodiest battles of the war. It was an attempt by the South to take Maryland and Baltimore. If successful, it would have opened the way to Washington. It was more or less a draw, a horribly bloody draw, but General Lee was forced to pull back Southern troops. The war would go on for three more bitter and terrible years, but the die had been cast. The South, with its own labor force in open revolt, could not win, and yet it hoped by continuing to fight a defensive war all through the South that the North would eventually tire and let it secede.

Immediately after the battle of Antietam, Lincoln declared Emancipation of the slaves within the Confederate states that were still fighting – but not until January 1, 1863 – still holding out hope that threat alone might bring the slaveowners around. This did not touch the states which the Northern armies already controlled, nor the border states.

Nonetheless, it was the North’s recognition of reality: not only that the slaves ought to be free, and not only that thousands of them had already freed themselves, but that the North could not win the war without them. By that point, perhaps 200,000 slaves were working as laborers in the federal army, also as spies within the Confederacy and guides for union armies. And they worked as foragers, bringing in supplies and arms from Confederate stocks. And they provided what they needed for their own sustenance.

By the end of the war, at least half a million slaves – out of four million – left the plantations. According to U.S. army records, 200,000 more stayed on the plantations, but worked them producing cotton, corn and food for the benefit of the Union army – as well as for the slaves who followed it.

The Southern armies recorded 100,000 deserters. The North also had deserters and disaffection – witness the draft riots of 1863 in New York, which were diverted into a murderous pogrom, organized by local Democrats against the free blacks in the city. There was opposition to the war in the North. But the South was crippled because its own labor force took up arms – military and otherwise – against it.

At War’s End: A Rapid Reintegration of the Confederacy

On May 13, 1865, when the Confederacy admitted military defeat, the revolution that the Civil War had begun was only partially completed. A battle between classes would still be fought out for supremacy: Northern capitalists versus Southern planters; the people of the South – ex-slaves, free black and poor white – versus the planters.

Once again, the North marked time, while the Southern plantation owners moved. Andrew Johnson, who had succeeded the assassinated Lincoln, pushed to re-establish order and to reintegrate the Confederate states back into the Union as quickly as possible. He was supported in this by most of the Congress.

The slaveowners reconstituted the Confederate state legislatures and moved to re-establish order: the old order of the slaveholders. The Southern state legislatures rushed through a series of measures to police the newly freed slaves: the “black codes.” The black codes were a re-establishment of slavery in everything but name. These laws prevented the slaves from leaving the plantations where most of them still lived. Someone without a residence or job – meaning those slaves who had followed the Northern armies – would be charged with vagrancy, bound over to a plantation owner. Apprenticeship and labor contracts were written so as to tie any “free” worker to his boss, usually a plantation owner, effectively for life. There was no vote, and no right for the former slaves to claim any land. Schools that the slaves themselves had begun to set up, often with the aid of Northern abolitionists, were ordered shut down by Southern legislatures. Paramilitary bands – made up of remnants of the Confederate army and of the terrorists the slaveowners had sent to Kansas and other territories – were used against the black population where it organized itself. Those paramilitaries were the beginning of what would become the KKK.

Based on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1865, with its clear abolition of slavery, the South opportunistically and cynically claimed the right to more representatives in what was to be the reunified Congress. The emancipated slaves – who once had been counted only as 3/5 of a person for deciding representation – would now be counted as full persons, giving a state like South Carolina, for example, three or four more representatives. Furthermore, in the years between 1865 and 1868, 44 to 50% of the white people in the North voted Democrat. The South still might turn Congress into its instrument. And the actions by Southern legislatures made clear that the South would use its political power to block Northern capital. Once again, tariffs would be eliminated; the enormous debt the Union had run up to carry out the Civil War would be repudiated, gravely wounding the Northern banks; the national banks set up during the Civil War would be disestablished; and limits would be put on the new corporations set up by Northern industry.

It took almost two years for Northern capital – and the Republican Party that represented it – to recognize that the slaveholders were moving toward reinstituting their old control of the political system, not only concerning the former slaves, but also in ways that threatened Northern capital.

In 1866, the Radical Republicans pushed the 14th Amendment through Congress. It specifically granted the ex-slaves all rights already enumerated in the Bill of Rights or other political instruments. And it also denied political rights to anyone who had participated in the “rebellion.” It would reduce the South’s representatives in a reunified Congress proportionate to the number of people denied political rights. And the amendment declared that neither the war debts rolled up by the Confederacy, nor the losses attributed to the freeing of the slaves could be paid for, either by the U.S. or by any state. It was a direct attack on the South’s wealth, and also on its political establishment.

But that Amendment languished among the states. It took two more years for 3/4 of them to pass it. And even with this direct attack on the Southern establishment, there still was the problem of the South itself.

Who Will Reconstruct the South – For Whose Benefit?

Northern industrialists, and their Republican Party, faced with the continued intransigence of plantation owners, finally faced up to the issue: without the former slaves, Northern capital did not have the means to disestablish the plantation aristocracy working to put itself back in control of the South. The “Radical Republicans,” now moved to the head of the Republican Party. They pushed through the measures that established military rule in the South. The Union armies stationed there rapidly moved to disperse the old Southern state legislatures.

The slaves who had swarmed to the Union armies during the war continued to mobilize. They organized to defend the schools they had set up. They worked to set up more. They took over land, particularly in those states of the deep South, where their numbers gave them the means to act, with less threat of immediate reprisal.

The army reinforced the actions of slaves to take the land, giving them a “temporary” contract, authorizing their right to it. Breaking up the plantations bit by bit, the slaves destroyed the capital that had once been, along with the slaves themselves, the basis of plantation rule. Agriculture began to produce foodstuffs needed by the population, instead of cotton for overseas trade.

The army furthered the development of schools, bringing in women school teachers from New England. In the first year these women – what the South called “carpet baggers” – taught 100,000 children. Of course, there were other “carpetbaggers” – aspiring capitalists, swindlers, money grubbers of one kind or another who saw in the disorganized South a real opportunity. But the ones who were really detested by the plantation aristocracy were those New England women who dared to come down and teach poor Southern children, black and white, and the abolitionists who came down as part of the apparatus set up by the Freedman’s Bureau, organizing hospitals, providing support for the slaves who were beginning to farm, etc. By July of 1870, 4,000 schools had been established and about 1/8 of the children in the South were enrolled in public schools – for the first time ever. Even in the midst of slavery, the slaves had tried to educate themselves and each other. Now they could do it openly.

Northern capital – represented by the radical wing of the Republican party – had come to realize what Lincoln realized in at the end of 1862: that is, the ex-slaves had to be given rights if the slaves were to be used to destroy the hold of the plantation owners over not only the South, but the central government.

The army began to register ex-slaves and poor whites to vote in the South. By 1868, there were 1,363,540 persons registered in the 10 states, over half of them black. In 1860, only 721,191 people had been registered, all white. Those who were registered rushed to vote for state constitutional conventions, that would politically “reconstruct” the Southern states. Those conventions, in 1867-68, had widespread black participation, ranging from a low of 10% of the delegates chosen in Texas, up to 50% in Louisiana and 61% in South Carolina. These were the first relatively free elections to be held in the South. For the first time ever, poor people were voted into office, ex-slave and poor white. From 1869 to 1876, 16 black people were elected as representatives to the federal Congress.

Most of the Southern state legislatures produced by this new electorate organized themselves so the population could take part in their deliberations. They worked to fund the schools, brought up the daily problems confronting the poor population, including simply the lack of food. After ten years of Reconstruction, not only did the South have a much larger percentage of laboring population youth in publicly funded schools than any other section of the country. It was the first section of the country to pass legislation that established education, paid for by the state, as a right for every child.

It took ten years for the Northern bourgeoisie to accomplish what it needed through the actions of the Southern poor and the Army. The plantations had been broken up – their average size being less than half of what it had been in 1860. Capitalist market relations had been imposed on Southern agriculture, and a new merchant class was established in the South that tied Southern agriculture into the domestic market, breaking the South’s commercial ties with England. At the same time, the title of Western lands had been turned over to homesteaders, answering the demands of Northern farmers, and putting up a bulwark against the expansion of plantation agriculture into the territories and new states. The increasing growth of immigration gave the North greater representation in Congress. Finally, Northern industry was free to establish itself in the South – it now had a free labor force that it could exploit just as it exploited Northern labor. And it had an ever-widening banking system, which it controlled.

In order to be admitted back into the Union, the former Confederate states had to ratify the 14th amendment, which denied political rights to the rebels and payment of Confederate debt. With no hope of recovering payment for the debts they had rolled up during the war, and with no reimbursement for their slaves who had been emancipated, the old plantation owners were left relatively impoverished, unable to contest with Northern capital.

The capitalist barons, having established their domination, were ready to make a deal with the planters against the common people. Ten years after they accepted the mobilization of the Southern poor for their own purposes, they now acted to let the poor masses of the South be drowned in blood.

In 1876 – so the story goes – a disputed result in the electoral college led to a forced compromise, the Hayes-Tilden agreement, between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. In order to keep the presidency, the Republicans had no choice – so they said – but to agree to withdraw the army from the South. Without the army, it was obvious that the Southern poor masses and their legislatures were left without protection from a growing KKK. And the Klan went into action with a vengeance.

For nearly ten years, a real popular, democratic form of government had existed in the South, but that isn’t the same as real popular control over the society. The rights the black population enjoyed were ensured by the force of arms – but only by armed forces sent by the North and left in the South so long as this benefitted the Northern ruling class. It was not the population in arms that had defended itself. When the Northern army pulled out, the population would become the victim of a terrible, bloody drive to reinstate control over the laboring population. In 1878, the Federal government tore up the contracts for the land that the army had given the ex-slaves. New black codes were set up, the white Democratic primary established – which let only white voters participate. Chain gangs and sharecropping replaced slave labor in the fields. Both black and white poor suffered.

The other part of the Hayes-Tilden agreement was to give the South two seats on the Supreme Court. One of the first decisions of this new Supreme Court, in 1883, was to rule unconstitutional a civil rights act previously passed by the Congress. It was the final nail in the coffin of the hope that the South could be “reconstructed” democratically, through the ballot box, while leaving in place those who through their hold on the economy still held real power.

The Civil War and Reconstruction was a revolution that settled the bourgeoisie in power. Like all bourgeois revolutions, it was fought by the masses. The slaves, pulling behind them some of the poor whites, destroyed the hold of the slaveowners as such over Southern society, but the poor masses were not able to do it in their own interests. Unable to put themselves forward as a contender for power, the ex-slaves finally saw the fruit of their struggle taken by a bourgeois class now spreading from North to South.

As for the Republican Party, which had for a few years led the struggle against slavery, it now settled down into a very comfortable role as the dominant party in the country, the open advocate for capital. The black population in those areas of the country where black people could vote remained its solid voting base, along with the small farmers. Remembering the role Republicans had played in emancipation and Reconstruction, and remembering the role of the Democrats in imposing slavery and the black codes, the black population provided the margin the Republicans needed, giving them control of Congress and the White House for most of the years up to 1932.

Civil War and the Development of Working Class Struggles

As the result of the Civil War and Reconstruction, capital was left free to impose itself over the whole country. Marx described it thus: the wave of immigration from Europe throws men on the labor market there [in the U.S.] more rapidly than the wave of emigration to the west can wash them away. On the other hand, the American Civil War brought in its train a colossal national debt, and with it, pressure of taxes, the growth of the vilest financial aristocracy, the relinquishment of a huge portion of the public lands to speculative companies for the exploitation of railroads, mines, etc. – in short, the most rapid centralization of capital. Thus the great republic has ceased to be the Promised Land for emigrating workers.” (Capital, Volume I, Part VII, Chapter XXIV.)

The Civil War gave a big push to industry in the North. And it let the Northern capitalists use the government to pay for this vast development. Three-fifths of the cost of building railroads was borne by the federal treasury, for the benefit of private hands. Vast tracts of rich land went to land speculators who, finally, were the real beneficiaries, along with the railroads, of the Homestead Act. The riches embedded in the territory of the U.S. – oil, gold, copper, coal and iron – were handed over to private hands. Lumber, mines – all of it was developed at the public expense. Import taxes were pushed much higher, then diverted to pay for development. Labor was imported, replacing the million dead and disabled lost in the battles of the Civil War. Immigration, which had been about 130,000 a year coming up to 1860, jumped to 460,000 by 1873. And for the first time, a tax was put on wages earned. The conditions under which labor worked and lived in the North were atrocious – and in many ways worse than those in the rural South.

In response to this situation, the Northern working class responded with waves of strikes, the push to organize unions and political parties. What is astounding is to realize that the end of Reconstruction – with the dashed hopes of labor in the South – comes exactly at the moment that labor in the North is beginning that series of struggles that pushed working class organization to the fore: the great railroad strike of 1877, the first struggles for the 8-hour day, the strikes of Pennsylvania coal miners.

And yet, in almost none of these struggles or organizations did Northern labor (that is, almost totally white labor) seem cognizant of the vast social struggle going on in the South.

No, worse than that, the unions that developed during this time let their fears of competition from freed slaves lead them to exclude black workers from their organizations. In 1860, there were 26 trades with national organizations. Every one excluded blacks, the nearly five million North and South; and almost every trade ignored the five million poor white who lived in the South.

Of course, the capitalists were willing to make use of this exclusion and sharpen the bitterness around it, bringing in black strike-breakers during bitterly fought strikes by white labor.

Certainly, this was not every part of the Northern working class movement. For a very brief period starting in 1866, there were some who argued plainly that white labor, even from its own self interest, needed to organize with black labor. There were strikes where white and black labor joined together, even despite the exclusion clauses.

Labor, under capitalism, is always set in competition with itself. To drive down wages, increase the intensity of work, capital pushes worker to compete with worker. There is always a competition between workers, but race or nationality can be used to make the competition more obvious and more deadly for the interests of the working class.

White labor sought to avoid competition by excluding black labor. In so doing, white labor made it easier for capital to turn black labor into a reserve army to be used against organized white labor. As W.E.B. DuBois said about the South, “By keeping the Negro poor, white workers kept themselves poor.”

This competition played out as well on the political field, within the two parties, both representing the interests of the bourgeois class. Northern white labor, hostile to the Republicans who represented the money oligarchy, looked to the Democrats. Southern black labor, kept in slavery by the Democrats, looked to the Republicans. Neither party represented working people.

In 1877, Marx, looking back at the period before the Civil War, affirmed: “In the United States of North America, every independent working class movement was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labor in white skin cannot emancipate itself where labor is branded in black skin.”

But he immediately added: “But out of the death of slavery a new, rejuvenated life sprouted immediately. The first fruit of the Civil War was the eight-hours agitation that strode with the seven-league boots of the locomotive from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California.”

The eight-hour agitation developed, as did many other struggles, but it would take many decades before white labor even began to realize the consequences of its actions to exclude black labor. A working class which is divided in advance gives up its greatest weapons: the awareness of itself as a class, the consciousness that as a class it has the possibility to contend with the capitalist class for power.

It is exactly this possibility that Marx envisioned, the possibility that a unified class could contend for power, and mobilizing its forces, take the power and use it for the benefit of all humanity. It still is the only thing that gives us possibilities a century and a half later. The rule of capital is long overdue to be tossed on the garbage heap – and along with it the remnants of the slavery which gave it birth and nourished it in this country.