The second American revolution

Submitted by Anon on 16 August, 2005 - 10:27

Sacha Ismail begins a series on the US Civil War and its aftermath. This first part deals with the events of the Civil War itself.

One hundred and forty years ago the United States was emerging from a revolutionary conflict the outcome of which would decisively shape its future development. The American War of Independence (1776-83) had liberated Britain's North American settlements from colonial rule. The US Civil War (1861-65) brought even more significant changes, destroying the slave-owning society of the US South and clearing the way for the development of the liberal-democratic industrial capitalism which dominates the world today.

It is important to understand the scale of the military upheaval and social transformation involved. More than 600,000 Americans were killed during the war and 500,000 wounded, only slightly less than the total for World Wars I and II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined; one in ten US and one in four rebel adults males were casualties. When the US government issued its proclamation freeing Southern slaves, this represented the confiscation of over three billion dollars of property — the equivalent of over three trillion dollars today. The main form of property in one-third of a vast country was abolished without compensation. At the same time, four million enslaved human beings became free citizens, with enormous consequences for democracy and class struggle in US society. No wonder Marx thought that “never has such a gigantic revolution occurred with such rapidity”.

Yet the war did not begin as one to abolish slavery, and its outcome did not lead to the consequences for which opponents of slavery had hoped. Understanding why this was so is crucial to understanding capitalism and racism in the US today.

“The irrepressible conflict”

Within a few years of independence, the dominant classes of Britain's former colonies — slaveowning planters in the South and merchants, bankers and to some extent manufacturers in the North — agreed to establish a partnership government for the new nation. The structure of this government was worked out by representatives of this small but wealthy minority at a closed convention in 1787 in the form of a written agreement — the Constitution of the United States.

The framers of this document faced two problems: firstly how to gain the acceptance of the poor farmers and artisans who comprised the majority of the population, and secondly how to ensure that neither partner gained overall dominance in the new government. They managed to achieve both, by combining democratic rhetoric about “popular government” with a political structure that kept popular control to a minimum and used “checks and balances” to keep the Northern and Southern elites working together amicably.

By the 1850s, however, this set-up was breaking down. Until this time, the slaveowners’ Democratic Party had successfully co-opted large sections of the urban and rural poor with racist demagogy directed againt both black people and Northern “business interests”. Now small farmers in the Midwest of the country increasingly provided food and other products for the growing industrial cities of the North, while the cotton crop of the South primarily went not to the North but to the British textile industry. As free farming settlers spread into the unsettled territories further West, they came into conflict with the slaveowners’ desire to expand the area of their “Cotton Kingdom”. Often frontier farmers who had clear the land were pushed or forcibly bought out by slaveholders.

In the 1850s, this conflict erupted into violence in the new state of Kansas, with pro- and anti-slavery forces waging a bloody guerrilla war to gain control of the state government. (The Kansas anti-slavery leader John Brown was executed in 1859 when he attempted to take the struggle South by organising a slave insurrection at Harpers Ferry in Virginia.) Desiring a continued rapid expansion of production, the industrial capitalists now dominant in the North were far less willing than their financial and mercantile predecessors to accept the huge political role played by the Southern slaveowners, whose products were aiding British and not US industry. What the New York anti-slavery politician William H. Seward called an “irrepressible conflict” was developing in US society.

Abolitionists and Republicans

After the War of Independence, antislavery sentiment had been widespread among both farmers and the upper classes. Successive Northern states abolished slavery, and ruling-class critics of slavery hoped that by ending the slave trade they could bring about emancipation gradually. However, the spectcular rise of cotton production killed that illusion. Though Congress declared the importation of slaves illegal in 1808, this did not stop the trade. With slavery more profitable than ever, new ideological justifications for it were advanced, with religious, biological and political racist “proofs” produced of its morality and benefits.

Just as the radicalisation of the first American revolution saw a growth of antislavery sentiment and activities, however, the growing conflict between industrial capitalists and slaveholders in the 1840s and ’50s meant a revitalisation of the anti-slavery movement.

Beginning with a handful of dedicated activists such as William Lloyd Garrison, whose anti-slavery activities in Maryland had earned him a spell in jail for libel, “abolitionist” groups gradually grew until they were a small but significant force even in Congress on the eve of the Civil War. In addition to fighting for total abolition, they organised campaigns around immediate issues such as the existence of slavery in the District of Columbia and the “fugitive slave laws” which forced state governments to capture and return slaves seeking liberty in the North.

No doubt some abolitionists were just well-meaning philanthropists, but many were political militants committed to a revolutionary struggle for human rights (John Brown has already been mentioned). It is also important to remember that many, for instance the outstanding anti-slavery leader Frederick Douglass, were black.

Beyond the abolitionist movement itself, but partly as a result of its infuence, the conflict between industrial capitalism and slavery also had a wider impact on American politics. The shifting of class forces during the 1850s resulted in the breakdown of the old political alignments and the rise of a new force, the Republican Party, which was in essence a coalition between industrial capitalists, the Midwest farmers and certain layers of the artisans and emerging working class. This bloc was built around the slogan “free soil”, meaning an end to the expansion of slavery and the colonisation of the West by free settlers, in addition to tariffs and other measures to aid the development of US capitalism.

These shifts were also reflected in a split within the Democratic Party itself, between Southern hardliners who insisted that every inch of US territory should be open to slavery and more pragmatic Northern politicians. In 1860, there were two Democratic candidates for President, splitting the proslavery vote and allowing the election of the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln. Within a week of Lincoln's election, South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi had announced their secession from the Union (soon to be followed by eight other Southern states), and in April 1861 the new Confederacy began attacking US military targets in the South.

A war against slavery?

The war when it began was explicitly not a struggle for the abolition of slavery. Lincoln himself was personally highly racist; and until the outbreak of hostilities his administration had planned to introduce an amendment to the Constitution making slavery permanent and irrevocable! As late as August 1862 he wrote that “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it. . .”

The demands of the war, however, produced further shifts leftwards in Republican politics. A combination of military defeats, corruption scandals and popular resistance to the draft led to the growth of a Radical wing, who demanded the subordination of everything to the war effort, turning the war into a war of emancipation and even bringing black people into the army. Many of the party’s most prominent Congressional representatives, such as Pennsylvania manufacturer Thaddeus Stevens in the House of Representatives and Charles Sumner in the Senate, were Radicals.

Eventually, Radical pressure forced even Lincoln to conclude that the abolition of slavery was necessary. From the summer of 1862, escaping slaves were no longer returned by the Union army to their confederate owners but put to work as support staff. Then they were accepted into the army and formed into (segregated) regiments. Finally, at the end of 1862, the US government issued the “Emancipation Proclamation” freeing slaves in Confederate territory on 1 January 1863.

Marx saw the freeing of the slaves and the arming of black people as soldiers as the decisive turning point in the Civil War. In the first place, it massively undermined the Confederacy's military infrastructure and augmented the North's forces by turning every Southern slave into a potential Union soldier. By the end of the war, there were more than 125,000 Southern black people fighting in the Union army, as against 80,000 from the North - and the Confederates was so desperate that they promised freedom to any slave who agreed to fight on their side. But emancipation also meant a massive boost to morale among Northern soldiers and citizens, uniting wide sections of the population in what could now plausibly be seen as war of liberation. Lincoln, who had feared that he would be replaced by a Democrat in the 1864 Presidential election, won re-election by a clear margin.

In April 1865, the Confederacy surrendered at Appotomax. The enormous changes which four years of war had accomplished in the societies of both North and South will be the subject of my next article.

Marx on slavery and the US civil war

Karl Marx wrote extensively on the US Civil War, unashamedly championing the cause of the North. Because his articles were written mostly for bourgeois newspapers such as the New York Daily Tribune and the Vienna Presse, they mainly analyse the conflict from a military standpoint, but Marx was very clear about the political importance of the anti-slavery struggle.

In the Communist Manifesto, he and Engels had argued that the genesis of capitalism would have been impossible without large-scale slavery, describing how “the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.” In The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx noted that in the early period of capitalist development “direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you would have no cotton; without cotton you would have no modern industry.”

But far from concluding that these objective economic facts somehow justified slavery, Marx denounced it in the strongest terms, observing with disgust that “when [the slave’s] place can at once be supplied from foreign preserves, the duration of his life becomes a matter of less importance than its productiveness while it lasts. It is. . .a maxim of slave management, in slave-importing countries, that the most effective economy is that which takes out of the human chattel in the shortest space of time the utmost of exertion it is capable of putting forth.” (Capital Volume 1).

Unsurprisingly, Marx regarded the US Civil War as an even of “epochal” importance, describing it as a “world-transforming revolutionary movement” and arguing that following the adoption of emancipation as a Northern war aim, “never has such a gigantic revolution occurred with such rapidity” (letter to his uncle, November 1864). Earlier in the war he had attacked Lincoln's conservatism on the issue of emancipation. It had “smitten the union government with incurable weakness since the beginning of the war, driven it to half measures, forced it to dissemble away the principle of the war and to spare the foe’s most vulnerable spot, the root of the evil - slavery itself.” (Die Presse, October 1861). He commented presciently that “one single Negro regiment would have a remarkable effect on Southern nerves” (letter to Engels, August 1862).

But as we shall see in the next issue, Marx’s main concern was how the working-class movement could take up and champion the fight against slavery cause as a vital part of its own struggle for emancipation.

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