Slavery and the origins of the Civil War

IN DECEMBER 2010, a group of well-heeled South Carolinians gathered in Charleston for a “Secession Ball” to mark the sesquicentennial of their state’s exit from the Union. As partygoers strutted around in period costume—Confederate gray for the men and hoop skirts for the women—one speechmaker announced that the South had seceded “not to preserve the institution of slavery, not for glory or riches or honor, but for freedom alone.”1

Readers of the International Socialist Review might expect the Charleston elite to misrepresent or misunderstand the nature of the Civil War. But the elite are hardly alone. In fact, one hundred fifty years after it began, the Civil War remains one of the most misunderstood episodes in American history. Unfortunately, this is just as true on the left as it is on the right. In a recent Pew poll, 60 percent of Americans under the age of thirty identified states’ rights as a more important cause of the conflict than slavery.2 These results are all the more disheartening when we take into account this generation’s generally progressive political leanings on other issues.

The Pew findings are less surprising when we consider the confusion among even radical historians of the American Civil War. In his otherwise excellent People’s History of the Civil War, for example, David Williams suggests that the conflict had a negligible impact on American society. “Though the Civil War is still viewed by many as the turning point in southern history,” Williams argues, “very little actually changed as a result of the war.”3 Taking a slightly different line, Robin Blackburn—whose writings on slavery are absolutely indispensable for any serious student of Southern society—recently hinted that slavery might have disappeared even if the Civil War had never taken place, and made the enigmatic point that “a willingness on the part of the United States to admit the possibility that the war was not the best response to Secession would be a healthy sign.”4

Both Williams and Blackburn have made huge contributions to our understanding of this tumultuous period in American history. Nevertheless, the analyses quoted above miss the central fact about the American Civil War: it was a violent and thoroughgoing social revolution that overthrew slavery and constituted what was arguably the single biggest step forward in the entire history of American working people.

Fundamentally, it is impossible to understand the American Civil War without understanding slavery. No matter how often the neo-Confederates try to deny it, slavery caused the conflict and remained at the center of national politics throughout the whole mid-nineteenth century period. In order to assess the nature and significance of the Civil War correctly, we need to understand the character of this unusual social system.

How and why did slavery take root in North America? What was the character of slavery as a way of organizing society? What was the relationship between the slaveholding Southern states and the industrializing Northern states? How did slaves and their allies resist the planter class? What role did abolitionism and mass protest play in the coming of the war?

These are the vital questions for Marxists interested in the history of this period. They remain important today because, as I have noted and will argue below, the Civil War does in fact represent the decisive turning point in Southern—and indeed national—history. Understanding the Civil War is vital for understanding American society today—a fact of great importance for those who want to change the world. Moreover, at a time when the eyes of many workers and young people are trained on the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, a correct analysis of the Civil War provides vital tools for examining the dynamics of revolutions today.

The origins of racial slavery
Slavery—the ownership and exploitation of one person by another—is one of the oldest social relationships in human history. Slave labor was the basis for the wealth and prestige of ancient Greece and Rome. But the form of slavery that emerged in Europe’s American colonies was very different from the slavery of antiquity. New World slavery emerged as part of the developing capitalist world economy. It was designed to produce raw materials and staple crops such as cotton, sugar, and tobacco for export back to the markets of Europe. This combination of an archaic labor system and the capitalist profit drive helped to define chattel slavery in the Americas.

Chattel slavery did not arrive in North America as a fully formed or complete system. Rather, it evolved as a result of struggles between the colonial elite and the multiracial popular classes of Virginia and the other British possessions. Less than a generation after the founding of Jamestown in 1607, English colonists had discovered the possibility of making a fortune from the cultivation of tobacco, a luxury product with a huge market in Europe. Potential tobacco planters faced a huge challenge, however. Tobacco cultivation required intensive and disciplined labor, and very few colonists were prepared to work for someone else. They would much prefer to claim their own land from the “wilderness”—in other words, to seize land from the indigenous peoples of Virginia and become independent farmers themselves.

In order to cope with this labor shortage, colonial authorities at first experimented with enslaving Indians. But their dwindling numbers due to disease and the Indians’ ability to escape into familiar surroundings made the planters look elsewhere. They turned instead to indentured servants. These were poor British and Irish working people, including many prisoners, who exchanged passage to North America, and the prospect of a better life, for a fixed term of labor. An indentured servant would contract to work for five or seven years, without pay. They often faced treatment similar to that which we associate with Black slaves, including brutal physical coercion, being bought and sold on the market, and even being used as stakes in games of chance.

The first Africans arrived in Virginia while the system of indentured servitude was at its height. Indeed, not all Africans came to Virginia as slaves. Some labored under the same contracts of indenture as white servants. For the first few decades of the Virginia colony, Black and white servants worked together on the plantations. In many instances they socialized together and even had interracial marriages. The system of racial slavery that would later evolve simply did not exist for the first few decades after Virginia’s founding.

The colonial elite quickly decided that this labor system did not suit their needs. Indentured servants who had seen out their contracts sometimes went on to become independent farmers in their own right and competed with planters for the best land. More significant, however, was the threat of interracial labor rebellion in the tobacco colonies. In 1676 Black and white working people banded together in a major uprising called Bacon’s Rebellion and came close to overthrowing the colonial regime.

In the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion, Virginia’s planters and merchants took steps to prevent any future manifestations of rebelliousness among freemen and interracial solidarity between servants and slaves. They began to pass laws that offered crumbs of privilege to poor white colonists while simultaneously imposing repressive new measures on Blacks. Colonial authorities outlawed interracial marriage and decisively restricted the ability of Black slaves and servants to become free or create any sort of an independent life or culture. In broader terms, the colonial elite began to develop the idea that people of African descent were somehow inherently inferior to white-skinned Europeans. This moment represents the advent of racial ideology as we know it today. Indentured servitude began to decline in importance and enslaved Africans became the predominant source of labor for the burgeoning plantation system in the Chesapeake and South Atlantic colonies.5

Slavery first spread from the tobacco lands of the Chesapeake colonies to the rice swamps of coastal South Carolina and Georgia. It later became the labor system of the sugar plantations of Louisiana. But the institution got its biggest boost at the end of the eighteenth century, with the invention of the cotton gin. This simple machine greatly facilitated the process of removing seeds from cotton, and rendered profitable strains of the crop that grew well across the South. From this point on, the South would become the major source of the raw material that fed the industrial revolution in Northern Europe and the Northeastern United States. Cotton, more than any other product, would make chattel slavery a vital part of the capitalist world system and made possible the integration of the American South into the international market.

Life under slavery
Chattel slavery has often been portrayed as a benevolent and paternalistic system. According to this mythology, masters loved their slaves and treated them as part of an extended plantation family. In return, Black slaves looked up to their owners with devotion and loyalty. As incredible as this nonsense must sound to most progressive-minded people today, this distorted version of history has persisted in some quarters up until the present. Although slavery was an archaic labor system, in its North American context it existed as an integral part of the capitalist world system. Planters raised their crops to sell on the global market and the plantation economy remained tightly interwoven with the emergence of large-scale industrialization in Europe and the Northeastern United States.6

A planter who allowed paternalism to stand in the way of the bottom line was a planter who went out of business. Driven by the profit motive, therefore, American plantation owners used every means at their disposal to extract the maximum labor possible from their enslaved Black workers. Some Southern slaveholders made use of incentives in order to boost the productivity of their slaves. They offered cash payments for extra work, allowed enslaved Black families to cultivate small garden plots, or encouraged the celebration of holidays as a way of blowing off steam. In this sense, chattel slavery did evolve some of the features we associate with wage-labor capitalism. Unsurprisingly, such incentives became particularly important in Southern cities and in the South’s few islands of industrial development. These sections of the Southern economy required a relatively flexible and independent workforce and could not use the rigid forms of plantation slavery.7

For the overwhelming majority of planters, however, physical violence became the most important tool for boosting productivity and maintaining labor discipline. Despite their claims that people of African descent both enjoyed and were naturally adapted to the conditions of plantation labor, slaveholders knew that only force or the threat of force could persuade any human being to endure the terrible demands of cotton cultivation in the South. Planters forced their slaves—including pregnant women, children, and the elderly—to perform backbreaking work in the fields for twelve or fourteen hours per day. Such a labor regime was only conceivable in the context of brutal violence.

The whip has come to represent the everyday violence of life under slavery, and rightly so. Few slaves went through their lives without experiencing this form of punishment at one time or another. The pervasiveness of violence hinged not on the personality of a given slaveholder but on the nature of the system itself. Even those planters who shied away from the most extreme forms of punishment used physical force to discipline their enslaved Black workers. Bennett H. Barrow, for example, was a Louisiana planter who refused to employ an overseer due to their reputation for excessive cruelty toward the slaves. Nevertheless, even this “humane” master’s diary was full of occasions when he indulged in a “general whipping frollick,” beat “every hand in the field,” or attacked a particular slave and “cut him with a club in three places.”8

For enslaved Black women, sexual violence became part of the day-to-day functioning of slavery. Indeed, anyone embarking on a serious study of slavery will be struck by the impression that the sexual exploitation of women’s bodies was almost as much a part of the institution as the exploitation of their labor in the fields. Put simply, rape was endemic to slave society. Despite their paternalistic self-image, male slaveholders clearly saw access to Black women’s bodies as one of the privileges of mastery. The narratives of female slaves provide ample evidence of this tendency. Perhaps the most famous example of this literature is Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which details the author’s constant struggles to evade the sexual advances of her owner. A remarkable example of early American feminist literature, Incidents details not only the insidious rape culture of Southern slavery but also the extraordinary tenacity of one Black woman’s fight to resist it.9

The sectional divide
The first major crisis of slavery came during the American Revolution. Thousands of slaves used the chaos of the war against Britain to flee their masters, and the institution came close to collapse in parts of the Southern colonies. Although no friends of freedom themselves, the British colonial authorities demonstrated a willingness to exploit this slave unrest by offering freedom to any Black people prepared to take up arms against their owners. Tens of thousands did so. Simultaneously, many whites began to wonder whether a new nation supposedly built on liberty could tolerate the existence of slave labor within its borders.10

The American Revolution exacerbated a growing sectional divide over the question of slavery. With the exception of New York City, where slavery had long been an integral part of the economy, the institution had never really taken hold in the Northern colonies, where climate and geography mitigated against the development of plantation agriculture. Most of these states gradually abolished slavery in the years after the revolution, albeit through conservative schemes for gradual emancipation.

In the Southern states, however, slavery was the basis of the power of the patriot leaders. Men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were major slave owners, and they made sure that the new government guaranteed their right to own and exploit other human beings.

Paradoxically, the ideology of the Revolution gave a further boost to the development of racial prejudice. The Declaration of Independence had boldly proclaimed that, “all men are created equal.” But how could such powerful rhetoric have any meaning in a new nation that kept millions of people in chains? The solution to this contradiction was to deny that slaves were people at all. In order to deny Black people access to the promises of the Declaration, it became necessary for American intellectuals to extend and deepen the dehumanizing aspects of radical ideology. In the years after the revolution, therefore, American thinkers made a major contribution to the early development of “scientific” racism—the idea that Black people were naturally and genetically inferior to whites.

Although slavery survived the crisis of the revolutionary years, economic and social changes in the new nation drove a wedge between the free North and the slave South. Free from the control of imperial authorities, the United States intensified its war against American Indians, and thousands of white colonists streamed westward to settle on land stolen from the indigenous people. At the same time, independence gave a tremendous boost to the development of an industrial and commercial economy in the Northeastern states. Soon textile mills, railroads, and canals were spreading across the free states. Meanwhile, in the South, the genocide against the Indians allowed cotton plantations to spread from the eastern seaboard to what we now think of as the Deep South—states like Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

Southern planters were getting richer and stronger, but so too were those in the free states who resented slavery. Antislavery sentiment had its origins in the economic changes sweeping the free states. Small farmers in the West feared the competition from slave labor even while they often harbored virulently racist ideas. Northern industrialists complained that slavery impeded the spread of factories and mills, and argued with the planters over tariff policy. In fact, as early as the 1830s the planter class of South Carolina became embroiled in a bitter dispute over tariff policy that some historians have seen as a “prelude to Civil War.”11

Just as importantly, the worldview of the Northern elite increasingly clashed with the realities of life in the South. Northern industrialists and merchants justified their own wealth and power by celebrating the ability of ordinary people to rise through society and become prosperous farmers or businessmen. The free states, they argued, had no permanent class divisions. This set of ideas, which historians have come to know as “free labor ideology,” reflected both the lived experience of the rising middle classes and also an attempt by employers to head off growing criticisms of the emerging wage labor system. The South, where slaves were stuck in a perpetual state of poverty and exploitation, seemed to violate this free labor ideal.12

Ultimately, while slavery had played a crucial role in the emergence of industrial capitalism across the Atlantic world, it now represented a major obstacle to the bourgeoisie of the free states. The labor system in the South had some things in common with the wage labor system evolving in the North. Both were based on production of commodities for sale on the market, and both rested on private ownership of the means of production. But slaveowners did not purchase the labor power of their workers; they purchased the workers themselves. This discouraged investment in new technology and ultimately hamstrung industrial development in the South.

Slave resistance
Even as some Northerners began to question the legitimacy of slavery, slaves in the South demonstrated that they longed to be free. Indeed, it is impossible to understand Southern society and the origins of the Civil War without reference to the constant struggle—sometimes open, sometimes hidden—between the slaveholders and their enslaved Black laborers. This conflict shaped every aspect of life in the slave states, from the cultural and intellectual tastes of the planter class to the development of mainstream Southern politics.

Slave resistance could be small-scale and informal. Slaves feigned illness or pregnancy to avoid labor in the fields, or broke tools to slow down the pace of work. Sometimes individual slaves fought back when confronted with the violence of an owner or an overseer. In his autobiography, escaped slave turned abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass described how, sick of beatings at the hands of an overseer named Covey, he “resolved to fight.” The experience proved to be a profound one for the young slave. “We were at it for nearly two hours,” Douglass later wrote in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. “Covey at length let me go, puffing and blowing at a great rate, saying that if I had not resisted, he would not have whipped me half so much. The truth was, that he had not whipped me at all.” Douglass had learned that resistance actually worked.

Black women were less likely to directly confront their owners or overseers. Nevertheless, female slaves who worked in the Big House had unique opportunities to strike back against their owners. Cooks and nurses could avoid direct physical confrontation with their masters and mistresses by administering poison to the white household’s food.13

Enslaved African Americans also created a culture of resistance that drew on diverse influences and represented a fusion between African traditions and the customs of both European Americans and Indians. The Br’er Rabbit stories form one particularly rich example of this fusion. The eponymous hero of these folk tales is a small, weak rodent, incapable of physically resisting the much stronger Br’er Bear and Br’er Fox. But Br’er Rabbit always comes out on top in these stories because he is quicker and smarter than his enemies. The Br’er Rabbit stories owe something to “trickster” characters from both African and American Indian cultures; their emphasis on a weaker protagonist outsmarting his powerful foes had an obvious appeal for slaves in the South.14

Christianity played a contradictory role in the lives of slaves. The planters promoted a religious doctrine that emphasized subservience and the duty of slaves to obey their masters. At the same time, however, “slaves distinguished the hypocritical religion of their masters from true Christianity and rejected the slaveholder’s gospel of obedience to master and mistress.”15 In particular, Black Christians looked to the book of Exodus, the story of the successful Israelite slave rebellion and the divine retribution visited upon Egyptian slaveholders.

A common form of slave resistance was simply to run away. The problem was so common—fugitive slaves numbered in the thousands every year—that a Southern doctor gave this peculiar “disease” a name: drapetomania, and recommended as a preventive measure “whipping the devil” out of slaves.16Many planters expressed astonishment that their slaves would run away, some noting that their slaves had been treated well and hadn’t been beaten. These slaveowners could not seem to comprehend the idea expressed by Anthony Chase, a Baltimore slave who escaped in 1827 and wrote in a personal Declaration of Independence, “What can a man do who has his hands bound and his feet fettered? He will certainly try to get them loosened in any way he may think the most advisable.”17

The most spectacular manifestations of resistance were the mass slave revolts that erupted sporadically in the South. Indeed, such revolts began the moment Africans were seized from their homes and sold into slavery. Uprisings took place on many slave ships and even at the West African coastal depots where slaves waited for potential buyers. Major rebellions took place in every slave society across the Americas, from the Caribbean sugar islands to the plantations and mines of Brazil.

A satisfactory treatment of the major uprisings in North America alone would require a much longer article than this. For the purposes of the present discussion it will suffice to mention some of the most famous slave rebellions. The colonial period saw its fair share of insurrections. As early as 1712, two dozen slaves rebelled in New York City and killed several whites before their rebellion was crushed. During the Stono Rebellion, which took place in South Carolina in 1739, insurrectionary slaves killed as many as fifty whites before they were defeated in a pitched battle with the colonial militia.

The first major rebellion of the post-revolutionary era is commonly known as Gabriel’s Rebellion. In 1800, an enslaved blacksmith named Gabriel led a slave conspiracy and insurrection in Virginia. As a trained artisan, Gabriel had valuable skills and enjoyed the freedom to travel the countryside looking for work. His network of rebels encompassed Black boatmen working on Virginia’s rivers, plantation hands, and urban slaves from Richmond. Gabriel also possessed a sophisticated grasp of world politics, and used it to his advantage. One historian has suggested that Gabriel drew inspiration from the French (1789–1793) and Haitian Revolutions (1791–1803), news of which had electrified many Black communities in the 1790s, and ordered his followers to spare the French residents of Richmond. Unfortunately, a major storm hit Virginia on the eve of the proposed uprising and prevented Gabriel’s plans from coming to fruition.18

Less than a decade after the thwarting of Gabriel’s conspiracy, insurrection came to the newly acquired Territory of Louisiana. In 1811, hundreds of slaves rose up on the plantations along the lower Mississippi River—an area known as the German Coast—and attempted to march on New Orleans. This uprising probably had a direct connection to the successful slave revolution in Haiti. Many white planters had fled the rebellion on that Caribbean island and brought their slaves to Louisiana. Some of the leaders of the German Coast rebellion may have taken inspiration from Toussaint L’Ouverture’s victory over the planters of Haiti and attempted to repeat it in Louisiana. Again, however, these rebels suffered defeat at the hands of the better armed and trained white militia.

Nat Turner is undoubtedly the most famous slave rebel of the antebellum era. A Black preacher from Southampton County in southern Virginia, Turner learned to read the Bible at an early age and claimed to have seen visions of a holy war between the slaves and their owners. He became convinced that he had a divinely ordained role in a coming apocalyptic race struggle. In the summer of 1831 Turner and his co-conspirators managed to kill almost sixty white Virginians before their rebellion was crushed. In the aftermath of the insurrection, many Southern states passed laws that forbade anyone from teaching a slave how to read and write.

None of these revolts genuinely threatened the stability of slavery in the South. Whites were always a majority and they could count on the power of the government to crush slave rebellions. Southern planters worked hard to win the allegiance of non-slaveholding whites and eliminate the possibility of another Bacon’s Rebellion. Furthermore, the conditions of plantation life and rural isolation often prevented Black slaves from communicating among themselves, developing a collective sense of their position in society, and coordinating mass resistance. Nevertheless, these insurrections demonstrated that African Americans rejected their enslavement and were waiting for the right moment to throw off their chains.

The failure of the major slave rebellions showed that Southern Blacks would need powerful allies if they were to confront the planters. Such allies were unlikely to come from within the South, however. Although antislavery ideas did exist in the slave states before 1830, the planters had worked hard to repress them. Even non-slaveholding whites had become enmeshed in the patronage networks of the planter class and almost all accepted the basic premises of white supremacy. Slaves would need to look outside of the South for supporters; starting in the 1830s, such allies began to emerge across the North in the form of abolitionist societies.

We have already seen that economic and social changes in the free states were leading many Northerners to question the legitimacy of slavery. The most active and militant of these people organized a social movement dedicated to the immediate abolition of slavery.

Although they formed a tiny minority of the Northern population as a whole, runaway slaves and free Black people formed the rank-and-file of the antislavery campaign. Many were the descendants of slaves who had either escaped from slavery during the crisis of the American Revolution or been freed by the post-revolutionary emancipation laws. In 1827 a group of African Americans in New York began to publish an antislavery newspaper called Freedom’s Journal. Supporters of the newspaper built a network of agents and distributors to agitate for Black rights and in so doing developed the earliest infrastructure of a powerful social movement.19

The most militant and far-sighted Black abolitionists clearly situated themselves in the tradition of the American Revolution and expressed a desire to complete the processes begun in 1776. Many Black antislavery activists undoubtedly hoped that, in the words of one convention, “the laws of our country may cease to conflict with the spirit of that sacred instrument, the Declaration of Independence.”20 In a very real sense, therefore, Black abolitionists understood that they were engaged in the business of making a second American Revolution.

Black intellectual David Walker expressed the revolutionary aspirations of abolitionism as clearly as anyone in the movement. Walker was born in the South before moving to Boston and going into business as a dealer in second-hand clothes. He had been involved in various forms of Black activism throughout the second half of the 1820s before becoming a prominent local supporter of Freedom’s Journal. In 1829, Walker penned a famous pamphlet called An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. Few antislavery documents had such a lasting impact on the movement.21

Walker’s Appeal accomplished a number of important tasks. First, it called attention to the hypocrisy of white America by noting the contradiction between the ideals of the revolution and the realities of life under slavery and racism. Secondly, Walker set out to debunk many of the racist myths associated with proslavery ideology. He noted the achievements of prominent Black men and women, including revolutionary heroes like Crispus Attucks. Finally, the Appeal called on people of African descent to unite in opposition to their oppressors and, if necessary, to organize a new revolutionary movement for racial justice.

The release of Walker’s pamphlet caused mass hysteria in the South. Black sailors with connections to the emerging abolitionist movement distributed it throughout the region. Copies of the Appeal showed up as far away as New Orleans, and caused panic in the planter class. Although it is impossible to say what, if any, impact Walker’s work had on the thinking of the slaves, some historians have speculated that it may have helped influence Nat Turner’s rebellion a few months later. In any case, David Walker himself died under suspicious circumstances not long after the Appeal went public.

Black newspapers like Freedom’s Journal and intellectuals like David Walker convinced radical whites to join the crusade against slavery. Up until this point, conservative and racist ideas had dominated the white antislavery movement. The main antislavery organization, the American Colonization Society (ACS), aimed to end slavery by deporting all free Black people to Africa. African American publications, including Freedom’s Journal and Walker’s Appeal, denounced the ACS as an obstacle to racial justice and demanded that the movement stand for immediate abolition.22 Such demands influenced white sympathizers to reject colonization as an objective for the movement. One such individual was William Lloyd Garrison, who founded the American Antislavery Society after coming under the influence of African American activists.23

The abolitionist movement challenged many forms of oppression. The prominence of Black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass forced many Northerners to reconsider their deeply held racism. Many antislavery organizers challenged the persistence of racism in the Northern states, attacking laws that discriminated against African Americans and, in the case of abolitionism’s most militant wing, demanding that the struggle against racial prejudice was an integral part of the struggle against slavery.

Female abolitionists who resented the persistence of sexism in the movement became the vanguard of the women’s rights struggle. Abolitionism provided one of the few opportunities for American women to play a major role in public life, and a few male abolitionist leaders, like Garrison and Douglass, actively welcomed women’s participation in the movement. But other men strongly opposed women’s role in antislavery organizations and attempted to force them into a secondary role.

The early women’s rights activists were not prepared to accept a subservient position, however. Female abolitionists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Grimké sisters, and Sojourner Truth fought against sexism in the antislavery movement and society as a whole. They organized the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention to demand equal rights for women, including the right to vote. Interestingly, like the early Black abolitionists, these women used the language of the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution to expose the hypocrisy of a patriarchal society.

Before the 1850s, however, the abolitionists remained a despised and isolated minority in the North. Powerful business interests connected the Northern elite to the planter class, and racism remained nearly universal in the free states. In 1835, William Lloyd Garrison narrowly escaped lynching after giving an abolitionist lecture in Boston. Two years later, a proslavery mob attacked and killed the antislavery newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois.

The Republican Party
Events in the 1850s would give the abolitionists a new audience for their ideas and lead to the emergence of a mass movement against slavery. During that decade a national controversy erupted over whether the South’s labor system should be allowed to expand into newly acquired western territories. This issue, more than any other, would create an antislavery majority in the free states and thereby convince the planters that their position in the Union was untenable.

Ironically, the planters’ own greed and land hunger helped to detonate the crisis of the 1850s.

Southern politicians and their Northern sympathizers had been agitating for a war with Mexico since the 1830s. White settlers in Texas—including many slaveholders—had already fought and won a secessionist war against the Mexican government. The Southern elite hoped to annex not only Texas but also lands further to the west, including New Mexico, Arizona, and California (they also had their eyes on Cuba). They felt that the climate in at least some of these regions might lend itself to the expansion of slavery.

The expansion of slave territory was an economic and political imperative for the slave system. The soil exhaustion caused by the plantation system, as well as the relatively low productivity of forced labor, compelled planters to seek new lands to exploit. The slave system hindered technological development and investments aimed at raising agricultural productivity. As a result, planters “maintained or expanded production by buying more slaves and placing them on richer land.”24

Not only would expansion allow planters to escape the soil degradation caused by plantation agriculture, the addition of new slave states would preserve the planters’ political power. For decades the slave power had dominated politics in Washington, ensuring the protection of their interests. If several new slave states joined the Union, planters would hold a permanent majority in the Senate and could prevent antislavery Northerners from passing bothersome legislation.

Planters had another reason to desire the westward expansion of slavery; they feared that the presence of free territory on their borders would provide both an inducement for runaway slaves and a haven for those who had already escaped. Slaveholders in the Deep South had witnessed this first hand when the newly independent nation of Mexico abolished slavery and quickly became a magnet for Black fugitives. The same process took place in slave states that bordered the North. Ultimately the planters feared that communities of escaped slaves and free Black people living beyond the borders of the South would foment slave insurrections.

President James K. Polk made the perfect representative for the planters’ designs. A Tennessee slaveholder, he had won the Democratic nomination for the election of 1844 after defeating antislavery candidate Martin Van Buren at the party convention. Polk won the support of the South after coming out strongly in favor of the annexation of Texas and narrowly beat the Whig candidate Henry Clay in the national election. Once in office, Polk did his utmost to provoke a war with Mexico and thus justify the seizure of the territory between Texas and the Pacific. He sent troops across the Rio Grande into Mexican territory and, when Mexican troops responded, persuaded Congress to declare war in 1846. Over the next two years, American troops conquered New Mexico, facilitated an anti-Mexican revolt in California, and briefly occupied Mexico City. The infamous Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war, ceded fully half of Mexico to the United States, which grew in size by a third as a result of its conquests.

Although many Northerners opposed the war with Mexico and saw it as nothing more than a power grab on the part of the planters, Northern farmers and investors had their own plans for the western territories. As we have already seen, the idea of social mobility was central to the self-identity of the free states. Free labor ideology held that a young man would start out by working for wages, save enough money to buy property of his own, and eventually become an employer of labor in his own right. But this ability to rise rested on the existence of “free” land in the West. If slaveholders were seizing all of the lands west of the Mississippi, the North would lose an important safety valve for its rapidly expanding population and might begin to develop the sort of “permanent” class divisions seen in the industrializing nations of Europe.

A furious political controversy thus followed right on the heels of the victory over Mexico. Northerners demanded legislation guaranteeing that slavery would not spread into the former Mexican possessions, while Southerners raised the prospect of secession for the first time. Senior politicians on both sides of the sectional divide were able to paper over the dispute with a series of laws called the Compromise of 1850, but even these palliative measures only postponed the final reckoning. In fact, the compromise actually exacerbated the tensions in certain important ways. It included, for example, a Fugitive Slave Act that made Northerners responsible for apprehending runaways who made it to the free states. Over the next few years, abolitionists would frequently confront slave catchers who came North in search of Black fugitives.

The showdown over westward expansion came in Kansas. In 1854 the western territories of Kansas and Nebraska were ready to begin the path to statehood. Northerners and Southerners agreed that slavery was unlikely to flourish in Nebraska, but both sides hoped to win Kansas for their own way of life. Thousands of antislavery New Englanders and proslavery Missourians flooded into Kansas after 1854. Violence erupted when proslavery thugs attacked the antislavery settlement at Lawrence. In retribution, an antislavery militant named John Brown ambushed proslavery settlers at Pottawatomie Creek, killing five. The violence even spread to the halls of Congress, where South Carolinian Representative Preston Brooks viciously beat antislavery Senator Charles Sumner.

Before the events in Kansas, the two-party system had largely kept the issue of slavery out of the political arena. The two main parties, the Whigs and the Democrats, had conspired to keep the slavery controversy out of Congress as far as possible. Both parties straddled the sectional divide and focused their policy debates on matters other than slavery. But in the aftermath of the debates of 1850 and the crisis in Kansas, the façade began to crack. The Democrats and Whigs found their parties riven by debates and dissension along sectional lines. A new third party, the Republican Party, grew out of the mass movement that emerged in the North in response to the fighting in Kansas. The Republicans ran their first candidate for president in 1856; pledging to prevent the spread of slavery, they captured a third of the popular vote.

The 1850s were a decade of deepening politicization and radicalization across the Northern states. Thousands of people who had never been politically active before were drawn into debate, activism, and organizing. Some took part in mass actions to halt the work of slave catchers; others participated in meetings to protest the actions of proslavery settlers in Kansas. In this context an open break between the sections began to seem inevitable.

No one represented the growing polarization in American society better than John Brown. We have already seen his spectacular emergence onto the national political scene during the crisis in Kansas, but even the Pottawatomie Creek Massacre did not satisfy Brown’s hunger for violent retribution against the planter class. For years he had campaigned tirelessly against slavery, utterly convinced that Southern society violated the most elementary principles of Christian morality and natural justice. Few white abolitionists committed themselves to the cause of African Americans with the same ferocity of John Brown, and in 1859 he struck one of the decisive blows in the coming of the Civil War. In that year, Brown led a group of Black and white antislavery militants on an armed raid against the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. He hoped to seize weapons and spark a major slave insurrection across the South; and while the mission ended in disaster, the subsequent trial and publicity convinced many Southerners that their way of life was not safe as long as they remained in the Union.25

Unlike John Brown, most Republicans were not abolitionists. They did not intend to launch an immediate attack on slavery and seriously doubted the constitutionality of federal interference in Southern affairs. But they did hope that restricting the spread of slavery would, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, put the institution on “a course of ultimate extinction.” Thus, when Lincoln won election as the first Republican president in 1860, the states of the Deep South had little hesitation in seceding from the Union. Even if the Republicans had pledged not to interfere with slavery directly, the planters knew the Republican victory would encourage slave resistance and lead to the spread of abolitionist ideas in the South. South Carolina left the Union in December 1860, and by the following June it had been joined by ten other Southern states.

These states seceded not to defend abstract principles like states’ rights or “freedom,” but to preserve the brutal system of human slavery. In March 1861, Alexander Stephens, vice president of the newly formed Confederacy, expressed a simple truth about secession. Slavery, Stephens noted, “was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.” Referring to the new Confederate government, Stephens stated, “its corner-stone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, 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.”

When the Civil War commenced in April 1861, the issue of slavery again forced its way to the surface. The North fought initially with the intention of doing nothing more than preserving the union without touching the institution of slavery. Yet the logic of events drove things much further. So long as the war was fought along these lines, the North fought tentatively. As the war dragged on, however, it became clear that only a total war that aimed at destroying slavery at its roots would allow the union to be restored. Thousands of slaves fled to Northern lines and volunteered to fight against their former owners, and Lincoln came to realize that the North could not win without their aid. The process of war, emancipation, and Reconstruction that followed would constitute the second American Revolution.

By tracing the origins of the American Civil War, we are tracing the origins of what Marxist historians refer to as a bourgeois revolution. Although slavery had been instrumental to the initial rise of capitalist industry in North America, and indeed across the Atlantic World, it had by the mid-nineteenth century become a major impediment to the continuation of that process. The planters’ political power prevented the unification of the nation under a strong central government with the ability to implement an economic policy that would stimulate industrial development. And although slavery generated enormous wealth and power for the planters, it did not lead to the same substantial industrial and commercial growth as had taken place in the free states. Slavery had become a fetter on the development of industrial capitalism in the United States, and its destruction vastly accelerated that development.

Simple laws of economic motion could not generate a revolution on their own, however. That would require the active intervention of organized revolutionaries. The slaves could not overthrow the planter class on their own. The second American Revolution combined both elements of revolution from above—a war organized and led by Lincoln and his government—as well as revolution from below, characterized by the “general strike” of slaves and their active involvement as soldiers, spies, and helpers in the Union army. Blacks also made, in the years leading up to the Civil War, the decisive contribution to the building of a mass revolutionary movement. Black activists, many of them refugees from the South, initiated and maintained the abolitionist movement during the dark days of the 1830s and 1840s, and ultimately guided it to the point where it could gain significant popular influence in the 1850s. Antislavery activists powerfully stimulated and exacerbated the tensions between North and South, and helped to provide an ideological standard to unite the forces struggling against slavery.

One hundred and fifty years after the first shots of the Civil War, therefore, this period of history contains important lessons for today. It demonstrates the extent to which racism and white supremacy permeated American society from its very inception, but also the ways in which the most oppressed and exploited can fight back and challenge it.

  1. “Spirit of the South still stands as South Carolinians mark 150 years of secession,”Guardian, December 21, 2010.
  2. Pew Research Center, “Civil War at 150: still relevant, still divisive,” April 8, 2001,
  3. David Williams, A People’s History of the Civil War (New York and London: New Press, 2005), 493.
  4. Robin Blackburn, “The Civil War: an eerie silence,” Counterpunch, April 18, 2011,
  5. For a valuable account of the origins of racial slavery in Virginia, see Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom (New York: Norton and Co., 1975). See also, Lance Selfa, “Slavery and the origins of racism,” ISR 26, November–December 2002.
  6. The classic account of slavery’s place in the global capitalist economy remains Eric Williams, Slavery and Capitalism (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1944 [repr. 1994]).
  7. Two important works on urban and industrial slavery are Richard Wade, Slavery in the Cities: The South 1820–1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964) and Robert S. Starobin, Industrial Slavery in the Old South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970).
  8. Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South (New York: Random House, 1956), 186.
  9. Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (New York: Simon and Brown, 2011).
  10. A good discussion on the issue of slavery in the American Revolution can be found in Gary Nash, Race and Revolution (Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1990).
  11. William W. Freehling, Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816–1836 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
  12. On the social and economic origins of free labor ideology, see John Ashworth, Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic Volume 1: Commerce and Compromise, 1820–1850 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995) and Eric Foner,Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party and the Civil War(New York: Oxford University Press, 1970).
  13. Deborah Gray White, Arn’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: Norton and Co., 1999), 79.
  14. On the persistence of African cultural traditions in the slave states, see, for example, John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South(New York: Oxford University Press, 1972).
  15. Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South(New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 294.
  16. Stampp, Peculiar Institution, 109.
  17. Ibid, 123.
  18. Douglas Egerton, Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993).
  19. Timothy Patrick McCarthy, “To plead our own cause: Black print culture and the origins of American abolitionism,” in McCarthy and John Stauffer (eds.), Prophets of Protest: Reconsidering the History of American Abolitionism (New York: New Press, 2006).
  20. Patrick Rael, Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 263–66.
  21. The best account of Walker’s life and thought is Peter P. Hinks, To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997).
  22. McCarthy, “To plead pur own cause,” 130–31.
  23. On Garrison, see Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: Norton and Co., 1998).
  24. Bruce Levine, Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of the Civil War (New York: The Noonday Press, 1992), 42.
  25. Truman Nelson, The Old Man: John Brown at Harper’s Ferry (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009).


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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