Saturday, January 18, 2014

The American South: Dark Dreams of Slavery and Empire

Walter Johnson has produced a fascinating and illuminating history of the lower Mississippi Valley from the time of the Louisiana Purchase to the beginning of the Civil War in River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. Johnson eloquently describes the consequences for both slave and free white of basing a society and an economy on slavery. The economic issues have been discussed previously in The Cotton Kingdom: Slavery and Economics

One of Johnson’s more surprising revelations was that in the decades leading up to the Civil War Southern energy was focused not only on sectionalism within the boundaries of the United States, but also on building a slavery-based empire where white (Anglo-Saxon) supremacy would thrive. This empire was intended to spread throughout the Americas. This ambitious dream of empire will be the topic here.

It is useful to make a brief diversion to learn more about these would-be empire builders.

Colin Woodard has provided one of the more thought-provoking histories of our country in American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. His book elaborates on this theme:

"America’s most essential and abiding divisions are not between red states and blue states, conservatives and liberals, capital and labor, blacks and whites, the faithful and the secular. Rather our divisions stem from this fact: the United States is a federation comprised of the whole or part of eleven regional nations, some of which truly do not see eye to eye with one another."

These regional "nations" were formed by the disparate groups who immigrated to this continent and established in their region the culture and values with which they arrived. Woodard makes a solid case that those distinct cultures have persisted up to current times.

"All of these century-old cultures are still with us today, and have spread their people, ideas, and influence across mutually exclusive bands of the continent. There isn’t and never has been one America, but rather several Americas."

Woodard provided this representation of the various "nations."

The people who formed the Deep South, and whose values are presumably still represented in the region, are those who would form the "Cotton Kingdom" and be the major players in Walter Johnson’s tale. Let us learn more about them from Woodard.

"The founding fathers of the Deep South arrived by sea, their ships dropping anchor off what is now Charleston in 1670 and 1671….they had not come directly from Europe. Rather, they were the sons and grandsons of the founders of an older English colony: Barbados, the richest and most horrifying society in the English-speaking world."

The Barbadian plantation owners were unable to find workers who would endure the conditions of plantation labor. They tried everything including the kidnapping of children. Eventually, they settled on the importation of African slaves to work their fields.

"The planters’ solution was to import shipload after shipload of enslaved Africans, whom they treated as fixed possessions, like their tools or cattle, thereby introducing chattel slavery to the English world."

"The Barbadian planters’ wealth was based on a slave system whose brutality shocked contemporaries."

Slavery was common throughout the colonies at the time, but the Barbadians established the economic principle holding it to be more efficient to work slaves to death and replace them as needed with fresh Africans than to let slaves survive and reproduce themselves.

Eventually the planters’ descendents became too numerous to be absorbed by the limited land available on Barbados. At that point they dispersed and spread their "culture" to other areas, including the southeast coast of the current United States. From there they would spread and dominate the region Woodard refers to as the Deep South.

Johnson begins his narration with the Louisiana Purchase. This provided large amounts of fertile land to those who had money to spend and the means to develop the land. Given that there was an enormous amount of labor involved in clearing and leveling wooded areas, and a difficult climate in which to work, the people in the best position were slave owners. The new lands became dominated by a plantation economy. New, more productive strains of cotton became available along with more efficient ways to cultivate and harvest it. This increased efficiency combined with the introduction of steamboats on the Mississippi River to make the Mississippi Valley an agricultural powerhouse. In the first half of the nineteenth century, trade in cotton became one of the largest sectors of the world economy and the Mississippi Valley, the "Cotton Kingdom," provided most of the world’s supply.

This might have been a period of great wealth for the region, but the insistence on devoting the entire economy to slave-produced cotton created problems. The region became a land of a few wealthy planters amidst widespread deprivation. Since 1808 the importation of slaves into the Unites States had been forbidden. This meant that slaves had to be obtained internally through a market which moved slaves from the upper South to the lower South. The plantation system of the Deep Southerners still believed in the efficiency of consuming slaves faster than they could reproduce and buying new ones to replace the shortfall. However, the cheap African source was no longer available and the market price of slaves went quite high as some areas became equivalent to "slave farms" breeding slaves for sale rather than for labor.

The Mississippi Valley society was based not only on slave labor, but also on the principle of white supremacy. Slavery not only eliminated potential jobs that poor whites might have needed, but also, the dictates of white supremacy made labor that could be done by slaves inappropriate for whites. The desired way to "make it" in Southern society was to accumulate the wherewithal to acquire a slave. The lack of a broad-based economy and the rising price of slaves left non-slaveholders in a kind of limbo from which there was no apparent escape. Since these slaveless whites were the majority of the white population this placed society in a rather unstable condition. Those with wealth worried not only about rebelliousness of the large number of slaves, but also about the reliability of the similarly large number of less-fortunate white neighbors.

For such a societal structure to persist it must have some sort of intellectual underpinning to provide justification. A combination of Biblical interpretation and amateur eugenics provided justification for enslaving black Africans. Basically, the logic consisted of the claim that if you are a slave, and you act like a slave, then you must have been intended to be a slave.

In order to foster dreams of empire and provide slaveholders with a lofty place in the order of things, a place in history must be determined. Given that the Deep South viewed labor as something to be done by slaves, it was not very difficult to derive an historical perspective that enshrined that concept into the story of human progress. Johnson quotes from the writings of Chancellor Harper of South Carolina to illustrate where this reasoning could lead.

"Harper began from the premise that ‘the institution of slavery is the principle cause of civilization.’ He based that statement on a remarkable reworking of the labor theory of value. His formulation went roughly as follows: (1) ‘Labor is pain’; (2) ‘Man is averse to pain’; (3) ‘He will not [willingly] labor beyond what is absolutely necessary to maintain his existence’; (4) ‘The coercion of slavery alone is adequate to form man to habits of labor. Without it there can be no accumulation of property, no providence for the future, no tastes for elegancies, which are characteristics and necessities of civilization.’ For Harper civilization was surplus—the margin that could be extracted from laboring humanity beyond what was necessary to the bare reproduction of the population."

Given such a view of the place of labor in a society, the answer to the South’s economic and social problems was not to create a system that provided remunerable work for all citizens, but to create an environment whereby all whites could afford to have slaves to perform necessary labor for them. The path to salvation required reopening the slave trade from Africa and acquiring more territory so that all members of the white (Anglo-Saxon) race could possess land and slaves to work it. This master race required Lebensraum.

Johnson maintains that the Civil War and the secession of the Southern states that initiated it created a false impression of what had been important to the South in the preceding years.

"….the late 1850s, the high point of sectional thinking,, produced an acute awareness of differences within the South—of regional differences, of class differences, and an emergent contradiction between the privileges of race and those of slavery, a contradiction that could not be solved within the confines of the existing political economy of slavery. This unevenness within the South led slaveholders and nonslaveholders alike to seek solutions outside the boundaries of their region and of the United States (and thus outside the boundaries of standard historical accounts)."

If your economy is based on the north and south flow of goods on the Mississippi River and your de facto capital is New Orleans, an expansionary gaze will settle on Central and South America. These regions held plenty of fertile land just perfect for the existing plantation system.

The fact that many of these regions already practiced slavery under European dominance was of little consequence in Southern thinking. Johnson quotes from the writings of William Walker:

"The Central American republics were inhabited by Indians and Negroes and governed by the ‘mongrel’ offspring of the union of European and Indian. They were, that is to say, racially degenerate, incapable of self-government in both the sexual and political sense, ‘enfeebled’ and ‘semi-barbarous’."

"Warmaking, according to Walker and his supporters, was the particular province of Anglo-Saxons."

Interest became focused on the immediate goal of taking control of Cuba. Cuba was thought to provide an avenue of escape from the dominance of New York in the east-west trade with Europe. With control over Cuba, a New Orleans to Havana to Europe path could supersede the current one that required transit to Europe via New York.

It was also feared that if action was not taken to maintain Cuba’s steadfastness as a white-controlled slave state it might fall into the hands of the abolitionist British, further isolating the slave South. Cuba had seen its share of slave-revolt scares; the South feared what a successful revolt might incite within their own territory.

This aspiration was referred to as "liberating" Cuba.

"….the proponents of Cuban ‘freedom’ generally had in mind three things: preserving slavery, reducing the taxes paid by slaveholders and merchant capitalists, and promoting free trade…."

The South was ready to take action. In 1851 it contributed men and monetary backing to General Narcisco Lopez for an invasion of Cuba. It was assumed that a small band could be allied with revolutionaries already in action on the island and Spanish rule would be overthrown.

"When he left New Orleans….thousands of supporters had turned out to cheer him and his small army of American adventurers, Cuban expatriates, and European revolutionaries as they began a mission that many believed would determine the future of New Orleans, the Mississippi River Valley, the United States, and even the world."

The mission was a disaster. Lopez was soon captured and executed, and his troops were killed, captured, or stranded on the island. The dream did not die there. In 1854, John Quitman, former governor of Mississippi, was recruiting men and acquiring funds for a more ambitious invasion.

"By the end of 1854, Quitman was said to have raised $1 million and secured the promises of 50,000 young men for his invasion."

But it was not to be. Quitman was invited to a meeting in the White House with the President; a word to the wise was apparently sufficient and his invasion plan faded away.

Nicaragua also fell into the sights of the Southern expansionists. With its relatively easy transit to the Pacific it could provide access to Asian markets for the products of the slave empire.

In 1855, William Walker, a "soldier of fortune" arrived in Nicaragua with a small band of mercenaries to participate in a civil war that was underway at the time. By June of 1856, he had managed to get himself elected President of Nicaragua. In the short time he was in office:

"….the set of policies he instituted were unabashedly designed to transfer property from the inhabitants of Nicaragua to immigrants from the United States. "

"’The general tendency of these several decrees was the same,’ he later explained. ‘They were intended to place a large proportion of the land in the hands of the white race.’….Finally, Walker (re)legalized slavery in Nicaragua and reopened the African slave trade…."

Walker was soon booted out and returned to the South a hero.

"In Nicaragua under Walker, the Southern dream of an empire of commercial flows, which had been dominant in the propaganda surrounding the invasion of Cuba, blossomed into a full-fledged program of territorial aggrandizement."

Walker came to an ignominious end. His invasion to retake control of Nicaragua in 1860 was as farcical as that of the Lopez expedition to Cuba. Walker was captured and immediately executed before even reaching his target.

By that time Southerners were being overcome by the events leading to the Civil War. Dreams of empire were extinguished ultimately on the field of battle.

What is so striking about this tale of unsatisfied yearning for a realm in which white supremacy and black slavery would coexist in a kind of paradise on earth is the presumed foreignness of the entire concept to anyone but a Southerner of the period. One would hope that these attitudes and aspirations were an aberration caused by perverse and unique circumstances—never to reoccur.

On the other hand, we have Colin Woodard’s claim that the cultures of the various regions have been retained for centuries. He provides this warning:

"The goal of the Deep South oligarchy has been consistent for over four centuries: to control and maintain a one-party-state with a colonial-style economy based on large-scale agriculture and the extraction of primary resources by a compliant, poorly educated, low-wage workforce with as few labor, workplace, safety, health care, and environmental regulations as possible."

Woodard seems to have made his point.

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