Friday, April 16, 2010

Industrialization, Slavery, and The Civil War

Ta-Nehisi Coates cites this quotation:
Many Southerners I think really want to believe that they would have become enlightened on their own in time.

And then adds:
But I think, it also helps to think of the Civil War as having three factions with three different aims:

1.) The South which secedes explicitly to protect the institution of slavery and a system of white supremacy, but also feels that its "way of life" is fundamentally different from the North's. It's true that slavery and systemic white supremacy are essential cogs in that "way of life," but they aren't the entirety of it.

2.) The North which is interested, primarily, in preserving the Union. If destroying slavery will help in that end, then all the better--but destroying slavery is not the primary goal. This is crucial and I want to clear, because it's easy to conflate this--That the North is primarily motivated by unionism, not emancipation, does negate the fact the South seceded--primarily and explicitly--to preserve systemic white supremacy. Their own documents tell the tale well. Additionally, the North almost certainly, brings its own cultural baggage and biased judgement on the South's "way of life."

3.) African-Americans who explicitly sought the destruction of slavery and the end of systemic white supremacy. The African-American war against slavery began as soon as we got of the boat. In relevance to the Civil War, you can likely trace it back to Denmark Vessey, Gabriel Prosser, Nat Turner, and John Brown. But that only counts militant action, and ignores the small everyday acts of resistance (loafing around, breaking equipment, running off for weeks at a time) and individual acts of violence (poisonings, for instance.)

Long-time readers of this blog undoubtedly know what FLG is going to bring up here. This is all off-point and it's really about the Industrial Revolution. Unfortunately, FLG can seem to find the slew of posts where this theory was originally discussed and debated by numerous parties on this blog, so he'll summarize it again here.

The Industrial Revolution replaced energy provided by animate sources -- man and beast -- with inanimate energy -- steam, water, etc. To put it simply, the Industrial Revolution made slavery irrelevant in the long run. This insight is usually confused by the case of the cotton gin, a technology that increased the demand for slavery in the short run, but ultimately the Industrial Revolution provided a solution to the economic case for slavery.

Britain, the first to industrialize, was the first to abolish slavery. What's relevant to the American Civil War case is that the North was Industrialized while the South wasn't. But even more broadly -- slavery existed since time immemorial, but was only abolished when Industrialization happened.

Therefore, FLG kind of agrees with the idea that the South would've abolished slavery on their own once widespread industrialization began to take place. And Ta-Nehisi's points, while interesting in their own right, are really micro-level issues, but most people think them macro-level because they're macro in terms of political issues. The real story is economic, and once you view it through that lens even the North's so-called enlightenment doesn't look so enlightened or courageous.

A Note: This isn't to say that particular people in the Underground RR or abolition movement weren't courageous or enlightened, but society made the abolition decision only after it no longer needed slavery. Society abolished slavery, which was always morally abhorrent, only when it was economically convenient, regardless of the particular actors who worked to manifest abolition.


George Pal said...

“The South which secedes explicitly to protect the institution of slavery and a system of white supremacy...”

One minor quibble; the North was more than a little acquainted with systemic white supremacy and proved it during and well after the War of Northern Aggression. The Indian Wars of The West and Southwest, some contemporaneous with the WoNA belie the suggestion that white supremacy was inherently Southern and absent from the North. Why the incessant demonizing of the South and continual absolution of the North?

FLG said...

Hey man, I wrote:
North's so-called enlightenment doesn't look so enlightened or courageous.

Withywindle said...

"The North which is interested, primarily, in preserving the Union. If destroying slavery will help in that end, then all the better--but destroying slavery is not the primary goal."

This obscures 1) the abolitionists; and 2) that the north insisted on preserving the Union on terms (forbidding the expansion of slavery) that the South considered unacceptable.

George Pal said...


I got that.

I just thought Coates' citation regarding white supremacy deserved a more forceful condemnation.

The Ancient said...

1) Absent William Wilberforce, how long would it have taken for Britain's industrialization to have hastened the demise of (or demand for) slavery?

(I think: a very long time.)

2) Technology cuts both ways. If Whitney hadn't come up with the cotton gin, would slavery in the Deep South have been feasible on such a broad scale? Or the peonage that replaced it? I don't see that the Industrial Revolution *ever* produced a solution -- unless you mean the post WW2 migration to Detroit and other cities in the North where factory jobs were suddenly available.

3) Discussions of divergent Northern and Southern interests in the decades leading up to "the late unpleasantness" commonly ignore how much the economy of New York City (and the fortunes of its rich) benefited from slavery. Many of those houses on Washington Square were built with money derived from the cotton trade.

4) Lincoln failed to carry his hometown in 1860 -- not because he was thought too sympathetic to the abolition movement, but rather because the local population had better "anti-black" candidates available to them. The percent of the Northern population willing to risk anything of their own in the cause of abolition was very, very small -- at least in 1860.

5) There's a funny moment in the movie Gettysburg where Longstreet turns to Lee and says, in effect, "We should have freed the slaves and then seceded." I don't know whether any conversation like this ever took place, but it does illustrate how delusional many Southerners were. (Item: Jefferson Davis was surprised to return to his plantation and find his slaves gone and his house burned. He thought he had been a kind master and that his slaves loved him. Go figure.)

The Ancient said...

P.S. On reflection, I think the line given to Longstreet was, "We should have freed the slaves and then fired on Fort Sumter." (Which is, of course, much better in several ways.)

On the same subject, see this:

Withywindle said...

Re William Wilberforce, or by extension abolitionism more generally: I would phrase it that once industrialization makes slavery a marginal economic interest, it becomes possible for a humanitarian appeal to abolish slavery. I would take "possible" to include the possibility of some non-Wilberforcian reason to abolish slavery, but also the possibility of some terribly long endurance of slavery.

Re the American South: I continue to think that one of the alternate-history models should be some sort of Northern Ireland writ very large. (Actually, it already is/was a Northern Ireland writ large, but variations on a theme.)

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