Workers Vanguard No. 944
9 October 2009
Slavery and the Origins of American Capitalism
We print below, in slightly edited form, the third and final part of a presentation by Jacob Zorn to a Spartacist League educational in New York on 30 March 2008. The first two parts were published in WV Nos. 942 and 943 (11 September and 25 September).
One way of contrasting the American Revolution to the French Revolution is to look at the case of Tom Paine. In the American Revolution, he was the far-left wing. But when he went to France, while he supported the French Revolution, he ended up essentially on the right wing of the revolution. It wasn’t his ideas that changed so much as the context. And when the Haitian Revolution erupted in 1791, even the elements of the American Revolution that supported the French Revolution, such as Jefferson, hated the Haitian Revolution and wanted to drown it in blood, because they saw in it a spectre that would threaten slavery in the South. Interestingly, Hamilton was one of the more open to recognizing Haiti as an independent country, partly because he hated France. Also, it’s interesting that the leaders of the American Revolution who were the most anti-slavery—Alexander Hamilton and Tom Paine—were not really American in the traditional sense. Tom Paine had just come over from Britain, and Hamilton was from the West Indies.
I do not want to suggest that the American Revolution was nothing more than a pro-slavery rebellion. As the article on Haiti points out, “To be sure, some radical elements in the American Revolution, including Thomas Paine, denounced slavery as a moral evil and called for its abolition. And Jefferson himself was well aware—and was constantly reminded by his liberal and radical English and French friends—that black chattel slavery was blatantly incompatible with the democratic principles he so eloquently proclaimed” (WV No. 764, 14 September 2001).
The common way liberals and idealists deal with this problem, especially with Jefferson, is to say that the ideals of Jefferson transcended the reality of Jefferson (and other founders)—that this was their own personal weakness. But in reality, whatever his personal weaknesses, Jefferson’s beliefs reflected the interests of his class, which was the slavocracy, and it was social struggle that expanded bourgeois-democratic rights to black people, including through the Civil War, and not a closer reading of the Declaration of Independence.
Incidentally, abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison rejected the entire Constitution—they called it a “covenant with death”—because it was pro-slavery, but in some ways they drew the wrong conclusion. That is to say, they avoided political struggle in favor of “moral suasion.” But their analysis of the Constitution as pro-slavery was correct. When Frederick Douglass broke with Garrison, he also changed his views of the Constitution.
The Early U.S. and Slavery
To many, the pro-slavery nature of the Constitution at the time may have appeared justified because many people thought that slavery would die a slow but natural death: the international slave trade was going to be abolished, the fertility of the soil in tobacco country was declining, and tobacco prices were in decline. But two things gave the Southern slavocracy a renewed lease on life, and Jefferson was at least indirectly involved in both. One was the invention of the cotton gin in the 1790s that made slave-produced cotton profitable. Jefferson as secretary of state approved the patent by Eli Whitney, and he also bought one of the earliest models. The second was the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, in which Jefferson as president basically illegally doubled the size of the United States. There is a whole debate in the history books over whether Napoleon or Jefferson was the one most responsible for the Louisiana Purchase. But in reality I think it was Toussaint L’Ouverture—by having defeated the French in Haiti, he made it so that Napoleon wanted to wash his hands of any colonies in America as quickly as possible.
Taken together, these developments increased the power of the Southern slavocracy and propelled them into conflict with the North. As we all know, this conflict between the capitalist North and the slave South eventually led to the Civil War, the second bourgeois revolution in the United States. However, the Northern capitalists were not engaged in one unceasing revolutionary struggle. Key elements of the Northern bourgeoisie were all too eager to cohabit with slavery because it was profitable. However, by the mid 19th century, the development of capitalism as a whole increasingly came into conflict with the domination of the Southern system in national politics. Marx in 1861 sarcastically described what he called the Northern bourgeoisie’s “long hesitations, and an exhibition of forbearance unknown in the annals of European history,” in describing their willingness to compromise with the South.
And in fact, Marx was one of the greatest observers of the class dynamics of American politics. Here’s a rather long quote from the same article by Marx:
“The progressive abuse of the Union by the slave power, working through its alliance with the Northern Democratic party, is, so to say, the general formula of the United States history since the beginning of this century. The successive compromise measures mark the successive degrees of the encroachment by which the Union became more and more transformed into the slave of the slave-owner. Each of these compromises denotes a new encroachment of the South, a new concession of the North. At the same time none of the successive victories of the South was carried but after a hot contest with an antagonistic force in the North, appearing under different party names with different watchwords and under different colors. If the positive and final result of each single contest told in favor of the South, the attentive observer of history could not but see that every new advance of the slave power was a step forward to its ultimate defeat. Even at the times of the Missouri Compromise the contending forces were so evenly balanced that Jefferson, as we see from his memoirs, apprehended the Union to be in danger of splitting on that deadly antagonism. The encroachments of the slaveholding power reached their maximum point, when, by the Kansas-Nebraska bill, for the first time in the history of the United States, as Mr. [Stephen] Douglas himself confessed, every legal barrier to the diffusion of Slavery within the United States territories was broken down, when, afterward, a Northern candidate bought his Presidential nomination by pledging the Union to conquer or purchase in Cuba a new field of dominion for the slaveholder; when, later on, by the Dred Scott decision, diffusion of Slavery by the Federal power was proclaimed as the law of the American Constitution, and lastly, when the African slave-trade was de facto reopened on a larger scale than during the times of its legal existence. But, concurrently with this climax of Southern encroachments, carried by the connivance of the Northern Democratic party, there were unmistakable signs of Northern antagonistic agencies having gathered such strength as must soon turn the balance of power.”
—“The American Question in England” (1861)
So the point is that there was what New York Senator William Henry Seward called an “irrepressible conflict” between slavery and freedom. I’m going to give somewhat short shrift to the 1850s, not because it’s an unimportant period, but because it’s so important that comrades are probably more familiar with it than with the earlier stuff. I also think that the first volume of James McPherson’s Ordeal by Fire (1982) covers this ground very well. But I want to draw comrades’ attention to several factors. One is the role of the political parties, and the second is the role of expansion.
As Marx illustrates, the Democratic Party—including in the North—was a pro-slavery party. The contemporary political system that we have today is relatively new. For much of the antebellum period, there were two parties, the Whigs and the Democrats. The Democratic Party, formed by Jefferson in 1792 and reformed by President Andrew Jackson in the 1830s, was a populist party. They were in favor of what is often called “Jacksonian Democracy,” which goes down in various history books as the expansion of democracy in the United States. They were for the rule of the “little man”; they were against banks and entrenched economic power. They opposed the creation of a national bank. They were a white man’s party, viciously anti-Indian—Jackson carried out one of the brutal series of attacks that pushed the Indians out of the Southeast and further west—and also viciously pro-slavery and anti-black. This was also the time of increasing Irish immigration, and the Democratic Party, especially in big Northern cities like here in New York, based themselves on immigration.
In the South, the Democrats were an openly pro-slavery party. Although he had his differences with Jackson, one key Democratic leader was John C. Calhoun, who was in many ways the intellectual grandfather of the Confederacy. He developed the idea—“nullification”—that a state could refuse to abide by the federal government if it disagreed. He also believed, unlike Jefferson, that slavery was not only necessary, but was positively good. And this is really the history of the Democratic Party. There is a new book that is very interesting, by Bruce Bartlett, who writes for the Wall Street Journal, called Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past (2008). He is pro-Republican and so has an ax to grind, but it goes through the history of the Democratic Party on the question of slavery and then later on Reconstruction, up through the Dixiecrats.
The other political party was called the Whigs. They opposed what they saw as increased presidential power. They wanted the government to intervene into the economy to help spur capitalist development, such as through a national bank, protective tariffs to develop industry, and government spending on what were called “internal improvements,” or infrastructure. Both these parties had supporters in the North and the South, but as slavery became a more important issue, they were increasingly torn apart.
The other party that developed, as the slave question basically corroded the Whigs in the 1850s, was the Republican Party. The Republicans were not an abolitionist party, but they were perhaps the most radical mainstream party that the country has ever seen. They were dedicated not to eliminating slavery, but to rolling back the power of the slave South—the so-called Slave Power. There is a good book by Eric Foner that sums up the goal of the early Republicans, called Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men (1970). The Republican Party became the party of the American bourgeoisie in its struggle against the slavocracy—it was a class-based party, something that we are told doesn’t exist in the United States.
And then there were the abolitionists, who were seen as a radical fringe, but who played a very important role in pushing the question of slavery forward. I said that there is really no radical Cromwell or Robespierre figure in the American Revolution, but it’s the abolitionists who are the real radical bourgeois revolutionaries in the history of the United States. It is to them that we look, not Thomas Jefferson.
Why did the two systems keep butting heads? It was not about the morality of slavery or about broader philosophical issues. It was because both slavery and capitalism had built-in tendencies to expand, and the expansion of one came at the expense of the other. So, as Marx wrote, one had to vanquish the other. There are three reasons why the Southern slavocracy needed to expand:
1. Exhausted soil. Just as in Roman times, the slavery system used up the soil rapidly. The emphasis was on getting the most crops possible now, and not on preserving the soil. In the North, they were able to invest capital in order to fertilize farm land, but in the South they didn’t do that. So there was an endless need for more land. According to Eugene Genovese’s The Political Economy of Slavery (1967), by 1858 some 40 percent of the South’s cotton land was already exhausted.
2. Political. The three-fifths compromise was designed to give the South more power than its population warranted, but it still could not allow the North to obtain more free states. Every free state needed to be offset by a slave state, to prevent the North from getting the upper hand.
3. Domestic slave trade. Less important, but still real, was that the slaveholders in the older states, like Virginia and Maryland, raised money by selling slaves to the Lower South, so they had an interest in keeping slavery expanding.
So the whole politics of the South was one of expanding slavery, and they saw any interference with the growth and expansion of slavery as a dagger aimed at the heart of the entire slave system.
But the free North also needed to expand. The key reason was, as we all know, that capitalism has to have expanding markets as its productivity increases. Capitalism depends on growing markets, and although a fair number of capitalists made a profit on selling to the South, slaves were not very big consumers, and there was a limit to the planters’ demand for goods. So from the point of view of the North, the South was really a stagnant economy, compared to the West, which the Northeastern and Northern capitalists saw as a vast potential market. They were increasingly selling to the West, but this depended on the expansion of free labor and not slavery to the West.
The second reason was political. The North did not want to be dominated by the South more than it already was, so it needed to offset the growth of slave states. Both the North and the South had agreed in theory that expansion was good. This was the period of so-called “Manifest Destiny”—the idea that God had uniquely blessed the United States with the job of civilizing the American continent. This idea was popular in the North and in the South, but the devil was in the details, and the question was what to do about the land that became part of the United States.
The first real crisis came with the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Missouri was the second state admitted from the Louisiana Purchase, and essentially what was agreed on in 1820 was the temporary measure of drawing a line, anything north of which would become free, and anything south of which would become slave. But the problem was broached again every several years.
A key thing, to which I’m going to give a lot less attention than it deserves, was Texas. In the 1830s, slaveholders had moved to Texas, and they basically engineered a split from Mexico. The South supported this because they wanted Texas to join the country as a slave state. The so-called Texas Revolution of 1835-36 was basically a rebellion against Mexico in order to protect slavery. The North did not want Texas to join as a slave state or, God forbid, several slave states.
So, a lot of the roots of the immediate struggle over slavery in the 1840s and ’50s go back to how to deal with the question of Texas. Mexico, for obvious reasons, did not want its former territory to be annexed by the United States, and when in 1845 the Southern states essentially were able to annex Texas, that act provoked a war with Mexico. And so, in 1846 the United States invaded Mexico and ended up occupying Mexico City and important cities like Veracruz and Monterrey. As a result of the 1846-48 war, the U.S. took over half of Mexico’s territory, and the acquisition of these new territories gave rise to disputes between the North and South that helped lead to the Civil War (see “Mexican-American War: Prelude to American Civil War,” WV Nos. 933 and 934, 27 March and 10 April).
The situation created compromise after compromise. Many Northerners preferred to compromise with the South, and so there were a series of compromises, but the crisis over Texas and the invasion of Mexico basically made continued compromises impossible. Northerners, including Democrats, had been less willing to support the invasion of Mexico because it was seen as a war to expand slavery. Not just the abolitionists—although the abolitionists were the most fervent—but many people in the North were against the invasion of Mexico because they thought it was a pro-slavery conspiracy, which to a large degree it was.
The U.S. obviously won the war against Mexico, which had important effects on the development of both U.S. and Mexican capitalism. Yet the immediate result of the victory was to bring the United States even closer to civil war. The first sign of this was the Wilmot Proviso, in which Northern states refused to finance the war against Mexico so long as it was seen as increasing the number of slave states. The Wilmot Proviso declared that the war would only be funded if the states that were gained from it did not become slave. This cut across party lines—Wilmot was a Democrat from Pennsylvania—and it heralded the realignment of American politics along sectional lines.
Soon after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which finalized the taking over of half of Mexico, there was the Compromise of 1850, and by this time the split of the country was already posed; it was already talked about. And in fact Calhoun, who would die shortly afterward, all but advocated a division of the country, that is, the secession of the South. The Compromise of 1850 allowed California to become a free state, but it put off deciding on the rest of the former Mexican territories, and this was seen as allowing the possibility of slavery there. More grotesquely, it also created the Fugitive Slave Act, which made Northern states complicit in “returning” slaves who had run away from the South to the North. When they attempted to capture Anthony Burns, a runaway slave, in Boston and provoked angry mass protests, it really posed the question of the relationship between the North and the South. Frederick Douglass spelled this out when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed:
“By an act of the American Congress, not yet two years old, slavery has been nationalized in its most horrible and revolting form. By that act, Mason and Dixon’s line has been obliterated; New York has become as Virginia; and the power to hold, hunt, and sell men, women and children, as slaves, remains no longer a mere state institution, but is now an institution of the whole United States. The power is co-extensive with the star-spangled banner, and American Christianity.”
—“The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” (1852)
From the 1850 Compromise on—there were still more compromises—the Southern states were increasingly pushing the envelope. There was the Dred Scott decision, where the Supreme Court ruled, as we mention in our Mumia articles, that slavery was not only the law of the land in the South, but was the law of the land anyplace. It ruled that slave property must be protected, including in free states and that, in its famous statement, blacks had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” This really gave rise to what would be a final showdown between the capitalist system in the North and the slavocracy in the South.
I want to make the point, however, that it was not something that even at the time was obvious, or that even many of the bourgeoisie accepted. When John Brown carried out his raid in 1859, he was roundly denounced by many, including by Abraham Lincoln. But it posed the question: How was the United States going to be ruled? Was it going to develop as a capitalist country or as a slave society? This is something that the Civil War, which is the subject of the next class, would decide, in what we call the Second American Revolution.