Workers Vanguard No. 943
25 September 2009
Slavery and the Origins of American Capitalism
We print below, in slightly edited form, Part Two of a presentation by Jacob Zorn to a Spartacist League educational in New York on 30 March 2008. Part One of this talk, published in WV No. 942 (11 September), focused on the centrality of black chattel slavery to the early development of capitalism.
I want to talk about the American Revolution, which we don’t write about all that much. I think there are two essential pitfalls in dealing with the American Revolution. One was shown most fully by Earl Browder, the head of the Communist Party (CP) during its popular-front phase in the mid 1930s. In What Is Communism?—the same book in which he tried to show that “Communism is the Americanism of the twentieth century”—Browder argued that the American Revolution of 1776 was essentially the model of the popular front. (There’s a novel by Howard Fast called Citizen Tom Paine, written during World War II, where he also makes this argument, that Tom Paine came up with the idea of a popular front against British colonialism.) The second pitfall is to pretend that the American Revolution isn’t really important at all.
There’s a WV article that was part of the readings, called “Why We Don’t Celebrate July 4” [WV No. 116, 2 July 1976], which is very useful. But just because we don’t celebrate the Fourth of July doesn’t mean that we think the revolution was unimportant. The revolution was, so far as it went, both important and progressive—the main thing is that it didn’t go all that far. The American Revolution was a bourgeois revolution in the sense that it laid the basis for the development of American capitalism, but keep in mind that Britain in 1776 was not a feudal society—the English Civil War had happened more than 100 years earlier. Socially, the revolution was an alliance between the planter elites of the Southern colonies, which obviously were based on slavery, and the merchants of the Northern colonies because both of them wanted to break away from the constraints of British mercantilism. Thus, the revolution spurred not only the development of American capitalism, but also the development of the slave system in the South. The revolution itself cemented the alliance between capitalism and slavery, an alliance that would later—to borrow a phrase from the Communist Manifesto—have to be burst asunder. But one of the interesting points about the American Revolution is that this relationship was almost not burst asunder. The revolution did not solve the question of which of these two systems would dominate; and in that sense, the Civil War really was the Second American Revolution. This is another part of the answer to comrade Foster’s question: Why did there need to be a Civil War? I think the American Revolution kind of set it up, in that sense.
I want to talk about the political significance of the revolution, however. Many of the ideals of the revolution, which drew upon the Parliamentary side of the English Civil War, are, in and of themselves, important. The right to bear arms, the separation of church and state, representative democracy, republicanism and colonial independence are good things. It’s worth reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine. Some of these ideas were quite radical for the time—and I would just remind comrades that in Britain there is still both a crown and an established church. Plus, the founding fathers were by and large secular. I don’t think that if George Washington had said that God had told him to fight England that people would have taken him seriously. That’s another point that our article on the Fourth of July makes—that even by bourgeois standards, the leaders of the American Revolution stand several heads and shoulders above the current leaders.
The Nature of the American Revolution
The American Revolution, however, was not a social revolution, unlike either the French or the Haitian revolutions that immediately followed it. The question of the revolution was not whether the goal of the colonies was to be capitalist, or to make money, but for whom the colonies would be making money. It is important to keep in mind that of all the British colonies in America, the West Indies—the so-called “sugar colonies”—were much more important than the mainland North American colonies. The Northern colonies, as Eric Williams describes, essentially existed to provide food and other supplies to the Caribbean colonies. They preferred importing food, even at very high prices, from North America to wasting land that could otherwise be used for sugar. And in an earlier book, The Negro in the Caribbean (1942), Williams described how even then, most of the fish eaten in the Caribbean was imported from elsewhere, even though obviously the Caribbean is made up of islands. And the West Indian planters were a powerful section of the British ruling class, including many representatives in Parliament. So Parliament was not going to do anything that would harm the interests of these planters.
Under British mercantilism, there were basically two ways that the North American colonies were important to Britain. Under the Navigation Act of 1651, and later the Molasses Act of 1733, they were supposed to trade only with other British colonies. For the North, these acts were largely dead letters; they traded with whomever they wanted to trade. Northern merchants regularly bought molasses from French colonies, which tended to be more productive and sold cheaper, and they sold rum and other products—made directly or indirectly from slave labor—to non-British colonies. The planters in the South were expected to sell tobacco only to the British, but they found ways to get around this. The other important role of the North American colonies was to pay taxes. And tobacco was taxed at this time, in much of the 18th century, not by its value (i.e., by the price), but by how much was actually grown, so that as the planters’ profits declined, their taxes often still increased. So, in much of the 18th century, even though the sugar colonies were much more profitable, they paid much less in taxes than did Virginia. And Virginia, in fact, paid more taxes to the royal treasury than any other colony. Nonetheless, for most of this period, the British government had a policy that was called salutary—or benign—neglect, allowing the colonies to ignore much of the mercantile laws while the colonies ran themselves.
This all changed at the end of the Seven Years (or the French and Indian) War, in 1763, which, in America at least, was fought in part over control of the Caribbean and French Canada. It was very complicated, and in some ways perhaps the first world war, drawing in every European power. But two trends merged at the end of this war. Britain ended the war with immense holdings in North America, with a large empire, and the newly crowned George III wanted to reassert a vigorous role for the British Crown. But the British were broke after the war and looked to America as a way of paying for this. As the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it, the British “felt that the colonies were ungrateful children, ready to profit from the security our arms had gained for them, but unwilling to pay the price.”
So Parliament and George III, in a rather ham-handed way, passed a series of laws regarding the colonies (if you remember ninth grade, you probably went through them). But the bottom line is that these laws convinced both the American planters in the South and the merchants in the North that as long as they continued to remain a part of the British system, they would not be able to develop in the way that they wanted. And slavery was central to all of this, both because the main product that was being sent from Virginia—tobacco—was made with slave labor, but also because sugar and other things that were being traded in the North were an integral part of the Triangle Trade between Europe, the American colonies and Africa.
Slavery and the American Revolution
There is a great article that deals with the American Revolution in WV No. 764, called “The Haitian Revolution and the American Slavocracy.” Many comrades don’t remember it because it was published on September 14, 2001, but it explains how the American Revolution did not involve a social revolutionary component that was equivalent, for example, to the sans-culottes in France. It did not fundamentally change the class structure of the United States. But in order to mobilize the mass of the white populace—small farmers, artisans, shopkeepers—to risk their lives and livelihoods against Britain, the wealthy colonial elites had to tell them that all men, having been created equal, were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
One of the key ways they were able to do this was through the institution of slavery, and the American rulers could give political rights to whites because the central labor force in the American South was slaves, who were excluded from all this. This is one of the reasons that there was no regime of plebeian terror in the American Revolution as there was in France; there was no Robespierre or, as in the English Civil War, Cromwell. Famously, in writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, himself a slaveholder (he owned about 200 slaves), had put in some mild anti-slavery language, blaming George III for supporting the slave trade. This was taken out at the insistence of the slaveholders. That is to say, slavery couldn’t be touched.
From the revolution until the Constitution was adopted, the law of the land was what is called the Articles of Confederation. They allowed each state to regulate its own affairs, including whether to have slavery or not—this is the concept which later is called “states’ rights.” Earl Browder, in the same piece I referenced earlier, wrote that the Constitution was a “counter-revolution engineered by Alexander Hamilton.” (Given that this was about the same time that Browder was defending the Stalinist Moscow Trials in the USSR, his idea of a political counterrevolution might be somewhat suspect.) The CP fundamentally preferred the side of Jefferson—their school here in New York City, for example, was called the Jefferson School of Social Science. Jefferson liked to talk of individual liberties, and in some ways he is one of the more eloquent spokesmen for the American Revolution. But the system that was set up was really a cover, to a large degree, for slavery. Jefferson’s traditional enemy is considered to be Alexander Hamilton, and there are a lot of bad things about Alexander Hamilton, I suppose—he was willing to sacrifice political liberty upon the altar of bourgeois development, and he feared the people having too much power. But one of the key things was that he opposed slavery. If any of the founding fathers were vindicated by the Civil War, I think it was really Alexander Hamilton, who was in favor of a strong central government to develop capitalism, was opposed to slavery, and who also proposed arming blacks in the American Revolution, something that, again, the slaveholders opposed. Part of this is probably his own background, because he came from the British Caribbean and was intimately familiar with slavery.
Although the Constitution did represent a move away from the more egalitarian goals, or at least the rhetoric, of the revolution, it was carried out largely by the same men who made the revolution—as our piece in 1976 put it, they died of old age. It was not really a political counterrevolution in the same way that you can talk about Thermidor in the French Revolution, because there was not really a Robespierre in the American Revolution. The closest you would have, I guess, would be Daniel Shays, who in late 1786 in western Massachusetts rebelled against high taxes. It was fundamentally a different type of revolution.
The Constitution of 1787 was pushed by Alexander Hamilton in order to create a centralized government that would have the power to help create a unified, capitalist country. It was not very democratic, even if we exclude the question of slavery. In this context, I recommend section three in the July 2003 amici curiae (friends of the court) brief by the Partisan Defense Committee on Jose Padilla, which is called, “It Took a Civil War to Establish the Rights and Privileges of United States Citizenship.” It makes the point that federalism—the so-called separation of powers, including between the states and the national government—really allowed slavery to exist until the Civil War. Therefore, the Constitution of 1787 codified the coexistence of two battling social systems, with the South given extra power.
I’m sure comrades have listened to, or at least read, Barack Obama’s recent “A More Perfect Union” speech, where he argues that:
“The answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution—a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.”
Well, no, the Constitution actually made resolving this question short of a Civil War largely impossible. Also—it’s interesting—when he lists all the bad things about the Constitution, he leaves out the most important part, which is the three-fifths compromise, which not only said that blacks are 60 percent human beings, but essentially gave the slave South control of the federal government. As Frederick Douglass put it in an article titled “The Constitution and Slavery” (1849): “Under it, the slave system has enjoyed a large and domineering representation in Congress, which has given laws to the whole Union in regard to slavery, ever since the formation of the government.” Out of the three-fifths clause we also have the amazing contraption of the electoral college, which basically was designed to, and did, give the South the presidency, by giving more power to states that owned slaves. Some nine out of the first 15 presidents were Southerners, most from Virginia. So slavery was not, as Obama put it—and it’s not just Obama, it’s a common liberal myth—a “stain” on early American politics and society, but an essential thread woven throughout the development of American capitalism. It’s a fundamental aspect, not extraneous or peripheral.
The Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791 in order to get the states to support the adoption of the Constitution, and this is what the Padilla brief calls the “Second Constitution.” And these recognized important rights, but they still did not define any sense of national citizenship, something that would not come until the Civil War. In fact, one of the reasons that the framers didn’t put these rights in the original Constitution is that they didn’t want to start off saying that “all men are equal” again. That is to say, they didn’t want to have anything that could be seen as challenging slavery. Of course, a point that is made in the Padilla brief and that we have often made since the “war on terror” began is that rights are not just granted by a piece of paper but also reflect what type of social struggle is going on in society.
[TO BE CONTINUED]