The short history of the Confederacy

by Heather Cox Richardson – Nov. 14th, 2020


“In the 1850s, the Republican Party rose to stand against a small group of wealthy southern white slaveholders who had taken over the government. Those slaveholders made up only about 1% of the American South. They ran the Democratic Party, but they knew their system of human enslavement was unpopular and that they were in a political minority even in the Democratic Party. It was only a question of time until the majority began to hem in their ownership of other human beings.

So when folks started to urge the government to promote infrastructure in the growing nation, building roads or dredging harbors, for example, these southern leaders worried that if the government began to intervene in the economy, the regulation of slavery would be just around the corner. They pushed back by insisting that the government could do nothing that was not expressly written in the Constitution. Even if the vast majority of the people in the country wanted the government to do something, it could not.

As pressure grew for government to promote economic growth for ordinary Americans, the southern slaveholders worked to cement their power. They courted poor white voters, telling them that any attempt to regulate slavery was an effort to lift Black people over them. From their stronghold in the Senate, southern leaders stopped legislation to develop the country and instead pushed laws that spread slavery into the West. When northerners objected, southern leaders packed the Supreme Court and got it to agree that Congress could not stop the spread of southern slavery even across the entire nation. But while they insisted the federal government could not promote the economy for ordinary Americans, they demanded a sweeping federal slave code to protect slavery in the West.

Their system was best for the nation, they explained. Society was made up of a mass of workers, drudges who weren’t terribly smart, but were strong and loyal. They were the “mudsills” of society, akin to the wood hammered into the ground that supported the grand plantation homes above. Directed by their betters, these mudsills produced capital, which accumulated in the hands of the wealthy. There, it did far more good than if it were distributed among those who had produced it, because society’s leaders used their wealth to innovate and build the economy, doing what was best for the workers, who could not understand their own interests. The nation thrived.

To secure this system, though, it was imperative that the mudsills could not vote. If they could, workers would demand more of the wealth they produced. White southerners had enslaved their laborers, South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond told his northern colleagues in 1858, but northerners had not, and they foolishly allowed them to vote. “If they knew the tremendous secret, that the ballot-box is stronger than “an army with banners,” and could combine, where would you be?” Hammond demanded. “Your society would be reconstructed, your government was overthrown, your property divided… by the quiet process of the ballot-box.”

Men like Abraham Lincoln organized to overturn the idea that they were mindless workers, doomed to menial labor for life. In 1859, Lincoln articulated a new vision for the nation, putting ordinary men, rather than elite slaveholders, at the heart of national development.

Lincoln’s “Free Labor” theory held that the nation worked best when the government supported ordinary men rather than a wealthy elite. Ordinary men worked more intelligently and innovated more freely than an elite, and when the government used its power to free up resources for them, they built the economy far more efficiently than the enslaved workers who were hampered by the commands of an out-of-touch plantation owner. Rather than shunning economic development, the government should embrace it, they said, spreading free labor, rather than slavery, across the West.

When Lincoln won the 1860 election, southern leaders refused to accept the results of the election. They left the Union to launch a new nation that rejected the idea of human equality and was instead based on human enslavement.

Left in charge of the government, the new Republican Party rebuilt it according to Lincoln’s vision. To pay the enormous cost of the Civil War, they invented our first national system of taxation, including the income tax. Then, to enable people to pay those taxes, they spread opportunity to ordinary men, giving them western land (that we now recognize belonged to indigenous people), establishing our state universities, and building a railroad to take people across the country. Ultimately, they included Black men in their vision, abolishing slavery, establishing Black citizenship, and guaranteeing Black men the right to vote so they could protect their own interests.

Under the leadership of the Republican Party, Americans were, Lincoln reminded them, resolving “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Note: HCR is a history professor at Boston College, and the author of: “How the South won the Civil War”, subtitled: Oligarch, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America

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