Wednesday 24 August 2011
The War of Northern Greed
It’s October, 1861. In American the Civil War has been underway for some months, really just the overture to what was to become a tragedy of epic proportions. That same month a German exile living in London summed up the situation as he saw it – “The war between the North and the South is a tariff war. The war is, further, not for any principle, does not touch the question of slavery and in fact turns on Northern lust for sovereignty,”
A few months later similar sentiments were to be found in the words of another writer, an Englishman of impeccable liberal credentials – “The Northern onslaught upon slavery is no more than a piece of specious humbug disguised to conceal its desire for economic control of the United States.” He goes on to say "...Union means so many millions a year lost to the South; secession means the loss of the same millions to the North. The love of money is the root of this as of many other evils... The quarrel between the North and South is, as it stands, solely a fiscal quarrel."
Who were these men? Karl Marx was the first and Charles Dickens the second, not people one would expect to have very much in common, the prophet of world revolution and the prophet of moral reform, the one a hard-nosed theorist and the other a bourgeois sentimentalist. But they were both, in their individual ways, absolutely right: the War Between the States had nothing to with slavery or any other great issue of principle.
But myths die hard if they die at all. I open the latest issue of the BBC History Magazine. There is an article by Paul Cartledge, professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge, on slavery in Classical Athens (Democrats and Slaves). He offers this view in his preamble – “One hundred and fifty years ago…the northern and southern States of the (dis)United States went to war in large part over these very issues.”
I think that’s the answer one would get from most people, even those who are only vaguely aware of the details - that it was all about human bondage, all about the virtuous North and the wicked South.
I watched, and enjoyed, Ken Burns' television documentary about the Civil War a while ago. I remember the episode, soon after the Battle of Antietam, when parts of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation were read, all very moving, cut with images of a black people as slaves and then black people as soldiers in the Union Army, all against a rousing chorus of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Yes, it was great television…and wholly misleading history.
It was good to see a corrective to the mythology in History Today, where Tim Stanley writes on the North-South Divide in the Contrarian section of the magazine. It’s a return to first principles, a return to the Victorian view of Marx and Dickens. This was not a war about morality; it was a war about naked self-interest. Slavery was certainly an issue between the States but it was far from being the most significant; no, that rested on the altogether more mundane issue of revenues and taxes, which had been poisoning relations for years.
We are dealing with two economies – the rural economy of the South and the nascent industrial economy of the North. But it’s more than that. Northern industrialisation was effectively built on Southern backs; built, it also has to be said, on the backs of Southern slaves. To protect domestic industry from foreign competition, Congress imposed crippling import taxes, which hit the South particular hard because it had to buy the machinery it needed from abroad.
In the 1850s, in the wake of an economic downturn, Congress increased duties from fifteen to thirty-seven percent. In a mood of outrage Southerners began to consider the virtues of secession. An alarmist editorial then appeared in the Chicago Daily Times. If the South left the Union;
…in one single blow, our foreign commerce must be reduced to less than half of what it is now. Our coastwise trade would pass into other hands. One half of our shipping would lie idle at our wharves. We should lose our trade with the South, with all its immense profits.
Not a word about the morality of trading with the Slave Empire, not a word about the morality of slavery. Secession meant war, but war less for the preservation of the Union as a great political principle, more for the preservation of the economic dominance of the North.
For the South the election of Lincoln in 1860 was the final confirmation of all of its fears, not because the Great Liberator was a threat to their ‘peculiar institution’ – he wasn’t – but because the ‘black’ Republicans represented a coalition of interests inimical to the whole Southern way of life. That year the outcome of the presidential election, as Stanley puts it, was interpreted in the South as a Northern coup d'état.
For almost two years the North fought to reimpose its hegemony without giving any thought to the question of slavery. The Republican Party was opposed to slavery but it was not abolitionist; and, yes, there is a very big difference. When Abraham Lincoln greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the mawkish Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as “the little lady who started this big war” it was nothing but the worst kind of political hyperbole and cant.
The Emancipation Proclamation, for all its high-minded rhetoric, was even more hyperbole and cant. It only freed slaves in areas beyond Union control. It did not free them in the Border States or those areas under Northern occupation. Even William H. Steward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, remarked on the obvious hypocrisy – “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”
Slavery is a great moral evil but let’s not be confused about the issues here: the Civil War was about Northern greed more than Southern iniquity.