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Issue #1696      August 5, 2015

Culture & Life

For Southern rights, hurrah?

The recent racist attacks in the USA’s South have focused attention on the promotion of racist symbols and “traditions” linked to America’s racist, slave-owning past (like the flying of the Confederate flag over the State capital of Alabama). Slave labour had been the basis of the economies of all the colonial empires, whether British, French, Portuguese, Spanish or Dutch.

There is no way like the American way

When Britain’s American colonies revolted and declared their independence in 1776, they no longer received slave labour from Britain, in the form of white convicts, but they did continue to receive slaves trafficked from Africa by British slave-traders.

Capitalism had been establishing itself in Europe in the previous century, especially in Britain, supported by the developing industrial revolution. The ruling class in the northern part of the newly independent USA was also striving to establish an economy based on industry and the investment of capital. They were held back however by the fierce determination of the southern part of the country to adhere to a rural economy based on slave labour.

The northern capitalists needed to build up their available workforce, but slavery (which existed in parts of the North as well as the South) withheld large segments of the workforce from the labour market, thus driving up the cost of labour in the north. There was also a powerful moral argument gaining ground against the use of slaves. Capitalists who thought nothing of ruthlessly exploiting the labour of women or children, could take the moral high ground on the question of slave labour.

Over the century and a half since the American Civil War, a great many myths were allowed to develop about it, helped in no small measure by the many Hollywood films extolling the virtues and romanticism of a gallant, united South valiantly fighting for a lost cause.

In the South of the USA, that cause has been assiduously presented as being not slavery, but “states’ rights”. True, Lincoln did not proclaim the abolition of slavery until the war had been raging for two years, but the crushing of the slave economy of the Confederacy was always the more industrialied Union’s goal. It was as essential to the continued development of capitalism in the USA as the expansion of the country to the west and the dispossession of the indigenous population.

As for the myth that the South was united in the defence of its “rights” (principally its “right” to use slave labour and to buy and sell human beings for that purpose), that has been debunked by numerous writers, most recently William C. Anderson writing in Truthout. Anderson’s article Confederate Deserters: The Rebels You Rarely Hear About, dealt with Southerners who chose not to fight for “Southern rights”.

“The official interpretations of Southern history – the ones that are generally passed along to schoolchildren – have flooded the media in the weeks following the Charleston massacre, without much nuance. … The rebel states’ list of causes for immediate secession, Alexander H Stephens’ ‘Cornerstone Speech,’ and the words of Jefferson Davis confirm that the Confederate Army’s primary role was the defence of slavery. Engraved in that defence was white supremacy in its purest forms: an agitator, enslaver and destroyer of all things not white.

“In addition to glossing over the blatant and destructive white supremacy that governed the Confederacy, official histories disappear, examples of internal resistance. There were some Confederate soldiers who thought differently than their leadership. … One of the most famous instances of defector resistance within the Confederate Army was the ‘Free State of Jones’ within Mississippi. Years into the conflict that divided the nation, many people in Mississippi were opposed to the war. Arguably the most famous was a farmer by the name of Newton Knight, who lived in Jones County. … He led a guerrilla unit known as the ‘Knight Company,’ which actively fought against the Confederacy.

“As one can imagine, the presence of a secession within a secession was not the united front the Confederacy wanted for its image. They worked effectively to stamp out Knight’s Jones rebellion via Colonel Robert Lowry, whose troops and bloodhounds ran Knight’s men out of the swamps without ever actually catching Knight himself.

“Next door to Mississippi, in the ‘Heart of Dixie,’ the ‘Republic of Winston’ also rose up in opposition. … By the war’s end, Winston had provided twice as many soldiers to the Union as it did to the Confederacy.” West Virginia’s citizens also refused to join the Confederacy, successfully seceded from the rest of Virginia, and became a separate state. Many Union soldiers came from there.

It was not only in the South that slavery had its defenders, however. In fact a case can be made that defence of slavery was a significant part of why the white colonialists rebelled in 1776 against England: they viewed Africans as property and England sought to tax them for every slave they had.

For all the post-Civil War myths of the Confederacy as a place of honour, the reality is that support for Lincoln and the Union was ruthlessly suppressed there through what was effectively state-sponsored terrorism. “The Confederate Home Guard functioned like the Gestapo, summarily executing dissidents and deserters, torturing and murdering their family members to disclose their whereabouts, manning the polling stations to prevent pro-union votes. Half a million white southerners – one in eight – eventually fled the police state that was the Southern Confederacy.”

In time, two-thirds of the rebel army would desert, compared with one third of all US soldiers. Reconstruction (much-maligned by Southern apologists) was a very ambitious project by abolitionists and Radical Republicans and Unionists in Congress and from around the North to bring the freed people into the fabric of the nation. The British by contrast never did a thing for the West Indian blacks but recompensed their white masters most handsomely.

What undermined Reconstruction (and so much after) was the ferocious intransigence of the Southern whites and their “Lost Cause” ideology that wore the Northerner whites down after a dozen years. The white Southern Lost Cause may only now be facing complete discrediting and defeat.

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