US Civil War – 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation

“Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research” – Malcolm X

“Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research”

– Malcolm X

The Obama administration’s attempts to highjack the anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is yet another cynical stunt to try to whitewash the mass campaign of direct action, protest and radicalism which fueled the civil rights movement. Obama will deliver the keynote address at the same hour and place that Martin Luther King Jr delivered the, “I have a dream” speech 50 years ago.

King spoke as an opponent of inequality and war, while Obama represents imperialist wars and record income disparity. King represented a mass movement from below of workers and poor, whereas Obama speaks for Wall Street banks and the super rich. King exposed the horrors of capitalism while Obama defends and represents the capitalist system, which relies on institutional racism.

In a recent interview, activist and author Cornel West pointed out that “Brother Martin would not be invited to the very same march in his name, because he would talk about drones. He’d talk about Wall Street criminality. He would talk about the working class being pushed to the margins as profits went up for corporate executives… He would talk about the legacies of white supremacy. Do you think anybody at that march will talk about drones and the drone president?”1

This year also marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Martin Luther King often referred to this historic declaration, whereas Obama does not.2 A discussion about slavery and the roots of institutional racism seems to be too controversial. However, Obama did have time to placate the reactionary Sons of Confederate Veterans organisation when he laid a wreath at the Confederate Monument at Arlington National Cemetery in 2009.

The US Civil War was the most important revolution of the 19th century and the last great capitalist revolution – its historic significance cannot be overstated. Indeed a study of the civil war era can provide a wealth of information and valuable lessons for anyone committed to understanding and fighting institutional racism and capitalism.

Racist ideology was developed in order to justify the transatlantic slave trade, which fuelled the industrial revolution and the rise of European Imperialism in the 19th century, as Walter Rodney outlined “The simple fact is that no people can enslave another for centuries without coming out with a notion of superiority, and when the colour and other physical traits of those peoples were quite different it was inevitable that the prejudice should take a racist form.”3

The rise and fall of the Cotton Kingdom

The conflict between slavery and non-slavery is a conflict for life and death… The South cannot exist without African slavery.” – South Carolina secession commissioner in 1861.

Slavery had loosened its grip on the American economy in the late 18th century. Many upper-class opponents of the institution thought that after Congress banned the importation of slaves in 1808, slavery would die as natural an economic death in the South as it had in the North. When slavery became an economic liability to the Virginia planters in the 1790s, they were inclined to grant them freedom.

No cotton crop of any noticeable value was raised in the South before the invention of the cotton gin. The cotton gin multiplied the productive capacity in the cotton fields 100 fold, and gave slavery a new lease of life.4 This economic revolution in southern agriculture was an offshoot of the industrial revolution in Britain. Along with the new steam-powered machinery and inventions such as the spinning jenny and loom, the British textile industry rose to new heights.

British capitalists, who prided themselves on the abolition of chattel slavery within their dominions after 1833, became the chief beneficiaries of American slavery, as by 1860, four-fifths of England’s imports of raw cotton came from the southern states.5 Three-quarters of the world’s marketed cotton was produced in the South by 1850, which allowed many slaveholders to become extremely wealthy.6 Southern cotton actually constituted 57 percent of all American exports prior to 1860.7

This cotton nobility dominated the federal government, the Supreme Court and the armed forces during the early 19th century.8 They dictated most of the major policies in Washington before the Civil War. During 49 of the 72 years from 1789 to 1861, the presidents of the US were slave-holding Southerners.9

Their influence and social prestige increased as the leading families of the North and South intermarried. The ties of many Northern and Southern elites were also cemented by the alliance between the southern and northern wings of the Democratic Party.

Cotton production was needed all year round labour, so slavery was a key component at this point, as slaves couldn’t go on strike or fail to turn up for work after a night drinking etc. Although the cotton market boomed in the 1850s, the rate of profit fell, as slaveholders invested more and more profits back into land and slaves. In their drive for profits, the slaveholders rapidly exhausted the soil of their land, leading them to move to the regions being cultivated by small farmers in the South-westward expansion of the early 19th century. With a war against the Native Americans, the Louisiana Purchase, the acquisition of Florida, and the annexation of Texas, the United States tripled in size between 1803 and 1845. Every state that came into the US from these territories became a slave state.10

Increased competition caused larger investment in slaves and land. Unlike the capitalist, the slaveholder could not increase the working day. The slaves could not be driven beyond a fixed point without passive, but no less effective resistance on their part. It required intense methods of surveillance and the severest forms of punishment and torture to ensure the slaves’ completion of their stint.

One out of every four white families in the South in 1860 owned slaves. Less than 1% owned more than 100 slaves and only 3% owned more than twenty slaves. The largest group of slaveholding families held between one and four slaves.11 Most whites were poor, subsistence farmers, but many non-slaveholding farmers occasionally rented slaves for seasonal work and aspired to own slaves themselves.

A process of monopolisation also took place were the wealth of the cotton producers was concentrated into the pockets of fewer and fewer slaveholders, located particularly in the Deep South. In 1860, the single wealthiest county in the United States, in terms of per capita wealth, was Adams County, Mississippi.12

The suppression of the African slave trade spurred the practice of raising slaves for the market and pushed the price of slaves up. Throughout history, the practice of breeding human beings for sale was rare or unknown.13 The slave states of the upper South, which could not compete with the rich land and wealthy slaveholders of the deep South in terms of cotton production, specialised in “slave-breeding”. The level of objectification and de-humanisation that was necessary to break up families and sell married couples separately, made this a particularly barbaric chapter in human history, which also required the most racist propaganda campaign by the southern elite. Supply kept falling short of demand so that, a ‘prime field hand, who in 1808 was worth $150, cost between two to three thousand in the boom period before the civil war.14 The market value of the four million slaves ($3bn) exceeded the amount of capital invested in manufacturing and railroads in the whole of the United States in 1860.15

The high level of investment required made the slavocracy desperate to extend their system to new territory. In view of the crisis of their system, many enterprising slaveholders began to look further afield than the Western territories. The Ostend Manifesto of 1854, signed by James Buchanan (who became president two years later), proclaimed with frankness the desire of the southern elite to take Cuba from Spain.16 James McPherson, in This Mighty Scourge, notes that, “In 1856 the Tennessee native William Walker proclaimed himself president of Nicaragua and issued a decree re-establishing slavery there before he was overthrown and driven out.”17

Attempts to develop textile manufacturing in the South failed, because slavery could not serve as a basis for factory production, and also discouraged immigration. White immigrant workers not only felt the social stigma attached to their occupations in the South, but also the absence of political equality and social freedom, which is why attempts to import skilled female operatives from New England failed even when higher wages were offered.18 The flood of cotton goods from outside also stifled the attempts to establish competitive southern textile manufacturing.

Despite the domination of the political sphere by the South, the nature of the slave system prevented industrialisation and the development of infrastructure in comparison to the modernisation that was taking place in the North. By 1860, the North possessed three times as many railroads as the South, for instance.19

Work slowdowns were not the only method of resistance used by slaves. They also frequently broke the tools, or abused the animals on the plantations. There were numerous slave revolts, which were usually led by preachers who often led rebellions. They travelled from farm to farm, freeing slaves and killing the white inhabitants. One such slave and preacher was Nat Turner, who led a rebellion in Virginia in 1831. In response to this incident, the state of Virginia passed even more repressive laws, forbidding slaves from preaching and prohibiting teaching them to read.20

A cursory glance at the actual reality of slavery would have prevented Quentin Tarantino from having Leonardo Di Caprio’s slaveholder character in Django Unchained ask; “why don’t they just rise up and kill the whites?” This was one of the most repressive societies in history. An important factor in introducing the “right to bear arms” in the 2nd Amendment was to legitimate the slave patrol militias of the southern states, and most southern white men between the ages of 18-45 had to serve on slave patrol in the militias at one time or another in their lives.21

Educate, agitate, organise

Let me give you a word on the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her August claims, have been born of earnest struggle” – Frederick Douglass.

Although it became increasingly difficult for slaves to rebel, many slaves made dangerous escape efforts. A network of secret routes and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad existed throughout the 19th century. The most well-known “agent” of the Underground Railroad was a five-foot, illiterate woman called Harriet Tubman. Tubman lived an extraordinary life. Born a slave in Maryland, she was sent to work in the fields when she was twelve. A year later, an enraged overseer threw a heavy iron object at an escaping male slave, but it hit Harriet in the head. The life-threatening injury she received left her with a permanent condition which made her periodically lose consciousness and appear to fall asleep for a minute or two.22 Despite this condition, she made twenty trips into Maryland and Delaware and led an estimated eighty slaves to the North or Canada without being arrested. During the Civil War, she guided a raid by three hundred black soldiers up the Combahee River in South Carolina, which freed 750 slaves.23 After the war she became active in the fight for women’s suffrage and she died in 1913 at age 93.

The lives of ex-slaves in the North became increasingly precarious in the run-up to the Civil War. The Fugitive Slave Law, enacted in 1850, meant that any black person in the North could be kidnapped by a white person and brought to the South, and any white Northerner could be deputised at any moment, day or night, and was required to help round up the suspected fugitive slave. None were more outraged by this than the militant anti-slavery activists of the North, known as the abolitionists.

Leading abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, founded the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. Within two years there were over 300 chapters throughout the free-states, who flooded the North with over a million pieces of literature. It was dangerous work at times. In 1835, Garrison gave a speech in Boston, when he was attacked by a stone-throwing mob, who chased him to the town hall.24 The mayor had to put him in jail for the night for his own safety. When Elijah Lovejoy established an anti-slavery newspaper in Illinois in 1837, a mob threw his printing press into the Mississippi River. When he persisted in setting up a new one, they attacked his office and murdered him.25

Frederick Douglass, a self-educated ex-slave joined the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in 1841. A gifted writer and orator, Douglass quickly became the most famous black man in America. Whatever risks Garrison was taking in advancing his radical views, Douglass faced immeasurably more danger. An ex-slave advancing ideas of racial equality in a deeply racist society, he became a thorn in the side of the Northern establishment and a nail in the coffin of the slave system.

Beyond the repression, the abolitionists’ campaign of petitions, rallies, public meetings and fundraisers were met with cynicism at times. They were confronted with arguments such as, “Slavery is one of the oldest institutions known to man”, or “slavery is integral to the American economy. The economy would collapse without it.” Many people who were anti-slavery and even anti-racist would say, “But the slaveholders will never willingly give up their system without a fight.” The abolitionists were in no doubt that a battle would have to be fought to defeat the slaveholders. In the years leading to the Civil War, many more people began to agree with them. In many states, physical battles were already being fought.

When the state of Kansas was officially opened for settlement by the US government in 1854, it was quickly flooded by free-soil settlers from New England and pro-slavery settlers from neighbouring Missouri. The territory quickly earned the nick-name “Bleeding Kansas”, as guerrilla warfare ensued between the two camps to determine what type of social system the state would take. It was on the plains of Kansas that abolitionist John Brown honed his military skills and tactics.

Brown became the captain of a local militia company and gained notoriety in his battles with the pro-slavery Border Ruffians, until 1856 when Kansas was pacified by federal troops. Even though his son Frederick had been killed in one of these battles, Brown continued with his long-held plan to launch an armed campaign in the South, to free slaves and retreat into the mountains, eventually building an army of freed slaves who would spark a mass uprising across the South. He held a convention with black and white abolitionists in Canada to launch this plan. A witness reported that he invoked the example of the Haitian revolutionary, Toussaint L’Ouverture who led a slave uprising using the tactics of mountain warfare.26

Brown even met Frederick Douglass with the intention to try to win him over to his plan to raid the armoury in the town of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Douglass made an effort to talk Brown out of this ill-thought-out scheme, but Brown was convinced it would work. Brown had been misled by the apparent effectiveness of his guerrilla activities in Kansas.

On the 16th of October 1859, Brown and fifteen of his comrades occupied the Harper’s Ferry armoury, and persuaded a few slaves to join them. The US marines stormed the building and killed ten of the men, including two of Brown’s sons. Brown himself had been badly wounded by a marine who struck him with a sword.27 At his trial he was brought out on a stretcher, but he stood up to make his last speech, in which he put his accusers on trial, “If it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say let it be done.”28

His last words, written on a piece of paper and handed to a jail guard, hung like a dark cloud over the American horizon, “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away; but with blood. I had as now I think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed: it might be done.”29 Though Brown’s plot was doomed to failure, it had an explosive effect on the political consciousness of the North and the South, as George Novack notes:

“John Brown’s attempt to impose emancipation upon the South by an exclusive reliance upon terrorist methods met with failure. Other ways and means were necessary to release, amplify, and direct the revolutionary forces capable of overthrowing the slave power and abolishing slavery. Yet Brown’s raid was not wholly counter-productive in its effects. His blow against slavery reverberated throughout the land and inspired those who were to follow him. The news of his bold deed sounded like a fire bell in the night, arousing the nation and setting its nerves on edge.”30

And the War Came

Our new government is founded upon… the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that Slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new Government, is the first in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” – Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the Confederacy.31

The rising Northern industrial bourgeoisie had been vying for political supremacy since the early 19th century, they hoped to depose the slave power by class compromise and peaceful constitutional means, following the example set by the British industrialists, who had issued compensated emancipation of the slaves in their colonies in the Caribbean. They organised their grasp for political power with the foundation of the Republican Party in 1854.

The election of their first representative, Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860, was met with ferocious opposition by the slaveholders. Lincoln was a moderate member of the Republican Party, and wasn’t an abolitionist, though he was elected on a programme to prevent the western expansion of slavery. Before his inauguration, seven slave states declared their secession from the US, and formed the Confederate States of America. When Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, which was a key Union fort in South Carolina, four more slave states joined the Confederacy and Lincoln declared war on the South.

The more far-sighted radical abolitionists reflected the interests of the small farmers and wage workers of the North, and slaves in the South, but it took the aggression of the slaveholding reaction, plus the sharpening social crisis to allow their ideas to gain widespread traction. Frederick Douglass, who was critical of Lincoln and the Republican Party, stated, “bound up [are] the fate of the Republic and the fate of the slave in the same bundle.”32 His monthly magazine appeared with the front page slogan “Freedom for all, or chains for all.”33 For the Lincoln administration, the tasks at hand were to defeat the “rebel states” and return them to the Union.

Much of Lincoln’s strategy was geared towards conciliating the conservative Republicans and Northern Democrats, who wanted re-unification with the institution of slavery left intact. These forces represented elements of Northern finance capitalism in particular, who were wedded to the slaveholders, having issued substantial loans for capital investment and insurance policies on the slaves. Lincoln had placed a Democrat, General George B. McClellan as the general-in-chief of the Union army. Because of his political outlook, McClellan and many of Lincoln’s other early appointees took an overly defensive approach when fighting the Confederate army.

The North suffered numerous defeats in 1862, which had monarchists around the world rubbing their hands with glee. It must be remembered that the United States was at this time, the most advanced state in the world in terms of democratic rights. There had been revolutionary uprisings in Italy, Austria, Germany and France in 1848, which had all been suppressed by counter-revolution.

Napoleon III of France wanted to formally recognise the Confederacy, but held off to await Britain’s position. Many members of the British parliament pushed for recognition, which would have boosted Southern morale and encouraged foreign investment in Confederate bonds.34 King Leopold of Belgium and the French and British press led the cry for military intervention.35 Karl Marx would have disagreed with Lincoln on most issues, but he gave critical support to Lincoln and the Union in the fight against the slavocracy. A victory for the Confederacy was certainly possible at this point. A Confederate victory would not only have prolonged the system of chattel slavery in the Americas, it would also have led to the further balkanisation of the territory once governed under the Constitution of 1789.36

That would also have been a victory for monarchists around the world, who would have been emboldened in their efforts to suppress mass movements in their respective countries.

It was under the weight of these pressures that Lincoln’s attitude toward the question of emancipation changed. Lincoln had always detested the institution of slavery, but his proposals during the early part of 1862 were limited to gradual emancipation, along with compensation for slaveholders and a policy of forced colonisation, in which former slaves would be encouraged to move to Africa or the Caribbean, because Lincoln argued, they could never achieve equality in a society as racist as the United States. Frederick Douglass was extremely critical of this strategy and William Lloyd Garrison wrote in his paper, “what, but the meanest selfishness stimulates this scheme? President Lincoln’s education with and among the white trash of Kentucky was most unfortunate for his moral development, so there seems to be nothing elevated or noble in his character.”37

Wherever the Union army entered the South, slaves would flee plantations to Union lines. Lincoln began to realise that in order to win the war, he would have to not only free the slaves, but incorporate many into the army.

Forward march of progress

The Emancipation Proclamation that was issued on 1st January, 1863, demanded immediate emancipation with no compensation for the slaveholders. In one go, $3bn worth of property was legally annihilated. In economic terms, it approaches Henry VIII’s seizure of church properties during the Reformation or the Bolsheviks’ nationalisation of farms and factories after the Russian Revolution. Karl Marx wrote in the New York Tribune, “Up to now, we have witnessed only the first act of the Civil War – constitutional waging of war. The second act, the revolutionary waging of war, is at hand.”

Douglass noted the transformation that demanded the proclamation, “It is really wonderful how all efforts to evade, postpone, and prevent its coming, have been mocked and defied by the stupendous sweep of events.”38

The new character of the war had international repercussions, as pro-Union meetings were organised by workers throughout Britain and France. A packed meeting of 3,000 people in St James’ Hall, London, passed a resolution stating that British workers would fight against the diplomatic recognition of any government “founded on human slavery.”39 Even though many textile workers were condemned to unemployment due to the blockade of Southern cotton imports, a Southern spy by the name of Henry Hotze observed, “the Lancashire operatives are the only class which as a class continues actively inimical to us… with them the unreasoning… aversion to our institutions is as firmly rooted as in any part of New England.”40

This organised opposition to the proposed recognition of the Confederacy, must have had an effect on the British ruling elite’s decision not to recognise Confederate sovereignty. They were still shaken by the Chartist movement of the 1840s and the struggles of the industrial working class.

The proclamation imbued the Union army with a revolutionary zeal which tipped the balance in their favour at the battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. They won most of the major battles after that.

Lincoln recognised that, “No human power can subdue this rebellion without using the emancipation lever as I have done.” He was vindicated when he was re-elected in 1864, having campaigned on a pledge to fight for a 13th amendment to the US constitution, abolishing slavery. A remarkable 78 percent of Union soldiers voted for him, even though his opponent from the Democratic Party was none other than former Union general, George McClellan, who campaigned for immediate peace-talks with the Confederacy to end the war.41 Even William Lloyd Garrison broke ranks with many of his closest comrades in the abolitionist movement to openly support Lincoln’s re-election.42

The first time Frederick Douglass met with Lincoln in 1863, he argued for equal pay and promotional opportunities for black soldiers, and protection of captured black soldiers. Lincoln suspended prisoner-of-war exchanges, until the Confederacy agreed to return captured black Union soldiers.43 Many black regiments refused to take any pay until they were granted equal pay to white soldiers. Congress eventually granted equal pay to black soldiers in June, 1864. Two of Douglass’ own sons fought in the famed 54th Massachusetts regiment and a third son worked as a recruiter for the black regiments among freed slaves in Mississippi.44

The Lincoln administration understood that the 188,000 African Americans who joined the army and navy to fight for emancipation, were key to smashing the slave power. The black troops fought with ferocity, not only because they were fighting for the freedom of their families, but also because they faced either execution or being sent back into slavery if they were captured. Black soldiers who surrendered were often massacred, as happened in Fort Pillow, Tennessee; 231 Union soldiers, most of them black, were murdered after they surrendered at Fort Pillow. A witness described how civilian bystanders were also murdered there:

“There were also 2 negro women and 3 little children standing within 25 steps from me, when a rebel stepped up to them and said, ‘Yes, God damn you, you thought you were free, did you?’ and shot them all. They all fell but one child when he knocked it in the head with the breech of his gun.”45

In subsequent battles black troops often entered the fray shouting, “remember Fort Pillow!” Months later, a white Iowa regiment captured twenty-three prisoners from a Confederate unit that had participated in the Fort Pillow massacre; the angry whites interrogated the Confederate prisoners and asked them if they remembered Fort Pillow before they summarily shot them all.46

The Second American Revolution was further consolidated on the 31st January, 1865, when the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery narrowly passed in the House. Charles Douglass wrote from Washington to his father Fredrick Douglass, “Such rejoicing I never before witnessed, cannons firing, people hugging and shaking hands, white people, I mean… flags flying… I tell you things are progressing finely…”47

Two months later, Union forces led by the all-black Fifth Massachusetts cavalry entered Richmond, Virginia, the capitol of the Confederacy. African Americans thronged the streets, cheering and singing. The city’s white residents remained indoors. Many, who had considered their slaves to be loyal and contented, were stunned by the reception the black population gave to the conquering (or liberating) Union army.48 When the army of Northern Virginia surrendered to the Union army a week later, the Civil War was over.

In his last speech on 11th April 1865, Lincoln proposed the idea of (male) black suffrage.49 Three days later, he was assassinated. Lincoln’s radicalisation during the Civil War mirrored the experience of the masses in the North. His bitter critic the New York World noted after his death that, “some have changed more rapidly, some more slowly than he; but there are few of his countrymen, who have not changed at all.”50

While the war had depleted the resources of the Confederacy and cut off its saleable crop from the market, Northern industry and agriculture boomed. The clear-cut antagonism between the industrialist and the slavocracy on the one hand and the immaturity of the working class on the other, enabled the radical bourgeoisie to crush its class enemy and become the sole rulers of the Republic. This was the most important revolutionary struggle of the 19th century, as well as the most successful. The radical bourgeoisie’s drive for power was based upon the successes of the First American Revolution, where they achieved independence from the British Empire and established republican democracy. The mid-nineteenth century struggles in Europe where largely attempting to remove the vestiges of feudalism, which hampered capitalist development. Though most of these revolutionary struggles failed to reach fruition, they did achieve valuable social reforms, such as the extension of the franchise in Britain. The emancipation of the serfs was declared in Russia and Hungary, but in the US alone did a really revolutionary transformation of social relations take place.51

The Radical Republicans, such as Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner and Benjamin Wade came to the fore during the Civil War and in the Reconstruction period afterward. The radicals were the last great line of American bourgeois revolutionists. They crushed all opposition from the Left (the militant abolitionists and workers’ movement) and robbed the “Lords of the Lash” of political and economic power. This gave them the opportunity to transform the United States into a model bourgeois-democratic nation, as they purged the last vestiges of pre-capitalist conditions.52 Once the industrialists achieved political and economic mastery, they saw no need for further fundamental changes in American society. The time for revolutionary transformations within the framework of capitalism had ended.

Reconstruction: Revolution and Counter-Revolution

These are the times that try men’s souls. You will no doubt hear a great number of stories respecting the situation of this country, its present unfortunate state is entirely owing to treachery, the rich always betray the poor.”- Henry Joy McCracken 53

In the summer of 1865 African Americans in the South began to organise political conventions. They demanded the right to own land, to bear arms, to serve on juries, to vote and for free public education, etc. In a number of areas they seized possession of the plantations, divided the land among themselves, and set up their own local forms of administration.54 Plantations in the Rice country in parts of the Georgia and South Carolina coasts were abandoned by their former owners during the war. Forty thousand former slaves each took 40 acres of land and worked it on their own account. They also formed armed militias to defend their newly established way of life.

Tunis Campbell was one of the thousands of African Americans who travelled from the North to participate in the liberation struggle. Campbell and his wife Harriet came to st Catherine’s Island off the coast of Georgia from New Jersey. He had been an active abolitionist and political organiser during the war, and he helped organise the redistribution of land on st Catherine’s, the establishment of schools and a 275-man militia for their defence. Orders from the federal government came down to hand the land back over to the former owner, Jacob Walburg. They sent in black federal troops on January 1866 and the militia refused to fire on them. The land on st Catherine’s was returned to Walburg and labour contracts were established with the settlers instead.55

The victorious bourgeoisie were happy to transfer the western territories that had been seized by the federal government to farmers and mining, railroad and lumbering corporations, but to seize the assets of the rich in the South to give to the poor would set a dangerous precedent.

Although the Republican government defended the land rights of the former slaveholders, they used the black masses and poorer whites, along with federal troops to keep the ex-Confederates from organising politically during the post-war period. Congress passed the 14th Amendment to the constitution, giving citizenship to all persons born in the United States, and giving the federal government the power to determine voter eligibility in the individual states.

The Radical Republicans achieved a majority in both houses of Congress in the 1866 elections. Congress then enacted a series of Reconstruction Acts, the first of which divided the old Confederacy into five military districts. In 1869, the 15th Amendment was passed, which prohibited any abridgement of voting rights “on account of race, colour, or previous condition of servitude.”

Much of the new political leadership in the South came from southern unionists and black and white northern activists, Union army veterans and business men who had settled in the South. Tunis Campbell was elected to Congress as a senator in Georgia in 1868 along with over 2,000 other black men, who held office in the 1870s.56 These Reconstruction governments established the first public school systems in the South. They abolished imprisonment for debt, and did away with property qualifications for voting or holding office. However, the failure to redistribute land to ex-slaves and poor whites, led to a system of sharecropping and debt tenancy developing.

The leadership of the ex-slaveholding former Confederates formed para-military, white supremacist organisations such as the White League and the Ku Klux Klan in an attempt to prevent African Americans and white Republicans from organising politically. They launched a campaign of assassinations and intimidation. The KKK targeted black schools in particular, setting scores of them up in flames.

The Northern bourgeoisie’s conservatism was solidified when the workers of Paris took control and formed the first workers’ government with the Paris Commune in 1871. This struck fear into the hearts of the bourgeoisie and any move towards radical reforms was over. The approach to the ex-Confederates became geared towards compromise. Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes was elected president in 1877. The next day he informed the Reconstruction governments that he could no longer respond to their requests for federal troops in protecting black voters. Most of the federal troops were withdrawn from the South, which allowed the KKK to launch a reign of terror. Hayes warned a delegation of African Americans from South Carolina that “the use of military force in civil affairs was repugnant to the genius of American institutions, and should be dispensed with if possible.” Despite this “repugnance”, Hayes had no hesitation four months later in using federal troops to suppress the Great Railroad Strike in the Midwest.57

Having consolidated their domination over the country, the bourgeoisie turned on the workers and poor masses who carried the Second Revolution to its conclusion, and have since become the fiercest opponents of progress and democracy.

The ex-Confederates regained political power across the South and enforced the Jim Crow segregation laws and forced African Americans from political office. In the broadest sense, Jim Crow segregation apportioned the towns and cities to whites and the fields to African Americans in agricultural peonage.58

Northern railroad, logging and mining corporations were also assured of a divided and destitute population which provided a plentiful supply of cheap labour. Profits soared. From then on, African Americans were scapegoated in the South by the ruling elite whenever the economy went belly up. Between 1882-1930, whenever the price of cotton fell, the number of African Americans that were lynched across the cotton-producing states increased.59

“You can’t have capitalism without racism” – Malcolm X

Though most of the system of Jim Crow segregation was defeated by the mass movement in the 1960s, many things haven’t changed for people of colour in the US. Institutional racism is built into the fabric of American capitalism. Black unemployment is still twice the rate of white unemployment, as it was in 1963, when hundreds of thousands attended the March on Washington.60 The US now imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid 61, and a black man is killed every 28 hours by a cop or vigilante.62 The system is destroying the living standards of working people and the poor generally, with 49 million Americans now living in poverty, including 16.2 million children. Among African Americans and Latinos, nearly one in three children is at risk of hunger.63

The Second American Revolution was a decisive victory for human progress, but the American capitalist class has replaced the slavocracy as the biggest obstacle to further progress. The crises of poverty, war and environmental destruction are intensifying, as society is moving backwards. A united movement of the working class, young and poor people can bring the change that’s needed. Once the working class becomes organised, they can realise the immense power that they possess.

But there is a low level of class and socialist consciousness at the moment, and the forces that are fighting for a socialist alternative, are few. It’s easy to look back at history and point to the supposed inevitability of certain outcomes. However, without the self-sacrifice and commitment of the abolitionists in their mission to spread anti-slavery sentiment in the North before the Civil War, the South would have been victorious. The fight against barbarism belongs to the socialist movement today. Only socialists possess the ideas that can take society forward. We must heed the immortal words of Frederick Douglass “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”


1. “Cornel West: Obama’s Response to Trayvon Martin Case Belies Failure to Challenge ‘New Jim Crow’”, Democracy Now, accessed 26/08/2013
2. Tom Mackaman, “One hundred and fifty years since the Emancipation Proclamation: Interview with historian James McPherson.” In Lincoln & the Emancipation Proclamation (Oak Park MI: Socialist Equality Party, 2013.), 15.
3. Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Oxford: Pambazuka Press, 2012), 88.
4. George Novack, “The Rise and Fall of the Cotton Kingdom” in America’s Revolutionary Heritage: Marxist Essays, ed. George Novack et al. (London: Pathfinder, 2009), 227.
5. Ibid., 229
6. James McPherson, This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 11.
7. Allen Guelzo, Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War & Reconstruction. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 24.
8. Novack, “The Rise and Fall of the Cotton Kingdom”, 242.
9. McPherson, This Mighty Scourge, 7-8.
10. Ibid., 14.
11. Guelzo, Fateful Lightning, 37.
12. Ibid., 35.
13. Novack, “The Rise and Fall of the Cotton Kingdom”, 250.
14. Ibid., 251.
15. McPherson, This Mighty Scourge, 11.
16. Novack, “The Rise and Fall of the Cotton Kingdom”, 259.
17. McPherson, This Mighty Scourge, 14.
18. Novack, “The Rise and Fall of the Cotton Kingdom”, 264.
19. Ibid., 272.
20. “Slavery- Crash Course US History #13 with John Green”, Nerdfighteria Wiki, accessed 26/08/2013
21. Thom Hartmann, “The Second Amendment was Ratified to Preserve Slavery”, Truthout | News and Analysis, Tuesday, 15th January 2013, accessed 26/08/2013
22. McPherson, This Mighty Scourge, 24.
23. Ibid, 28.
24. “Transcript: The Abolitionists”, American Experience, PBS, accessed 26/08/2013
25. Guelzo, Fateful Lightning, 49.
26. George Novack, “Homage to John Brown” in America’s Revolutionary Heritage: Marxist Essays, ed. George Novack et al. (London: Pathfinder, 2009), 281.
27. Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States 1492-Present. (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005), 185.
28. McPherson, This Mighty Scourge, 35.
29. Guelzo, Fateful Lightning, 118.
30. Novack, “Homage to John Brown”, 286-7.
31. George Novack, “The Emancipation Proclamation”in America’s Revolutionary Heritage: Marxist Essays, ed. George Novack et al. (London: Pathfinder, 2009), 331.
32. David Blight, A Slave No More: Two Men who escaped to Freedom, Including their own Emancipation. (New York: Harcourt, Inc. 2007), 4.
33. Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (London: Norton & Company, 2010), 165.
34. McPherson, This Mighty Scourge, 66.
35. Ibid., 67.
36. Ibid., 167.
37. “Transcript: The Abolitionists”, American Experience, PBS.
38. David Blight, A Slave No More, 136.
39. Tom Mackaman, “The British working class and the American Civil War: 150 years since London’s St James’ Hall meeting.”, World Socialist Web Site,, accessed 26/08/2013
40. Ibid.
41. McPherson, This Mighty Scourge, 179.
42. Guelzo, Fateful Lightning, 453.
43. Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial, 254-5.
44. Guelzo, Fateful Lightning, 381.
45. Ibid., 378.
46. Ibid., 237.
47. Ibid., 472.
48. Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial, 329.
49. Ibid., 330.
50. Ibid., 333.
51. George Novack, “The Civil War – its place in history” in America’s Revolutionary Heritage: Marxist Essays, ed. George Novack et al. (London: Pathfinder, 2009), 323.
52. Ibid., 325.
53. Peter Hadden, Troubled Times: The National Question in Ireland (Belfast: Herald Books, 1995), 19.
54. George Novack, “Two Lessons of Reconstruction” in America’s Revolutionary Heritage: Marxist Essays, ed. George Novack et al. (London: Pathfinder, 2009), 351.
55. “Transcript: Reconstruction, the Second Civil War, Part One” American Experience, PBS, accessed 26/08/2013
56. Guelzo, Fateful Lightning, 502.
57. Ibid., 511.58. Ibid., 527.
58. “Sociologists link cotton prices, racism and lynchings of blacks” in Spartanburg Herald-Journal, 30/06/1991, 10, accessed 26/08/2013,
59. “Fifty Years Later, The Untold History of the March on Washington and MLK’S Most Famous Speech”, Democracy Now, accessed 26/08/2013.
60. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2012), 6.
61. “Zimmerman Acquitted – The Racist System is Guilty!”, accessed 26/08/2013
62. “How to Get Jobs and Freedom, We Need System Change!”, accessed 26/08/2013

Previous Article

Review: Elysium

Next Article

Syria: US & Britain prepare military attack against Assad regime

Related Posts