Land Of The Free

A week or so ago, I wrote about a book that I read named The Half Has Never Been Told. It makes the argument that slavery was a key engine in the growth of the industrial age and that, without the Civil War, there’s a very good chance that slavery as an institution was not going to naturally die out.

As is typical with such histories, there was so much more interesting / tragic items in it that I found interesting that I had to leave out for length.

So, just to get it out of my system, here’s some of the things that I learned while reading that I previously had no clue about:

Texas independence is conventionally taught as a movement of plucky settlers rebelling against the repressive remote central Mexican government. Conveniently enough, President Santa Anna was painted as the cartoonish prototype of a third world despot.

As courageous as all of that sounds, slavery could very well have been at the heart of the rebellion. Always in search of new land to grow cotton and leave stripped bare of nutrients, Southern slaveholders ventured into the Mexican territory of Texas. There, naturally enough, they recreated what they previously had by creating plantations worked by slaves.

Mexico had outlawed slavery some time back. They tolerated the settlers for a while, but realizing that they were losing control of their territory, they tried to actually enforce their anti-slavery laws. This caused the settlers to get all up in arms about federal interference (remember, from the government whose territory they voluntarily immigrated to). This outrage was one of the sparks that led the movement for Texas independence.

Despite all of the historical talk about the moral Northerners and their general disgust with the horrors of slavery in the South, in fact the Northern states benefited greatly from slavery and actually enabled it.

The Bank of the United States funded the slave trade. It was Northern banks that led to the growth of securitization of slaves. By putting a value on slaves and then allowing the slaves themselves to be used as collateral, this allowed the Southern plantation owners to greatly increase their credit, resulting in ever more land and slaves.

Cotton that was picked in the South was sent North to such textile towns such as Lowell, Massachusetts. There the cotton was spun into fabrics. Such fabrics included the rough cloth that was worn by slaves, thus completing the economic cycle.

Considering the plantation farming itself, the financial securitization of the slaves, and the textile manufacturing from cotton, it was estimated that close to half of all economic activity occurring in the United States had slave labor at its core.

In 1850, there were 3.2 million slaves in the United States. They had a market value of 1.3 billion dollars. That value by itself represented 20 percent of the country’s wealth.

Is there any wonder that the South felt that it had the North by the balls and that there was nothing that anyone could do about it?

From that perspective, you can see what an almost incomprehensible blunder the Civil War was for the South. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was in no way advocating the freeing of slaves. His campaign was just to stop the spread. It can be argued that (and some Southerners certainly believed) stopping the spread was equivalent to the beginning of the end to slavery, but the fact remains that his platform did not advocate the abolition.

It was the South’s strong belief that cotton was indeed king and that the North (not to mention England) could not live without it that led it to its fatal calculation that led in turn to the Civil War.

And what was the result of this miscalculation?

In 1860, the wealthiest nations in the United States were: South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, and Alabama.

Those states are now (in the same order as listed above): 43, 50, 44, 32, and 47.

Remember that this is 150 years after the Civil War. Some mistakes reverberate for generations.

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