A civil war over wages

Slavery, Capitalism and Politics in the Antebellum Republic, Volume I
November 29, 1996

No country showed more striking outward evidences of national growth and pride than did the American nation during the first half of the 19th century. None increased more rapidly in population and wealth. Yet, as with the European Union of today, the basis on which the American Union was founded remained a conundrum. Was the United States a union of all Americans, as the prologue to the l787 Constitution suggested, or of individual sovereign states, whose assent had, after all, been necessary for its establishment?

This was a question which the nation's founders had failed to resolve, believing that time and development would provide solutions. And so in a sense they did. The problem was that they led the inhabitants of the free and slave-holding states to arrive at quite opposite conclusions. As northerners became increasingly convinced that the Union was one and indivisible, southerners were no less persuaded that it was a voluntary compact, the advantages of which, viewed from their standpoint, were becoming ever harder to discern.

This is familiar territory and one that historians have argued over for a century and more. John Ashworth's contribution is to attribute particular significance to the systemic differences between northern capitalism, based as it increasingly came to be on wage labour, and the southern slave system. To say that slavery was a root cause of the problem is nothing new. Lincoln himself said as much. But neither Lincoln nor anyone else has singled out wage labour as a contributory factor in quite the way Ashworth does. This is because most commentators have been disposed to take both it and the values with which it came to be associated - economic competition, personal enterprise, upward mobility through hard work - for granted. Those who have not, mostly old-style Marxists, have concentrated on trying to explain sectional divergence in terms of material self-interest, a difficult task as the two economies dovetailed neatly, the slave South producing the raw materials and the free North the capital, transportation and knowhow required for their manufacture.

Recent scholarship, by emphasising the profitability and continuing viability of plantation agriculture, has further weakened the claims of those who formerly argued in classic Marxist terms that slavery was a feudal institution that was bound to give way to capitalism in much the same way that medieval institutions had earlier succumbed to commercial competition. On the contrary it has shown that American slavery was, as Marx himself believed, very much a capitalist enterprise in the sense of being responsive to commercial needs and geared to mass producing items for a world market at prices with which others were hard pressed to compete.

Ashworth's response to these findings is to fashion a more subtle type of Marxian approach which takes as its starting point the "class" interests of employers in the two sections and their need to legitimise the control they exercised over their respective work forces. In the case of those in the North it paid to represent what would formerly have been regarded as a humiliating form of subservience - namely payment by the hour or day - in the best possible light by emphasising the nobility of labour and the freedom with which contracts between employee and employer were entered into. This was very much in contrast with the way slave-holders justified their position in terms of their own racial superiority, their paternalistic concern for the well-being of their workforce, the menial character of manual labour and the slaves' inability to manage their own affairs. The result was two competing ideologies, both self-serving, each seeking to enhance its claim to legitimacy by drawing attention to the shortcomings of the other.

In a nation whose basis rested on constitutional ambiguity this proved a recipe for disaster.

This is the first volume of a projected two-volume work and carries the narrative up to l850. The immediate circumstances leading up to secession and the war itself will presumably be dealt with in the second volume. Whether Ashworth will succeed in proving, as he claims, that the civil war was a "bourgeois revolution" remains to be seen. Many readers of the present volume will need to adjust their thinking to see, for example, that conflicts traditionally viewed as racial or sectional may also be interpreted in terms of class interest. The effort, however, is worth while. This is an ambitious attempt to view familiar issues in new ways. It is not a book for beginners. Some will find the author's Marxian approach uncongenial. But there is no doubting his formidable powers of analysis or the strength of the challenge he poses to received ideas regarding the American civil war and its causes.

Howard Temperley is professor of American history,University of East Anglia.

Slavery, Capitalism and Politics in the Antebellum Republic, Volume I: Commerce and Compromise, 1820-1850

Author - John Ashworth
ISBN - 0521 47487 6 and 47994 0
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00 and £14.95
Pages - 520

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