Fables of the Reconstruction, part seven

I’m going to try to wrap this up today.  I had originally intended to write about how political rights were only grudgingly granted to the freedmen by their northern liberators and how they were exploited for the benefit of the Republican party, and eventually abandoned to century of peonage and serfdom.  It’s a sad tale of manipulation, greed and political corruption.  But I’m going to skip that part.  Anyone who has made it this far through these posts probably knows something of the events leading up to the devil’s bargain of 1876, which sealed the sorry fate of the South for nearly a century.  At least seven more installments of this would be necessary to carry us through all that, but I’m out of gas.  

So let me just try to wrap up.  For the reasons I’ve laid out in the prior parts, I think it is clear that the Civil War was not fought to end slavery and that our civic god Abraham Lincoln is undeserving of that status.  Notwithstanding how much we might want it to be true, the Civil War was not noble and righteous.  It was as evil and unnecessary as almost all wars.  The destruction of slavery was a great thing, but was a mere unintended byproduct of blunders in attempts to achieve something very different.  Out of the war came an exploitative economic and political system that changed our nation immensely.  And all of this has been shrouded in and obscured by a national mythodology, which it is now heretical to challenge. 

The walls are built up, stone by stone.  The fields divided, one by one.

Every school kid knows that because of the Civil War, American slaves were freed.  Most would likely say, if asked, that the Civil War was good and just for that reason.  Why?  Because the war was necessary, they would say, in order that the slaves might be freed.  What those kids almost certainly would not know, however, is that by 1888 every civilized society on earth had ended slavery, and only in America was there a civil war.  The sad truth of the matter is that it was not at all necessary that our country be ravaged,  that the southern states be virtually destroyed, that 600,000 Americans die, that our national character and the very substance of our republic be transformed; to end slavery.  Not at all.

The Civil War was not noble, and it was not “necessary.”  It was not, as we have all been taught to believe, our nation’s finest moment.  Far, far, from it.  Instead, the Civil War was a cruelly unnecessary war, brought on by a series of political blunders and misdeeds, and fuelled by a poisonous atmosphere of distrust and fear.  Sometimes good things come from bad circumstances, and in this case, we were fortunate indeed that something as monstrous as a civil war could accelerate the elimination of slavery in our country.  But it’s way too easy to weight the good versus the bad, by putting the end of slavery and preservation of the union on one side of the scales, and the deaths of 600,000 people that we never knew or loved on the other side. 

There are many disgusting things about unnecessary and unjust wars.  Certainly death and destruction are among them.  But all wars, and particularly unjust wars, are also vehicles for economic injustice, power grabs,  and the infringment of liberties.  And the American Civil War is no exception.

I’m a big fan of the movie Gods and Generals.  It’s sappy and old-fashioned, and has no special effects at all.  But the dialogue is often taken directly from historical records, it made an effort to be historically accurate (a very rare thing in Hollywood) and it depicted events from a perspective we don’t normally get to see.    There is a scene in the movie where General Jackson is reminding Sandie Pendleton of why they have to endure hardships.  He says, “If the Republicans lose their little war, they are voted out in the next election and they return to their homes in New York or Massachussets or Illinois, fat with their war profits.  If we lose, we lose our country.  We lose our independence.  We lose it all.”  On another occassion he says to Jeb Stuart, “If the north triumphs, it is the triumph of commerce, banks and factories.”  Of course, that was just a movie, and General Jackson was a peculiar man, but does history reveal the true winner in the American Civil War?

It is well-known that the South was devastated as a result of the war and has only recently recovered from that devastation.  It is less well-known how much certain elements in America profited from it.

In fact, the north prospered enormously during the War.  Just as you can look around you today, and have no idea we are at war, while the South was suffering and starving, throughout the north it was impossible to even tell a war was occuring.  While the Southern population was being decimated, the Northern population actually increased during the war.  Railroad profits boomed when the Mississippi closed.  Chicago exploded as a center for meat packing food for the army.  Through corrupt contracts, New England manufacturers reaped obscene profits from the sale of uniforms and other items to the army.  Concentrated wealth in previously unimaginable amounts appeared.  There was a sudden rise of great fortunes and many speculators became millionaires.  John D. Rockefeller, at age 21, became a multimillionaire.  Philip Armour earned millions and transformed Chicago into a meatpacking center.  This newly rich class was tied directly to the Republican Party and the increasingly powerful national state. 

In addition to the outrageously profitable government contracts, Congress adopted policies favoring the rise of capital concentration and centralized national power.  A paper currency was established, along with a national banking system and an enormous national debt.  New taxes and tariffs were imposed.  Huge land grants occurred and national bonds were floated.  Most of these things would have been inconceivable but for the war and the absence of any Southern representation in Congress. 

The supposedly temporary high tariffs were institutionalized, and permanently favored industry over agriculture.  The issuance of $400,000,000 of paper money in a country that had never had a national currency resulted in inflation, creating great profits for the wealthy, while depressing real wages of workers.  The flood of paper money combined with regressive taxation caused real wages among working class northerners to plummet, while industrialists and bondholders became wealthy.  Interest on government bonds was tax-exempt and payable in gold.  So the wealthy and/or corrupt few who owned most of them got richer still, collecting interest in gold, while everyone else was stuck with depreciating paper money.  Special arrangements were negotiated with eastern banks, granting them federal charters, including the right to issue currency.  State chartered banks could no longer issue currency and were forced to pay a tax of 10% on notes issued by them.  Federal banks were prohibited from issuing mortgages and were therefore concentrated in cities.  The nation’s capital was thus concentrated and placed firmly in the hands of Wall Street, where it remains to this day.  Industrialization prevailed, together with exploitative capitalism, characterized by concentrated wealth in the hands of a few, who made corrupt alliances with government and dictated financial policy .

And the independence and decentralization of authority that had always characterized America was lost as well.   Before the War one could go his whole life without ever meeting or having to deal with an official of the federal government.  But as Randolph Bourne famously said, “War is the health of the state.”  The federal government assumed powers and roles during this period that it has never surrendered, and government as we knew it was forever changed.  The federal budget went from $63 million in 1860 to over $1 billion in 1865.  By the end of the War the federal government was the largest employer in the nation.  The pensions granted to veterans assured that the national state would continue to tax heavily, and assured the Republican party of a steady constituency and plenty of opportunities for patronage.

With the increase in centralized federal power, corrupt with alliances to the newly created concentrations of wealth, came the demise of state and community governance.   In an amazing reversal of the principles upon which the founders established the republic, the new national creed declared that States and localities were threats to liberty and must be policed, controlled or even abolished and replaced by a national government, and that creed remains in place to this day.

The United States ceased being a plural noun, and became a singular.  Whereas before the war one might say “the United States are allies of Great Britain,” for example, after the war the useage became “the United States is an ally of Great Britain,” a grammatical aburdity that continues to this day. 

Of course these things didn’t fully escape the notice of America.  But there was little that could be done.  Politically crippled by the legacy of opposition to war and Lincoln (who was deified after his assassination) the Democrat party was unable to mount much of a challenge to the Republicans in the north.  Democrats accused Republicans of being the party of the economically privileged, and of political centralization, and a threat to individual liberty and the tradition of limited government.  Democrats charged that Republicans enriched Northern capitalists at the expense of farmers and laborers, while spawning a class of parasitic non-producers, such as bondholders and stock market speculators.  But the Republicans remained secure long enough to forever establish and institutionalize the economic beneficiaries of their rule.  And to this day, anyone who denies the goodness of the federal cause in this era, and questions the prevailing myths, as I have in these posts, will likely quickly be attacked by many as a racist, despite the fact that black folks suffered worst of all.  It is a conditioned knee-jerk reaction, and it keeps a lot of mouths shut.

I suppose its possible that the industrialists would’ve come to power even absent the war.  Maybe the advent of Wall Street, exploitative parasitic capital markets and concentrated wealth in collusion with a tax-hungry, increasingly powerful centralized government were to happen anyway.  And the federal government might have found a way to crowd out state and local authority, war or no war.  And the capitalistic exploitation of farmers might have occured even if the South had not been destroyed.  And all these vehicles for the supression of our historically independent and self-reliant characters, might have emerged in any event.

But maybe not.

A long time ago I read a book by Merrill Peterson titled The Jefferson Image in the American Mind.  Mr. Peterson described the construction of the Jefferson Memorial and the minting of the Jefferson nickel as the symbolic laying to rest of our great founder.  With the advent of the New Deal and modern mega-government, Mr. Jefferson was like a revered dead ancestor, whose words and deeds were merely reminders of days past, without any practical meaning.  By 1940 America had no further need for an “anti-statist, states’ righter, isolationist, agrarian, rationalist, civil libertarian, and constitutional democrat,” other than as a statue or an image on a coin.  If as an element of American civic life Mr. Jefferson was dead in 1940, then the fatal wound was delivered in 1860.

Thanks for hanging in there y’all.  I regret I didn’t deliver as much as I’d hoped.  As is so often the case, my reach exceeded my grasp.

Grace and Peace


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