Karl Marx in October, 1861 giving a background to the start of the American Civil War:
For months the leading weekly and daily papers of the London press have been reiterating the same litany on the American Civil War. While they insult the free states of the North, they anxiously defend themselves against the suspicion of sympathising with the slave states of the South. In fact, they continually write two articles: one article, in which they attack the North, and another article, in which they excuse their attacks on the North.
In essence the extenuating arguments read: The war between the North and South is a tariff war. The war is, further, not for any principle, does not touch the question of slavery and in fact turns on Northern lust for sovereignty. Finally, even if justice is on the side of the North , does it not remain a vain endeavour to want to subjugate eight million Anglo-Saxons by force! Would not separation of the South release the North from all connection with Negro slavery and ensure for it, with its twenty million inhabitants and its vast territory, a higher, hitherto scarcely dreamt-of, development? Accordingly, must not the North welcome secession as a happy event, instead of wanting to overrule it by a bloody and futile civil war?
Point by point we will probe the plea of the English press.
The war between North and South — so runs the first excuse — is a mere tariff war, a war between a protectionist system and a free trade system, and Britain naturally stands on the side of free trade. Shall the slave-owner enjoy the fruits of slave labour in their entirety or shall he be cheated of a portion of these by the protectionists of the North? That is the question which is at issue in this war. It was reserved for The Times to make this brilliant discovery. The Economist, The Examiner, The Saturday Review and tutti quanti expounded the theme further. It is characteristic of this discovery that it was made, not in Charleston, but in London. Naturally, in America everyone knew that from 1846 to 1861 a free trade system prevailed, and that Representative Morrill carried his protectionist tariff through Congress only in 1861, after the rebellion had already broken out. Secession, therefore, did not take place because the Morrill tariff had gone through Congress, but, at most, the Morrill tariff went through Congress because secession had taken place. When South Carolina had its first attack of secession in 1831, the protectionist tariff of 1828 served it, to be sure, as a pretext, but only as a pretext, as is known from a statement of General Jackson. This time, however, the old pretext has in fact not been repeated. In the Secession Congress at Montgomery all reference to the tariff question was avoided, because the cultivation of sugar in Louisiana, one of the most influential Southern states, depends entirely on protection.
But, the London press pleads further, the war of the United States is nothing but a war for the forcible maintenance of the Union. The Yankees cannot make up their minds to strike fifteen stars from their standard. They want to cut a colossal figure on the world stage. Yes, it would be different if the war was waged for the abolition of slavery! The question of slavery, however, as The Saturday Review categorically declares among other things, has absolutely nothing to do with this war.
It is above all to be remembered that the war did not originate with the North, but with the South. The North finds itself on the defensive. For months it had quietly looked on while the secessionists appropriated the Union’s forts, arsenals, shipyards, customs houses, pay offices, ships and supplies of arms, insulted its flag and took prisoner bodies of its troops. Finally the secessionists resolved to force the Union government out of its passive attitude by a blatant act of war, and solely for this reason proceeded to the bombardment of Fort Sumter near Charleston. On April 11 (1861) their General Beauregard had learnt in a meeting with Major Anderson, the commander of Fort Sumter, that the fort was only supplied with provisions for three days more and accordingly must be peacefully surrendered after this period. In order to forestall this peaceful surrender, the secessionists opened the bombardment early on the following morning (April 12), which brought about the fall of the fort in a few hours. News of this had hardly been telegraphed to Montgomery, the seat of the Secession Congress, when War Minister Walker publicly declared in the name of the new Confederacy: No man can say where the war opened today will end. At the same time he prophesied that before the first of May the flag of the Southern Confederacy will wave from the dome of the old Capitol in Washington and within a short time perhaps also from the Faneuil Hall in Boston. Only now ensued the proclamation in which Lincoln called for 75,000 men to defend the Union. The bombardment of Fort Sumter cut off the only possible constitutional way out, namely the convocation of a general convention of the American people, as Lincoln had proposed in his inaugural address. For Lincoln there now remained only the choice of fleeing from Washington, evacuating Maryland and Delaware and surrendering Kentucky, Missouri and Virginia, or of answering war with war.
The question of the principle of the American Civil War is answered by the battle slogan with which the South broke the peace. Stephens, the Vice-President of the Southern Confederacy, declared in the Secession Congress that what essentially distinguished the Constitution newly hatched at Montgomery from the Constitution of Washington and Jefferson was that now for the first time slavery was recognised as an institution good in itself, and as the foundation of the whole state edifice, whereas the revolutionary fathers, men steeped in the prejudices of the eighteenth century, had treated slavery as an evil imported from England and to be eliminated in the course of time. Another matador of the South, Mr. Spratt, cried out: “For us it is a question of founding a great slave republic.” If, therefore, it was indeed only in defence of the Union that the North drew the sword, had not the South already declared that the continuance of slavery was no longer compatible with the continuance of the Union?
Just as the bombardment of Fort Sumter gave the signal for the opening of the war, the election victory of the Republican Party of the North, the election of Lincoln as President, gave the signal for secession. On November 6, 1860, Lincoln was elected. On November 8, 1860, a message telegraphed from South Carolina said: Secession is regarded here as an accomplished fact; on November 10 the legislature of Georgia occupied itself with secession plans, and on November 13 a special session of the legislature of Mississippi was convened to consider secession. But Lincoln’s election was itself only the result of a split in the Democratic camp. During the election struggle the Democrats of the North concentrated their votes on Douglas, the Democrats of the South concentrated their votes on Breckinridge, and to this splitting of the Democratic votes the Republican Party owed its victory. Whence came, on the one hand, the preponderance of the Republican Party in the North? Whence, on the other, the disunion within the Democratic Party, whose members, North and South, had operated in conjunction for more than half a century?
Under the presidency of Buchanan the sway that the South had gradually usurped over the Union through its alliance with the Northern Democrats attained its zenith. The last Continental Congress of 1787 and the first Constitutional Congress of 1789 -90 had legally excluded slavery from all Territories of the republic north-west of the Ohio. (Territories, as is known, is the name given to the colonies lying within the United States itself which have not yet attained the level of population constitutionally prescribed for the formation of autonomous states.) The so-called Missouri Compromise (1820), in consequence of which Missouri became one of the States of the Union as a slave state, excluded slavery from every remaining Territory north of 36 degrees latitude and west of the Missouri. By this compromise the area of slavery was advanced several degrees of longitude, whilst, on the other hand, a geographical boundary-line to its future spread seemed quite definitely drawn. This geographical barrier, in its turn, was thrown down in 1854 by the so-called Kansas-Nebraska Bill, the initiator of which was St[ephen] A. Douglas, then leader of the Northern Democrats. The Bill, which passed both Houses of Congress, repealed the Missouri Compromise, placed slavery and freedom on the same footing, commanded the Union government to treat them both with equal indifference and left it to the sovereignty of the people, that is, the majority of the settlers, to decide whether or not slavery was to be introduced in a Territory. Thus, for the first time in the history of the United States, every geographical and legal limit to the extension of slavery in the Territories was removed. Under this new legislation the hitherto free Territory of New Mexico, a Territory five times as large as the State of New York, was transformed into a slave Territory, and the area of slavery was extended from the border of the Mexican Republic to 38 degrees north latitude. In 1859 New Mexico received a slave code that vies with the statute-books of Texas and Alabama in barbarity. Nevertheless, as the census of 1860 proves, among some hundred thousand inhabitants New Mexico does not yet count half a hundred slaves. It had therefore sufficed for the South to send some adventurers with a few slaves over the border, and then with the help of the central government in Washington and of its officials and contractors in New Mexico to drum together a sham popular representation to impose slavery and with it the rule of the slaveholders on the Territory.
However, this convenient method did not prove applicable in other Territories. The South accordingly went a step further and appealed from Congress to the Supreme Court of the United States. This Court, which numbers nine judges, five of whom belong to the South, had long been the most willing tool of the slaveholders. It decided in 1857, in the notorious Dred Scott case, that every American citizen possesses the right to take with him into any territory any property recognized by the Constitution. The Constitution, it maintained, recognises slaves as property and obliges the Union government to protect this property. Consequently, on the basis of the Constitution, slaves could be forced to labour in the Territories by their owners, and so every individual slaveholder was entitled to introduce slavery into hitherto free Territories against the will of the majority of the settlers. The right to exclude slavery was taken from the Territorial legislatures and the duty to protect pioneers of the slave system was imposed on Congress and the Union government.
If the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had extended the geographical boundary-line of slavery in the Territories, if the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854 had erased every geographical boundary-line and set up a political barrier instead, the will of the majority of the settlers, now the Supreme Court of the United States, by its decision of 1857, tore down even this political barrier and transformed all the Territories of the republic, present and future, from nurseries of free states into nurseries of slavery.
At the same time, under Buchanan’s government the severer law on the surrendering of fugitive slaves enacted in 1850 was ruthlessly carried out in the states of the North. To play the part of slave-catchers for the Southern slaveholders appeared to be the constitutional calling of the North. On the other hand, in order to hinder as far as possible the colonisation of the Territories by free settlers, the slaveholders’ party frustrated all the so-called free-soil measures, i.e., measures which were to secure for the settlers a definite amount of uncultivated state land free of charge.
In the foreign, as in the domestic, policy of the United States, the interest of the slaveholders served as the guiding star. Buchanan had in fact bought the office of President through the issue of the Ostend Manifesto, in which the acquisition of Cuba, whether by purchase or by force of arms, was proclaimed as the great task of national policy. Under his government northern Mexico was already divided among American land speculators, who impatiently awaited the signal to fall on Chihuahua, Coahuila and Sonora. The unceasing piratical expeditions of the filibusters against the states of Central America were directed no less from the White House at Washington. In the closest connection with this foreign policy, whose manifest purpose was conquest of new territory for the spread of slavery and of the slaveholders’ rule, stood the reopening of the slave trade, secretly supported by the Union government. St[ephen] A. Douglas himself declared in the American Senate on August 20, 1859: During the last year more Negroes have been imported from Africa than ever before in any single year, even at the time when the slave trade was still legal. The number of slaves imported in the last year totalled fifteen thousand.
Armed spreading of slavery abroad was the avowed aim of national policy; the Union had in fact become the slave of the three hundred thousand slaveholders who held sway over the South. A series of compromises, which the South owed to its alliance with the Northern Democrats, had led to this result. On this alliance all the attempts, periodically repeated since 1817, to resist the ever increasing encroachments of the slaveholders had hitherto come to grief. At length there came a turning point.
For hardly had the Kansas-Nebraska Bill gone through, which wiped out the geographical boundary-line of slavery and made its introduction into new Territories subject to the will of the majority of the settlers, when armed emissaries of the slaveholders, border rabble from Missouri and Arkansas, with bowie-knife in one hand and revolver in the other, fell upon Kansas and sought by the most unheard-of atrocities to dislodge its settlers from the Territory colonised by them. These raids were supported by the central government in Washington. Hence a tremendous reaction. Throughout the North, but particularly in the North-west, a relief organisation was formed to support Kansas with men, arms and money. Out of this relief organisation arose the Republican Party, which therefore owes its origin to the struggle for Kansas. After the attempt to transform Kansas into a slave Territory by force of arms had failed, the South sought to achieve the same result by political intrigues. Buchanan’s government, in particular, exerted its utmost efforts to have Kansas included in the States of the Union as a slave state with a slave constitution imposed on it. Hence renewed struggle, this time mainly conducted in Congress at Washington. Even St[ephen] A. Douglas, the chief of the Northern Democrats, now (1857 – 58) entered the lists against the government and his allies of the South, because imposition of a slave constitution would have been contrary to the principle of sovereignty of the settlers passed in the Nebraska Bill of 1854. Douglas, Senator for Illinois, a North-western state, would naturally have lost all his influence if he had wanted to concede to the South the right to steal by force of arms or through acts of Congress Territories colonised by the North. As the struggle for Kansas, therefore, called the Republican Party into being, it at the same time occasioned the first split within the Democratic Party itself.
The Republican Party put forward its first platform for the presidential election in 1856. Although its candidate, John Fremont, was not victorious, the huge number of votes cast for him at any rate proved the rapid growth of the Party, particularly in the North-west. At their second National Convention for the presidential election (May 17, 1860), the Republicans again put forward their platform of 1856, only enriched by some additions. Its principal contents were the following: Not a foot of fresh territory is further conceded to slavery. The filibustering policy abroad must cease. The reopening of the slave trade is stigmatised. Finally, free-soil laws are to be enacted for the furtherance of free colonisation.
The vitally important point in this platform was that not a foot of fresh terrain was conceded to slavery; rather it was to remain once and for all confined with the boundaries of the states where it already legally existed. Slavery was thus to be formally interned; but continual expansion of territory and continual spread of slavery beyond its old limits is a law of life for the slave states of the Union.
The cultivation of the southern export articles, cotton, tobacco, sugar , etc., carried on by slaves, is only remunerative as long as it is conducted with large gangs of slaves, on a mass scale and on wide expanses of a naturally fertile soil, which requires only simple labour. Intensive cultivation, which depends less on fertility of the soil than on investment of capital, intelligence and energy of labour, is contrary to the nature of slavery. Hence the rapid transformation of states like Maryland and Virginia, which formerly employed slaves on the production of export articles, into states which raise slaves to export them into the deep South. Even in South Carolina, where the slaves form four-sevenths of the population, the cultivation of cotton has been almost completely stationary for years due to the exhaustion of the soil. Indeed, by force of circumstances South Carolina has already been transformed in part into a slave-raising state, since it already sells slaves to the sum of four million dollars yearly to the states of the extreme South and South-west. As soon as this point is reached, the acquisition of new Territories becomes necessary, so that one section of the slaveholders with their slaves may occupy new fertile lands and that a new market for slave-raising, therefore for the sale of slaves, may be created for the remaining section. It is, for example, indubitable that without the acquisition of Louisiana, Missouri and Arkansas by the United States, slavery in Virginia and Maryland would have been wiped out long ago. In the Secessionist Congress at Montgomery, Senator Toombs, one of the spokesmen of the South, strikingly formulated the economic law that commands the constant expansion of the territory of slavery. “In fifteen years,” said he, “without a great increase in slave territory, either the slaves must be permitted to flee from the whites, or the whites must flee from the slaves.”
As is known, the representation of the individual states in the Congress House of Representatives depends on the size of their respective populations. As the populations of the free states grow far more quickly than those of the slave states, the number of Northern Representatives was bound to outstrip that of the Southern very rapidly. The real seat of the political power of the South is accordingly transferred more and more to the American Senate, where every state, whether its population is great or small, is represented by two Senators. In order to assert its influence in the Senate and, through the Senate, its hegemony over the United States, the South therefore required a continual formation of new slave states. This, however, was only possible through conquest of foreign lands, as in the case of Texas, or through the transformation of the Territories belonging to the United States first into slave Territories and later into slave states, as in the case of Missouri, Arkansas, etc. John Calhoun, whom the slaveholders admire as their statesman par excellence, stated as early as February 19, 1847, in the Senate, that the Senate alone placed a balance of power in the hands of the South, that extension of the slave territory was necessary to preserve this equilibrium between South and North in the Senate, and that the attempts of the South at the creation of new slave states by force were accordingly justified.
Finally, the number of actual slaveholders in the South of the Union does not amount to more than three hundred thousand, a narrow oligarchy that is confronted with many millions of so-called poor whites, whose numbers have been constantly growing through concentration of landed property and whose condition is only to be compared with that of the Roman plebeians in the period of Rome’s extreme decline. Only by acquisition and the prospect of acquisition of new Territories, as well as by filibustering expeditions, is it possible to square the interests of these poor whites with those of the slaveholders, to give their restless thirst for action a harmless direction and to tame them with the prospect of one day becoming slaveholders themselves.
A strict confinement of slavery within its old terrain, therefore, was bound according to economic law to lead to its gradual effacement, in the political sphere to annihilate the hegemony that the slave states exercised through the Senate, and finally to expose the slaveholding oligarchy within its own states to threatening perils from the poor whites. In accordance with the principle that any further extension of slave Territories was to be prohibited by law, the Republicans therefore attacked the rule of the slaveholders at its root. The Republican election victory was accordingly bound to lead to open struggle between North and South. And this election victory, as already mentioned, was itself conditioned by the split in the Democratic camp.
The Kansas struggle had already caused a split between the slaveholders’ party and the Democrats of the North allied to it. With the presidential election of 1860, the same strife now broke out again in a more general form. The Democrats of the North, with Douglas as their candidate, made the introduction of slavery into Territories dependent on the will of the majority of the settlers. The slaveholders’ party, with Breckinridge as their candidate, maintained that the Constitution of the United States, as the Supreme Court had also declared, brought slavery legally in its train; in and of itself slavery was already legal in all Territories and required no special naturalisation. Whilst, therefore, the Republicans prohibited any extension of slave Territories, the Southern party laid claim to all Territories of the republic as legally warranted domains. What they had attempted by way of example with regard to Kansas, to force slavery on a Territory through the central government against the will of the settlers themselves, they now set up as law for all the Territories of the Union. Such a concession lay beyond the power of the Democratic leaders and would only have occasioned the desertion of their army to the Republican camp. On the other hand, Douglas’s settlers’ sovereignty could not satisfy the slaveholders’ party. What it wanted to effect had to be effected within the next four years under the new President, could only be effected by the resources of the central government and brooked no further delay. It did not escape the slaveholders that a new power had arisen, the North-west, whose population, having almost doubled between 1850 and 1860, was already pretty well equal to the white population of the slave states — a power that was not inclined either by tradition, temperament or mode of life to let itself be dragged from compromise to compromise in the manner of the old North-eastern states. The Union was still of value to the South only so far as it handed over Federal power to it as a means of carrying out the slave policy. If not, then it was better to make the break now than to look on at the development of the Republican Party and the upsurge of the North-west for another four years and begin the struggle under more unfavourable conditions. The slaveholders’ party therefore played va banque. When the Democrats of the North declined to go on playing the part of the poor whites of the South, the South secured Lincoln’s victory by splitting the vote, and then took this victory as a pretext for drawing the sword from the scabbard.
The whole movement was and is based, as one sees, on the slave question. Not in the sense of whether the slaves within the existing slave states should be emancipated outright or not, but whether the twenty million free men of the North should submit any longer to an oligarchy of three hundred thousand slaveholders; whether the vast Territories of the republic should be nurseries for free states or for slavery; finally, whether the national policy of the Union should take armed spreading of slavery in Mexico, Central and South America as its device.
In another article we will probe the assertion of the London press that the North must sanction secession as the most favourable and only possible solution of the conflict.
Another wonderful post, Rustbelt. Great collection of illustrations for this and the previous post. Was I imagining it or did this post at one time have the cover of An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln as one of the illustrations? Maybe I was just on some bad drugs. Since this is an area you’ve obviously been interested in for some time and I’m just beginning to research it, can you suggestion some reading material? I’ve just started Race and Radicalism in the Union Army. Thanks again.
Well, here’s hoping you find some good drugs. I did indeed have the Robin Blackburn cover (can’t wait to reads that), but, coincidentally, the author of Race and Radicalism (the Rustbelt will soon have an interview with Mark Lause- the author- -just on that topic) drew my attention to that great anti-Lincoln cartoon and decided to replace it with that.
I can suggest some reading material, but with so very much written on the period the number of good books numbers in the many hundreds. I have always, and continue, to say that McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom is just about the best single-volume introduction to that period. It covers the sectional crisis through reconstruction with deft and insight and a unified vision that is a perfect place to start. McPherson also has an excellent suggested reading essay at the end of it (updated in newer additions) which provides readers with a jumping off point for wherever their interests may lie. Some easy to find and somewhat introductory works follow.
For those who like their Civil War bloody the Bruce Catton’s series covers the battles very well, but too broadly and with insufficient social context. . However, his pages on the actual fighting are intensely good. Read his chapters on Chickamagua or The Wilderness you’ll lose whatever romantic notions you might have of combat in that war. Noah Trudeau also does the battles well but his politics can’t do some of the story justice (though his combat-eye view of Colored Troops ‘Like Men of War’ is full of wonderful vignettes). I recently read Campfires of Liberty about camp life of black soldiers and found it illuminating.
Eric Foner’s Reconstruction works (especially Forever Free) and DuBois’ Black Reconstruction are both essential readings. And, again,both can point the reader in a hundred different directions. On slavery more specifically and the debate about what kind of society the antebellum South was (I stand firmly on the side of a capitalist society in the argument- with a number of ‘buts..’) the recent work of Walter Johnson is a perfect place to start. He goes after Genovese’s ‘semi-feudal’ pre-capitalist argument by looking how the slave themselves (if not their labor) were fully commoditized and how integral slave production was to international capitalism of the period. His work Soul By Soul looks at the social relations refracted through the (commodity) exchange of a New Orleans slave market. The most penetrating book on the realities of the North American slave system I have read and a constant eye-opener. His other work, particularly an essay about Marx and slavery called The Pedestal and the Veil is also really illuminating (and I agree with it).
Marx was, unsurprisingly, the most astute analyst looking at the war at the time I think (at least from the vantage point from which he looked). Just reading the work above, which stands up entirely and is supported by nearly all of the serious scholarship since, shows that. Engels, on the other hand, wasn’t as clear, though he also offered really salient views. Unfortunately other things (the founding of the First International) and Marx’ dropping his journalism meant that after the first year or so of the war their attentions were necessarily drawn elsewhere and their analysis of the war as it progressed was less involved.
OK, this is totally unsatisfactory for a list of reading material and just off the top of my head at the moment, but there are so, so many other books, articles and essays to recommend. How about I look through my shelves, talk to some comrades and commit to getting a reading list, heavy on the Marxian methodology, together while asking readers to propose theirs in the next few weeks? Thanks for the kind words on the post. Best,
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