The Overthrow of King Cotton
As mentioned earlier, the Civil War did not bring about an end to slavery in the South, nor did the Union Army or the federal government prevent the South from continuing to enslave the Black population. So why was the Civil War fought? In the case of the Civil War, it was a showdown between two economic systems: The established mercantilist system of the South versus the upstart, entrepreneurial industrial capitalists of the North who were becoming increasingly restive against King Cotton’s supremacy in politics, territory, and economics.
Though the South’s plantation system is often characterized as capitalist, in fact, it was not. It was to some degree feudal, but it was predominantly mercantilist. Like any classic mercantilist system, its economy depended on export-driven commodity crops (cotton, sugar, rice, and tobacco), so its base was agrarian, while its method of converting the commodities into money was through its merchants.19 By contrast, the wealth of capitalists derives from continual reinvestment of capital itself into anything that will expand its profits.
Because the South’s commodities—especially cotton—were so central to the national economy, it truly was the reign of King Cotton, as the South was generally known. In America’s Revolutionary Heritage, Marxist theorist George Novack wrote that, “The Cotton Kingdom reached the peak of its power and glory around the middle of the nineteenth century.”20 He explained that:
The cotton planters were the economic, political, and social potentates of the American nation. Cotton was the most important crop not only in the South but in the national economy, constituting one-half of the total exports for the U.S. in 1850.21
Also unlike capitalists, the Southern planters were not engaged in constant expansion of capital. Their income was generally reinvested back into the same plantations, not into ever-expanding ventures and industries as the capitalist does. There was, however, tremendous land expansion, but it had nothing to do with capitalist expansion.
Throughout the first half of the 1800s, the slave states were expanding rapidly westward, establishing cotton plantations in Texas, Arkansas, even Oklahoma, simply because their exceptionally destructive farming practices had depleted the soils of the Southern plantations to the point that production was declining.
In his book, Capitalism & Slavery, historian Eric Williams wrote, “From the standpoint of the grower, the greatest defect of slavery lies in the fact that it quickly exhausts the soil.” Williams quoted Thomas Jefferson as saying about Virginia, “we can buy an acre of new land cheaper than we can manure an old.” He also quoted British historian, political economist, and colonial civil servant Herman Merivale as writing, “It is more profitable to cultivate a fresh soil by the dear labour of slaves, than an exhausted one by the cheap labour of freemen.” The plantation owner was, according to Williams, a “land-killer”22
Slave planters outside the U.S. depleted their soils the same way, as Williams found:
The foreign sugar islands, too, were…illustrating the law of slave production. Less exhausted than the longer-settled English islands, cultivation in the French islands was easier and the cost of production less. As early as 1663, a mere twenty years after the rise of the sugar industry, Barbados was “decaying fast,” and the complaints of soil exhaustion grew more numerous and more plaintive.23
Production continued to decline so much that in 1737, a 1,000-acre plantation in Barbados made a profit of 2%, while the same-sized plantation in the French islands was yielding 18%.24 Novack also wrote about the planters’ unsustainable agricultural practices: “Owing to its superficial, rapacious, and improvident methods of cultivation, the slave plantation system required a steady supply of new, cheap, and fertile semitropical soil. In their triumphant progress the cotton planters laid waste the land like an invading army.”25
Novack cited the first-hand testimony of Frederick Law Olmsted, the 19th century architect and journalist, who traveled extensively throughout the South, writing articles and books about the Cotton Kingdom.26 As Olmstead described:
Even in Texas, before it had been ten years under cotton cultivation, the spectacle that was so familiar in the older slave states was frequently seen by the traveler—an abandoned plantation of “worn-out fields” with its little village of dwellings, now a home only for wolves and vultures.27
As the U.S. grabbed more land from the Native Americans in its westward expansion, more land was given over to cotton production under the slave planters. By 1850, cotton was being grown from South Carolina to Texas and as far north as Missouri. The reason these new territories were able to appropriated by the Southern planters was because, as Novack explained, “the cotton nobility…controlled the president, the cabinet, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, the foreign service, and they dictated the major policies made in Washington.”28
One of those major policy issues was tariffs. The minority faction of Eastern politicians—who represented the newly-emerging industrial capitalists—wanted to pass a protectionist tariff act which would help boost the profits of the Northern textile mill owners by curtailing the English textile industry. But the Southern planters refused: England’s textile industry was one of their biggest customers, and they weren’t going to jeopardize that in order to give the Yankee mills an advantage.
Then came the depression of 1857, which Novack described as “the most severe economic crisis of the nineteenth century,”29 though worse would come later. This was almost the final straw for the Northern capitalists who could not expand so long as they were under the control of the mercantilist King Cotton, which was a major driving force of the nation’s economy, the North included. As Novack pointed out:
A good portion of the commerce, manufacturing, and banking of the North depended upon the Cotton Kingdom. The merchants and shippers of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, the mill owners and textile workers of New England, the financial houses of the North subsisted upon one or another branch of the cotton trade.30
The depression of 1857 brought home just how dependent the North was on the Cotton Kings. Novack wrote that although the South experienced some degree of financial upset, it was the North that really suffered. “The steady demand for cotton in the world market buoyed up the South while falling prices for almost all other commodities dragged down the rest of the country.”31
But the final straw was how the Southern cotton barons reacted to the Depression. Cotton production doubled in that decade, with a record 5 million bales by 1860. More importantly, except for a drop in price in 1851/1852, the price of cotton throughout the decade remained at a “profitable” 10 to 11 cents per pound.32 But profitable for whom? Not for the Northern capitalist mill owners, particularly in 1857.
And so the Northern industrial capitalists, already frustrated by the Southern planters’ political and economic supremacy, which was blocking their ability to expand, saw 1857 as the last straw: While their businesses were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, the unscathed Southern planters made sure to keep the price of their cotton as high as during boom times.
The only solution was war.
Eric Williams has an extraordinarily enlightening passage in his book, Capitalism & Slavery, on how the minds of imperialists work—the same imperialists who founded this country and imbued its future leaders with their values and morals. During the Seven Years’ War (1756 to 1763), the higher productivity of the French sugar islands in the Caribbean resulted in French sugar selling for half the price of British sugar. So Great Britain had to take action to protect the profits of the British sugar companies. If they invaded and took over the French sugar islands, that wouldn’t actually help the British companies because the newly acquired plantations would still outproduce the older British plantations. The solution, therefore, was to destroy what economists call “the productive capacity” of the enemy; in other words, destroy the enemy’s plantations.
Williams related that the British planters “demanded” the destruction of the French sugar plantations: “The [British] governor of Jamaica wrote in 1748 that unless French Saint Dominique was destroyed during the war, it would, on the return of peace, ruin the British sugar colonies by the quality and cheapness of its production.”33
It’s not likely that anyone will find a similar letter—a mill owner or a banker writing to Lincoln demanding that the Southern planters be destroyed by war—but that is, in fact, what happened.
In fact, there’s never been a war fought in which the total destruction of the enemy’s farms, factories, cities, people, and general productive capacity wasn’t the primary and pretty much sole purpose for waging violent, destructive war. War is waged in order to destroy, conquer, and subjugate the enemy. That means destroying crops, factories, cities, town, and farms so that the enemy loses even the ability to feed itself. Only then can the conqueror occupy and control the economy, the land, the people, and the means of production. That’s the whole point of war, and the idealistic rationales are the propaganda manufactured to rally the troops and the nation to engage in the slaughter of the “enemy.”
By the time the North had finished overthrowing King Cotton, the South was utterly devastated. Not by accident; the Union Army systematically and purposefully engaged in a scorched earth policy. Foner wrote that before the war, the Shenandoah Valley was Virginia’s “breadbasket”; after the war, it was “almost a desert, its barns and dwelling burned, bridges demolished, fences, tools, and livestock destroyed.” Northern and central Alabama “offered vistas of absolute destitution—houses razed, fields uncultivated, iron works and cotton gins burned.”34
Throughout the South, “the widespread destruction of work animals, farm buildings, and machinery…ensured that the revival of agriculture would be slow and painful.”35 And it would happen as a result of northern capitalists buying up abandoned and impoverished plantations and cheap real estate, building new factories and mills, and replacing the plantation mercantilism with industrial capitalism. The South, as Foner pointed out:
[W]as all but bankrupt, for the collapse of Confederate bonds and currency wiped out the savings of countless individuals.…Little money circulated and interest rates soared to exorbitant levels.…Moreover, capital continued to be drained from the region by the new national banking system and the federal tax on cotton, a wartime measure not repealed until 1868.36
It wasn’t slavery that the Northern capitalists were looking to end—they allowed “slavery by another name” to return in new, legalized forms—it was the South’s political and economic reign they were looking to overthrow and destroy once and for all. It was a war for unfettered expansion into the former territories and markets of the now-dead mercantilist empire. Like all other wars, it was a war for money, power, and territory.