John Daniel Davidson’s recent essay in The Federalist defending writer Shelby Foote while offering an explanation about Civil War causation is unfortunate on several accounts. The essay contains excessive hagiography towards Foote’s career and buys into a popular but false belief about U.S. slavery: the idea that slavery in America was on its way out by 1860 and that the Civil War could have been avoided if not for the radical abolitionists of the north, whose continual agitation on the slavery question hampered further compromise efforts and drove the country to Civil War.
Davidson points out that “compromising on slavery had been part of how America stayed together,” which all historians would agree with. But he errs in asserting that these compromises were leading the country towards the end of slavery in the United States:
The entire history of the United States prior to outbreak of war in 1861 was full of compromises on the question of slavery. It began with the Three-Fifths Compromise written into the U.S. Constitution and was followed by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which prohibited slavery north of the 36°30’ parallel, excluding Missouri), the Compromise of 1850, then the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and eventually led to the election of Abraham Lincoln and the subsequent secession of the southern states. Through all this, we inched toward emancipation, albeit slowly . . . such compromises limited slavery’s spread and put it on the path to extinction.
This argument is simply untrue.
When the Missouri Compromise was passed, many proslavery southerners were delighted with the act because it meant that the federal government acknowledged slavery’s legitimacy and allowed its western expansion into some parts of the territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase south of the 36-30 parallel. Anti-slavery northern politicians like James Talmage who hoped to ban slavery in Missouri and the entire Louisiana territory failed in their efforts to stop slavery’s westward expansion outright.
When the U.S. conquered a huge swath of western territory in present-day Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and elsewhere through the Mexican-American War in 1848, the Compromise of 1850 ensured that slavery would potentially spread into even more western territories acquired in that war. It also allowed for a new, harsher Fugitive Slave Law that required northerners to help in the capture of runways slaves and guaranteed federal protection of the slave trade in Washington, D.C. Equally important, the Compromise of 1850 explicitly repudiated the failed Wilmot Proviso, an alternative proposal that would have banned slavery in all territories acquired in the Mexican-American war. As historian Michael Landis argues, the Compromise of 1850 was so blatantly pro-southern that he suggests calling it the “Appeasement of 1850” since it “more accurately describes the uneven nature of the agreement.”
Finally, when some proslavery southerners argued that they should have the right to bring their slave property to Kansas territory–land where slavery was outlawed through the Missouri Compromise–they worked with northern Democrats to overturn the Missouri Compromise through the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. This act essentially took the slavery question out of Congress’s hands and allowed the settlers of Kansas to determine through their elected leaders whether or not they wanted slavery, thus leaving open the possibility of slavery expanding to new areas where at one time it was banned by federal law. Chief Justice Roger Taney further excoriated the Missouri Compromise by declaring it unconstitutional in 1857 through the Dred Scott case. Taney’s argument also made any further compromise on slavery all the more difficult since in his opinion Congress could not ban it in any new western territory.
Davidson also leaves out part of the story by omitting any discussion of failed efforts to compromise on slavery in 1860. Although he argues that a successful compromise at that time would have “put [slavery] on the path to extinction,” the two most popular compromise proposals would have actually allowed for slavery to exist in perpetuity. The “first” proposed 13th Amendment of 1860-1861, which I wrote about here, would have protected slavery in perpetuity in the states where it already existed. It failed to gain enough support in the requisite number of states because proslavery secessionists demanded increased federal protection for slavery’s expansion into the western territories, which President-elect Lincoln and most Republicans opposed. And among the six proposed amendments and four Congressional resolutions of the failed Crittenden Compromise included the extension of the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Ocean–thus guaranteeing slavery’s protection in the west–and the banning of any future amendment that would interfere with slavery in any slave state in the country.
None of these compromises–both successful and failed–indicate that slavery was on its way out by 1860.
Historian and economist Roger L. Ransom’s scholarship on the economic aspects of slavery is also useful for this discussion. According to Ransom, by 1860 “the $3 billion that [white] Southerners invested in slaves accounted for somewhere between 12% and 15% of all real wealth in the entire United States . . . Far from dying out, slavery was expanding at an increasing rate right up to the eve of the Civil War.” He attributes this growth to the development of the cotton gin, the emergence of the cotton textile industry in Great Britain (creating a new, expansive market for cotton grown by enslaved labor), and Congress’s efforts to allow slavery’s expansion in the south through the aforementioned compromise measures, which provided stability to the value of enslaved labor. As can be seen in the below chart, the value of the south’s enslaved property was about seven times higher in 1860 than in 1805.
Regarding Shelby Foote, I direct readers to Bill Black’s essay at the Society for U.S. Intellectual History about Foote’s scholarship and unfortunate racism. Foote was an endearing character on Ken Burns’s famous documentary of the Civil War twenty-five years ago, but his presence on the documentary was oversized to the point that some would argue that it was a detriment to the series. Although Davidson finds this sort of critique shocking, historians have taken a critical view of Foote’s work for a while now. In fact, there was an entire book dedicated to historians “responding” to the documentary and offering pointed critiques of it that was published in 1996. Conversely, Davidson’s potshots towards writer Ta-Nehisi Coates are devoid of substance and not really worth engaging here.
Were decades of compromise over slavery before the Civil War worth the effort to preserve the Union? For Davidson, the answer is an undeniable ‘yes.’ That the nation’s deadliest conflict came anyway, despite these compromise efforts, is a more complex problem that he fails to address. In the end, Davidson’s screed is really about denigrating Coates and his followers rather than trying to understand his perspective on the Civil War, which is much closer to what Civil War historians now believe than Davidson’s idealistic perspective of an innocent nation moving in a natural progression towards emancipation, liberty, and freedom for all by 1860.
The Washington Post recently wrote an article about an ongoing debate between economic historians and historians of capitalism (the two are not the same) about the role of slavery in the U.S. economy before the Civil War, particularly the relationship between slavery and capitalism. This debate has been taking place for a number of years, from what I can gather, but I find the Post’s handling of this extended conversation to be mildly annoying.
Generally speaking, the historians of capitalism argue that the two were intimately related and that slavery thrived and expanded in the U.S. precisely because of capitalism. Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman have recently argued that the sheer number of enslaved people throughout the South, combined with Northern (and British) capital investment in the institution renders “an unclear line of demarcation between a capitalist North and a slave South, with consequences for how we understand North and South as discrete economies—and whether we should do so in the first place.” In the Post article we hear from Edward Baptist, another historian of capitalism, who argues that the torturing of enslaved people was foundational to slavery’s growth and expansion by forcing them to produce at higher and higher rates to account for the increased demand in slave-picked cotton during the first half of the nineteenth century.
Economic historians, on the other hand, generally caution that collapsing the distinctions between Northern and Southern economies runs the risk of complicating our ability to explain how the Civil War came about. If the institution of slavery was so strongly supported in the North, then how do you explain the rise of popular anti-slavery parties in the North during the 1840s and 1850s that campaigned on the argument that slavery was a threat to the value of one’s labor and a less efficient production system than one based on free labor principles? How do you explain the origins of a bloody civil war between the two sections if their economic systems were so intimately connected? Where do discussions over sectional disagreements about economic policies like tariffs, taxes, public land sales, and government involvement in infrastructure projects fit within the capitalist historians’ focus? Furthermore, in responding to Baptist, Alan Olmstead argues that new seed technologies accelerated cotton production and played the most crucial role in fostering slavery’s growth, not slave torture.
I don’t propose to offer any concrete answers to this discussion other than to say that I find the way the Post has framed the issue isn’t really productive. Must historians’ explanation for slavery’s growth in the United States–an incredibly complex topic that could take a lifetime to study–be whittled down to a single cause: torture or seeds? Isn’t it more plausible to suggest that the two ideas (and probably more) of the various camps can coexist and complement each other? I think so. Increased cotton production in the South by enslaved labor before the Civil War was possible because of political and economic policies (national, state, and local), social practices, scientific and religious beliefs, and a strong law enforcement/police state that allowed for this state of affairs to flourish and grow.
I do not mean to suggest that historians must put equal weight to all factors when explaining a particular historical event or topic; weighing out these factors is part of the fun in debating these issues. Whenever possible, I think the quantification of empirical evidence allows historians a chance to put more weight into their claims for one particular factor over another. But historians should always strive for complexity and nuance rather than either-or propositions as the Post would have us understand this topic. When the goal becomes over-simplification and monocausal explanations for complex historical processes, I think we end up doing more harm than good to the historical record.
Historical interpretations and popular memories of Ulysses S. Grant’s tenure as President of the United States (1869-1877) devote a considerable amount of time analyzing cases of corruption–whether real or imagined–within the Grant administration. History textbooks throughout the twentieth century told tales of Grant’s personal integrity but also his naivety when it came to trusting questionable subordinates. The White House’s biography of Grant-which curiously focuses more on Grant during the Civil War than his presidency–goes so far as to question Grant’s motives for accepting lavish gifts from Wall Street speculators Jay Gould and James Fisk, even though such transactions dated back to Andrew Jackson’s establishment of a complex political patronage system in the 1830s. This patronage system entailed gift-giving in exchange for political offices and favorable legislation, and was standard practice at the time.
There was indeed political corruption during Grant’s presidency, and few scholars would deny that fact. But by shaping Grant’s presidency almost solely around the corruption questions, introductory biographies and general histories of the era overlook other important facets of Grant’s presidency that provide insights into the complex challenges he faced during the post-Civil War era. One such challenge centered around the need to restore the country’s financial equilibrium following the American Civil War.
During the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln and the Republican majority in Congress sought ways to fund the government’s deployment of the U.S. military into the Confederacy. Congress passed the nation’s first income tax (3% of all incomes over $800) through the Revenue Act of 1861 at the beginning of the war, but another significant act was the decision to print paper money without specie (gold or silver) backing. According to economic historian David Blanke, roughly $356 million in paper “greenbacks” were printed throughout the duration of the Civil War to fund soldier salaries, military supplies, and the creation of what would eventually be the Transcontinental Railroad (which was completed after the war in 1869). These greenbacks soaked the market place and provided easy capital to investors, some of which greatly profited from the war. Since the greenbacks were not backed by specie, however, they were essentially IOU promissory notes whose value was largely based on the confidence of wealthy investment bankers.
President Grant sought a return to specie-backed money upon taking office in 1869 (he also later abolished the income tax in 1872). In his First Inaugural Address, Grant argued that the return to “sound money” was an essential step on the road towards national reconciliation:
A great debt has been contracted in securing to us and our posterity the Union. The payment of this, principal and interest, as well as the return to a specie basis as soon as it can be accomplished without material detriment to the debtor class or to the country at large, must be provided for. To protect the national honor, every dollar of Government indebtedness should be paid in gold, unless otherwise expressly stipulated in the contract. Let it be understood that no repudiator of one farthing of our public debt will be trusted in public place, and it will go far toward strengthening a credit which ought to be the best in the world, and will ultimately enable us to replace the debt with bonds bearing less interest than we now pay.
Although Grant requested that the government pay its debts in gold, both gold and silver were still legal specie at this time. The days of using silver, however, were numbered. The newly-unified country of Germany ended its use of silver as a form of specie in 1871, and the implications of this move reverberated in the United States. By no longer using silver as currency, Germany placed more silver on the open marketplace, driving down its value in countries that still accepted it as legal specie. Congress followed suit with the Coinage Act of 1873, which outlawed silver as a form of legal specie and put the United States on a path towards the gold standard. While President Grant and Congress believed the Coinage Act would provide future financial stability for the country, the combination of industrial overexpansion (especially railroads) and the decreasing amount of available capital for investors bred the recipe for a potential economic disaster. That disaster came in September 1873 when Wall Street financial institutions like the New York Warehouse & Security Co. and Jay Cooke & Co. “began to fall like dominoes,” according to Jean Edward Smith (575). Railroad companies shut their doors, investors went bankrupt, and laborers lost jobs. These events marked the beginning of the Panic of 1873.
Debates emerged regarding the best strategy for addressing what soon became a full-blown depression, the worst of its kind in the U.S. at that point. Congress eventually pushed through Senate Bill 617 in March 1874, which called for the infusion of $400 million Greenbacks into circulation and the addition of $100 million into the nation’s money supply. The bill went to President Grant for approval on April 14, 1874.
Grant deliberated on the measure and initially wrote a message to Congress supportive of S.B. 617. The more he thought about it, however, the more he came to view the bill as an inflationary threat to the nation’s long-term credit. Grant vetoed the bill on April 22. In his veto message, Grant feared that passage of the bill would lead to future efforts to print even more inflationary greenbacks. S.B. 617, according to Grant, “is a departure from the principles of finance, national interest, the nation’s obligations to creditors, Congressional promises, party pledges (on the part of both political parties), and of personal views and promises made by me in every annual message sent to Congress and in each inaugural address.” The nation would ride the course and stay on the gold standard.
What were the effects of the Panic of 1873 for Grant’s presidency and the country’s future?
Scholars have taken different perspectives towards Grant’s economic policies, and these questions remain open for debate today. The Panic led to a prolonged depression that lasted until 1879, but the nation’s taxes and national debt were reduced by $300 million and $435 million, respectively, during Grant’s tenure in office. Annual interest rates were reduced by $30 million and one-fifth of the nation’s debt was eliminated. The resumption of specie-based payments led to substantial economic growth and greatly increased business activity in Gilded Age America during the 1880s. Frank Scaturro deems Grant’s economic policy as one that “was singularly successful in the aftermath of the most serious fiscal problems the nation had ever faced” (49).
There were also negative consequences of these policies, however. Reconstruction policies aimed at enforcing the fifteenth amendment and protecting Southern blacks at the voting booth lost support from Northerners more concerned about their own financial difficulties than protecting black rights. Southern whites also expressed outrage when federal funding for infrastructure projects in the former Confederate states dried up. The expense of keeping the military in the South to enforce federal law was seen as excessive in the eyes of many Northerners, although it is important to point out that these same Northerners had no qualms about deploying the military to quell labor strikes in the North such as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. Blanke takes a more critical perspective than Scaturro towards Grant’s economic policies, arguing that “the long downturn further concentrated capital in the hands of fewer and fewer suppliers,” leading to a concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. By 1890, 71 percent of the nation’s wealth was in the hands of 9 percent of its citizens, “an unhealthy and lopsided disparity of wealth distribution that has only been equaled, in this country, in the past 20 years.”
The challenges Ulysses S. Grant faced during his presidency alert us to the difficulties that emerge when economies take unexpected downturns. Should the government print and infuse more cash to alleviate unemployment and bankruptcy, or is it wiser to move towards “sound money” and the payment of past debts? Our own economic difficulties, spawned from the Great Recession of 2008, show that we still continue to debate these questions today.