In the 1850s, as we have seen, the United States’ economy was dominated by the production from Southern plantations. Southern cotton, for example, accounted for three-quarters of the world’s production of this commodity and comprised sixty percent of all US exports. This does not even take into consideration Southern sugar, rice and food production. Yet, despite their prosperity, Southerners (who had been on the defencive since the late 1820s) increasingly saw themselves as a besieged people and civilisation. Their concerns were not without reason; the basis of their economy and social order was under assault everywhere, it must have seemed.
ANTI-SLAVERY MOVEMENT IN THE AMERICAS
As Northern professor David Brion Davis (who writes with a moralising and overtly anti-Southern bias) notes on page 142 of his book Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World:
In 1775… [slavery] was a legal institution from Canada to Chile, and there were no restrictions on the expanding slave trade from Africa to most parts of the New World, but by 1825 Britain and the United States had outlawed their Atlantic slave trades.
The British pressured other European colonial powers into banning the slave trade as well. In Central America, Mexico and American States from Maine to Pennsylvania, slavery was prohibited. Davis continues on page 143:
Thus in 1830 slavery was a vital and thriving institution only in Brazil, Cuba, and the southern United States (as well as in the vast Islamic world, parts of India, and most of Africa).
An institution and social order that only a few decades before had been widely accepted across the entire Western Hemisphere (and much of the planet throughout the course of human history) was suddenly confined to just a few (highly productive and wealthy) regions. Davis attributes this sudden reversal to ideology, specifically ‘the ideals of liberty and equality associated with secular republican principles’ and the rise of evangelical Christianity.
BRITISH GEO-POLITICS AND ANTI-SLAVERY
It was the British who took the lead in promoting anti-slavery not only in Great Britain but also in their colonies and even in foreign countries. While there were many in the grass-roots abolitionist movement who were influenced by idealistic notions of human equality which sprang from the Enlightenment era, to understand why anti-slavery was adopted as a state policy by the British government we must consider the geo-political implications. Dr Dale Tomich describes this for us in his essay ‘From Abolition to Emancipation’ which appears as chapter twenty in The Caribbean: A History of the Region and Its People, edited by Stephan Palmie and Francisco Scarano:
The abolition of the slave trade was caught up in the politics and policies of the British state.
…Britain’s unilateral, persistent, and vigorous pursuit of anti-slavery as state policy… can be interpreted as an effort to restructure the Atlantic economy in accordance with British interests. Abolition of the international slave trade was instrumental in weakening the European presence in the Atlantic and in preventing rival states from reestablishing closed colonial economies in the Americas.
…International agreement on the abolition of the slave trade was a means to end US involvement in the legal and illegal slave traffic and to curb Britain’s only commercial and maritime rival in the Atlantic.
…It pursued a strategy of free trade and informal empire in the Americas and colonial domination in Asia….
Anti-slavery fit the geo-political goals of British elites and supported their imperialist ambitions while hurting other European colonial empires.
SOUTHERNERS WITNESS THE FAILURE OF CARIBBEAN EQUALITY
Antebellum Southern elites kept a close eye on developments in other plantation societies throughout the New World. They witnessed the genocidal slaughter of White colonists in the Haitian Revolution and the subsequent collapse of civilisation in that country. The worst fear of Southerners was that the horror of Haiti would be duplicated in Dixie. As Henry L Benning, a wealthy Georgia planter, lawyer, judge and his State’s secession commissioner to Virginia, described in an address to the Old Dominion’s legislature in early 1861: ‘We will be completely exterminated… and the land will be left in the possession of the blacks, and then it will go back to a wilderness and become another Africa or St. Domingo.’ The South’s other secession commissioners gave similarly frank warnings about the destruction which would be brought upon their people if equality were forced upon the Southern States.
When Southerners looked at the plantation societies of the Caribbean they saw not onlythe racial warfare and genocidal slaughter in Haiti, they also saw the destruction that had been inflicted upon their kinsmen in the British West Indies. As Dr Tomich writes on page 315 of the Palmie and Scarano book:
In 1834 the British government abolished slavery…. The old colonies, including Jamaica, failed to successfully adapt to the new conditions and were condemned to continuing economic, social, and political crises. …After emancipation, the position of the colonies continued to deteriorate….
The utter failure of Britain’s experiment with equality in the once-prosperous Caribbean provided Southerners with valuable insight into what might transpire if such policies were pressed upon the South. Professor David Brion Davis writes on page 281 of his book:
[B]y 1843 Southern leaders were beginning to suspect that as a result of the failure of Britain’s “great experiment” of West Indian emancipation, Britain had strong economic motives to protect its own colonies by undermining slavery in the rest of the New World.
By 1861 one Southern woman could write to her cousin in England, arguing that the British West Indies had provided the South with a “window” for twenty-seven years – a window for viewing the total disaster of slave emancipation when British abolitionists won their way. By watching the British since 1834, she added, the South had learned that only resistance, even resistance in war, could prevent a West Indian-like collapse into social and economic ruin.
SOUTHERNERS EMBRACE INEQUALITY AS A POSITIVE GOOD
Their backs to the wall, Southerners took increasingly stronger positions against egalitarianism of the sort voiced by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. While Jefferson had been greatly influenced by the French Revolution and Enlightenment ideas, in the mid-nineteenth century Southern advocates were influenced by the Romantic backlash against the Enlightenment. Rather than arguing from a defencive position for inequality (as Jefferson had done in his Notes on the State of Virginia) they began advocating inequality as a positive good upon which rested their civilisation. They also began to identify in Northern abolitionists the same qualities which they despised in British egalitarians. They saw the economic and social ruin of the British Caribbean and contrasted that to their own prosperity and social order. They began to not only equate equality with economic decline, increasingly they equated civilisation (based on the classical models of Egypt, Greece and Rome) with inequality. Given their in-egalitarian origins and the circumstances they faced, such a conclusion is hardly surprising. Davis writes:
[F]or a growing number of Southern leaders and publicists, the Northeast was becoming a perfect replica of the British enemy. Britain, these Southerners believed, had first exploited its own slave colonies, then ruined them under the influence of misguided humanitarianism, and had finally used antislavery as a mask of righteousness in assuming commercial and ideological domination of the world. And the industrializing Northeast, like England, was now employing millions of wage earners, most of them immigrants, was developing cast and squalid urban centers, and was gaining mastery over what Southern “agrarians” saw as the corrupting sources of credit and investment capital. Unless Dixie made its stand, it would therefore share the fate of the exploited, debt-ridden, and ravaged West Indies.
Were Antebellum Southerners correct in their view that prosperity and civilisation (especially in multi-racial, agrarian societies) rested upon inequality? We not only have the example of the utter collapse of civilisation in Haiti, which had been one of the wealthiest and most productive societies on the planet, we also have the example of the post-war South where poverty (and even starvation) reigned in a land which had only a few years prior been far more prosperous than the egalitarian North (or most of the rest of the world, for that matter). Civilisation essentially collapsed on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, in the Yucatan and in Suriname – all of which had been prosperous plantation societies. In fact, as a general rule, those areas which had been the wealthiest during the plantation economy era (including the Mississippi Delta, the Southern ‘Black Belt,’ Haiti, Suriname, much of northern Brazil, etc) are now among the poorer areas in the hemisphere. The Wikipedia article on the Black Belt makes this point:
[T]he rural communities in the Black Belt commonly face acute poverty, rural exodus, inadequate education programs, low educational attainment, poor health care, substandard housing, and high levels of crime and unemployment. While African-American residents are disproportionately affected, these problems apply broadly to all ethnic groups in the Black Belt.
Take a look at the once-safe and orderly cities of Birmingham, New Orleans, Atlanta, etc. Southern metropolises have become Third World centres of disorder, crime and poverty under the US-imposed policies of egalitarianism and democracy. The same is true of other cities throughout the former plantation societies of the Americas. Most of the entire region, once known to Southerners as the ‘Golden Circle,’ now suffers from the effects of egalitarianism and democracy. Far from the utopian results foreseen by the outsiders and social crusaders who pushed through these policies, the region today is plagued with rampant crime, corruption, poverty, unemployment and (in at least some areas) collapse. Egalitarianism has been a failure, at least for the native citizens, in Dixie and the Golden Circle region.