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“Calculating the Value of the Union”, by James L. Huston

October 19, 2016


I am a sucker for American Civil War histories.  Each year I make sure I read either a full length study of some aspect of the American Civil War or a book about the the ante-bellum tensions leading up to the Civil War or about Reconstruction.

James L. Huston’s contribution to Civil War causation theory is stubbornly economic in its focus.  It is concerned neither with “States Rights” nor with the vagaries of Southern cultural distinctiveness.  His book is concerned, rather,  with property and the meaning of property and the defense of property.  It reinforces the familiar point that the cause “States Rights” was hardly the dominant register of pro-slavery discourse before the War and that slaving interests were concerned not with being “left alone” by the Federal government but aimed rather at controlling it.

The billions (yes billions) of dollars tied up in slave ownership in the 1850s encouraged many in the North (who were unabashedly racist and who evidenced not an atom of sympathy for the sufferings of plantation slaves) that this economic power threatened to become the dominant political power within the Union.  The defense of “free labour” and economies based on “free labour” suggested a real sense of  risk from a southern aristocracy that would inevitably legislate in its own interests.  Huston, with the aid of painstaking statistics, demonstrates that the idea that the South was “impoverished” relative to the North withstands no real analysis.  He is at odds, therefore, with a rather crude Marxian orthodoxy which dictates that slavery was a feudal throwback destined to wither on the vine as the inevitable, dialectically determined march of capitalism rendered it obsolete.  He is even receptive to the thesis that slave labour might have been adapted for use in factories and other industrial concerns.  In any case, his assessment of the sheer scale of the fortune tied up in slave ownership renders it plausible that slave owners were hardly likely to tamely give up their slaves when confronted with speculative macro-economic projections.

The most fascinating section of Huston’s book concerns the centrality of “property rights”.  “Property rights” absorbed theoreticians of the American experiment since colonial times.  There was a general and well founded fear among those leisured enough to design constitutions that majoritarian democracy offered a clear and present danger to property.  Naturally, there was difference of opinion as to whether or not “slaves” constituted property, or at least property as unambiguous as any other kind of property.  Pro-slavery apologists declared loudly that they were, of course, but the practical (let along ethical) problems with declaring human beings to be property created legal as well as political minefields.  While northern Free-Soilers always admitted that property needed protection, they did not give “property” the absolute and foundational significance that it was given on the streets of Charleston.  Philosophically, the conflict between representative government and property rights is fascinating, leading to the paradox that property is undeniably private, yet the legal framework that defines such privacy is undeniably public and political.

Huston makes a superb point about railroads central to Northern victory in the war, central to their ability to organise superior numbers and direct them across vast distances in a timely fashion.  But Huston makes a different point about the spread of railroads in the 1850s.  Railroads, like any revolution in transportation technology, have the effect of diminishing transportation costs as a percentage of the cost of manufactured goods.  As these transportation costs diminish, then the cost of labour becomes relatively more important.  This is as true in the twenty first century as it was in the mid nineteenth.  Massive container ports and whopping big ships travelling between these ports mean that Capital will seek out and employ the world’s cheapest possible source of manufacturing labour.  Needless to say, no form of labour is cheaper than slave labour.

Rational self interest, therefore, dictated that the transportational cost savings and efficiencies generated by railroads were likely to ensure that the products of “free labour” would find it difficult to compete with the products of slave labour.

In short, this is a careful, eloquent and persuasive book.  I am reminded of the important anthology Why the South Lost the Civil War by Hattaway, Beringer et al.  If, as Huston is correct, economic interests and the defense of those interests were paramount among pro-slavery southerners, the decision to surrender in 1865 becomes all the more plausible.  A bushwacking campaign of resistance was entirely plausible in 1865, and armed bands could have turned vast stretches of the old South into bleeding Kansases and Missouris.  But such a strategy, justifiable if abstract claims of freedom and sovereignty were paramount, becomes utterly unjustifiable if the utter impoverishment of the region is the result, with no cash crop farming being possible.  The South, therefore, initiated secession and provoked the war because slaves generated immense wealth, and stopped fighting when fighting could no longer protect that wealth.


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