Liberty Matters

In Praise of Free Labor

Phil Magness has done extraordinary work in his close examination of the New Historians of Capitalism (NHC), and I fiercely applaud him for it. The NHC—notably the works of Edward Baptist, Walter Johnson, and Sven Beckert—has done much mischief in the history profession and outside of it, too, especially with its influence on the 1619 Project
At root, the NHC takes for its starting point not Plymouth Rock and Boston, but Jamestown and Charleston. Indeed, their southern-centric history historiographically dates back to at least the divide between David Ramsey (1787; the southern view of the Revolution) and Mercy Otis Warren (1805; the New England view of the revolution), and the sectional struggle to tell the story of America. 
What is left out in their history of American capitalism, of course, is not just Plymouth Rock and Boston, but St. Louis, Fort Pierre, Great Falls, Denver, Santa Fe, Chicago, Cleveland, Fort Wayne, Sacramento, and Portland. With the NHC, we readily lose sight of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco as well as Lakota warriors along the Bad River. Instead, we stand only in Atlanta and New Orleans, staring at dry bales of cotton.
There are, at the very least, three things deeply wrong with the NHC’s analysis and interpretation of American history.
First, there’s very little evidence to suggest that slavery was in any way, shape, or form, an efficient form of labor, relative to plantations or to the South as a whole. Southern theorist Hinton Rowan Helper, whatever his many faults, described the situation well:
In our opinion . . . the causes which have impeded the progress and prosperity of the South, which have dwindled our commerce, and other similar pursuits, into the most contemptible insignificance; sunk a large majority of our people in galling poverty and ignorance, rendered a small minority conceited and tyrannical, and driven the rest away from their homes; entailed upon us a humiliating dependence on the Free States; disgraced us in the recesses of our own souls, and brought us under reproach in the eyes of all civilized and enlightened nations--may all be traced to one common source, and there find solution in the most hateful and horrible word, that was ever incorporated into the vocabulary of human economy--Slavery!
By no means was it a foregone conclusion in the pre-Civil War and Civil War eras that slavery was an economic boon or even the prime mover of market capitalism. Textiles, to be sure—as noted by diverse scholars such as Niall Ferguson and Virginia Postrel—played a major role in market capitalism, but cotton could be had from Egypt as well as India, as Magness pointed out in his own critique of the NHC. South Carolina Senator James Hammond—in addition to being a reprehensible human being, as Maury Klein has so shockingly revealed—was simply wrong about “King Cotton.” The British easily moved away from slave-produced cotton at the onset of the American Civil War.
Additionally, the Northeast and the upper Midwest not only supplied the Republican (and Free Soiler) Lincoln with votes in 1860, but they also massively outpopulated the South in terms of babies, outdid them in literacy, and outproduced the South in every economic factor except for cotton. In manufacturing, Massachusetts alone produced more than the entire future Confederacy, and New York and Pennsylvania each outproduced the South two times over. In railroads, iron, firearms, textiles, coal, and banking capital, the competition wasn’t even close. Each category was dominated by the American North. Even in agriculture, the North outgrew the South in wheat at a ratio of 412 to 1.
Second, one should not readily dismiss—as the NHC seem to do—the free soil and free labor spirit of the American Northeast, Midwest, and West of the nineteenth century. For millions of Americans, capitalism meant the freedom of labor, not the enslavement of it. Given his rise to the presidency, no one better expressed or reveled in this than Abraham Lincoln, as demonstrated in the following quotes.
In 1854:
Our republican robe is soiled and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit if not the blood, of the Revolution. Let us turn slavery from its claims of ‘moral right,’ back upon its existing legal rights, and its arguments of ‘necessity.’ Let us return it to the position our fathers gave it; and there let it rest in peace. Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it. Let north and south—let all Americans—let all lovers of liberty everywhere—join in the great and good work. If we do this, we shall have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving. We shall have so saved it, that the succeeding millions of free happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed, to the latest generation.
In 1856:
We stand at once the wonder and admiration of the whole world, and we must enquire what it is that has given us so much prosperity, and we shall understand that to give up that one thing, would be to give up all future prosperity. This cause is that every man can make himself. It has been said that such a race of prosperity has been run nowhere else. We find a people on the North-east, who have a different government from ours, being ruled by a Queen. Turning to the South, we see a people who, while they boast of being free, keep their fellow beings in bondage. Compare our Free States with either, shall we say here that we have no interest in keeping that principle alive? Shall we say ‘Let it be.” No—we have an interest in the maintenance of the principles of the Government and without this interest, it is worth nothing. I have noticed in Southern newspapers, particularly the Richmond Enquirer, the Southern view of the Free States. They insist that slavery has a right to spread. They defend it upon principle. They insist that their slaves are far better off than Northern freemen. What a mistaken view do these men have of Northern laborers! They think that men are always to remain laborers here—but there is no such class. The man who labored for another last year, this year labors for himself, and next year he will hire others to labor for him.
In 1860:
I am glad to see that a system of labor prevails in New England under which laborers can strike when they want to, where they are not obliged to work under all circumstances, and are not tied down and obliged to work under all circumstances, and are not tied down and obliged to labor whether you pay them or not! I like the system which lets a man quit when he wants to, and wish it might prevail everywhere. One of the reasons why I am opposed to Slavery is just here. What is the true condition of the laborer? I take it that it is best for all to leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can. Some will get wealthy. I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich; it would do more harm than good. So while we do not propose any war upon capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else. When one starts poor, as most do in the race of life, free society is such that he knows he can better this condition; he knows that there is no fixed condition of labor, for his whole life. I am not ashamed to confess that twenty-five years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flat-boat—just what might happen to any poor man’s son! I want every man to have the chance—and I believe a black man is entitled to it—in which he can better this condition—when he may look forward and hope to be a hired laborer this year and the next, work for himself afterward, and finally to hire men to work for him! That is the true system.
One must, Lincoln thought, interpret the constitution through the Declaration of Independence, the “apple of gold.” “The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, ‘fitly spoken’ which has proved an ‘apple of gold’ to us,” he claimed in early 1861. 
“The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple—not the apple for the picture.” Less than a year earlier, he had stated publicly, “Only one reason is possible, and that is supplied by us by one of the framers of the Constitution—and it is not possible for many to conceive of any other—they expected and desired that the system would come to an end, and meant that when it did, the Constitution should not show that there ever had been a slave in this good free country of ours!”
Equally important to the free labor assertion of the Declaration of Independence was Article VI of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” which later served as the basis of the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As Jon Lauck has so powerfully argued in The Good Country, the Northwest Ordinance fundamentally defined the free-labor spirit of the nineteenth-century American Midwest.
Further, as James McPherson has noted in his definitive history of the Civil War, Ordeal by Fire, one could not separate the Free Soil, Free Labor, and abolitionist movements from the greatest industrialists and manufacturers of the era, both in the United States and in Great Britain. “A similarity existed in the social origins of entrepreneurial and abolitionist leaders—both in Britain and in the United States . . . . the Lloyds, the Barclays, and the Wedgewoods, formed the vanguard of the industrial revolution and furnished many eighteenth-century British anti-slavery leaders.”
Third and finally, at the time that slavery existed in the nineteenth-century, prominent theorists and southern apologists such as George Fitzhugh identified slavery, properly, not with free-market capitalism, but with socialism. As he wrote in 1854’s Sociology for the South:
They will have attained association of labor, for slavery produces association of labor, and is one of the ends all Communists and Socialists desire. A well-conducted farm in the South is a model of associated labor that Fourier might envy. One old woman nurses all the children whilst the mothers are at work; another waits on the sick, in a house set aside for them. Another washes and cooks, and a fourth makes and mends the clothing. It is a great economy of labor, and is a good idea of the Socialists. Slavery protects the infants, the aged and the sick; nay, takes far better care of them than of the healthy, the middle-aged and the strong. They are part of the family, and self-interest and domestic affection combine to shelter, shield and foster them. A man loves not only his horses and his cattle, which are useful to him, but he loves his dog, which is of no use. He loves them because they are his. What a wise and beneficent provision of Heaven, that makes the selfishness of man's nature a protecting aegis to shield and defend wife and children, slaves and even dumb animals. The Socialists propose to reach this result too, but they never can if they refuse to march in the only road Providence has pointed out.”
And, again, Fitzhugh wrote: “Socialism proposes to do away with free competition; to afford protection and support at all times to the laboring class; to bring about, at least, a qualified community of property, and to associate labor. All these purposes, slavery fully and perfectly attains.”
Not shockingly then, when the Confederate States of America formed in 1861, they adopted what Richard Franklin Bensel has labeled as statism and what John Majewski has called “Confederate War Socialism”—centralizing intense authority in the executive branch and through a massive bureaucracy, imposing wage and price controls, establishing duties on exports and imports (despite being unconstitutional), taxing everything in and out of sight, inflating the currency, impressing and conscripting soldiers and labor, nationalizing what little industry there was, creating a pass system, and enforcing loyalty oaths.
Again, let me praise Magness for his fundamental takedown of the NHC.
And, on a rather biased note, let me just state that it’s unbelievably perverse to identify free market capitalism—arguably the greatest achievement of liberalism—with slave labor as the New Historians of Capitalism have done. Slavery and freedom simply cannot co-exist harmoniously.