The irrepressible conflict


Today is the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession from the federal Union. Four days later (24 December 1860) came the Declaration of Immediate Causes, a statement issued by delegates to the Charleston convention, explaining their earlier ordinance:

The ends for which the Constitution was framed are declared by itself to be “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

These ends it endeavored to accomplish by a Federal Government, in which each State was recognized as an equal, and had separate control over its own institutions. The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.


On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.

The guarantees of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.

Sectional interest and animosity will deepen the irritation, and all hope of remedy is rendered vain, by the fact that public opinion at the North has invested a great political error with the sanction of more erroneous religious belief.

We, therefore, the People of South Carolina, by our delegates in Convention assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved, and that the State of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, as a separate and independent State; with full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do.

Here are two contributions in the Beard tradition of Civil War historiography, i.e. seeking the political-economic basis for sectional conflict. First Charles Post:

The social origins and historical timing of the political crisis that culminated in the Civil War can be located in the transformation of plantation slavery from a spur into an obstacle to the development of capitalism in the US, as the result of the transition from independent household to petty commodity production in the northwest in the late 1830s and early 1840s…As industrial capitalism expanded rapidly in the two decades before the Civil War, plantation slavery’s noncapitalist class structure became an obstacle to the development of capitalism in the US. On the one hand, the master-slave relation of production prevented the use of new, labour-saving machinery and implements, limiting the market for factory produced capital goods. On the other, the attempt of slaveowners to make their plantations ‘self-sufficient’ in food stuffs, cloth and other items, limited the market for factory produced consumer goods. Together with the dominance of independent household production in the non-plantation districts, plantation slavery restricted the depth of the home market and made the south the least industrialised region in the antebellum US. The geographic expansion of plantation slavery, an unavoidable feature of this social property relation, into the west would have stifled the development of agrarian petty-commodity production and the home market for industrial capitalism in the 1840s and 1850s. The emergence of the conflict between the requirements of the development of plantation slavery and of industrial capitalism made the question of the future class structure of the west (slavery or capitalism and petty commodity production) the central and unresolvable political issue of the 1840s and 1850s.

And here’s the world-systems theorist Christopher Chase-Dunn:

The success of the Republicans and the split between the Northern and Southern Democrats broke the alliance between the farmers of the West and the planters of the South, which had allowed the Southerners to control the Federal state through the Democratic party. The crumbling of this alliance provoked the Civil War even though the Republicans never advocated the abolition of slavery but only prevention of its extension to the West. Southern peripheral capitalism was expansionist because of its extensive nature and the quick exhaustion of the soil, but this was not the main reason why the South desired the extension of slavery to the West. The main issue for the South was control over the Federal state. Planters opposed the creation of free states because the alliance with free farmers was tenuous and they felt they would have less and less power in the Federal state. The result would be a direct attack on their “peculiar institution” and their subjugation to the North as an internal colony. Therefore, when the South- West coalition crumbled and Lincoln won the election in 1860, South Carolina did not even wait for him to take office. As Rubinson (1978) has pointed out, the Presidency was everything because there was hardly a Federal bureaucracy in which the South could have institutionalized control. South Carolina seceded immediately, and most of the other slave states followed when it became clear that the North would make war in order to preserve the Union…It was not slavery that was the main issue but the question of who would dominate the Federal state. Free farmers and workers found themselves at odds with the interests of the peripheral capitalists of the South on the issue of the frontier, and so cast their lot with core capital. In so doing, they destroyed the plantocracy and created a strong core state. The Civil War and Reconstruction firmly established the hegemony of core capitalism and core labor over the Federal state.

Ten years ago this month, it became clear that, once again, the existing political framework could not support the needs and ambitions of the United States’ political elite. And, as with Dred Scott, the Supreme Court took the lead in supporting the most reactionary branch of state managers. Antonin Scalia‘s open elitism and contempt for the idea of popular suffrage was soon followed by people like John Yoo:

Contrary to Democratic rhetoric, the people have no right to vote for president or even the Electoral College; that power is only delegated to them by the grace of the legislature. In appointing the electors itself, the legislature would be directly taking up its constitutional functions again.

People (mostly Democrats) started to circulate funny maps comparing the geographic distribution of Bush and Gore (or Bush and Kerry) votes to the division between pro-Union and Confederate states. There was, indeed, a renewed basis for sectional divisions: the Democrats received most of their funding from “new economy” sectors in Silicon Valley, West Hollywood, and the Pacific northwest, and attracted support in gentrified urban areas (often containing hi-tech clusters like Kendall Square) of Boston, northern California, Portland and Seattle; the DLC increasingly pursued the support of high finance on Wall Street and Connecticut’s Gold Coast. The Republicans, meanwhile, drew backers from energy, construction, defence and the relatively backwards, anti-NAFTA manufacturing sector. The party’s support was thus concentrated in the Houston energy corridor, the Piedmont (including North Carolina’s Research Triangle), the Sun Belt and Wall Street.

This time, however, there was no practical conflict within the US ruling elite. Though the Republicans were most forthright in stealing elections through disenfranchisment, the Democrats and the broader “liberal” wing soon joined enthusiastically in a common project of constitutional rollback, open criminality and removal of hard-won rights.


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One Response to “The irrepressible conflict”

  1. Not a suicide pact « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] Supreme Court had earlier supported the westward spread of slavery, and thus precipitated the secessionist crisis. Nowadays, the expansion of executive power, free of congressional checks or judicial scrutiny […]

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