Throughout history, societies that have optimized order through organization of men, equipment, energy, resources, and technologies, have dominated commerce. Control of men, of the land they tilled, of armies, or slaves was the dominating motive force of wealth creation prior to the industrial era, when energy began to supplant man as the motive force of progress.
Prior to the Civil War, Slaves were the economic engine for America, and the driver of its economy. While the North had much of the industry of America, the South had cotton and four million slaves. Cotton made the Southern United States one of the four most prosperous economies in the world and northern industry, which was internationally uncompetitive, depended on trade with southern states.
To enforce trade, Northern Congressmen pushed tariffs through a Congress dominated by the North, since the North had two thirds of the population. Tariffs allowed the North to skim slave-derived cotton profits through interstate trade. The North depended on southern purchases and attempted to prevent war that would hurt both economies severely. Yet when the South seceded for reasons of tariffs and slavery, destruction of the South’s economy was inevitable.
The minimal physical infrastructure that existed in the South was devastated by the war. And human capital…40 percent of white males of war age were wounded or killed. The bonds held by wealthy southern landowners that had funded the war were now worthless. Congress increased tariffs even more punitively after the war, imposing reparation costs on the South. And the vast wealth of the South, its slaves, was emancipated without compensation to owners.
The Southern Elite had pinned their economic future on the plantation system. Southern farmland was poor soil for growing staple crops that thrived in the North and Midwest, and cotton was highly labor dependent. The success of the plantation strategy therefore relied on a grotesque caste system, which instilled in slaves that they were incapable of anything but their deprived existence. Now that the North had torn apart this caste paradigm, the Southern elites believed their very survival depended on once again entrapping their labor. They chose terror as their weapon.
The ensuing black codes were an oppressive start. Plantation Owners passed vagrancy laws to imprison former slaves who did not sign annual share cropping contracts. And freedmen that tried to leave the South could be pulled off the train and imprisoned for similar reasons. Anyone caught coming to the South to recruit Freedmen could be imprisoned unless, as an example, they purchased $25,000 recruitment licenses. More monstrously oppressive were the 4,500 lynchings that took place all over the South to send freedmen the signal that they were no longer free.
What had been 4,000 of the wealthiest men in the United States now dragged four million souls through constant terror and degradation to save what was left of their fortunes. And while the northern administrators initially fought back, Northern Congressmen ultimately decided that continued bondage was in the best interests of their constituents, ending Reconstruction.
Was the victor of the Civil War actually going to accept the outcome of Reconstruction as simply a means to reunite the states and to recommence commerce? Was this going to be the final resolution to the loss of 620,000 American lives? This political compromise of the wealthy powers meant that those soldiers who spilled blood to give an oppressed people the hope of a free American life, would as a ghostly choir now transfix on a distant future silently aggrieved.
Some say that Supreme Court decisions reflect more the slowly changing mores of America than an objective rendering of the Constitution. In 1883, when it ruled protection of ex slaves’ civil rights as unconstitutional, it supported pre-civil war racist views of both the South and North that allowed southern states to re-install oppressive control of ex-slaves.
For the next thirty years, the South and North would suspend racial justice while allowing real terror of lynch mobs to roam free. How would generations of injustice and poverty affect a subculture of righteous anger within the African American community? How would it ultimately impact our inner cities?