The American Revolution Reconsidered: Part Twenty-Two: Urban Slavery (Section C)

Benjamin Banneker: (1731-1806); a technically free black scientist, surveyor, almanac author, and farmer.
Benjamin Banneker: (1731-1806); a technically free black scientist, surveyor, almanac author, and farmer. | Source

One reason we are talking about urban slavery, in the United States, so much is because of an argument made about the American Civil War of the 1860s. The specific line of argument I'm thinking of concerns the overthrow of slavery. It is said---(and I, the person writing this, have made this argument myself)---that slavery had to be destroyed in order to maximize opportunities for free white labor.

That is to say, as the argument goes, the continued existence of slave labor put free white labor at a disadvantage, in the same way, perhaps, that the much cheaper, far more exploitable labor of third world countries, places free American labor at a competitive disadvantage, cost-wise, as far as the owners of the means of production are concerned.

As I said, urban slavery in the United States cries out for more research. However, from what I can tell, the argument that slavery stood in the way of free white labor, does not work. It does not fit what was actually happening in the country after the Revolutionary War of the late eighteenth century and nineteenth century.

From what I can tell, from the limited historical data available to me, I would say this: Not only was slavery NOT standing in the way of free white labor; but I will go a step further and say that free white labor had never been so 'free' and empowered as under the slavery period. Free white labor had never been so insulated and protected from competition as it had been under the slave regime.

If free white labor had truly been enhanced with the destruction of slavery in the United States, why the bitterness directed at African Americans after the Civil War, in the form of lynching (a post-slavery phenomena) and race riots in the cities?

That is to say, if the white working class had truly felt themselves to have been empowered, the lynching and race riots don't make sense. That is to say, why didn't they look at their bulging wallets, enhanced lifestyles, humane working conditions, and say, 'Thank God slavery is over. That institution was really holding us, free white working folk back'?

The lynching and race riots make more sense, if free white labor found its status severely reduced and compromised with the overthrow of slavery, after the Civil War. White attacks against blacks would then be perfectly comprehensible as an expression of resentment and rage at the loss of freedom they had found themselves subjected to, in the cause of black liberation.

I have heard one historian say that the actor John Wilkes Boothe shot Abraham Lincoln to death, because a white man like himself (Boothe) could not see how blacks could be given their freedom without men like Boothe, losing theirs.

Indeed, as we shall see, the period of the 1870s-1930s, does, in many ways, constitute what I would consider to be the re-enslavement of the white working class in America.

Its worth remembering what actually triggered the American Civil War of the 1860s. Abraham Lincoln---who was not an abolitionist but more in favor of free labor on free soil---won Presidential election without having carried a single southern state.

Southern leaders thought they were facing the prospect of seeing their preferred way of life, centered around plantation slavery, being voted out of existence. But Abraham Lincoln had not run for office, promising to end slavery if elected. As you know, Lincoln was all about holding the Union together, however possible.

Southern leaders formed the Confederacy and bolted from the Union based on what they thought might be coming down the pike, in the face of Lincoln's election.

Maybe they were right, maybe they were wrong. Perhaps if the south had not left the Union, the end of slavery might have come more gradually and gently, if that is the word.

You will recall that a red line for Lincoln and many Republicans, had been an absolute prohibition against the extension of plantation slavery into the western frontier. The railroads chiefs wanted that land, or as much of it as they could lay their hands on.

Given the fact that Abraham Lincoln, himself, had been one of the most successful railroad lawyers of the 1850s (1)---one could make a case that the real winners of the Civil War were the railroad companies and investors.

That is to say, that plantation slavery made use of land in a certain way that had been standing in the way of railroad expansion. By the way, this would go back to a point I made in the very first installment of this series.

A country modernizes, first, by putting together a communications infrastructure and transportation network. These things are the heart of industry and commerce. We could say that the South's continued adherence to plantation slavery was, indeed, inhibiting modernization, in that its use of land, or "waste" of land, was inhibiting the expansion of modern transportation and communication infrastructure.

The financial historian, Edward Chancellor, lets us know that the railroads were established with federal land grants which exceeded 170 million acres; and that they were primarily vehicles for land speculation (2).

What is striking about this, is the fact that as the railroads may have helped to structurally overturn plantation slavery, by imposing different land-use imperatives on the country---the apparent need for kinetic investor speculative activity, which meant that the railroads had to be built as quickly as possible, apparently inspired the importation of another source of forced labor, in addition to whatever percentage of free labor existed, to build them.

I'm speaking of kidnapped Chinese nationals, which was called the 'pig trade' (3).

This possible fact has provided me with a clue, for an answer to a question that had vexed me for some time.

Question: How is it that the American Republican party, which had been, in the nineteenth century, the relatively race-progressive (it had been the abolitionist party), relatively class-reactionary party (in so far as it was the pro-business party), became the relatively race-reactionary and relatively class-reactionary party of today?

Question: Likewise, how is it that the American Democratic party, which had been, in the nineteenth century, the relatively race-reactionary (it had been the pro-slavery party), relatively class-progressive party, became the relatively race-progressive, class-progressive party of today?

In my opinion, the short answer is: excessively finance-driven capitalism.

Now then, as you know, the Republican party had always been the party most associated with business, and, as a consequence, finance, since anything ever produced for sale had to be financed.

The relative race-reactionary tendency, relatively class-progressive stance of the nineteenth century Democratic party, is, perhaps, best exemplified by Andrew Jackson's "Trail of Tears" forced migration of the Cherokee, and campaigns against Bank of the United States, respectively.

There is apparently something about excessively finance-driven capitalism, which all but dissolves the bonds of human sympathy.

For example, we know that CEOs of corporations are perfectly willing to fire employees for no other reason than to give the company stock price a short-term upward jolt (4), thereby ruining lives, careers, and families in the process.

Let me start wrapping this up, by cutting to the chase.

if one thinks about it, it starts to seem that the nineteenth century Republican party's relatively race-progressive, therefore perceived "pro-black," anti-(plantation) slavery stance, seems to have been incidental and structural, in that plantation slavery used land in a way that impeded railroad expansion, and to a certain extent, modernization of the country, more broadly.

Again, as we saw with the railroads, when the incident and structure of the financial activity, which undergirded it required, they turned to drafting another source of forced labor, in the form of kidnapped Chinese workers. In doing this, they probably contributed to the development of anti-Chinese racism on the part of Americans.

Do you follow me?

What I'm saying is that: I believe that the Republican party, with one hand helped to overthrow the system of plantation slavery, which happened to be race-based. Since plantation slavery in the United States, was one hundred percent associated with black victimhood---the Republican party's dedication to the overthrow (or at least non-expansion) of slavery, though economic and pro-railroad and pro-modernization, gave the party, in the eyes of many, the benefit of the doubt of being relatively race-progressive. But, the imperatives of the railroads caused the Republican party to at least tacitly sanction the victimization of another non-white group, the Chinese, thereby, probably contributing to anti-Chinese racism, in the United States, in the process.

Does that make sense?

Now, as you know, there are many interconnections between race and class. So, when the paradigm of a wholly free population of African descent became the reality in the United States of America---the Democratic party (which had always been the relatively class-progressive party) could, by and large, welcome the black population into that political camp, since black Americans tended to poorer than white Americans by an order of magnitude.

Is that clear?


Now, those of you who've been following this series, know that I argue that in order to keep a system of urban slavery running, it depends upon the existence of the harsher variant of plantation slavery, as the threat.

That is to say, if you wanted to keep your Baltimore, urban slave cobbler in line, you needed to be able to compel him by threatening to sell him to a tobacco plantation in Virginia, where life was certain to pass by much more treacherously and dangerously and onerously for him.

Slave conditions in the Caribbean were generally more punishing that what obtained in the States. To sell a South Carolina slave to Jamaica was like a death sentence, worse than being banished to Siberia in the Soviet era.

But by the 1860s, certainly, black liberation was happening all over the Caribbean and Latin America. With this turn of events, the southern plantation slaveholder was losing his ability to threaten his slaves with harsher conditions in Jamaica, Haiti, and so forth.

The railroads move in, further compromising, on a structural land-use basis, the ecology of plantation slavery.

With the erosion of plantation slavery, the ability of urban slaveholders to control their slaves through threats of harsher conditions, also erodes.

This means that the overthrow of slavery in the United States, probably owes more than we like to imagine to the international situation at the time, not just in the Western Hemisphere but Europe as well.

Let's leave it there. In part twenty-three urban slavery (section d), I'm going to directly refute the notion that slave labor was, in any way, "competing" against free white labor, necessitating the overthrow of slavery.

Thank you for reading!


1. Abraham Lincoln, the Railroad Lawyer. (2015). Retrieved June 26, 2015. (The Abraham Lincoln Historical Society).

2. Chancellor, Edward. Devil Take The Hindmost: A History of Financial Speculation. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1999. 155-156

3. Chomsky, Noam. Hopes and Prospects. Haymarket Books, 2010. 78

4. Phillips, Kevin. Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich. Broadway Books, 2002. 142; Johnston, David Cay. Free Lunch: How The Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves At Government Expense (And Stick You With The Bill). Portfolio, 2007. 15

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