A brief lesson in American economic history from W.E.B. Du Bois

Again in August 1949, 25 prominent Americans were asked to attend an all-Soviet peace conference in Moscow. For reasons which arose directly from the violent reception given the [American] peace congress in March, I was the only one who accepted the invitation. I addressed the 1,000 persons present:

‘The two great advantages of the United States have been vast natural resources and effective labor* force. The first effective labor force were slaves, at first both white and black; but increasingly as time went on black Africans brought in by an intense effort made by the English especially in the 18th century. That succeeded in landing 15 million black laborers in all the Americas from 1500 to 1800, at a cost of 100 million souls to Africa, disrupting its culture and ruining its economy. This labor gave the world tobacco, cotton, sugar and numbers of other crops and opened America to the world. There followed an increasing migration of millions of workers chiefly from Europe who became energetic laborers with initiative and skill encouraged by the large and immediate return from their efforts. With free land, favorable climate and freedom of trade, the individual laborer could make a living and often become rich with the necessicity of any wide social control for the common good. Plenty for most workers, without socialism, marked America from 1800 to 1900.

But this was possible not only because of vast resources but also because of the slavery of the blacks. So long as a depressed class of slaves with no political nor social rights supplied a rich mass of basic materials and a whole area of personal service the share of white capital and white labor was abnormally large. Even when the expanding mass of white labor tried to build a democratic form of government, inspired by the thinkers of the late 18th century, they faced the uncomfortable facts of slavery in the land of liberty. Some wanted to abolish Negro slavery forthwith; but slaves represented too much invested property and income for this to be easy. In 1787, the United States, beginning work on the drafting of a Constitution, and having previously declared that “All men are created equal” faced the problem of slavery and the slave trade. The phrase “All men are created equal” was not complete hypocrisy. Most persons believed that Negro slavery could not continue without a slave trade, so they arranged to suppress this African slave trade in 20 years and thus gradually they hoped the slave labor would disappear.

This did not happen, because slave labor in the United States even with a curtailed slave trade began to raise so valuable a cotton crop that this crop by use of newly invented machinery became one of the most profitable investments of the modern world. The spindles for spinning cotton cloth in Europe increased from five million in 1800 to 150 million in 1900 and black labor furnished the raw material. This was the Cotton Kingdom and it represented vast capital and the income of millions of persons. Slavery therefore in the United States by 1820, had so firm an economic foundation that emancipation became impossible without cataclysm.

This pressure for social upheaval did not come from the organizers of industry, nor from property owners, nor even at first from white workers, who had been taught that their high wages depended on the slavery of the Negroes. The pressure came primarily from the Negroes; first by their sheer physical expansion from 750,000 in 1790 to 3 million in 1840, of whom nearly 400,000 had gained their freedom by purchase, escape or philanthropy. They organized systematic escapes from the territory where the slave system prevailed; they joined with white men in an abolition movement; and their kin in Haiti and other West Indian islands shook the world with bloody revolt.

But the struggle of the black slave for freedom did not gain the sympathy of the majority of citizens of the United States. This was because a persistent propaganda campaign had been spread as slave labor began to increase in value, to prove by science and religion that black men were not real men; that they were a sub-species fit only for slavery. Consequently the first fight democracy and especially the struggle fro broader social control of wealth and of individual effort was hindered and turned aside by widespread contempt for the lowest class of labor and the consequent undue emphasis put on unhampered freedom of individual effort, even at the cost of social loss and degradation. Therefore at the time when socialism and broad social control for the common good should have spread in the United States as it was spreading in Europe, there grew on the contrary exaltation of industrial anarchy, tightening of the slave system and belief in individual or group success even at the expense of national welfare.

The catastrophe was precipitated as the workers gradually discovered that slavery of their black fellows was not to their advantage if slave labor spread to the free soil of the West. The nation went to Civil War therefore not to abolish slavery, but to limit it to the cotton states. The South was determined to spread slavery in the North and if not there, into the Caribbean and South America. This would cut Northern capital off from its most valuable market, and the North fought to preserve this market. But the North could not win without cooperation of the slaves themselves, since the slaves were raising food for the Southern armies. Gradually, by a general strike, the Negroes began to desert to the Northern armies as laborers, servants, and spies, until at last 200,000 of them became armed soldiers while a million more stood ready to fight. Thus American Negroes gained their freedom.

Now came the problem as to what to do with them. They were ignorant, poverty-stricken, sick. The Northerners wanted to let them drift. The freedmen desperately wanted land and education. A plan of socialistic control with schools and land distribution was worked out by philanthropists, but industry rejected it as to costly and as alien to American individualism. Then came a hitch; unless the slaves were given the right to vote, their numerical voting strength would go to their white former masters, who would vote to lower the tariff on which war industry flourished and to scale the war debt owned by Northern banks. Suddenly industry gave the black freedmen the vote, expecting them to fail but meantime to break the power of the planters. The Negroes did not fail; they franchised their fellow workers, establish public schools for all and began a modern socialistic legislation for hospitals, prisons, and land distribution. Immediately the former slave owners made a deal with Northern industrial leaders for the disfranchisement of the freedmen. The South would support the tariff and the debt. The freedmen lost the right to vote but retained their schools, poorly supported as they were by their own meager wages and Northern philanthropy.’ ”

– p. 351 – 353, A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century (W.E.B. Du Bois, 1968, posthumous)

What first strikes me is Du Bois’ ability to compress a vast economic history of a country and a people into a broad, detailed, yet concise speech. Also remarkable to me was his age at the time of this speech – 81! – although this perhaps reflects my own biases about age and aging more than anything especially peculiar about Du Bois.

There is some in the speech that is familiar – emancipation as a tool of war, some of the contradictions of the American Constitution – but much more that is new and interesting. I was vaguely aware that I didn’t understand the causes of the American Civil War, which he explains cynically and articulately. Wikipedia confirms him here (ctrl + f “slave power) and here. I was unaware of any 18th century leaning within the United States to end slavery, before it leaned back the other way. Most significantly, I had never considered the motivations behind black suffrage, to maintain the power of Northern interests. Apparently, the inclusion of the freed slaves in population census would greatly increase the number of formal representative for Southern states. So, to offset this shift in the balance of power, the freed slaves were also given the right to vote.  Finally, I knew nothing and still remain ignorant regarding any dealings for disfranchisement – although perhaps here Du Bois is referring to Jim Crow laws, created by Democratic legislators to win favor with Southern voters.

Curious to me, the generally broad-thinking Du Bois fails to make any mention of indigenous Americans in his notes on the creation of the wealth for the American upper class. Particularly when discussing the “vast resources” available to American and American settlers, the alternating wars and forced migrations inflicted on indigenous Americans are relevant.

Noting this, I am now curious about whom in that period – 1900 to 1950 perhaps – was writing about indigenous American rights and history. It is always interesting to me when I start to personally discover a new section of history of which I was previously ignorant (in this case, black history between the Civil War and 1950, of which I still knew little except as described by Du Bois’ in this autobiography), I can only wonder how many other areas of history I remain ignorant of.

*American spelling taken from Du Bois’ text.


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