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After the American Civil War, and largely because of it, the South was the poorest region of the United States. Even today, the states that had very large slave populations in 1860 tend to have low per capita incomes, with Mississippi perennially at the bottom. Segments of that South are so devoid of resources that some places can’t even treat the tuberculosis which rages within their realms.

If, however, wealth is assessed the way most white people calculated it at the time — by counting enslaved African-Americans as victims of desperate poverty that slaveholders imposed on them — the South was the nation’s wealthiest region before the Civil War.

Two-thirds of all Americans who owned estates worth more than $100,000 lived in the South in 1860; Mississippi and Louisiana boasted more millionaires per capita than Massachusetts and New York; and more capital was invested in enslaved African-Americans than in railroad and industrial assets combined.

But the Southern slaveholders were more than just rich. According to River of Dark Dreams (a monumentally spot on treatment of its subject), the slaveholders were the quintessential American capitalists. They were early adopters of technology, avid consumers of financial data, expert manipulators of legal arcana and aggressive speculators in everything, including not only human chattel and cotton but also unstable paper money and exotic credit arrangements.

Above all, the slaveholders of the Cotton Kingdom were rapacious — and highly effective — masters of the essential capitalist process of converting labor into commodities. The whole point of plantation slavery, apparently, was this chain of capitalist mutations: from “lashes into labor into bales into dollars into pounds sterling,” according to Walter Johnson (author of River of Dark Dreams:Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, a work I might be able to secure for interested readers through my contacts at Harvard/Belknap publishers, but which — regardless — I recommend HIGHLY).

Much of the North’s wealth also depended on the exploitation of slave labor, which is something I don’t find many college graduates in the U.S. know about. That’s particularly interesting since that was a fact even though the Northern states had abolished slavery within their boundaries in the decades after the American Revolution. Many of the early Northern factories turned Southern cotton into cheap textiles, which were then sold to the slaveholders as low-grade negro cloth.”

But the factories were not the big story, since they remained relatively small in that period. Most Northerners were farmers rather than industrialists or industrial workers. The serious profits were made in commerce, especially shipping, financing and insuring the cotton that accounted for roughly half the value of all U.S. exports from 1820 to 1860. Southern cotton, even more than the grain hauled through the Great Lakes and Erie Canal, fed the rise of New York to commercial eminence. Nurtured New York to commercial success, provided the very foundation on which its entire financial dynamic rests today.

So who has anything significant to say about what Whites owe Blacks? In the context of a level playing field NEVER having been established in the most “exceptional democracy” on earth. In light of the darkness that has descended, wherin segregation and other matters have gotten infinitely worse since the day,

I say all that should be discussed directly at all schools, colleges and universities across the country. Made mandatory. Even where tuberculosis can’t be treated in the Black Belt today. Hey, that national health shame could be included in the discussion, yes?

Richard Martin Oxman has been an educator on all levels for over half a century, and a proactive concerned citizen for longer than that. He is Director of Flannery O’Connor Academy, and can be reached at aptosnews@gmail.com. Members of the Oxman Collective — Annapurna Tosca Sriramarcel, Valleria Ruselli, Marcel Duchamp Oxman, Rachel Olivia O’Connor and Rachel Oxman, all of whom write exclusively for CC — helped with research for this article.

 

 

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