First, a curious person in her New Hampshire town hall this week asked Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley, “What caused the Civil War?”
You could almost see the gears turning in her head, as she backs away from the questioner and takes a long pause, knowing that if she says “slavery” she’ll offend the white racist base of the GOP.
Ron DeSantis, after all, had to go so far as to change the curriculum in Florida’s public schools to assert that enslaved people “learned skills” that “could be applied for their personal benefit.”
Haley, of course, is no idiot. She was governor of South Carolina, the first state to secede from the union after Abe Lincoln was elected president in 1860. Her state’s December 20, 1860 Declaration of Secession lays it out clearly:
“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.”
So, lamely, Haley recites the ancient Southern excuse, that slavery was merely capitalism, that “freedom” means the freedom of white people to own other human beings:
“I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run — the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do.
“I think it always comes down to the role of government and what the rights of the people are. And I will always stand by the fact that I think government was intended to secure the rights and freedoms of the people. It was never meant to be all things to all people.
“Government doesn’t need to tell you how to live your life. They don’t need to tell you what you can and can’t do. They don’t need to be a part of your life. They need to make sure that you have freedom. We need to have capitalism. We need to have economic freedom. We need to make sure that we do all things so that individuals have the liberties so that they can have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to do or be anything they want to be without government getting in the way.”
When she was called out on it by the questioner, who said he was “astonished” that her answer didn’t mention slavery, she tried to be glib, asking rhetorically, “What do you want me to say about slavery?”
When the gaffe went viral, Haley tried to clean it up by saying that “of course” slavery was a cause of the Civil War, and, later, blaming the “gotcha” question on a “Democratic plant” who’d sneakily inserted himself into her town hall.
The simple reality is that the pro-slavery South is still very much with us, and is still — after 163 years — trying to make the case that democracy should be replaced with a strongman white supremacist oligarchy.
As I wrote in The Hidden History of American Oligarchy, the South had ceased to be a democracy by the 1830s and by the time of the Civil War was a full-blown police state run by a few thousand morbidly rich families who lived and acted like the feudal lords of ancient Europe.
And, most interesting, a disruptive new technology — the invention of the cotton gin — drove the process.
Just as the agricultural revolution birthed humanity’s first documented oligarchies, the invention of the cotton gin and its widespread use by 1820 birthed the first American oligarchy, one that eventually rose up and challenged democracy itself in a bloody Civil War.
The backstory is fascinating, and helps us understand Nikki Haley’s blithering. Today’s Republicans are using the new technology of social media to try to impose a 21st century version of the Confederate oligarchy and its exploitation of poor people.
From the century of the American Revolution until the early 1800s, the main sources of power that fueled America were twofold: wood and human labor.
In the north, that labor was often supplied by European convicts or indentured European immigrants who committed to a certain number of years of free labor in exchange for transportation from Europe, or simply by poor immigrants willing to do pretty much any job for very low pay.
As transatlantic commerce exploded through the late 1700s and early 1800s, the increasing numbers of ships brought with them a dramatic decrease in the cost of the trip for a new immigrant from Europe to America.
More and more people could avoid an indenture and simply pay their own way, so during this period, indentured servitude in the North pretty much faded away, replaced in some areas by prison labor but most often replaced by cheap immigrant labor.
In the South, these forms of labor existed, but on the plantations where the only way to pick and clean cotton was with fingers and hands, the labor was mostly supplied by enslaved people of African ancestry.
Then came a technological change that had as much impact on the South as Gutenberg’s printing press did on Europe centuries before and social media is having on us today.
It transformed the economics of the South from a hardscrabble existence into one of opulence and great wealth in a very few hands; changed the culture of the South from one that was apologetic for slavery and oligarchy into one that openly called both good things that should spread across the rest of the nation and around the world; and changed the politics of the South from a mostly democratic republic into an openly tyrannical autocracy.
Where Cotton Is King, Cotton Makes Kings
Cotton could be a reliably profitable crop for the Southern plantation owners; it was easy to grow, it could be stored for years if necessary, and there was worldwide demand for it. Its biggest problem was the seeds.
What we call cotton is a fibrous part of the “fruit” of the cotton plant. After the flower is pollinated, the seeds form and mature in a pod or boll along with a protective superstructure of thin fibers that we call cotton.
Picking cotton is work that in the period from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War was never automated, so it required a fair amount of human labor. Far more difficult, though, was the process of disentangling the cotton seeds from the cotton fibers that surrounded them. It could take an entire day for a person to clean a single pound of cotton by hand.
In 1794, Eli Whitney figured out how to make a drum into which raw cotton could be dumped, then spun with hundreds of tiny hooks that would pull the cotton fibers out through a mesh. The mesh was too fine for the seeds to pass through, so as the drum turned, the cotton accumulated outside it, leaving behind in the drum nothing but seeds.
Whitney wrote to his father:
“One man and a horse will do more than fifty men with the old machines…. Tis generally said by those who know anything about it, that I shall make a Fortune by it.”
His “cotton gin” (“gin” was short for “engine”) took the South by storm in the first two decades of the 1800s. Its biggest impact, though, was on the fate of democracy in the South.
Now that one machine could clean as much cotton as fifty people, every cotton plantation faced the possibility that it could produce 50 times as much cotton (and profit), if only it had 50 times as much land to grow the cotton on and 50 times as many people to pick it.
The wealthiest among the Southern plantation owners began to buy up small farms and plantations the way big agricultural corporations would later buy out American Midwestern farmers when Reagan stopped enforcing America’s anti-monopoly laws in the early 1980s.
The smaller farmers who couldn’t afford a cotton gin were faced with financial ruin from their giant competitors, and they didn’t have Willie Nelson to sing “Farm Aid” fundraising concerts to help them buy equipment to compete.
Like Midwestern farmers in the 1980s, the smaller Southern cotton farmers either sold out or were bankrupted and driven off their land; many became tenant farmers on what had previously been their own property.
Illinois’s Representative John Farnsworth noted the trend in his 1864 speech on the floor of the US House of Representatives:
“[With t]he invention of the cotton-gin, the cultivation made it profitable to raise men and women for the southern market. The price of slaves was enhanced; from being worth $250 they went up to $1,200 and $1,300.
“Then the greed for power took possession of the slaveholders, and the avarice of these men overleaped itself and they became clamorous for the extension of slavery. The bounds were too narrow for them. They became ambitious of a nation that should be founded upon ‘the cornerstone of slavery.’
“Then it was, Mr. Speaker, that the slave power got the control of the Government, of the executive, legislative, and judicial departments. Then it was that they got possession of the high places of society. They took possession of the churches. They took possession of the lands. Then it became criminal for a man to open his lips in denunciation of the evil and sin of slaveholding.
“Then followed . . . the attempt to expel John Quincy Adams; the throttling of the right to petition; suppressing the freedom of the press; the suppression of the freedom of the mails; all these things followed the taking possession of the Government and lands by the slave power, until we were the slaves of slaves, being chained to the car of this slave Juggernaut….
“Then came the conventions of the rival political parties, in which they declared that the agitation of this vexed question should cease. But it would not cease, for the slave power was still clamoring for more, more, more!
“Then came the [Dred Scott] decision of the Supreme Court. Why, sir, the spirit of slavery took possession of that court and instigated the palsied arm of a judge upon the brink of the grave to attempt to snatch the charter of human liberty from the throne of the Almighty.”
The Southern oligarchs were on the rise.
The Oligarchs’ War
By the 1830s, with the recent death of nearly every member of the Founding generation and the rise of plantation oligarch Andrew Jackson’s vice president, John C. Calhoun and his nullification crisis, the South was firmly in the economic, political, and social hands of a small number of uber-wealthy plantation-based oligarchs made fabulously rich by the invention of the cotton gin.
In 1913, looking back on the 1787 Constitutional Convention, historian Henry Leffmann wrote:
“Some of the members of the Convention doubtless believed that the question [of slavery] would settle itself thru the evolution of labor conditions. Ellsworth, of Connecticut, said, ‘Let us not intermeddle. As the population increases, poor laborers will be so plenty as to render slaves useless.’ This result might have been attained much earlier than it was if the cotton-gin had not been invented.”
As Forrest A. Nabors wrote in his brilliant book From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction:
“A new generation of rulers reshaped the South around their new ruling principle. . . . The development of Southern oligarchy portended the rupture of the union, regardless of the ties that bound them together, because no ties, physical, legal, or otherwise, can overcome the difference between fundamentally opposed types of political regimes.”
And it was the technological revolution that Eli Whitney had birthed that gave them the wealth and power to try to pull it off.
Wisconsin senator Timothy Howe laid it out in an 1864 speech on the floor of the US House of Representatives:
“If the cotton-gin had not been invented, slaveholding would not have been profitable. If slaveholding had not been profitable, slaveholders would not have been rich. If slaveholders had not been rich, they would not have been arrogant. If they had not been arrogant, four hundred thousand slaveholders would not have presumed to challenge dominion over twenty million freemen.
“Slavery without the cotton-gin would have been a monster wrong, but it would not have been dangerous to the Republic. The cotton-gin without slavery would have been of twice the value it has been and still would not have been dangerous to anyone. Together they have proved fatal to the peace of the nation.
On December 18, 1860, Tennessee Senator Andrew Johnson (soon to be vice president and then president) said on the floor of the Senate, speaking in favor of the right of the Southern states to secede:
“When the Union was formed, twelve of the thirteen States were slaveholding; and if the cotton gin had not been invented, there would not probably today have been an African slave in North America.”
Historian Forrest Nabors extensively cites (and informed me of) Representative John Farnsworth of Illinois, as well as Senator Timothy Howe of Wisconsin, who argued that the oligarchy in the South had become so strong that they weren’t just trying to be left alone in the lead-up to the Civil War—they actually wanted to dominate the North.
“Such, then, I find to be the cause and the purpose of the rebellion,” said Howe. “It was not to secure toleration for slavery within the seceding Slates, but to compel the adoption of slavery by the nation.”
In other words — as Nikki Haley well knows — the Confederacy rose up not simply to preserve slavery and the Southern oligarchy, but to extend that oligarchy to the rest of the United States.
The South has, since the 1830s, been the epicenter of an anti-democratic, anti-American plot to replace our representative government with rule by the morbidly rich.
And they’ve been doing it by creating a caste system in America and using new technologies to keep it in place so they can exploit the labor of non-white, imprisoned, and poor workers.
Which explains why Nikki Haley had such a struggle with the question, and the media largely dances around efforts to explain it: oligarchy is the ultimate work today’s Republican Party, relying heavily on the new technology of social media owned by rightwing billionaires.
Unless we stop them at the ballot box this coming November.