Early textile mill with women workers
INDUSTRY ON THE BACKS OF SLAVES. Returning to our journey through the remarkable book, 'The Half Has Never Been Told,' we turned to Chapter Nine, entitled 'Backs.'
The author once again draws us to his main theme: the development of capitalism in the US is best understood as proceeding on the backs of slaves and the backs of ethnically cleansed Native peoples of the West. He challenges and undermines the more common story of capitalism developing with a self-contained free-labor North, while the South was a sluggish and disconnected backwater.
The industries that first expanded in the North were ship building to move cotton and slaves to market, iron and metal working to supply tools to the slave labor camps, and finally, textile mills to weave cotton into cloth here, rather than to have to supply the slaves and others with clothing imported from England.
The author gives two simple examples of a hoe and an axe, the metal part of them. Move 200,000 slaves to the Deep South and Southwest, and you have to put a tool in their hands. Where do the axe heads come from? From the rapid expansion of iron works in Connecticut. Likewise with the guns of the overseers and slave catchers, soon to be followed by iron steam engines, both for the textile mills and the new railroads to move cotton and other goods to markets more readily. All of this was mainly driven from the demands for tools come from the vast clearing and plowing of land for the cotton plantations. What was happening in the North was driven mainly from the South.
The growth of new industries to supply slavery was rapid. In 1850, 500,000 Americans labored in manufacturing. In ten years, it was 1.2 million. Immigrant labor poured in from Europe, 1.5 million in the 1840s alone.
But the author's argument is not undialectical. Once an industrial power arose in the North, it acquired its own 'sectional interests' that contended with slave capital. In the level of politics, this would be played out in the ongoing tug-of-war over whether new states and territories would be 'free' or 'slave.'
This began making waves with the 'Wilmot Proviso,' a measure attached to a bill concluding the Mexican War, by Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot, that none of the territories acquired in the war would be open to slavery, thus following in the earlier pattern of the Northwest Ordinance.
The measure was stymied, but the long debate over it factionalized the two major parties, the Whigs and the Democrats. The Whigs started with two factions, 'Cotton Whigs' and 'Conscience Whigs', and grew into more. The Democrats at first gathered into the 'Barnburners' of Martin Van Buren and the 'Hunkers,' siding with the slave Democrats in the South. These tensions would grow even greater and into more factions and parties in the period ahead. More to come.
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