For nearly a century, the United States government supported slavery for one reason: it was exceedingly practical. The U.S. depended on industry, and slaves provided free labor, which allowed the Southern states to produce massive amounts of cotton and other crops without going into debt.
Zinn begins his chapter on the Civil War by reiterating a point he made earlier in the book: the motives for slavery were not racial, but economic. Americans developed racism largely as a way of justifying the brutal enslavement of African people.
It’s probably impossible for anyone living in America today to grasp slavery fully. Slave owners were cruel with their property. Simply by buying slaves, they tore apart black families; then, slave owners forced their slaves to work exhausting jobs from sunrise to sunset. Many slave owners recognized that they needed to devise “ingenious punishments” to frighten their slaves into submission. Additionally, some estimates suggest that, on average, half of all slaves were whipped every year. However, some slaves found ways to fight back; in 1831, Nat Turner gathered about seventy slaves and killed at least fifty-five white men, women, and children. As a result, slave owners lived in constant fear of slave rebellions, and they tried to prevent rebellions by punishing the slaves more harshly. Other slaves found ways to run away from their plantations. Still other slaves rebelled simply by not working very hard. At many plantations, poor whites (many of them Irish immigrants) worked alongside black slaves. Slave owners, recognizing the danger of an uprising, enforced laws to separate whites from blacks. Slave owners also used religion to control slaves, citing Biblical passages to justify slavery and enlisting some slaves to preach to other slaves.
Some slaves courageously rose up against their masters and fought for their freedom, frightening Southern slave owners into taking more drastic measures to protect their own power. One of the most important measures that slave owners took was to divide underlings along racial lines: poor white laborers weren’t allowed to associate with slaves, perhaps for fear that they’d develop alliances against the slave owners. In this way, slave owners’ policies echoed the laws instituted by colonial elites in the 1600s and 1700s. The goal was to make poor whites a check on black slaves, rather than an ally to black slaves.
It’s often argued that slavery destroyed the black family. In fact, black slaves adapted to their changing situation by developing new family relationships. Some historians of slavery have argued that slaves practiced a complex kinship system, whereby all adults looked after all children, and older children looked after younger children. With the help of this “family,” many slaves found ways to hang on to their dignity as human beings. Slaves turned to storytelling, music, song, and humor for comfort and resistance.
Zinn describes the various ways that slaves found of resisting slavery. Even if, by and large, slaves did not succeed in fighting off their tyrannical masters and winning their freedom, they were “victorious” in the important sense that they didn’t give up their dignity as human beings, and they found ways to use art, family, and friendship to achieve “brief flashes” of freedom.
In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, whereby northern states were required to return fugitive slaves who had made their way north to their masters down south. Zinn interprets the Fugitive Slave Act as confirmation that “the shame of slavery was not just the South’s”: the entire country was complicit.
Too often, historians paint slavery as an isolated evil, limited to the Southern states. The truth, Zinn makes clear, is that the U.S. government and northern states helped perpetuate slavery by cooperating with Southern slave owners.
In the North, free blacks thought about slavery constantly. The most famous black man in America, Frederick Douglass, spoke out tirelessly against slavery, partnering with white abolitionists. Although most history books focus on the activism of white abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, free black abolitionists were the true “backbone of the antislavery movement.” White abolitionists could be enormously condescending to African Americans, even as they fought on the same side. When Sojourner Truth, one of the most eloquent abolitionists, spoke to a crowd in New York City, she was mocked for being a black woman.
History textbooks often overemphasize the contributions of white abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, whereas Zinn wants to suggest that black abolitionists were far more committed to the cause than most of their white allies. Abolitionism was, in many ways, a heroic, noble cause. However, as Sojourner Truth’s life makes painfully clear, it wasn’t without its share of racism and sexism.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, John Brown led a raid on a military arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in an effort to arm slaves. His plan failed, and he was arrested. However, it has been argued that Brown’s “failure” brought attention to the abolitionist issue and convinced the country that, as Brown said, “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” Brown was executed with the full approval of the federal government—the same federal government that enforced the Fugitive Slave Act, tolerated slavery, and ruled that black slaves were property, not people.
John Brown was a truly radical figure: someone who refused to use peaceful, institutional means to solve the problems of slavery. Instead, Brown believed that violence and physical force were necessary to end slavery in America. Meanwhile, the federal government continued to tolerate and perpetuate slavery by cooperating with Southern slave owners, enforcing racist policies, and generally preserving a status quo in which millions of human beings were treated like property.
In the end, the federal government ended slavery “under conditions controlled by whites, and only when required by the political and economic needs of the business elite of the North.” Abraham Lincoln, the president during the Civil War, skillfully combined lofty anti-slavery rhetoric with economic practicality. He refused to denounce the Fugitive Slave Law publicly, and insisted on many occasions that Congress did not have the right to ban slavery. When Lincoln was elected president in 1860, the Southern states seceded in part because they predicted that Lincoln would enact a high tariff on manufacturers and strengthen the National Bank, policies that contradicted slave owners’ interests.
Instead of portraying Abraham Lincoln as a heroic figure, Zinn argues that Lincoln was a skillful politician and a pragmatist, whose primary motivations for waging the Civil War were preserving the Union, not ending slavery. For a different perspective on Lincoln, readers might consult James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, which argues that Lincoln was a conflicted figure who largely “transcended” racism toward the end of his time in the White House.
Lincoln gradually changed his views on slavery throughout the Civil War. Some historians have characterized him as a “barometer,” adjusting to the national opinion. When he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, it was worded so as to leave “slavery untouched in states that came over to the North.” In spite of its wording, the Emancipation Proclamation spurred the antislavery movement; the Union army accepted black soldiers, and abolitionists became bolder in their demands. In the South, slaves deserted and fought in the Union army. It’s been estimated that one in five slaves ran away at some point during the Civil War. However, even though African Americans joined the Union army in the hopes of fighting for equality, they weren’t treated equally: they were given the toughest jobs.
Even if the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t go far enough in its aims, Zinn can’t deny that it had a profound impact on the abolitionist movement in America. Indeed, the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation was later followed with a Constitutional amendment banning slavery might confirm the success of the abolitionist movement: encouraged by their successes, abolitionists continued to pressure Lincoln to pursue more and more radical policies. However, as Zinn makes clear, federal legislation could not end the rampant racism and discrimination in the army, and in the U.S. as a whole.
After the Civil War, slaves were freed from bondage, but they weren’t compensated with land or money. Indeed, Lincoln signed laws that ensured that the land of former slave owners passed down to their next of kin, not to the former slaves who’d worked on the land for years. The American government didn’t fight to end slavery; it fought to “retain its enormous national territory and market and resources.”
Although the freeing of the slaves was, in some ways, a radical, structural change to American society, Lincoln did not go far enough in radically reforming the structures of property in America. Overall, Zinn argues that the Civil War was, first and foremost, about preserving the power of the Union, not the moral cause of freeing the slaves.
Following the Civil War (during the period known as Reconstruction), the Republican Party enacted a series of laws that strengthened African American rights, giving them the ability to vote, own property, and avoid discrimination. The government also deployed troops to the South to enforce these laws. Furthermore, the government enacted laws allowing blacks to be elected to state legislatures, although they were a minority in almost every state. To this day, many history textbooks claim that, in the Reconstruction era, blacks “dominated” Southern government, and behaved ineptly. This is a myth—while it’s true that some black politicians were corrupt (as many politicians are), the new black leadership helped enroll tens of thousands of black children in public school for the first time ever, among many other achievements.
The Reconstruction era is often regarded as a failure because it put incompetent black leaders in positions of power unlike anything they’d experienced before. However, as Zinn says here, such notions are wrong, and potentially racist. The reason Reconstruction didn’t succeed isn’t that it was too “hasty” or poorly thought out; rather, it failed because it didn’t go far enough in rethinking Southern society. Racist white people still maintained almost all of their power.
In spite of some milestones in the black community in the years following the end of the Civil War, life remained bleak for most African Americans. Former slave owners organized terrorist attacks on black schools and churches. Whites rioted throughout the South, killing and intimidating blacks. The most notorious terrorist organization of the era was the Ku Klux Klan, which organized raids, lynchings, beatings, and burnings. By the 1870s, the violence in the Southern states was the worst it had been since the Civil War, but the federal government was reluctant to send more troops to enforce order. Around the same time, the Supreme Court nullified many of the legal protections for African Americans.
The federal government’s protections for African Americans living in the South were minimal: the Supreme Court nullified or weakened the legal protections for black people in the South, and the military didn’t do remotely enough to protect black people from the aggression of terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Without military or legal protection, African Americans in the South were left with a largely symbolic set of protections from the federal government.
In 1877, with the inauguration of Rutherford Hayes, the last Union soldiers left the South, signaling the end of Reconstruction and leaving free blacks with little federal support: legal, military, or even symbolic. Hayes had been elected due to a behind-the-scenes deal between his political managers and those of his opponent, Samuel Tilden. In exchange for putting Hayes in the White House, Northern politicians not only pulled troops out of the South, but they also assured Southern coal and iron businessmen that they’d be included in the Union’s plans for industrial expansion. In short, the election of Rutherford Hayes ended Reconstruction and signaled that Northern elites were willing to cooperate with the wealthiest Southerners regardless of their political positions.
The election of Rutherford Hayes symbolized a new era in American history. Only a few years after the end of the Civil War elites in the South united with their counterparts in the North and promised to help one another maintain their wealth and power by sharing the lucrative coal and iron contracts that would accompany the growth of the railroad industry for the rest of the century. Thus, Hayes’s election confirms one of Zinn’s most important points: wealth is a better predictor of cooperation than ideology. In spite of some major political differences, Southern and Northern elites cooperated to protect their fortunes.
The 1880s and 90s were arguably the “low-point” for black people in the entirety of American history. Without government protection, blacks lived in fear, either of being attacked by white aggressors or of being arrested for trivial crimes. As one black journalist wrote in the 1890s, “The white man who shoots a negro always goes free, while the negro who steals a hog is sent to the chain gang for ten years.” Some black Southern leaders, such as Booker T. Washington, emphasized organization and economic independence in the black community. Others encouraged blacks to leave the South altogether.
Without federal support of any kind, black people living in the South had to fend for themselves, contending with racist police officers and a corrupt court system. Booker T. Washington’s approach to dealing with Southern racism—organize, uphold segregation, and become economically independent—has been criticized for “giving in” to the desires of Southern racists, but also praised for its pragmatism.
Looking back on the 1870s, the writer W. E. B. Du Bois wrote that the “betrayal of the Negro” was indicative of something even more horrible: “a new capitalism and a new enslavement of power.” After the 1870s, he argued, American capitalists became more powerful and far more daring in exploiting working-class people. In a sense, Du Bois argued, the 1870s marked the beginning of an era in which, for all purposes, poor black and white people became slaves to capitalists and capitalism.
Although this chapter has mostly been about the discrimination and racism that black people faced in the second half of the 19th century, Zinn ends the chapter by making a broader point. Black persecution, while horrible, was not unique in the 19th century—poor white people were also, in a sense, “enslaved” to capitalist elites. Zinn’s point emphasizes one of the major themes of his book: the commonalities between the different persecuted people of the United States.