Santayana had it wrong: Even if we remember the past, we may be condemned to repeat it. Indeed, the more we learn about the conflict between the North and South that led to the Civil War, the more it becomes apparent that we are reliving that conflict today. The South’s current drive to impose on the rest of the nation its opposition to worker and minority rights—through the vehicle of a Southernized Republican Party—resembles nothing so much as the efforts of antebellum Southern political leaders to blunt the North’s opposition to the slave labor system. Correspondingly, in the recent actions of West Coast and Northeastern cities and states to raise labor standards and protect minority rights, there are echoes of the pre–Civil War frustrations that many Northerners felt at the failure of the federal government to defend and promote a free labor system, frustrations that—ironically—led them to found the Republican Party.
It’s the resilience of the Southern order and the similarities between the Old South and the New that are most surprising—at least, until we disenthrall ourselves from a sanitized understanding of that Old South. It’s taken nearly 100 years for the prevailing image of the pre–Civil War South to become less subject to the racist falsifications that long had shaped it. The malign fantasies of 1915’s The Birth of a Nation and the Golden Age hooey of 1939’s Gone with the Wind have given way to the grim realism of 12 Years A Slave. Through all its incarnations, however, the antebellum South has retained its status as a world apart from the rest of America, whether (as D.W. Griffith would have it) for its chivalry or (as the historical record shows) its savagery.
Southern exceptionalism has also extended to the views of the South’s place in—or more precisely, its purported absence from—the development of the modern American economy. The slavery-saddled South was often considered the quasi-feudal outlier in the early—and presumably Northern—development of 19th-century American capitalism. While finance and factories rose north of the Mason–Dixon Line and railroads spanned the Northern states, the South was an island—with just a sprinkling of banks and rails and virtually no factories at all—largely detached from industrial capitalism’s rise.
In just the past year, however, a spate of revisionist histories has made significant additions to the historical literature that persuasively dispels this image. To be sure, the South was short on factories, trains, and banks, but its brutally productive slave economy spurred the development of the first factories of the industrial age, the textile mills of Massachusetts and Manchester, England, and the railroads that moved their goods. It was also key to the creation of modern finance and such pioneering industrial financiers as the Baring Brothers in Britain and the Brown Brothers in New York. Empire of Cotton by Harvard University historian Sven Beckert, which won this year’s Bancroft Prize, and The Half Has Never Been Told by Cornell University historian Edward Baptist, which won this year’s Hillman Prize, both document how the industrial and financial capitalism of the 19th century arose as a direct result of the conquests, expulsions (of Native Americans), and enslavements that turned the Deep South into a vast slave-labor camp that generated unprecedented profits for manufacturers and bankers who lived hundreds or thousands of miles from the Mississippi Delta.
The American South before the Civil War was the low-wage—actually, the no-wage—anchor of the first global production chain.
Today, as the auto and aerospace manufacturers of Europe and East Asia open low-wage assembly plants in Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi, the South has assumed a comparable role once more. Indeed, the South today shares more features with its antebellum ancestor than it has in a very long time. Now as then, white Southern elites and their powerful allies among non-Southern business interests seek to expand to the rest of the nation the South’s subjugation of workers and its suppression of the voting rights of those who might oppose their policies. In fact, now more than then, the South’s efforts to spread its values across America are advancing, as Northern Republicans adopt their Southern counterparts’ antipathy to unions and support for voter suppression, and as workers’ earnings in the North fall toward Southern levels. And now as then, a sectional backlash against Southern norms has emerged that, when combined with the Southern surge, is again creating two nations within one.
IN THE SPRING OF 2011, the Boston Consulting Group made a bold prediction: Manufacturing, which had been fleeing American shores for years, particularly to China, was going to come back. “China’s rising manufacturing costs will significantly erode [the] savings” that U.S. companies had realized by having their products assembled there, three of the firm’s partners wrote in a widely publicized study. The advantages of offshoring would wane, and American manufacturing would rise again.
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