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Labor as a commodity

  1. Aug 7, 2008 #1
    Labor as a commodity

    I have been a self-actualizing self-learner for more than 25 years. It began to develop into a hobby in 1980 while reading a book on the Vietnam Civil War when I decided that to understand this civil war in Vietnam I must understand our own Civil War in the United States.

    I have since that time read many books about this important part of our history. The most enlightening book that best answered my questions was the book “The Mind of the South” by W.J. Cash. Cash says-- “With an intense individualism, which the frontier atmosphere put into the man of the South also comes violence and an idealistic, hedonistic romanticism. This romanticism is also fueled by the South conflict with the Yankee. Violence manifests itself in mob action, such as lynching, and private dealings.”
    One question that developed early in my reading was why the ordinary white citizen of the South was such a good soldier, superior to the Union soldier. Why did the ordinary southern man fight so valiantly to preserve slavery when he was not a slaveholder himself? This valiant southerner fought with very little comfort and support from the Confederacy because the Confederacy was a financially poor institution. The rebel soldier often did not even have shoes. The rebel soldier often had to find food on his own. Very little in the form of supplies were provided to the rebel army.

    I have over the years discovered answers to my questions. One particular aspect of this situation, which I had not considered, was how the fact of slave labor in a culture affects the culture totally. In the South there was no free labor. Slaves did virtually all labor. The effect of this reality determined to a great extent the nature of the society.

    The white man would not work for anyone because he considered laboring for hire made him no better than the black slave and his superiority to the black man was essential to his self-esteem. There was no labor class in the antebellum south. The slaves did the labor but the slave was a capital investment just like a horse or oxen. Here was a total society without a laboring class.

    What were some of the effects of no free labor in the South? The most important factor I suspect was that the ordinary white man felt any labor was beneath his dignity. This lack of ‘free labor’ led to many of the characteristics of the Southern man and woman that probably is a factor today in the character of the Southerner.

    I think that the wheel might be a useful analogy for understanding the mind of the South. The spokes of the wheel represent the essential components of all societies--economy, law and culture. The hub to which all spokes focus is slavery. The antebellum South revolved around slavery.

    This area of the United States developed as any frontier area in the US during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The climate and the circumstance of the cotton gin invention led to the evolution of a society that never lost its frontier characteristic while becoming an agricultural economy dependent almost totally upon cotton.

    The economy was cotton and the power controlling the society was the cotton plantation. Early in the nineteenth century South Carolina plantation owners gained complete political control of the entire state and these plantation owners became the core that moved the eleven Southern states to emulate the South Carolina system. By the 1820s the South Carolina plantation politicians determined their goal to be separation from the Union if the Union failed to allow the expansion of slavery into the developing land as the nation moved West and new states began to join the Union.

    There were three basic economic classes—plantation owners, yeomen farmers and poor whites. I do not include slaves as an economic class—they were basically capital (objects) just as horses and oxen are capital. The plantation owners controlled the wealth and power in their particular areas and banded together to control the wealth and political power in a region of state.

    The yeomen and poor white were primarily subsistence farmers. Some of the yeomen had a few slaves but by and large the vast majority of slaves worked the large plantations. The plantations owned the good land leaving the less desirable land for the yeomen and poor white. Basically population ringed the best lands of the plantation with each succeeding lower rung in the economic ladder existing on less and less productive land.

    There was somewhat of a heterogeneous mixture of relatives occupying each economic sector. The plantation owner was related by blood to many of the citizens in the area. There was not a great sense of hierarchy in class sensitivities because of the interrelated blood relationships. This fact also made it easier for the plantation owners to exercise their power over the community.

    All classes recognized the importance of slavery to the whole society. While the yeoman and poor white did not, in most cases, own slaves they were as dependent on slavery as was the owner of slaves. For the yeoman and the poor white their self-esteem depended upon their sense of superiority to the slave. For these reasons the laws and the culture took the same attitude toward the importance of slavery, as did the plantation owners.
  2. jcsd
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