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Shall Slavery Come South?

ISSUE:  Autumn 1930

The ex-Confederacy has embarked on the Industrial Revolution. That is the outstanding economic fact that underlies and conditions all the current talk about a New South. Since the South, New and Old alike, has a stronger feeling for tradition and social hierarchy than any other portion of the United States, it is worth asking whether those Southerners who value their traditions propose to guide, combat, or ignore the Revolution which is in process. I refrain from labeling this class of Southerners because I can think of no label that fits. They are chiefly the descendants of the Southern ruling class; but that class was expropriated and reconstructed out of its political leadership pretty thoroughly and no class has ever really taken its place. I prefer not to call them the intellectuals; the intellectual of an industrial plutocracy has had no analogue in the South. They can scarcely be called the upper class in a social sense; for though they were able to freeze out the carpetbagger pretty satisfactorily, the World War profiteer has flourished in their midst like a green bay tree and the less romantic members of the old guard admit that the dollar standard has outposts from one end of the South to the other. In short, they, have lost or have had curtailed their leadership in the political, economic, and social sphere; and yet they remain the principal custodians of a tradition which they at least consider valuable. For brevity’s sake, let us call them the traditionalists. The term is of course an incriminating one in a nation more willing to purchase the past than to comprehend it. Your Southern traditionalist is less given to collecting antiques than to citing precedents. He is historically minded and therefore sceptical of revolution, industrial or otherwise.

A little talk with the traditionalists in any Southern town will illustrate the prevalence of this scepticism. Fundamentally distrusting industrialism as the worship of foreign gods, they face the onslaught of the local Chamber of Commerce and its appeal to outside industries to make their home with us, with a feeling of resigned despair. Hauled into the Union by the collar after Appomattox, flogged into loving loyalty to the flag through Reconstruction, the traditionalists have accustomed themselves to the humorous pessimism that characterizes so many Southerners of an elder generation. In the political sphere they have had to habituate themselves to legal fiction and subterfuge. When the nation was faced with the necessity of “handling” the Eighteenth Amendment, the traditionalists had the advantage over their late enemies on the battlefield: they had already had practice in handling Constitutional Amendments. In short, in recent decades, unable to assert their antebellum leadership, they have been chiefly engaged in adapting themselves to the American plan, salvaging those things they, valued | wherever they were able. Perhaps adaptation must always I be the chief preoccupation of a defeated people.

But as far as the traditionalists can see, the factory is going to be harder to handle than a Constitutional Amendment. And yet it is obvious to those among them who understand the economic processes about them that even were the South as a whole willing and able to preserve its basically agricultural tradition, it must thereby remain in economic vassalage, a vassalage which would grow severer with each passing year. As the traditionalists see it, the South’s dilemma today is therefore either to accept industrialization and lose its soul or reject it and remain in hel-otry. Opposed to both soullessness and helotry, the traditionalists are now engaged primarily in lamenting the dilemma.

A few of them, to escape the dilemma, have boldly advocated helotry, though they do not call it that. It is evident that in competition with Western agriculture, a purely agricultural South must see its relative purchasing power steadily diminish. It is true that climate gives the South the advantage in certain crops, but it is doubtful if these crops alone, unsupplemented by those the West can raise more cheaply than the South, would ever give the Southern States a healthy economic basis. And it must be remembered that the Southerner will not be content merely to eat; he wants and will want his share of the radios, cars, and frigidaires which are considered part of the American citizen’s rightful heritage. His problem is to produce something that he can exchange for these ordinary furnishings of American life. If his desire for such furnishings means that his helotry will be purely psychological, there is nevertheless nothing in his history to suggest that he will relish it. Therefore there is no use appealing to the Southern people to reject industrialism in a spirit of Gandhian asceticism.

Perhaps such a program would not work anywhere west of Suez; least of all would it work in the South. The Southerner as a type has not an ascetic hair in his head. He turned to agriculture before the Civil War, not because he willingly forewent the higher profits of industrialism, but because the higher profits were in selling cotton, tobacco, rice, and cane to a world market. He lived a large and spacious life of ease and lives it now whenever he can find the ready money. If he lacks the Puritan reverence for money, he is not lacking in enjoyment of it when it can be secured without reverence. He was by, no means always the slovenly planter of popular legend, nor was he above studying efficiency methods in the picking of cotton. He turned to factory production long before the Civil War, and turned away from it because he could make more by exchanging his raw cotton for English manufactured goods. Even so, had the Union armies not destroyed his mills on a large scale during the invasion of 1861-65, he would never have acquired his present reputation for anti-industrialism. Once more, the Southern traditionalist will waste his breath by apotheosizing the hoe. The same thing that made the South turn to agriculture before the Civil War is making it turn to industry today: its desire to make a living, and a good one, whether with a hoe or a dynamo.


But it will be my contention in this paper that the dilemma of soullessness or helotry is imaginary anyhow, and can be resolved if the traditionalists really care enough about the culture of the older South to discover a method for adapting it to the demands of an industrializing society,. But the price of such adaptation is thought, not sentimentalizing. The traditionalists have, I think, confused the machine technique with the lack of social purpose which machine technique has generally implied. That machine technique always has the same purpose is absurd: there are fundamental differences between the “effects of industrialism” in Massachusetts and Russia, for example. The traditionalists know that the mere use of wheelbarrows, hoes, and mattocks does not dictate the social system of those using them. A hoe may furnish the basis for a regime of small peasant proprietors like the French, a squirearchy like that of eighteenth century England, or a plantation system based on slave labor. The social implications of machine industry have differed just as widely. After all, both a dynamo and a hoe are tools, to be used or worshipped according to the discretion of the owner.

I suspect that if the Old South had a soul, that soul consisted in a mature sense of social responsibility. I am aware that the post-bellum abolitionist would accept this definition only with a grimace. To him the slave system spells exploitation and for some reason exploitation is supposed to mean irresponsibility. But if he will take his attention from the legal status of the slave and the free factory hand and fasten it on the attitude of the “master” in each case, he may get a different picture. The plantation master could not afford to let a thousand-dollar slave starve. The factoiy. master can afford to let his slave starve whenever there is the reasonable assurance of more “free” labor for the next boom. It was widely accepted social theory in the slave South that the aged and therefore unproductive slave must be cared for. New York State has been struggling this year with insurance for aged industrial slaves. In short, the doctrine of legal equality has been not only a noble concept; it has been the rationalization of a capitalistic society living on a hire-and-fire economic basis, a profitable but irresponsible basis to live on.

It is against that irresponsibility, I suspect, that the Southern traditionalist is revolting when he hears that a new factory is coming to town. The best tradition he has is the agricultural one that economic power, coupled with irresponsibility to the worker and the community at large, is immoral. But by pouting in the corner, as he is now doing, he will not keep the factory out—not if the local Chamber of Commerce knows it. He will merely antagonize its manager and deprive him of collaboration. For to do the traditionalist justice, while his pouting is a mere nuisance, his collaboration would be valuable.

I call the tradition of social responsibility agricultural only because it has proved easier to achieve under the less complex conditions of agriculture than in machine production. If the really valuable part of the Southern tradition is not only social responsibility, but is also essentially the emanation of a hoe, then the traditionalist is justified in the impotent pouting which I am here attacking. But what the traditionalist overlooks is the fact that it is the worship of machinery, not its use, that made the English Industrial Revolution the horror of modern history.

But just how much of a horror was it? I doubt if the Southern traditionalists, historical-mindedness and all, could commonly give even a fair picture of what steam-driven machinery did to the English people. The historian could tell them a sorry tale of tiny children from four years up working as much as eighteen hours a day under the lash, falling into their own machines from fatigue, seeking escape through suicide; of little parish paupers sent off in droves like cattle by public authorities only too glad to be rid of them, condemned to work under killing conditions either at nominal wages or frequently enough at no wage but their keep. This was the heyday of laissez-faire economics and freedom of contract. The employer was free to flog his child labor; the community was free to turn the children over to him, thereby evading the expense of supporting public charges; and the children even had the farcical freedom of accepting the arrangement. For instance, they would be told that at the factory they would become ladies and gentlemen, eat roast beef and plum pudding, ride their master’s horses, carry silver watches, and have cash in their pockets. In those good old days questions of hours were easily settled: workers were not allowed to possess timepieces ; the master decided when it was time to quit. There were some restrictions on the right of free contract, of course, but not many: parishes occasionally stipulated that with every twenty children in good condition, the manufacturer should accept one idiot child. And to crown all, when unregulated machine production inevitably created unemployment, and the workers began to smash machines, Parliament decreed that a man must pay for a machine with his life. It was against this law that Byron made his maiden speech in the Lords, but he was unsuccessful. It is easy to understand why British slave-owners from the West Indies were horrified by the English factories they, visited. And though England put a stop to their worst features a century ago, she can never blot them from her history. In Cobbett’s bitter words, England’s manufacturing supremacy rested on the backs of thirty thousand little girls.

New England went through similar experiences. Is it any wonder that the Southerner’s folklore pictures industrialism as a thing compact of horror and squalor and ugliness? As with the antebellum New England abolitionist his condemnation is all the more bitter because he is fundamentally unfamiliar with the recent history of the system he dreads and hates. And although the scenes I have described could not be re-enacted widely either here or in England, events in North Carolina and Tennessee have been painfully reminiscent of the brutal class struggle that has elsewhere attended the irresponsible wealth-getting of the factory owner. What the Southern traditionalist will not recognize is that all this horror has derived not from the intelligent use of more powerful tools but from their gross misuse. He is right in his Jeffersonian intuition that industrialism produces more dangerous social problems than agriculture does; but he is unaware of Jefferson’s later conclusion that industry must be tamed and put to decent uses. He is right in assuming that industry is already wrecking the social fabric of the South; but he is wrong in not recognizing that it lies in his own power, not to eject industry indeed, but to regulate its application.


That application is his imperative obligation if he ever intends to reassert his leadership or salvage the South that he pretends to love. To the observer in the contemporary, South there are pretty obviously two groups in whose power Southern destinies lie. One is the group we have been discussing: traditionalists to their friends, Neo-Confederates to their enemies. The other is that of the progressive industrialists. Let us avoid the naivete of insinuating that the groups are mutually exclusive. But their interaction is at present more fancied than real. Traditionalists who buy shares in new industries or sell real estate for factory sites take out their misgivings in talk while enlarging their bank accounts. Progressive industrialists who value tradition value it chiefly because it furnishes historical shrines for tourist customers. I am discussing here the traditionalists who are still unentangled and the progressive industrialists who are still unenlightened, and there are a good many of both sorts in positions of influence. In different senses of the word, both groups are today hopelessly romantic and therefore unfit to cope with the problem of industrialization. The traditionalists, frightened by the lengthening shadows of the smokestacks, take refuge in the good old days and in what I have called the apotheosis of the hoe. They make a charming but impotent religion of the past, make idols of the defunct horse and buggy, and mutter impotently at the radio. They themselves no longer believe that they, are going to do anything about it, and this cheapens their veneration for the past.

The progressive industrialists are equally romantic. It will not help matters to abuse them with words like Rota-rian, Kiwanian, Owl, Elk, Wolf or what have you. The point is that they propose to do something, namely to introduce and manage industrial enterprise, and this gives them an enormous advantage over their annoyed opponents. Nevertheless, though they will doubtless make money in any case, they are doomed not to know what they are making it for. This disease will be known historically as the American Death, which leaves its living corpses unburied, sitting in speeding motors, at the knobs of radios, and gaping before movie screens. One of its first symptoms can be discovered in the idolatrous speeches of the progressive industrialists, who know that man does not live by bread alone but know no more. This condemns them to making themselves ridiculous, as the traditionalist knows but too well. Said a speaker before a “social service” conference of the Southern textile industry: “The pioneers of Southern industry were pioneers of God, they were prophets of God doing what God wanted done. Southern industry is a divine institution. When the first whistles blew the people flocked to the light from barren places. These cotton mills were established that people might find themselves and be found. It is a spiritual movement.” Does the radiance of this paean curl the lip of the traditionalist? Does he, in short, know that it is nonsense? Ah, but if he opposes industry with the religion of the nigger mammy and the old cotton-pickin’ times, his opponents must work up some sort of religion with which to oppose him. This is an ordinary law of human polemic.

Why not bilk both religions? A mill is not a divine institution, nor was cotton-pickin’ time. But any religion worth its salt implies a purpose in life, whether that life rest on an agricultural or industrial basis. And it implies a sense of mutual responsibility among people who make their living. It is time for the traditionalist to cease romanticizing about the Old South’s unessential economic characteristics and it is time for the progressive industrialist to cease romanticizing about the whistles that blow people from barren places.

At present writing the party of industrialization is feeling for the human significance that may lie behind their pioneer work. Like other human beings they want to act in the light of something more than mere money-grubbing. If the traditionalists really know what the Old Southern philosophy of practical life can contribute, they, will urge the progressive industrialists to secure social responsibility in industry. Once the issue is clarified it is probable that not all the traditionalists will turn out angels and all the industrialists devils. But the issue will at least be clear, and that will be an enormous social gain. The industrialists are just now in the throes of a Communist scare and not thinking very clearly, though at that they are thinking more clearly than the traditionalists. But a way out could be found if the two parties in Southern life set their heads together to find it.


I suggest that the way out lies as follows. Industrialization must be accepted, as something well under way and indeed almost out of hand already. The industrialist, to get the good will of the community in which he proposes to operate, must be forced to accept those checks on irresponsible exploitation that older industrial communities, like Great Britain and the North, have already worked out in tears and bloodshed. For industrialization, like a disease, eventually found its antitoxin. By the ‘thirties that antitoxin had taken the form in England of collective bargaining through trade unions and factory regulation administered by a competent and socially responsible civil service. Later accretions in various parts of the world have been unemployment insurance, old age pensions, workmen’s compensation for injuries, profit-sharing, consultative cooperative management, and a host of other developments. In short, human nature has tempered the factory system as it tempered slavery. What the traditionalist cherishes in his memory of the Old South is not the slave-block but the tempered forms that slavery frequently achieved; what he is permitting to be imported into the South today is naked industrial bondage without its tempered forms. If he does not soon awake to his responsibility, the whistles will be blowing people from barren places to living hells of child labor, long hours, low pay, and moral despair. If industrialism is a disease, then the South already has it. What about the antitoxins that already exist in older industrial communities? Are we, or are we not, to have them too?

The South faces a brilliant chance for a new industrial experiment that will rehabilitate her economically without wrecking her spiritually. But to accomplish this, she must have the intelligent guidance, not only of those who understand economic rehabilitation through factory-building, but of those who at least have been claiming to understand her spiritual heritage. It will be a sorry bit of irony if by 1950 white industrial slavery in the South merits the strictures the abolitionists were hurling at black agricultural slavery in 1850. The South has the benefit of vicarious experience and antitoxins already in use, in the form of industrial regulation. According to the industrialists’ own claims, as voiced in the advertisements of Southern Chambers of Commerce, there is a wide margin of profit in Southern industry, due to abundant power, tax inducements, encouragement by railways, proximity, of raw materials, and “adaptable Anglo-Saxon labor.” Let them make their claims good by allocating part of that profit margin to the adaptable Anglo-Saxons. If all but the Anglo-Saxons is “selling talk,” the sooner we find it out the better for the South. But the present policy of low wages and the 1830 attitude of the Southern industrialist towards collective bargaining, that is towards unions, will result inevitably as it has resulted elsewhere: in bitterness, social wreckage, and eventual capitulation. If the traditionalists want to avoid the ugly consequences of such a program, they cannot start too early to insist that the industrialist make good immediately on his promises of a Utopia. He should not be allowed to plead for time either. That plea was made in England when machine industry first started. The cotton barons assured the community that as soon as industry really got under way, the irresponsible exploitation of labor would cease. Meanwhile, the backs of the thirty, thousand little girls must still bend.

If, despite the advantages the industrialist claims for the South as an industrial field, he cannot avoid the justifiable reproaches now hurled at his head, there will be time for a re-stocking of community risks. The industrialist claims that one of those advantages is inherent in the newness of the industrial South: our new factories can install modern machinery without scrapping old plant. It should be pointed out that our new factories can also adopt modern labor methods without having to scrap old ones, old ones which have wrecked more than one human society and are engaged in wrecking the South. But above all, the gold-rush psychology of high profits based on cheap and defenseless labor should be ruled out at the start, and the South should “go slow.” It must be said that the injunction to go slow has to date been more frequently heard from the maturer-minded industrialist than from the lachrymose traditionalist, trotting in his squirrel wheel of tribal economics.

But does the South really enjoy a margin of profit in industry that will allow her to avoid the low-wage warfare of a nascent economic system? This point will be disputed, particularly in the unhealthy textile industry. The fact that the cost of living is lower for the Southern workman than for his Northern brother has been challenged by, economists, and may prove to have been principally an alibi for paying low wages. But that some margin exists seems likely. It of course existed emphatically in England, when prices were still modified by hand production. Robert Owen had tried by 1819 to persuade his fellow employers to share it with their workers. Today, when world prices—or national prices behind tariff walls—are fixed by machine production, the margin is smaller; and vague philanthropy would spell collapse. But either the margin exists in the South and can be utilized to meet labor’s demands half way; or Southern industry is to be sweated industry. The industrialist owes it to the community, in which he operates to say which is the case.


This paper has not been intended as abuse of the Southern industrialist. If it was intended to abuse anybody, it was the class I have been calling traditionalist. For it is their move. They owe the industrialist cooperation and counsel for whatever that counsel may prove worth. As for the industrialist, he is aware that he is a citizen as well as a factory owner and that his citizenship carries with it the responsibility not to turn into a ravening wolf. On the other hand, if he is morally, denied the freedom of the city, he will inevitably display the outlaw temperament. In the Middle Ages, when all interest on investment was branded as usury, interest rates were appallingly high, perhaps on the theory that if the lender was damned in any case, he might as well be damned rich as poor. If the community chooses to ignore the industrialist, he will presumably ignore the community.

The industrialist has already in the heat of battle been the target for a good deal of unjust abuse. His wild talk about Communist conspiracies is equalled by the wild talk of social welfare workers about “conditions and attitudes of mill workers,” talk in which one thing is clear, that the welfare expert is usually blissfully ignorant of the human implications in an unfamiliar environment. That these “interfering reformers” corrupt “my people” is not all employer’s hypocrisy. Nor is the company village always, as one welfare worker opines, “indulgence of the paternalistic impulse and the pleasure of dabbling in the lives of others.” The talk is at present wild on both sides.

Just what modus vivendi can be worked out between owner and operative that can protect the interests of the community will become clearer when the Southern community itself quits romanticizing and tackles the problem. One thing seems clear already: that the Anglo-Saxon individualism we hear so much about will prove as inadequate here as it would in New York traffic. The industrial system is simply too complicated for each man to act on his own. If nothing else happened to prevent the individualistic solution from working, Northern labor would continue its present policy of warring on coolie labor in the South. There is probably no reason for the Southern employer to pay the money wage of the North, and maybe no immediate reason for him to pay the real wage. The North is embarrassed by the lower standard of living in the South a little as our beet-growers are embarrassed by the Philippines. Both the South and the Philippines have at various times tried to win independence, and the people who prevented them in each case must suffer the penalty, of having them inside their tariff union! But for Appomattox, the North might have shut out Southern industry: now it is too late. But seriously, the Southern employer will have to think out with his “contented Anglo-Saxon worker,” whose common race he claims both take pride in, some sort of solution.

The traditionalists are up against a simple proposition: they must interpret in modern economic terms the sense of social responsibility which I have suggested here is the really living part of their heritage. That means putting it on a community, not an individualistic, basis. It means further restrictive legislation, to supplement human decency. If the traditionalists object that noblesse oblige was the essential feature of the Old South, it can only be replied that under no matter what system humanity may choose to live, there will always be room for noblesse oblige. For nobody knows better than the Southern traditionalist that, despite the American myth of equality and independence, the strong will always rule the weak and should do so with justice and mercy.


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