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Perspectives in Southern Industry

ISSUE:  Summer 1931

Southern Commercial Conventions, 1837-1859. By Herbert Wender. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. $2.00. Centennial Iliitory of the South Carolina Railroad. By S. M. Derrick. Columbia: The State Company. $5.00. Virginia Iron Manufacture in the Slave lira. By Kathleen Bruce. New York and London: The Century Company. $3.50. The Coming of Industry to the South (Vol. 153 of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science). Edited by William J. Carson. Philadelphia: The American Academy of Political and Social Science, $2.00, When Southern Labor Stirs. By Tom Tippett. New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith. $2.50.

Even in the brief period during which the present reviewer has known about such things, the number of books dealing with the economic and social history of the Southern States has greatly, increased. Fifteen or eighteen years ago the few volumes that appeared had natural but very definite disabilities. The field had been little explored; statistical facilities were lacking, and such as existed had not been turned upon the South. Southern graduate schools had not developed, and Southerners who studied elsewhere found little guidance for work upon Southern themes. Further, the South was struggling for material progress, and must be encouraged; the best face was put upon the social scene, as in the papers presented at sociological and educational congresses.

Since then the industrial revolution in the South has become a recognized fact. The South has outstripped other sections in the speed of its industrial advance. Now that it has achieved results, it is no longer content with promotional writing or with mere description, but has become critical of methods used and of the state in which it finds itself.

The five volumes here reviewed fairly cover the span of the South’s industrial development. Kathleen Bruce’s “Virginia Iron Manufacture in the Slave Era,” S. M. Derrick’s “Centennial History of the South Carolina Railroad,” and Herbert Wender’s “Southern Commercial Conventions, 1837-1859” treat of the ante-bellum period; the symposium, “The Coming of Industry to the South,” describes the post-bellum period; and Tom Tippett’s “When Southern Labor Stirs” caps it off with a discussion of the strikes of the last two years.

Of course it is valuable to bring out every fact having to do with the development of manufacturing and transportation in the Old South. In the sensational interest attaching to the events since the Civil War, this earlier era has been neglected. A good many students begin to feel that we too readily speak of the Old South as exclusively agricultural, that we assign too much importance to the plantation and the master of the plantation, that the economy of this period was more complex than we have supposed. The late August Kohn from inquiry and conviction, and the late Richard H. Edmonds from an uncritical partisanship, wrote often of the industrial enterprise which existed in the ‘thirties, ‘forties, and ‘fifties. Victor S. Clark has brought much antebellum industry to light, and U. B. Phillips has explored early railroad and other non-agricultural development.

It is easy, in the zest of discovery, to seek to destroy all limits to industry in the Old South. The leaves threaten to obscure the forest. The fact is—and the more extensive the research the plainer becomes the conclusion—that a staple agriculture with slave labor rendered effort toward economic diversification, broadly speaking, abortive. Manufactures could not have a healthy and continuous growth under such auspices. Even railroading, in which the Old South did better, was infected with a vast impracticality, and led into political courses. Assertions to this effect have never been altogether a priori, but they might have been without losing their force. It is not too much to say that recognition of the lethal influence of the slave economy upon industrial enterprise and expansion is the beginning of wisdom in the treatment of the South’s economic history.

Dr. Wender’s portrayal of the series of commercial conventions held in the South in the two decades preceding the Civil War makes this very clear. As he unrolls the panorama of the years, time adds its own verdict. Absorption in agriculture was cumulative. Just as an exploitative farming lived by eating into new lands, the social system which was erected upon it was less and less able to tolerate opposing counsels. Representative gatherings which in the earlier years considered rather calmly and constructively, means of economic diversification, passed into an insistence upon economic self-sufficiency for the South, and so by predictable stages to separatist exhortation, ending with the call to arms. Dr. Wender speaks volumes in a sentence when he says that these conventions “failed to accomplish their purpose because the people refused to question the sanctity of slavery and the despotism of cotton.” The industrial barrenness of the Old South was inevitable; Olmsted, on the ground, declared it, and Cairnes, working from the simple premise of slavery, proved it. Dr. Wender’s story embroiders a pattern which they and others long since sketched out.

Professor Derrick, in his painstaking history of the South Carolina Railroad, does not question the propriety of this view. He has treated one particular development in itself, and in his exhibit of the operations of the company—engineering, fiscal, and promotional—has left little to be desired. He does not concern himself particularly with larger social interpretation, but his facts speak for themselves under this head. The railroad was thwarted mainly by the economic environment in which it was conceived. Here was Charleston doing its best (and that was much), but it was Charleston the stronghold of slavery, Charleston the port of an over-specialized and languid back-country.

Professor Bruce, while she exploits chiefly the history of the Tredegar Iron Works at Richmond, takes in wider territory. Her picture has both detail and scope. Her inspection is so minute that every now and then it threatens to become pedantic. But that is no matter. She has dragged the ponds in a way that offers a model of industry. Never German lived that could have done it more thoroughly. On the side of collection and arrangement of facts, nobody will ever have to do this job again, However, I get the impression that she is not sufficiently mindful of the necessary limitations of manufacturing in the slave era. The episode of j the strike of white workers of the Tredegar against the Negro slaves in the works, in 1847, is revealing in this connection. What the South most desired was not manufac- tures, but a continuance of slavery. And it is almost possible to say, from the exhibit of the sentiments of the master of the Tredegar, that this is what he desired. He would not employ white men if they combined to exclude slaves from his employ, or, I suspect, if they, combined for so much as a j barn dance, or to pick daisies, or for any other purpose than j to swear their devotion to him. He thought that “all iron j establishments in a slave state must come to the employ-ment of slaves.” In the sense that manufactures in a slave ; state, if they were to persist at all, must employ slaves, I suppose Anderson was correct; but what he did not see, and what his loud supporters in Richmond did not see, was that you could not build a manufacturing development on this same slave labor. Anderson said he used slave labor in order to compete against the pauper white labor of his competitors outside the South. So he turned his striking white workmen over to the law. As he himself wrote, in the third person, “because they were understood to have entered into a combination to effect their purpose, . . . he thought they had committed an offence against the laws, for which they deserved to be prosecuted. In that respect, he regarded it as a matter in which the whole community was concerned; it must be evident that such combinations are a direct attack on slave property; and, if they do not originate in abolition, they are pregnant with its evils.” Anderson’s fellow manufacturer, William Gregg of Graniteville, South Carolina, j did much better. He built his enterprise upon the hope j; which he entertained for the pauper white labor at home, | not upon the design of undercutting pauper white labor in the North or Europe by the employment of chattel blacks. Gregg wanted to reconstruct Southern economy, while Anderson wanted to exploit it.

The American Academy, of Political and Social Science has conferred a benefit by devoting a volume of its Annals to the arrival of industry in the South. It shows that there are more scholars in the South competent to speak on many phases of this development than might have been supposed. Dr. Carson, in editing this volume, has brought together a well-equipped company who will want to know each other better in the future. The treatment of the subject is very full; there are articles on the adjustment of Southern agriculture to economic changes, on Negro labor, on electric power, on the changing political philosophy of the South, on the history and present state of the chief Southern industries, and on the industrial status of individual states, besides many others. Dr. Murchison has shown again the fatal lack of integration in the textile industry; a lack, however, which belongs to competition, and not peculiarly to textiles. Dr. Evans and Dr. Otey have contributed thoroughly acquainted articles on Southern white factory operatives. Professor Thompson has written with much charm and truth of the decade and a half following the Civil War. This volume is the best single source of information on the industrial South.

Mr. Tippett, of Brook wood Labor College, knows from personal participation about the series of Southern textile strikes—Elizabethton, Gastonia, Marion, and Danville—of which he writes. His account is informing, stirring, and restrained. He shows that the South cannot have private capitalist enterprise without the social consequences of capitalism. This book, and others in the same tenor, are ringing down the curtain on that stage of thought which represented that the South could be industrialized and yet remain “different.” One comes away from Mr. Tippett’s recital with the conviction that though the union movement in the South has received severe setbacks from a complication of causes, democracy, in our expanding industries is vastly nearer than ever before.


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