The Material Decline of the South in the Union
by Edward A. Pollard
It is not unusual in countries of large extent for the tides of population and enterprise to change their directions and establish new seats of power and prosperity. But the change which in little more than a generation after the American Revolution shifted the numbers and enterprise of the country from the Southern to the Northern States was so distinctly from one side of a line to the other, that we must account such the result of certain special and well-defined causes. To discover these causes, and to explain that most remarkable phenomenon — the sharply defined transfer of population, enterprise, and commercial empire from the South to the North — we shall pass rapidly in review a number of years in the history of the American States.
About the revolutionary period Virginia held the front rank of the States. Patrick Henry designated her as "the most mighty State in the Union." "Does not Virginia," exclaimed this orator, "surpass every State, in the Union in the number of inhabitants, extent of territory, felicity of position, in affluence and wealth?" Her arms had been singularly illustrious in the seven years\' war; and no State had contributed to this great contest a larger measure of brilliant and patriotic service. James Monroe, himself a soldier of the Revolution, declared: "Virginia braved all dangers. From Quebec to Boston, from Boston to Savannah, she shed the blood of her sons."
The close of the Revolution was followed by a distress of trade that involved all of the American States. Indeed, they found that their independence, commercially, had been very dearly purchased: that the British Government was disposed to revenge itself for the ill-success of its arms by the most severe restrictions on the trade of the States, and to affect all Europe against any commercial negotiations with them. The tobacco of Virginia and Maryland was loaded down with duties and prohibitions; the rice and indigo of the Carolinas suffered similarly; but in New England the distress was out of all proportion to what was experienced in the more fortunate regions of the South, where the fertility of the soil was always a ready and considerable compensation for the oppression of taxes and commercial imposts. Before the Revolution, Great Britain had furnished markets for mor than three-fourths of the exports of the eight Northern States. These were now almost actually closed to them. Massachusetts complained of the boon of independence, when she could no longer find a market for her fish and oil of fish, which at this time constituted almost wholly the exports of that region, which has since reached to such insolence of prosperity, and now abounds with the seats of opulence. The most important branch of New England industry — the whale fisheries — had almost perished; and driven out of employment, and distressed by an unkind soil, there were large masses of the descendants of the Puritans ready to move wherever better fortune invited them, and the charity of equal laws would tolerate them.
In these circumstances it is not surprising that, in the early stages of the Federal Republic, the South should have been reckoned the seat of future empire. There was a steady flow of population from the sterile regions of the North to the rich but uncultivated plains of the South. In the Convention that formed the Constitution, Mr. Butler, a delegate from New England, had declared, with pain, that "the people and strength of America were evidently bearing southwardly and southwestwardly." As the sectional line was then supposed to run, there were only five States on the southern side of it: eight on the northern. In the House of Representatives the North had thirty-six votes; the South only twenty-nine. But the most persistent statement made in favour of the Constitution in Virginia and other Southern States, was, that though the North, at the date of this instrument, might have a majority in the representation, the increase of population in the South would, in the course of a few years, change it in their favour. So general and imposing was the belief that the Southern States were destined to hold the larger share of the numbers and wealth of America. And not without reason was such a prospect indulged at this time. The people of New England were then emigrating to Kentucky, and even farther to the South and Southwest. In vain the public men of the North strove to drive back the flow of population upon the unoccupied lands of Maine, then a province of Massachusetts. Land was offered there for a dollar an acre. But the inducement of even such a price was insufficient to draw the emigrant to the inhospitable regions of the Penobscot. There was the prosperous agriculture to tempt him that had made Virginia the foremost of the British colonies. There were the fertile and undulating prairie lands of Kentucky to invite and reward his labours. There were the fruitful vales of Frankland — a name then given to the western district of North Carolina — to delight his vision with the romances of picturesque prosperity. To these regions the Northern emigration flowed with steady progress, if not with the rapidity and spirit of a new adventure.
Virginia did not need the contributions of numbers of or capital moving from the North after the Revolution, to make her the foremost State of the Union. She was already so. In 1788, her population was estimated at more than half a million, and her military force at fifty thousand militiamen. Her early land system, in which the soil was cultivated by tenants, and thus most effectively divided for labour, had put her agricultural interest far above that of the other States, and during the colonial period had drawn to her borders the best class of population in America — that of the yeomanry of England. The Chesapeake was the chosen resort of the trader. Alexandria, then the principal commercial city of Virginia, was thought to hold the keys to the trade of a continent. The election of George Washington to the Presidency of the United States interrupted him in a project, by which he hoped to unite the Bay of Chesapeake, by her two great arms, the James and Potomac rivers, with the Ohio, and eventually to drain the commerce of the Lakes into the same great basin, and, extending yet further the vision of this enterprise, to make Alexandria the eastern depot of the fur trade. Everywhere was blazoned the prosperity of Virginia; and, indeed, in coming into the Union, many of her public men had said that she sacrificed an empire in itself for common concern.
Of the decline of the South, after the early periods of the government, in population and industry, Virginia affords the most striking example. To show the general fact and to illustrate especially the decline of that State, we may take two pictures of Virginia, placing an interval between them of scarcely more than one generation of men.
At the time of the adoption of the Constitution, Virginia was in the heyday of prosperity. Her system of tenant farms spread before the eye a picture of thrifty and affluent agriculture. IN 1800 she had a great West Indian and a flourishing European trade. She imported for herself and for a good part of North Carolina and, perhaps, of Tennessee. She presented a picture in which every element of prosperity combined with lively effort.
In 1829 it was estimated in her State Convention that her lands were worth only half what they were in 1817. Her slave property had proportionally declined, and negro men could be bought for one hundred and fifty dollars each. Her landed system had become extinct. Regions adapted to the growth of the grasses were converted into pasture lands. The busy farms disappeared; they were consolidated to make cattle-ranges and sheep-walks. Where once the eye was entertained with the lively and cheerful scenes of an abundant prosperity, it looked over wasted fields, stunted forests of secondary growth of pine and cedar, and mansions standing partly in ruins or gloomily closed in tenantless silence.
The contrast between such prosperity and such decay, witnessed in every part of the South, though not perhaps to the extend displayed in Virginia, and taking place within a short and well-defined period of time, demands explanations and strongly invites the curiosity of the historical inquirer. And yet the explanation is easy when we regard obvious facts, instead of betaking ourselves to remote and refined speculations after the usual fashion of the curious, with respect to striking and remarkable phenomena.
It has been a persistent theory with Northern writers that the singular decline of the South in population and industry, while their own section was constantly ascending the scale of prosperity, is to be ascribed to the peculiar institution of negro slavery. But this is the most manifest nonsense that was ever spread on the pages of history. Negro slavery had no point of coincidence with the decline referred to; it had existed in the South from the beginning; it had been compatible with her early prosperity extending over the period of the Constitution; it had existed in Virginia when Virginia was most flourishing. But the fallacy of the anti-slavery argument is not only apparent in the light of the early history of America: examples of other parts of the world emphasize it, and add to the illustration. Cuba and Brazil are standing examples of the contributions of negro slavery to agricultural wealth and material prosperity; while on the other hand, Jamaica affords the example of decline to these respects from the very abolition of this institution of labor.
The true causes of that sectional lapse, in which the South became by far the inferior part of the American Union in every respect of material prosperity, will naturally be looked for in the peculiar history of that Union. We shall make this discovery of adequate causes in not more than two prominent considerations, having reference to the geographical and political history of the American States.
1. The Louisiana Purchase, although opposed by the North, on the ground that it was an acquisition to the territorial and political power of the South, was mainly instrumental in turning the scale of population as between the two sections. It opened the Mississippi River; turned the tide of emigration to its upper branches; opened a new empire — the Northwest, soon to become known as "the Great West;" and drew to these distant fields much of the numbers and wealth that had before tended to the South and Southwest for the rewards of enterprise.
2. But by far the more important cause of that decline we have marked in the South was the unequal legislation of Congress and the constant discrimination of the benefits of the Union as between the two sections of the country.
And here in this consideration it is not too much to say that we find the key to the whole political history of America. The great defect of the American Constitution was that it rested too much power upon the fluctuating basis of population. In the Convention that formed this instrument there were Southern members who made light of the Northern majority in representation. They thought the next census would set all right. But the Northern party understood the advantage of getting the control of the government in the outset; they strained every nerve to gain it; and they have never since relinquished it.
Population, where the soil is not too densely peopled, and yields a good average of production, is the obvious source of national wealth, which, in turn, increases population. This great productive power was thrown into the Northern scale. By the two measures, of the exclusion of slavery from the Territories and the interdiction of the slave trade, Congress turned the tides of population in favour of the North, and confirmed in the Northern majority the means of a sectional domination.
What effect this turn in the population had upon the political power of the South in the Union is at once seen in the startling changes of her representation in the lower house of Congress. The population of the South had, of course, largely increased, since the date of the Revolution; but it had not been able to keep up with the changes in the ratio of representation. This had been at first 33,000; in the census of 1860, it was raised to 127,381. In the first House of Representatives, Virginia had ten members to six from New York; the proportion under the last census was, Virginia eleven to New York thirty. South Carolina, which originally had one-thirteenth of the popular representation in Congress, would only return, under the census of 1860, four members in a house of two hundred and thirty-three. The representative power in the North had become enormously in excess, and whenever it chose to act unanimously, was capable of any amount of oppression upon the rival section.
Under this sectional domination grew up a system of protections and bounties to the North without parallel in the history of class legislation and of unequal laws in a common country. Virginia had accepted the Constitution in hope that the General Government, having "power to regulate commerce," would lift the restrictions from her trade. This consideration was held out as a bribe for votes in the Convention. She was bitterly disappointed. In the Virginia Convention of 1822, Mr. Watkins Leigh declared: "Every commercial operation of the Federal Government, since I attained manhood, has been detrimental to the Southern Atlantic slaveholding, planting States."
The South had no protection for her agriculture. At the time of the adoption of the Constitution, the manufacturing interest was a very unimportant one in the country. But manufactures soon became a prominent and special branch of industry in the North; and a course of sectional legislation was commenced to exact from the South a large portion of the proceeds of her industry, and bestow it upon the North in the shape of bounties to manufacturers and appropriations in a thousand forms. "Protection" was the cry which came up from every part of the North. Massachusetts, although unwilling to be taxed on the importation of molasses, wanted protection for the rum she made from it, and contended that it should be fenced in by high duties from a competition with the rum of Jamaica. Pennsylvania sought protection for her manufactures of steel and her paper mills. Connecticut had manufactures of woollens and manufactures of cordage, which she declared would perish without protection. New York demanded that every article should be protected that her people were able to produce. And to such clamours and demands the South had for a long time to submit, so helpless indeed that she was scarcely treated as a party to common measures of legislation. The foundation of the protective tariff of 1828 — "the bill of abominations," as it was styled by Mr. Calhoun — was laid in a Convention of Northern men at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and from this Convention were excluded all sections of the country intended to be made tributary under the act of Congress.
Of the tariff of 1828 Senator Benton remarked:
The South believed itself impoverished to enrich the North by this system; and certainly an unexpected result had been seen in these two sections. In the colonial state the Southern were the richer part of the colonies, and they expected to do well in a state of independence. But in the first half century after independence this expectation was reversed. The wealth of the North was enormously aggrandized; that of the South had declined. Northern towns had become great cities, Southern cities had decayed or become stationary; and Charleston, the principal port of the South, was less considerable than before the Revolution. The North became a moneylender to the South, and Southern citizens made pilgrimages to Northern cities to raise money upon their patrimonial estates. The Southern States attributed this result to the action of the Federal Government — its double action of levying revenue upon the industry of one section of the Union and expending it in another — and especially to its protective tariffs.
Again, contrasting the condition of the South then with what it had been at the Revolutionary period, the same Senator remarked:
It is a tradition of the colonies that the South had been the seat of wealth and happiness, of power and opulence; that a rich population covered the land, dispensing a baronial hospitality, and diffusing the felicity which themselves enjoyed; that all was life, and joy, and affluence then. And this tradition was not without similitude to the reality, as this writer can testify; for he was old enough to have seen (after the Revolution) the still surviving state of Southern colonial manners, when no traveller was allowed to go to a tavern, but was handed over from family to family through entire States; when holidays were days of festivity and expectation long prepared for, and celebrated by master and slave with music and feasting, and great concourse of friends and relations; when gold was kept in chests, after the downfall of Continental paper, and weighed in scales, and lent to neighbours for short terms without note, interest, witness, or security; and when petty litigation was at so low an ebb that it required a fine of forty pounds of tobacco to make a man serve as constable. The reverse of all this was now seen and felt — not to the whole extent which fancy or policy painted, but to extent enough to constitute a reverse, and to make a contrast, and to excite the regrets which the memory of past joys never fails to awaken.
The early history of the tariff makes a plain exhibition of the stark outrage perpetrated by it upon the Southern States. The measure of 1816 had originated in the necessities of a public revenue — for the war commenced against England four years before had imposed a debt upon the United States of one hundred and thirty millions of dollars. It was proposed to introduce into this tariff the incidental feature of "protection"; and it was argued that certain home manufactures had sprung up during the exigencies of the war, which were useful and deserving, and that they were likely to lapse under the sudden return of peace and to sink under foreign competition. A demand so moderate and ingenious the South was not disposed to resist. Indeed, it was recommended by John C. Calhoun himself, who voted for the bill of 1816. But the danger was in the precedent. The principle of protection once admitted maintained its hold and enlarged its demands; it was successively carried farther in the tariffs of 1820, \'24, and \'28. And in 1831, when it was shown by figures in Congress that the financial exigencies that had first called the tariff into existence had completely passed away, and that the government was, in fact, collecting about twice as much revenue as its usual expenditures required, the North still held to its demands for protection, and strenuously resisted any repeal or reduction of the existing tariff.
The demand of the South at this time, so ably enforced by Calhoun, for the repeal of the tariff, was recommended by the most obvious justice and the plainest prudence. It was shown that the public debt had been so far diminished as to render it certain that, at the existing rate of revenue, in three years the last dollar would be paid, and after three years there would be an annual surplus in the treasury of twelve or thirteen millions. But the North was insensible to these arguments, and brazen in its demands. The result of this celebrated controversy, which shook the Union to its foundations, was a compromise or a modification of the tariff, in which however enough was saved of the protective principle to satisfy for a time the rapacity of the North, and that through the demagogical exertions of Henry Clay of Kentucky, who courted Northern popularity, and enjoyed in Northern cities indecent feasts and triumphs for his infidelity to his section.
But the tariff of 1833 was a deceitful compromise, and its terms were never intended by the North to be a final settlement of the question. In 1842 the settlement was repudiated, and the duties on manufactures again advanced. From that time until the period of Disunion, the fiscal system of the United States was persistently protective; the South continued to decline; she had no large manufactures, no great cities, no shipping interests; and although the agricultural productions of the South were the basis of the foreign commerce of the United States, yet Southern cities did not carry it on.
Nor was the tariff the only measure of Northern aggrandizement in the Union. Besides manufactures, the North had another great interest in navigation. A system of high differential duties gave protection to it; and this, of course, bore with peculiar hardship on the Southern States, whose commodities were thus burdened by a new weight put upon them by the hand of the General Government. In tariffs, in pensions, in fishing bounties, in tonnage duties, in every measure that the ingenuity of avarice could devise, the North exacted from the South a tribute, which it could only pay at the expense and in the character of an inferior in the Union.
But in opposition to this view of the helplessness of the South and her inability to resist the exactions of the North, it may be said that the South had in important political alliance in the North, that she was aided there by the Democratic party, and that she thus held the reins of government during the greater portion of the time the tariffs alleged to be so injurious to her interests existed. And here we touch a remarkable fact in American politics. It is true that a large portion of the Democratic party resided in the North, and that many of the active politicians there pretended to give in their adhesion to the States Rights school of politics. But this Democratic alliance with the South was one only for party purposes. It was extravagant of professions, but is carefully avoided trials of its fidelity; it was selfish, cunning, and educated in perfidy. It was a deceitful combination for party purposes, and never withstood the test of a practical question. The Northern Democrat was always ready to contend against the Whig, but never against his own pocket, and the peculiar interests of his section. The moment economical questions arose in Congress, the Northern Democrat was on the side of Northern interests, and the Southern ranks, very imposing on party questions, broke into a scene of mutiny and desertion. It was indeed the weak confidence which the South reposed in the Democratic party of the North that more than once betrayed it on the very brink of the greatest issues in the country, and did more perhaps to put it at disadvantage in the Union than the party of open opposition.
It was through such a train of legislation as we have briefly described that the South rapidly declined in the Union. By the force of a numerical majority — a thing opposed to the American system, properly understood — a Union, intended to be one of mutual benefits, was made a conduit of wealth and power to the North, while it drained the South of nearly every element of material prosperity.
It is true that the numerical majority of the North the South held long in check by superior and consummate political skill. Party complications were thrown around the Sectional Animosity. But it was easy to see that some time or other that animosity would break the web of party; and that whenever on sectional questions the North chose to act in a mass, its power would be irresistible, and that no resource would be left for the South than to remain helpless and at mercy in the Union or to essay a new political destiny. In the year 1860, the North did choose to act in a mass, and the South was thus and then irresistibly impelled to the experiment of Disunion.
This article was extracted from Edward A. Pollard, The Lost Cause (New York: E.B. Treat and Company, 1866).