Sunday, March 30, 2008

Could an eccentric billionaire have prevented the Civil War?

In his book For the Glory of God, Rodney Stark asserts that Christianity ended the slave trade. He makes a convincing argument that the Marxist accounts of slavery's end - that it wasn't profitable, that it was becoming outmoded - are wrong. At the time that Britain unilaterally ended the transatlantic trade, slavery was more profitable than ever, and getting even more so. But ending the trade didn't end the institution of holding slaves in the US. While the practice could not be maintained on the Caribbean islands, where conditions usually killed the slaves, the US South had conditions conducive to a sustainable slave population.

Stark also argues that people don't cause changes: organizations do. He points especially to the Quakers in leading the charge against the trade first and the institution second. In America, the Quakers were the most prominent group advocating abolition, usually at the federal level. This is where southerners disagreed - many thought that the federal government could not, and should not be allowed to exercise this kind of power. They preferred the primacy of state governments.

Now imagine that some wealthy Quaker (there were quite a few of these) had decided that this tactic was just inflammatory, and might lead to reprisals. He wanted to make non-slaveholding southerners sympathetic, and pushing for a law against their domestic institution would not do this. If the slave issue ever came to blows, a slave power that had popular support would be much more formidable than rich elites yelling at the rank and file southerners to protect their own business interests.

And so my hypothetical rich Quaker decides to take the wind out of the slave power's sails. He beings to buy every single slave an owner will sell to him and immediately free them. He pours all of his wealth into this, and by 1845 he's accumulated about five hundred. At this rate, he will never make a difference. So he follows Stark's advice and enlists the Quaker community. The Churches will help reorient the newly-freed slaves, and anyone who will contribute money to the purchasing is welcome to it.

Any small-scale farmer falling on hard times can find a Quaker to purchase his slaves at far above market value; this actually generates goodwill among the southern population. But after nearly a decade of buying, the effect is too small. My rich Quaker and his rich Quaker associates decide to change their plans: instead of offering to buy each slave offered, they will actively seek to buy out the slaves of all owners in a concentrated area, effectively ridding it of slavery. Targeting southern Virginia, this group of men sweep through with immense amounts of money and buy nearly 85% of the slaves in the southern section of Viginia. Those who refused were mainly large rich plantation owners and the few who are morally opposed to abolition. Some slaveowners who were on the fence about the plan are softened up with prices far above market value.

The essence of the plan is theological: by removing the temptation, the collective soul of each state will be cleansed. These purified souls will respond by banning slavery, as many northern states had done. The process is gradual, and will take a long time. It sacrifices speed for pragmatism. The Quakers know that these mass-purchases are driving up the price of slaves, leading more owners to 'encourage' slaves to have many children, but they are convinced that at some point a critical mass will be reached when slavery in the south will no longer be tolerated, and will come to a sputtering, nonviolent end.

Many people saw the Civil War coming, though no one got its form exactly right. The problem the Union faced was that, because it was widely seen in the south as overwhelmingly federal and disrespectful of the states, it aroused the sympathy of those southerners who did not own slaves. The large majority of those who fought for the Confederacy did not own slaves. They fought, more or less, on a principle of rights for states against the government. This isn't to say they were fully idealistic; less federal regulation was supposedly in the interest of every man in the Confederacy.

With slavery diminished to an issue of the elites, the Quaker plan or any other compensated emancipation plan could possibly have prevented the war. No southerner would pay taxes just to have them used to free blacks, so only a private enterprise could have made a change. No private group could have bought all the slaves; their value is estimated to be larger than any other economic sector at the time. What the rich Quakers could have done was change to culture of just one slave stronghold. If, for example, South Carolina or Virginia had not joined the Confederacy the entire enterprise would have fallen apart. South Carolina was the most important - it left the Union in the first wave, before Virginia, and was as crucial to the CSA as it had been in ratifying the US Constitution decades before.

The reason this scenario is somewhat unpleasant is that it doesn't have that dash of good-versus-evil narrative; the entire thing is almost a compromise. Could Quaker idealists really have carried it off? Would it have changed the southern states enough? The purpose of the enterprise would not be to cause the states to ban slavery, but to eliminate the southern and northern causes of possible aggression. The moral purification of the south would come in time, once slavery was a curiosity and not a practice. By buying out 'commoner' slaveholders, the plan would make slavery something identified with the rich and powerful. Very rarely has a movement been workable that tried to mobilize the masses to defend the wealth of the wealthy without promising the masses something in return. Maybe the embryonic Confederacy would have been castrated of popular support by the new conception of slaveowning as something only 'those rich people' did.

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