Notes Document: W. E. B. Du Bois - Black Reconstruction

In the winter of 21/22 I was able to put together a small group of people who were interested in reading W. E. B. Du Bois' history of the Reconstruction period: Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880. We were reading the Free Press 1998 edition, with an introductionby David Levering Lewis.

Unfortunately, the reading group did not continue for very long. This new page will host my chapter-by-chapter notes for the book. I will polish them to the best of my ability, and try to make them accessible, thorough, and well-organized. Hopefully they will be of some use to you.

Du Bois meeting Mao Zedong in 1936, during his trip to China

Chapter I: The Black Worker

DB begins by noting some basic demographic facts of the black population. First he highlights that probably at least 1/4 of the Black population in 1860 had white or native ancestry; that more than 10% were not enslaved but free workers; and that probably less than 10% were foreign-born. Also that there was a huge diversity in the ethnic and religious origins of this population. Also noteworthy is that they made up 22% of the american population in 1750, and 10% by 1900.

It is the specific commodity cotton that is responsible for the industrialization of this class, because of its interntional reach and the complexity of the production process. Sugar, rice, tobacco, and other simple agricultural commodoties would not suffice. The capitalist empire that grows from this industry depends entirely on the enslaved population that produces the raw material. And not just this, but the "free" land of the Americas! The cotton industries of North America and Europe depend entirely on this, and the international commercial system depends upon cotton. The resultant industrial revolutions in europe and north america produce conditions that result in huge ways of immigrants to the new world, which intensifies the conflict over western land, which begins the civil war!

Noteworthy is that free black people in both the south and north that meet the property qualifications are enfranchised for some period, especially before incorporation. They only begin to be disenfranchised beginning in some states in 1775, continuing both north and south until 1845. As race-based slavery is entrenched as a key component in capitalist and imperial expansion, the position of free blacks in the southern states becomes more and more precarious.

DB compares the conditions of black American slaves to other working conditions very carefully. He does not want to reproduce a simple narrative of universal and absolute torture and constant suffering; slavery in this context is not far off, he says, from the suffering of industrial northern workers, living in slums and without protection; it also compares to the average european peasant. He does describe the absolute dehumanization present in the Black Codes that arises from legally being nothing more than property. He takes much time to discuss the sale of slaves (and the therefore necessary breakup of families), as this was a fact often obfuscated by reactionary historians.

The maintenance of the slavery system and prevention of revolt is accomplished through the demographic weight of the poor whites and the animation of racial animosity. The association of labor with Blackness and enslavement, and the possibility of upward mobility, produces a racial division in any germinal labor organization. Positions as overseers and on slave-catching patrols are lucrative and appeal to racist vanity.

The increasing numbers of runaway slaves pushed slaveholders to increase the efficiency and range of the fugitive slave act; in combination with the abolition of the international slave trade, prices of slaves increased by an order of magnitude from 1800 to 1860. The flow was from border states to the deep south, where labor was more intense and profitable? Escaped and freed Black workers would form the leadership of the coming revolutionary class.

DB takes some time to comment on the cultural production and legacy of the slave South. The biblical stuff is pretty but innacurate; the stuff originating from Africa beautiful but veiling something. The slaveholders produce nothing of note themselves. But the songs of these enslaved africans are capital Beauty and Truth, and nothing else. The South produced nothing of cultural relevance except for these, and "one has but to remember as symbol of it all, still unspoiled by petty artisans, the legend of John Henry, the mighty black, who broke his heart working against the machine, and died with his Hammer in his Hand".

Page 15, very interesting comment: enslaved Black people had no desire or wish to ascend outside of their class to the one above it, because of the impossibility of escaping racialization and racist domination! In some places they might begin to make capitalistic advances, but these are always stymied and repressed, violently and extra-legally if necessary. The only hope is total systematic abolition!

DB ends the chapter with a brilliant bit of internationalism and a wonderful fragment of a poem by Leslie P. Hill, which will have to be read for itself.

This section posted 28-Nov 2022

Chapter II: The White Worker

The absence of an American land monopoly means that members of the Northern laboring classes have the potential to rise economic classes and become property owners and employers. As such, any Northern laborer is constantly desiring to align himself with the captains of industry, in the same way any poor southern white desires to align himself with the slaveholders. Undergirding this is the constant Westward drive, where land is cheapest and this kind of economic advancement can most readily be obtained. The battle over the terms of expansion, whether these new states will include or prohibit the slavery system, is the basis of the civil war.

Slavery constantly generates runaway slaves who become emancipated workers in Northern states, where they do not enjoy the same legal or social protections. They are paid a lower wage and as a consequence depress wages locally. The general racist sentiment leads to a complete lack of solidarity or organization, and into perennial race riots, which will spring up again when the draft is imposed during wartime.

The increasing numbers of English and German immigrants arriving with substantial labor-organizing experience introduce greater degrees of socialistic thinking and action. At first the majority are vocal opponents of slavery along simple reductive moral lines (ie., "being opponents to wage slavery, we are also opponents to slavery"). Gradually, among them the idea builds that the cheap land of the west will provide the basis of socialism, as associations of independent landed farmers; hence the "Free Soiler" movement. Racist antipathy throws this white working class movement strongly against black laborers; they suppose free Black laborers threaten to occupy the land white workers would. So, rather than condem slavery they adopt the reactionary position of merely wanting to contain it. This was Owen's position. Of course, every plantation owner wants slavery introduced into every new and old state, the atlantic trade re-opened, and America to colonize the West Indies and all of South America: we can see the conflict beginning to precipitate.

As such, the anti-slavery position was reduced to being one of educated, liberal, urban whites. Their arguments are advanced along moral and philosophical lines. The working class movement refused to touch slavery and when it did it made justifications: there is every kind of regular racist idea here. Gradually an anti-slavery sentiment builds among the revolutionary sections of this working class, but the leadership remains backward and reactionary.

A substantial portion of this section is devoted to the impoverished condition of poor Southern whites. The economic strangehold that slavery puts on the waged classes of the south leaves the majority of poor whites uneducated and illiterate, in extremely underdeveloped states, and without substantive means of advancement. The yearly cost of maintaining an enslaved Black worker is around $20, and no white laborer can compete with this. There is a slight middle class, consisting of slave traders (despised), small merchants, successful independent farmers, and policemen; each one of them dreams of owning slaves and joining the general system. There were some attempts by white mechanics to prohibit enslaved black workers from performing their more advanced forms of labor, but these were never coordinated or succesful. The general immiseration, and the universal status of the slaveholder, propells so many Southerners of them into the West, where they will fight vemenently against the Free Soilers for the imposition of slavery.

This section posted 19-Dec 2022

Chapter III: The Planter

There is a very intense concentration of economic wealth in the prewar South; 7% of the white Southern population owned more than 3/4ths of the enslaved population. Most elected officials and many voters for such officials had strict property requirements, and the political classes are extremely entrenched and entirely composed of the wealthiest slaveowners. One C. Sumner quotes an anonymous official who states that the entirety of political power in SC is concentrated in the hands of less than two hundred individuals. It was not until the 1850s, Du Bois says, that poor whites begin trying to assert themselves politically, by, for example in Alabama, by only counting white heads instead of white and black in the general assembly (thus preventing slaveowners from voting for their slaves). Du Bois' language is a little ambiguous here, and I am uncertain exactly about how the political apparatus at state and federal levels were structured to benefit the slaveowners. I am sure the topic has recieved elaboration elsewhere.

The decadence and airs of "culture" of southern aristocrats leads to their happy receptions across Europe and the north; of course, genealogically they are unrelated to any european aristocracy. Du Bois spends much time debunking this myth of a proper and romantic south. They are pompous and debauched, sexually "lawless", "chaotic", "catholic". Their defeat is entirely of their own making, because they refuse to sacrifice any part of their profits to the development of their labor force or their industrial capacities, or to economically outmaneuvering other capitalists. Their demand for free trade (to purchase luxury European goods at the lowest cost) prevents them from any control over the price of the cotton produced. This point is explained as a lack of intelligence and care among the slaveholders.

Additionally, a core component of this intentional underdevelopment is the refusal to integrate modern agricultural machinery and industry in the south, as it would require greater education for the enslaved population. The doctrine of racialized inferiority makes this impossible. DB also thinks such a modernization would have required legal protections for women and children, increasing wages, and greater political equality. Unfortunately I am not familiar with this argument, and find it interesting but am uncertain as to why.

In the south, the slave is capital and as such can not be particularly "incentivized" to work harder or more efficiently (what racists can see only as "laziness" is really work resistance!). It is impossible to increase wages to attract immigrants, and slaves had to be cared for in times of injury and sickness, so there is very little flexibility in the labor pool and no way of economizing it. The incorporation of women into the labor pool as demand increases then leads to border states raising slaves for sale in the more profitable quarters of the deep south. This was denied strongly because the commercialization "debased" the natural patriarchal organization of slavery, another important myth.

The south sees one course to correct the impending economic disaster: reopening of the transatlantic slave trade (opposed very strongly by the north and border states) and imperial expansion into the northwest, the caribbean, mexico and south america. This is stymied and contested, but the outsize political influence of the slaveholders gives them some victories: the Fugitive Slave Act, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The latter makes the prohibition of slavery in new states impossible, and part of the South goes to war there with part of the North.

Of interest is a southern newspaper reporting out of Charleston, which had a declining population of enslaved labor as more and more were brought further inland on cheap new land, that soon the growing white labor force would naturally move to exclude Black labor from competition in and around the city in order to guarantee their own higher wages.

Near the end of this section is a very intersting argument that could be a basis for an enormous research project: Du Bois argues that the South's refusal to move along with history, to admit any change in the agricultural sector, was not merely a moral failure because they exploited so severely so many working people during their own time, but for all time! He says that the conditions of southern slavery were changed slightly and exported around the world. This refusal to strengthen the political and economic power of agricultural laborers in America resulted in the entire foundations of food and cotton textile production becoming fully dependent on the cheapest possible sources of labor. The conditions of labor one finds today throughout the third world/global South, DB writes, are the same conditions of the American South in 1850.

This section posted 19-Dec 2022

Chapter IV: The General Strike

The beginning illustrates an important theme, which we will return to shortly: "When Edwin Ruffin, white-haired and mad, fired the first gun at Fort Sumter, he freed the slaves. It was the last thing he meant to do but that was because he was so typically a Southern oligarch. He did not know the real world about him. He was provincial and lived apart on his plantation with his servants, his books and his thoughts. Outside of agriculutre, he jumped at conclusions instead of testing them by careful research. He knew, for instance, that the North would not fight. He knew that Negroes would never revolt. And so war came."

The assumption at the start of the war was that the South would hold its own and win without any difficulty, its source in the "military culture" among the Southern gentry and their domination of federal government. Average Northerners were not interested or preared for war, and definitely not interested in emancipation. The rallying cry at the start of the war was the re-establishment of national unity.

DB is careful to document the way that enslaved Black people watch the unfolding situation carefully and react to it as it changes and as opportunities arise; the North had no desire for emancipation and the initial advances did not bring them. So watch carefully: the south, while constantly wary of the possibility of slave revolt, is not able to really conceptualize its possibility because racist ideology insists on the enslaved's complete incapacity and thoughtlessness. They are employed as laborers in some instances for the southern armies, but by and large they are only ever concieved of as a military asset, as they permit the South to send a greater percentage of its white population to war than the North can. Understanding their role in this way, advancing Northern armies "siezed" them as contraband (in some cases, literally trying to posses them as slaves for the northern camps! which did not succeed and was not attempted for long). Now being paid laborers in the norhern armies, the insistence of some northern politicians on paying the former masters or even returning their fugitives to them becomes a patently ridiculous idea. As a greater and greater mass of enslaved laborers become waged laborers and protected refugees in northern camps, the situation transforms into a general strike.

Of course the media of the North and many generals and politicians remained backwards to the changing times. The New York Times and other large newspapers remained staunchly opposed to abolition; generals attempted to return "runaways". When Black people did become waged laborers for the camps, the administrators fought bitterly to pay them less than their white counterparts, to withhold pay, and to fine them arbitrarily for various necessary provisions. Military bands were forbidden from playing John Brown's Body. The north did not want slavery to end, and the south used this point as propoganda.

General Freemont in Missouri, before Abrhaman Lincoln could think of it without balking, issues an emancipation. Butler in Virginia does the same. Banks, the successor of Butler, attempted experiment in self-governance in the area around New Orleans, giving enslaved people the right to the land they cultivated and the right to police and organize themselves. In the Mississippi Valley, a small tax on the freedmans wages pays for the construction of schools and hospitals. In Davis Bend, MS, property is returned to the freedman and sheriffs are elected by their own population. The control of property here is described as "socialistic" but there is not much elaboration on any of these experiments and this tumultuous time. I should like to read more! General Sherman's Sea Island circular grants all the land along rivers and coasts of the south, south of Charleston, to black refugees of the war. Special Field Order 15 divvies up land in 40 acre tracts. Abandoned and captured property goes on auction, much of it to white northernerns. DB accounts a simple increase in the quality of life by a decrease in agricultural exports.

There is a small but significant role played in abolitionist refugee volunteer organizations, who help in the construction of schools and hospitals, and in the feeding, clothing, and housing of northward-moving refugees.

By 1863, 1.5 million slaves are now free due simply to the advance of the war, before the emancipation was proclaimed; when it was, it wasn't his choice but the force of history that moved and acted upon him.

This section posted 15-Jan 2023

northern resentment. stunted class antagonism in south.

Chapter V: The Coming of the Lord