One of the funniest moments of the Civil War, a conflict admittedly deficient in genuine rib-ticklers, must have been when Union politicians sat down to consider the consequences of the Emancipation Proclamation…
…and realized that the census would convert 3/5 slaves into 5/5 freedmen…
…translating into 12 additional votes for the southern states in Congress and the Electoral College…
…without any compensating provision giving freedmen the vote.
The 1866 Congress was the inevitable denouement, with the South sending a clutch of CSA political and military veterans to Congress to carry on the tradition of southern obstructionism that had hobbled the Republic pretty much since its inception.
This shall not stand! Thundered the North, and the stage was set for a grinding cycle of Federal Reconstruction designed in large part to enable and bring black votes to bear to dilute white power in the south, including an episode of military rule intended to achieve black political participation at the point of the bayonet.
The North’s successes were partial and equivocal. Nation-building is tough, even when it’s your own nation. It took one hundred years (one hundred years!) and the Voting Rights Act for the effective imposition of genuine black suffrage, a key political objective of Reconstruction. Even today the black vote conundrum lives on in the southern states’ commitment to voter suppression, and a clutch of gerrymandered white districts in the south are able to exert their baleful sway over the House of Representatives.
The South-free Civil War Congress had been a paradise of progressiveness, pushing through legislation like the Homestead Act and the Transcontinental Railroad that had been blocked by the South. It’s easy to imagine that if we hadn’t been wrangling with white-dominated southern delegations for the last 150 years, no question we’d have equal rights for all, single payer health care, generous Social Security, our flying cars, our anti-gravity belts…
Reflecting on the great Nelson Mandela, I thought some more about what would have happened if we had let the South go.
As I opined in a previous post, in the short and medium term, the South might have done rather well. Cotton was a strategic global resource in the 19th century, like petroleum is today, and the South had a lot of it. It also could have expanded its cotton-ready empire by annexing Cuba, Nicaragua, and pieces of Mexico, conquests that had been blocked during the ante-bellum period by Northerners fearful of the increased slaveocracy clout that new states carved out of these territories would have brought to Washington.
But long term, I think the South would have choked on slavery. In the real after-the-war world, cotton lost its world-conquering magic. The creaky Southern economy lumbered on only thanks to northern capital, and by leeching off infusions of Federal money, including enormous defense infrastructure spending in the southern states.
What if that money were gone? And what if the South, instead of exporting to places like Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles the surplus black labor its inefficient economy could not employ, saw its slave population trapped behind the borders of the CSA and become a growing moral, social, economic, and security problem?
You see where this is headed. In other words, at some point in its history, the CSA would have started looking like the RSA (Republic of South Africa).
And somewhere from the ranks of the black population, a liberator would have risen.
I’m not presuming to make any judgments about whether the road to black equality would have smoother if freedom had been seized at the outset by a black leader and a black movement instead of bestowed by a white politician. The US struggle produced magnificent black leaders, and South Africa today is no garden spot despite Mandela’s masterful personal and political will.
But it’s interesting to imagine what North America would have been like if the Union didn’t have a Lincoln…and the South had a Mandela.