Looking Backward by W.E.B. Du Bois

“How the planters, having lost the war for slavery, sought to begin again where they left off in 1860, merely substituting for the individual ownership of slaves, a new state serfdom of back folk”. 

The young Southern fanatic who murdered Abraham Lincoln said, according to the New York Times, April 21, 1865:

“…This country was formed for the white, not the black man; and looking upon African slavery from the same standpoint held by noble framers of our Constitution, I, for one, have ever considered it of the greatest blessings (both for themselves and us) that God every bestowed upon a favored nation. Witness heretofore our wealth and power; witness their elevation and enlightenment above their race elsewhere. I have lived among it most of my life and have seen less harsh treatment from master to man than I have beheld in the North from father to son. Yet Heaven knows, no one would be willing to do more for the Negro race than I, could I but see a way to still better their condition. But Lincoln’s policy is only preparing the way for their total annihilation.”

The South had risked war to protect this system of labor to expand it into triumphant empire; and even if all of the Southerners did not agree with this broader program, even these had risked war in order to ward off the disaster of a free labor class, either white or black.

Yet, they had failed. After a whirlwind of battles, in which the South had put energy, courage, and skill, and most of their money; in the face of inner bickering and divided councils, jealousy of leaders, indifference of poor whites and the general strike of black labor, they had failed in their supreme effort, and now found themselves with much of their wealth gone, their land widely devastated, and some of it confiscated, their slaves declare free, and their country occupied by a hostile army.

There was at the end of the war no civil authority with power in North and South Caroline, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas;and in the other states authorities was only functioning part under Congress or the President. “The Northern soldiers were transported home with provisions for their comfort, and often with royal welcomes, while the southern soldiers walked home in poverty and disillusioned.”

Lands had deteriorated because of the failure to use fertilizers. The marketing of the crops was difficult and the titles to land and crops disputed. Government official seized much of the produce and the cotton tax of 3 cents a pound bore hard upon the planners. The mortality of the whites was no great in the decade following 1865, as to be “a matter of common remark”.

When a right and just cause loses, men suffer. But men also suffer when a wrong cause loses. Suffering thus in itself does not prove the justice or injustice of a cause. It always, however, points a grave moral. Certainly after the war, no one could restrain his sorrow at the destruction and havoc brought upon the whites; least of all were the Negroes unsympathetic. Perhaps never in the history of the world have victims given so much of help and sympathy to their former oppressors. Yet the most pitiable victims of the war were not the rich planters, but the poor workers; not the white race, but the black

Naturally, the mass of the planters were bitterly opposed to the abolition of slavery. First, they based their opposition upon a life-long conviction that free Negro labor could not be made profitable. The New Orleans Picayune said, July 8, 1862:

 “In sober earnest, we say, and we believe all who know anything from observation or experience will corroborate our assertion, that this is an absolute impossibility. There could be no full crop produced under that system. The earlier processes might be performed in a manner and to some extent; but the later and more arduous, those upon the prompt performance of which depends the production of any crop at all, would be slighted, if not indeed entirely lost. The thriftless, thoughtless Negro would jingle his last month’s wage in the planter’s face and tell him to do the rest of the work himself. Look at Jamaica, Barbadoes, Antigua, and the other British West Indies where this experiment is having a most suggestive trial.

The Texas Republican, a weekly newspaper, said: “The ruinous effects of freeing four millions of ignorant and helpless blacks would not be confined to the South, but the blight would be communicated to the North, and the time would come when the people of that section would be glad to witness a return to a system attended with more philanthropy and happiness to the black race than the one they seem determined to establish; for they will find that compulsory labor affords larger crops and a richer market for Yankee manufacturers.”

In addition to this, it was said that even if free Negro labor miraculously proved profitable, Negroes themselves were impossible as freemen, neighbors and citizens. They could not be educated and really civilized. And beyond that if a free, educated black citizen and voted could be brought upon the stage this would in itself be the worst conceivable thing on earth; worse than shiftless, unprofitable labor; worse than ignorance, worse than crime. It would lead inevitably to a mulatto South and the eventual ruin of all civilization.

This was a natural reason for a country educated as the South had been; and the mass of the planters passionately believed it is beyond question, despite difficulties of internal logic. Even the fact that some thought free Negro labor practicable, and many knew perfectly well that at least some Negroes were capable of education and even of culture, these stood like a rock wall against anything further: against Negro citizens, against Negro voters, against any social recognition in politics, religion or culture.

The poor whites, on the other hand, were absolutely at sea. The Negro was to become apparently their fellow laborer. But were the whites to be bound to the black laborer by economic condition and destiny, or rather to be white planter by community of blood? Almost unanimously, following the reaction of such leaders as Andrew Johnson and Hinton Helper, the poor white clung frantically to be maimed and discouraged, victims of a war fought largely by the poor white for the benefit of the rich planter, they sought redress by demanding unity of white against black and not unity of poor against rich, or of worker against exploiter. This brought schism to the South.

Excerpt from:

Du Bois. W.E.B. (1935, 1999). The Black Reconstruction of America: 1860-1880. Simon and Schuster.