Would the United States be better off today, if the South had been allowed to secede, as many white Northern progressives wonder, sometimes as a joke, but sometimes in earnest?
Counterfactual history is a game, but it can be an instructive game. In my previous essay for this magazine, I argued that the secession of the South might well have set off a chain reaction of events in global politics, including the Balkanization of North America and an ominously different outcome to continental European power struggles like the world wars and the Cold War. In most of these scenarios, the Rump USA would have been worse off without the South than the actual USA has been since Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
What about domestic politics? At least without Southern reactionaries in Congress, the Rump USA would have been a far more progressive place. Or would it have been?
Read Part IPart I of “Without the South” looked at what the world would be like with a Confederate States of America. Read it here »
Between the end of the Civil War and the New Deal, Northern Republicans controlled the presidency, Congress and the federal courts most of this time. Southern conservatives, then clustered in the Democratic Party, were frozen out of power for long periods.
In this period of Northern domination of the federal government and Southern exclusion from it, did the North become a social democratic, civil libertarian, culturally left-wing paradise? Hardly.
It was in this period that the U.S. experienced greater labor violence than any other western country. The federal government acted as the enforcer of Northern railroad companies and industrial corporations, using both the U.S. army and the federal courts to crush organized labor. Yankee politicians and Yankee judges were quite capable of defeating unions and welfare state legislation without any help from Southern reactionaries.
The majority of white northerners turned a blind eye to the disfranchisement and exploitation of blacks in the South, following the end of Reconstruction. And Northern investors were happy to go into partnership with the Southern ruling class and invest in mines, farms and low-wage factories in the South.
Compared to an independent Confederacy, a Rump USA might have been more enlightened in matters of race. But that is not much of a test. Proponents of nonwhite equality were a minority in the North, for most of the century following the Civil War. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed that racism in Chicago was worth than in the South.
The Northern white working class, afraid of competition for jobs, frequently engaged in violent pogroms against black Southerners (and sometimes white Southerners) who came to the North as job-seekers or strike-breakers. If the Confederacy had won its independence, there probably would have been no Great Migration of blacks to the industrial cities of the Rump USA. The same white Northern majority that supported the Chinese Exclusion acts might have supported a Southern Exclusion Act and militarized the Mason-Dixon border to prevent illegal immigration from the South.
The idealization of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty as symbols of immigration is a recent development in the northern United States. Not only old-stock Yankees but also many of the “old” immigrant groups—Irish-Americans and German-Americans—were hostile to the “new immigrants”—Southern and Eastern Europeans. It was Northerners who took the lead in successfully shutting down almost all immigration from Europe, as well as from Asia, between the 1920s and the 1960s.
Like racism, cultural illiberalism has not been a Southern monopoly in American history. Before World War II, eugenics and Prohibition found strong support in the North. Censorship was supported by most of the Northern public. Compared to the New England Puritans of yesteryear, today’s Southern evangelical Protestants are novices when it comes to prudery. Not that long ago, the phrase “Banned in Boston” was common.
In recent decades, historians have rightly called attention to the racist aspects of the New Deal, like the reinforcement of segregation by federal housing policies and the initial exclusion from Social Security of farm workers and domestic servants, who were disproportionately black in the 1930s. The fact remains that, in our real-world historical timeline, the New Deal was possible only because of a Faustian bargain between Northern labor and Southern business. The Northern white working class sought to legitimize organized labor and pass wages and hours legislation. Their allies, Southern and Southwesterners, including conservatives who sought to keep unions out of the South, wanted to tax Northern capitalists to finance state-capitalist infrastructure projects like rural electrification and highway construction. Without any Southern allies in Congress, organized labor in the North might done as badly in its conflicts with Northern capital as it had done in the period of 1865-1932.
In the South and Southwest itself, in the absence of federal investment, there would have been no Sun Belt. Taxes levied in part on Northern industrial capitalists and financiers financed the development of the Southern and Western periphery. Modern California, like modern Texas, is a product of New Deal state capitalist investment in dams, roads, and other infrastructure projects. Defense factories during World War II and the Cold War built much of modern industry in both California and Texas.
Detached from the Union, independent Southern, Southwestern and West Coast republics today might be Third World countries like the petty republics of Central America. Foreign investment in these underdeveloped regions might have been channeled chiefly to infrastructure projects supporting the export of commodities like cotton, cattle, and oil.
Today’s northern white progressives who wonder whether it would have been better to let the South secede underestimate the historic opposition to progressivism within the North itself. They need to look at the county maps of contemporary election returns. Outside of blue metro areas with large minority and immigrant populations, the Northeast, mid-Atlantic and Midwestern are substantially Republican. Even “progressive” Massachusetts elected Republican Scott Brown for a term as a U.S. Senator and Mitt Romney and more recently Charlie Baker as Governors. These Republicans may be more moderate than the Southern members of their party, but they are not progressives.
The Northern white progressives who speculate wistfully that the United States would be an egalitarian, socially liberal paradise today if only the South had been allowed to leave in 1861 need to think again. “It’s better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in,” Lyndon Johnson once observed about a rival. From the perspective of Americans as a whole, the same can be said of the South. •
Map based on “Seat of war in America, 6d.” by Bacon and Co. (1863) courtesy of the Library of Congress