One of this blog’s readers recently emailed some thoughts about the conference that Mark Grimsley is organizing at Ohio State. Given that I am in the middle of a blog hiatus I thought that it would make for an excellent guest post. The author agreed and re-worked the material for that purpose. From the author: “I should say that this is more of a thought piece, not really intended as an airtight argument so much as a way of imagining a way that we could fit the history of the United States into a tidy paradigm of decolonization and postcolonialism.” Comments are welcome and the author will respond.
To start with, let me say that the conference Mark Grimsley is organizing on the war for the South from 1865-1965 is a wonderful and refreshing change. One of the major problems with history in general is how a war serves as a break in periodization. The historian, of course, has to limit the scope of inquiry. A war provides a clearly delineated start and finish. The convenience of this approach is immediately obvious: it makes intuitive sense. Unfortunately, the start and the finish also limit the range of causes and effects that can be observed. The periodization provides a discursive break that in some instances overemphasizes the impact and changes wrought by war. In many instances a war only magnifies or accelerates trends already present. Rather than looking at what comes before a war and what results from the war, it may be beneficial to look at a sort of trans-war period. All this of course is to say: the way the question is asked dictates how it is answered. By raising a different question, Professor Grimsely is in effect giving us new and different answers.
Reading Professor Grimsley’s posts and articles relating to the conference, I noticed that the conference will look at the South after the Civil War as being in an extended insurgency or protracted war of decolonization. What I present here are some thoughts on the United States fitting within a paradigm of decolonization. While it is clear that the conference will be examining this issue from a military perspective, focusing more on the technical aspects of insurgency or low-level conflict, my analysis here is more along socio-political lines. Finally, before I begin, let me define the terms I will be using. I use “colonialism” to refer to direct political control of a territory (geographically separate) by another state, with the economic relationship strongly weighted to the benefit of the metropole. “Postcolonialism” refers to any point after direct political control ends but before autonomy is achieved. I use “neocolonialism” to mean economic control of the territory, but not necessarily overt political control (though indirect control exercised through various political factions may; Colonialism and neocolonialism should be seen as gradients of a continuum, stretching from complete political control to autonomy.
The Civil War can be seen as the last in a series of the wars of the decolonization of the United States (this does imply that Reconstruction and Civil Rights are not a war of decolonization, which I will get to shortly). The first war of decolonization would be the French-Indian War, which was also the last in the series of Colonial Wars. The French-Indian War eliminated the French as a serious threat to the British in North America. The level of involvement by the colonies was unprecedented. More importantly, the influx of British troops fostered a sense of distinction and difference between the colonists and the metropolitan British (there is debate on this, but I find Fred Anderson’s work convincing in this regard). Combined with the series of imperial crises regarding taxation and defining the meaning of “colony” in the aftermath of the French-Indian War led to the American Revolution. The American Revolution saw the creation of a national identity, and one is tempted to say, a national ideology (this is not to deny prior American anxieties of provincialism). This ideology was one rooted in a firm belief in the benefits of capitalism and trade with a commitment to republican governance (though who was received a voice under republicanism was not clear).
Also worth noting at this point is how the American Revolution was extremely different from nearly every other war of decolonization. First, British rule in America had not depended upon a single minority group (other than whites). Typical of a colonial system is metropolitan rule through a class of subalterns, usually a traditionally marginalized minority. Fearful of their status within the colony, they prove pliant and often willing collaborationists. Before, during, and after the struggles for decolonization this minority group serves as a stand-in for the distant metropolitan authorities, receiving the approbation and ire of oppresses majority. In the American colonies there was no single minority group that filled this role, and indeed there was no foreign ruling class. The flexibility and upward mobility of capitalism firmly prevented the establishment of a hereditary ruling class. The elite in America was not institutionalized, except broadly along the lines of race. Second, there was no widespread critique of European liberalism, such as that presented by Marxism. While Whigs and Tories might debate the path to achieve the most beneficial enactment of this, the overall goal was not questioned.
After the Revolution, America entered a protracted period of neocolonialism. The domestic political struggles, and foreign affairs centered on the best way to establish and ensure economic and political independence from European powers. The Embargo Act, Quasi-War, and the War of 1812 can all be seen as struggles to complete the decolonization of America. An indication of how deep these fears went is the persistent belief that all Indian disturbances were the result of British intrigue (not to mention the whole Citizen Genet affair and Aaron Burr’s intrigues along the Mississippi). The War of 1812 seemed ended the threat of British reoccupation, but it still did not end the threat of neocolonialism.
Following the War of 1812, the domestic politics of the United States turned more towards economic expansion and establishing economic independence. The South and the North did not disagree so much on the need for economic independence, but rather on the best way to achieve that economic independence. Debates centered on slavery, and whether or not slave labor was a better path to development then free labor. Because the two systems dictated differing economic policies on a national scale, they could not exist in the same country. Yet the idea of what America should be was not so much in question as was the best way to get there (the Confederate Constitution was not radically different from the United States Constitution). The rhetorical war escalates to insurgency in Bleeding Kansas then spreads to full-scale military conflict with the Civil
Looking at the South as postcolonial also helps explain why so many ardent defenders of the Old South became proponents of the New South. The struggle of the South to modernize was not radically changed by the Civil War. The white elite wanted to modernize and throw of the chains of
economic dependence (notwithstanding cotton is king). The new work by Genovese, O’Brien, and Carmichael pretty definitively shows that many in the South were looking to create a capitalist society that was not economically dependent on exports. The Civil War accelerated these trends but did not change the trajectory of the South. The goals of these developers were the same after the war as they were before the war. Why reconciliation was so easy was because the only underlying fissure between the North and the South was the labor system used to attempt decolonization (and then the economic choices suggested by the different labor systems). That is, the project of the North and the South (decolonization) was the same, just that the means to the end were different. Because there was no major ideological difference about the ends of the American project, there was no impetus for a cycle of reprisal violence among whites. When the Civil War answered the question of means, it also sparked a war of decolonization by the African-American community.
What is crucial to note, is that for the most part, from Reconstruction through the Civil Rights movement, African-Americans did not want to overthrow the existing order. Rather, they simply wanted to claim a place within it. During Reconstruction, for the first time, African-Americans on a large scale were able to lay claim to being “American.” White violence directed at blacks in America, before and after the Civil War, was aimed at ensuring their continued exclusion from the definition of “American.” Slavery was one form of this instutionalized violence. The end of slavery did not end the violence, just changed the shape it took.
A war of decolonization aims to end colonial rule. The colony aims to retrieve its ability to make political and economic choices. Certainly this is what African-Americans wanted, but they also wanted to compel white Americans to recognize that blacks were African-Americans too. The white counter-insurgents did not necessarily need to apply force in any consistent manner, but only needed to demonstrate that blacks were not considered American. Whereas most struggles of decolonization aim to exclude the metropole (politically, culturally, and economically), the struggle of African-Americans was one of incorporation.