Much of our inquiry into history can be described as a metaphorical reaching back into the past. We are not just looking for more facts, but a deeper meaning that somehow renders our own lives more intelligible. Seeing our own lives as intertwined in the lives of those who came before us is at its root an act of the imagination. We often forget, however, that the people we study engaged in a similar act of the imagination by reaching out to those who would follow, including us. I was reminded of this as I made my way through William G. Thomas’s excellent new book, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America (Yale University Press, 2011).
As we all know, often our own need to reach back into the past is shaped by what we want or need to find rather than what the available evidence reveals. Consider one of the most popular beliefs among Civil War buffs surrounding the future of slavery in 1860. It comes in many forms, but at its center is the assumption that slavery was on a path to eventual extinction. It’s pure speculation that is often wrapped in a desire to remove it from any discussion related to the Civil War or from an underlying belief in the gradual progress of the nation as a whole. In short, we need to believe that slavery’s days were numbered.
Whether or not that is true is worth considering and there are a number of very talented historians who have offered their own answers to this question, but this has little to do with what many Americans predicted in 1860. What emerges from Thomas’s book is that many Americans believed to be a bright future for slavery. He thoroughly explains the importance that Americans attached to the growth of the railroads as a symbol of progress and of national power. While the dramatic growth of railroads in the North signaled the supremacy of an economy steeped in Free Labor white southerners understood their own progress as stemming from the institution of slavery. The modernization of the South through the development of railroads as well as other urban centers took place with the support of slave labor. According to Thomas, there was nothing contradictory for white southerners in their push for a more progressive society with all the trappings of modernism within a slaveholding society. [Here Thomas's work should be read alongside John Majewski's Modernizing a Slave Economy: The Economic Vision of the Confederate Nation, William Link's Roots of Secession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia and Peter Carmichael's The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion.] Southern railroads utilized slave labor to extend their lines, which in turn helped to push the value of cotton and slaves ever higher.
This confidence in slavery’s future abounds in the private and personal correspondence of those involved in the railroads. Consider the president of the Mississippi Central Railroad’s 1855 address to its shareholders:
I am led to the irresistible conclusion, that in ease of management, in economy of maintenance, in certainty of execution of work–in amount of labor performed–in absence of disturbance of riotous outbreaks, the slave is preferable to free labor, and far better adapted to the construction of railways in the south. [quoted on p. 22]
The existence of slavery within an expanding economy did not just generate wealth, it represented what was “exceptional” in the South as compared to their Northern neighbors. Surprisingly, many northerners agreed with this assessment. All too often the Civil War is framed as one side holding on to what we believe to be a pre-modern society/economy against an enemy that had already entered an industrial revolution, but if we look more closely at the railroads we see that both North and South were moving in the same direction, albeit at difference paces. The root question was whether slavery would fuel that engine as opposed to slave labor. Both sides were confident in their respective world view and without a bloody civil war it is impossible to know how it might have turned out.
Whatever that future looked like apart from the Civil War it is unlikely that slavery would have died as a result of any serious crisis of confidence. And that is the rub. Our need to see slavery as in gradual decline on the eve of the Civil War directly contradicts what many imagined for us.